Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Ministry has alerted all missions in Europe to investigate the Buddha Bar chain of restaurants and bars. This is at a time when the Defence Secretary says there ongoing LTTE activity abroad. Sri Lanka is one of the last bastions of Theravada Buddhism, but this type of lame identity politics is unbecoming. Akon was recently prevented from entering Sri Lanka for five seconds in a music video showing models dancing in front of a Buddha statue. The international Buddha Bar chain basically makes a practice of this, so it’s gotten the attention of the government. It’s curious as to why this is a priority now.
On one level, identity politics is a cheap way of scoring points. People can look like they’re defending Buddhism and the country without actually doing anything. Tamil Nadu politicians employ the same empty rhetoric for the Sri Lankan Eelam question and Arab politicians for the issue of Palestine. Neither actually does much about, or at least nothing commensurate with the amount of noise.
Sri Lanka is still a small player on the international stage and this may be one way to try and make ourselves heard. While this is only news of the weird in the west, however, it can make front pages here. That, I think, is the point. The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka has no legal sway over France, nor particular influence, so when he says he’ll take action, it’s an empty threat. He does, however, get headlines in Sri Lanka as a defender of the faith.
Aside from wasting man hours in every European mission, there is not particular cost to this endeavor. There is also no particular benefit, at least in terms of the goals they say about. Namely, defending Buddhism. What they don’t say, however, is that this is really about defending a particular identity.
Tilting At Windmills
In that sense, these seemingly Quixotic jousts make sense. In that story the man is tilting at windmills, but even that can have a symbolic value. Sri Lanka is an island surrounded by Hindus, Muslims and repeatedly colonized by Christians. It is also beset by Western culture, much of which it accepts blindly (tea, cricket, chili – brought from South America, and even modern Buddhism – assembled much by Colonel Alcott). There are certain things which we don’t accept, however, and that difference gives us some identity, much as the waves beating on our shores mark us as an island.
So this latest issue, while it is really just making waves, is part of the broader identity politics that is the teething of this still young island. The people of the Buddha Bar must by like WTF and the staff at the missions must be like OMG but average people can be like, ah, I’m Buddhist and these politicians are letting the world know. Or at least the politicians can tell them that in the press and campaign rallies. Whether they believe I do not know.
Personally, I think there are better ways to communicate and share our Buddhism with the world. And, indeed, defend it. Right now the main impression the world has of us is related to the war. The dissonance between that violence and the impression of Buddhism as a peaceful faith is probably one to address.
There is something of a military-Buddhist complex, however, and many monks have been among the most vociferous supporters of the war. The faith itself, however, is full of compassion and a great many Buddhist clergy and faithful have helped and mourned for the dead. If that was public through some kinda ceremony that might be good PR. I do remember that Sarvodaya did a mass meditation for peace a while back.
Furthermore, Buddhist meditation has documented neurological affects, basically chilling people out, something like the Buddha Bar CDs. There are conferences and papers on this subject, which Sri Lanka could contribute to more. For all the somewhat ritualistic common practice, Sri Lankan monasteries and retreats still support a great many dedicated meditators and priests and have the capacity for more.
There is a great interest in Buddhism in the west, but that is precisely because it’s perceived as being above the petty squabbles and offenses of other religions. In our fumbling way of projecting identity, however, we’re projecting the opposite. For a faith based on the non-existence of self, we might want to go easy on the identity politics.