By Jagath Asoka –
What is the significance of Pope Francis’ visit? What is going to be his message to Sri Lankans: Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims? Is he going to share the message of “Compassion, Forgiveness, and Mercy”? Compassion (Maithri), forgiveness, and mercy are the recurrent, common themes in all religions.
Pope Francis’ visit coincides with a watershed moment, both politically and spiritually, in Sri Lanka. Politically, it is not the time to gloat, avenge, or take revenge; spiritually, it is the time for deep reflection. This is just a new chapter in Sri Lanka; the same old characters, donning new costumes and masks, who have undergone a certain belated political metamorphosis, are, now, in charge of Sri Lanka. So far, only the first combined sentence, literary, is written: Maithripala Sirisena (MS) is our new President, and Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) is our new PM; we must hold their feet to fire, and fire them if they don’t keep their promises. MS promised that he would not contest for a second term; an unprecedented, bold new beginning in Sri Lankan history, a renewed nostalgia for gentleman-politicians, not sycophants, thugs, or benevolent dictators. If MS and RW do not deliver what they have promised, we must send them to perdition sooner, not in ten years, but in ten months. I believe in an old truism that is implicit in the Bible: Give absolute power to a person if you want to find out his or her true nature, one of the recurrent messages of the Bible. We have seen so many sleazy, unctuous politicians who are worse than the devil incarnate, come and go. Our job as citizens is not over, unless we do what we do only for personal gains and aggrandizement.
Sri Lanka is a country where people despise demagoguery of politicians, who thrive by feeding popular prejudices; disdain dishonesty, contemn sanctimonious display of piety, and scorn the callous display and flaunting of bigotry and unbridled thuggery. This is not the time to take an eye for an eye, or shed the blood of your brothers and sisters who have violated and wronged you. Now is the time for reflection, and now is the time to figure out how to write this new chapter. Pope Francis’ visit will be the impetus that would initiate this new beginning, this new chapter, and a divine afflatus for those who believe in deities and divinity.
You do not have to be a Catholic to admire and revere Pope Francis—the Dalai Lama of the Christian World—who has been praised, admired, and revered for his humility, simplicity, compassion, commitment to ease suffering in the world, and to build bridges between people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and faiths.
The message of compassion, forgiveness, and mercy resonates and reverberates deeply in the collective psyche of all Sri Lankans, who have experienced the devastations of war, a tsunami, mudslides, political violence, and abuse.
Without compassion—our strong desire to help alleviate the pain of those afflicted by suffering or misfortune and our feeling of deep sorrow for others who are going through suffering and misfortune—there will not be any forgiveness and mercy. Compassion, forgiveness, and mercy are inextricably intertwined with suffering.
In Sri Lanka, there are two major theological trends (1) Buddhism and Hinduism; Buddhism, based on the teachings of the Buddha and Buddhist traditions; Hinduism, based on the Upanishads and other Hindu traditions and teachings, (2) Religions of Abrahamic traditions: only Christianity and Islam (Judaism is almost non-existent in Sri Lanka).
According to the Buddha, “All life is sorrowful, and sorrow and suffering are ineluctable realities of life.” In Christianity, theodicy—comes from two Greek words which means God’s justness—is the technical and somewhat highfalutin term used to describe why there is suffering—the problem of suffering in the biblical traditions and its discourse. Given the current state of affairs in this world, how can God be just and righteous and be in control? If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and all loving, why there is so much suffering in this world? My humble questions to Pope Francis are: How are you going to explain to Sri Lankans that compassion, forgiveness, and mercy is the answer to suffering and privation in their lives caused by a war, a tsunami, mudslides, violence, brutality, vulgarity, stupidity, and thoughtlessness? What is your answer to suffering in this world?
What Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus think of suffering is based on the ideas originated from the Upanishads. Basically, all the gods, all the heavens and hells, and all the worlds are within us; they are magnified dreams, and dreams are just manifestation of energies of our body, in symbolic forms, in conflict with each other—like love and lust; hatred and compassion. The entire universe is a manifestation of divinity, so we must affirm life and say “yes” to suffering and privation, including brutality, vulgarity, and thoughtlessness which are just temporal apparitions.
