By Yudhanjaya Wijeratne –
I was at Cinnamon’s Colomboscope the other week. To be honest, I liked it.
Well, some of it.
Most of it was a bunch of expats explaining Sri Lanka to foreigners. Generally, this includes well-meaning but meandering discussions on class conflict and a lot of thought on where Colombo is headed.
This is ironic, because the people actually listening to this were definitely not the Common Man – you couldn’t have found a more culturally disconnected bunch of people if you’d tried. There were your expat teens (ratio of clothes to makeup – 1:1000), your Colombo inbred aunties, your Sri Lankan hippies (it’s too hot to be really hippy, but hey, we try), your irate bloggers and a bunch of people killing time until TEDx.
To wit, this is the sort of people who will nod their heads, say “we need to look at this problem before it overwhelms us” and then break for lunch leaving the actual thinking to someone else. The Common Man, Homo Communia, was definitely not one of the species present. Homo Intelligentsia was also in short supply.
Photo courtesy Adrian De SIlva
But back to the bourgeoise story. Thus it was that I found myself in a couple of sessions, listening to a Buddhist monk and an Christian breatharian. More specifically, the Venerable Upatissa Thero, Theravada monk and possible British wit, and the Reverend Kirby De Lanerolle of WOW, which to my great disappointment stands not for World Of Warcraft, but for Works Of Wonder. Before we get too hung up on the “Christian” label, let me point out that modern Christianity has more divisions than a Sri Lankan political party, and so I use this in a very general sense.
Kirby is famous. He’s been on National Geographic, which is usually an honor reserved for crocodile hunters and rare African cats. He also made the papers last year when a story started circulating of a Sri Lankan man who claimed to have lived for five years without food. He’s also the co-founder of the Warehouse Project.
The monk went first. These were two separate parts of the same session, so it wasn’t a debate. Upatissa Thero came to the stage and was introduced: a British citizen who became a Mahayana monk and then stumbled onto Zen Buddhism and ended up here in Sri Lanka as a Theravada monk. “Well, it seemed a good idea at the time,” he explained jovially.
Upatissa was a jovial monk. People have asked me to write about him, but perhaps the closest I can get to actually describing the guy is to say that Sri Lanka needs more monks like him. His crowning statement was regarding a question on prayer: “Hey, man, I don’t know all the answers. Try it. It it works for you, that’s cool. All I’m saying is I have a different path.” Pretty soon the monk had the audience laughing and was arguing Richard Dawkins with a more scientifically bent member of the audience.
Upatissa is a reminder of the sad irony of Lankan Buddhism: that many of those not born in the land of Buddhism grasp it better than we seem to do. Modern Sri Lankan Buddhism is a far cry from the philosophy that it’s touted to be. Buddhism has become a bona fide religion. You are born into it, whether you like it or not. You go to the temple with your family, whether you like it or not. You put down flowers in front of an effigy and pray for whatever – better luck, more money, more rice. On paper, we say it’s respect for the Buddha. Inside, it’s the worship of idols. The temple is more like a guilt trip – more like a illusory reset button of sorts. We’ve missed the wood for the trees.
The stranger, having looked at the plain from atop the mountain, perhaps understands its shape better than those who are born and die in the flatlands.
Then it was time for Kirby.
By [all 36 million] the gods, what an orator. Kirby is an elevator pitch on a different level. He began by extolling, rather vaguely, his sinful past.This he eased into his philosophy, dishing out phrases such as “I was looking for the next high: then I found the Most High.” I’m not going to repeat his words, but someone please hire this guy to pitch companies to venture capitalists.
Kirby is full of bullshit. His church and beliefs espouse things worthy of a Supernatural episode. I’m not going to rant against it, because my interaction with him was very limited, but here’s the takeaway:
One, he’s smart. Smart enough to take scientific fact and represent it as the proof of God. He’s also working with a set of beliefs that let him to just that. If I’d asked him about the curvature of space and time, no doubt he would have said that that’s clear proof that God works in mysterious ways.
Two, he likes the sound of his own voice.
Three, he genuinely believes that his God and Jesus is the right path.
Notice something about these three points? They’re basic attributes of most successful religious preachers, not just Kirby. As long as a bunch of people believe that their Invisible Friend in the Sky is the One True Guy, we will have people like Kirby running the marketing operations. It’s inevitable.
In fact, if Kirby is guilty of anything, it’s the rest of his drivel: that faith can heal (try telling that to all the cancer patients, old sport), that you can get by without a doctor, and if you believe in something, reality will make it so that it happens. I’m sorry. The universe is a large place. It does not care about the delusions of a speck of dust.
He’s also guilty of influencing idiots like Prince Leone, a sort of deluded religious word salad generator who recently spat out a grammatically compelling argument against free will, where he pointed out that God, not voters, actually placed Maithripala Sirisena at the forefront of Sri Lankan politics.
And no, I am not responsible for this terrible Photoshop – it’s off his own page. This man would have gone places in the 14th century, though perhaps not as a graphic designer.
Let’s just say that sometimes I’m glad I live in a mostly Buddhist country with a bunch of other faiths and cultures thrown into the melting pot. The last thing we need is to be governed by madmen with the Host of Delusion and Grandeur at their backs.
*Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is a contributor to Colombo Telegraph, his articles can be found on his blog, icaruswept.com