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Politicking and ‘selling’ Buddhism

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

“We will take trade union action in 48 hours, if our demands are not met” was the rallying cry of a trade union leader, in the midst of a grave national health emergency, which shocked me for more reason than one. Although the initial grasp in controlling the Covid-19 epidemic seems to have been lost, for whatever reason, and the problem in Sri Lanka is nothing compared to what is happening in the rest of the world around 300 dying daily of the deadly virus in UK, still we are facing a grave situation as our battered economy is not likely to withstand any more challenges. In this situation an implied strike, to say the least, is grossly irresponsible.

What is this trade union? A nurses’ union. Are they not supposed to be healing angels? Who is the leader of this union? A Buddhist Priest! Has he forgotten what the Buddha said: “Health is the greatest gain” and “He who would minister to me should minister to the sick”? For a Buddhist priest to even suggest risking patients’ lives is the greatest insult that could be done to the ‘Compassionate One’ who introduced the concepts of ‘Metta, Karuna. Muditha and Upeksha’.It is a great shame that nurses in Sri Lanka, who are second to none, are not able to find a member of their own profession to lead their trade union. In the country that produced the first female prime minister in the world, is there no lady with leadership qualities to lead the union of a profession still largely dominated by women? It indeed is an outrage for a Buddhist priest to be the leader of a trade union, nursing or otherwise and do hope the new Constitution would rectify this anomaly.

Obviously, this priest is politicking. Whilst 20A was being discussed in Parliament he had the audacity to say at a press conference: “If they want to amend the Constitution, they should get our permission first!” Has he forgotten that the government is there to carry out the will of the people, not that of the Sangha? Let him and the other politicking bhikkhus be reminded that Sri Lanka does not belong to them nor to Sinhala Buddhists alone, but to all children of Mother Lanka irrespective of race, religion or caste.

His latest offer to lead the Opposition is hilarious! Has he forgotten that the people voted Sajith for this role? He may be trying to emulate another Buddhist Monk who led the anti-Rajapaksa campaign, which resulted in our having to endure, for almost five years, a rotten Yahapalanaya. Shameless Yahapalana politicians are now trying to get behind the robe of this trade unionist! Sajith, perhaps realising his inadequacies as the leader of the Opposition, has visited him! Not to be outdone, Ranil also has made a courtesy call! Is this not the hypocrisy of the highest order?

It is true that Bhikkhus have come to the rescue of the country at times of national peril but that does not entitle them to play a part in daily politics, which some of them are doing in various guises. Bhikkhus entered Parliament and behaved as disgracefully as other elected ‘honourable’ politicians. There were brawls in the well of the House. Disappointed Buddhists stopped voting for Bhikkhus although a party which was formed by them got a seat on the national list but the debacle that followed can only be equalled to antics of the now-doomed UNP!

Did the Buddha get involved in politics? Did He go around proffering unsolicited advice to the rulers? Definitely not. He maintained a distance and recognised the fact that rulers had to make unpalatable choices at times. He gave advice only when it was sought but some of the modern day ‘political priests’ not only attempt to be kingmakers but also threaten to bring down governments when they refuse to do what they want, sometimes personal favours.

Another glaring example of Bhikkhus’ putting their self-interest before what the Buddha taught and practised is the utterly disgraceful action of perpetuating the caste system. The Buddha rebelled against the caste system but some members of the Maha Sangha are more interested in protecting their caste by forming exclusive nikayas. I need not go further, as I discussed this in detail in my article “Have we let down Gautama Buddha” (The Island, 8 May 2020), except to pose the question: Have they not read Agganna sutta?

I have heard rumours that some Bhikkhus are charging for bana preachings (sermons) in various guises: Dhamma for sale! However, first-hand confirmation of this came with a recent conversation I had with one of my very dear friends who, unfortunately, lost his daughter to cancer: “When the Hamuduruwo, a renowned preacher whom I invited to the Mataka-Bana sent a message that he needed Rs. 25,000 I was shocked. I had only Rs. 15,000 cash with me which I sent”. This Bhikkhu discharged his noble responsibility for a fee! He is not alone. I am told that a famous preacher has upped his fee to Rs. 75,000! Some others insist that they need their own sound system and charge for that; a simple ruse to sell the Dhamma! We get enraged when a foreigner exhibits a tattoo of the Buddha but venerate and encourage these businessmen in robes!

I am reminded that Ven, Walpola Rahula accepted invitations to bana Preaching’s on the express understanding that no pirikara was offered. In his writings he mentions how guilty he felt after receiving an umbrella after a bana preaching. He feels he may have indicated that he needed an umbrella but from the time he received it, every time he looked at it, guilt overcame him that he had sold the Dhamma. I can well understand devotees’ desire to make an offering as we are made to believe that it adds to our good karma. Just to satisfy that desire if a Bhikkhu accepts a pirikara, perhaps it may be construed as harmless but to preach for a free is despicable.

Ignoring the profound dhamma expounded by the Buddha, some Bhikkhus have specialised in telling stories, worse still spreading canards, the latest being that the Buddha was born in Sri Lanka. I would love this to be true, but unfortunately, there is no archaeological evidence even to prove this. Bhante Dhammika of Australia has written an excellent article disproving this and showing where the Buddha was actually born on the basis of archaeological evidence (Was the Buddha born in Sri Lanka? Sunday Island, 25 October). Still, there are many who continue to believe that the Buddha was born in Sri Lanka despite overwhelming archaeological evidence to the contrary.

The greatest achievement of the Buddha has been empowering us to seek our own destiny; freeing us from any supernatural overlords. He gave us freedom of thought and laid the foundation for the scientific basis of analysis of questions. He walked miles and miles, most likely barefoot, to pass on His message to all and sundry, explaining his dhamma in such a way that everybody understood it. During his travels, on most nights, the Buddha must have slept under a tree gazing at the night sky. His bed would have been nothing more than a folded robe. In contrast, what do some of His followers do today? They live in opulence—some of them even boast of having attained Enlightenment—seek power and profit by selling the dhamma.

Due to the deplorable actions of a few, unfortunately, the entire Sangha may be tainted as there are many with hidden agendas bent on discrediting the Sangha. I do offer my apologies to the Bhikkhus who do yeoman’s service if this article has hurt their feelings. In one of the suttas, the Buddha has stated that when bad monks ordain and train other monks, they too become bad; then the Sangha will go into decline. I do hope we are not there yet and that these learned monks would take corrective action.



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Features

Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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