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Barbara O'Brien

Please Don't Kiss the Buddha

By August 23, 2012

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Recently some French tourists in Sri Lanka were given a suspended jail sentence and fined for mistreating a statue of the Buddha. The crime came to light when the tourists had photographs printed in a local photo lab, and the business owner alerted the police. I'm betting the French crew will go strictly digital in the future.

The photographs showed the tourists posing with temple Buddha statues and pretending to kiss one of them. So, folks, rule: In Sri Lanka, please don't kiss the Buddha.

I've come across some web discussions of this incident in which people were outraged that the French tourists were charged with anything at all, even though their jail sentence was suspended. Religious oppression of free speech! But I'd ask everyone to consider the incident from the perspective of Sri Lanka.

From early in the 16th century to well into the 20th century Sri Lanka was dominated by Europeans. Aggressive Christian missions had nearly destroyed Buddhism in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) by the 19th century. I understand Buddhist art and relics were destroyed (see "The Buddha's Tooth").

The last European power to hold Ceylon as a colony was Britain, and the British government encouraged and supported Christian missionaries in Ceylon. The British believed Christianity would have a "civilizing" effect on the "natives."

In the 19th century a Sinhalese monk named Mohottivatte Gunananda (1823-1890) began to challenge the Christian missionaries. His work began a revival of Buddhism in Ceylon that would be joined by other monks as well as the highly unlikely Henry Steel Olcott. Olcott's Sinhalese nickname -- the White Buddhist -- illustrates the racial aspects that underscored the "Buddhism versus Christianity" struggle in Ceylon.

The Buddhist revival in Ceylon/Sri Lanka morphed into a political liberation movement. The last armed uprising was in 1971; Sri Lanka gained complete independence from Britain in 1972. Given this history, which isn't so ancient, is it any wonder that the Sinhalese would be a bit twitchy about Europeans disrespecting the Buddha?

There's also the matter of disrespect for Asian culture. Even if the French tourists are not themselves religious, how would they feel if some visiting Japanese were seen groping a statue of the Blessed Virgin inside Notre Dame de Chartres?

I often have issues with much of the Sinhalese Buddhist establishment, but in this case I have to say I understand how the Sinhalese must feel.

August 23, 2012 at 9:05 pm
(1) allan poobus says:

“Somebody comes into the Zen center with a lighted cigarette, walks up to the Buddha statue, blows smoke in its face, and drops ashes on its lap. You are standing there. What can you do?” Zen Master Seung Sahn asks this question in his book “Dropping Ashes on the Buddha”. He reminds students that a statue is not the Buddha. Sort of like that pointing finger at the moon story.

August 23, 2012 at 10:08 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

allan — read the post again. Nobody says the statue cares what the tourists did with it. But can you not appreciate how the Sinhalese might have felt about this?

August 23, 2012 at 9:26 pm
(3) Tom Ward says:

It is correct that a statue is not the Buddha, nor Jesus displayed on a cross is Christ, but they are revered representations that should be respected accordingly. The handling of the French tourists was just and justified. Hopefully they will not try such antics in Thailand with a portrait of statue of the king. The Thai court would far less lenient.

August 24, 2012 at 5:30 am
(4) Tissa Jayasinghe says:

Let us have compassion on these uneducated foreigners. If a desecration of this nature happened in an Arab country it would have been a war.

August 24, 2012 at 6:57 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

And while we’re at it, let’s have compassion on anyone arrogant and insensitive enough to dismiss a nation of people as “uneducated foreigners.”

August 26, 2012 at 9:29 am
(6) David says:

I am glad that these people did not actually go to jail, but some sort of stern censure was warranted. It is a simple matter of lack of respect. These people should have known that what they were doing was disrespectful. When a Zen teacher spits (or whatever) on a Buddha image there is a specific dharma point being made. Not so in the case of the tourists.

August 26, 2012 at 9:09 pm
(7) Jason says:

The tourist seriously need to be taught to respect one another does not matter a statue or human. But my question is how to educated or enlighten them by being compassionate alone if not penalized them? IMHO human don’t like to be taught what to do. And they can only realized their own mistake by realizing it themself. You can’t force them to understand what is respect. Or Can we??

August 28, 2012 at 1:28 am
(8) Hein says:

Symbolism – whether we like it or not – plays a big role in any religion. But that is not where it ends. Even atheist or ‘non-believers” have some or other symbol they revere. The French – I think – would revere their flag much more than some or other religious object, as the Tricolor reflects what is important to the French nation. Buddhist might – generally – not be so sensitive about disrespect towards the Buddhist flag.

But I agree Barbara; I understand how the Sinhalese feel. The Thais have a similar attitude. Although tolerant of many Western conduct there are two things they would not tolerate (1) disrespect for the images of the Buddha and (2) disrepect towards the monarch otherwise the “sky is the limit”.

Always interesting to note that Western people forget about their important symbols. Islam have no tolerance for any images, but the Kaaba in Mekka is their image and they are to prostrate towards it five times a day.

Ultimately one should always respect the symbols that have meaning for other people.

August 28, 2012 at 6:10 pm
(9) Alyosha says:

My question:

1. Police in Sri Lanka arrest French tourists for kissing a statue of the Buddha.

2. Police in France arrest Muslim woman for wearing a veil.

Which is a greater threat to freedom of speech?

September 2, 2012 at 12:41 pm
(10) Jason says:

IMHO, freedom of whatever be it speech or action is kindda subjective. Given too much things may backfire or deviate from original intention. Given too little the truth would be hidden from the public. The best is always practice middle way not extremism. Which is why I’m a buddhist. :)

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