Archive for the ‘Sri Lanka’ Category

2 June, 2014

Enduring My Name

My favorite aunt, the last person my mother called on the phone before she passed away, wrote IMG_1853these words to me today: “What cannot be cured, must be endured.” She was talking about personal difficulties, the lives we’ve each lived, the set-backs experienced. I’ve been staring out of my window here in my study, thinking about those words and what they could mean.

In the popular philosophy of my American life, endurance is something associated with distance running and officially undocumented cross-border travel. It is a trait that yields the aquisition of something: accolade or livelihood. In the Buddhist philosophy of my homeland, the term ‘endure’ means something else altogether. It is still a positive, but it is associated with relinquishing the desire for change of any sort, rather than obtaining anything measurable in material terms.

I’ve been thinking about a woman I met in New York two days ago while I was there for Book Expo America. She is a Peruvian woman named Carmen. She spoke very little English and her sentences were punctuated with long strings of Spanish as though she were asking some invisible multi-lingual person for help in translation, and many repitions of the word ‘pero’ which means, ‘but.’ For my part, I speak no Spanish at all, though I can read it and make it sound like I can speak it and understand it. Still, we communicated. I understood what she was telling me: she worked in a hotel as a maid, her husband died of cirrhosis, her son of cancer, seven years after he was supposedly cured, her daughter attends LaGuardia Community College and works at the airport, her mother lives with her. She has tried to learn English but after menopause, she claims, nothing can be retained in her head. By the time she gets home, she is too tired to read or even watch TV. She showed me a photograph of her daughter. I told Carmen that she – Carmen – was beautiful. She is. She said thank you, and told me that people ask her what she puts on her face to have such lovely skin. She told me she puts nothing on her skin, no make-up on her face. But what struck me most was her resignation. She kept saying “no more, no more,” this was it, there was “no more” for her in life. She was searching for the word to describe what she felt, looking off into a distance the way we all do when we are trying to bring back to memory what we know but cannot yet recall. I said, “destiny?” Yes, she said, this was her destiny. To be here, to work as a maid at a hotel, to help her daughter pay for college, and take care of her mother.

I can’t get her out of my mind. I wonder to what extent the simple beauty she exudes comes from her deeply felt acceptance (endurance) of the circumstances of her life. The unmourned loss of a reprobate father of her children, the lasting grief of losing her son, the difficulty of navigating a new country where she is often among people with whom she cannot speak easily. She admired what I do – writing – and spoke about the importance of education. I don’t imagine she considered me beautiful and perhaps at least some of that comes from the fact that I do not practice acquiescence as she does, though I have endured. Maybe my endurance is different from hers, mine a form of suffering/tolerance, rather than a yielding to the way things are as it is for her. Mine is the endurance of wanting a different result, while knowing full well that there is never going to be one. It is the kind of endurance that my mother practiced all her life, staring directly into the pit of her despair while imagining that someone was going to step forward at any moment, fill up that vast depth, take her hand and lead her gently away into some better light. It is the endurance of continuing to stand facing in that same direction while holding on to the hope that such a benign presence will eventually materialize beside, convincing her that yes, that pit was an aberration, not a permanent reality.

It is the endurance of a person like me whose character is built around fixing and solving. To turn away from my version of that pit would not be hard for me. But to leave the pit unfilled as I walk away is impossible. Somewhere within me is the notion that if I could only fill up that pit, smoothen the edges, maybe even plant a fruit tree in fertile soil upon it, then all will be well in the world. Until then, I, like my mother before me, keep staring at the pit, wondering about its origins, looking around for the tool or asteroid that might have created it, figuring out if there is some greater purpose to its existence than I have the capacity to understand. My mother decided that it was her destiny in this life to endure her vigilance over the circumstances of her life. I don’t know what I have decided about my own version of that great unknown.

I am the child of a culture that believes in many lives. I live in a culture that belives that our many lives are our own to make and that all those transformations take place between one birth and one death. I come from a place where changing what we do not like is an indication of moral avarice. I live in a place that belives that we must strike out and secure the things we do not have, and that the ability to do so is a sign of moral strength. I often hear my aunt speak with admiration about other women of my generation who made different choices than she and my mother did. IMG_0406I wonder what my mother might say to me if she were to know the real details of my life that she either never saw or chose to ignore in the face of such seeming prosperity. I wonder if she would nudge me away, tell me that there is no merit to staring at emptiness, expecting it to resolve into a recognizable and human shape. Or would she say that what I have in my life is so much more than she ever did, and this alone is enough? I believe she would. I believe she would ask me to behave more like Carmen, who is a better, more calm, iteration of herself.

The name Carmen means many things, but the derivative the Carmen I met embodies is that of the Virgin Mary, and perhaps the tragic heroine of George Bizet’s opera. I was not named Carmen. The name I was given, ‘Ruvani’ means, loosely, everything that is precious. The name I go by here in the United States, ‘Ru’ is a dimunitive. It was an alteration that I chose because it allowed me to be favorably disposed toward the Americans who speak it, because it sounds like an endearment, unlike ‘Ruvani,’ a name they cannot pronounce correctly and which – that mispronunciation – always infuriates me. But it is not my given name. I wonder sometimes what aspiration was tied to the name I was given by my mother, this ‘Ruvani,’ which was a correction of the one my father preferred to give me and did, ‘Rushitha’ (which means the angry one), a correction that appears on my birth certificate, the first name crossed out, the new name written in. The ‘Ru’ that I go by now, the name that appears on the covers of my books, is what unites – and all that remains – of both my father’s recognition, and my mother’s hope. But I do not know what that name means.

