Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Bodu Bala Sena

Where Are the Prosecutions, Punishments?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday 25 June 2014

Colman's Column3

 

On Monday 16 June 2014, I went to Badulla to take a dog to the vet. Everything seemed normal in town. I was shocked to see pictures later in the day on Asian Mirror, showing a mob stoning familiar shops on Bazaar Street. The BBS (Bodu Bala Sena) staged a protest in Badulla demanding the release of several suspects who were arrested for attacking a Muslim shop in the town a few days before. The suspects, according to Police, are members of the BBS.

This is a disturbing echo, closer to my own home, of the appalling events at Aluthgama. The Aluthgama riot and bloodshed apparently arose out of a road rage incident or a physical assault on a bhikkhu. The Badulla incident apparently arose out of a sexual harassment allegation.

The Badulla story goes that two Sinhalese girls had entered a Muslim-owned shop and asked to purchase a pair of denims. The girls then allege that the sales clerk videoed them from above the changing room using his cell phone. A variant version was that the shop owners had fixed CCTV cameras in the changing room. The girls’ father recruited a mob and stormed the shop, assaulting the salesman. Police had intervened to maintain the peace and taken the sales clerk into custody. Police investigation into the incident is in progress.

On June 20, Badulla was calm but tense. On every street there were policemen in riot helmets carrying big sticks.

Malinda Seneviratne wrote: “Not only are things lost in narration, lots get added on too in the process. A disagreement becomes dispute, dispute becomes argument, argument raises voices, raised voices lead to in-your-face closeness, proximity tends to contact, contact is read as aggressive touch, touch is blow, and blow is assault.  What happens between two human beings is then an altercation between two persons from two communities, religious communities, that is.”

As a Guardian reader succinctly commented: “What ‘triggered the incident’ was the propensity of stupid people to believe stupid things, especially if the stupid things target a group they are predisposed to hate.” Another viewpoint is that this is becoming a common ruse adopted by extremist organisations to attack Muslim-owned businesses, and that Muslim entrepreneurs need to take adequate precautions to protect their interests. Could that lead to further violence?

These incidents reminded me of a much more serious “trigger”, even closer to my home, a couple of years ago. A Muslim youth stabbed and killed a Sinhalese boy. Their dispute was not about religion and had nothing to do with communal strife. The two boys had been firm friends since childhood. This was a crime of passion – they had fought in rivalry over the affections of a girl. Luckily, BBS were not around to exploit the incident and all sections of the local community sprang into action to dampen any sparks of conflict. All local shops closed voluntarily and the police imposed a curfew. Meetings were held between Buddhist and Muslim clerics, the families of the dead youth and his assailant and the police. There was no further violence, although one still reads about jealous husbands killing wives and vice versa.

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts abroad are bemoaning the moral turpitude of “the average Sri Lankan”. One of my favourite quotations is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All generalisations are dangerous, including this one”. I would hesitate to judge “the average Sri Lankan”. I  would like to take a more optimistic line. I do not like headlines about “communal strife”. I live in a poor village, which has many Muslims and Tamils. It sometimes feels as though the Sinhalese are the minority. I am not saying that it is an idyllic paradise. There are often disputes but they are not on an ethnic basis. Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese generally get on OK and even intermarry- a woman who works for us is a Tamil married to a Muslim and they have an adopted son who is Tamil (but does not know it). We have Sinhalese workers who live in the Tamil lines. Many Tamils are Christian rather than Hindu. The broker who arranges our car insurance has a Muslim name but is a staunch Catholic. There could be harmony if the BBS would allow it.

Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese seem to get along with each other, and with the Sinhalese, and with this Irishman. Our immediate neighbours are Muslims. We were here before them. We have not always enjoyed perfect harmony- there used to be some intimidation from them and on one occasion, there was an angry mob at our gate wielding knives. They were responding to a false rumour about what we were doing with the water supply. This was the kind of thing Malinda referred to. I responded to other incidents of aggression on my neighbour’s part by presenting him with a box of avocadoes from our trees. Our sympathetic response to a couple of deaths in their family has led to a situation where we rub along generally and help each other out on occasion. As I write, their cattle are tearing at our hedge again!

We are fortunate in that the high priest of our local Buddhist temple, who has been a good friend to us for ten years, is a wise, compassionate and humorous man. Most of the people who work for him are Tamils and they worship him. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school at the temple. He regularly attends events organised by Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

As I write, the situation is still not clear because most of the news is coming to us from abroad and the Government is saying nothing. It seems that seven died, three of whom perished in a drive-by shooting indicating that BBS might have an armed militia. The Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) a research and link aggregator  owned by the Beacham group, classified Bodu Bala Sena as a ‘terrorist organization’ in April 2014

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts who live abroad have expressed fears that nothing has been learnt from the horror that was Black July in 1983, when Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamils and sparked off a thirty-year civil war. One woman in Aluthgama was quoted in the press: “At this rate, it won’t be long before a Muslim Prabhakaran is born.”

