20 July, 2017

Buddhism & Good Governance: The Case For A Sangha Rebellion By H L Seneviratne – A  Review

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Writing about the mal governance in Sri Lanka since independence by both major parties, H L Seneviratne, my former teacher in Sociology and anthropology at Peradeniya university, has compiled an erudite two part essay that includes a critique, diagnosis as well as a solution by way of a Sangha rebellion – bringing distant memories about a few failed rebellions in the country against the political establishment (Colombo Telegraph 1516 June 2017).  Seneviratne has however kept away from commenting on these politically motivated rebellions of the past. Instead he focuses on a religious rebellion of a sort to be led by more educated and cosmopolitan Buddhist monks while citing examples of past activist Buddhist monks and Anagarika Dharmapala –though the name of Maduluwave Sobhita is absent in his articulation. His reasoning is based on an argument that he has espoused through his own writings for sometime but the idea of Sangha rebellion seems to be a recent addition perhaps due to the dire situation in the country resulting from the crisis in value system, which has been politicised.

He claims that the mal governance has ‘infected the society’s underlying value system’ to the extent of the society becoming disintegrated and calls on the more progressive and ethically sensitive sections of the Sangha to help the society to regain its health.  To do so, in his view they have to renounce the Sinhala Buddhist World View – root of the problem. To avoid confusion and wasted counter arguments, readers need to understand the features and boundaries of this World View in terms of Seneviratne’s articulations. He makes a distinction between Buddhism as a set of philosophical and ethical ideas on one hand and Buddhism as it is popularly understood and practiced by the adherents on the other. The latter he labels as ‘a cultural Buddhism’ similar to Burmese or Thai Buddhism all of which have received notoriety due to the violence enacted toward ethnic minorities instead of non-violence.

In Seneviratne’s view, for good governance and the rule of law what is helpful is philosophical Buddhism’s universal ethical system. Philosophical Buddhism includes a general outlook of urbanity, civility and modernity. He argues that ‘it is unfortunately the worldview of Sinhala cultural Buddhism that has overwhelmingly taken hold over the society’. As in the past, such an argument is bound to generate reactions from those who follow ritualistically oriented popular Buddhism rather than Philosophical Buddhism. However, given the nature of critical commentary about what is wrong with Sri Lanka’s governance, political system, ruling class behavior, hierarchical arrogance, failure of institutions that had been put in place around the time of independence to maintain liberal democracy and indeed the potential for inter ethnic violence led by radicalised religious figures, it is important to understand Seneviratne’s argument, articulation and the deep meaning. To do so, we have to dissect his economic and political arguments also, which are found in the latter parts of his essay.

Seneviratne shows how the consumerist oriented open economic system and changes in the political culture affected the value system culminating in corruption, suppression of dissent, black money, the mafia etc. He argues ‘that the crisis in governance in Sri Lanka is a symptom of a malaise that has infected the underlying system of values that a healthy society needs as its moral anchor’. According to Seneviratne, contemporary Sangha activism in lay society was born in ethno nationalist sentiment – an essential part of Sinhala Buddhist worldview.  He argues that ‘To make the civility and urbanity of Buddhism an integral part of the innermost thought processes of the individual’ ethics need to be elevated over the ritual. He advocates an ethos of tolerance, inclusivity,urbanity,civility and modernity. To achieve this transformation and to reverse the society’s inner degeneration, a Buddhist reformation is necessary. The author highlights the importance of a reformed educational program to achieve these goals and the necessary shift or transformation and create equilibrium in society.  I might add that it is also necessary to further examine what these inclusive values and ethics are, how the ritualistic popular Buddhism and its corresponding World View have undermined them, and how Educated and cosmopolitan Buddhist monks can advance the cause that Seneviratne maps out with lay support?

Though the main argument and its rationale in the essay are powerful and not easy to dismiss epistemically and against the empirical evidence from the country’s post independence history plus contemporary politico economic drama enacted by the upper echelons of society, from a critical perspective several questions can be raised for further dialogue.

1. How far a rebellion of the educated and cosmopolitan Sangha aimed at reviving the society’s value system based on philosophical Buddhism and ethics can be a solution to what is essentially a political and to some extent an economic problem?

2. Even if this rebellion results in socialising the younger generation to the value and ethical system suitable for good governance as proposed, how to change the values, ethics and attitudes plus more importantly the behavior of current generation whose members are at the helm of various secular hierarchies following Sinhala Buddhist World View which the author thinks is the root cause of problems today?

3. Do these rebellious monks need and organisational mechanism to achieve the transformation required? What would that be like?

4. If the primary cause of mal governance is the fact that the ‘nationalist block’ gained power since 1956 over the Western acculturated upper class represented by UNP as well as the exploitation of nationality and religion for political gain, what should the rebellious monks do to reverse the course in addition to advocating the merits of the value system based on philosophical Buddhism?

5. How to achieve changes in the corrupt political culture without the formation of a Council of concerned citizens (may include rebellious monks) with a radical political programme?

