Curious Blessings

Aug 19: US President Barak Obama wished Muslims around the world “Eid Mubarak” for the festival marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. In a statement released by the White House the President extended warm wishes to Muslim communities in the United States and around the world as they celebrate Eid al-Fitr. President Obama said: “we congratulate Muslim Americans and Muslims around the world on this joyous day. Eid Mubarak.”

This morning around 5 am I open the laptop and get the news. Yes, I’d forgotten about the Eid, it’s not something you’d really notice unless you’re living in a Muslim community. Around this time of year, at the end of Ramadan the sighting of a sliver of the new moon at sunset signals that this is Eid al-Fitr – it happens at different times for Muslims in various parts of the world. The only time I experienced this was when Jiab and I were in Dhaka Bangladesh. And by coincidence we had a visit from a Buddhist monk from Thailand at that time. We hadn’t realised that his visit would be on the day of the Eid, and when I noticed the date on the calendar I sent an email to Ajahn suggesting we postpone the visit because of the Eid, but he insisted it was ok; in fact, a good time to come.

My hesitation was that Eid is when they slaughter cows and distribute meat to all members of the community. It’s a big day of benevolence and all the poor gather around the houses of the rich waiting to receive their share. If you’re a vegetarian, it’s hard to look at this. The thing is, there are all kinds of things we’d like to turn away from, and we can, but we’re deluding ourselves if we do – this is why Ajahn insisted we go ahead with the schedule. So, it wasn’t easy for me and I didn’t know what to expect. My Muslim friends said that in Dhaka city the presence of cow carcasses on that day would be hard to avoid. In Dhaka, like all Asian cities, everything happens on the street, in the public area, and there’d not be any route coming in from the airport that would not go through these sites. I needn’t have worried, though, because Ajahn was completely okay about it.

I went to the airport, found Ajahn in the crowd, not difficult to find him, the only one there in the pale tangerine-brown robe standing in the line beaming with joy. We left there for the apartment and on the way into the town all the places at the side of the road where the killings had taken place were pretty obvious and thankfully the killing had already happened, some hours before, at dawn. Muslim friends tell me there is a special way it’s done so that the animal feels no pain, no stress. We made our way through the slow moving traffic and could see piles of red and white animal parts and people milling around and it was like a butcher’s section in the food store on every street corner.

Ajahn pointed out that, when you think about it, it’s no different from what’s happening every day, animals are slaughtered for food. This is the reality of our world. All the time, somewhere in the world, maybe at this very moment, large numbers of cows, poultry, fish, goats, pigs are being killed and prepared for human consumption, let’s not delude ourselves. Yes, it’s quite a thought; we just prefer not to think about it and I hadn’t considered it that way. Reassuring to have Ajahn here because before he came I was finding it a bit difficult to accept.

There had been cows (and goats) everywhere in the city. For about a week before Eid, these animals were being taken into the city in lorries, in the back of pick-up trucks or led by farmers walking in from the rural areas. There were cow markets I’d pass through where animals were being sold and all the cows looked the same, white, pale fawn colour with curved vertical horns and that hump on the shoulder. There were cows in every part of the urban area – a farmyard smell of dung and straw. Cows were sitting at the roadside moving the jaw in a chewing motion as the traffic went by; they were in the carpark tethered to railings and street lights; all were being very well looked after and so they were just calmly and quietly sitting and standing around in pairs, usually, in a state of placid contentment. Some had garlands round their necks, painted horns, painted faces with eyes blackened around the edges like theatrical mascara and white and red make-up. It was a bizarre and colourful sight.

But now, of course they were all gone; transformed. No evidence that they’d ever been there, all was forgotten. Instead there were stacks of neatly cut animal parts laid out as if in a supermarket meat department.

At the apartment, the Buddhist event was starting, the group arriving with food offerings, flowers. All quiet, small, neat Thais wearing black and white costumes. There were about 15 people there on the first floor in that apartment in the Gulshan district – where all the foreign residents are and wealthy Bangladesh families. The Thai community in Dhaka is quite small, some business people, employees in hairdresser’s shops, Thai food stores, the Thai embassy staff and all were here to take the five precepts. Jiab is, of course, a Thai Buddhist – not like me, a Western buddhist and still learning how it works. Jiab’s mum and dad were Buddhist and it goes all the way back through her family lineage.

The ceremony took place; chanting, meditation, repetition of each part of the Five Precepts and more chanting. Ajahn gave a short talk about sila in the context of sila samadhi punya. And throughout the whole meeting there was the sound of sawing and banging: boom, boom, bang-bang-bang. At first I thought, what’s going on? Sounds like construction or people hammering things. But, after a while, I realised what it was. When the talk was over and as everyone was leaving I had a quick look out the back window where the noise had been coming from. There were these same heaps of butchered animal parts again. A whole carcass had been cut up here. There were large butchers wooden chopping boards, saws and the sound had been cleavers and small axes chopping and sawing through bones. Just below the window where the Buddhist monk was chanting….

And I don’t see it particularly as a characteristic of the Muslim faith, the same thing happens in all of the supply networks for the food industry; meat production in America and Europe, it’s the same thing. The only difference is that in the West it’s hidden and we’re not usually aware of it.

I’m glad it happened, as it did. Having the Buddhist monk there on that day to create blessings in the midst of everything was quite wonderful for us.

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