SRI LANKA: The inordinate fuss and bother over a tattoo

I held back on writing about the extremely traumatic experience of Naomi Coleman, 37, mental health nurse in Coventry, England. I am very glad I opted to be less than current since I felt I needed other’s opinions before expressing mine. All I spoke with from senior diplomats and retired government officers who held top posts to student monks from foreign countries and women friends said they were shocked by the incident. A young Buddhist monk from Cambodia said tattoos were very common even on those in the Sangha as expressions of religious symbolism., like a snake or a lotus more commonly.

Most importantly, there was this article in the Colloquium column of The Island on Monday 28th April by no less a person than Ven. Walpola Piyananda, Chief Sangha Nayake of America and International Religious Advisor to the President of Sri Lanka. It was a superb piece of writing, very subdued, very polite, very calm but he condemns in no uncertain terms what Naomi Campbell was made to undergo. When we have got used to prevarication and beating about bushes; when the highest prelate gives an interview to Bodu Bala Sena persons and tells them to go ahead and do what they want to (more mayhem and in the rush destroy Buddhism in Sri Lanka?), it was so heartening to read a piece full of good sense and forthright in its condemnation of crassly stupid behavior. No circumlocutory verbosity for safety’s sake.

Ven Walpola Piyananda’s opinion

He writes: “As everyone knows by now, Naomi Coleman was shamefully detained in Negombo for one night and then kept for another two nights at a detention centre before being thrown out of Sri Lanka, a pattern that seems to be repeating itself. … Naomi Coleman was 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.” Criticising the immigration officials and judicial system, the venerable monk writes: “In fact our judgemental  attitude totally goes against the fundamental teaching of the  Buddha …” He ends by saying : “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… 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 am sure this Venerable Monk who is greatly respected in the United States of America must be unpopular by now in this country. No one can criticize, no one can bring up a breach of simple decency and unwise action of a government official if he is on the right side of the government.

A person who was deeply shocked by the Coleman fracas and mine and others silence over it in last Sunday’s Island, sent me a clip on Internet in which Naomi describes her ordeal as ‘terrible hellish experience.’ “I am a practicing Buddhist and meditator. That’s why I had the tattoo.” She says she had no trouble when she visited Sri Lanka twice before (with her tattoo) and in no other Buddhist country either.  She claims she was not told what the charges against her were; she was held for six hours and harassed by the police for bribes and paid Rs 5000 for the services of a lawyer who did not help her. The article also mentioned another tourist who was barred from entering the country a few months previous because of a tattoo of the Buddha on his arm. Three French tourists were sentenced to six months in jail suspended for five years for kissing a Buddha statue in what the authorities considered a sign of disrespect. They, the tourists, probably knew no better; a severe warning would have sufficed since kissing is such a common activity in western countries and isn’t the Holy Pope’s ring kissed by anyone who gets close to him? The police and other law enforcing authorities seem to be too quick to act where tact, restraint and a mite of mercy are needed. They look the other way when they must attack and arrest. That’s how things are now.

All this very high morality because of a tattoo and a simple act of impetuousness.  And the way the woman was treated. She was not allowed to explain herself.  Is this how we should treat a tourist?  Tourism is being promoted with a vengeance and hotels built like crazy. Casinos are being expanded, new ones built and Casino Packer treated like a lord when he comes here. But a genuine Buddhist adherent who came to this land to meditate probably and, for sure, visit Buddhist places of worship treated worse than a murderer – all because of a tattoo she had on her upper arm. It would hardly have been seen by anyone.

And what do the pious of this land do? Import containers of ethanol and drugs; run betting shops all over the country; built Buddha statues in all sorts of nooks, crannies, junctions and summits of hills. Prostitution is rampant; murder most foul and rape occur almost daily as reported in newspapers. The youth of the country are made addicts to drugs. Heinous crimes committed on a daily basis like throwing infant children into a river to drown or be eaten by crocodiles. Men in yellow robes run behind others with intent to hurt if not kill; visiting MPs on an inspection tour are almost shot at, of course with a toy pistol, with the police looking on with nary a move to contain the riot. And then we get officials so quick to pounce on a visiting Buddhist woman because she has a tattoo of the Buddha as a mark of respect and inspiration to her.

What the Buddha would have thought and said

I sat and sent my mind to our Great Teacher, the most compassionate of all human beings that ever lived. I imagined him rising after his two hours of sleep at night, before the first sign of dawn and looking with his inner powers of discernment on the world. He would get constant shocks at what was happening in Lanka which some Lankan Buddhists pronounce as his chosen land where the philosophy he propagated is protected and maintained in its pristine purity. (Bah to that! Myanmar  is truly religious).  I imagine him waiting for Ven Ananda, his constant companion, server and friend to come to him in the early morning. I imagine him telling Ananda of how things are deteriorating fast in Lanka. Would he be smiling? I am certain he would since he would notice the stark irony of how things are – such rot setting in and minor officials and some politicians and some claiming to be in his Sangha behaving so atrociously in the name of the religion he gave the world.  He was understanding and tolerant but even he would have been surprised at the corruption, obstinacy and fury that is prevalent nowadays.

Now there might be pious persons who accuse me of sacrilege in my previous paragraph. But I am sure the Buddha would be amused if he read me. He allowed dissent and settling it once and for all. He tolerated criticism against him, the purest of persons. He showed no anger when, instigated by those who wanted to bring him down, a woman pretending to be pregnant came to where he as preaching with an accusation. Hence the shock we feel, nay disgust, at what people are doing to his gentle religion full of compassion and tolerance.

Act first, think later

One stark characteristic that is being exhibited from top to bottom in our country as of now is acting without prior consideration; just hitting out and then going back on one’s words and action. The Tourism Authority offered Coleman a free trip to the country once they felt the flak that came from within the country and without. Very rightly she refused their offer, I am sure politely and with Buddhist tolerance but she has made known what happened to her. The bad name earned cannot be erased. We are so clever at closing the door once the horse has escaped.

I’ve said this before and I say it again: looks so like the country is now only for the rich; the high-spending posh tourist being wooed while the economy class tourist who really keeps the industry ticking is treated shabbily. The UNHRC’s censure of us on grounds of human rights violation is not even considered, probed, no attempts made to repair damage. Persons from top to bottom go on violating people’s basic human rights.