There was one positive aspect in 1983. Many Sinhalese -and I have heard eye-witnesses reports about this – endangered themselves by having the courage to protect Tamils who were strangers to them. This time one of my Muslim contacts reports that “Buddhist work friends collected funds in an office and donated for the affected at Aluthgama. Very noble of them. Why , it’s entirely possible that BBS will lose adherents in greater numbers than gaining them. Allah Akbar!”

In Aluthgama, a Sinhalese citizen told Dharisha Bastians. “We have no grouse with the people on that side of the village. They are our friends. We know them. We didn’t recognise the people who fought last night, they were not from here”.

Encouraging news came from Dickwella. The Chief Incumbent Priests of eight Buddhist temples spent two hours at the Muhiyibdeen Jumma Mosque at Yonakpura, Dickwella. The act of solidarity was to strengthen communal ties and avert any fears of copycat incidents in the area. The clergy said that the root cause of the incidents in Aluthgama and Beruwala was misinformation and that the people of Dickwella should be vigilant about attempts to instigate communal disharmony in their town. Dickwella Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Krishali Muthukumarana said that Dickwella people have lived in harmony by respecting each other’s beliefs and customs. All the members of the PS irrespective of their political affiliations would ensure that no communal hatred was instigated.

Harendra Alwis on Groundviews explored this issue in a philosophical mode but also offered some practical advice on avoiding despair, promoting tolerance and social integration and embracing diversity. I feel a smidgeon of caution about one thing Harendra says. “Do not be distracted or discouraged by those who call you “Facebook heroes”, “armchair critics” or hurl any number of derogative remarks at you instead of – or while – engaging with what you have to say.” It is true that these issues have to be exposed to the cleansing sunshine and fresh air of open debate. Groundviews has an important role to play in this. There is, however, a danger that passions could be further inflamed by polemic in the social media. As Nick Hart commented on Groundviews, it is “nonsensical and irresponsible to attempt to tar all Buddhist monks with the brush of intolerance, or to imply that every individual from a minority group is an innocent victim. Sri Lanka and the world know that this is not the case.” I recall that Groundviews itself seemed to be dangerously stoking the fire in the controversy over halal products, when Sanjana Hattotuwa strained very hard to find insult to Muslims in the packaging of a certain item.

 

The use of terms like “communal strife” makes me queasy. Just like every act of communal violence in Sri Lanka’s history, the recent “riots” in Aluthgama against Muslims were not spontaneous expressions of ethnic or religious grievance involving ordinary civilians. There is legitimate fear on the part of Muslims. Buddhists need to convince their Muslim neighbors that BBS are not acting in their name. That, of course will be futile if the police allow BBS to continue their thuggery. Where are the prosecutions and punishments?

 

Leonard Cohen, Smokin’, Drinkin’, Buddhist Jew

 

 

Colman's Column3I have recently been reading Sylvie Simmons’s excellent biography of Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man* .

 

According to the Montreal Mirror, Cohen, who first took an interest in Buddhism in 1960, was officially ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk on August 9, 1996 at the Mount Baldy Zen Center, an old Boy Scout camp 6,500 feet above sea level, 55 miles from LA. He was given the Dharma name of ‘Jikan’ (Silent One).

 

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Ms Simmons describes Cohen’s relationship with Buddhism and with his Zen Master Joshu Sasaki Roshi. For years, Cohen had been telling interviewers about his close friendship with Roshi, a monk from Japan famous for his supposedly rigorous style of Rinzai Zen. Leonard liked to tell people that Rinzai monks were “the marines of the spiritual world” with a regime “designed to overthrow a twenty year old”. Cohen was sixty when he decided to sign up full time.

 

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Reading Sylvie’s book, it struck me that Mount Baldy was an odd kind of Buddhist retreat. Cohen called it “A hospital for the broken hearted”. Further investigation showed me that Roshi was an odd kind of Buddhist.

 

Someone recently recommended that I go to a Buddhist meditation retreat in Sri Lanka where it was possible to eat meat and drink alcohol. Whatever happened to those precepts? Things have certainly changed since I went on a twelve-day retreat on my first visit to Sri Lanka in 2001. We were woken at four a.m. and had vegetarian breakfast at six. One was not allowed to have mobile phones, radios, i-pods, reading material, pens. There was a strictly enforced rule of noble silence. A fellow-meditator broke that rule to whisper to me: “I could murder a gin and tonic”. There was no food at all, let alone meat, after midday. Frugality got such a grip of me that I relished the nine p.m. plain tea as if it were a fine single malt.

