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Is the Buddha’s teaching lost on us?

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By Geewananda Gunawardana, Ph.D.

My high school teacher, late professor Kotagama Wachissara Thero, told us that there is no “ism” in what the Buddha taught. “You are too young to grasp this, but think about it when you get a chance,” he advised. Now, after five decades of searching, I can relate to it; but as I have seen it repeatedly, saying it out loud is going against tradition. However, seeing the current situation in the Buddhist majority country, I thought, perhaps, the time has come to address this circular reasoning, however awkward and risky it may be.

The term Buddhism was coined by late nineteenth century western scholars to describe diverse practices that were based on the Buddha’s teaching. The suffix “ism” is mostly used to describe a religion, a set of organised beliefs, practices, and systems that most often relate to the belief and worship of a controlling force, such as a personal god or another supernatural being. We cannot find fault with those scholars; it is hard to deny that Buddhism as practised has many of those characteristics if not all: pantheon, mysticism, rituals, and beliefs. There is nothing wrong with religion if it fulfills the needs of the follower. In fact, being religious has many benefits that range from providing mental and physical wellbeing to forming social networks. Often, there are spiritual and cultural elements associated with religions as well. The snag here is that not only does the Teaching not include any of those characteristics, but it also eschews them.

What I would like to discuss here is how far away Buddhism has drifted from the teachings. Over two and a half millennia ago, the Buddha started an intellectual and ethical movement based on a set of truths he discovered about nature and the place humans occupy in it. This is often stated as “seeing things as they really are” (yathabutha nanadassana) and living accordingly. The premise is that once one understands this truth with wisdom, he or she will lead a harmonious life that is beneficial to themselves, society, and the entire world, both here now and hereafter. Nibbana is seeing things as they really are at the highest level (Karunadasa 2013).

What did the Buddha teach? Assaji, one of the first five disciples of the Buddha, was asked the same question by Upatissa, who later became known as Sariputta, one of the two chief disciples of the Buddha. Assaji replied “All phenomena arise from causes; Those causes have been taught by the Tathagata, and their cessation too has been proclaimed by the Great Samana” (Ye dhammaā hetuppabhavaā tesam hetum Tathagato āaha, Tesan-ca yo nirodho – evam vadi Mahasamano).

This statement by Assaji is the most concise yet complete description of the Teaching found in the literature. It was so illuminating that Upatissa became a stream entrant (sotapanna) upon hearing it. Some scholars fail to recognise the significance of this simple statement, but it captures the fundamentals of Buddha’s teaching in its entirety: Codependent Arising, Three Characteristics of Life, and the Four Noble Truths. Teaching is an in-depth analysis of the human mind, which modern neuroscience is just beginning to reinvent. There is nothing in the Teaching that is attributed to beliefs or supernatural powers. All that was the result of human intelligence. For the same reasons, the Teaching is accessible to the wise, here, and now (sanditthiko akaliko…). The path to develop the mind to “see things as they really are” as they relate to the human condition, has three requisites: conduct, tranquility or harmony, and wisdom. None of that has anything to do with beliefs, rituals, or mysticism.

If so, how did Buddhism acquire the beliefs, practices, and rituals that are extraneous to the Teaching? India was teeming with religious movements during the time of the Buddha. During the six years prior to enlightenment, Prince Siddhartha studied under several thought leaders of the time, and found their doctrines unsatisfactory. The enlightenment or the Buddha’s rediscovery of eternal truths was a response or a repudiation of the prevailing views, Brahmanism in particular. He gave new meanings to Brahminic concepts such as gods, karma, and rebirth. Even the Four Noble Truths was a repudiation of several contemporary theories on human condition.

This dynamical interaction of the Teaching with the prevailing theories, traditions, and beliefs of the societies that accepted it took place during the Buddha’s time; and this process has been ongoing ever since. For example, it is not difficult to identify the customs of Sri Lankan Buddhists that were added in reaction to Christian missionary activities, or the rituals started during the war years. The Buddha did not reject the acceptance or presence of other traditions among his followers for several reasons. First, his teaching is grounded in truths and can be empirically verified by the wise. Anyone can see if they benefit from the truth irrespective of their affiliations. Therefore, his Teaching prevailed, and will continue to be so in the future, at least among the wise. The operating word here is “wise,” and the Buddha emphasised this fact in his famous advice to the Kalamas:

“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.”