In a nutshell, when it comes to suffering, the Bible has different answers and interpretations—I am saying this with the proviso that it is not the same as reading the Bible yourself. Here is what the Bible has to say why there is suffering in this world: The first thing that you would notice in the Bible is that the authors disagree, and there are discrepancies. In the Old Testament, Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah proclaim that people suffer because God is punishing them for their sins; God is punishing his people in order to get them to return to him. If you return to God, suffering will be alleviated. But Job disagrees with this point of view. According to Job, people who do what God wants, sometimes, suffer; they experience the most misery. So, according to Job, it is the innocent, those who obey and return to God, that suffer the most; in fact, God facilitates and allows suffering, even though he has the power to stop suffering. According to Daniel and Revelations, it is not God who makes us suffer, but the forces of evil that make the innocent suffer. According to the Book of Proverbs, it is neither God, nor the forces of evil that make us suffer; the universe is set up in such a way that the righteous are rewarded and the sinners suffer—sounds almost like Buddhism; if you are righteous you will be rewarded, and if you are sinful, you will suffer. In the New Testament, it is explicit that the suffering and death of Jesus brought salvation and atonement. To a non-believer, was sacrificing God’s son, a human sacrifice, absolutely necessary for our salvation? After all, God prevented the sacrifice of Isaac, even though He was the one who commanded it. God could have forgiven us without sacrificing his own son. What was the lesson that he was trying to teach us by sacrificing his son, and making him suffer for our sins? The Bible says that God intervenes in our world for good; God’s intervention is behind in our idea that praying works, but if God intervenes, it seems like he is selective and inconsistent in his response to suffering. My theological questions are: Does God love everyone, including the Buddhists and Hindus and have a wonderful plan for their lives? If he does, when is He going to intervene with their suffering? If he does not, does He suffer with them?
The ideas promulgated in the Gospel of Judas—one of the Gnostic Gospels that did not make into the New Testament—make more sense than the ideas that are found in the Bible: According to the Gospel of Judas, this world was created by lower, malignant deities—a bloodthirsty rebel and a fool. So, we were made in the image of a bloodthirsty rebel and a fool, not in the image of one true God, as the Bible claims. It seems like this explains why some people behave like bloodthirsty idiots, and Sri Lanka has its share.
I think Pope Francis epitomizes the role of religion today, and he does interpret the symbols of the Bible in terms of connotations, not denotations. It is ridiculous to go back to the old-time religions. What was proper 2000 years ago is not proper today; the virtues of the past are the vices of today, and many of the vices of the past are the necessities of today. The old-time religions and their metaphors, symbols, and rituals have become somewhat obsolete and dysfunctional. We do not worship Zarathustra just the way he was; we don’t worship the flighty Aphrodite, who is not wearing a nighty, because Zarathustra and Aphrodite belong to another age. The real horror today is what we see on TV all the time, all over the world. Some people are stuck with their old-time religions, images, symbols, and literal interpretation based on denotations, not connotations. It seems like some people are eating the menu, not the meal.
If you are a Buddhist, you can find some Buddhism in Christianity. When you read the following saying of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas, you would think that it is a saying of the Buddha: “He who drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I shall be he.” To say that we must wake up to the Jesus within us would be blasphemy for Christians. You cannot identify with Jesus; you can only imitate Jesus. To say “I am God,” as Jesus did would be blasphemy, too. To say, “I am the Buddha,” would seem somewhat presumptuous, even though the message in Buddhism is that all of us are just a manifestation of the Buddha consciousness, and we just don’t know it. The idea that you must love your neighbor and the idea that do unto others as you would want them to do unto to you are found not only in the Bible but also in other religions.
I do not know about you, but I find that the answers given so far—in all religions—do not satisfy me. What can we do to make people think and make them more tolerant of the people who disagree with them? I have heard a plethora of asinine answers form Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews, about suffering, death, rebirth, etc. I know one thing: If we want to help this world, we must teach our children how to live in it; we must do everything to alleviate pain and suffering in this world.
Perhaps, we do not have a permanent solution to suffering, but we can response to suffering. The basic idea to suffering in Buddhism—now, I am paraphrasing and interpreting Buddhism: if the earth is covered with broken glass, just wear shoes!
And our conversations will continue…
Note: This website displays many voices; it is an endless, unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which in imagination we enter into a variety of modes of understanding ourselves; sometimes we become disconcerted by the differences and dismayed by the inconclusiveness of our discussions. I think only a very few people have the maturity. As we have seen, when it comes to politics, religion, and science, the literacy is very low. It takes some maturity to participate in this intellectual adventure without going crazy. It takes some courage and decency to keep this conversation relevant, decent, and alive!
Sincerely, I want to thank Rocco Panangadan for reviewing this article.