In Dubai’s busy Jumeirah neighbourhood there is a simple villa. It is painted white and sits beside a row of near-identical dwellings.
But turn the handle of its metal door, step over the threshold and you enter into another world.
The smell of incense drifts through the air, green bodhi trees provide shade, while a monk dressed in simple robes walks past. The atmosphere is calm, meditative and the sounds of a frantic city seem very far away.
This is Mahamevnawa Buddhist Monastery, the UAE’s only Buddhist temple and it caters to the half-a-million strong community here.
Close to 350,000 of these are from Sri Lanka and the temple offers a respite for people far away from their homes. Theravada Buddhism is the strain practised in the UAE and this is strongest in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.
Buddhists have lived here for decades but in 2009, the first formal temple opened in Satwa – the result of efforts by community leaders to build awareness about Buddhism.
At this time, the Buddhist community operated quietly out of respect to the host country before moving to Jumeirah a few years ago.
Its leaders have not courted publicity but in the past few years their profile has increased in tandem with the UAE’s commitment to tolerance. The temple is the only one on the Arabian Peninsula and now, The National has been granted rare access inside.
The temple in Dubai is open every day but crowds swell on Fridays. From 6am, they start to arrive. Dressed in white clothes to symbolise a simple life, they first take off their shoes.
One women carries a metal bowl filled with water to the bodhi tree. She holds it carefully in both hands and circles the tree, deep in contemplation.
“The bodhi tree is a symbol of where Buddha became the enlightened one,” says Susika Vishwanath, a 43-year-old Sri Lankan volunteer. At its base sit offerings of flower petals and flickering candles. “It gives shelter and shade so we are repaying.”
About a thousand people from across the country come on Fridays to meditate, listen to the monk and make offerings to Buddha. People donate food for the monks while upkeep of the temple is provided through private donations.
“We are away from our families. And this is the only place we can relieve our pain,” says Sam Edirisinge, a Sri Lankan who has been coming to the temple since it opened.
“This gives us a chance to recharge our batteries.”
Two Buddhist monks are in the UAE at any given time. They live a Spartan life, must follow more than 200 rules a day and can eat only from 6am to midday.
The monks recite some of the 18,000 verses of Buddha’s teachings in Sinhalese, a language spoken in Sri Lanka, then give a sermon after which people bring them food. Two more sermons follow in the afternoon and evening.
“It is a really difficult life for them,” says Rubesh Pillai, a volunteer whose wife runs the temple.
Buddhism is not an organised religion but a philosophy that outlines the outcomes of any decision.
“Buddhism simply says, if you do that – this will happen. There is no compulsion,” says Mr Pillai.
Unlike Islam or Christianity, there is no supreme god.
Its teachings place emphasis on a life without indulgence or greed. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and the decisions one takes now affect what happens later.
Buddhists must adhere to five rules, or precepts, every day such as refraining from harming living beings and lying. Eight precepts must be followed on Fridays.
Sasika Ranasinghe, 34, has travelled from Abu Dhabi.
“I work as a quantity surveyor, which is very stressful. It is good to have a temple like this to release our stress,” says Mr Ranasinghe, who is from Sri Lanka.
“Our minds can get polluted – we get angry. So I come here to purify the mind.”
In 2019, the UAE will mark the Year of Tolerance. The Buddhist community has participated in inter-faith events, attends iftar during Ramadan and can quietly go about its business.
“There are no restrictions. No obstructions are placed in our way,” says Mr Pillai. “The only problem we have is that the location is too small for us.”
The community in the UAE needs a larger temple. They are talking to the Government and Mr Pillai says he wants the build the largest Buddhist temple in the world in Dubai that can accommodate 10,000 people.
He even hopes to bring religious tourism here from Sri Lanka if he is successful.
“Three million people come from Sri Lanka to India every year to visit religious ruins. Let us build it here and we will bring half of that tourism back into Dubai.”
Inside the temple, the monk has started preaching. A white stone statue of Buddha sits to his right, while two pictures on either side of the statue show Buddha’s followers.
The crowds fill the rooms and spill out into the garden. After prayer there is a meditation programme. Rows of plastic chairs are then laid down outside where the Buddhists enjoy a simple meal of rice, meat and vegetables.
Dilumini Rukmaldeniya, 29, has been coming since she arrived from Sri Lanka a year ago.
“Buddhism teaches us to live peacefully,” says Ms Rukmaldeniya, 29. “I feel the same here as I do in Sri Lanka. I thank Dubai.”
Updated: December 31, 2018 10:23 AM