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26 June, 2013

A Friend of My Heart

I have a good friend, a dear one who does all kinds of favors for me, practical ones and impractical outrageous ones. Mostly, she listens to me. She reminds me of home. Recently I had a chance to visit her where she now lives, both of us far from the place where we were born, very far from the convent we both attended, even further from much of our convent ethics. But some things never change.

I was moved when she stopped her car in the middle of traffic to give some money to a man on the street. I always think of the fact that I came here from another country, she said. I’ve worked hard, but look at how I live. I imagine what I’d feel like if I had to beg on the streets of Colombo. This is his country and yet he is on the streets.

She talked of other things, the various ways we come upon our circumstances, the addictions we all have, but only fell a few of us. She remained quiet, mostly, on such occasions, she told me, but she took exception to the way in which people condemn others. People who drop a coin in a cup and then walk on thinking what is the point, he’s going to drink anyway. We recalled the teaching handed down to us, the ones which tell us that it is the intention that matters, not the outcome. You give what you can and you remain separate from whatever the person chooses to do with what is given.

We stopped by a home to pick up “home” food, an American version of the buth packets we all like to buy now and again from various street vendors back home. These came in plastic containers, not steamed banana leaves or newspaper, but it tasted the same. As we walked out I noticed a Buddhist temple across the street. I asked her if we could visit, I hadn’t been inside a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in a long time. The doors were shut but we went around the back and found the head priest sitting there. He offered to open the doors, but we demurred, stating that we were just passing by, had only stopped by on a whim. He gestured us to come in, then, with the palm of his hand, and we obliged, taking off our shoes, both of us sinking to the floor, our legs folded decorously, our palms together, heads bowed. He blessed us with the most familiar of the opening lines, the pirith falling gently in that open verendah, that hot afternoon. It was only as we stood to go and she addressed him the way that one might address a Catholic priest that I remembered that she was not Buddhist.

It warmed my heart, this moment when I remembered once again the way things are back home, where for most people like us, religion is not a crusade but a grace, faith something to acknowledge wherever it is manifested, no matter if it comes from within chapels adorned in stained glass, or temples where we kneel on sifted sand. We talked about that, too, as we left.

We spoke about our parents back home, her lost father, my lost mother. I remembered a visit back home when I was sitting in a parked car with my mother and other family, waiting for my father to return from some store. There was a man outside, begging, clothed in rags, emaciated, almost repulsive. My mother searched in her handbag for change to give him. The driver of the vehicle said what did it matter, he’s just an alcoholic or drug addict who will go and waste the money that is given. I, a new mother, said, almost to myself, he has a mother somewhere who never intended a life such as this for him. I remember my mother turning to me and saying, I am glad you have learned something, at least one thing, from me in this life. If she were alive she might be happier still to learn that what I emulated has been passed along, something I noted in this article when Osama bin Laden was murdered.

I told my friend that story. We talked on through the evening about those things we acquire from the people who raise us, the way they continue to look at the world through our eyes when they are gone, the way we continue to see through theirs in their absence.

In all the travels I have done with this book, nothing meant as much to me as being able to remember my home and our parents in this way with her.

21 March, 2012

The American War That Nobody Has Heard Of

On August 3, 2006, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelem (LTTE),slaughtered over 100 Muslim civilians including women and children at Pachchanoor, Sri Lanka. Before then, the LTTE butchered 103 Muslims while they wre praying in the grand mosque of Kattankudiy in the coastal city of Batticaloa. You can see the images of these attacks here. It is not pretty. The Tamils had no cause to fight the Muslims, their grievances – imagined or real – were directed at the Sinhalese majority. The LTTE, however, and its leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, were committed to the matter of ethnic cleansing in the North. The attacks on the Muslims were part of that effort which also left entire villages of Sinhalese peasants murdered in cold blood in a war that lasted thirty years.

These are events that merit mentioning given the current effort by the United States to table a resolution alleging that the Sri Lankan government perpetrated war crimes during the last days of the war. For the past week there have boysbeen demonstrations at the Hague by pro-LTTE groups alleging that the Sri Lankan government set out to kill the Tamil civilians trapped between the army and the terrorists (The LTTE has been referred to by the FBI as the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world and it was banned, albeit only after 9/11, by the girlsUS and the UK). It is an easy thing to imagine: a government out of patience with repeated ceasefires and the interventions of foreign governments committed to speaking on behalf not of Tamils but of the LTTE, sets out to murder all the Tamils in the North (the 54% of the Tamils who live outside the North and East were, presumably, safe, odd as that may sound given the allegations).

Except that it isn’t true. Civilians died, yes, though not in as great a number as they did in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at the hands of the United States military. But not only was there no massacre of all the civilians trapped in the North, most of them, over 100,000, were rescued between April 20th and April 22nd, 2009, from the LTTE which fired on them and placed a suicide bomber among them as they tried to reach the refugee camps.

Sri Lanka fought this war for thirty years against the interference of powerful foreign groups, and in the midst of a tsunami Sri Lanka War Victorythat devastated the country, leaving 40,000 dead and 1.5 million people displaced, and the struggles of a small country caught in a failing global economy. It fought this war against a terrorist organization while, simultaneously, providing the entire civilian population controlled by the LTTE (as well as LTTE cadres), with water, electricity, infrastructure, education, and all forms of social welfare available to the rest of the island, including food and medicine. This has to be a first for any government in the world.

The war in Sri Lanka ended in May, 2009. Since then, the economy is thriving with unprecedented investment child in infrastructure from the South to the North. Sri Lanka instituted the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC), and conducted hearings in the immediate aftermath of the war. The Government of Sri Lanka is engaged in implementing the recommendations of the LLRC, despite being blamed for being “slow.” southafricaConsider that we were willing to wait for two years of hearings to be completed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (between 1996 and 1998) in South Africa. Consider that we were willing to wait four more years, until 2002, until the last of the reports from that commission were presented to the President.

