The Crucial Element Missing for Peace in Sri Lanka: Buddhists who are willing to change their point of view
A few months ago The Sunday Time’s Talk at the Café Spectator column ran a snippet on President Rajapaska’s response to a journalist who had found the President exercising on his head in a room at Temple Trees. The President, with his characteristic flare for turning every situation into a joke, had said; “mang beluwe oluwen hita gaththama kohomada mata rata penne kiyala”. During times of turmoil and crisis, real gems of wisdom surface in the guise of black comedy. This is one such gem. The need of the moment is precisely that: someone willing to change a point of view that will invert the world as we view it.
It goes without saying that there is an urgent need in Sri Lanka to secure harmony and mutual respect for each other’s ethnic, religious or linguistic differences if we are to create lasting peace in this post war nation. Yet, 65 years of the country’s history since independence has been a portrait of recurring failures to garner a unifying national identity. The fault lies in our ideology of identity. And here lies the surprise. It is a fault that doesn’t lie with the politicians. Manipulation of truth and reality, after all, is a characteristic of the politician. The fault lies in a failure on the part of the Buddhists.
What Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Buddhists have failed to achieve as a predominately Buddhist country, is the ability to adapt the Buddha’s central teaching, and based on that, the code of conduct given by him, into our own society and to a global world system that is founded on a set of diametrically opposed values. The world the majority politicians are creating now is inherently opposed to Buddhist ethical teachings. What, then, is the essence of the Buddha’s teaching?
If there is one place in the Buddha’s four decades of teaching about the human condition, where he reduces his teaching to a few lines, it would be in his last words, uttered to monks before he passed away under the shade of trees of ancient India. As Maurice Walshe translates the Buddha’s last words: “All conditions things are of a nature to decay –strive on untiringly.” Encapsulated in this distilled essence of the Buddha’s teachings is his ground breaking, rigid-ideology subverting, declaration on the reality of existence: that all phenomena are unstable, impermanent and transient; that nothing can bring lasting satisfaction; and that all phenomena are devoid of anything that can be identified as a self. In his teaching on dependent origination he goes into minute detail on how identities and phenomena arise and disintegrate, and how it is ignorance and craving that undermine human happiness.
It goes without saying that the Buddha’s declaration, which he called the Dhamma – the true nature of reality, was both ground-breaking and transformative at that time in an Asian society that had been built on rigid social hierarchy and dogmatic religious positions. Yet the truth of his declaration could not be disputed. This is because; instead of asking his audience to accept his words with blind faith, he used a “phenomenological” approach. He told people to accept his declaration only if they found it to be true when they explored it personally and experienced the truth themselves. He merely provided a toolkit in the form of the Noble Eightfold Path, for this personal exploration of reality. It is a tool kit that also provides a clear guideline for conduct (as given in the 3rd, 4th and 5th factors of the Noble Eightfold Path).
On numerous occasions, the Buddha offered guidance to lay people such as Sigala, King Pasenadi and the Nakulas on how to live constructive lives in society. In a world marked by suffering, impermanence, and relentless change, human life should be lived with kindness, compassion and gentleness. A life lived in complete adherence to right conduct became the only means of engagement with conventional reality. This social ethic became the cornerstone of his moral foundation, for no other alternative way of life is possible in the face of the truth he declared.
No religious teacher had before or has since, so compassionately exposed the fragility of the human body, mind and identity. And in doing so, the Buddha shattered any possibility of differentiating one living being from another based on any of the numerous labels we give ourselves based on appearance, family, ethnicity, religious allegiance or ideology.
However, the need today, in a Sri Lanka that has been riven apart by differences and by such strong, dogmatic insistence on the solidity of our identities, is a means to incorporate an understanding of this teaching into our public lives. And it is here that Buddhism’s greatest dilemma and challenge to Buddhists in Sri Lanka lies.
Buddhism’s Challenge to Sri Lankan Buddhists:
The Buddha’s core teaching pulls the rug from under all social structures that make up conventional reality and all forms of conceptualisations of identity and thought. How, then, is it possible to integrate this core teaching into modern society that exists entirely on concepts and structures? The concept of “nation”? The concept of “nationalism”? The concept of “personality”? The concept of being a “Tamil” or a “Sinhalese”? The concept of being a “Muslim”, “Christian”, “Hindu” or a “Buddhist”?
In refusing to be driven by social concepts on the grounds of the Buddha’s teaching, the true Buddhist may become vulnerable to others who live lives based on material strength and dogmatic beliefs. Colonisation became possible with the development of weapons which others did not have. Imperialism is founded on the desire for wealth, on dogmatic beliefs (religious or secular) and on the search for glory.
At the extreme end of the spectrum of answers to this dilemma lies what appears to be passivity of the individual Buddhist: a gentle detachment that can be interpreted as selfishness or disengagement. History shows that at a national level any country or civilization that appears weak, militarily or economically, will inevitably be subsumed. Countries and regions in the Near East and the Malayan Archipelago that once had thriving Buddhist civilizations but which succumbed to aggressive ideological and political forces are good examples of this.