Second, the Buddha was able to reinterpret or give new meanings to existing beliefs and practices if they did not contradict the truth. Many Brahmins became his disciples after the Buddha convinced them that their practices and beliefs can have deeper new meanings. If the practices or beliefs were contradictory to the Teaching or futile, he rejected them. The Vedic practice of animal sacrifice was one of them. That is the key question: do our beliefs and practices do any harm?

It is not correct to conclude that all such acquisitions are detrimental. However, to make that determination, we must heed the advice to Kalamas, take a critical look at our practices and beliefs, and evaluate their validity or benefits. Admittedly, this is a difficult undertaking. The irony is that tradition prevents us from questioning tradition. One can say that this is a form of suppression of critical thinking.

It is noteworthy that the three main schools of Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana are all based on the Four Noble Truths, but their practices, customs, and beliefs vary widely. This diversity arose as a result of absorbing the practices, customs, and beliefs that existed in the lands that embraced the Teaching.  Theravadins reason that their school being the oldest, they are the closest to the Teaching. That may be the case, but when its history is examined, it cannot be denied that Theravada school had not been immune to the transformative forces that shaped the other schools over millennia. For example, the Abhayagiri and Jethavana monasteries had been thriving Mahayana centers. When they were consolidated with the Mahavihara monastery in the 12th century, the new Theravada tradition adopted most of the Mahayana practices and beliefs but kept the Pali Canon (Rahula 1956).

The glaring proof that the Teaching is lost on us is the moral bankruptcy of the nation that led to the equally horrific economic bankruptcy. Moral and ethical conduct is at the root of the Noble Path; however, it appears that this has been fully and completely ignored at all levels of society. For example, if two of the five precepts were adhered to at a minimum, would the country have ended up as the most corrupt and lawless one in the region? The second indication is the rapid rate of introduction of new rituals that are blatantly against the Teaching, and often criminal according to the law.  While the entire nation and the country’s future suffer due to ethical and moral failures, it is the innocent pious who fall victim to these scams disguised as meritorious actions.

It is difficult to pinpoint the origins of these malaises, but it is not surprising that they do exist considering the checkered history of Buddhism in the country. Even though we would like to think that there is an unbroken lineage between the canonical materials and the sangha to the Buddha’s times, that does not mean it is free of extraneous material. The canon that was brought to Sri Lanka had been supplemented for over two centuries under Brahminic influence, and there is no evidence that Emperor Asoka made any distinction between Sthavira and Mahasamghika sects that had different opinions. The original Sri Lankan texts do not exist, and only portions of their Pali translations survived in Sri Lanka. The missing sections were brought back from other countries in recent times. The Sri Lankan Bhikkhuni community disappeared, and the Bhikkhu community escaped near extinction thanks to repeated reintroduction of ordination from other countries, also in relatively recent times. There were many opportunities for the incorporation of extraneous materials into the tradition during this eventful history.

The most influential addition in this process was the belief that the Teaching cannot be comprehended beyond the first millennium after Parinirvana, even though the Pali stanza venerating the Teaching states quite the opposite. Once the original ideal became inaccessible under this premise, the followers were offered a new goal: collect merits so that one can assure rebirth in superior realms until the arrival of Maitreya Buddha when the liberation can be achieved, a concept not found in the Teaching. For more immediate needs, followers started turning to supernatural powers, as their ancestors did before the arrival of Buddhism. The merits gathering and petitionary prayers or offerings have turned into bartering systems: exchange of material things or services for some benefits in return. This is the opposite of giving (dana) to suppress attachment to worldly things as the Teaching prescribes.