It is politics. Geo-politics. Always. A country with a president who watched its military murder a terrorist-leader, Osama bin Laden, in cold blood after having violated all rules of sovereignty in Pakistan, then disposed of that body out of public view, hardly has a moral leg to stand on when it comes to decrying the death of a terrorist leader who was killed in a final battle at the end of thirty years of war that held a country hostage. This resolution is not about Sri Lanka, it is a play by the US for power in South Asia, a play that is causing the US to call in every favor they’ve ever been promised, and includes the investment of millions of dollars in buying-off and buying-up.

Which brings me back to those Muslims. The LTTE was a group that, repeatedly, demonstrated a particularly virulent hatred for Sri Lanka’s Muslim population, a minority group that has always remained within the democratic system, a group that has never, not once, in the history of that nation, ever perpetrated crimes against their fellow citizens. Pakistan recognizes this as do other Muslim nations. Can the United States, in the wake of riots after the burning of copies of the Quo’ran and the murder of 16 Afghan civilians by Robert Bales, not to mention its decade long occupation of Iraq and years of invading Afghanistan and the drone strikes on innocents in Pakistan, including 160 children between 2004 and the end of 2011, afford to align itself with yet another anti-Muslim organization? Particularly one that is proscribed by its own state department?

Sri Lanka has many friends. Sri Lanka is also a predominantly Buddhist country, used to thinking about the evolution of events in terms of lifetimes, not a 24 hour news-cycle. Whether they win or lose in Geneva, Sri Lanka will endure. graffiti-waving-american-flag-graphicsThe coordinates are different for an America struggling to hold on to a semblance of relevence on the world scene. In a time when the Muslims are out in force against the United States – Pakistan, Aghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Palestine, are but five – the United States has but one democracy it can count on as an ally: Sri Lanka. India has, under internal pressure, expressed its support for the US, thereby alienating the second largest population of Muslims in the world, its own. Today, the Muslim population of Sri Lanka joined the ranks of their brothers and sisters in the rest of South Asia to protest the actions of the United States.

It is governments that control airspace, ports, resources and investments. Not terrorist groups. And the Sri Lankan government will turn with great ease toward China and toward its allies in the Muslim world. The last thing that the US needs is to provide further proof that it is, by policy, military exercises and deliberate intent, anti-Muslim. It is not time for a resolution against Sri Lanka. It is time for the Obama administration to rethink its strategy.

Note: The photographs above depict, in order, former female members of the LTTE, former child soldiers recruited by the LTTE (original photograph first appeared in the Washington Times), injured Sri Lankan soldiers on parade, Sri Lankan child post-war, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and de Klerk after the end of apartheid and a graffiti version of the American flag)

24 December, 2011

Why I Believe in Santa Claus

Last year, my middle-child, the thinking feeling one, wrote a question to me in a book that we pass back and forth to each other: Is Santa Claus real? She had already experienced a near-miss with the tooth fairy who hadn’t yet come by 4.30am, a fact which she had taken, tearful, to her older sister, saying, “I am afraid the Tooth Fairy is Amma. motherdaughterShe went out last night and there is nothing under my pillow.” Mercifully, the usually self-absorbed teenager tucked her sister into bed, watched until she fell asleep and then went looking for a box of art-cards to leave under the pillow with a note that read, I am sorry I am late. Your box was heavy and it took me a while to get here. Understanding, in other words, was just around the corner. And yet, how could I be the one to dispel the mystery? Instead I, like hundreds of mothers and fathers before me, took refuge behind a full-color print out of the letter written by Francis P. Church and appearing in The New York Sun in 1897, ‘Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.’ Sometimes, I wrote by way of introduction, a writer looks to another writer to say what they want to say. The book stayed with her a long time and I was afraid I had crushed her faith in my honesty.

This past summer, while cycling around the Schyulkill river in the City of Brotherly Love where I live, she brought up the topic again. “Are you the tooth fairy?” she asked. What could I say but, yes. I launched, then, into an explanation as to why these stories exist. The job of a parent, I told her, is to keep the fairy tale alive until the child is old enough to take it on. I related the story of her older sister standing in for me, of how once she was no longer waiting for the famed fluttered one, she was glad to turn her attention to making sure that the fairies kept arriving for her sisters. It’s your turn, I said, to do the same for your younger sister.

Although she had taken to winking and smiling in a knowing way as the youngest of my daughters talked enthusiastically about Santa, just a few days ago I realized that the knowledge of his ‘non-existence’ sat heavy in her heart. “Why,” she asked me – as we went looking for ‘the furry slippers’ that the youngest was hoping against hope Santa would bring for her – “why is it that if we have to end up knowing Santa is not real, why do parents tell their children that he is real? Wouldn’t it be better if we never thought he was real?” Navigating traffic, I, at first, gave a smart-alecky response: “Would you have liked to be the only curmudgeon walking around at the age of two saying ‘Santa is not real!’?”

Then, I gave her the answer that I felt in my heart. We let children believe in things that don’t exist for adults in the hope that they will continue to believe in the things that adults forget do exist: that the world is essentially good, that people are kinder than we know, that peace is possible. If we only believed in the things we see before us, or know for a fact are real, why would we ever dream of magic, transformation, the immense potential for a different outcome?

Growing up in Sri Lanka within a Buddhist family in a predominantly Buddhist country, Christmas was something I celebrated with my Catholic friends, going to midnight mass, eating Bruedher and sipping cheap wine. On our tropical island, there were no Christmas trees or snow. But the Christmases of pines christmastree2decorated with ornaments and lights, of snow on the ground and carolers and, most of all, the arrival of Santa Claus, all things I had read about in books and imagined, was always on my mind. Each Christmas Eve I would put myself to bed in a fever of excitement. Santa was going to come. This was the year. Santa didn’t come to Sri Lanka, I thought, because not enough people believed he would. Every year my older brothers, particularly the one closest to me in age, would say goodnight from the door to my room, lifting up the curtain to say “You waiting for Santa? You think he’s going to come this year?” with laughter in their voices. Looking back I wonder if they envied me my complete and heartfelt faith in the arrival of Santa, the ability to forgive the fact that he never showed up, nor ever would.

