In Kilinochchi I saw this Buddhist monk who spoke in fluent Tamil. I don’t know what he was saying, but I was quite impressed. At the same time, I met a former government servant who was assiduously documenting Buddhist sites in the North for southern tourists. I asked him gingerly if he thought that might offend or at least hurt some Tamils, and he just shrugged it off. I guess Sri Lankan Buddhism has those two sides.
Dude was showing me some photos of Prabhakaran’s bunker and the hangar where they stored those planes. It was all very interesting, but then he casually told me that Tamils weren’t allowed to visit that place. I don’t know if that’s true. Every time I’ve gone north it’s been with a mix of races and I would certainly raise a fuss. But this gentleman (and he was a nice guy) seemed to take this discrimination nonchalantly, like it wouldn’t offend anyone. But it does.
Back in Colombo, I was listening to TNA MP Sumanitharan at this Heal Lanka Forum. He asked, ‘does the land belong to you, or do the people belong to you as well?’ (paraphrase). Brigadier Perera was clear that the people are what matters, but I think for some people it’s not.
As a Buddhist, for me a Buddhist site is someplace I can sit down without getting disturbed or bitten. But I also have a great reverance for the Temple Of The Tooth and Sri Maha Bodhi, et cetera. It’s hard to meditate there, but I can sit for hours just watching the people reverently pass by. I get Buddhist sites and I think they’re important.
However, archaelogy can be intimately tied with land, with history, with dominion over land. There is a great interest in finding Buddhist sites in the north, and in building stupas everywhere, and I get it, but there is also a material aspect as well. It’s a bit like saying we were here, we are here, and I think for many Tamil people that ‘we’ doesn’t feel like them.
For example, the government is building stupas in every province. This is fine, I like stupas. However, are they building kovils next to the stupas, as we traditionally do? Are they supporting churches and mosques to a similar extent? I have slept in kovils and sheltered in mosques and I think they’re just as much of our shared culture as stupas. Is there that sensitivity to land and place?
What the TNA MP said has stuck with me. It’s a serious question, because most wars are about land, and this war to be remotely worth the lives lost has to be something more. Brigadier told another story about a wall in the Jaffna University where the last Sinhalese students had written – ‘We lived us brothers once, we will live us brothers again.’ I like to think our future is that, that this was the point, but sometimes the differences in culture are striking. I don’t think people looking for Buddhism in the north are inherently racist or looking for dominion, but I also don’t think they’re being super sensitive. And I think that’s got to hurt.
So it’s there. The bad parts of Buddhism, the material parts, the attachment, which leads to suffering. It’s there in the north, and people seem quite happy to dig it up. At the same time, however, I see people like the monk above and I have some hope. I don’t know what he’s saying, but he’s saying it in Tamil. I got the parts about Buddhist, Tamil, Christian, Muslim. I think he’s talking about peace, respect, and living together. I dunno. I project, please translate if you can.
Peace to me is all I’m really looking to find. If you dig deep enough you find dirt, which we’re all buried in, which we all return to. We all get there soon enough and I wish we could just chill and be respectful while we’re above ground.
I mean, I’m hopeful, I still think that what’s wrong with Sri Lanka can be fixed with what’s right. I still think Buddhism and yes, Sinhala Buddhism is a force for good. But when it comes to Tamils being offended or scared that we’re in it for the land, I’m sorry and I understand. It’s not true and there’s enough people working to make it not true, but I understand how things might look. There are things we need to change.