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Whither the Sangha and Buddha Sasana?

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Being a Buddhist by birth, with only a basic understanding of Buddhist teachings, one might question my competence to say what follows. However, as a keen observer of what goes on around me, I feel confident and justified in what I say. Although I am nowhere near perfect, I feel there is an obligation on my part to highlight the glaring problems in the Buddha Sasana at present.

The Buddha Sasana is nourished and sustained by four-fold groups; Bhikkhu, Bhikkhuni, Upasaka, Upasika. The first two groups are supposed to have renounced all worldly pleasures, embarking on a path, leading eventually to Nirvana. The other groups, while following the Buddhist way of life for their own salvation, have the added responsibility of looking after the interests of the former, who by the very nature of their undertaking cannot sustain themselves, for their basic worldly needs for survival and emancipation. The bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, while fulfilling their aims by abiding by the vows pledged, have a supreme obligation to preserve and perpetuate the pristine teachings of the Enlightened One, and to guide the laymen on the correct path. These interdependent components are essential for the survival of the Buddha Sasana.

Vast majority leading exemplary lives

It should be emphasised at the very outset that the vast majority of the Buddhist monks follow the edicts of the Buddha Sasana and lead exemplary lives. They play a vital role in preserving the Dhamma in its original form. The Dhamma sermons, delivered in public and via electronic media by erudite monks, go a long way in guiding the lay disciples on the correct path. The service they render by conducting Sunday schools for the children, in almost every temple in the country, is admirable. Training the laymen in meditation, an essential practice for disciplining the mind, is spearheaded by the monks. Almost all, without exception, study the Pali language, purely for the purpose of learning in-depth the Buddhist scriptures like the abhidhamma. Many have subsequently written extensively in Sinhala, which can be easily understood by the laymen, although owing to the complexity of the subject, there are variable interpretations. In addition, their literary exploits over the years have been remarkable.

The monks engage in much needed social service as well. They are in the forefront in providing basic necessities for the needy, as well as looking after the monks and other services in the impoverished temples all over the land.

A few, however, tend to deviate from the accepted and expected norms. It is necessary to guide the few errant monks on the right path, as it is they who attract the headlines in news media, bringing the Buddha Sasana to disrepute. Such collective action will ensure a secure future of the Sasana, avoiding ridicule by all and sundry. As is usual in every sphere, news headlines highlight the evil, not the virtuous.

Selfless service

If the monks are to strictly follow the path to Nirvana, they probably are better off in isolation, in a monastery, attending only to their own religious needs, with minimum interaction with the laymen. However, the monks in the community, like those in the village temple, have to attend to the various spiritual needs of the laymen. They are supposed to depend on the latter for their basic needs, the sivupasaya. If not for the selfless service rendered by the monks in the community, one wonders where the Buddha Sasana would be today. Essential Buddhist rituals like pansakula and Pirith ceremonies would have been a thing of the past. But, at the same time, monks may be found at fault, for misleading the laymen in conducting extravagant rituals with hundreds of thousands of flowers or oil lamps, and wrapping dagobas with cheevaras or Buddhist flags. It should be the duty of the monks to impress upon laymen that such expensive and time consuming ahmisa poojas have little merit in achieving the goals of a Buddhist way of life.

Despite the close interaction with lay people, monks are expected to maintain their discipline strictly, so that they are beyond reproach. It is unfortunate that in many instances the monks are found often to surpass the laymen in extolling the comforts of worldly pleasures. They insist on mentioning many titles and honours bestowed on them, every time their names are mentioned. There are many Mahanayakes and Nayakas as there are as many sects and subsects of the three Nikayas. No doubt these divisions are against the principles expounded in the Dhamma. The titles are followed by a list of several temples each monk is in charge of or “owns”. The robes some wear are much more expensive than the clothes worn by laymen. The vehicles they own, or travel in, are often of the highest standard of luxury. I am aware of a monk who received a “nayake” title recently purchasing a more expensive vehicle, declaring openly that such is essential to maintain the dignity of his new position! Many monks are rumoured to personally possess much wealth in the form of real estate. This is bound to be true, as quite a few of them end up in courts of law to settle property disputes. The current debate going on in the open between two groups of monks for the post of viharadhipathi of the Seruwila Raja Maha Vihara is most despicable.