Now, in my American home I embrace Christmas with the fervor of the zealot. The tree! The presents! The cookies and carrots! Even, when my husband indulged me one year, “footprints” made of flour leading from chimney to tree for my oldest daughter’s first Christmas and mine.

During all those years when Santa failed to show, I never imagined that Christmas would become the anchoring holiday of my adult life. I still have a youngest who marvels at how well Santa knows our family. That chore chart, she says, is perfect for the three of us. I have coaxed my husband the atheist to say, just this morning, “there are elves who wait for those last minute requests and then they shoot out little rockets so Santa, who is already on his way, gets them.” This, in the face of a small voice announcing at breakfast that she really hoped for a guitar pick, something she had not let ‘Santa’ know in time. Most of all, I have three daughters who are willing to let what they know to be true unwind just a little; enough to let the magic in. I fully expect that, as adults, they will look at all the problems in their world with clear eyes, as I do, and still be able to soften that gaze long enough to know that it doesn’t have to remain that way. I credit Santa for that. Long may children small and large, believe that he will come.

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29 November, 2011

Peace of Mind

srilanka08-1019Two years ago I was in Sri Lanka, getting ready to return home to ordinary life. Life that had to go on, life that would, with all its accompanying routines. As I sat in the home I had grown up, surrounded by all the things that my mother had left behind, quite as though she had just run out for a moment, I felt a deep sense of dread about leaving. I saw no point in life. I did not know how or when I would ever stop grieving. My brothers were both worried about me for they understood that while they would continue to live in the place where she had lived, continue to be comforted by the many rituals of our Buddhist faith, I was going to a place where I would be alone with my grief. One of them offered to have his wife apply to study for her doctorate at one of the universities near my home. “We could live there,” he said, though I knew that living here was not something either of them would want to do for any length of time, their lives were in Sri Lanka. The other brother, an anti-Apple brother, but a musician to whom I had once boasted about my acquisition of an iPod, said “I will put some sermons on a CD for you. You can download them onto your iPod. They will help you.” They did. There was nothing else that I could listen to but those sermons. I don’t know that I understood each one, but there was something calming in the warm and, often, merry voice of the priest whose name I did not know.

Today, my father sent me this sermon and it turns out that it was delivered by the same priest whose words had helped me through the worst year of my life, publication of my first novel notwithstanding. Then, as now, I am often in the position of having to set aside what I am feeling in order to be light, rock, beacon or hope to the people I love. And as I do those things I have often wondered when I might find that illusive state of being called peace of mind. Below, the sermon:

‘RIP now while you can still enjoy it’
WORDS OF WISDOM from Ven. Ajahn Brahmavanso on his 60th Birthday

Achieving peace of mind is a lovely way of describing the meaning of life. It is something that everyone aspires to. However, peace of mind is often like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – it tends to be elusive for most people. I would like you to reflect on the times when you were the happiest. You would probably find that your happiest times were when you experienced a deep sense of contentment or peace of mind. But when you reflect on these experiences, you realize they didn’t occur because everything around you was perfect. On the contrary, you realized that peace of mind occurred, in spite of your surroundings not being perfect, in spite of difficulties problems and imperfections of life.

That is my first important point. Don’t think peace of mind only comes once you have fixed up all your problems and finished all your business. All your worrying, all your striving and struggling.., has it ever got you where you really wanted to be? You can’t control the world and change it the way you would like it. Therefore, you can only find peace of mind and achieve the meaning of life by embracing the imperfections of life. How do you do that?; by knowing that imperfection is the nature of the world. So make peace with imperfection. Another thing you can’t change is the past and yet lingering on the past, people worry about and feel guilty and angry about it, but since you can’t change it, the only wise thing to do is to make peace with it. But how do you do that when there is so much unfinished business? You make it finished.

One of my favourite stories is about the abbot who was building the main hall for his monastery. It takes a lot of time and effort to make such a big building, and the building work was still in progress when the time came for annual rains retreat. The abbot told the builders to go home and come back in 3 months. A few days later, a visitor came to the temple and asked when the hall was going to be finished the abbot replied ” It is finished ” the visitor was quite stunned and said ” What do you mean it is finished? There is no roof are you going to leave it like that? There is no glass in the windows, there are pieces of wood and cement bags all over the floor”. To which the abbot unforgettably replied: “What is done is finished.”

What a beautiful response that was. It is the only way to find peace in life. If you want all your building work to be finished before you stop to find peace, all your jobs out of the way, all your letters and emails replied to, you will never find peace of mind, because there is always more to be done. As I have often said, the only place in our modern societies where you find people resting in peace, is in the cemeteries, but then it’s too late to enjoy it. So I say RIP now, while you can still enjoy it. I’m making the observation that you only find peace, when you realize that what’s done, is finished. The past is gone; let it go. One of the signs of true spirituality – of whatever tradition – is forgiveness and letting go. I was once asked how many times you should forgive, and I replied, ”Always one more time,” that is, forever.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is one of the most beautiful acts that humans are capable of. In South Africa, Just after apartheid had been dismantled and Nelson Mandela had been made president, instead of seeking revenge, instead of punishing all those people who punished him, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Anybody who had done a crime was able to go to this commission and confess, what they’d done. As long as they were truthful, no matter how horrendous their crimes, they would be given amnesty and forgiveness. It was a brilliant way of dealing with the past. One of the moving events of that commission was a policeman recounting, in the presence of the man’s widow, how he had tortured and killed her husband, a black African activist from the ANC. Can you imagine this scene? There was a woman whose husband had disappeared…, probably in the middle of the night, and she suspected what had happened, but didn’t know the true story. Now she was facing a man who was confessing in detail, how he had tortured and killed her husband, the father of her children, the man she loved. Apparently this white police officer was shaking and trembling as he recounted the details of what had happened. At the end of her testimony the widow rose from her seat and went towards him. The guards were supposed to stop her but they froze. She went up to him put her big black arms around him and said “I forgive you.”

