By Sharmini Serasinghe –
As a mother, the following is one of the most emotionally challenging articles I tasked myself with, as I see a son of mine, in each child-Samanera (novice Buddhist monk)!
At a recent alms-giving ceremony I attended, there were many such, of varying ages. Some as young as 7 – 8 years of age, while some of pubertal age.
These ‘little ones’, with shaven heads, and their thin bodies swathed in saffron robes, sat on the floor with their elders. It was hard to miss, their expressions of sheer wonder, coupled with mischief on their faces, as they watched the children of the laity, of similar age, running wild with chocolate smeared faces, brandishing their favourite toys.
One of these ‘miniature monks’ in particular, had his gaze fixed longingly on a teddy bear, and another on a train set. While those, in their mid to late teens, gazed appreciatively, at the pretty young girls prancing around, before quickly hiding their faces, behind their over-sized palm-leaf fans, when frowned upon, by a disapproving adult monk.
It was obvious, that these young children, thrust into monkhood, were oblivious to the fact, that they had been robbed of their innocent childhood, for no fault of their own!
In all their innocence, how could they realise, that their young lives will change forever, when asked to commit themselves with those profound words, as they are being ordained-“Venerable Sir, I respectfully ask you to ordain me as a novice monk, in order that I may be free from the cycle of existence and attain Nibbana”.
How can a child of seven-years understand what it means to be “free from the cycle of existence and attain Nibbana”?
Can this little, child-Samanera understand, that he cannot be carried, hugged and kissed by his mother thereafter, and seek her maternal warmth and security, when struck with a fever, or frightened by a nightmare, thunder and lightning?
Further, this child-Samanera of seven-years, is committed to observe the ‘Ten Precepts’ as training rules-
- I undertake to abstain from harming or taking life
- I undertake to abstain from taking what is not given
- I undertake to abstain from any sexual contact
- I undertake to abstain from false speech
- I undertake to abstain from the use of intoxicants
- I undertake to abstain from taking food after midday
- I undertake to abstain from dancing, singing, music or any kind of entertainment
- I undertake to abstain from the use of garlands, perfumes, unguents and adornments
- I undertake to abstain from using luxurious seats
- I undertake to abstain from accepting and holding money
Save for some, the rest of these ‘rules’ are those that even un-ordained children, in a healthy family environment, abide by. So, why must a child, be ordained a Buddhist monk, to abide by such?
Furthermore, is it in the best interest of this child’s mental and physical development, to make him “abstain from taking food after midday?” Do those who promote and encourage child-ordination, realise or give a damn, for the physical and mental damage, caused to a growing young child, by depriving him of nourishment, for more than half a day?
Also, is it ethically correct, to commit a young child, to a life-long sentence of deprivation he never chose, viz from married life, family life, celibacy and a whole host of other taboos, at an age when he cannot understand the high price, he has been called upon to pay?
The Buddha himself followed his chosen path, according to his own free will; no one forced him to do so. And this too he did, at the age of twenty-nine, after having married and fathered a child.
So what gives one the right, including parents, to commit these innocent and trusting young, to a life-sentence of deprivation?
According to the Laws of Sri Lanka, a person cannot be less than eighteen-years of age, to marry or vote. So similarly, why can’t there be similar laws that apply, to the ordination of Samaneras?
If this is not Child Abuse, what does one call it?
Why Buddhists ‘donate’ their sons to the Temple
Buddhist legend has it, that the Buddha had his son Rahula ordained, at the tender age of seven-years. This gave rise to a belief amongst Buddhists, that it was a meritorious act, to ‘donate’ their young sons to the temple.
Given the level of wisdom of the enlightened one, it is hard to believe, that the Buddha would have done such a thing, given the age of the young child.
So, could this have been a ruse of Buddhist monks of yore, which continues to date, to encourage gullible parents, to ‘donate’ their young sons, in order to swell the numbers of the Sangha?
Astrology is not a facet of the Dhamma, but one, amongst many beliefs, customs and traditions, borrowed by Sinhalese Buddhists, from Hinduism. Therefore, many, amongst the average Buddhists believe, that a son born, under the ‘wrong stars (malefic horoscope)’, must be ‘donated’ to the temple. This, they believe, in all their ignorance, will ward off the ill-effects on the rest of the family, of such a horoscope, of an ‘unlucky’ child.
‘The fool may watch for lucky days,
Yet luck he shall always miss,
The luck itself is luck’s own star,
What can mere stars achieve? – The Buddha
Since the Buddha, as stated above, did not advocate one to live by, what the stars predicted, and the Sangha knows this only too well, could this be another ruse of Buddhist monks, to add numbers to their flock?
Then there is poverty, which is a plausible reason, as to why the poorest of poor, mostly against their wishes, ‘donate’ their young sons to the temple. When these poor parents find it hard to make ends meet, the only option, available to them, is the temple.
Though the temple provides his food, clothing, shelter and education, is he also protected against evils such as sexual-abuse, from pedophiles amongst the clergy? What could his poor parents do in such an instance, if their young sons were victims of such, except to turn a blind-eye, due to their poverty? What of the psychological damage caused to such children?
Why cannot those ‘affluent’ Buddhist monks, if there are any benevolent amongst them, help these poor families, to keep their sons within their family unit? But then again, there may be those who want to keep these families poor, to ensure a constant ‘supply’, of ‘soldiers’ to the ‘Buddhist Army’!
