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Role of Buddhism in cultivating inter-communal peace and harmony

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Buddhism is one religion which has never in its history anywhere in the world engaged in warfare to spread the Dhamma. Its scriptures do not preach violence as a means of conversion of people to Buddhism. World history does not record crusades undertaken for that purpose by Buddhism. This is not to denigrate other religions which have resorted to such means, for one needs to consider the context in which such things had happened before rushing into judgment, but to view everything in the right perspective at the beginning of this discussion.

Buddhism in Sri Lanka is in a position to protect all other religions and whatever cultures those religions may have developed in Sri Lanka, not only because it is the religion of the majority, but also due to its virtues such as religious tolerance, its pervasive compassion, respect for different views and particularly its denunciation of fundamentalism. Buddha in the Brahmajala Sutta (Diga Nikaya) had advised his disciples not to be displeased or generate rancour against anybody who speaks in disparaging language about the Buddha, Dhamma, Sanga.

More important is the Buddha’s opinion on religious fundamentalism. He had preached that one should not have dogmatic attachment to views and ideologies whether they are true or false. Such attachment could lead to the development of an attitude that states; “this view alone is true, all else is falls”. This type of attitude is defined by the Buddha as exclusivism (vide; Dhammasangani) which in religion could lead to religious fundamentalism. Buddha in his famous discourse on the Parable of the Raft says that his Dhamma is not for grasping but for crossing the river of samsara and the raft thereafter must be abandoned (Alagaddupama Sutta in Majjhima Nikaya). Buddha had discouraged religious fundamentalism amongst his disciples for it could lead to conflict and even war. Terrorist violence we experienced recently could have been due to religious fundamentalism.

Buddhism could be the protective religion for other religions not because Sri Lanka belongs to Sinhala Buddhists only. Indeed, it does not. Catholic, Hindu, Muslim religious leaders, have said that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country. To briefly clarify the matter, what one means when one says Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country is that it was Sinhala Buddhists who had built and protected the Sri Lankan civilisation which constitutes a nation. When Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith was questioned on this matter he said when one travels by helicopter one could see the ‘Stupa’ and the tanks together, the ‘Weva-dagaba’ concept, everywhere which is the symbol of Buddhist culture side by side. To identify Sri Lanka as Sinhala Buddhist is to make reference and give due recognition to this phenomenon. The good Cardinal had said that everybody in Sri Lanka had grown under the protective culture of Buddhism.

Buddhism could be the catalyst to bring to the surface all the goodness that resides in other religions and discourage evil if any. The Islamic fundamentalists who set off bombs in Catholic and Christian churches may have perhaps referred their scriptures, and disregarding context, focused on the content that recommends violence, and were motivated by it. Buddhist clergy and laity could by word and deed show that non-violence could be a very effective force. They must by their demeanour and action show how emotions could be controlled, and how non-violence work.

Instead if there is violence against fundamentalism as happened in Kalutara and Digana, the fundamentalists will never learn the wretchedness of violence, depravity of killing others and oneself and the importance of living in a Sinhala Buddhist country. They must see and feel the difference in Buddhism and life in a Sinhala Buddhist country. This cannot be achieved by attacking mosques and churches or harassing the minorities. They must feel they belong to Sri Lanka. They must feel that the famous singer late Mohideen Baig was right when he told his son that he will never go hungry as long as he lived among the Sinhalese. They must be made to feel that they belong to Sri Lanka. This is in the hands of the Buddhist clergy and laity.

Other religions on their part must appreciate the benign nature of Buddhism, its precept of non-violence, its ability to foster their religions and allow them to work in peace and harmony. Other religions must make use of these virtues of Buddhism and not abuse them. They must not make unfair and unethical advances, claims, and try to subvert the Buddhist culture that pervades the entire country. Instead it may be prudent to try and subject the cultural aspect of their religions to a process of localization or domestication, for instance in the areas of music, ritual, symbols and architecture. We see this happening in Catholic areas in the Western coast but seldom in the East coast’s Muslim areas. In fact, what we see there is a process of ‘Arabisation’. When we visit Kattankudy we feel as if we have come to the Middle East. This was apparently the experience of MP Prof. Marasinghe recently.

