Sri Lanka’s touchy Buddhists

Sri Lanka has apparently decided that it needs to become the Buddhist equivalent of Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries where any form of disparagement to their favored religion, however trivial, is not allowed. We had the situation of tourists who were arrested for taking a gag photo at a Buddhist temple and R&B singer Akon who was denied entry because one his videos had scantily-clad dancing women with a Buddha statue in the background.

buddha-tattooThe latest case is that of a British tourist who was denied an entry visa at the airport because he had a Buddha tattoo on his arm and when questioned about it had allegedly spoken “very disrespectfully” which he flatly denies, saying that he got the tattoo because he has been a follower of Buddhist philosophy for many years.

It should be realized that unlike in Islam there is no prohibition in Buddhism against images of the Buddha. In fact, images in the form of posters and statues are all over the place in Sri Lanka, so it is not clear why this particular image was so offensive, since it seems like a pretty straightforward representation.

From what little I know of Buddhism, I think that the Buddha would have been appalled at his followers treating him as some kind of god-like religious icon. I recall attending a conference many years ago as a university student where a professor of Buddhist philosophy railed at how the Buddhist clergy and the politicians in the country had hijacked Buddhism and taken it from a sophisticated philosophy and turned it into just another god-based religion filled with rituals and superstitions and taboos. He clearly failed in his mission to reverse that trend and if anyone in a similar position said such a thing now, he or she would likely face censure and even get attacked by mobs.


  1. daved says

    As I recall from my reading, the Buddha never claimed to be anything other than a man, and told his followers to treat him as such. He particularly enjoined them not to deify him after his death.

    So eventually he dies, and, to nobody’s great surprise, some of his followers immediately decide he was a god, thus immediately inducing a giant schism. I think this is where the split between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism arose. Off hand, I thought the former was the one that deified the Buddha, but it sounds as though Theravada, which is what you find in Sri Lanka, is doing the same these days.

  2. One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login says

    As one who was “into” western, intellectual, Therevadan Bhuddism for several years, I’ve been appalled and deeply disappointed by the spate of recent news of intolerant and even violent Buddhists. Such obvious cases of the bad results of “attachment to views” — one would think. Where are the teachers?

  3. steffp says

    A few remarks that may be helpful.
    Ever since semi independence there was a Sinhalese nationalist undercurrent in Sri Lankan politics, notably after Wijeweera’s JVC cut its Maerxist/Maoist roots in the 1971 revolt, switching to openly nationalist arguments. Today’s JVC is part of the Sri Lankan government coalition. As there is no true “Sinhalese identity” other than the adherence of most Sinhalese to Buddhism – as opposed to the Muslim, Tamil Hindu, and often Christian Burgher minorities – this religious feature is used to define a true Sinhalese. It’s a bit like Catholicism’s national identity-building role in post-war Poland. And, like in the latter case, the clergy’s support was gained by deliberate privileges for the Sangha. The very traditional/conservative form of Theravada Buddhism with its misogynist tendencies made such political integration into the nationalist movement easier. So we have the intolerable situation that Buddhist clergy defends one of the bloodiest civil wars of the region, which ended with the extinction of the (likewise bigoted) Tamil Tigers, something called genocide even in polite company.
    I would like to say that this is a special Sri Lankan problem, but here in Thailand, where I now live, Buddhist clergy is likewise integrated in state politics – the king is looked upon as a dominant part of the clergy. Especially in the Southern Provinces, where the Muslim minority constitutes a local majority, a rather unsuccessful policy of Buddhistification was undertaken, up to dispensing “Buddhist names”, and teaching Buddhism (but not the local majority religion) at school. Protests were ignored, now we have an active insurgency there. I think we can watch the traditional role of religion as backer of state power here. Nothing new under the sun.
    In strong contrast to these cooperations, for the sake of completeness, stand the actions of South Vietnamese and Burmese monks during the Vietnam war and the 2007 protests in Myanmar. But both countries, at that time, were ruled by oligarchies or military juntas too greedy and rigid to share power with Buddhist clergy…
    After all, Theravada Buddhism is just another religion. There are interesting dissenters, like Wat Sua Moke, but that’s just people who are slightly more rational or emphatic than the lot.

  4. steffp says

    As an aside: last year there was a campaign to suppress tattooing of Buddha images especially on foreign skin. But that was a mere appeal to self-control directed at tattoo-studios. Rather unsuccessful. These guys will needle whatever on whomever, after all, they’re entrepreneurs…

  5. says

    From what little I know of Buddhism, I think that the Buddha would have been appalled at his followers treating him as some kind of god-like religious icon.

    It’s not safe to make any assumptions about what Buddha would have or did think. We can be fairly certain that Mohammed and Buddha existed (slightly less so about Jesus) but all three religions share the common property of being an oral tradition that was assembled long after the death of the founder, with considerable editing.

    Buddhism has done a good job of re-marketing itself as a “philosophy” because of the commonly shared awareness that religious dogma is indefensible. Yet there is just as much indefensible crap in buddhism especially in how it’s practiced by the vast majority of buddhists. It’s just another goofy religion with a mystical magic man founder whose words have been cleaned up and whacked into shape by a professional priesthood.

  6. Mano Singham says

    That’s true, but it does show that the early followers who created and transmitted the oral traditions were somewhat more sophisticated than those of many other religions, who immediately tacked on all manner of crazy stuff to their founder. The crazy stuff in Buddhism seems to have come later.

  7. Ray says

    The intolerance and crass discriminationism of buddhism in Sri Lanka is not new. Every time the government does some nasty pro-buddhist anti-non-buddhist thing there are muted and insincere “gee, we never wanted that” from the buddhist clergy, and then everybody sort of assumes that that’s normal, so why fight it. No movies on Buddhist festival days for anybody. No meat to be sold by anybody to anybody on days sacred to Buddhists – also no alcohol except for members of the government. Free electricity for anybody willing to build Buddha statues illegally on public property and decorate it with lights – and no prosecution, obviously. Instant punishment for anybody even obliquely insulting the buddha. Support and funds for armed forces building giant Buddha statues in occupied territories in the North, particularly opposite Hindu temples. Turning a deaf ear to the anti-noise regulations if a Buddhist group wants to conduct a public entertainment on the streets and flood the street with religious music and chants. And a lifetime salary, courtesy of yours and my taxes, for anybody who joins a temple and qualifies as a Buddhist monk.

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