I was unfortunately out of Hong Kong and missed my chance to attend the Sri Lankan community’s 71st celebration of Independence Day. 4 February, like the equivalent commemorations of so many postcolonial societies, is critical to modern Sri Lankan identity, and in many ways the opinion makers and influencers of Hong Kong—scholars, journalists, writers—have not fully capitalized on the opportunity to carve out a common forum for dialogue between Chinese Hong Kongers and Sri Lankan Hong Kongers (and indeed, residents of other postcolonial backgrounds) based on our shared cosmopolitan and hybrid cultures.
More importantly, I believe that the Buddhist community in Hong Kong, beyond hosting events with Theravada guests from abroad, should tap into our home-grown community here, with people of Sri Lankan heritage, to promote an authentic presence of Theravada Buddhism that will radically deepen ties between the island nation and Hong Kong. One of the Buddhist leaders facilitating this ongoing initiative is Ven. Sumiththa Thero, who is a pillar of the Sri Lankan community and educator of Theravada Buddhism for Hong Kongers.
We shouldn’t generalize about the diverse backgrounds and life goals of Sri Lankan Hong Kongers, who range from expatriates looking to return home in a few years to immigrants seeking to become permanent residents and participatory citizens. Regardless of who they are, the vast majority of Sri Lankans are passionate about their identity as contributors to the social, economic, and cultural fabric of Hong Kong.
Allow me to mention only a few examples, some of which I wasn’t aware until recently: Prof. Malik Peiris FRS, scientific director of the Pasteur Research Centre at The University of Hong Kong, and his laboratory were the first to isolate the virus of SARS (SARS-CoV) in 2003, which makes him one of the city’s heroes of post-handover times. Hong Kong-based artist Kos Cos and jazz guitarist Dylan Lye have been notable forces in the art and music scenes for many years. Journalists and writers like Daleena Samara and Basil Fernando are also active influencers in wider Hong Kong circles. Taken together, along with Ven. Sumiththa Thero and the many volunteers from diverse backgrounds and professions who make each community event and outreach initiative so successful, Sri Lankans help make Hong Kong a better place and strengthen the Theravada presence in the city.
Many academics, policymakers, and activists have long expressed far more eloquently than me the need to celebrate the contributions of our city’s ethnic minorities if Hong Kong is to earn its identity as a cosmopolitan, international society. The city is among the big three with New York and London when it comes to finance and law, the diversity of people’s stories and experiences is second to neither, and it has eclectic bits and pieces from countries around the world, from Latin America to Europe to Central Asia and the Middle East. Importantly, Hong Kong’s ties with South Asian countries have shaped the city from the 19th century to this day.
Sri Lanka is also at the heart of the women’s monastic ordination movement, which Buddhistdoor Global has consistently and frequently covered over the years. The country has made impressive progress in expanding the circle of spiritual authority to devout women educated in the Dharma and the pastoral needs of Buddhists. As a city where, until recently, women seeking the monastic life would come to for Dharmaguptaka-affiliated ordination (which the Chinese tradition can bestow), Hong Kong and Sri Lanka share a good deal in common when it comes to thinking about spiritual institutions: respectful of tradition whilst open-minded and cosmopolitan.
Beyond Vinaya or doctrinal distinctions, there should be unity and dialogue between Sri Lankan Buddhists and Chinese Buddhists. There should be a call to ecumenical encounters in the classrooms, monasteries, and meditation centers, and there can only be wonderful things to arise from these dialogues. Hopefully we might see such events in the future, be they at institutions like Po Leung Kuk Lam Man Chan English Primary School or the Sri Lankan Buddhist Cultural Centre. I certainly look forward to more.
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