Not just the two of them wept, but apparently the whole room.

This sort of beautiful act is one of true spirituality. Both the victim and the perpetrator would move on and become better people. They would learn real compassion, gain real wisdom, and find a real way of moving forward. Now if that woman could forgive the murderer of the man she loved, then each one of us – if we really put our minds to it – is capable of forgiving anything.

I was once counselling a woman who was dying of cancer. I asked her what was the worst thing she’d ever done, an act she might carry to her grave and feel terrible about. She told me she had kissed a man who was not her husband. I said ” If that’s the worst thing you’ve done, you’ve lived a pretty good life.” When she saw my reaction, she realized for the first time, that it wasn’t all that bad. To me it seemed like a small thing, but she had been eaten up inside. It was such a release for her to tell someone.

When you keep things to yourself, even the smallest things can become huge. When you acknowledge them, especially if you tell a good friend, you can see that they’re no big deal and you can let them go. The way to forgiveness is to realize that you’re worth forgiving and so is the other person. That realization is step number one. That black woman in South Africa saw something in that policeman who had killed her husband, something she could respect, something worth saving, so she forgave. Remember, there’s no such thing as a murderer; no such thing as a thief; only a person who has stolen; no such thing as a cheat, only a person who has cheated. If you understand that, you understand why forgiveness is possible: there’s something more to any person than the bad acts. And that’s true of each of one of you. No matter what you’ve done, there’s always something inside of you, that is worthy of forgiveness.

Worrying about the future

Another thing which stops inner peace is worrying about the future. People often think they need to worry about global warming, the credit crunch, the wars, the natural disasters, AIDS, and the cancers. But it’s only worthwhile thinking about things you can do something about. If you can’t do anything, why worry? In addition, you can’t predict the future; It’s totally uncertain.

On one occasion when I was just a school kid, my mother told me I was going to the dentist the following morning. I told my mum ” Mummy don’t send me to the dentist; you don’t love me; you’re sending me to the torturer.” But try as I might, I couldn’t get off it. When I went to bed that night, I was worried and didn’t sleep well. The following morning my mother had to drag me to the dentist, and I was screaming and crying. But I eventually got to the surgery, my appointment had been cancelled. All that worry, all that crying for no reason. That was a very important experience for me. I learnt, there’s no point worrying about the future, when you don’t know what’s going to happen. Life is completely unpredictable. When you understand that, you can have peace of mind in the present moment.

You can have peace of mind, even when you’re dying. Why not? No more worries about taxes, global warming or anything else, because you’re soon, about to depart, The problems of the world become irrelevant. When there are no problems, you become peaceful. And because you never know how much time you’ve got left, you might as well be peaceful now. This was Ajahn Chah’s great teaching to me, when I was sick in hospital. He came to visit me and gave me the sort of teaching you remember for the rest of your life. He told me ” Brahmavamso you’re either going to get better or you’re going to die.” That really didn’t hurt at first, because it wasn’t what I had expected. It wasn’t the usual bedside manner of your best friend. But when I started to think about it, I realized that it meant the sickness wasn’t going to last. That was such a relief. Sometimes, you meet people who have understood this; They are dying and supposedly in agony, but they still tell jokes. They’re happy and peaceful.

You must also make peace with whatever you have to do in life, with your duties and responsibilities. Peace of mind is not achieved by always trying to do what you like. On the contrary, you find peace of mind, by making peace with whatever you are called to do. Whatever your role, whatever your duties, you can always have fun, enjoy it, put happiness into it and make peace with it. You can make peace and have fun with anything, anywhere. Peace of mind is not found by searching for a deep cave, in a perfect monastery; in a wonderful place high in the Himalayan Mountains. If you’re looking for peace that way, you are looking for what Ajahn Chah called, a tortoise with a moustache. People look for the impossible and of course, they can’t find it. There is no such thing as a tortoise with a moustache.

You find real peace of mind, by accepting your life as you have it now, even in the midst of great tragedy. What a wonderful thing that is. How do you find this peace? Let go of all the past and guilt, by forgiving, don’t worry about the future, and learn to appreciate the moment. Do your duty and put fun into whatever you have to do.
Peace of mind is as free as the air: Drink it, enjoy it, and take it with you. It’s always there, if only you look in the right place.

Ven. Ajahn Brahmavanso

22 August, 2011

Huffington Post/Clinton & Jayalalitha

I’m over at the Huffington Post today, writing about Clinton’s recent visit to India and her meeting with the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu (and ardent supporter of the LTTE and separatism), J. Jayalalitha. You can read the full article here. Here’s an excerpt:

It is usually the case that America’s foreign policy spokespeople are misinformed to say the least. Here’s a little context as to why neither Clinton nor Blake (who is shown in Lies Agreed Upon meeting with a man who has lectured terrorist cadres on how to raise funds abroad for the procurement of weapons for the LTTE, an organization banned by the US government!), has a clear picture. It is called missing “the ground situation.’

At the Colombo International Airport in Sri Lanka, a Tamil woman about my late mother’s age asks me to watch her bag outside the ladies’ restroom. “We met before at the check-in counter,” she assures me, though I have already nodded. We look at each other for a few silent moments, acknowledging what was not possible for thirty years and what now is: to ask a stranger, particularly a stranger from the “opposite” ethnicity, to watch a bag, parcel or any other “unaccompanied’ item without fearing that it might contain a bomb.