Seneviratne’s is a functionalist and idealist view aimed at a ‘social and moral equilibrium’ in society that may or may not be achieved through reformation of the value system alone.    Sri Lankan sociologists and anthropologists who succeeded Seneviratne and his contemporaries since the early 70s have been accustomed to teach, advocate and utilise more progressive and even radical forms of sociological and anthropological theories that tend to better articulate the workings of competing interests, modes of production, conceptions of power and hierarchy and classes among other contributory factors. Even in the sociological writings emerging from the global south recently, there is a strong criticism of the functionalist theory and its assumptions, eg.post colonial theory, subaltern theory, Southern theory. While Seneviratne’s arguments and articulations are in line with the best academic traditions of Sociology and anthropology and well intentioned, they will be subject to further scrutiny by the sociology and anthropology tribes in time to come.  But I am circumspect about this possibility due to the fact that many contemporary sociologists and anthropologists in the country find themselves unable to move beyond the Sinhala Buddhist World View that Seneviratne finds faults with.

Finally, when Seneviratne uses Sinhala Buddhist culture as a uniform concept to characterise the politicised, ritualistic or corrupt varieties, it often generates unnecessary and emotional reactions from its adherents for good reasons. Thus one has to wonder whether there is a more benign stream within Sinhala Buddhist culture that is inclusive, ethical, non violent, and even cosmopolitan. My reading is that the large majority of adherents to this form of Buddhism and culture are not antagonistic to ethnic minorities, despise the mal governance and lavish lifestyles of the ruling class, the unequal social, political and economic hierarchies, politicisation of the liberal democratic traditions and institutions.  They are frustrated with the failure of governance and institutions that do not meet their day-to-day needs equally as the literati or intellectuals who adopt a critical stance. They despise ‘the poor feeds the rich syndrome’ that has afflicted most developing societies also. Therefore, Seneviratne needs to rethink whether the majority adherents of Sinhala Buddhist worldview and culture should not be the collaborators of Sangha rebellion that he speaks about rather than their enemies?

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Latest comments

  • 4
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    It is writing about buddhists without knowing what buddhism is and it is simply Christian thinking being imposed on buddhists. Buddhism is a free thinking religion. It doe snot need church pastros rebelling against the Pope etc., This is simply post – independance arrogance and pride thinking they know everything. Just crap.

  • 3
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    Its time to ascertain the type of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist concept hither to said to have been in practice was Thera wadha which itself is a branch of Buddhism preached by Lord Buddha.

    A Catholic Protestant convert later called Anagarika Dharmapala made the Thera wadha Buddhism in the then Ceylon into one of Ariya Sinhala Political concept. This concept turned into Racial hatred that led to the first Anti Muslim / Indian riots participated actively by the top Political Leaders including the Father of the Nation to be.
    From thence the Sri Lankan Sinhala politicians actively promoted this that led to several Pogroms against the Minorities and the war against the LTTE and to the present institutionalized State Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism of the Yahalapanaya.

    • 0
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      Mano, — What a load of rubbish!!! Anagarika Dharmapala was never a Catholic. Muslims stared the 1915 riot by throwing stones at “Perahera”. Sri Lanka is Sinhala-Buddhist country. Not letting invasive alien minority menace to ruin Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka is not racism.

  • 2
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    Prof HL S did not mean an armed “Sangha rebellion” but a self analysis of the direction pursued by self proclaimed “defenders of Buddhism”. Buddhism has withstood onslaughts an has accrued a reputation as a religion of peace. The modern day “defenders” often bring disrepute. Dr Siri Gamage has not read HL S’s message.

    • 2
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      Old time prof did not know what buddhism is. Buddha or buddhism never had restrictions. Why Sangha has to be rebels or against what. If buddhism is followed 100%, Sri lanka does not have these problems. Now, It is christian-roman law, Islamic laws, the old colonial mentality miixed greedy mind that create this. Then it is very clear in here, that Evangelical christian cult and murderous muslims sect of Violent Wahabism are the forces behind. So, suggestion of Sangha rebellion is stupid and it is from some one who does not know what buddhism is or it is simply hatred against buddhism, most probably the latter.

    • 0
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      Major religions are subject to change evolving with the times. Christianity and Judaism changed crucial features in their
      traditions, rituals and practises. In modern times there have
      been faint voices, so far, for changes in Buddhism as practised
      in Sri Lanka. The book title “Revolt in the Temple” itself has strains
      of attempting to think out of the box. There has been talk about the manner in which
      young entrants to Buddhism are inducted. That is to say, there can be
      an improvement in the present system to ensure a better and more
      educated Buddhist Priest – as seen in the Catholic Church.

      By the terms “Rebellion in the Temple”
      is Prof. Seneviratne seeking an overall review of the different debatable aspects
      of the philosophy, practises and rituals of Sinhala Buddhism?
      In fairness to the Professor surely there is much left to debate in Buddhism in its present state. There is little doubt the pious and
      genuine Buddhist practitioner in the country are totally opposed to truant monks in robes plunging, in recent times, into the snake pits of politics bringing the good religion to chaos and disrepute.

