French kissing the Buddha

Recently, when three French tourists were in the media and the dock for taking photos that had them kissing and posing with a statue of the Buddha at the Ambekke Temple in Kandy, Udaya Gammanpila, the spokesman of the blithely racist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) noted, “Sri Lankans consider this statue to be sacred. They desecrated it. This is uncivilised behaviour” and went on to note that “We condemn this action of the three French tourists and urge Westerners to please respect our culture and act decently”.

The photos taken by the tourists are easily available online. The British FCO has already revised its travel advisory to Sri Lanka, quite correctly noting that “The mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is a serious offence and tourists have been convicted for posing for such photos”. Your columnist submits that no congregation, no place of worship, no religious deity or God is above ridicule and critique. Yet tourists who come from cultures that celebrate the freedom to write and rally against organised religion may naively devalue the power of religious symbols and places of worship in a country like ours. It is unlikely that Dawkins or even Hitchens when alive, who with every sinew and syllable stood against blind faith over reason, would have encouraged photo-ops with the Pope in a bikini, or going in the nude to Mecca. Kissing the Buddha in a country so strongly and globally associated with Buddhism is wrong – at best incredibly naïve, at worst insufferably dismissive of local sensibilities.

That said, Sri Lanka’s growing saffron mentality has also led to a sickening national hypocrisy. Around two years ago, a pop star’s visit and concert was cancelled because of a music video of his that featured, for all of two or three seconds, a bikini clad woman dancing in front of a barely distinguishable Buddha in the background. Some years before, the country banned the import of Buddha Bar CD’s. In the interim, there have been sporadic news stories, especially in Sinhala websites, with images of the Buddha on the t-shirts of foreigners, for example, as evidence of their depravity and degeneracy. That the government seeks to increase tourist inflows, since inconvenient to this argument, is never mentioned. Everything detrimental to Buddhism is portrayed to stem from a foreign influence. Never once does the critique extend to the behaviour of self-styled Buddhists themselves, and Sri Lanka’s own monks. The same people incensed by the behaviour French tourists are almost completely silent over the violence in Dambulla in late April, led not by tourists, but by Sri Lanka’s own Buddhist clergy and mobs organised in the name of Buddhism. The same JHU that rightfully calls the photos by the French uncivilised is revealingly silent over the reprehensible behaviour led and condoned by the Chief Prelate of Dambulla, his racist comments against residents of the area and the desecration of a place of worship by Muslims by monks who went on to publicly disrobe in front of it, all indelibly captured in the media. In fact, despite overwhelming video and photographic content, the same Police who swiftly prosecuted the French tourists are, to date, unable and unwilling to arrest or hold accountable a single person leading or in the mob in Dambulla. The same Buddhist monks and avowedly Buddhist politicians who express their condemnation of the recent photos by the French, went on to chant pirith and bless the Rajapaksa’s manic myrmidon Mervyn Silva, who on the grounds of a leading temple openly called for the killing and maiming of traitors earlier this year, and not for the first time.

The British FCO’s travel advisory got it wrong. If a tourist really wants to offend the Dhamma and the Buddha and get away with it with complete impunity, he or she should simply shave their heads and don a saffron cloth. Armed thus, any behaviour goes. And if that sounds offensive and absurd, it’s no more so than Sri Lanka’s mainstream psyche. All religions, in any country including ours, must remain personal, where it means and matters the most, whether genuflection, meditation or affection is anchored to a God, the Dhamma, Apple, Nicki Minaj or opium. Any institutionalised projection or openly preferred choice, especially when supported by the State, risks revisiting history replete with the most heinous of violence against non-believers by the faithful, and stoking religious intolerance.

We are fashionably aghast at the French. Given the events of 2012 alone, we really should be more ashamed at ourselves.


Published in The Nation newspaper in print, 26 August 2012.


20 thoughts on “French kissing the Buddha

  1. Hiran Jayaratna says:

    ” Around two years ago, a pop star’s visit and concert was cancelled because of a music video of his that featured, for all of two or three seconds, a bikini clad woman dancing in front of a barely distinguishable Buddha in the background.”

    Better to get your eyes checked mate 😉

    • Sanjana says:

      A white statue of the Buddha appears at 1.40, 1.49, 1.59, 2.06, 2.09, 2.21. On some of these occasions, it’s less for a second. What’s the thrust of your argument, “mate”? Kalana’s excellent essay (Aroused by Akon’s Sexy Bitch: the Rise of Sinhala-Buddhist Fundamentalism?) goes to the nub of it,

