I am a Buddhist today
by Kazi Khaleed Ashraf
Cowards come in two forms, those who move under the cover of the night, and those who take refuge in the brute might of the mob. And when the two combine, cowards can become hyenas. Since that dreadful night, when for six shameful hours, the state remained invisible, protectors stood by quietly, neighbors became fiends, and only few were brave to face the hyenas, I can no longer be myself.
For you, those who saw their beloved buildings go up in flame, I know it is not a question of shame, for shame comes only to those on the outside feeling unsettled. For you sitting by the burnt buildings and smoldering books, it is an inexplicable pain that as much as I try to, I cannot fathom. You are part of this land, you who have preceded many traditions and creeds of this land, and you whose glory is sung from the base of the Potala Palace to the gardens of Kyoto. For those searing six hours and since, when you felt insecure and untrusting in your own land, I became a Buddhist.
When in the name of religious piety, your religious space is desecrated, your home is vandalised, your family trembles in terror, I would rather be a minority. I can hear the silent prayer of the monks: “Come, stone my house. Burn my pagoda. Hit me with a stick. Take my treasures.” When I hear that anguished cry, I am a Buddhist. When I hear an elderly woman say to a newspaper: “May God make the people who committed the violence happy,” I am a Buddhist.
I am a buddhist, I am a hindu, I am a baul, I am a sufi, I am a garo, I am a chakma whenever the fevered mob of the intolerant majority pounces on what it manufactures as the other.
“Sectarian violence breaks out,” declares a newspaper headline. NO, shamefully no! It was not a sectarian violence, but a planned mob attack on a peaceable community. NO, it did not break out! It was unilaterally unleashed upon a peaceful people by another with little record of compassion and caring. I am a Buddhist when I read misinterpretations like that.
When a church was burnt in Pakistan by a mad mob that knew nothing about either the glory of god or the cleverness of media, I thought how sad that it should happen again to a besieged minority in a faltering nation-state. I was strangely relieved that such things did not happen in my country, my land of gold and green and turquoise, of love, and poetry and songs. How short-lived my petit nationalist self-satisfaction!
Here, in my neighborhood, another frenzied mob brought the myth of the secular state tottering to its knees in six hours, and sent the progressive ideology of civic society running for cover. The mob burned 300 year old temples, thousand year old manuscripts, centuries of traditions, and the precious bridge of trust and harmony.
“Who did it?” No point in asking that for it is never answered in the land of gold and green, and poetry and songs. A regional conspiracy? A local mischief-making? The ruling party did it. The party not ruling did it. The sorry people from across the river in the south were surely involved. Land grabbers and treacherous characters were party to it. But how come I saw my brother, my cousin, yes, I think my uncle too, brandishing the cry of the coward and burning a temple or two. In that marvelous mayhem of making bonfire out of pagodas, I see so many saviors of the faith, so many bravehearts of the mob. Manush kothai?
I am a Buddhist doesn’t mean I pray to a different god, that I have turned my face away. My god is safe with me, he is not so insecure that I will have to go burn and kill for him, and go on a rampage to install his glory. A religion is not a religion if it cannot serve humanity, my god tells me. I am a Buddhist today not because I am a follower of the Buddha but because I am an adherent of the wisdom of prophets from the West and the East, prophets of the desert and prophets in the forest, those among men who have become supermen because they have shown the way of becoming better humans.
More than two thousand years ago, a prince left his clan and sought to become a human again. Who I am is not defined by my clan or my family, or my exalted status, my exclusive creed, or my blindly inherited values. I don’t belong to any clan just because the clan can claim unilateral righteousness and argue for dividing humanity. And the young man under the banyan tree, over two thousand years ago, said: Come, those not yet human, burn your own huts. I have already demolished my hut so that I can live as a human. Unblemished, uncategorized. But, you with distortions of passions, when you instead burn with hate, you destroy your own destiny of becoming divine.
I wonder, what is the language of pain? What matters that I write these lifeless words that may never reach those in pain. I can hope the pain that shrouds me, and others like I, those who all are Buddhists for today, may turn to petals, and travel over the charred remains of a pagoda, and like the floral garland that hovered over the Buddha in his Gandhakuti in Jetavana, spread the fragrance of a new compassion and care.
But there is a language of restoration: catch culprits, rebuild buildings, and ask for forgiveness. 14 temples were burnt. The country has 14 architecture schools. Let each school adopt a temple, document what was lost, prepare plans to reconstruct it. Let 14 business houses come forward, each finance the rebuilding of a temple. Let each TV channel relay the rebuilding. Let the state support the project and ensure that it is completed in record time. That can only be the beginning of all of us becoming ourselves again.
Kazi Khaleed Ashraf is an architect and architectural writer. he is the author of the book Designing Dhaka