There are two ways in which this mindset can harm society. One is the notion that the consequences of ethical or moral violations can be balanced or compensated by meritorious actions, like balancing withdrawals and deposits in a bank account. This gives the opportunity to cover nefarious activities behind bogus meritorious ones.  Another is the use of rituals by unscrupulous agents to exploit hapless devotees and depriving them of precious resources that can be used to improve the living conditions in these difficult times. In essence, merit has become a commodity item. Obviously, building shrines at every street corner, offering robes (kapruka pooja) and medicinal products (oushada pooja) to stupas, or having light displays on special days are no substitutes for lack of morals and ethics. The practice of offering material things and prayers to structures or trees predates the Buddha, and the Teaching eschews such rituals. Not only that, but the current trend has taken them to extremes: there is a belief that one can gain more merits by lighting more lamps or offering more flowers or broadcasting the chanting louder and falling victim to consumerism and commercialisation. Failing to see the practicality of offering the best food one can afford to the statue to be discarded later, compared to feeding a child that goes to school hungry. The Buddha never condoned giving offerings or praying to inanimate objects or higher powers. Most of these rituals are much later additions to the practice; what may have started as symbolic gestures are given new meanings that go against the teaching.

One may argue that these are academic matters that are devoid of any practical implications. That is far from the truth. The effects of these practices will add up over time, as happened with the economy. Aside from the spiritual aspects, they can cause major economic and social upheavals. A major concern expressed by certain parties is that Buddhism in Sri Lanka is under threat. The truth is that the threat comes from within. Those who cry wolf are the same people who cause it and prevent us from realizing it, because they have much to lose if we discover the truth. We the people are caught up in this circular reasoning: It is against tradition to challenge tradition.

As the Kalama Sutta states, we must think rationally, and escape from this circular reasoning. The reality is that our practices have drifted away from What the Buddha Taught. If we do not stop this drift, the connection could be lost forever. Ironically, we are supposed to be the people chosen to safeguard the Teaching. We as a nation have done a commendable job in preserving it. We have not lost the Teaching, but the Teaching is lost on us.



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Opinion

Harin batting for India

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The Minister of Tourism, Harin Fernando, has stated that the Sri Lankan Government will be handing over the operation of Mattala International, Ratmalana International and Colombo International Airports to India. He has added that Sri Lanka is a part of India! Has he lost his senses?

Separately, should it not be the role of the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva to make such a far-reaching decision?

Mattala, Ratmalana and Colombo are the three main airports of entry to Sri Lanka. Giving their management over to Indian organisations is tantamount to putting the proverbial snake inside one’s sarong and complaining that it is stinging.

What then will be the future of Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL)? They are, in any case, a ‘service provider’.

It is the responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka through its regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), to adhere to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements and regulations. Will this be compromised?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines for airport governance declare that the State (in this case Sri Lanka) must be accountable irrespective of national, legal or regulatory framework, or airport ownership and operating model. Could that be ensured under this recently announced arrangement?

Such accountability must be guaranteed by enactment of primary legislation in the aviation sector, mindful of the adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I believe that the Legal Draughtsman’s Office will take an inordinate amount of time to deliver this guarantee, amongst other things.

There is also the matter of establishing an effective regulatory framework with CAASL to monitor technical/safety and economic performance of the aviation sector, and compliance with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) obligations, Standard and Recommended Procedures (SARPs), and policy guidance.

In my opinion CAASL is not yet capable of that. In a combined operation such as this, IATA stipulates “Awareness and mitigation of potential conflicts of interest inherent in the regulatory framework or ownership and operating model through clear separation of powers, for example conflicts between economic oversight and shareholding arrangements, and separation of regulatory and operational functions”.

So, it is not an ‘open-and-shut case’, as Fernando believes. It is complex. His optimism is amazingly unrealistic, to say the least.

Remember, certification of aerodromes by the technical/safety regulator under ICAO requirements will continue to be carried out by CAASL as at present. According to the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), report Sri Lankan regulators tend to be more “obstructive” than “facilitative” when it comes to certification. CAASL needs to be revamped for greater efficiency.

Other refinements involve the independence of regulatory authority (CAASL) from government, and striving for separation of economic regulation from technical/safety regulation. CAASL was formed under the ‘Private Companies Ordinance’ but unfortunately it has drifted back to conducting its business as a regular government office, with political interference and all.

