25 January 2015

It is ok if you forgot what happened on January 25th (as I often did)*

Another January 25th is upon us.  No big deal.  Not the first, not the last.  Follows a January 24th and will be followed by a January 26th.  In a sense dates are meaningless things, relevant only in part and irrelevant in the larger order of things.  We are, however, frail creatures who do not always move on and beyond moment, event and encounter.  As such we assign values to dates, mark calendars, celebrate, commemorate and mourn, depending on the strength of our attachment to these things or even our revulsion. 

There have been 13 January 25ths since 1998 and none of those days are significant to me personally.  On each of those January 25ths I forgot that on a particular January 25th, that of 1998, the LTTE carried out a cowardly and devastating attack on the place of religious significance held most sacred by the Buddhists, the Dalada Maligawa.

I would not have remembered that incident today had I not received an email containing a fairly comprehensive account of the attack and its implications, written by Daya Hewapathirana, reproduced in today’s Daily News (that’s January 25, 2011).  No other English newspaper found the day significant, one observes.  Perhaps we’ve all been immunized by the terrible violence we’ve suffered as a people, as individuals and as a nation for us to remember day, event and damage caused, even though the Dalada Maligawa is not some piece of pavement that got damaged when some drunk driver crashed into a lamppost. 

Indeed, it is pertinent to reflect on what would have happened if say a group dedicated to some self-understood ‘Islamic’ cause ran a vehicle full of explosives into the Vatican on January 25, 1998.  I am pretty sure that 1/25 would have ensured that 9/11 died a quick death in the collective memory of the world.  That’s beside the point as far as this article is concerned, however.

The point, as far as I am concerned, is about forgetting.  Why is it that we forget such monumental acts of terrorism?  Do we suffer from selective amnesia as a nation or do we have short memories as some claim?  Is it because of the common perception that that which was destroyed was later restored to previous glory with no sign of blemish (Daya Hewapathirana’s article would be a rude awakening in this regard)? 

There’s something in our society that makes us better able (than most other societies) to take the blows and move on without being over-fascinated with blow-moment.  It is about coming to terms with realities, not just those of the moment such as deed-done and cannot-turn-back-clock, but the eternal verities, the ata lo dahama of profit-loss, joy-sorrow, praise-blame etc., and treating these with equanimity.  This is how we recovered from the bloody insurrections of 1971 and 1988-89 and the tsunami of 2004 with a speed few nations suffering similar tragedies have emulated.

Putting aside the requirement of remembering in terms of learning lessons, watching out for patterns and re-enactment with view to prevent, such ‘forgetting’ does have an important and healthy social function which moreover could very well be one of the defining characteristics of our culture.  It can be sourced to the overwhelming significance and contribution of Buddhism to who we are today, but the quality is not over-represented among Buddhists.  It cuts across all identities.  We cheer our cricketing heroes when they do well but when they fail we don’t burn their houses to use an example that is relatively current given the World Cup is around the corner.

The attack on the Maligawa in fact affirmed the fundamental teachings of the Buddha, in particular that of impermanence.  We live in a country where misguided individuals desecrate the temple of Jesus Christ and operate in accordance with a de-contextualized reading of the Book of Deuteronomy or on account of having internalized the unholy Papal Bulls that sanctioned and justified the massacre of Buddhists in their thousands.  When they ask recent ‘converts’ or those to whom they want to prove a point to smash images of the Buddha, they do not seem to understand that they are in fact affirming this same principle.  Those who react by attaching such individuals or their so-called churches are not being ‘Buddhists’ in terms of the dhamma but ironically operate in much the same way as their detractors (so imagined).  The better response is to delve deeper into the dhamma, to meditate on impermanence and move on. 

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues, similarly, affirmed the principle of impermanence.  There was horror, yes.  Buddhists in this country did not turn that horror into anger and hatred. It didn’t spill over into Buddhist-Islamic conflict as such incidents do in the case of certain Hindu groups in India

I did not remember the significance of January 25th.  Maybe I should have.  Maybe we all should have.  If only to remind ourselves that it could happen again and that therefore we need to be vigilant.  On the other hand, perhaps that forgetting speaks of a certain civilizational maturity.  Or a civilizational identifier.  A positive that rises above the negative overtones of the word ‘forgetting’.  It’s all good, I think. 


*First published in the 'Daily News' (January 26, 2011).  Interestingly, since I am the Editor of  Sunday Newspaper and this Sunday is the 25th, I could have carried something on this attack. I forgot.  



Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com
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