In the streets of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, areas where the majority of the populace speaks, almost exclusively, only Tamil, I, who do not understand Tamil, am still able to recognize and communicate a sense of empathy with my fellow citizens. I ask for directions, food, medicine, they help me, both of us falling back on gestures rather than words, on smiles and, to signify further good-will, the stroking of a child’s face, their sons or my daughters.

On the beaches of Nilaveli, a place I had been prohibited from visiting since I was a little girl, I meet a Tamil man on an early morning walk. He tells me in faltering Sinhalese: “Now that the war is over we can speak. Before this you would have been afraid of me, I would have been afraid of you. We could not travel, there were checkpoints everywhere. Now I am free.”

12 June, 2011

A Bell to Save You

img_3459I have a brother who writes (another who does not and many more “brothers” who are engaged in doing good things in the world). People who know me know how much I admire this writer-brother of mine. Over the years I have tried to organize his poetry (he has a collection out), collect his hundreds of articles, and in other ways attempted to corral his words into one place so that everybody can access them. He has resisted all of it. I keep trying. He’s a Libra, I’m a half-Virgo. End of story. The following is a feature piece that appeared recently in The Daily News in Sri Lanka, one of the papers for which he writes alongside all the other newspapers that also carry his work. It spoke to me for all the reasons his writing speaks to me, but particularly, in this case, because life has been difficult lately for me and I have often found myself posing the question, “when will it end?” to myself. Not as I should – it will end, all life does – but more in the sense of “when will this particular hardship end?” Which is, as he points out, a fairly meaningless question in the scheme of things.

There Will Always Be A Bell To Save You.
by Malinda Seneviratne

My older daughter, Mithsandi, is a dreamer. In fact years ago I named her ‘Made of Dreams’. Her little sister Dayadi came into this world saying ‘Cuddle Me’. I called her ‘Made of Love’ and when I informed her of this name-change, she said ‘Appachchi mama made of love nemei, mama bird of love’ (I am not ‘Made of Love’, I am ‘Bird of Love’). She would have been three at the time.

She’s seven now. Her sister, 10 now, is still a dreamer, lives in another universe and a different time zone or in a world of timelessness. She is usually the last out of class and keeps me waiting 10-15 minutes after school is over. A couple of days ago I told her that it would be good if she can hurry up a little since I had to take her sister somewhere and there was very little ‘breathing space’ for pick-up, lunch and dropping her off.

‘Today is Wednesday, I can hurry,’ she replied. Then she explained, ‘I can’t wait for school to finish on Wednesdays because I don’t like E.N.V.’. I didn’t know what ‘ENV’ was. ‘Environment!’ she educated me. Reminded me of an octogenarian bikkhu in Katnoruwa (Mahaweli ‘H’, if I remember right) who way back in the year 1992 told me that there is no such thing as parisaraya (environment); there is only svabhava dharmaya (a natural order or set of natural principles). We were in a hurry and I didn’t tell her this story. I am in a hurry now, so that story will have to wait.

What’s pertinent here is the fact that she really wanted to get out of that class. Strange, since she’s quite the hands-on naturalist, ever willing to muddy her clothes and feet, very observant about the creatures around the house including butterflies, worms, birds, porcupines, gerandiyas, hothambuwas, monitor lizards etc. She wanted out and I ought to find out why. Not now.

She reminded me of my school days. There were subjects I didn’t like. There were periods I didn’t like. Teachers too. Especially when it so happened that I had not done my homework. That was quite frequent, actually, from Grade Seven to Grade 10. I dreaded such periods and hoped that the teacher would be absent. That wasn’t frequent enough, unfortunately. I had a coping-device back then. I told myself that torture (yes, that’s what it seemed to be) would at worst last an hour.

End of period meant ‘liberation’, unless of course the next was seen as ‘torture’ too. True liberation came when school was over. Even if the last period was the worst, there was something to anticipate that made it possible to endure torture. The next 18 hours were made for breathing.

I became a better student, by and by, but never forgot the worth of my coping device. Life is made of the ata lo dahama, the eight vicissitudes of life (gain and loss, good repute and ill repute, praise and censure, and joy and sorrow). I’ve learnt over the years to appreciate our Budun Wahanse’s recommendation that these are treated with equanimity. Easy to understand but hard to practice. They say that in the long run, we’ll all be dead. There are short (i.e. ‘this-side-of-death’) ‘long runs’ too. I’ve read somewhere about how to handle torture. Everything, even the most excruciating, has peaks. This means there is an ‘off-peak’ to look forward to.

The ‘negatives’ of the four opposites contained in the above eight vicissitudes are not suffered without anguish of course, but when one comprehends that in the end, there is an end, there is a ‘worst outcome’ out there which is not impossible to grapple with (or caress away, in submitting to the equanimity-recommendation), nothing is insufferable.

Back then, as a schoolboy, all I knew was that school has to end at 1.30. The hands of the clock will not stop, I knew. That was ‘end point’ enough. It gets more complicated later in life of course. Two things helped me. First, a better understanding of my relevance (in terms of work, relationships, life) and its miniscule dimensions (physical and otherwise, such as ‘impact’ for example) compared to the vast universe of social and physical realities. What this means is simply, ‘I am nothing’. In the vast span of human history, for instance, my life is like the time taken to blink.

Secondly, ‘I’ is an untenable proposition. I can lose it all. I can be vilified. I can be called ‘notorious’ and other such names and can suffer immense pain. Not too long after now I will be dust. The ‘I’ that invites all these things and in which all these things find residence, will disappear. The life-school bell will ring, sooner or later.