National Child Protection Authority?
Where in all this, is the role of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) of Sri Lanka, which states the following, on its website –
“Sri Lanka, as a member State of the United Nations, was a signatory to the Child Rights Convention (CRC) in the year 1990 and ratified it on 12th July 1991. This was followed by the preparation of a Children’s Charter approved by the Cabinet of Ministers, and the establishing of a National Monitory Committee charged with the responsibility to monitor the CRC and also report to the international CRC committee when required.
In December 1996, the Presidential Task Force on child protection was appointed. This body recommended a number of Legal amendments and administrative reforms, which were included in the report of Presidential Task Force.
One of the most important recommendations of the Presidential Task Force was the establishment of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), by ACT No.50 of 1998 under the Presidential Secretariat.
In the year 2006, a separate ministry was formed by the incumbent president of Sri Lanka to establish a proper protection and welfare mechanism for children and women and NCPA is under the purview of the Ministry of Child Development and Women`s Affairs.”
The website states the NCPA VISION as: To create a child friendly and protective environment for children. And, its MISSION as: To ensure children are free from all forms of abuse.
Does the NCPA, reach out to such young children as well, in need of care and protection?
Does the NCPA raise public awareness and influence policies and practices that affect the lives and welfare, of these ordained-children as well?
Does the NCPA work together with relevant authorities/systems, such as the police, healthcare, legal, education, communication, media, political and all sectors of society, to look into problems faced by these ordained-children as well?
Does the NCPA contribute, and work towards strengthening and networking with global child protection systems, in ensuring the voices, of those young ordained-children, are also heard?
Or does the NCPA not regard these ordained-children, as children of Sri Lanka?
A ‘Buddhist Army’ recruitment Drive?
In Sri Lanka, for over 2500 years, Buddhist monks have been wielding, significant power over society and the politics of this country. Their strength comes from the numbers in their flock. Therefore, persistent recruitment of ‘soldiers’ forms their power base.
These are times, when recruiting adult males to serve their cause has become increasingly challenging, in a materialistic world, save for those preferring a free-ride, coupled with a life of dolce far niente. So, their only source of recruitment is to draw, young children of unsuspecting parents into their fold, in order to secure the continuity, of their ‘priestly’ power.
The unenlightened Sinhalese Buddhist are made to believe, that to have one of their own in the Buddhist monkhood, is not only meritorious, but a matter of great honour and prestige for the family. This is the same mindset that also applies, to having a son serving the country, through the armed forces.
In this context, I came across a news report, on the website of the ‘Buddhist Channel’ on local television titled, 2550 novice monks to be ordained in Sri Lanka with government assistance. Though not headline news anymore, it still remains relevant.
Yet another; a post-event story in the Junior Observer of the government-owned Sunday Observer dated 24th June, 2007, titled Mass ordination ceremony in Colombo. Most adult readers may have missed this, as its target readership is the Junior reader.
The author of the article declares enthusiastically, to the impressionable young readers of the Junior Observer, “The news must have really fascinated you, especially the sight of the Samanera (novice) monks”.
The Samanera monks, the writer refers to here, were “in the 7-16 age group.”
According to these reports, the Government of Sri Lanka, worked hand-in-glove with the Buddhist clergy, in order to “fulfill the target of ordaining 2550 novice monks, to commemorate the 2550th anniversary of the passing of the Buddha”!
Buddhist Clergy’s ‘Damaged-Goods’
According to Buddhist monastic rules, one may not be ordained, as a fully- ordained-Buddhist monk’, (as opposed to a novice monk-Samanera), until twenty years of age. The rationale for this rule, is that those under twenty years of age, cannot be expected to be sufficiently in control of one’s self, to live the monastic life.
But the question begs, how many of our ‘fully ordained Buddhist monks’, are sufficiently in control of themselves, to live the monastic life? How many of them, might have been thrust into monkhood, at an age when they knew no different?
In Sri Lanka, temporary ordination is not common, as monks leaving the order, is frowned upon by our myopic, Sinhala-Buddhist society, and are regarded as failures. And even if they do manage to overcome these obstacles, most find it hard to adapt psychologically, to the rapidly evolving world of the laity, today. So haven’t these young men, been robbed not only of their childhood and youth, but their future as well?
Could those extremist monks we see today, devoid of any form of self-control, rampaging and creating havoc in our society, be those, forced into monkhood, and who are now venting their fury at the laity, for all that they were deprived of?
Are these angry Monks of ‘Buddhist’ Sri Lanka those, expected to uphold the pure essence of the Buddha Śãsana in the future of this country?
This is a topic, that will not go down well, with the average Sinhala-Buddhist. As, they, the vast majority of this country consider it ‘sacrilegious’, to question any ‘wrongs’ committed, in the name of ‘Buddhism’.
However, in this instance, when their sons might be the next victims of this insatiable ‘recruitment’ drive, of ‘inducting’ the young, unsuspecting and the vulnerable, into Sri Lanka’s ‘Buddhist Army’, will they still remain, with their heads buried in sand, and call it a privilege and an honour?
How is this any different, from recruiting child-soldiers, to a conventional army?
*Sharmini Serasinghe counts over thirty years as a writer and a journalist, in both the print and electronic media. She was also Director Communications, of the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), under Secretary Generals Dr. John Gooneratne and Jayantha Dhanapala.