By Srinath Abeysinghe –
Buddhism has been prevailing for two and a half millennia. Through its travel in time, it has absorbed numerous shades. In addition, with the progress made in science and technology its reach has expanded extensively. Due to this, novel interpretations to the contents in Dhamma and certain changes to its practices are heard and seen by many. Further, those new interpretations are always not from an established personalities with high stature. They become standalone interpretations and get recognized depending on the socio-political patronage they receive. In Sri Lanka today, Buddhism has been tri- polarized as per these different interpretations and practices: Traditional Buddhism, Practical Buddhism and Fashionable Buddhism.
Traditional Buddhism consists of Dhamma learned by heart and practiced by natural continuity. It is mainly preached and practiced by the old generation. Neither “original” nor static in relation to time, it is a combination of the Buddhism practiced by the previous generation plus certain borrowings from the new streams of Buddhism described below. It is also vibrant as it has some new elements from the present generation. Therefore, succeeding generations can also organically bind with it. Due to its very construction, it earns respect and honorability from all walks of life including the clergy and members of the other religions as well. It is rarely questioned in public. On the other hand, it is also largely mistaken by the masses as the “original” Buddhism. Traditional Buddhism is of course reformed with the majority consensus to suit and fit to the present day. An example for this is the use of money by the monks though prohibited according to Dhamma preached by the Buddha. According to Dhamma there are ten prohibitions that monks should refrain from engaging. It starts with “Singilonakappa” (that is not to keep salt in store by a monk and in his possession for future use). The use of money is also one prohibition out of these ten. However, the lifestyle today is such that no person sees any wrong in using money by monks for their essential day to day needs. Any minor changes to the behaviours of monks are accepted as the Buddha preached that it is up to the monks to change minor disciplinary rules according to the prevailing circumstances. Moreover, this stance of flexibility has helped emerge practical Buddhism where not only minor disciplinary rules but even Dhamma has been interpreted in a new way.
Practical Buddhism is based on the idea of practicing simple, logical, and visible truth stated in Dhamma. It is influenced by radicalized monks in their youth. Its contents have different dimensions varying from peace to social justice to freedom to environment sustainability to patriotism and critical analysis on liberation from Samsara. These radicalization processes are more visible with the widespread use of technology. In the previous era Universities were the centers that disseminated the expressions of radicalized monks. However, the roots of radicalization of Sangha go far back in history to the struggle for independence from the British and their involvement in leftist politics. That process took sharp turns with the involvement of Sangha in JVP politics in late 60’s and early 70’s. Knowledge combinations and replication of knowledge in different fields of study have opened new possibilities leading to the birth of liberal radicals. These liberally radical monks preach Dhamma which is of practical use to the modern society. Practical Buddhism is appealing to generation “Z” who are IT savvy and think primarily in binary logic. They are attracted to knowledge which is simple and can be deduced from algorithmic building blocks. Good and bad deeds are clearly defined to grasp as “black” and “white”. Therefore, they prefer Dhamma sermons with a set of simple instructions which are hassle free, mysticism free and direct. This make their life easy. Anything without any practical use is abandoned. Fair enough for their supposed to be fast lifestyle where much of their time is spent on mobile phones and laptops. Therefore, direct question and answer type sermons evolved instead of Jataka-story based long sermons of traditional Buddhism. Practical Buddhist monks have their own YouTube channels, blogs, vlogs, twitter accounts, email accounts, Instagram accounts and FB pages. Instant and short responses to any queries from their followers can be provided through these social media channels. The very construction of practical Buddhism makes a group of outliers. They form a new sect, the fashionable Buddhists.
Fashionable Buddhism mainly shows off lots of “Amisa” Poojas and goes with large numbers. In their activities, at least one aspect calls for a large number. For example, if they are offering a “Dana” they will select a very remote temple. So here, they travel a quite many KILOMETERS spending many HOURS to offer this “Dana”! They prefer more time spent on religion. In fashionable Buddhism every miniscule matter is blown up to a gigantic scale. For example, instead of offering a basket of flowers, fashionable Buddhists would offer one million flower baskets; instead of lighting a few oil lamps, they light 84,000 oil lamps. Just think about lighting 84,000 oil lamps – even if one lights 10 oil lamps, it requires 8,400 persons to perform this task. (It should be noted that even in other religions these types of behaviors are not uncommon, and these fashionable versions exist!) The fashionable Buddhists are led by a strong, attractive, and charismatic group of monks. As opposed to the very “harsh” and direct nature of practical Buddhism, the nature of fashionable Buddhism is ultra-soft. In reciting Gathas, fashionable Buddhists choose to recite three (borrowed from traditional Buddhists) or many times a simple Gatha while practical Buddhists always explore shorter versions of reciting.
Fashionable Buddhists want to shout out and show who they are and what they are doing to show their dedication to Buddhism. Therefore, all the politicians of mass political parties prefer to go with them as their religious events are in mass scale with a lot of people’s participation. As fashionable Buddhists perform religious functions in a fashionable way, they want to get the religious function and the group to be noticed in a remarkable way. This quality of getting noticed eventually seeps even to the individual level and the followers too start to behave in a manner to get noticed by others. Then, they too become fashionable (compare with Sunday Christian Masses or Christmas Midnight Mass – there is no difference other than fashionable Buddhists tend to wear white or light colour clothing). These become marvellous opportunities to news making companies. Then, TV crews join to get their best news clips. If TV crews are present, participants need better make ups – including monks – the objective now becomes to get noticed. Thereafter, snowballing effects take place. To get noticed good clothing is required. Therefore, they go for branded clothes. But the branded clothes are made for the strictest market competition and therefore, most of the branded clothes are sexier clothes in one way or the other. When those clothing become white, they look more than sexier. In fashionable Buddhist ceremonies this has become an outcome. As a result, the request of old school monks for decent dressing to temples and religious ceremonies go unheard. The very principles of Buddhism of letting go of worldly desires are shattered.
The monks belonging to the fashionable Buddhism must keep their disciples with them continuously by addressing or meeting them frequently. Performing massive “Amisa” Poojas is not an easy task as those need massive financing, organizing and capable leadership. On the other hand, “Amisa” Poojas alone is not sufficient for a religion. Therefore, they turn to other fashionable events. With the present-day trending in Yoga, mass meditation is a very convincing and fashionable event. Therefore, fashionable Buddhists now turn to mass meditation programs and intense meditation classes. Other than those, the monks appear in TV channels and their YouTube channels with beautiful and attractive make ups and present ordinary and overly simplified sermons in video clip format.
Moreover, getting noticed by others sometimes goes beyond exhibiting branded clothes and pious faces. Some members are courageous to publicly claim that they immensely benefited from the intense mass meditation classes and achieved the status of “Sovaan”. Even monks are declaring that they have reached certain levels stated in Dhamma. It will not be so long that this becomes a fashion too and mass level achievements of reaching the status of “Sovaan” is publicly declared but it could well be very short-lived with a risk of rejection by society. (Better check with mass congregations of other religions to meet God. These massive mass congregations were unstoppable even during the present pandemic of Covid-19 because those are based on and called for showing off principle).
The funniest things happen when traditional Buddhists and fashionable Buddhists cross over from one group to the other for reasons unknown. In short, those events remind grandmas coming to girlish parties with wonderfully done girlish make ups or a playful girl showing up her youthful catwalk to grandmas in serenity in a traditional Buddhists gathering!
*The writer is an Ex-Director of the Central Bank; the views expressed are his own and should not be construed as those of the Central Bank