 

How different life was on Mount Baldy! Simmons echoes Cohen in stressing the austerity of the regime at Mount Baldy. “It was Buddhist boot camp, grim, with all these broken young people trudging through the snow in walking meditation at three in the morning”. Monks hit meditators with sticks if they dozed off. She emphasises the simplicity of Cohen’s living quarters – a room nine feet square with no stereo, TV or radio. However, there was another room about the size of a walk-in wardrobe with a desk, an old Macintosh computer, some books, a bottle of liquor or two, and a Technics synthesiser. He had his own WC and coffee machine and could go and listen to CDs in his jeep. Roshi granted him a special dispensation to have a coffee and cigarette first thing in the morning. Sometimes he would drive to LA and have Filet-o-Fish at MacDonald’s, later washed down with wine while watching Jerry Springer on TV. Back at the monastery, Cohen was able to find time to write, draw and compose music on the synthesiser.

 

There was also female companionship for this renowned Ladies Man. There were nuns on Mount Baldy and Cohen admitted there were “certain erotic possibilities” but claimed that, because of his age, he “was no longer terribly active in that realm”. Chris Darrow, formerly of the group Kaleidoscope, who had worked with Cohen, lived in Claremont, the town at the foot of Mount Baldy, and saw Leonard in a Greek restaurant in the town, drinking coffee with a beautiful nun.

 

Cohen first met the guru in 1969 when Cohen was best man at a friend’s wedding at which Roshi officiated. According to Ms Simmons, Cohen was fascinated by the ceremony, especially the Ten Vows of Buddhism. He noted that the master ignored the vow relating to alcohol and consumed large amounts of sake. Cohen and Roshi spent a lot of time together over the years and alcohol featured in their relationship. Roshi was in the studio during the recording of Cohen’s 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. During the sessions, much ng ga pay was consumed. This sweet 70% proof Korean liqueur, reputed to be good for rheumatism , was a favourite tipple of Roshi. When Roshi was almost 100, Cohen treated him to a slab of beef tongue and a good cognac.

 

While Cohen was at Mount Baldy for an extended period, his assistant, Kelley Lynch was assiduously taking all his money. He dismissed her in 2004, claiming she had stolen $5m (£3.1m) from his personal accounts and investments and left him virtually penniless. The court found in his favour and ordered Lynch to pay him $9.5m, but her lawyers claimed she was unreachable, and she has never repaid the money or faced criminal charges. Lynch had to be legally restrained from harassing Cohen. She was a Buddhist, a follower of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche as was Neal Greenberg, the financier she had brought in to “manage” Leonard’s investments.

 

At the time I am writing this, Roshi still seems to be alive at the age of 107. It is now public knowledge that for decades he enticed, seduced, tricked or forced dozens of his western female acolytes into various forms of sexual service.

 

There is a reason for the Buddhist precept against alcohol. One thing leads to another – dependent origination. (Although it has to be admitted that there are teetotal, vegetarian marathon meditators who think they are arahats but are vicious to other humans on a regular basis.)he guru whose libido is out of control is also lying continually – covering up, maintaining appearances, saving face, intimidating others to do so. An entire community seemed to have failed many of the women who came to Roshi for guidance.

 

Susanna Stewart wrote to the Rinzai-Ji Board of Directors. “I first became a student of Sasaki Roshi in 1972 and continued until 1985, when I could no longer continue my relationship with him because of my experience of his persistent abuse of power in his efforts to destroy our marriage.” She claimed her husband wrote to the board about Roshi’s misconduct in 1993 and over time had spoken at great length about the matter. She said of the board’s denial of knowledge of the abuse, “I am shocked at this level of fabrication”. Leonard Cohen was a member of the board of directors.

 

Cohen succumbed to panic attacks and depression and left Mount Baldy to seek out a new guru, a Hindu one this time, in Bombay. I do not mock anyone for trying different ways of seeking the truth. Cohen had flirted with Scientology before finding Buddhism and claimed that he remained a Jew throughout his spiritual questing.

 

It not my intention to mock Buddhism. To follow the teachings of the Buddha is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, as with any religion or philosophy, it is possible to pervert or exploit Buddhism. I am fortunate to have the friendship of an eminent monk who is wise, compassionate and humorous and earns the respect of everyone through his tireless work for the community and his ecumenical approach to harmony with other faiths. However, I have also seen monks who have been too fond of fleshly pleasures and, in one case, ended up in prison.