There is, I admit, a certain arrogance that this kind of thinking gives licence to. It is empowering too. The worst of times, in my experience, have passed me by or passed through me without too much scarring because I knew they came with expiry date/hour.

If I was able to persuade the worst of times to avoid me, it is because I was able (in those times, at least) to convince myself of the ridiculous proposition called ‘Self’.

It’s 2.03 pm (June 9, 2011) right now. It’s 18 minutes after the bell. My older daughter might have some vague idea that school is over, but I am sure she’s thinking of something more important. It’s not a Wednesday. It’s a good day, nevertheless, and even if it is not, there’s reason to smile. It will all be over, pretty soon.

Malinda Seneviratne may be reached at: msenevira@gmail.com

31 May, 2011

Making a Country Belong to You

This is a piece from a speech I gave not too long ago. A person who was there wrote me a lovely note and asked me to post the text of this particular section and so, here goes:

Perhaps the constant for any immigrant is our disassociation with a specific place even as we strive to maintain the relevance and worth of two particular places within the unfolding of our lives. Both of these countries have become vital to me, both places are home. What I have become is A Defender. I am a defender of Sri Lanka to Americans. I do it every time I speak of my country, in my writing through articles and opinion pieces and petitions to PBS against irresponsible journalists, and by trekking to Washington DC and building relationships with congressional staffers and joining other South Asian groups , appearing at South Asian festivals and using those platforms to speak of Sri Lanka. I do it even when I rant about one thing or another nearly every morning listening to NPR, shouting about something “stupid” that Americans are up to as if somehow none of it could be traced back to me; the media spin surrounding Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Texas shooter, for example, and all the aspersions that were cast about his religious affiliations. It upsets me that Americans, make these judgments based on their own ethno-centric view of the world without any understanding of the depth and complexities of kinship as it is played out in other cultures. And when I say that, I know that I am standing firmly within the depth and complexity of my Sri Lankan culture, which is what enables me to have that perspective in America.

And I defend America by being attentive to its good. I love the fact that if you go to a swim meet or a track meet or any meet at all, the loudest cheer is for the person who struggles to cross the finish line last, sometimes after all the other athletes have left the deck. Despite two incredible dispiriting presidential elections – elections to which my brother had come as part of a team of international election monitors for the first time in US history – after those elections, I could still believe that in that country I could put my faith in a candidate so far from even being considered viable and never doubt that it would be possible to bring him to the White House. I could not only teach my daughter the Pledge of Allegiance but ask that she consider it her duty to honor her country by caring for it through word and deed, by fixing what was wrong. I think it is ludicrous to sing the national anthem at every small sporting event, and yet I also see that the beauty of the tradition is that the anthem has no “right” way – it belongs to every voice, however badly or well they may sing it. I could watch a program on the building of the Hoover Dam and listen to those workers talk about how they hold their hands over their hearts when they stand before that dam and understand exactly why they feel the country belongs to them.

A country belongs to you not because you are born there or die there, it belongs to you because you care for it. In some way, great or small, and in keeping with your system of beliefs, you care for it when you are in it, you speak for it when it cannot speak for itself. If it is broken, you fix it. If it is good, you celebrate it.

11 April, 2011

Cricket and Sri Lankan Author Shehan Karunatilaka

I’m over at the Huffington Post today, writing about debut novlist, Shehan Karunatilaka, a Sri Lankan writer with talent to burn. You can read the interview over there. Here’s an excerpt.

On April secnd, Sri Lanka takes on India in the final for the ICC World Cup. What better day on which to think about Shehan Karunatilaka’s debut novel, Chinaman, which has been described as being “ambitious, playful and strikingly original, [a novel] about cricket and… the story of modern day Sri Lanka through its most cherished sport.” Indeed, cricket-mad Indian reviewers have flocked to sing his praises, calling it “improbably potent and toothsome.”

The novel was released by Random House, India in February, 2011, but before it did, it had already won the top award for literature in English in Sri Lanka, the Gratiaen Prize, endowed by none other than Sri Lanka’s most famous literary native son, Michael Ondaatje, in 1992. The annual award, named after Ondaatje’s mother, Doris Gratiaen, is given to the best work of literary writing in English by a resident Sri Lankan.

21 January, 2011

When Noam Chomsky is Hoodwinked

Last year, around this time, I was getting ready to fly home to Sri Lanka to attend the Galle Literary Festival, an event I reflected on afterward in a post titled ‘The Dutch, The British and the Galle Literary Festival,’ a post meant to consider its many pluses as well as suggest some direction for the points at which the festival failed Sri Lankans, particularly those Sri Lankans who write in their mother tongues, Sinhala and Tamil.

My visit to Sri Lanka coincided with the Presidential elections, the first held in post-war Sri Lanka and if you truly want to know, this is what the country felt like to a Sri Lankan on the day of the elections. During that time I had the dubious honor of being approached by the group The Campaign for Peace & Justice – here is a quick description of that exchange.

Which brings me to the letter I received – it was addressed to all of us who are participating in the Galle Literary Festival – from the director of The Campaign for Peace & Justice, asking us to make all sorts of noise about the allegations he puts forth regarding abuses he has not substantiated. I’d like to say go fly a blooming kite. Instead I’ll say this: “In Sri Lanka the average voter turn out is 80%, education and health care is free, women are liberated and smart, and we have a President able to end a war and rebuild his country (while fending off ignorant individuals who want to keep enjoying their NGO junkets on our beautiful island and triviliazing our tragedies by turning our complexity into sound bites for your rabid 24/7 news media). I don’t need you to tell me what to say at a festival being held in my country. I don’t need your talking points. I don’t need your advice. I don’t need your cautionary tales of doom and gloom, mister. I’m too busy celebrating our good.” Outside in the streets I can hear firecrackers. Salut!

