Penalty or Punishment?

by Bhikkhu Professor Dhammavihari Thera, Sunday Island, January 23, 2005

Who punishes whom? A post-disaster survey with a religio-cultural outlook

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- We have already written and spoken about the disastrous misbehavior of nature in the tsunami incident. Humans have wept and they shall continue to weep. As to what the heavens do, we shall not comment. And about the correctness or otherwise of what has taken place, diverse forms of defense are being submitted from many quarters.

<< A victim of the Asian Tsunami disaster

Their acceptance or rejection simply depends on two English words, credibility [ of what is being said ] and credulousness [ of those on whose ears they fall]. It is comforting to know that at least in some parts of the civilized world, the laws of the land protect children from the brutal assaults of parents.

The extent of damage to life and property in this situation is being continually assessed globally. The dead, none of them at all, cannot be brought back to life. It is also being repeatedly stated, and that in terms of one's inherited beliefs, that those who have been made to perish in this disaster are unquestionably punished for crimes they have committed against some form of authority. The world is large, we maintain, and creeds of the world are diverse. Let each find his solace from wherever it could be easily obtained.

And now for restoration of order in a post-disaster world. Here we wish to speak specifically about Sri Lanka, no more and no less. Loss of life here is believed to be in the very high region of nearly 50,000. Widely distributed damage to property is inestimable. Rehabilitation of the terror-striken survivors who had lived on the coastal fringe is going to be more than problematic. They all have to be attended to.
It is known to every one that very generous assistance is coming to us in a big way from every corner of the earth. But it has to be remembered by all donors, both great and small, and whatever be their identity, that this is not a venture to build something out of nothing. It certainly cannot be like building something anew on barren desert sand.

Up to the time of the tsunami disaster, Sri Lankans have had a variegated past, with many items and areas of traditional culture. They have been inherited from generation to generation. These cannot be swept away by a tidal wave, no matter from where. People cannot be torn apart from their moorings. In times of a crisis like this, when people have to be re-established, this is a vital principle to be remembered. It is even more important that the recipients of such generous aid who visualize the restoration plans respect this principle. What pleases personally the eye and the ear of the planners, local or imported, this alone is not what matters.

All aid flowing into the country at the moment has to be a sincere attempt to assist in the restoration of a culture and a life style of a people with a datable history going back more than two thousand years. In the name of Heaven, it shall not be fishing in troubled waters. In this little island of Sri Lanka, from north to south as well as from east to west, the culture and civilization of Buddhism, brought hither more than two millennia go, had left megalithic monuments to last much longer than even the recently devastated giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

History is more than adequately proving that man, in his ethno-religious fanaticism and fury has been, always and everywhere, a more devilish architect of destruction, than the wildness of nature. Infuriated humans are seen to be globally determined to exterminate the culture of every other group which is imagined and identified during moments of insanity, to be their rival. In Sri Lanka today, there is adequate proof of this. It is no exaggeration if we report that in our own country, this kind of vandalism continues to be done everyday, under the very nose of people who are pledged to protect them. It is time now for the rulers and the ruled in this country to awaken to this situation. Exquisite sculptures in stone, massive architectural masterpieces like the brazen palace and monumental trees like the Bodhi which have a justifiable right to survive through time, have given way under these ruthless assaults of man. For a nation, with a legitimate pride of its past, this is obliteration enough. A revolt against this has to come, sooner or later.

Now in the wake of this tragic disaster which in a way is global and with an equally global sensitivity and concern to restore peace and prosperity, it makes absolutely good sense to scrutinize the sanity with which we humans are living in this world. We are attempting to teach lessons to others about terrorists and aggression while there is a great need for each one of us to learn a little more. We shall here focus attention more on our Sri Lankan scene.

It is also true that this disaster has come about at a time while a post-independence Sri Lanka is being put in a melting pot by generation after generation of bungling political leader-ship for the preparation of a witches' brew. And nobody knows to serve whom. But they know not what they do. In the hands of mediators who are made not to know anything of our past by people who themselves equally know very little, nothing less than devastation and disaster can be expected. For several decades now Sri Lanka has witnessed a politically tied up ethno-religious conflict which has been meaninglessly exaggerated globally by numerous interested groups, both from within and outside. It was more than stupid to have said `that the government in Sri Lanka is waging a war against Hindu separatists.' There is no gainsaying that too much of international politics also has seeped into the Sri Lankan problem.

On the other hand, it is also equally true that there are many saner and wiser men and women in both these ethnic groups in Sri Lanka who know and believe in the possibility of peaceful co-existence in this heaven-blessed island. They have seen it happen. Some us are old enough, well past our eighties, to tell you what a post-World-War II Sri Lanka was like. Few know about it today. Much less, who wish to know. What respect we had then for humans, as men and women with wisdom, glistening with human virtues which were very nearly divine. Believe me. In Sri Lanka, they came from all ethnic groups of the time. Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, Malay, Borah and Sinhala. Also among them were Hindus, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Buddhists and followers of the Islamic faith. I can name them for you, one by one.

