29 March 2013

Robes and Cudgels

I wonder if the people currently attacking churches and mosques in Sri Lanka have ever considered the damage they are doing to their own faith—Buddhism.

Christianity and Islam are strong world religions. Some buildings and valuables will be lost in these attacks, there may even be some martyrs, but persecution in Sri Lanka will only make them stronger. No Christian or Muslim is going to abandon his belief or practice because of these attacks.

In contrast, Buddhism itself will take generations to recover from the damage inflicted on it by these extremists. It may never recover at all.

Buddhism gets a good press, by and large, in the non-Buddhist world. In the twentieth century, it enjoyed perhaps the most felicitous reputation of all world religions. Buddhists were thought to be peaceful, kindly, reasonable people: a little unworldly perhaps, as befits those who practise detachment as a spiritual discipline, but certainly none the worse for that.

Many non-Buddhists—some religious, others not—have found great wisdom in the teachings of the Buddha, as well as practical instruction on how to live calmer, less stressful, more peaceable lives. I am one of these people, and although I will never be a practising Buddhist, I have a great deal of affection, sympathy and respect for the religion. There are millions like me around the world.

Sri Lanka’s latest gift to world Buddhism—the image of a robed monk at the head of a violent, thuggish mob—is going to change all that. Indeed, it has already begun to do so. The world media are carrying such images, and the story of crimes committed in Sri Lanka in the name of Buddhism, into hundreds of millions of homes around the world. Buddhism has lost its innocence. It will now be obliged to face the same charge of crimes against humanity that Christianity, Islam and Judaism have faced for centuries. It will be judged, like those faiths, and like them it will be found wanting. Its hitherto unstained reputation will be sullied and tattered.

I have heard many concerned Sri Lankan Buddhists disavow any fellowship with the extremists, insisting that the latter are not true Buddhists. They may well be right, but this defence won’t stand up in the court of history. Faiths—like political institutions, like social movements, above all like people—are correctly judged by their actions, not by their words. As far as any non-Buddhist is concerned, these people are what they profess to be: Buddhists. What they do, they do in the name of Buddhism. This will never be forgotten by the world. These people are making history, and it is their faith which will bear the stigma of it for all time to come.

There is only one escape from this judgement and the opprobrium that will follow from it. Sri Lankan Buddhists, both as individuals and as members of various Buddhist social groups and communities, must publicly and unequivocally condemn the acts of the extremists, repudiating them as unBuddhist.  They must demand that the persons bringing Buddhism into such disrepute be spurned by the Buddhist community, and any who commit violent and criminal acts in the name of Buddhism should be brought to justice and punished. Above all, they must state clearly and publicly that as Buddhists, they recognise the right of non-Buddhists to their own religious faith and practice. And they should apologise, unreservedly, for the wrong that has been done in the Buddha’s name.

Only if these things are done can Buddhism ever hope to recover from the damage presently being done to it in Sri Lanka, by people who claim to be Buddhists and to speak for Buddhism.

11 March 2013

Low-Water Mark

The Hungry Tide
by Amitav Ghosh

I'm sorry to say I could not finish this. I got about a third of the way through.

I greatly enjoyed The Calcutta Chromosome and Sea of Poppies and have liked other books by this author, some more and others less, but this was unbearable. The setting is squalid and hellish, an island half-drowned in the mud of the Ganges delta. The characters did not interest me, and a developing romance between an Indian-American marine biologist and a Bengali fisherman seemed preposterously unlikely, although in fairness I didn't read far enough to see whether they actually got together. The author keeps harping on Bengali grievances, which are now becoming something of a pedal point in all his writing; frankly, I think it's time he took his foot off that particular pedal.

Oh, it has river-dolphins in it. I've just finished editing a book on Indian Ocean cetaceans, which means I'm in the throes of a fading but still-strong professional fascination with whales and dolphins. For all that, however, Ghosh still managed to bore me with his.