A few days ago I read Jon Lee Anderson’s article in the New Yorker, a piece that was so full of errors of omission and deliberate misinformation that I was compelled to write a note titled ‘Truth in Journalism: New Yorker, you lose’ over at Barks, Bugs, Leaves & Lizards Here’s an excerpt:

I just finished reading a piece of fiction that had been misfiled by the editors of the New Yorker under a category – feature? expose? – that is commonly associated with non-fiction. i.e. truthful reporting. The article, by Jon Lee Anderson, would appear to the relatively uninformed American – and boy aren’t there a lot of us – to be one that covers the thirty year war in Sri Lanka from start to finish. Oddly enough, it is largely erroneous, its one nod to any “good” achieved by Sri Lanka’s government is contained in a parenthesis, as if he just ran out of time to get all the information but felt what he had was enough to pass muster. But what the heck, how odd is it when I am yet to see a single article in the American press that actually covered the events in Sri Lanka without prejudice against her government and her entire people, both Sinhalese and Tamil?

The problem with foreign journalists is one I’ve talked about many times here (Foreign Media) and here (Media and Truth) and here (All the News Fit to Print), as well as America’s (and her journalists’s) myopia viz-a-viz Sri Lanka. None of this is new to Sri Lankans though I am sure that legions of readers of the New Yorker imagine that they now have a full grasp of the politics and history of Sri Lanka. They would be wrong.

Noam Chomsky belongs in that same category of the wrong, hard though it is to say it; the man is certainly affable and smart (as is his daughter who was one of my professors in college). He is right about many things, but he, like most American leftists are easily co-opted by anybody who can string the words “minorities” and “human rights” together in a passable sentence. American leftists, no matter their vilification of ignorant Russia-from-my-own-backyard sayers, consider events beyond their shores to require no context. What happens somewhere else comes to them in the same sound bites it does to every other American. In this case, Noam Chomsky has lent his name to yet another missive addressed to participants of the Galle literary festival, a letter sent to me by Vincent Brossei the tireless, spear heading an effort by the equally tireless and often wrong and supremely opinionated Reporters Sans Frontiers, a group roundly taken to task by Sri Lankan journalist – and my brother – Malinda Seneviratne. Here’s an excerpt, but the full article is well worth a read:

In Loshan’s case, after two days, RSF Asia has deemed him ‘innocent’. Are these people experts on counter-terrorist operations? Are they intelligence-personnel-without-borders masquerading as reporters-without-borders? Or else, does this cocksureness come from full knowledge about who the terrorists are? I mean, is it because they know who is a terrorist and who is not that they can pronounce so boldly that Loshan is innocent? I was curious. I sent a quick reply which resulted in the following email conversation with RSF Asia (the original email was sent by one Vincent Brossel, the subsequent ones came without an author….perhaps they should call themselves ‘Reports-Sans-Names’!) : a quick question: is the assumption that terrorists cannot be journalists and vice versa?

RSF Asia: Of course it can be, but give us evidence…

Self: Give ‘us’ evidence? Who is this ‘us’?

RSF Asia: the people defending him and the others journalists detained. terrorism is a very serious charge, so we need to get strong and concrete evidence, not just rumor, gossip or allegations. thanks for your understanding

Self: i meant, who/what is RSF….and what kind of authority do you enjoy. yes, terrorism is a serious charge. it is a serious phenomenon as well. this is why, i believe, those whose responsibility it is to ensure the security of all citizens cannot spare any pains when it comes to investigation.

RSF Asia: RSF is a NGO working for more than 25 years for press freedom. You can challenge our authority but you will hardly find any mistake written or done. With thousands of members around the world and institutional backing in Europe.

Self: would you mind telling me who your principal sri lankan contacts are, the main sources of information?

RSF: many different journalists from different circles and communities, but for reasonable security reasons, I can’t give the names.

Self: ah….security is good for you, not for others? come on, you can’t be serious!

Since then, nothing. Dead silence. Should they re-name themselves ‘Reporters Without Words’, I wonder.

RSF takes umbrage at defence authorities that are given or give themselves blank checks, and rightly so. By the same token, however, they can’t give themselves blank checks either, one would think. There is something insidious about claims of universal caring, love and what not when it also comes with an absence of accountability and responsibility.

Now, the crusade is about Prageeth Ekneligoda. To the extent that the government and in particular the President is required to uphold law and order, there is grave cause for concern. At the same time not everyone who puts words together is a journalist. Ekneligoda’s writings are not the kind that any respectable journalist would be proud of. He was mischievous, bordering on slander, utterly without integrity and hardly impartial in any sense of the word. His disappearance bothers us all because he is a citizen and not because a bunch of ill-informed people who have a pretty dubious track record when it comes to reportage in and on Sri Lanka tag him as ‘journalist’. Many fellow-travelers have also freely travelled with terrorists and terrorism, engaged in fund-misappropriation, violated the fundamental norms of decency and have proven to have little or no scruples in the matter of reporting and making statements.

It is indeed strange that someone like Noam Chomsky asks, as Reporters Without Borders asks, in the name of expression-freedom that free expression be shunned for, when it – once again – asks participants at this festival to spout its untruths or half truths or political agendas, that is precisely what it he is and they are doing. Literature does not thrive only on account of guarantees of freedom but indeed in spite of the lack of such safeguards. As the sister of a journalist and an occasional freelancer myself, I am all for media freedom but would hardly stand with a bunch of ignorant, naive (at best) and ill-intentioned and malicious (in all probability) clowns to champion that cause. In my opinion it would do the cause a disservice. Odd, too, isn’t it that in this day of freedom of information, I can’t find Vincent Brossei’s bio – or any background on him – anywhere? So here is what I’d like to say to Vincent: grow a set and come out of hiding.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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