      “There seems to be a complete misunderstanding of Lord Buddha’s teaching here, when ‘Buddhists’ and in particular ‘Buddhist monks’ appeal to a Government in such an aggressive fashion, calling for the rejection of Akon’s visa. Surely, this is not the way in which Prince Siddhartha, and later Lord Buddha, dealt with matters that involved controversial questions involving women. Surely, the kind of anger shown by those protestors certainly go against the fundamental teachings of Buddhism; compassion, equanimity, the noble-eightfold path, the importance of forgiving, etc. This goes against the most fundamental and invaluable lesson of the Buddhist philosophy; the need to realize the nature of impermanence, which would have meant, at least to a Buddhist monk, that one had to contemplate more seriously on what one was truly seeing in that music video, i.e. the shaking of a mass of flesh, a body consisting of bones, blood, marrow, pus, sinews subject to birth, disease, decay and death; that the feelings which may have been aroused, of anger, even lust, would pass away with a more focused mind directed towards insight meditation; that what was seen in the form of Akon is that of a truly misguided and ignorant fellow who would have not known what on earth this philosophy of Buddhism taught, and therefore a human being, who certainly deserves to be forgiven for the mistake made wittingly or unwittingly; that a Buddha statue is simply a symbol, and that the Buddha resides not in a statue made of clay, cement or stone, but in the very teaching he expounded; that you ought to see the Buddha not in a statue, but in his sublime teaching; and that even if the video scenes were reasons to cause discomfort, the methods adopted to show one’s protest simply go against the serenity and gentleness exemplified and advocated by the Buddha and his teaching.

      Given the kind of extreme compassion that the philosophy of Buddhism teaches us, it is certainly not incorrect to call the scenes about which one read and saw recently, to be a reflection of a kind of fundamentalism that goes against the entire Buddhist philosophy; a kind of extremism and fundamentalism that could soon turn into the kind of violent Islamic extremism and fundamentalism seen in the modern world; which is again a sad case of a peaceful religion being misinterpreted to suit the needs of a group of misguided and ignorant people. Generally, we see these signs and tend to shrug it off, believing that similar incidents would not happen again, that these are actions of a lunatic fringe, a small one, things that happen only during election time. But this is what we thought when Sharuk Khan’s concert was attacked, did we not? We believed that it would never happen again. But there is, there seems to be, no end to this.”

      • Hiran Jayaratna says:

        Sanjana “mate”, dont get angered by my comment, I see that you have, just admit it is not “barely distinguishable”. It is very distinguishable.

        I am not your ordinary extremist fellow that you and ‘ground views in general’ have used to attack buddhists and buddhism in general. I am actually a very liberal person, akons visit would not have angered me.

        However you must be mindful that everything is not plain black and white in this world. All people are not as educated as you. Some follow buddhism simply by worshiping a statue, some (actually most, including so called educated folk that comment here) might not understand the way things work. For you to become a true buddhist, you must solely, whole heatedly accept the fact that there is no human being (not gods) that is even close to Lord Buddha. This feeling, this respect that to cultivate within yourself brings you in to the path described by Buddha. The simple reason is this, if you do not respect Lord Buddha you wont respect his teachings. I am sure that is quite simply logic for anyone to understand.
        Yes Lord Buddha has never advocated violence, I am not sure how cancelling a tour is viewed as an act of violence. After all visas are rejected by many countries for many reasons.

        If that tour was not prevented, other extremists elements on the opposing side would have used it to say ‘Its OK, Lord Buddha’s teachings are all about tolerance, therefore you can even sit and dance around a statue of Lord Buddha”. What sort of a message will we be giving to the young generation of this country with that who have not yet understood about impermanence and all of that which you seem to have mastered. Your argument should be broad based, you need to look at the big picture and not be narrow minded. Thought you were better than this Sanjana. I have followed your interesting dialogs/conversations on and off and found them to be very interesting. Not this one though.

        Not admitting you made a mistake by saying ‘barely distinguishable’ is just not being professional.

      • Sanjana says:

        Significant confusion on display here, though at the outset, where you really come from is pretty obvious.

        In noting that I and Groundviews somehow ‘attack’ Buddhists and Buddhism in this country, it’s clear, despite what you go on to say, how you see the world. This is helpful, because it suggests that you are, not unlike so many others in this country, repulsed more by the flagging of heinous violence by soi-disant Buddhists and Buddhist monks than by the very act itself, which is always excused as necessary, justified or worse, normal.

        You note correctly what the idol worship that passes for Buddhism in Sri Lanka today. This does not sadly extend to a more honest, nuanced critique of the extremism rampant today, in Dambulla and elsewhere. The violence around Akon’s planned visit is well documented – suggest you read up on it. You are concerned about the message to the young generation of this country, if Akon’s visit was allowed. Tellingly, there is no concern over the examples, by ‘Buddhists’ and ‘Buddhist monks’ here, and here.

        The Dhamma tells us about value and power of intent (cetanā). It is a useful frame to analyse Akon’s video, the photos by the French tourists, and a mentality that results in behaviour by leading monks in Sri Lanka that is in fact nothing short of criminal. If just a few seconds of Akon’s video incensed so many, so much, where is the groundswell of condemnation against the violence in Dambulla, which features hours of behaviour offensive to the Dhamma?

