Who is a Buddhist? That’s a simple question but one that can yield innumerable answers.
The innumerability of course can be explained and explained innumerably through reference to the Buddhist canon. The point is, labelling and self-labelling are both easy exercises. For the record, if you replace ‘Buddhist’ with the follower of any other faith, again there can be many responses whose multiplicity can severally be explained drawing from the particular doctrinal canon.
What this allows is for anyone to decry anything done in the name of the particular faith as ‘aberrant’ and for anyone engaged in the said ‘aberrance’ to dismiss censure either as ‘aberrance’ or deflect the issue by taking aberrations of other faiths as doctrinal core.
And so we have the ISIS as ‘Islam’, Christian Fundamentalism not as something flowing from convenient and irresponsible Bible-interpretation but ‘The Word of (the Christian) God’, and the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) as representative of ‘All Buddhists’.
A ‘True Buddhist’ one could argue would have resolved to do the utmost to follow the dhamma, would abide by precepts, would have embraced recommendations such as rehearsing the sathara brahma viharana and committed himself/herself to the sathara sangraha vastu, among other things. Anyone who has not, one can argue, is not a Buddhist. A Buddhist would therefore be one who, as per the recommendations embedded in the dhamma, will not be perturbed by the vicissitudes of life, will take all manner of insults and bludgeoning (metaphorical and literary) should they visit the person as an individual or a member of a religious community, show compassion, demonstrate patience etc., etc.
The problem is that ‘Buddhists’ are not Buddhists (and of course neither are Christians, Christians or Muslims, Muslims) in strictly doctrinal terms.
This does not mean that they are not identified as Buddhists or that they decline to be identified as Buddhists, even though attachments to labels could be taken as a hindrance to the dharmic journey, if you will. Identity, simply put, is a complex affair.
All this notwithstanding, there’re both Buddhist as well as other reasons to object to the BBS and its behaviour, which includes intolerable intolerance of other religious communities and inciting, if not engaging in violence.
“Bring them to book!” is a relevant and legitimate demand. The law must prevail, of that let there be no confusion.
The Government can do more. If the BBS (Like the LTTE) thrives on grievances that are not addressed, then there’s nothing to stop the relevant authorities from taking them up, investigating to the satisfaction of all and (As the case may be) dispelling confusion and error, thereby (if that is the case) confiscating all possible rhetoric-ammunition from the BBS.
On the one hand, the BBS infringed the law. On the other hand, even outside the law, the actions of the BBS, regardless of the validity of the claimed precipitating factors, clearly constitute a threat to peaceful coexistence of communities given that emotions frequently defeat reason — again an affront (Shall we say?) to the Buddha’s advocacy of pragna and maithri(wisdom and compassion).
And yet, like all extreme forces engaged in identity politics, it preys on the insecurities of the prthagjana (All the more reason for the Government to act swiftly.) We don’t want another Aluthgama. If there are issues in Ampara or elsewhere as the BBC alleges, then the Government should investigate without ruminating on the politics of numbers and scurrying under the carpet of ‘reconciliation’ and ‘coexistence’.
Failure to do so or any delay in the exercise of law enforcement (Which includes the investigation of complaints in a fair and transparent manner) would and should be seen as a tacit encouragement of inter-communal disharmony.
Among the reasons that may be attributed to such incompetence on the part of the relevant authorities would be the charge that a ‘BBS Moment’ is politically useful. The BBS has a history and part of the story is indulgence on the part of the authorities simply because there are times when such ‘distractions’ are a blessing.
The BBS was out of action and out of the political equation. All of a sudden it is in the news. How did it become emboldened? These are not deep philosophical questions. They are simple questions anyone can ask. Answering them would tell us a lot about the BBS and perhaps a lot more besides.
Perhaps there’s nothing else in it, and if that is the case, there would be relief. Leaving such questions hanging, however, will only generate other, even more worrying questions which, among other things may lead people to conclude that there’s a politics behind it all that has nothing to do with communal angst.