By Ven. Walpola Piyananda –
I was greatly distressed when I heard about Naomi Coleman, a tourist from the UK, being deported because of the Buddha image tattooed on her upper arm. As everyone knows by now, Naomi was shamefully detained in Negombo for one night and then kept fpr another two nights at a detention center before being thrown out of Sri Lanka, a pattern that seems to be repeating itself. In an attempt to apologize and make amends the Sri Lankan Tourism Authority sent her off with a business-class ticket back home and gifted her with a future holiday on our beautiful island. This is, however, no consolation for the horrible way she was treated. Meanwhile, our international image and reputation have been damaged yet again, and we are now branded as intolerant, lacking in compassion, and narrow-minded – characteristics that can be added to the long list of negatives the international media has already tacked onto our profile.
If wearing Buddha images on the body is offensive to our hyper-sensitive Sri Lankan Buddhist society, what should we do about the monks from Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries that have ritual Buddha tattoos on their torsos? Should we deport them, too? In many countries faithful Buddhists wear Buddha images on amulets around their necks; should we ban those people from entering our country as well? Every year I give hundreds of children – both in Sri Lanka and in America – small images of the Buddha that they can wear to remind them of their Precepts, and help them remember to be compassionate and understanding in their daily lives. Should these children be tossed out of Sunday Dhamma School? In the West we Sangha members wear the yellow robes, unfamiliar attire to many in this society. How are we perceived here? How would we feel if we were persecuted for the way we dress as monks? Should we be deported from America and other countries just because we look different? Is dressing as a monk disrespectful to society?
Naomi Coleman was herself a faithful Buddhist, one who had already been on meditation retreats in Thailand, India, Cambodia, and Nepal. To her, the tattooed image of the Buddha on her upper arm was a mark of respect; she meant no offense to anyone. On the contrary: she only wished to honour her master teacher with an outward symbol of her beliefs. For our immigration officials and judicial system to perceive her mark of faith as offensive and defamatory, we do nothing but demonstrate our lack of skillfulness and compassion in recognizing other cultures’ perceptions and outward representations. Just because we in Sri Lanka don’t like tattoos of the Buddha on the human body, it doesn’t mean that we have the right to demonize individuals from other countries that wear them. In fact, our judgmental attitude totally goes against the fundamental teachings of the Buddha – especially in regards to defining kamma as “motivated action”; and Naomi’s motivation was certainly not to be disrespectful. I read that the magistrate didn’t even allow Naomi Coleman to speak in her defense; she was simply sentenced and shipped out. She was quoted as saying that there was no forgiveness or compassion in Sri Lanka, and her friend said that she would definitely not come back – not even with her free trip.
I have been speaking to our Ministers and other Government officials for years about properly utilizing the media to improve our national image. Unfortunately, my pleadings continue to fall on deaf ears. The only things published in other countries about Sri Lanka these days are articles that condemn us for our perceived wrong-doings. You can be quite certain that unskillful actions like the deportation of Naomi Coleman will do nothing but add fuel to the fires kept burning by the UN Human Rights Commission and others who have agendas to do us harm. I urge the Government to wise up and act skillfully so we can improve our image overseas, encourage tourism, and put the teachings of the Buddha into practice.
Sister Naomi Coleman, may you have the blessings of the Triple Gem! Thank you so much for wearing the image of the Buddha on your upper arm; by doing so you are promoting Buddhism to those who might see you, and present the opportunity to discover the Buddha’s teachings for themselves.
*Ven. Walpola Piyananda – Chief Sangha Nayake of America, International Religious Advisor to the President of Sri Lanka