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Lotus Reflections

“May we exist in muddy water with purity, like a lotus.”

Zen saying.

The Weras Ganga park was open in 2014 and is adjacent to the Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihara temple. The park is popular for its jogging and cycling tracks and I’m usually here, cycling every Sunday. This month I visited the park for the first time since the Easter Attacks in April.

In the aftermath of the attacks and the backlash that ensued, coming here alone left me uneasy. Going back here meant a resumption of near normalcy in my life. Back to routine from a time that had disturbed my mind and spirit since the attacks four months ago. The attacks that robbed the lives of more than 250 innocent people. The attacks that have changed everyone’s lives in Sri Lanka in both subtle and not so subtle ways.

Before we move on, because this country often moves on too fast. How do we look back and think about how each of us managed the aftermath of the attacks? I saw people using the attacks to push their ideological agendas, each one claiming they had the solution to combat extremism or problems of co-existence. I saw everyone including myself, be it with good intentions or not, responding in ways that could have been better. Even when it came to our relationships with our friends, colleagues and families.

Coming to Bellanwila, makes me reflect on many things. The park was built after the war under the auspices of former Defense Minister Ghotabaya Rajapaksa with the construction by the army and navy. It was a place for all communities to gather and use for exercise. The lake in the middle, the plethora of fauna and flora, the sounds of the temple bell, street vendors selling lotus flowers, makes every visit both pleasant and memorable.

I usually came here with my friend who wore niqab (face veil), that has currently been banned under Emergency regulations. Interestingly, the biggest backlash she faces for her attire comes from the Muslim community. She works for a company owned by Sinhalese Buddhists who have been very supportive. However, she hasn’t been able to visit one of her offices since the attacks, due to racists calling the owners to ask why they’ve hired her. We didn’t visit the park for a while because we were genuinely afraid of backlash.

As elections loom ahead, what have we learned from the attacks to understand where our country should go? Are we able to reflect on our previous religious, ideological and political positions? We have seen decades of violence and hate in the country go unchecked. The victims of the Easter Attacks are still in pain and trauma. The victims of previous atrocities are also still hurting. Vulnerable groups like women, children and the poor continue to be exploited. Young people have limited spaces to address their grievances. Moving on effectively requires all us of having a constructive conversation on historic negligence and injustice.

Since the attacks I’ve also seen goodness and resilience from all quarters. Often attending meetings related to hate speech or tackling extremism, I’m always encouraged to see the wider community coming forward to address it, often in constructive and thoughtful ways. Extremists want you to think that everyone is after you. They poison people’s mind with fear and anger so that it builds a barrier to compassion and empathy. Rising above that environment of hate takes resilience of the spirit.

I like coming to the park because of the lotuses. My favourite flower and incidentally the national flower of the country. It has historically been tied to spirituality and divinity. A multitude of institutions, even those ideologically opposite, use this symbol in its various forms.

The lotus (sanskrit: Padma) symbolically stands for truth, discipline and justice. In Yoga, the Lotus Position is said to foster contemplation. In Buddhism it is symbolic of the purity of body, speech and mind (three vajras). And as the lotus is borne of muddy waters and blooms into something beautiful it has become an icon of faith, renewal and resisting evil around us. These are principles universal to all of us.

Today is the 1st of Muharram, the first day of the Islamic calendar. The observance of the next ten days is marked in different ways by different Muslim groups and is a testament to the plurality of Islamic thought. What unites us however, the significance of each of our observance, irrespective of which sect we belong to, is to be just, virtuous, patient and resilient even in the face of evil.

Moving forward, as institutions wave metaphoric lotuses at us, whoever they may be. Let us first as a society aim to be pure of mind, speech, and body. Rising above anger, hate and hurt. The time has come for renewal, reflection and building resilience.

As the flower of a lotus,
Arisen in water, blossoms,
Pure-scented and pleasing the mind,
Yet is not drenched by the water,
In the same way, born in the world,
The Buddha abides in the world;
And like the lotus by water,
He does not get drenched by the world. [Andrew Olendzki translation]

Section of the Tipitaka, the Theragatha (“verses of the elder monks”), poem attributed to the disciple Udayin.

Images have not been retouched.

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