By W.A Wijewardena –
Woman with the Buddha tattoo: Much more economics in episode than religious sentiments
An apology to the deported woman by tourism authorities
Two weeks ago, a British woman tourist sporting a tattoo of the meditating Buddha on her upper arm was deported from Sri Lanka on the orders of the courts. Interestingly, the order had been sought from the courts not by the Tourist Police or the Immigration Authorities but by the ordinary Police. According to reports, the learned magistrate had delivered the order of deportation on the ground that her presence in the country will hurt the religious sentiments of the majority faith in the country.
The judgment, one may ponder, would have been made to avert two disasters: save the tourist from possible attacks by the enraged Buddhists and prevent it from escalating to violent agitations in the country. It that were so, it could be considered a precautionary action taken by him.
It was also reported that after she was confined to a prison cell, Sri Lanka’s Tourism authorities had visited her and offered her return journey in business class and a free visit to Sri Lanka on a future date since she could not enjoy her visit to the country this time. The apparent damage control move by the Tourism authorities implies that they are not in agreement with the action by the Police or the lowest court in the country.
An appeal to the conscience of Buddhists by Chief Sanga Nayaka of America
The reaction of the local population to this episode was mixed. Some had expressed their anger at the authorities, while some others had approved of their action. But even those who had disapproved of her deportation had not raised the issue from the point of view of the arbitrariness of the action or violation of human rights or disregard of the Rule of Law.
Even the learned Buddhists had been silent on whether there is any truth in the charge that the tourist had insulted Buddhism by having a tattoo of the Buddha on her body. It was only the Chief Sanga Nayaka of America, Ven Walpola Piyananda, who had raised the issue from that point.
The Venerable Sanga Nayaka having appealed to the rational side of the Sri Lankan Buddhists had asked the question whether the Thai Buddhist monks with similar tattoos on their bodies will also be returned to Thailand in the event of their visiting Sri Lanka. He had also asked Sri Lankan Buddhists to consider how they would feel if a Buddhist monk wearing a saffron robe is thrown out of USA on the ground of being disrespectful to society just because they look different in their dresses.
The appeal by the Venerable Sanga Nayaka to the Buddhists back at home has been that they should come out of their childish world outlook and learn to appreciate and tolerate emerging global differences in religion and religious practices.
The deportation is not just religious
Many might consider the incident as an extreme reaction by authorities driven by religious sentiments. But that is not so when one looks deeper into it. It raises several issues from what is known as ‘economic sociology’ that dates back to the time of the British Economist William Stanley Jevons who coined the term in 1879.
Max Weber, the late 19th century German philosopher, later expanded the frontiers of the subject by analysing the relationship between economics and religion and cultural disenchantment which the modernity had brought to society in the current era. In a path-breaking book titled ‘The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism’ and published in German in 1905 and in English in 1930, Weber argued that modern capitalism and its entrepreneurship were born after individuals were freed from the crutches of the church and secularism was propagated in society.
It caused the private enterprise to flourish, the backbone of modern capitalism-based economic development. In the same book, Weber argued that society gets disenchanted from old traditions, values and emotions as motivators of people’s behaviour and embraces, instead, rational approach to life. Rulers don’t have absolute powers
In traditional societies, authority is derived from traditions – whether it is from royalty or from religious power. Weber argued that in modern societies, it is the legal power guided by rational thinking that gives one authority to rule others conceptualised as ‘rational-legal-authority’. He identified three important characteristics of modern states that are guided by this rational-legal-authority.
First, there is an administrative and legal order that has been created and can be changed by legislation. Second, the ruler has authority over citizens and their actions within its jurisdiction. Third, the ruler has the right to use physical force ‘legitimately’ within its jurisdiction. Thus, the rational-legal-authority is not absolute but bounded by laws that prescribe fairness and justice. And these laws are also not unchangeable but could be amended or abolished if they do not adhere to fairness and justice. Fairness and justice lead to another conception in society – the Rule of Law – that no one is above law and everyone is equally subject to law.
