On ‘True Buddhists’, ‘True Christians’ and ‘True Citizens’

By Malinda Seneviratne

(April 05, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) These are days when Buddhists are called upon to be ‘Real Buddhists’, i.e. they are asked to conduct their affairs with the kind of tolerance advocated in the sathara brahma viharana; kindness, compassion, equanimity and being joyful about another’s joy.

Buddhists are supposed to be ‘tolerant’ in all matters, including the ways they respond to acts that knowingly or unknowingly (to give some people the benefit of the doubt they do not deserve, in the ‘true Buddhist’ manner) are insensitive and even insulting of Buddhist sensibilities.

They are asked to be ‘Buddhists’ and they are also asked to champion and respect ‘freedom of expression’.

I am referring to the issue of the singer Akon being refused a visa, after protests were made against MTV/MBC, the official media sponsor of the event. I have taken issue with the protestors for singling out the media outfit, regardless of its dubious track record when it comes to the matter of cultural sensitivity and political bent. MTV/MBC did not organize the event. Platinum Entertainment Private Ltd did. They had the endorsement of the Tourism Ministry and they got SriLankan Airlines and Dialog to sponsor the show. If inviting Akon was wrong, then these entities should have been the target of objection.

Should Akon have been invited in the first place? ‘Buddhism’ does not prohibit anything. So, a ‘Buddhist’ approach would say ‘sure, why not?’ The issue of granting or denying him a visa therefore does not arise.

What is interesting though, is that if Buddhists are supposed to be Buddhists then it follows that Christians should be Christians, Mohammedans should be Mohammedans etc. Being ‘Buddhist’, in this sense, going by the rhetoric we’ve seen in the newspapers means that one can be a Buddhist only if one has achieved one of the four marga pala (Sovan, Sakrudagami, Anagami or Arahat). Christians and Mohammedans don’t have that privilege/handicap.

That inequality aside, if it follows that Christians should be Christians, how would they react or how can we expect them to react if a similar situation arose. For example, what is ‘THE Christian way’ of responding to a situation where there is a ‘music video’ or any other ‘work of art’ where Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary is depicted in distasteful ways that jar Christian sensibilities?

What if there was ‘art’ depicting Jesus or Mary or the Apostles or even ‘God’ engaging in some ‘simulated’ sex act or if such ‘simulation’ were to be filmed with any of them ‘in attendance’ as was the case in the Akon music video? What part of the Bible would ‘Real’ Christians refer if such ‘works of art’ contained some kind of culturally offensive statement on the Christian faith or some element of Christian iconography and sought to entice Christians to serve some other faith?

‘Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass upon us’? That would be ‘ok’ in that it will not result in any altercation or disruption of normality. What if some Christian chance upon or remember Deuteronomy 13: 6-10?

This is what it says: ‘If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.’

Or would Christians say, ‘well, we have to submit to the principle called “freedom of expression”’ (meaning of course that they subjugate divine tenet to an undeniably ‘human’ determination)? Or would they say to themselves, ‘our faith is being tested and therefore let us make this an occasion to affirm our faith by loving our enemies and showing Christian charity’? Will they though? I hope they would, but I am worried since I know of the Crusades, the Colonial Conquests AND the Spanish Inquisition and I know to the kind of brutality that ‘human frailty’ brought out in Christians. Few were ‘True Christians,’ the record shows.

What I am trying to say is that there is something hypocritical in people wanting others to be Good Buddhists or Good Christians when they themselves are rarely Good Anything. There is a problem when Buddhists are asked to respect the notion called ‘freedom of expression’ but that same principle was not referenced when ‘The Da Vinci Code’ was banned or when ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ was banned. ‘Sensitivity to Christian feelings’ was what prompted those bans. Had any Buddhist objected to this I am willing to wager that he/she would have been called a fundamentalist, extremist and other such names and be accused of being insensitive to others, ‘intolerant’ (yes!) and not really a ‘True Buddhist’.

There is hypocrisy in all this. It can be sourced to the same kind of bigotry that persuades some Christians to protest (as everyone should, for purely secular if not for cosmological reasons according to a given individual’s faith) acts of vandalism on places of worship but say ‘that’s politics’ or ‘it’s the free market of ideas’ when Buddha statues are smashed, ‘Buddha biscuits’ are distributed to poor people or English classes are deliberately scheduled to coincide with the times when daham pasal are in session, not to mention pretend that ‘Christians’ and Christian clergy did not (with the active support of the then rulers) vandalize and/or destroy hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu places of worship and build churches in these very locations.

About a year ago, someone wrote to The Island that the biggest threat to Buddhism is from Buddhists themselves and that the biggest threat to Christianity similarly comes from Christians. This is true, and I am not talking about the sex scandals that are rocking the Catholic Church. There is a corollary to this argument: Buddhists must recognize that there have friends among those who truly follow the teachings of Jesus Christ (and not those who devalue the word of the ‘Saviour’ by calling it ‘anything-goes-politics’) and similarly Christians should count among their friends those who honestly attempt to live by the Buddha Vachanaya.

The Akon issue has showed up a lot of hypocrisy. For this, I must thank the organizers and Akon himself. And of course the clearly disoriented team that put together the music video.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malinsene@gmail.com