Labels that Define Us

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We tend to blame the universe, or nature, or life for so many things. And so we believe we can’t be this and that and can only be this or that because that’s just how the world is. Yet, it is humans, through centuries of beliefs, who have made it seem impossible for someone to be this and that.
Sinhala Buddhist is a term we have heard of. So called patriots call them selves Sinhala Buddhists. Extremists call them selves Sinhala Buddhists. And those who word marriage proposals in newspapers use the term Sinhala Buddhist. I too consider my self a Sinhala Buddhist. I’m Sinhalese, the ethnic group; and Buddhist, the religion. Yet, these are two different things. I’m not a Buddhist just because I’m a Sinhalese. Nor am I a Sinhalese just because I’m a Buddhist. One doesn’t make me the other.
Yet, there are certain images or assumptions made. For instance, all Moors are Muslims. This has led to Muslim becoming an ethnic group and Islam their religion. It is also believed that Tamils are either Hindu or Christian and Burghers are Christian.
Once while flipping through TV stations, I came across a program where a Buddhist monk was giving a Bana sermon in Tamil. My first thought was, “who on earth is this monk trying to talk to in Tamil?” This was because I always connected the Tamil language to the ethnic group who I thought were either Christians or Hindu. Yet, what about the Buddhists in the North? Would they not know Tamil? Even if they moved there from other areas, Tamil would be the language they were used to, after years or even decades of living there. So they would also like to listen to a Bana sermon, like all of us. And yet, language could stop them from clearly understanding the message. Thus a Bana sermon in Tamil seems like something all Buddhists who know Tamil would appreciate.
So we have those labels. A pottu on a forehead would immediately label someone a Tamil, most likely a Hindu too. And all of us have those labels. It’s what makes us who we are. I’m so many things and while these things are sometimes a real bother, they are what define me.

Shailee the Sri Lankan will take her country’s side no matter what. Her blind patriotism can seem foolish because her knowledge of Sri Lankan politics is non existent. Yet, she’s proud to be a citizen of such an amazing and beautiful country. She may complain that the buses never run on time, but is in fact thankful Sri Lanka has such flexible systems.
Shailee the Sinhalese loves the tradition and culture. She happily embraces and follows most of the New Year rituals. She wishes she was more fluent in Sinhala, although she feels more comfortable talking in Sinhala as opposed to English.
Shailee the Buddhist loves temples; the peace and quiet and the sense of safety that surrounds temples. She also likes to read bits of the Dhamma, and is proud of the religion she was brought up believing, and decided to really make her choice later on.
There are more labels that make me who I am. But these labels don’t limit me. For instance, being a Buddhist doesn’t stop me from loving churches, being a Sri Lankan hasn’t stopped me from loving Thailand and being a Sinhalese hasn’t stopped me from loving the Tamil language and culture.
Labels are important. A man is nothing without those labels. Yet, labels shouldn’t limit us to on set of people, one section of society and one set of beliefs. Of course one cannot be a Buddhist and a Christian, yet, you can embrace certain sections or fragments of other labels.
You don’t need to be this or that. You can be this and that. Knowing this is important. Don’t try to always define your self, but let those labels that define you or shape your life, make you someone more accepting of the world, instead of limiting you.

6 thoughts on “Labels that Define Us”

  1. Awesome post Shailee! You have edited this nicely to suit WFR. I think this is a landmark post because you have looked at an important aspect of reconciliation while sharing your own details. I enjoyed reading this.It's the first time I heard that "bana" was said in Tamil. It just shows how much we let these assumptions and labels limit our perception. There is scientific evidence to show that different languages stimulate different parts of the brain. So Nelson Mandela was right when he said that "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."As you had remarked, we acquire some of these labels from birth and other factors over which we have no influence over. So if I was born in another family, my labels would be different. That fact also helps me to think freely…"You don’t need to be this or that. You can be this and that.": well said!

  2. Thanks for the comment Rochelle. I mostly rewrote it, to suit this blog :)And I love that Mandela quote. Its true that language really does make you realize various things about people. Once in Thailand I heard this family talking in Sinhala, and even though I didn't know they, it felt like I did.Good point you've made there Rochelle, about different labels if you were born in another family. Never thought of my life that way. But true. I wouldn't be the same person had I been born to a different family.

  3. I really didn't realize that people said bana in Tamil, never…to even hear that there are Tamil bana sermons, good lord! Anyhow I'm no stranger to labels and markers posted on me, so to speak. Not always the pleasantest feeling, so to speak…But P.S. we all love "Shailee the human being" more than anyone or anything 🙂

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