Rule of Law is twisted in societies ruled by religious leaders
Societies ruled by religions or religious leaders are not guided by rational-legal-authority but by traditions, practices and unchangeable customs. The Rule of Law in such societies is twisted since the religious clergy holds a superior position over the rest. Hence, the law provides a distinctive impunity and power to those who belong to the ruling religious class. This class enjoys the same powers and privileges even when a country is ruled by lay rulers who are guided and directed by religious leaders. In such countries, laws are enacted by lay legislators or government organs are created by rulers purely on the advice of religious leaders.
There could be two types of oppression in such societies. First, if society is composed of people of the same religion, those who are critical of religious leaders or their practices are oppressed. Second, if society is pluralistic, both the dissenting individuals in the same religion and those who belong to other religions, ethnic groups or classes are oppressed.
In other words, everyone in such a society is coerced to follow the rules framed by religious leaders without exception. Some do so willingly because they are materially rewarded by the religious establishment; some others do so because they have been emotionally brainwashed of the benefits of following those rules. But many others do so because they do not have any other alternative since disobedience results in harsh punishments.
Faith leading to identify dissenters as enemies
Religion addresses to the spirituality of people which cannot be perceived objectively. Hence, it belongs to the emotional side of human beings who, unlike animals, can imagine things in their minds. These imaginations, then, inculcate faith in people and faith is guided by emotional build-up of individuals. Faith and emotions nourish each other. Thus, a society ruled by religions or religious leaders is full of collective faith and collective emotions. This collective faith and collective emotions immediately classify people into two groups.
Those who adhere to the same collective faith and collective emotions are reckoned as friends; those who do not, as foes. When emotions run high, the use of violence to subdue foes is justified though the basic tenets of the underlying religion may underscore peace, peaceful coexistence and non-violence when it comes to dealing with other religions or ethnic groups. At this stage, rationality is overcome by insanity. The appeal by the Chief Sanga Nayaka of America to Buddhists back at home was not to allow insanity to rule over rationality.
Disagreements: Key to progress
In a pluralistic world with diverse ideas, it is quite natural for people to disagree with each other. In fact, such disagreements are beneficial for mankind to gain wisdom and attain enlightenment. Societies have moved forward and civilisations have flourished not by agreement but by disagreement which leads to free inquiry, criticism and questioning the prevailing knowledge.
This was beautifully put by the founding Vice Chancellor of the former Vidyodaya University, Venerable Weliwitiye Sri Soratha Thero, in his advice to students of that university. The learned Thero said that ‘university students should be probing, critical and rebellious’. In other words, university students should not accept anything without examining, should carefully evaluate both pluses and minuses and question the prevailing knowledge if they were to be useful members of society.
The Nobel Laureate in economics, F.A. Hayek said the same in a slightly different way in his 1960 book, The Constitution of Liberty, that: “If we are to advance, we must leave room for a continuous revision of our present conceptions and ideals which will be necessitated by further experience.”
The Buddha welcomed disagreements
Buddhism is a unique religion because its Master, the Buddha, welcomed disagreeing views. His method was to clarify, analyse and establish with facts and logic what he preached instead of coercing his followers to accept them. Every discourse made by him starts with an inquiry from the Bhikkus in the audience what they had been discussing before his arrival at the Sermon Hall and asking them whether they would wish him to clarify the issue. He preached only after the Bhikkus invited him to do so.
In Brahmajala Sutta in Diga Nikaya, he advised the Bhikkus not to get angry even when others have insulted him or the Dhamma or the Sangha or not to get elated when others have praised him or the Dhamma or the Sangha. The Bhikkus were advised to clarify the position without getting angry or overjoyed, as the case may be, because both anger and joy disturb the peace in mind and become an impediment to attaining enlightenment.
Disagreements to be resolved through open dialogues
Thus, when there is a disagreement, what is necessary is an open dialogue but conducted using ethical and moral means. In Kathavatthu Sutta in Anguttara Nikaya, his advice to the Bhikkus was that when a question is asked of them, not to wander from one thing to another, not to pull the discussion off the topic, not to show anger, hatred and displeasure at his opponent, not to seek to crush the opponent by ridiculing him or grasping at his little mistakes or not to come up with irrelevant matters.