 

I was interested to read that a government minister, Vasudeva Nanayakara, says that the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) should be proscribed by law for endangering religious harmony in Sri Lanka.
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*Now available in Vintage paperback.

Buddhism and Politics

This was originally posted on the website Does this Make Sense?

 

 

Militant atheists have been too easy on the way Buddhism works out in real life. Buddhism is acceptable to atheists because there is no supreme being, no soul, no afterlife. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris finds the differences between the Eastern and Western canons “startling”. In comparison with Eastern philosophical mystics “we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs”.

 
Buddhism – like any other philosophy, religion, or way of life – risks becoming an instrument of the state or a party. There are many examples of moral values being used to justify tyranny. Connections with the state, the military, political parties have in the past morally compromised Buddhism and can do so again in the future. Despite its peaceful message, Buddhism can be turned to political purposes. Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka have not been notably peaceful over recent decades. The Laotian communists of the Pathet Lao use Buddhism to justify socialism. The ultra-right-wing Thai priest Kittiwutto can say that “killing communists is not a sin”.

 
Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2000 about his visit to the military dictatorship of Myanmar, which reminded him of the East German communist regime: “But instead of Marxism as the official ideology, we have Buddhism”.

 
Brian Daizen Victoria shows how Zen Buddhists were complicit with the totalitarian imperial Japanese military who used the monastic model to make their killing machine more efficient; Buddhists helped Japanese war criminals evade capture.

 
Tessa J Bartholomeusz explores the arguments in the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition, for and against war. Her thesis is that, in spite of a rigorous tradition of non-violence, the precept against killing can be trumped by other considerations, such as utilitarian considerations of sacrificing one life in order to save multiple lives.

 
Damien Keown argues that killing can sometimes be a legitimate response to suffering (dukkha); Rupert Gethin, rejects Keown’s argument since it does not address dukkha as a reality to be understood and worked through, rather than suppressed. Eric Sean Nelson writes: “It is difficult if not impossible to demand the saintliness according to which it is illegitimate to defend one’s parents, family, friends or community under any circumstances. The problem is when and how this reasoning can go wrong and become an ideological excuse for morally illegitimate violence and war.”

 
Elaine Scarry wrote in The Body in Pain: “It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation.”

 
According to Amartya Sen, early Indian Buddhists were committed to discussion as a means of social progress and this led to the establishment of councils which considered the demands of social and civic duties and helped to “consolidate and promote the tradition of open discussion on contentious issues”. The third of these councils took place under the patronage of emperor Ashoka who converted to Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths in a war he himself waged. Buddhism became his state religion around 260 BC and under his model of ‘Buddhist kingship’, a ruler legitimized his rule, not through descent from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of the Buddhist sangha (priesthood).

 

 
In 2011, Sri Lanka is celebrating 2,600 years of Buddhism, the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any nation, with the sangha having existed in an unbroken lineage since its introduction by Ashoka’s representative Arahant Mahinda Thero. There are Sri Lankans today who see that history of protection of Buddhism as integral to their concept of Sinhala identity and nationhood. This can be problematic in a country with so many different ethnic groups. Buddhism is given a special place in the Constitution.

 
In Ceylon in 1956, Sinhalese-Buddhist activists helped Solomon Bandaranaike win the general election. They wanted as their reward the elevation of Sinhala to the status of sole national language. Many Sinhala students only had unemployment to look forward to and resented the fact that coveted government jobs required a fluency in English and went disproportionately to Tamils. Bandaranaike was strong in Sinhalese Buddhist rural areas; it made sense to please Sinhalese Buddhists rather than Tamils who would not vote for him anyway.

 
Protests against Sinhala-only legislation led to Tamil deaths. Bandaranaike tried to extricate himself by compromise, which aroused anew the wrath of Sinhala activists. On September 25 1959, Bandaranaike was assassinated by Venerable Talduwe Somarama a Buddhist priest and Ayurvedic practitioner.

 
Somarama was recruited to do the killing by Mapitigama Buddharakkitha, chief priest of the temple at Kelaniya. Buddharakkitha’s real motive was the Prime Minister’s refusal to award business deals to a company he had floated. Bandaranaike had referred to Buddharakkitha as ‘that buddy Racketeer”. Buddharakkitha was very rich and had a sexual relationship with Wimala Wijewardene (then Minister of Health and promoter of Ayurvedic medicine; she was the aunt of current opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe).

