illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
One of the joys of travelling far and for long is the potential reversal of privileges, thus making empathy a lot easier as well as giving realisations far beyond the sole "intellectual understanding". Key aspects recently met in India are religious sectarianism and plain racism, and that's good for me.
A few weeks back, I needed the Sri Lankan buddhist (Theravada) temple in Chennai to help me. Unfortunately, in the heat of the day I turned up with my request, I didn't cover my tattoo in Tibetan… This was visibly (or 'ostensibly') enough for the monk in charge to tell me to ask (Mahayana) Tibetans instead!
If you're wondering what the tattoo is, it's three lines of texts: « all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, all conditioned phenomena are unsatisfactory, all phenomena are selfless », also known as the three characteristics of existence, and one of the tenets of Theravāda, hardly the most contentious, polemical text, or inappropriate for the school I was talking to.
The notion of Saṅgha is apparently relegated to "only when convenient."
Today, in Madurai, I could not enter parts of the Meenakshi Amman Temple because "only Hindus could enter beyond this line" (which, of course, question why they charge foreigners for visiting, if they cannot truly visit!).
The joke of course is that Hindus see the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu… but, apparently, this also is "only when convenient".
Such experiences are great for me as a reminder to keep the dialogue open with all fellow humans regardless of religious convictions or ethnicity. They also allow an intellectual understanding of racism and other discriminations to become 'realised' at a deeper level. And no, it's not the first time I'm experiencing discriminations ("white privilege" isn't "all there is"…), but the reminder and the further enquiry remain valuable.
In South India, and notably as soon as I step away from the tourist well-worn tracks because I'm 'living' there for months, I've met many people who wanted to pose next to me, simply due to the combination of skin colour and hair style… this has a little taste of being a circus animal, which is funny enough! I've met many people who are tolerant and generous… But I've also met religious intolerance, from Christians only interested in converting you, via Hindus not considering you "Hindu enough", to Buddhists who are a disgrace to the concept of Saṅgha.
When religion is used to close one's heart rather than to open it, when it is used to exclude rather than to include, there's no connection to the divine, no religion! Following rituals is not what it's about.
A few days ago, a Hindu told me that "all the answers" are in the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, but that unfortunately people no longer know how to interpret them (and often don't even know their existence).
I would hope that buddhists would not ever say that "all the answers" are in the sūtras and/or the vinaya but my educated guess is that such a hope is blind: Sri Lanka and Myanmar suffered enough sectarian violence recently to suggest that Buddhists can be extremists too. Other historical conflicts in which Buddhists were involved certainly don't suggest the recent conflicts are only 'exceptions'.
I vow not to reject anyone on the basis of skin colour, gender, religion or cultural differences… and I vow not to pretend that 'my' views (whatever they are) contain "all the answers".
Let's keep enquiring together, shall we?
photo: water tank, Meenakshi Amman Temple; © Denis Wallez