small island: on being a decolonial sri lankan buddhist for a just peace.
I took a long time to come to meditation. Like 38 years. You’ve heard the story before: I always heard it was good for you, but I tried it and I just couldn’t sit still! Then one day, everything got extra fucked up bad and the gates of heaven opened up in my brain! Yeah. Kinda like that.
I did grow up with a Full Catastrophe Living book in my mama’s house. I did go to the East Bay Meditation Center (EBMC) with a friend for queer sit (and sit there thinking, boo drama — lamb burger would taste good right now — oh my god how long is this going to go on for?) And then things did get really bad, or not anything as simple as “really bad” but they got to a time and place where I walked into EBMC for the Every Body, Every Mind disabled and chronically ill sit and discovered the palace of breath.
But my story doesn’t stop with that standard “Western person finding meditation” narrative. I’m Sri Lankan. I am a mixed-heritage queer Sri Lankan feminist who wants a decolonized island with a just peace. Part of why it was hard for me to come to meditation practice was that I come from a country with Buddha tooth temples and a giant Theravada Buddhist history and practice, where Buddhism has also been aligned with a genocidal civil war that has killed and displaced tens of thousands of people and set up a terrorizing government that has made us one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. It is impossible for any Sri Lankan to come to meditation from a Buddhist tradition without sitting with the fact that in our country, the current Sinhalese supremacist state (which is different than the Sinhalese people) has employed Buddhism to justify state terror against Tamils, Muslims, Veddah people, Burghers and other communities on the island.
There are many Sri Lankan stories. I choose to believe the narrative that we have always been an island of many people, who, prior to colonialism, had figured out how to live relatively peacefully with each other. I believe that Sri Lankan war narratives are rooted in both post colonial scar tissue and scarcity models that flow into ideas of who the island “really belongs to” (which any Lankan knows we can argue about for years). For Sinhalese state parties, Sri Lanka’s place as one of the “purest” and “most important” sites of “pure” Theravada Buddhism has been employed to justify “cleansing” the island of Tamil, Muslim, Burgher and Veddah people. These ideologies of purity stand in contrast to pre-colonial Lankan stories. Where, for example, it’s said that when someone Sinhalese married someone Tamil, they’d just tack a “m” on the end of their name to mark the change. Dr. Tessa Bartholomeusz wrote in her book, In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka, about how prominent Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka advocated a “just-war” ideology against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Post the official “end” of the civil war, the Sinhalese/ Buddhist state erects fake Buddhist temples in the Tamil Hindu and Muslim north, in between the homes with shell fragments and bullet holes where people fled years ago. Funds tour busses to take tourists coming to “the new Goa,” as we’re being billed in a desperate attempt to rebuild the economy.
North American dwelling people may romanticize Buddhism and Buddhist Asian cultures from afar. Or, like I see often happening with the cultural appropriation of Asian cultures, it’s like Asian cultural practices — yoga, meditation, tantra — aren’t really Asian according to western non-Asian folks, because it’s as if on some level they can’t think of Asian cultures as real places, real cultures, real people. But we who are Asian Buddhists can’t really forget that in our countries, religion is always political, the stuff of both spirituality and state parties.
But my story doesn’t end there. As a friend once said, “The gods aren’t nationalist,” even if some of our people try and claim them to be. Nationalism is the opposite of spirit. And it is part of my work as a Sri Lankan of mixed heritage to figure out how to be with Buddhism from a decolonial, Sri Lankans for social justice perspective. As my friend Kenji said, as people of color who are settlers on North American indigenous land, it’s really important for us to claim and know our own indigenous heritages so that we don’t end up appropriating other peoples’. Even and especially when finding that heritage is really hard. This is our work. This practice is in my bones and in my ancestral memory. In the molecules of Sri Lankan earth that are embedded in my cellular structure. My practice of socially just Buddhism is just beginning, but I am excited to hang out with other Lankans and breathe together into what taking back our Lankan dharma — of finding right action and relation and using it to build healing and peace with justice in our land, to offer a different story to the official line that has caused so much destruction — might mean.
The author of the Lambda Award-winning Love Cake and Consensual Genocide and co-editor of The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities, her work has appeared in the anthologies Dear Sister, Undoing Border Imperialism; Stay Solid; Persistence: Still Butch and Femme; Yes Means Yes; Visible: A Femmethology; Homelands; Colonize This; We Don’t Need Another Wave; Bitchfest; Without a Net; Dangerous Families; Brazen Femme; Femme; and A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over The World.
With Cherry Galette, she co-founded Mangos With Chili, North America’s performance incubator for Two Spirit, queer and trans people of color performance artists, and is a lead artist with Sins Invalid. In 2010 she was named one of the Feminist Press’ “40 Feminists Under 40 Who Are Shaping the Future” and she is one of the the 2013 Autostraddle Alternative Hot 105. She co-founded Toronto’s Asian Arts Freedom School and is a member of the BadAss Visionary Healers, a Bay Area healing justice collective.