By Kapila Abhayawansa –
I have read the article entitled “The President’s Faux Pas” written by Sharmini Serasinghe in Colombo Telegraph dated 27th January. Referring to President’s homage to Bo tree, she observes: “, it is with deep despair, that I as a Buddhist noted, you President Maitripala Sirisena paying homage to a Bo tree, even though it is venerated by a majority of the Buddhist populace of this country. Furthermore, by paying homage to a Bo tree, you Mr. President are also openly violating the teachings of the Buddha, who denounced the worship of objects!”.
In my opinion, the President is not the one who violated the teachings of the Buddha by paying homage to Bo tree but Sharmini Serasinghe by saying that the Buddha denounced the worship of objects.
As the above mentioned statement of Sharmini leads to misinterpretation of the teachings of the Buddha I would like to make the following remarks:
In fact, the Buddha never denounced the worship of sacred objects as a mark of respect. What the Buddha denounced was the homage of object as a path to liberation. It is explicitly pointed out by the Buddha in the verses 188 to 192 of the Dhammapada.
I think that Sarmini is well aware of the fact that the Buddha had taught seven factors of progress (satta-aparihāniyadhamma) to the Vajjin kings and the later followed them for sake of the progress of their country. And the Buddha informed Ven Ananda that as long as Vajjins follow those seven factors there would not be downfall except progress in their country. Among the seven factors one was that they (Vajjin) honoured esteemed, revered, and supported the Vajjin shrines whether in town or country, and did not allow them to fall into disuse. It is worthwhile to mention here that those teachings were directed by the Buddha to be followed by the rulers of countries. The term ‘shrines’ (cetiyāni) mentioned there means nothing other than what are the objects for veneration.
In the Pattakamma-sutta preached to Anātha-pindika, the Buddha had advocated that a noble disciple makes the fivefold offering with wealth gotten by work and zeal, gathered by the strength of arm, earned by the sweat of the brow, justly obtained in a lawful way. Amongst fivefold offering, two are enumerated as offering to the departed (pubba-peta bali) and offering to devas (devatā bali). Both those departed ones and Devās are also come under the category of objects for veneration. It should be emphasized here that those offerings are made by the noble disciples (ariya-sāvaka), according to the Buddha.
We have to accept that the Buddha did not want to oppose the ritualistic aspect of the secular life of people so far as it does not violate the spiritual aspect. The Buddha was well aware that the lay people cannot fully engage in spiritual path as they have their own household activities pertaining to personal and social wellbeing. Once, the Buddha has nicely delineated the difference between the lay Buddhist and the monastic member comparing their speed in the path of purification to that of a peacock and a swan in their flying in the sky.
Another accusation raised by Sharmini against the president is that the president publicly paid homage to Bo tree. According to her, public religious performance by a leader of a multi religious nation is a rubbing salt into raw wounds of the minorities. I don’t find any reason there for anyone to get hurt, if it is done in a simple way without destroying public funds, and also with the intention of exalting one’s own religion. This type of activities cannot be interpreted as disrespect to religions of others. I don’t think that any Buddhist felt the slightest hurt when the President publicly welcomed and respected the Pope on his arrival to Sri Lanka. In this respect what is not to be done is exalting one’s own religion while disparaging others’ religions. Honestly displaying one’s own religious activities is never meant for contempt of others’ religion. On the other hand, one who does not respect one’s own religion does not respect others’ religion too.
In this respect, it is better to remember that the Emperor Asoka who taught to his subjects to practice respect to all others’ religions, immensely supported Buddhism by way of helping to conduct a Buddhist council, building Buddhist monasteries and even dispatching Buddhist missionaries in order to propagate Buddhism in other countries. But, no one accuse him of religious favoritism.