This kind of activity may hurt Buddhist sensitivity. After all Muslims happen to be in the East due to a kind gesture of a Kandyan king. Perhaps this kind of adaptation may be easier for Sinhala Christians as their culture is Sinhala Buddhist for their ancestors belonged to that culture before they were converted, which was often by unethical means and not conviction. Sinhala culture is inherent and visible particularly in the rural Christian folk if not in the urban westernised.

If religious harmony is to prevail unethical proselytizing, conversion without conviction for material benefits, has to be recognized as an evil for everybody. No genuine religious priest would attempt this kind of conversion. Only those who are tools in the hands of a global political power would engage in such unethical work. Stopping unethical conversions would go a long way in achieving religious peace and harmony. Paying lip service to peace while turning a blind eye to these happenings is to court disaster and to strengthen the hands of the extremists and pave the way for violent reaction which has the potential to trigger foreign interference in our internal affairs.

Buddhism seems to be slowly but surely gaining in strength internationally in providing a solution to the problems concerning peace of mind and harmony and control of greed. These changes are happening mainly in Europe and the US. In the US for instance, believers in Buddhism rose by 170 percent during the period from 1900 to 2000. This happened while successive generations moved away from belief in God and associated rituals. The majority comprising 53 percent of believers in Buddhism were white middle class highly educated young Americans and they had converted by conviction, 67 percent of American Buddhists had been raised in a religion other than Buddhism (Pew Foundation Survey, 2015; Russel Heimlich, 2008).

On the other hand the attraction of these groups to Islam and Hinduism is much less. This change had happened despite a concerted effort to prevent it. The main attraction of Buddhism has been its above-mentioned virtues and their final goal of peace achievable via its method of meditation. All this proves the point that Buddhism could play a role in uniting the people under one umbrella. In Sri Lanka it should be done by the priests and laity by word and deed. Whether politics would allow them is a moot point.

N.A. de S. Amaratunga

 

 



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Opinion

Another mother and son to be admired

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It was with a sense of awe, admiration and joy that I read the piece by Capt. Elmo Jayawardene in The Island of 25 Oct. 2021, on the achievements of Dr Pahalagedera Jayathilaka, a handicapped youth from almost the wilderness in a village called Dandu Bendi Ruppa in Nuwara Kalaviya who had achieved almost the impossible, gaining a super First Class from the University of Moratuwa and a PhD in Fluid Dynamics from the National University of Singapore. Thereafter he has been attached to the University of Oxford as a Research Scientist. All credit for his achievements has to go to his mother, Pahalagedera Dingiriamma who did everything within her means to enable her son to achieve the almost impossible, by cultivating vegetables to feed, educate and raise eight offspring.

Dr. Jayathilaka is a person we Sri Lankans have to be proud of and also get children to emulate his achievements. The most important thing about this patriotic son of the soil is that he wants to return to Sri Lanka and give something back to his motherland in return for the free education he has had. This is when most of the youth are clamouring to go abroad.

There is another mother and a handicapped son who have to be admired. The boy is Brian Eaton who had just received his Ordinary Level examination results and he has got A grades for all nine subjects. He was featured in the Sirasa TV programme Lakshapathi, which is the local equivalent of Who wants to be a millionaire. He lives with his mother, who is a seamstress, in Mattakkuliya. He is blind. He has read over 200 books in braille. The mother had to take him by bus to the Blind School in Ratmalana. It used to take about two hours to get to the school and another two hours to return home. As the mother had to wait till school is over, she used to take the material and cut same while waiting for her son. She does the sewing after returning home.

Though they are Christians, Brian had wanted to study Buddhism and seemed to know more about Buddhism than most Buddhist youth.

Brian was accommodated as a special case on the Lakshapathi programme without his having to face the “fastest finger first” selection process. His knowledge of all subjects was such that he was able to answer many questions without any assistance. He came up to the Rs. 2.0 million penultimate question without much difficulty and answered it correctly. Then it was the final question for the jackpot prize of Rs. 3.0 million. Brian decided to withdraw from the programme without attempting to answer the final question as he was not very sure. He withdrew securing Rs.2.0 million. Before he stepped down from the hot seat, the quiz master asked him what would have been his answer. And to everybody’s dismay the answer he gave was correct and he missed out on another Rs. one million.