Competition

Many monks have become virtual managers of building projects. There is hardly any temple where some building project is not ongoing, often for superfluous decorative effect. In some instances, they appear to be in a competition to look better than a temple in the neighbourhood. Many wealthy laymen make lavish contributions out of respect on requests incessantly made by the monks for donations. This is even more questionable as there are a large number of temples all over the country, lacking basic infrastructure or daily needs of the resident monks. I have come across several laymen who regretted ever undertaking Katina pinkamas, as the eventual cost turned out to be much more than they ever envisaged or could afford. This was to a great extent due to the unreasonable demands made by the temple monks during the period of three months.

Ever since the watershed in politics in 1956, where the Buddhist monks played a pivotal role in the “Pancha Maha Balavegaya”, petty politicians have been instrumental in bringing Bhikkhus into active politics. The utterances and other acts of these monks in politics are totally against all vinaya edicts prescribed for them. The chaotic and most disgraceful scenes that ensued when they entered Parliament, a decade ago, are still fresh in our memory. They are also guilty of promoting hatred and divisions between various diverse groups of people, causing much racial and religious disharmony, in total contradiction to peaceful coexistence, enshrined in the Dhamma. The prolonged ethnic conflict has been an impetus for Buddhist monks to engage in virtually open warfare in the pretext of saving the Sasana. Politicians continue to exploit the monks for divisive activity. One cannot justify the monks appearing on political platforms and behaving like any other laymen. The sight of young monks leading the demonstrations and processions of trade unions and political rallies, and getting assaulted and arrested by the police, is most depressing. It is sad to see a few weeks ago two monks openly battling it out shamelessly for the right to a seat in Parliament. The monks should avoid all these confrontations, making them the laughing stock of the people and causing much dismay to the Buddhists in general. In contrast, we are yet to see priests of other religions ever behaving in such a derogatory manner.

How a Buddhist monk has been the leader of a government service nurses union for many years is beyond belief. The ease with which he organises nurses’ work stoppages, harming patients under their care, can never be reconciled with the teachings of the Enlightened One, who espoused by example the merits of caring for the sick. This monk, enjoying much political patronage, is tarnishing the image ofthe Buddha Sasana.

Protests

A few years ago, several well-known monks indulged in fasts unto death, an act very much against the Buddhist edicts, to protest disputed governmental action. More recently, some were making public speeches on the merits of organic fertilisers and the harm done by various chemicals. They seem to be acting as mouthpieces of the various politicians, with no real understanding of the complexity of the issues involved. The violent behaviour of the young monks at various protests and marches, and invariably getting assaulted or apprehended by the law enforcement authorities, makes one wonder what the future holds for the Buddha Sasana. Same is true of a few monks recently seen with disgraceful behaviour in the open under the influence of alcohol.

The wisdom of elevating the two leading Pirivenas in the country, Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara, to university status has been questioned ever since. Both have now been reverted to status quo and the two universities given separate names. I believe the two respected centres of Buddhist learning lost their glamour and lustre as a result of that ill-conceived project. Allowing monks to indulge in the study of mundane subjects, of no relevance to the Buddhist teachings, is another point of contention. Their demands for employment and some getting employed as clerks in offices or teaching a variety of subjects at schools, deserve much rethinking. It is unfortunate that university education, supposed to enlighten one’s thinking, seems to have a deleterious effect on the behaviour of Buddhist monks. The pros and cons of very young prepubertal children getting ordained should receive urgent attention. A significant proportion of all these categories are said to leave the robes sooner or later. These ideas may sound old fashioned and regressive, but these are issues which are intricately bound to the future wellbeing of the Buddha Sasana.