      Pandaranayagam

    • 0
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      K, –HLS has no message, he only attacks Sinhalese and Buddhists.

  • 2
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    This has been an informative and learned exchange of views of a type that seldom appears in CT. Thank you for this exchange.

    Sinhala Buddhism to outsiders consists of many layers. There is a basic animistic religion that resembles some healing ceremonies of many religious systems and a moral code attached to it. On it is imposed ideas of Hinduism and Hindu Gods, including the Pathini Cult, which is stronger among the Sinhalese than among the Tamils. Then there is the Buddhism of Asoka brought by Mahinda and Sanghamitta-which probably is close to philosophical Buddhism. Over this layer, there was the political project in the Mahavamsa. The Sinhalaya moves between these layers. With the exception of the Pathini Cult and the Hindu layer, the others are based on codes and myths that make Sinhala Buddhism exclusive to the Sinhalaya.
    The problem is that the exclusivity notions are current and ingrained. They cannot be easily erased. They dictate the politics of Sri Lanka. All major politicians exploit these factors. It is easy to identify the reasons for these malaise but difficult to find prescriptions for change. A guide that there should be a return to philosophical Buddhism or that the existing Buddhism’s more cosmopolitan values should be enhanced identify the issue but do not contain any ideas of how to effect a change.

  • 1
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    A worthy corollary to Prof. H.L.Seneviratne’s bold and welcome attempt inviting the more initiated in the country to examine the shortcomings in the Lankan form of Buddhism that has made inroads into every major activity in the country’s socio-political-cultural activities. Suffice it to say this malady has now entered the Armed Services and the Police – once completely detached and free of religious influences.

    Frankly, I expected a flood of comments from readers from the scholar community than what we see so far. The political system in the country has for decades been in the grip of ill-educated political “leaders” and religious bigots it is time patriotic minded and the better educated citizens come forward and save the country from its headlong spiral downwards. Already the emptied coffers in the country have ushered in unbearable inflation of the Zimbabwe variety. Famine and chronic food shortages are not far away.

    Pandaranayagam

  • 2
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    We have observed the obsession of Lankan Buddhist to rule. So we wrote somewhere else, if they like to rule, they can implement tur Buddha Dhamma. Here comes the problem of what real Dhumma is. The Buddhist, in worldwide, confused of their religion. Buddha was a Hindu, lived as a Hindu and died as Hindu. It is not an accidental issue that he denounced the Aryanist Hinduism. His enlightenment is the one accidental or abnormal phenomenon. Once that is achieved, rests of all his action after that are predicted in the Hindu religion. It was quite natural he started to denounce the ritualistic Hinduism. Buddha did not rule a country. Buddha did not support a religion, including the pre Aryan Hinduism, if one was like that. In that circumstance, if the Sinhala Buddhist wants to bring in Buddha Dhamma, it cannot be against or for any religion and it cannot be a ruling of any country. So there is nothing for minorities to oppose and they may get along with that circumstance. But the 90%(just for a word) of the materials are eventual monks’ working. They aim at a religion and especially assumed Aryanist Hinduism as the real Hinduism and built their religion to oppose it.

  • 2
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    Then there comes the other conflict. The Sinhala Buddhist, who see them as Good Buddhist, are trying to reflect Ashoka , the great King. Ahsoka is only a leftover of Aryanist Hinduism, and unlike Buddha, he wanted to rule and spread the religion, that was recently built by monks based on Buddha’s teachings. Religion and Kingdom both had been denounced by Buddha. So, what left to the Good Buddhist from Ahsoka, is his righteous ruling in his latter days. So the Good Buddhist thinks if they are ruling, they would repeat Ahsoka. Here comes the 2200 years old Marx’s experiment, which too ended with Stalin and Gorbachev. Tamil saw when the Ahsoka Buddhism went near to Tamil Nadu, it had become tangled into rivalry to burn Sampanthar in his Wedding shed alive with Bride. One in a historical time a man is born in one unknown country as good dictator. That was the case with Ahsoka. That is not Buddhism and it never got repeated in Buddhism. That is not abnormal feature. In all other time they all are cruel dictators. When one evaluates the probability of nature of the birth qualities, Secular Democracy is the solution. If the Good Buddhist have clearly understood that for what Buddha stood and Ahsoka stood, the greedy to rule or doing justice for others will vanish from them. Buddha did not ask them to rule like Ashoka, but taught them to seek out Nirvana.

    • 0
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      “If the Good Buddhist have clearly understood that for what Buddha stood and Ahsoka stood, the greedy to rule or doing justice for others will vanish from them”

      And that will make things easy for you to achieve your selfish goals?

  • 0
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    The big problem is those who attack Sinhala-Buddhists (Sinhalese are Buddhists) haven’t been brought up in a decent Sinhala Buddhist family.

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