Embracing the Wave of Compassion: Kushil, Seenigama and Collingwood Footie Men

Martin Flanagan, Courtesy of The Age, 9 October 2010 — with title expanded or the benefit of Sri Lankans

I MET Kushil Gunasekera at the AFL on Monday morning as the Collingwood story was breaking. He was talking to Brett Kirk. They were discussing Buddhism.

Kushil is the manager of Muthiah Muralitharan, the greatest wicket-taker in the history of Test cricket. He is also the founder of the Foundation for Goodness which started in 1999 but became critical after the 2004 tsunami that destroyed Kushil’s village on the south coast of Sri Lanka. “The waves of destruction were followed by waves of compassion,” says Kushil. He is a 54-year-old of middle height with a near permanent smile.

The son of a lawyer, he went away to school. When he came home he was struck by the fact that there were kids in the village brighter and more skilful than himself whose lives were going nowhere because they didn’t have shoes or a good diet or school books. In 1999, he gifted a villa he owned in the village for use as an education centre. His business was the sugar trade but in 2000 he was co-opted into organising the under-19 cricket World Cup. That’s when he met Muralidaran. “Muthiah is a caring man,” he says. Kushil is Sinhalese, Muthiah is a Tamil  the two groups have been fighting a civil war for the past 20 years. But, before long, Muthiah was part of the Foundation of Goodness and Kushil was his manager. Then, two years ago, Kushil gave up his various businesses to “serve humanity”.

Murali etching by Joe HoadMuthiah was to come to his village on the day the tsunami hit. “Muthiah is never late for appointments,” says Kushil. “He is always 10 minutes early.” But this day, his fiancee had flown in from India and there was a meeting “between the mothers”. The function Muthiah was to attend was scheduled to start at 10am. At 9.33, Kushil heard people running through the village crying out, “The sea’s coming!” He had no idea what they meant.

He ran to the gates of the villa, turned around and then, in a blink, the sea was past him with waves he estimates were a metre in height. He saw an old woman being tossed about in one. Running back inside the villa, he got the kids and their parents together and ran for the local Buddhist temple, which is on higher ground. When he got there he heard stories of parents who gave up one child at the expense of another because they could not hold on to both in the torrent.

Sri Lanka has the same population as Australia in an island as big as Tasmania. From Kushil’s village of 1000 people, 125 died. From his part of the coast  an area roughly the size of Tasmania’s north-west coast  10,000 lives were lost. When he returned to his village, it was a scene of mud and rubble and dead bodies. He thought: “How am I going to resurrect this village?”

It was Muthiah who said to him: “We’re going to re-build 1000 houses.” Thinking he was joking, Kushil said: “Are you talking about building a thousand houses or taking a thousand wickets?” Muthiah said: “We’ll do it.” And they did. They were helped by Shane Warne, who came with a 60 Minutes television crew. After that, says Kushil, “kindness multiplied”. Steve Waugh is another to have assisted, sponsoring the construction of seven houses. The Victorian government built 84 houses with modern amenities. Kushil says Australians are “a benevolent people”.

Last year, Kushil attended an international conference on reconciliation in Jordan engineered by a remarkable pair of Melbourne academics, Paul Komesaroff and Paul James. Also at the conference were Geelong vice-president Gareth Andrews and former Test cricketer Paul Sheahan. What impressed Sheahan about Kushil was that “here was a man who was prepared to sacrifice his economic security for his beliefs”.

Andrews interested the AFL Players’ Association in Kushil’s work, particularly Pippa Grange, who was the AFLPA psychologist. In Sheahan’s words, “Pippa put the rubber to the road” in terms of getting a project up and running from this end. As a result, four players – Kirk, Adam Goodes, Richard Tambling and Brad Sewell, together with Goodes’s brother Brett  left for Sri Lanka on Monday.

I spoke to Kirk before they left and asked if he was looking forward to Sri Lanka. He said: “I try not to have expectations.” That’s the Buddhist idea that you live in the present, in the now. There was a moment of high comedy after Kirk’s last game when boundary rider Andy Maher shoved a microphone in his face and sought to have him reflect on his career.

Reflect on his career?! All Kirk could stammer was that he wanted to be present for his teammates. Asking him to reflect on his career at that moment was like asking a boxer who has just had a world title fight to tell you the detail of his last day job. Their power lies in being “present”.

Stories like the one involving the two Collingwood players always trigger generalisations about footballers. I told Kushil that, right now, Brett Kirk is one of the most interesting men in Australian sport and that he’s brave, very brave. I said that Adam Goodes is an emerging leader in indigenous Australia. One of Kushil’s sayings is: “It’s not what you take, but what you leave behind.”

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