05 June 2013

Ven. Bowatte Indrarathana Thero’s silence

Ven. Bowatte Indrarathana Thero’s act of self-immolation has generated much debate.  The act has been condemned as being ‘un-Buddhistic’.  The bikkhu’s past was commented on. This included his political affiliations. 

Theories about his ‘state of mind’ were floated on the internet.  The stated precipitating factor, objection to cattle-slaughter, was taken up, taken apart.  Some asked ‘Why only cattle?’  Some pointed out that such things cannot be legislated.  Some pointed fingers at the bikkhu’s political associates and others who have shared similar objections.  Some, who either objected to the political associates and/or Buddhists and Buddhism in general, were unabashedly salivating. ‘One down, more to go!’ some cheered on Facebook. 
Then there is the issue of encouragement and apathy.  There were those who prompted the act or created the ‘objective preconditions’ for self-immolation, those who were seen accompanying the bikkhu, and the journalist who was informed of the act ahead of time and who turned up not to stop it (not part of his duty of course)  but to record it.  He has been singled out for censure, but other onlookers, policemen included, have been ‘let off’.  That too has been questioned. 

The ‘before’ has been imposed on the ‘moment of immolation’ by referring to the Bodu Bala Sena, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, the furor over Halal labeling and related rhetoric and incidents.  The ‘after’ has drawn from ‘moment’, which has fattened the ‘before’.  The calls for banning cattle slaughter have got louder.  Piggybacking on the incident, the call for legislation against unethical conversion has received new life. 
So there’s before-politics and after-politics.  Those who are invested in the political will not be apolitical, especially when political capital can be made one way or the other.   Lost in all this is a human being who was but is no more, remembered in frames in flames, but reduced to a name to rally around or direct invective at. 

The image of a bikkhu in flames disturbs me.  The image of anyone in flames would disturb, but being a Buddhist I am that much more perturbed.  Granted that what went before marks the moment and granted that moment feeds what follows, which in turn marks the moment, there’s still something tragic about missing the moment. 
Let us forget for a moment the fact that Ven. Bowatte Indrarathana Thero was a member of the Maha Sangha, the Buddhist Order. Let us forget his political affiliations. Let us forget the drama that preceded the act of self-immolation. Let us forget all that followed the act.  We see then a human being who emptied a can of petrol over himself, a human being whose garment caught fire, a human being who suffered terrible burn injuries before the fire was put out, a human being who was rushed to hospital and who was unburdened of burn and spectacle, politics and ideology, memory and wincing, concern for the living and dead, the survivals and slaughtering, pity and pathos, carrying (according to his beliefs – and mine) just the karmic accumulations of this life and those that were lived before. 

Ven. Bowatte Indrarathana Thero is no more.  There is a before-death and an after-death in commenting preferences.  No one can stop that and no one should.  We nevertheless talk of respecting the dead. We observe silence for those who are no more.  Buddhists offer pin to such people.  There’s civility and culture, propriety and civilization, a time for word and comment, dissection and conclusion. There is a time for silence. It is made of respect.  It obliterates identity markers.  
Maybe it is a personal thing, i.e. an individual choice, but it disturbs somehow that there is a strange reluctance to be silent.  All I see is a human being in flames, cheered by those who cry ‘one down!’ and glorified (in the same magnitude) by those who find fuel in flame for other kinds of torching. 

Ven. Bowatte Indrarathana Thero is silent now.  By himself.