Brian is an exceptional child who has successfully overcome all disabilities, with the untiring efforts of his mother, to reach the top of the programme which had evaded many of the normal children who had participated in this programme. We wish him success in all his future endeavours.

MH Nissanka Warakaulle

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Opinion

Warnapura: A colourful cricketing giant

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Bandula Warnapura secured his name in the annals of Sri Lankan cricket as the country’s first Test Cricket Captain. As Sri Lanka’s opening batter, he faced the first delivery bowled by Bob Willis during the inaugural test match played between Sri Lanka and England on the historic day of 17 Feb. 1982, at the P Sara Stadium (previously known as Colombo Oval), in Borella. Further, he scored the first test run for his country. Records are usually meant to be broken as it happens regularly in the sports arena world over. But Warnapura’s feats will never be disintegrated. What a privileged position to be in! It is an exceedingly rare combination of persistent commitment, endurance, and of course, luck, over a long period of time.

My happy memories of Bandula Warnapura were linked with our school days about 12 years prior to the country’s first test match.

I vividly remember his exceptional achievements during his school career at Nalanda College between 1968 and 1972. Towards the latter part of this period he rose to fame of an exceptional degree. His name became a common household one; in fact, no other school cricketer at the time received such media attention. Two other contemporary school cricketers who came close to him were Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias; a wonderful triumvirate who dominated school cricket in the early 1970’s.

In 1971, Warnapura everyone expected the batting machine to break the existing batting record of the Ananda – Nalanda annual cricket encounter (popularly known as “Battle of Maroons”) when he captained the Nalanda cricket team. However, he only managed to score half a century (53), which brought much disappointment to many cricket fans.

As a grade 9 student of Ananda College at the time, I still treasure fond memories of his record-breaking epic innings of 118 not out in 1972 at the big match. He broke the 44-year-old batting record (111) held by another Nalandian P M Jayatilaka in 1928. I was in the Ananda (rival) pavilion; the overwhelming expectation of the other boys of the Ananda pavilion was against him reaching a glorious century. However, I was quietly feeling happy for him and honestly wanted him to achieve the century and surpass the existing record. After breaking the then batting record, the Nalanda pavilion was ecstatic and Bandula Warnapura became a school cricketing legend. I remember well, the legendary cricket commentator Premasara Epasinghe staunchly supporting Warnapura throughout his career.

W arnapura’s subsequent cricketing career was remarkable and by accident in 1979 he captained SriLanka and won a World Cup match against the star-studded Indian team (Gavaskar, Kapil Dev et al.). Most believe that as an ICC associate member, beating an ICC full member was the precursor state for the elevation of the Island nation to the test status in 1981. It was a dream come true for all cricket fans in Sri Lanka. However, at this time around, Warnapura’s cricketing career was on the decline and ended abruptly after the ill-advised rebel South Africa tour in 1984.

Bandula Warnapura’s sad demise at a relatively young age is indeed extremely sorrowful news.

Thank you Bandula for giving us fond memories with great nostalgia during our school days. May you have a fruitful journey of sansara and finally attain the supreme bliss of nibbana!

Prof Ananda Jayasinghe

University of Peradeniya

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Opinion

Ali Sabry’s equation

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by Rohana R. Wasala

Justice Minister Ali Sabry is reported to have said the traditional brand of Islamism which has been practised by Muslims in Sri Lanka for centuries has to be preserved while the religion should not be practised according to the likes of one group. He reportedly made this remark after taking part in a religious ceremony at the Dewatagaha Mosque, Colombo. (This architecturally impressive place of Islamic worship is a proud national monument situated at the heart of the commercial capital; it is a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of Muslims with Sri Lankans of other faiths.) The Minister is reported to have added that unity among Muslims in Sri Lanka should also be preserved just like preserving unity among various religious and ethnic groups.