 
Robert Kaplan, who has been wrong about many things concerning Sri Lanka, (see http://agonist.org/padraig_colman/20090728/fantasies_of_virtue) writing in Atlantic Monthly, says: Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism “can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.” There seemed to be a lot of blood and soil in their rhetoric of a party called Sihala Uramaya. After zero electoral success, they transformed themselves into the JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya – National Heritage Party). In the 2004 election, all JHU candidates were Buddhist monks. The party won six per cent of the vote and nine out of 225 seats. Party member Venerable Medhananda Thera said, “Our sole intention is to establish a righteous Buddhist state with Buddhist values. Though there are invitations for us to join parties we will remain independent. No one can buy us with portfolios and perks.”

 
The party maintained a Sinhala Nationalist stance in its politics and advocated wiping out the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) by force. This struck a chord with the general Sinhalese population, tired of Tiger atrocities and broken promises. Nevertheless, it was shocking to many to see robed figures calling for blood. According to Rajpal Abeynayake, now editor of Lakbima News: “The JHU vote bank mainly comprises urban, English-educated, upper-middle-class Sinhala Buddhists from high castes.” The JHU was instrumental in preventing Chandrika Kumaratunga extending her presidential; the JHU joined the governing coalition of new president Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Tigers were, indeed, defeated, to the great relief of most people including Tamils. The JHU were instrumental in implementing a ban on smoking in public places and achieved the mandatory closing of liquor stores and a ban on slaughtering and selling meat on Buddhist festivals.

 
There was soon infighting within the JHU parliamentary group which had been cobbled together just before the polls and lacked unity about relating to government. The monks were involved in a brawl in parliament at the time of the vote for a Speaker. One monk MP, Kolonnawe Siri Sumangala, was hospitalized after a government minister, Mervyn Silva, squeezed his testicles very hard.

 
By 2005, monk Uduwe Dhammaloka was saying: “The climate is not conducive for monks to enter politics. It is corrupt.” He said the lay people connected to the Sihala Urumaya were opportunist self-seekers. In 2007 the monks of the JHU came under criticism for selling their parliamentary vehicle permits. One of the former monk MPs is accused of molesting five underage novice monks. The JHU now fields only lay candidates.

 
Liverpool University’s Colin Irwin’s Peace Polls contributed to the Northern Ireland peace process. One of the findings of Irwin’s survey throughout Sri Lanka was: “Although all communities strongly support language and fundamental rights, Tamil concerns about the special status of Buddhism has increased after the war as a political issue”.

 
President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a speech in which he saw the special status of Buddhism as a positive thing. “The establishment of Buddha Sasana in the country ensures the protection of all living beings and the message by Arahant Mahinda Thero stresses the importance of treating all races and religion equally”.

 
Without arguing for relativism against absolutism, one can recognise that ethics are context-sensitive. Context-based ethics means an existential involvement between self and others and self and world. One must navigate moral challenges appropriately. When a principle becomes uncertain, it can only be interpreted rather than mechanically applied. Codes, precepts, and rules demand the ability to distinguish between the hypocrisy of breaking them for one’s own advantage and the moral insight to adapt them to circumstances. Nelson asks: “Is the Buddhist notion of skilfulness too open or ambiguous”.

 

 

Are the precepts descriptive rather than prescriptive? There is no Jehovah to rule that killing is absolutely sinful and to threaten punishment for murder. Dependent origination, khamma, means if you engage in violence there are likely to be unpleasant consequences – cause and effect, one thing leads to another, shit happens. As Nelson puts it: “The Buddha does not claim that violence is only sometimes wrong but that violence, no matter how righteous, always produces more violence; and warriors, no matter how virtuous, always suffer the consequences of war.” One has to operate skilfully and appropriately.

 

 

Bartholomeusz contends that it is paradoxically because some Buddhists believe that they are more fair, tolerant, and peaceful – that leads them to set themselves apart and turn to violence to protect the ideal of pacifism. Violence, once it is justified as an exception, becomes the norm from which there seems no escape.

 

 

Nelson looks at the Sri Lankan situation. “Buddhist lands do not only involve traditions of nonviolence and loving kindness. They also have had a long history of thinking about and engaging in internal and external physical conflict. … Buddhism privileges non-violence while at the same time self-described Buddhists have justified and engaged in war under certain conditions…. As Mahinda Deegalle argues, this position is not so much Buddhist as it is Sinhalese nationalist, which appropriates Buddhism as a symbol of Sinhalese heritage; Sri Lanka dhammadvipa , the whole island is a sacred relic and the loss of its integrity would destroy this legacy. Deegalle concludes: “The challenge for a modern Buddhist is to meditate on the Saddharmaratnãvaliya’s message that “the rage of one who vows vengeance cannot be quelled except by the waters of compassion.”

 

 

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