The claim is made that Buddhist monks have played a part in statecraft from the times of ancient kingdoms. This I consider is a total misrepresentation of facts. Such involvement with rulers was mostly in an advisory capacity behind the scenes, and not by waging verbal battles in the open, spreading hatred. Their provocative revolting, at times taking a violent turn, against the invading armies and colonial masters were patriotic acts, to preserve the Buddha Sasana and its disciples and followers from annihilation by the invaders, a dire necessity of the times. (The contemporary happenings in Thailand and Myanmar show how Buddhist monks are revolting to ensure that the formidable armed forces do not harm the religion.)

Although at present many politicians are seen regularly paying homage to prelates in Kandy, Anuradhapura and elsewhere, as if to show remorse and seek forgiveness for all their misdeeds, it does not appear that the monks give any constructive advice to the rulers.

The President has given a forum for the Buddhist monks to express themselves in his monthly meetings of the Buddhist Advisory Council. Although we have not seen any detailed reports of this engagement, from brief news items we see on TV, there does not seem to be any constructive criticism or suggestions given. Such silence, followed by the valedictory statement made by a senior prelate at the end of the meetings, probably makes the President to erroneously believe that everything he said has been favourably approved by the participants.

Buddhist monks undertake a whole series of vows at their initiation that impose strict discipline on their worldly life. Yet there are many who openly violate even the basic five precepts. The apparent incapacity of the Mahanayakes and hundreds of other Nayake theros to discipline errant monks is inexplicable. It is said that there is no provision for an errant monk to be disrobed, in the way it is done in other religions. As a result, the robe is being abused as a cover for all nefarious and even anti-social activities. The whole concept of the title Adhikarana Sanganayake appears to be meaningless. Just calling them cheevaradariya instead of hamuduruwo once they are exposed and apprehended, will not erase the damage done or restore the tarnished image. Any organisation unable to instill discipline among their members or followers, even by punitive action or expulsion if necessary, cannot flourish or survive for long.

Misplaced impression

There is a general misplaced impression among some that laymen should mind their own business without interfering with the affairs of the monks, as we all are fallible human beings, pruthagjanas. Disciplining the body and mind is paramount. If there is no mechanism to bring the wrongdoers, disobeying the vinaya edicts to the right path, there will be the eventual degeneration of the Buddha Sasana, and the society in general. The Buddhists are perpetually worried about the possibility of various outside, non-Buddhist forces, destroying the Buddha Sasana. However, the Buddha himself has preached that the Buddha Sasana will decline and perish due to the activities of his own disciples, meaning from within, rather than by outside influences. The happenings of today make that possibility very likely.

Many important events, in relation to the life of the Buddha happened on Esala Poya day. It also marks the beginning of the Vas season, when the monks are supposed to restrict travel, and spend time strengthening within themselves the vinaya edicts. Hence this could well be the most opportune period for all concerned to address the issue of bringing back the errant monks to the mainstream.

The leaders among the monks and laymen have a historical responsibility to take urgent corrective action. It is high time even a Dhamma Sangayana was held to ensure that all the glaring shortcomings described above are addressed and rectified before it is too late. No doubt taking decisive and perhaps drastic action in this regard could be a step into a socio-political minefield. The Buddha Sasana Ministry could work with the leading monks to formulate a legal framework for maintaining the discipline. This is much more urgent than the current somewhat controversial steps being taken to preserve the Buddhist scriptures, Tripitaka, as a National Heritage. The Buddhist monks, as well as the right-thinking laymen, should not remain deaf and blind to what happens all around us that will eventually lead to the decline of the Buddha Sasana.

I started by asking the question “Whither the Buddha Sasana?”. Let me conclude by stating that we all have a great responsibility to see that it does not wither away!

 

S. M. SUMANADASA

 



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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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