Sri Lankans of all beliefs interested in the early restoration of the externally disturbed customary religious and communal harmony subscribe to that laudable view with the necessary alterations. But will his equation of Islam with Islamism work in the current context.

(CAVEAT: There is no way to check the authenticity of the news report in question unless Minister Ali Sabry confirms or denies what is claimed in it about him. It has not been indicated in which language he expressed these ideas. Did he actually use the words Islam and Islamism speaking in English or their equivalents speaking in another language, or has the media arbitrarily translated into English, using those two terms, what the speaker said in another language?)

But for the purpose of this essay, I assume that the Minister’s words have been reported accurately. I don’t know whether Muslims in Sri Lanka have started using the words Islam and Islamism interchangeably, which, of course, I’d have thought, is a near impossibility, given the universally recognised difference in meaning between the two terms. Google.com defines Islam as ‘the religion of the Muslims, a monotheistic faith regarded as revealed through Muhammad as the Prophet of Allah’. Islamism on the other hand, is generally taken to mean Islamist fundamentalism associated with violent militancy, which is purely a religiopolitical movement. The Wikipedia defines Islamism thus: “Islamism (also often called political Islam or Islamic fundamentalism) is a political ideology which posits that modern states and regions should be reconstituted in constitutional, economic and judicial terms, in accordance with what is conceived as a revival or a return to authentic Islamic practice in its totality”.

(By the way, the Wikipedia is no longer regarded as an easily available smart tool for the amateur researcher for the reason that the entries are made by voluntary editors at various levels of scholarship and academic authority and authenticity. The Wikipedia user must be sufficiently educated and well informed to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. In this case, the definition given is sound enough.) Explaining the relation between Islam and Islamism, the Wikipedia says:

“The relationship between the notions of Islam and Islamism has been subject to disagreement. Hayri Abaza argues that the failure to distinguish between Islam and Islamism leads many in the West to support illiberal Islamic regimes, to the detriment of progressive moderates who seek to separate religion from politics. A writer for the International Crisis Group maintains that “the conception of ‘political Islam’” is a creation of Americans to explain the Iranian Islamic Revolution and (that) apolitical Islam was a historical fluke of the “short-lived era of the heyday of secular Arab nationalism between 1945 and 1970”, and it is quietist-political Islam, not Islamism, that requires explanation.

“Another source distinguishes Islamist from Islamic “by the fact that the latter refers to a religion and culture in existence over a millennium, whereas the first is a political/religious phenomenon linked to the great events of the 20th century”. Islamists have, at least at times, defined themselves as “Islamiyyoun/Islamists” to differentiate themselves from Muslimun/Muslims. Daniel Pipes describes Islamism as a modern ideology that owes more to European utopian ideologies and “isms” than to traditional Islamic religion.”

When Ali Sabry reportedly made the particular remark, he probably had in mind what the Wiki quote refers to as ‘quietist or political Islam’ (which, in common parlance, is called ‘moderate Islam’). Moderate Islam is not regarded as a problem, but Islamism definitely is. It need not be reiterated that the problem of Islamism affects the whole world. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, Islamic/Islamist fundamentalism came to prominence relatively recently, although it has been smoldering since the mid-20th century as some commentators have pointed out. Given this background, responsible speakers do not use the two words (Islam and Islamism) as alternatives. I believe that minister Ali Sabry speaks as a responsible person. That is why I am sceptical about what has been reported of his speech. But these are strange times. Anything is possible.

However, it is somewhat inconceivable that Ali Sabry, who has been entrusted by the President with such a great responsibility or an array of responsibilities as he bears in a government that sought election on the main platform of “One Law, One Country” and that is poised to bring in a new constitution, made this thoughtless identification of Islam with Islamism.

The President wanted to assure the Muslim community that they were safe and would not be subjected to discrimination under his rule, particularly in the face of incursions into Sri Lanka of rampant Islamist extremism, although most Muslims did not vote for him at the presidential election in November 2019. It is conceivable that the President’s more important aim in appointing Ali Sabry to that key post was to enlist the participation of the Muslim community in governance despite their implicit initial refusal of his goodwill. It is unlikely that Ali Sabry has forgotten this.

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