        Kalana’s essays post-Akon, already referenced, and a seminal contribution post-Dambulla (Mobs, Monks and the Problems of Political-Buddhism), hailed as one of the best essays to be written on political Buddhism in contemporary Sri Lanka, offer compelling reading in this regard.

        Please engage.

      • Hiran Jayaratna says:

        Sanjana, I feel that in your eagerness to reply you have failed to understand what I have attempted to say. I am not a fluid writer like you 🙂

        I have never said I condone the behaviour of the a few monks in Dambulla. I have also failed to mention I disapprove of it, my apologies, I do disapprove of it. There should have been a better (legal) way to resolve the issue. Do you know a similar incident happened in a cave (lena) in another part of Sri Lanka, no media hype was given to that. It was settled in courts. Certain monks trying to hijack the emotional feelings of Buddhists to tighten their own coffers is not acceptable. I wonder if the same thing was said about Anagarika Dharmapala who ‘rescued’ the places in dambadiva. I actually do not know if he protested in the streets or whether he followed diplomacy to identify those sites as places of workship for buddhists. Do you know? You are the well read person here.

        However you mixing up the Dambulla incident with Akon’s visit and the recent incident of these tourists who behaved in an inappropriate and disrespectful way to Buddhists. If you go have a drink in public in one of the Saudi countries I am sure you will have to face much more than just paying a petty fine and being deported. Why are you angered by this incident? What made you write about this incident? What is the point you are trying to bring out? That the laws of this country are discriminating? Really? If you go to a Hindu Temple, a Mosque or the Church and do the same thing, what do you think will be the reaction of those people?

        Do not make people (which is the majority of this country) feel that offering flowers and worshiping a statue of the Buddha to mere idol worship, because it is not. People are not worshiping the statue, it is an object which they can focus on…. [because most of us do not have well developed minds to mediate concentrate our thoughts on what the buddha has thought (may be you can).. so that they can concentrate on the teachings of Lord Buddha, they can concentrate on the nava-arahadee-guna of Lord Buddha, they can concentrate on meththa. It is not mere idol worship. You might also not know that some statues contain relics of Lord Buddha. Lord Buddha never said to build statues representing him and most statues that are built actually do not resemble the real image of Buddha. At the age of 35, Lord Buddha must not have been so ‘fat’. He was in a forest, meditating and perhaps not having a proper meal for days.

        Anyway my question to you is this (since you have failed to understand it, may be my reply was not clear before, apologies)

        1) Why is cancelling Akon’s visit and act of violence?
        1a) Can you give me references to the well documented evidence of this violence surrounding this incident?
        2) Why is deporting these tourists not correct?
        3) Why are you mixing these two incidents with the incident that happened in Dambulla?

        4) Why are you referring to Lord Buddha as Buddha? I guess you do not have any respect for Lord Buddha, hence no respect for the teachings. You have interpreted his teaching the way you think is correct and the way you think is right so that it becomes a way of life. Sorry, I have assumed you are a Buddhist by birth. My sincere apologies, a name like ‘Haththotuwa’ suggests that.

        Please do engage, I may not reply as frequently as you, since my job is not a journalist (again I assume you are and not doing this as a hobby)

        May the triple gem bless you!

      • Sanjana says:

        Re. second para, the issue is greater and more serious than what should have been done. It is about what could have been done and said after the violence by the President, government and mainstream media, but was not. What could have been done is speculative. What wasn’t done is a matter of public record and fact. And it is this recent history that drives the belief of growing Sinhala Buddhist extremism in the country, reflected also in outrageously bigoted Facebook communities online.

        Re. second para, this is banal argumentation, best addressed recently by Johann Hari in The Independent (How to spot a lame, lame argument). The focus here is on the violence in Dambulla, not hypothetical scenarios.

        Re. your questions, do your own research.

        Re. addressing the Buddha and the Buddha, please alert me to a single line from the Tripiṭaka that commands the use of “Lord” in front of the Buddha.

        The timbre of your responses and what is a clear inability to do basic research precludes any future engagement. Time is sorely limited, and more fruitfully spent engaging with those who disagreeing in a more informed and principled manner, which helps me learn as well.

      • Hiran Jayaratna says:

        Dont ask stupid questions regarding the usage of ‘Lord Buddha’ 🙂 You and I very well know there is no direct reference in the tripitka. What matter is the respect you give, which you have clearly failed to give here. Just try to understand the meaning of the nava-arahadi-guna. That might be a good starting point for you on why you should show respect in every way possible to him. This is good for your own benefit, not only for this life but for many lives ahead that you and I will both be spending until we attain Nirvana (oh well, I guess you do not believe in that too. I see you are one of these modern day Scientific Buddhits).

