By Malinda Seneviratne –
One of the greatest lessons that Buddhism has taught me is that the idea or concept of ‘self’ is untenable. Paṭikkūlamanasikāra or “reflections on repulsiveness”, where body parts are contemplated in a variety of ways teaches us not just about impermanence but makes us question ‘I’. It helps diminish ego. Similarly if one contemplated sensations and thoughts deep enough immediately one begins to understand that ‘I’ is made of innumerable ‘externalities’. This too makes a composite, name-related ‘self’ a meaningless proposition.
A simple illustration might help. A human body is made mostly of water. Where was this water 2 weeks ago and where will it be 2 weeks from now? Could it not have been in the body of an ‘enemy’ and might it not be in the body of the animal whose limb we are about to devour with relish? Indeed, that water that was part of the dead chicken whose wings, spiced and sauced, that we suck on greedily, could very well have been part of one’s own mother or child.
Take ‘thought’. We say ‘I think’ as though an idea was birthed by ourselves and no one else contributed to the birthing. The truth is that our thoughts are a blend of thoughts that came our way from innumerable sources: the books we read, the people we’ve encountered, the music we hear and everything that has grazed or lacerated our senses. ‘I’ is a composite of all these encounters in their multiplicity of form and source.
There are four books that my father recommended that I read at a very young age. One was ‘Bobby Fischer teaches chess’ which made me fall in love with the game. The second was ‘Mother’, by Maxim Gorky, which was to me an introduction to Socialism. The third was Gorky’s ‘Literary Portraits,’ which created a thirst for Russian literature. The fourth was a collection of poems by Jalal ad-Din Rumi, which introduced me to the Sufi Mystics, Sufi poetry and Sufism.
Rumi made me look for other Sufi poets. I frequently return to my precious volumes of Rumi and Hafiz of Shiraz. I have collected books containing the poetry of other ‘Muslim’ poets such as Ghalib and Iqbal. I’ve enjoyed the ghazals of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I return to them as frequently as I revisit the Buddha Dhamma. They are part of me.
There are conversations I’ve had with amazing human beings who adhere to the tenets of Islam. The Chief Subeditor of the Sunday Island, Mansur, a Marxist (and atheist) who returned to the Quran and became a devout Muslim is one of the most learned people I’ve met in my journalistic journey so far. Mr. Ilias, who taught Logic at Royal College and doubled up as Scout Master, is someone I still have interesting conversations with when I run into him near Ladies’ College. He taught me Tamil at school and took pains to teach us Grade Niners lines from the Thirukkural. This is why, twenty years later I sought him out and persuaded him to teach me Tamil, an exercise which unfortunately didn’t go beyond half a dozen classes.
Most importantly, I firmly believe that if the ‘I’ that is ‘me’ is made of anything it is made of free education. Who gave me free education? Who paid for free consultancy in state-run hospitals? Sinhalese? Buddhists? Yes, but not just them. There were Tamils and Muslims, Christians and Hindus, men and women from all parts of the country, of all faiths, all castes, all political persuasions who directly or indirectly paid for my education. Some observe sil, some pray to Allah, some make the mark of the cross, some pray to Vishnu or Shiva. Some are found in kovils, some in churches, some in mosques. Some wear short skirts, some wear the hijab.
I am a Sinhalese. A Buddhist by conviction. But this ‘I’ is also made of water-parts and thought-parts that have sojourned in non-Buddhist corporality. More than this, men and women of all communities have made me who I am in ways that I cannot count to a finish. If I raise my hand against a community or a faith that would not only be inconsistent with the truths I subscribe to and defend, but it would be a self-slap. If I do not defend someone who is attacked on account of his/her faith, I would be abandoning a blood-brother and a blood-sister. I cannot recognize myself if I don’t see ‘me’ in someone who subscribes to a different system of belief, speak a different language or has different preferences in clothing.
Buddhism teaches me to do my best to treat things with equanimity, to appreciate the transient nature of things, to exercise compassion and err on the side of reason (over emotion). The Buddha gave me the Kalama Sutra (The Buddhist Charter on Free Thinking). All of this has opened me to other faith-worlds, people of different persuasions.
I am a Buddhist in whose mind, heart and body there resides Muslims. I cannot evict them and have no reason to do so either. I am richer for their residency.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com