By Mass L. Usuf –
The cyclical emergence of the persecution syndrome of the Sinhala-Buddhist community has started. Or, more succinctly, ‘persecutory delusions’, which are said to be ‘persistent, troubling, false beliefs that one is about to be harmed or mistreated by others in some way’.
Popular tag lines are insult, conspiracy, deception, collusion, Buddhism, Sinhala race etc. If the past is any indication, it is the Sinhala Buddhists who often initiates the uproar. The furore is amplified by the main stream and social media depending on the circumstances and the people involved. Like the return of the ‘Superman’, all those who were in the rabbit hole, away from the public eye, suddenly come to the limelight. The who’s who of this bad breed from amongst the saffron robed gentry and the ‘patriotic’ laymen are well known to the people. Obviously, the majority of the respectable monks maintain and, are careful about their Vinaya (discipline). Our deepest respect to all of them. Generally, reviling any religion is unacceptable but, this comes with a caveat. There are exceptions where ‘selective’ law enforcement is seen depending on the personality concerned. The elite ones can say anything, as the law enforcement ‘would not notice’ it, while the lesser fortunate ones are arrested, remanded, investigated and dealt with as per the law.
Is it right to say that all this fuss is either because of ignorance or arrogance? Racial chauvinism or excessive nationalism? In some instances, innocence. Yet, others would say, politics or political opportunism. Or, is the average humble Sinhala Buddhist confused?
To understand this, the reasoning of Professor of politics and international affairs, Neil de Votta seems helpful. With regard to those on whom the average Sinhala buddhist looks up for guidance, he writes, “The problem for Buddhists is that even as monks have become increasingly involved in politics, the concomitant forces of modernization and their attendant materialistic culture have in turn corrupted the monks. Thus, some monks run nursery schools, garages, taxi services, and even operate as investment specialists (Seneviratne 2001: 16). Others discard Vinaya (monastic) rules and demand that alms given to temples include chicken (Obeyesekere 2006: 135). Some monks smoke, imbibe alcohol, maintain paramours, take bribes, and resort to homosexual activity with samaneras (novices).” (Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology, Pg. 12 Policy studies 40).
It is interesting to analyse if there is a clear disconnect between all of this hoo-ha and reality.
One wonders whether in Sri Lanka Buddhism has crossed from its pristine pure, dhamma, to the area of politicised Buddhism. The core teachings of non-attachment and non-violence has been commonly substituted by the opposites like greed, avarice, power and so on. Violence, hate and vengeance is plentiful in contrast to the Dhammapada, where the Buddha said, “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is an eternal law.”
The psyche of a Sinhala buddhist nationalist ideology had been gradually institutionalised in the past few decades taking a political dimension. The constitutionalising via Article 9 giving the foremost place to Buddhism and casting a duty on the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana is a further step. Then comes race based populism calibrated in line with an oversimplified version of Sinhala race and its nexus with Buddhism. Some may argue that the Sinhala buddhist nationalist approach is not sanctioned by all the Sinhala Buddhists. However, there is widespread endorsement by them, as clearly evidenced by the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to power.
In all this mix up, one is forced to think if there is a lack in clarity between Sinhala Buddhism (popular Sri Lankan practises), political Buddhism and doctrinal Buddhism. In this context, it may be difficult to see what in Buddhism or which aspects of these have to be protected by the State? A fundamental question that may be asked is, “can anything that does not conform with the doctrinal Buddhism be considered as forming part of the Buddha’s pure teachings?”
Why is speech of an interrogative, intellectual or curious nature itself questioned when it matters religion? How can learning and education progress when questioning or critical analysis is stifled? For me, as a Muslim, should I take offence, when someone tells me, “Muslims believe in Allah but have you really seen Allah?” Personally, myself and, I do not think any Muslim, would be offended by such a statement. On the contrary, I will thank him for his question and endeavour to answer his question satisfactorily using science, logic and philosophy.
Speech, debate and discussion must be permitted as it forms part of the fundamental right of expression. A person called Jerome Fernando recently had stated that in the 99 names of Allah there is no mention of ‘Love’ or, something to that effect. Muslims, I believe, should never be offended by this. No need to protest or demonstrate or engage in non-intellectual response. No need to go to the CID to lodge a complaint. No need to demand the arrest of that person. What Muslims should do is simply correct the record and explain what is the truth and leave it at that. After all, the Quran clearly states that there is no compulsion in religion (Quran 2/256).
Now assume in the same vein, if someone asks a Buddhist a question of this sort, what should this person do? Run to the CID to lodge a complaint and demand arrest or engage intellectually or keep quiet? What does Buddha himself teach us in the Kalama Sutta?
Historically, were not the Kalamas experiencing the same thing we see today? They said to Buddha, “There are some monks and Brahmins, venerable sir, who visit Kesaputta. They expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces.” What was Buddha’s response to the Kalamas? The Preface to the book, ‘The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry’ reads, “The instruction of the Kalamas is justly famous for its encouragement of free inquiry; the spirit of the sutta signifies a teaching that is exempt from fanaticism, bigotry, dogmatism, and intolerance. (Translated from the Pali by Soma Thera 1994).
In an era of scientific advancement and knowledge growth open discussion on faith, religion and inter-faith religious discourses should be encouraged. Debate and discussion benefits in enhancing knowledge and understanding, clarify bias and prejudice, triggers innovative thinking and promote ideas and more. In speech or writing, an expression can take the form of satire, comedy, assertions and whatnot.
The comedy and satirical actor Mr. Rowan Atkinson famously known as ‘Mr. Beans’ had this to say regarding freedom of speech. “The clear problem of outlawing insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism is easily construed as insult by certain parties. Ridicule, easily construed as insult. Sarcasm, unfavourable comparison or merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy can be interpreted as insult.”
Quoting the British Parliament Joint Committee on Human Rights he said, “while arresting a protestor for using threatening or abusive speech may depending on the circumstances, be a proportionate response, we do not think that language or behaviour that is merely insulting should ever be criminalised in this way.”
Protect from whom?
Examining further into the confusion brings up another reality. Intoxicants of all forms are discouraged or prohibited by all religions. The fifth precept of Buddhism strongly advocates refraining from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause heedlessness. However, there are close to 4,500 licensed liquor shops in Sri Lanka.
The Asian Tribune report states that about 9 million or an estimated 40% of the population of Sri Lanka consume alcohol. This incidentally, is the highest per capita alcohol use among the SAARC countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Afghanistan). Is it not a shame on us? About 23,000 alcohol related deaths occur annually in Sri Lanka or about 65 people die daily due to alcohol abuse. It is reported that about 48% of about 4000 of suicide deaths in Sri Lanka are directly related to alcohol abuse.
When drinking has become a national pastime, how can the teachings and practices of Buddhism be protected? Why is there no public outrage by the monks and the Sinhala Buddhist activists about this dangerous phenomenon? This social evil is eating into the very root of the Dhamma and the Sasana? How can there be mindfulness (sati) when the mind is clouded?
De votta writes, “Significantly, political Buddhism emphasizes politics over Buddhist values (Schalk 2007) because it disregards Sri Lanka’s polyethnic heritage and seeks to institutionalize a Buddhist ethos for the entire country. Criticizing political Buddhism, which resorts to antidemocratic and ethnocentric practices, is not to criticize the Buddhist religion: the former merely highlights how laymen and monks alike have manipulated Buddhism for political ends and contributed toward Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.” (ibid).
So, then, where is the disconnect? What should be the priority?
* Mass L. Usuf, LL. B (Hons) UK, Attorney at Law (Ex-Advisor to former Presidential Private Department of UAE). Can be reached via email at: email@example.com