In Kalama Sutta in Anguttara Nikaya, he advised the Kalama clan that they should not accept anything as true because it has been repeatedly said, in accord with tradition, in a scripture, heard as rumour, related by a teacher or in agreement with reasoning and logic. Instead, they should ponder on it and accept it if they find it beneficial and good for someone. His advice to all was that they should not accept his Dhamma until they have personally verified its truthfulness. Thus, in Buddhism, judgments are not made through emotions but by applying rational thinking.
The Buddha image: Universal symbol of wisdom, enlightenment and inner peace
The Buddha did not approve of anyone worshipping his body or materials he has used in a bid to attain enlightenment. They were, according to him, attachments that impede one’s journey toward attaining enlightenment. Hence, he advised everyone to follow his Dhamma and not him.
In Vakkali Sutta in Samyutta Nikaya, he advised Bhikku Vakkali who had been enamoured by the Buddha’s body and could not keep his eyes off him that if the latter desired to see the Buddha he should follow his Dhamma faithfully. For about 400 to 500 years after the Buddha’s passing away or Parinibbanam, his disciples followed this wise counsel and Buddhism was the only religion which did not have an idol to worship.
This was to change after the Gandhara sculptors who had been influenced by the Greek sculptural and art traditions created the Buddha statue around the second century BCE. It was not the exact replica of the Great Master who had lived some 400 years ago but a representation of Dhamma he had preached. The beauty of the Buddha image created by these artists is that when one sees it from any angle, one sees the ingenuous smile of the Buddha that represents his wisdom, enlightenment and inner peace. Thus, one who worships the Buddha statue is expected to acquire these qualities which invariably help him in his march toward enlightenment. Today, the Buddha image is universally used in this sense.
Thais with the Buddha image as amulets
In different cultures, the Buddha image is used in different ways to support one’s faith in the religion. In Thailand where about 95% of the population are Buddhists, it is common among the Thais to wear amulets of the Buddha images around the neck and have such images tattooed on the upper part of their torso. The emotionally driven belief here is that if the Buddha is close to someone, he is close to his path as well. Thus, it is not considered as an insult to the Great Master or the Dhamma he has left behind for people to follow. Instead, it is considered as supportive for one to inculcate his faith in the Dhamma the Buddha has preached.
The Westerners who have embraced Buddhism too have followed this greater cultural tradition to display their faith in the Master. However, faith is emotional and when individual faith develops into a collective faith and collective emotions, it also brings forth the notion of enemy who does not follow the tradition as one has followed. That is what has happened to the Sri Lanka’s Buddhists today.
The woman with the tattoo is a rebel against Christian culture
The British woman with a tattoo of the Buddha on her upper arm should be considered a rebel in her pro-Christian culture. According to reports, she had been a nurse for mental patients and she had been bold enough to display her new religious faith without the fear of being persecuted by a predominantly-Christian society. This is possible only in cultures that tolerate opposing views and recognise diversity in faiths. The non-tolerant faith and emotion-driven Buddhist culture of the day in Sri Lanka is far from these ideals.
Sri Lanka’s shame: Callous system infested with corruption
But what she revealed after she returned to the UK should be an eye-opener for all Sri Lankans. She charged that the Police had attempted to extort money from her, the lawyer she had retained had not supported her, there were open sexual gestures by some when she was in the cell and the Magistrate did not give an opportunity for her to even explain herself. All these point to corruption in the system and absence of the Rule of Law, which does not bring any credit to Sri Lanka’s Buddhist led system of government and governance.
These are serious issues which Sri Lanka has to resolve on a priority basis if it wants to assure progress, peace and harmony among different ethnic, religious and social groups in society. Sri Lanka is moving away from rationality and embracing emotionalism as its value system as posited in economic sociology. Hence, there is much more economics in the incident involving the woman with the tattoo of the Buddha than religious sentiments.