I was raised in a veritable pickle of a household. We speak three languages. We believe in different gods, some of us uphold a curious syncretism that defies logic and some of us, we don’t believe at all. We fear the wrath of a pantheon of gods, while some of us respectfully stand in the sidelines, amused but compliant to the arcane rituals that map our faith. Despite the contradictions and occasional absurdity, we co-exist and we keep celebrating each other’s holidays because festivities are always welcome.
Over the years, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of religion. Mostly when it encroaches into my thought space in the form of the question, what religion are you?
As a child, I, like many of my peers were compelled to put a religion down on paper. At the start of every school year, they sent home a form that required the specifics: race, religion, denomination. There was no room for ambiguity; a binding pen on paper commitment was required. It was a matter of priority for annual timetables afterall.
Accordingly, our Christian institution grouped us twice a week to provide us with a religious education as set forth in the state curriculum.
There were two of us in that class for whom, the topic of religion did not matter because our parents did not give us much of a religious education at home. Mine were a non-committal pickle, hers were uninterested and amidst a group of girls whose Sunday School education had begun at kindergarten, we struggled to learn Buddhism in a Christian School. I recall the torturous experience of having to learn and recite unfamiliar sūttas that rolled of the others’ tongues. How we couldn’t recite on demand the most sacred words of the Buddha mystified the teacher. How I dreaded those afternoons where spot recitations were called upon and I’d struggle, owing to little more than a complete lack of interest in memorizing verses in a language I didn’t understand.
Our text books were populated not with the everyday choices that might require some form of spiritual guidance, but yarns of mytho-history that defined Sri Lankan, Sinhalese Buddhism. From historical buildings, facile meditation techniques and long-winded stories on virtue and other blessed things this text book was supposed to be instilling in us, we ultimately studied for an exam.
Remember, regurgitate. Remember, regurgitate.
So I studied Buddhism, unapologetically, to keep my grades up. I even won a prize once. No wiser, no more interested, but compelled, for there was no option for marking down uncertainties on that austere typeset form.
Today, I am grateful for this education because I can tell you many little facts about Sri Lanka’s Buddhist history and significant archaeological sites, not because of the personal spiritual enlightenment it brought about.
I remain blissfully unconcerned about religion, pressing matters like death, heaven, hell, afterlife and reincarnation rarely occurring to me or intruding into my every day only when someone throws the unabashed question,
What religion are you?
Much like those school forms from many years ago, Sri Lanka allows very little room for ambiguity.
I falter. Buddhist I suppose, I say if they are looking for a short answer or if I’m looking for a quick way out.
Buddhism, separated from cultural pollution, provides a meaningful roadmap for living, to good and a balance of cause, consequence and karma. I respect that simplicity and freedom of being able to choose my path. Yet, I cannot recall the last time I went to a temple to worship or to gain some form of spiritual guidance or solace.
I try to believe in good and do the right thing, to give to the less fortunate and not harm the living. That to me is surely in the words of every religion, label and pen on paper commitment-free.
I often wonder what faith in Buddhism means to a purported 70% of Sri Lanka. The temples, the flowers, the verses of pali few undersand, and the saffron-robed monks that preside over it all.
Last week, a 2000 strong Sinhalese mob rallied under the puritanical war cries of Buddhist monks who called for a local mosque which had stood for half a century to be demolished. Petrol bombs flared, stones were thrown and the revered Friday prayer was canceled. Over the weekend, it was agreed on a political table that the mosque would be demolished and relocated to what I can only understand as a less-offending place.
An isolated incident, say the optimists anchored in the belief of a greater good and surely one that does not reflect Sri Lanka’s Buddhist virtue and humility.
For a nation so saturated with such Buddhist righteousness and integrity, we have seen a three decade long war, the full-blown armed hostilities which were triggered by an ‘isolated incident’ not unlike this in 1983. We pretend that thousands of civilians were not killed under the flags of victory. We do not think of the thousands more who remain displaced as a consequence. We pretend that our country is not rife with lawlessness, corruption, grave insecurity and violence, while we hide behind the white cloth of Buddhist morality. Such ugliness cannot happen in a land where the Buddha himself set foot thrice, we tell ourselves.
This too shall pass, we avert our eyes away from the reality of ugliness that Sri Lanka has tumbled into.
Today, where Sinhalese Buddhist monks rallied the hatred of 2000 Sinhalese Buddhists against the faith of another, I find myself unable to falter.
I am faithless.