By Shenali D. Waduge
Bob Isaacson is an American human rights lawyer. He spent much of his professional life in defending and saving two legged people from the death penalty. For over 25 years he had been a vegetarian and vegan for more than eleven (11) years and then he came across the teachings of the Buddha and over time became a committed Theravada Buddhist. Right to life for all sentient beings was central to his own professional and philosophical outlook and that helped create the Dharma Voices for Animals in San Diego, USA in 2011 which has nearly 20 chapters throughout the USA, Europe, Asia and even Brazil. DVA has a membership drawn from over 40 countries worldwide. Establishing a Chapter in Sri Lanka was a landmark personal achievement for Bob Isaacson as Sri Lanka stood in a class of its own as the only country that had an unbroken record of upholding and safeguarding Buddhism for over 2300 years. The Sri Lanka Colombo Chapter is headed by Attorney Senaka Weeraratna and the inaugural session was held at the Dharmavijaya Foundation on Sunday 18th October 2015 with the Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament Mr Karu Jayasuriya gracing the occasion as Chief Guest.
The rain did not stop a very large and notable gathering attending to mark the opening of a highly significant branch of DVA in Colombo in an effort to realign Sri Lankan society towards eating more natural healthy food and helping create a compassionate society showing empathy to all without distinction or differentiation of class, creed and species and more importantly recognizing the fundamental right of all sentient beings to life and liberty.
Contributions of Henry Olcott
Mr. Senaka Weeraratna, Chapter Leader (Colombo Chapter) in his Welcome Address compared the visit of Bob Isaacson to an event that took place 135 years ago when another American lawyer and Civil War veteran by the name of Henry Steele Olcott arrived in Galle in 1880 with Madame Blavatsky, a Russian lady. They embraced Buddhism reciting pansil along with the Ti-sarana (taking refuge in the noble triple gem) at a Temple i.e. Vijayananda Pirivena, and thereafter embarked together with the support of indigenous Buddhist leaders like Anagarika Dharmapala to revive Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Henry Olcott addressed the weakest point in the Buddhist firmament namely Education and set up Buddhist schools which later blossomed into institutes of international renown such as Ananda, Nalanda, Mahinda, Dharmaraja, Sangamitta and Dharmasoka.
Dharma Voices for Animals (DVA) was founded because the Buddhists were not closely following the teachings of the Buddha regarding respect to all forms of life, and not giving voice to the suffering of animals.
“ Behind every piece of meat there was a feeling and caring living being whose parts have been robbed in order to feed us or serve us. This is a fact that we must unequivocally accept and morally confront to get our ethics right.” said Mr. Weeraratna.
“Being a largely Buddhist country Sri Lanka must welcome the likes of Bob Isaacson and it is my earnest hope that Bob Isaacson will play the role of another Henry Olcott to protect and foster Buddhism while giving voice to the suffering of animals”, added Mr. Weeraratna.
Animal Welfare Bill
The program commenced with Ven. Thirukunamale Ananda Nayake Thera (Mahanayake of the Amarapura Nikaya) administering Pansil. It was followed by an anusasana delivered by Ven. Siri Vajiraramaya Nanasiha Thero formerly Mr. Olcott Gunasekera who covered the issues concerning law & order, the death penalty and urged the Hon. Speaker to take action expeditiously towards the enactment in Parliament of the Animal Welfare Bill originally prepared by the Law Commission. Ven. Nanasiha Thero further said that just as Henry Steel Olcott was honoured with a prominent statue in Colombo (opposite the Fort Railway Station), Bob Isaacson in his endeavour to save lives of animals and promoting compassionate living as taught by the Buddha may also have his statue erected one day in honor of his efforts.
The Hon. Speaker Mr. Karu Jayasuriya said that a compassionate society in Sri Lanka was a noble goal and added that an endeavour to re-direct our society to the path of peace having had thirty years of conflict and violence was a challenge that we must be prepared to accept. It must start in our schools. Children must be given every chance to learn and practice unconditional love and respect. Children are the country’s future. In teaching kindness and practice of Metta (loving kindness) and Karuna (compassion) to our children the welfare of animals must also be included in our school teaching manuals.
The Hon. Speaker further said that “the Government of Sri Lanka will give priority and attention to the enactment of laws and statutes for the protection of animals and wild life conservation”.
A short film documentary titled “Can you guess what these girls are watching’ drew the attention of the gathering to the horrors that go inside slaughter houses giving flesh to the saying that if slaughter houses had glass walls everyone would be a vegetarian.
Vegetarian/vegan diet – potential benefits
The final presentation by Dr. (Mrs) Damayanthi Perera, nutrition specialist/independent researcher gave actual statistics of how the food industry led by people who were only interested in making profit were poisoning the world and politicians were silent in taking policy decisions to control and reverse the slow death to the world’s populace. She highlighted with authority and statistics how even the world health bodies have erred in their nutrition advocacy ignoring that a vegetarian/vegan diet can match in every way what killing animals claims to provide. She presented with graphic evidence of how the sale of processed foods and fast foods will leave the present generation dying before their parents. Dr Perera’s impressive talk was an eye opener to all present.
Bob Isaacson had earlier in the day visited the Siri Vajiraramaya Temple in Bambalapitiya to address the Sunday Dhamma school teachers and students.
During the Question and Answer session, several members of the audience shared their views and glowing examples by octogenarians on the healthy impact of eating and surviving on vegetarian diets gave much inspiration to all those present.
The DVA Colombo Chapter inaugural meeting was indeed a revolutionary and ground breaking event and likely to be a powerful source of reference to influence not only Buddhists of Sri Lanka but members of other religions also. An unqualified recognition of the right to life and liberty of all sentient beings matched with healthy living is the message that now needs to be conveyed to both child and adult alike.