Sunday, September 7, 2008

The many faces of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

When I first hear the word Buddhism I think of it as a religion. I don’t think about the many countries that are affected or the people empowered by it. Until recently, even though I have taken yoga I didn’t even associate it with Buddhism. From my limited world perspective Buddhism was a religion much like any other, but according to Perry Garfinkel in his book Buddha or Bust “the Buddha did not intend his ideas to become a religion; in fact, he discouraged following any path or anyone’s advice without testing it personally.” (pp 22)

After the birth place, of the Buddha; Garfinkle travels to the beautiful landscape of Sri Lanka. When he set out on this spiritual/journalistic journey he challenged his editors “to name a war in the world today … that Buddhist are fighting.” (pp 110) His theory was thrown out the window when he arrived in SriLanka, with the centuries old ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese or Buddhist and the Tamils or Hindus. “With 75 percent of Sri Lankans of Sinhalese descent, the Tamils are a clear minority, representing about 18 percent.” (pp 107)

One might think that Garfinkel is biased in his view of Sri Lanka in favor of Buddhism, but one has to take into account that he is focusing his journey on Buddhism and not Hinduism or any other religion. I believe that he was deeply disappointed in the way that the people of Sri Lanka have warred with each other for so long. Garfinkle states “they can call this a civil war or an ethnic war, but it is hard not to see it as a religious war.” (pp 109) “Tens of thousands have died in an ethnic conflict that continues to fester.” (pp 109) I would like to know what would the Buddha say if he was alive to see this civil war. I believe he would be deeply disappointed.

But all was not war with Garfinkle’s visit to Sri Lanka he set out to see examples of what he calls “engaged Buddhism” or people using Buddhist philosophy to do good deeds for their fellow humans. He first meets up with a Dr. A.T. Ariyarante who is the founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadan Movement. Since its incorporation in 1972, it has grown into a “political organization at a grassroots level that’s Buddhist based.” (pp 111) This organization is indeed a humanitarian effort, “it reaches into the smallest villages, offering professional assistance for every social service imaginable – from technical training, to helping build and staff pre- and elementary schools, to prenatal care, to courses on setting up savings programs, to providing loans for building wells.” (pp 111) The world should take note of the deeds this organization does and followit’s example in helping the impoverished of all nations. Garfinkle's focus on engaged Buddhism though out the book shows us all that the down trodden can rise up and help themselves and their fellow humans. It's a good example that we all should follow.

While travling to see the deeds of the Sarvodaya Shramadan Movement, Garfinkle arrives in Kandy on the eve of the full moon. For Buddhist full moons are days of sabbath, a legal holiday. “On this night at Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth, the veil is parted to the window that conceals a series of seven gold- and jewel – decked caskets, underneath which, legend has it, rests one of the Buddha’s incisors.” (pp 122) But what Garfinkle describes as the wait to see the casket that holds the tooth brings to mind a carnival where one pays to see a “wonder of the world” complete with screaming children and the heat from too many people crammed together. When it came his turn to view the tooth he was overwhelmed by the opulence and unsure where to look by the time he thought he recognized where the tooth was he was being shuffled off so that thenext person in line could have there look see. Garfinkle at this point couldn’t see the connection of Buddhism to a relic of the Buddha. He is still in the view of Buddhism as a philosophy to help get you through life and onto nirvana, possibly a more pure perspective, but what he doesn’t take into account is that in Sri Lanka Buddhism is a religion and with religion one sometimes needs something tangible in their faith, for these, exceedingly poor Sri Lankans, maybe this tooth viewing event got them through the year and kept them believing in the Buddha’s teachings.

After Garfinkle left and was home in the States writing his book Sri Lanka was hit by a devastating tsunami. 

“The tsunami caused more casualties than any other in recorded history. Of the more than 150,000 people 

killed in that part of the world, an estimated 35,000 were Sri Lankans.” (pp 124) Most would have thought 

that the warring sides would have banded together but in the end the disaster tore the country more apart 

than just the destructiveness of the wave.

Images found at the following websites:

1 comment:

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