For a peaceful settlement of this self-annihilating conflict in Sri Lanka, dignified detachment at every level of thinking and acting is a primary pre-requisite. Honesty and trustworthiness have to be part and parcel of every pursuant of a peaceful solution to this problem, no matter from which part of the world these mediators are seen surfacing from time to time. Excessive and aggressive greed of groups, local or foreign, who are politically motivated on any side have to be rooted out and exiled for all times.

An honest scrutiny of Sri Lankan history would clearly indicate how the major community in the island, i.e. the Sinhala Buddhists who constitute nearly 70 % of the island's population have very peacefully assimilated and accumulated over the centuries, nay millennia, a great deal of Hindu religion and culture into their own. Who in this country, tell me, accommodates a Skanda, a ferocious God of War, with weapons of mass destruction in his hands, within their pantheon, even offering him the option to aspire for Buddhahood one day. They even concede to him the title Future Buddha : Matu Buduvana Kanda Kumaru. It is the Sri Lankan Buddhists who have done so. Can the United Nations ever initiate such a move? Will they ever do? Japanese Buddhists did identically the same in accommodating Hachiman, the Shinto God of War as a Bodhisattva under the name Hachiman Pusa.

One final consideration with regard to the rebuilding of the devastated areas of Sri Lanka. Most of the damaged areas are known to have been semi-urban and rural. In a hasty program of re-building one must not make the mistake of over-urbanizing these settlements. The village community life pattern must be restored. Hastily constructed condominiums to settle displaced victims of the tsunami disaster would, very naturally work in the opposite direction. Social elitism, in any case, must have its roots in the village. Village is by no means rustic. rustic in the sense of wild, crude and violent. It is in the peaceful and friendly rural setting of the village that man lives closest to nature, in proximity with bird and beast.

This is where man can learn most of his lessons about life. Close to such settlements, urban as well as rural, and scattered among them, there should be provision for miniature tracts of man-grown forests [ which during the Buddha's time in India were called ropita-vana or planted forests ] for the accommodation of birds and animals. We must not forget that we must provide adequate accommodation for the migratory birds who visit us seasonally.

We have been through such beautiful spots in European countries where they are referred to as bois and foret, both words meaning forests in miniature, e.g. Bois de Boulogne in the vicinity of Paris. Then and only then can there be the growth of a healthy human community, with a delightful sense of love, share and care for the men, women and children, for the young and the old, reckoning at the same time with the entire biota and the ecosystem.

It is equally important for our wise policy makers to remember the need to conserve the community life of the village. The brutal hand of man, assisted by the reckless and unimaginative policies of those who rule the land, at all levels, has very nearly contributed to the total extinction of fauna and flora in the island. Think of the total destruction of the forest cover of the land, not only to serve the needs of those who require timber to build houses, but also to serve those who need to earn money by unethical means like the rape of the forests to live on the lap of luxury. Everybody knows the geo-physical disasters which this kind of mishandling of nature brings about. Do we need the vengeance of heaven to arrest these. Buddhist teachings appeal to the sanity of humans not to tear off even a branch of the tree under the shadow of which he once took shelter. It is wild and treacherous.

Yassa rukkhassa chyya nisdeyya sayeyya v
na tassa skh bhajeyya mittadubbho hi ppako.

In the wake of this disaster which all of us have painfully suffered, now let us endeavor to retrieve the wealth of fauna and flora which we have lost over the decades through our recklessness, vanity and our ignorance. It may be one or it may be all these failings put together. It is our genuine wish and our hopeful vision to see once again this delightful tropical island of ours charmingly dotted with clusters of villages, at every thirty or forty kilometers distance where bamboos of yellow and green would sprout with ease, with abundance of mango and jambu growing near by.. These village colonies would promote the rearing of dairy cattle in the proximity of the home and a few buffaloes in the fields further away.

There would be continuous supply of milk, curd and ghee for consumption and sale. Growing of vegetables with the assistance of all home-folk, aided by the dung provided by the farm animals would turn out to be a flourishing source of income for these village communities. In between should come the model towns and marketing centers. The village and the town together shall be the supplier and the consumer. Pollution and crime should be at its lowest. Men, women and children in such a peaceful set up will very naturally have the courage to completely shut out drugs and alcohol from their neighborhood and keep crime completely off the scene.

Life in such rural settings would be so restful and relaxed. Contentment would be the hall-mark of their fife style. Juvenile delinquency would be unheard of.

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