Americans know Buddhism as a religion of peaceful tolerance, but that is hardly its reputation within Sri Lanka. Some monks take a visible role marching and protesting against any perceived compromise of the Sinhala Buddhist legacy.

So when Ajith Fernando, a local Methodist church preacher, arranged for me to meet two Buddhist monks I did not know what to expect. I had read Buddhists' strongly worded attacks on Christianity. I thought I might encounter such assaults at the source.

We picked up one monk in a temple not far from Ajith's home, and then proceeded into a very poor Muslim neighborhood. Children stared at us as we crept along a road barely wide enough for a single vehicle. At length we came to the temple. Like all temples that I saw in Sri Lanka, it centered on a large statue of Buddha, under the shade of a spreading, sacred bo tree. The air was quiet, the filtered light shady and green. Behind the Buddha shrine were several small buildings for the monks, a preschool, and a shrine to Hindu gods.

A short man wearing a dark burgundy robe came out to meet us. He had the strong features of a Yul Bryner, with deep, piercing eyes. The conversation, conducted through an interpreter, began stiffly. Who was I, and what did I want to know? The telephone rang periodically to interrupt. Gradually, though, the conversation warmed. My host gave me his card, from which I learned that he was Assaji Nayaka Thero, a 2002 Green Peace Award Winner, and National Organizer for the Inter Religious Peace Foundation.

We drank glasses of king coconut milk, a clear, faintly flavored beverage. He brought out a bundle of photographs from a recent peace meeting in Jaffna, where he had organized Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim clergy meeting. ...

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