No doubt, the world order today is far more complex, and people and countries, far more desperate for natural resources today than they ever were during the time of the Buddha. Therefore to live a life or to structure a society based on the Buddha’s core teachings may, in the short term, appear to be folly. It is to lay oneself or a community open to abuse, exploitation and destruction.
Yet, as the Buddha showed, change is the nature of all things. In his teachings there were no dilemmas or contradictions: in the face of this reality, existing skilfully (good mental, verbal and physical conduct) was the only choice a human had. War, for instance, was never an option because it set the mind off on a path of unskilful thoughts and resulted in unskilful actions.
According to Bikkhu Thanissaro: “In many passages, kings are mentioned in the same breath with thieves: They confiscate property and show little regard for the rule of law.” In any event, great societies such as the Athenian and Roman, have flourished and died. Each was consumed by militarism and prejudice. Ultimately the winds of change sweep over everything. Isn’t it far more valuable to build a society on tolerance and peace than create a monstrosity of aggression and hankering? Which vision will create a society that will last over the millennia? The answer to the Buddhist dilemma lies in the Buddha’s teachings itself. Every engagement with conventional reality needs to be underscored by the skilful conduct. Unwholesome conduct is never justified by the Buddha; not even to protect one’s life or one’s belongings or even the institution of Buddhism.
In his sutra, the Simile of the Saw in the Majjhima Nikaya, the Buddha says, “even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will….” Extreme scenarios as the Simile of the Saw are useful as they highlight the emphasis the Buddha put on right conduct in threatening situations: conduct that eschews thoughts, words and deeds of anger, hatred, and violence.
Those Buddhists trying to help Sri Lanka keep faith in the Buddha’s teachings and protect the institution of Buddhism need to find ways to model their actions according to the rules of conduct given by the Buddha. From this starting point, the Buddhist polity needs to integrate the basic guidelines for wholesome conduct based on the Buddha’s teaching into its codes of behaviour. It needs to remind Buddhists to not be driven into dogmatism and ideology. To remind Buddhists that all labels are impermanent and not really oneself – not even the labels “Sinhala” or “Buddhist”. With this understanding as the foundation, it can develop strategies for the constructive use of power, the protection of boundaries and the safeguarding of communities and religions.
The Buddha’s code of conduct is the Buddhist polity’s greatest source of protection. It will never be possible for unscrupulous politicians to manipulate a Buddhist polity grounded in such a code of conduct. It will never be possible for any international humanitarian organisation to accuse a Buddhist polity of human rights violations or war crimes. Nor will it be necessary to condemn the way of life or beliefs of others if the Buddhist polity simply follows the way of life advocated by the Buddha.
If Buddhists do not contribute to the killing of animals for food by creating a demand for animal flesh through their own consumption of it, then how anyone else prepares their meat becomes a non-issue. What is currently happening in Sri Lanka over the issue of the method of slaughter is that the Buddhist polity is crying foul, to use a Sinhala idiom, that the cat’s paws are wet, having themselves used the cat to extract jak seeds for their own consumption (ballalu lawa kos ate bame).
The Buddha showed the pointlessness of rituals such as ablutions, and Buddhists who accepted his teaching turned away from rituals, but did not engage in the useless exercise of trying to stop all the rituals that were taking place in India during his time.
Finally, Sri Lankan Buddhists today would do well to consider again the life of Emperor Ashoka. We are often reminded of and so venerate the actions of his son and daughter in transplanting the bodhi tree and sangha on this island; but we can also learn from Ashoka’s own extraordinary actions that were taken after winning the horrific war against the Kalingas. The horrendous suffering his army caused, especially on innocent civilians, moved him to dedicate his life, and future rule, to promoting the Dhamma.
History records Emperor Ashoka implementing compassionate policies across his kingdom and reconciling with his former enemies. Skilful actions is the real practice; acting ethically to restore a war-torn country based on compassion, while more difficult, is a Buddhist’s — and Buddhist ruler’s — highest calling.
All over the world today, people must also be weary of war, selfishness and violence. There appears to be an underlying desire for a truly different world view on which to build a new world order. If Sri Lankan Buddhists strive to find ways to incorporate the Buddha’s teaching into public life, then the formulation of constructive tools of engagement for peace with different communities or nations can begin.
Living up to the Buddha’s ideals of compassion and ethical integrity can be this country’s greatest gift to the world.
*Ramya is the author of “Rhythm of the Sea”, and “Trinity”. Her book of poetry, “There’s an Island in the Bone”, was published in 2011. She won the 2011 State Literary Joint Award for poetry and was longlisted for the Fish Poetry Prize, Ireland in 2011. She was a joint runner-up to the UK’s Guardian Orange First Words Prize of 2009 and The Times-online of UK, featured her in its 2009 selection of contemporary war poetry.