Besides, it is vital to establish an Aircraft Accident Investigation Authority, preferably independent of the CAA. Annex 13 to the ICAO convention says: “The State shall establish an accident authority that is independent of the aviation authorities and other entities that could interfere with the conduct or objectivity of an investigation.”

That, I believe, is what ‘checks and balances’ are about.

Meanwhile, the silence of the Aviation Minister is deafening.

The proposed ‘Indian involvement’ is a sad state of affairs when we have aviation experts in this country who have retired from careers in many parts of the world, and are now capable of sharing their knowledge and experience to good effect.

There is already an Indian-managed flying school at Ratmalana catering to Indian students. Maybe the camel has already put its head in the tent, and only money will talk.

GUWAN SEEYA

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Opinion

Pledges to abolish executive presidency

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With the presidential elections around the corner, the abolition of the executive presidency has come up for discussion once again.

This time around, the proposal for abolishing the executive presidency has come from former President Chandrika B. Kumaratunga. She pledged to scrap it first when she ran for Presidency in 1994. But she did not fulfil her promise.

Former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena are also now for scrapping the executive presidency.

Almost all the former Presidents came to power promising to scrap it but once in power they swept it under the carpet.

The Opposition parties claim they are for the abolition, but after the next presidential election. which, they say, they are confident of winning.

Mahinda has recently said it is preferable to abolish the executive presidency because he has already held it twice. However, he seems to have forgotten that he was greedy for power and he failed in his third attempt. For him and most other past Presidents, executive presidency is sour grapes.

They are now trying to have the executive presidency abolished in the hope that they will be able secure the premiership.

Ironically, Anura K Dissanayake, NPP leader and presidential candidate is against the abolition of the executive presidency as he is confident of winning the next presidential election.

So, all of them are in the same boat and one thing is clear; whoever becomes President will never have it abolished.

The campaign for scrapping the executive presidency will go in circles, forever.

Dr. P.A. Samaraweera 

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Opinion

Dispelling Misconceptions: Visionary Future of an NPP-led Sri Lanka

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NPP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake taking part in a protest (file photo)

by Shantha Jayarathne, PhD

In recent discussions, concerns have emerged about the National People’s Power (NPP) in Sri Lanka, with some fearing a return to outdated communist traditions if the party ascends to power. These apprehensions, often fueled by political agendas, particularly target those with limited political literacy. This article aims to dispel these misconceptions and shed light on the NPP’s forward-looking vision for a progressive and prosperous Sri Lanka.

Coalition of Visionaries

Contrary to the narrative peddled by certain factions, it’s essential to recognise that the NPP represents a diverse coalition of 22 parties and civil society organisations, with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) as its main partner. Importantly, both the NPP and JVP members boast of a commendable track record, free from accusations of corruption, nepotism, or cronyism. Nominations are filed for any election from the NPP under the “Compass” symbol, and contestants with high repute and integrity will be drawn from all 22 constituent parties in the broad coalition.

A Clear Development Roadmap

The NPP has consistently articulated a comprehensive roadmap for the development of Sri Lanka. Emphasising the importance of a thriving Agriculture, Industry, and Service sectors, the party is committed to eliminating barriers hindering investments. Corruption, favouritism, and covert dealings of officials and people with vested interests will be totally eliminated under an NPP government. Furthermore, the NPP pledges to introduce efficient systems, ensuring minimal delays and promoting a business-friendly environment that attracts both local and foreign investors.

Government’s Primary Obligations

Addressing fears of property takeover, the NPP asserts that its government will not engage in business activities but will focus on essential public utility services, education, health, social security, and defence to ensure the well-being and security of the nation. NPP will not only encourage local investments but also it will take all possible measures to attract foreign direct investments. State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) facing financial challenges will undergo restructuring with utmost transparency, fostering efficiency and accountability.