        Nice way of running away from an argument 🙂

      • Sanjana says:

        Clearly the only thing that separates you from the understanding of the Dhamma by the soi-disant Dambulla monks is geography.

      • Gamarala says:

        Hiran Jayaratne,
        What baffles me the most, is why you believe that others are obliged (required even?) to respect your childhood role models? For example, I think Bertrand Russell is a swell guy, but I don’t go around asking people to call him Lord Bertrand Russell?
        What baffles me next is why you believe a failure to call the Buddha “Lord” would somehow diminish the value of his teachings? Does that mean that the truth of his teachings are contingent on first forcing people to respect and believe it as the truth, so that subsequently people actually believe it’s true? (a.k.a brainwashing). If not, what’s the fuss?

      • Hiran Jayaratna says:

        I agree with you, there is no need to call refer as lord. Buddha is just fine. It wont diminish the value in his teachings. Apologies if I seem to force it on anyone.

  2. Shevanthie De Alwis says:

    HI sanjana, I am a roman catholic , but I am married to a practising buddhist – by this I mean some one who actually behaves in a manner fitting to the religion . In my view Buddhism is a way of life NOT a religion and what shocks me in more ways than one is the fact that these monks are the very same people who stoned our churches during christmas – accussing the catholic church of killing a buddhist monk who had died of natural a foreign country – the probability of this is beyond human comprehension – These so called buddhists themselves keep destroying our church in Anuradhapura on the premise thats its a scared city….
    enough said ………..

  3. sach says:

    iI too understand there is a rising phenomena of high religousity in the country and this is not limited to buddhists. As the buddhists are numerical highest one can feel the buddhists becoming annoying. The religousity is rising and as a multi religous country it is dangerous. A recipe for disaster. What we should do is bring intellectual dialogues regarding religion in to the country. But when a single religious community is targeted it becomes difficult.
    I am a Buddhist and I too Buddhists in general are becoming a nuisance. It is sad to see Buddha statues sprung up like mushrooms in every nook and corner. The Buddhists are going through a insecure period that is why they do this. What you are doing is fueling it.
    I have seen Akon’s video and it is insulting to Buddha. But I dont think Akon’s visa should be cancelled. But in the case of tourists in don’t see any wrong. They were fined not given any harsh punishment. A Buddha is a revered personality here and we have a historical Buddhist background. In such an instance, kissing a Buddha statue in SL can be termed inappropriate and as an attack to the culture in this country. I would recommend the same had these tourists did the same to any other place of worship of a different religion.

    • Jayalath says:

      I agree with u ,there is nothing wrong with any religion in the world , but it is wrong the way it has been handling .if you put together the scriptures of all religions in the world , I’m sure non of teachings is different to each other.
      But, unfortunately ,our people are trying to be religious by building Buddhist statues around the country , this is the exposure of superstition,and ignorance.
      Kissing a Buddhist statue could be a person’s attitude toward a religion or knoledge about it. It is not that bad as some people ripped off Buddhists statues to collect gold in the past by some people in this country .

  4. Jayalath says:

    I have no objection with you that how you have scripted the story ,but ,it seems , you are with some thing very controversial in the world at this moment ,which is religion . The world has been coming out with new ideas and experiments , not to stress about the religions . I will suggest you to take immediate action if you can to remove all the Buddhist statues from the pubs and night clubs in England . There are plenty of Buddhist statues have placed in the night clubs in the uk . Once when I walking around I went in one pub and asked a man who was working in ,why do you have this Buddhist statue front of the pub ,as our people go down to worship front of it twenty four hours a day in our part of the world . He said me that he is an artist for us , that’s why we have it. Mr. Sanjana , the world is heading to a very different place right now ,not to chanting about what happened in the past , or who did it .if I cleared you with bit more details , perhaps , would be advisable . This world is made where it is now by handful of people ,not by any religion or any religious scriptures as we are hearing in the daily basis . These people are who thought rationally about all the living things ,they are scientists,artists ,inventors,creators . I cannot lay all the details in this but , if you want this is my email address that we can argue about more .( I also request you to read this book if you can . (1) what on earth happened ? By christopher LLoyd. (2)The revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock and books of Desmond Collins .I expect you to be more aware about the world more than you are , then you can teach people the truth and right , as this is we need for tomorrow . And one more thing I should ask you very kindly , when you write please make it easy to understand every one , simple language . Have you had much chance to listen to the uk prime minister, David Cameron , see what simple to understand him . Some time I feel it is quite odd , when people are tempted to slip odd long words into a report or letter to make themselves sound intelligent and erudite .

  5. Sunny says:

    I love Hiran’s comment, “I see you are one of these modern day Scientific Buddhists”… what as opposed to the dogma driven, idol ritual practising based on traditions kind?

    “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it” – Lord Buddha

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