Business Friendly Environment

The NPP is dedicated to creating a level playing field for businesses by implementing regulations inspired by the most developed economies. Consistent antitrust laws, investment protection laws, and laws that are inconsistent and complex will be amended or new laws will be enacted to ensure fair competition and safeguard business interests. By fostering an environment that encourages innovation and competition, the NPP aims to boost economic growth and prosperity. NPP plans to streamline the systems and process to facilitate investments within the shortest possible timeframe whereby it aims to take Sri Lanka in the Ease of Doing Business Index from 99th position today to a position within the first 50. The Cooperative system will be strengthened in an NPP government and they will be regulated to deliver an effective and efficient service to the periphery.

Transparent Tax Policy

Simplifying Sri Lanka’s tax policy is a priority for the NPP, aiming to create a transparent and tax-friendly environment. NPP will ensure a stable and consistent progressive tax policy in the country, and all regressive taxes will be eliminated. Citizens will be provided with clear information at the end of the Tax Year on how their tax contributions are utilised for public services, promoting accountability and citizen engagement. This transparency is crucial for building trust between the government and its citizens.

Learning from Developed Countries

Taking lessons from successful models of governance in developed countries, an NPP government will strive to implement best practices in public administration. Emphasising the importance of accountable institutions, streamlined bureaucracy, and effective public service delivery, the party is committed to ensuring transparency and efficiency in governance. There will be a minimum number of cabinet ministries for key areas, and their roles and functions will be clearly defined while making the officials accountable to their respective assigned functions. Zero tolerance for corruption and the law of the land will be applied to everyone alike.

Economic Adjustments and IMF Negotiations

Acknowledging the need for economic stability, the NPP plans to initiate negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This strategic move aims to strike a balance between economic adjustments and safeguarding the livelihoods of the people in the country. The NPP is dedicated to ensuring that any economic reforms are implemented with a people-centric approach, minimising adverse effects on the general population and the industry.

Nonaligned Foreign Policy

The NPP upholds a nonaligned foreign policy, reflecting a commitment to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence. While fostering international relations, the party is resolute in not allowing foreign nations to utilise Sri Lanka’s soil for military purposes. This stance ensures that the country remains neutral and independent in its dealings with other nations, safeguarding national interests and security.

Repositioning Sri Lanka in the World Order

A central tenet of the NPP’s vision is the repositioning of Sri Lanka in the global context. The party is dedicated to identifying and leveraging the country’s potentials, addressing weaknesses, seizing opportunities, and managing threats, both internal and external. This strategic approach aims to elevate Sri Lanka’s standing on the world stage, fostering positive engagement with the international community.

Quality of Life Improvement

A key focus of the NPP government is enhancing the quality of life for all citizens. The party recognises the importance of social welfare, healthcare, education, and infrastructure development in elevating living standards. By prioritising these aspects, the NPP aims to create a society where every citizen can enjoy a higher quality of life, emphasising the well-being and prosperity of the people.

Addressing False Propaganda

Amidst the misconceptions surrounding the NPP, it is crucial to address the motivations behind certain groups disseminating false propaganda. The fearmongering tactics employed by those with vested interests seek to perpetuate a status quo that has allowed for ill-gotten wealth and alleged illegal transactions. These groups, resistant to change, attempt to sway public opinion by sowing seeds of doubt about the NPP’s commitment to a fair and just governance model.

However, when one closely examines the NPP’s dedication to transparency, efficient governance, and inclusive development, it becomes evident that these accusations are nothing more than a desperate attempt to cling to the shadows of a fading era. The party’s emphasis on tackling corruption, restructuring inefficient State-Owned Enterprises, and simplifying the tax policy directly challenges the interests of those who have thrived in an environment of opacity and undue influence.

As citizens, it is paramount to discern the true intentions behind such narratives and recognize the NPP as a force poised to break free from the shackles of corruption and vested interests. By supporting the NPP’s vision, Sri Lankans have the opportunity to usher in a new era – one marked by ethical governance, economic prosperity, and a society that prioritises the well-being of its people over the interests of a privileged few.

In conclusion, the NPP stands not only as a political entity but as a beacon of hope, calling on the people to embrace change, reject false narratives, and collectively forge a path towards a brighter and more equitable future.

(The Writer, a UK resident, is a former Senior Consultant at the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration (SLIDA). He is a member of the NPP-Policy Development Team, and he can be reached through email: shantha323@gmail.com)

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