By Sajeeva Samaranayake –
Talking in our sleep
HOW can we embody human rights instead of just talking about them? Most of our political discourse is sitting on a doubtful assumption – that we are a democracy and that we all share some collective allegiance to a set of principles. That is just one way of looking at our society. And that puts a tremendous burden on a state which does not seem ready to wake up from its growing slumber and inertia.
A better question: Are WE the people awake? Do we really have the benefit of these principles today? Did we not live through the past 30-40 years watching them die a slow death? If they were established at some point in history, did they get sufficiently rooted to produce trees and branches and leaves and flowers? Are we all sitting inside a garden that is not only messed up but also badly cultivated? To repeat my first question is there in fact a proper way for principles and values to be rooted in a human society? Exploring this question may be useful for our future – especially if my suggestion that we share no principles today is accepted. But first of all we need to get a preliminary issue out of the way. Where does the basic energy of freedom come from?
Freedom is not dependent
Is self respect, dignity and wholeness dependent on constitutions and other empty promises signed by corrupt politicians in this country or resolutions passed by corrupt politicians elsewhere? Or does it depend on what the upwardly mobile UN public servant says and does when governments fail or what the International Criminal Court does when everything has failed? Are not all these second rate remedies built on top of a sleeping human being who is yet to ask that question – WHO AM I? The human spirit may lie dormant for hundreds of years; but when it catches fire it becomes the source energy and foundation for all human creativity and free action. As Victor Hugo once said ‘no army can withstand the power an idea whose time has come.’
To understand who we are, we must have a sense of history and learn something about the ideas and values that shaped our ancient society. We can start with a dialogue recounted in the Samanthapasadika between two founding fathers of the ancient rajarata civilisation – King Devanampiyatissa and Arahat Mahinda.
Natural growth of values
The King asked the Arahat after doing a lot of external work (like donating land to the sangha, erecting dwellings for them and looking after their material welfare) whether the Buddha’s teaching (sasana) was established in the country. The Arahat drew a distinction between establishment and taking root. According to him it would only take root ‘When a son born in Ceylon (Tambapannidipa), of Ceylonese parents, becomes a monk in Ceylon, studies the Vinaya in Ceylon and recites it in Ceylon, then the roots of the sasana are deep set.’
This was a reference to the uposatha ceremony (held twice a month in countries where the vinaya is still observed) and it was held several years after this conversation. Arahat Mahinda selected Aritta Thero, a nephew of the king for this ceremony and the code of discipline for monks – the patimokkha was recited. We can extract several principles from this episode.
First and foremost in every human activity there is a question of values or morals involved which cannot be by-passed. Unless our physical actions are accompanied by right intentions and attitudes they will be incomplete and ineffective. Therefore cultivating the correct internal values is mandatory. In the case of the sangha the Buddha had laid down the vinaya or discipline which had to be both learnt and practiced.
Secondly, this requirement had to be met by a ‘son of the soil’ or a native. The Buddha dhamma was a foreign teaching and it had to be internalized by a local elder who would also have the capacity to pass on this torch of self reliance and discipline to the next generation.
Thirdly, this process could not be hurried and required natural growth based on the aptitude and temperament of the individual concerned.
We do not possess detailed information about this careful process of selection and training that Arahat Mahinda employed. However what we know is enough to discern the essential principles. These can be summarized as principles of internalizing, localizing and gradualism.
Equality guaranteed by exemplars
It is very clear that monks were expected to be moral exemplars to society. Until some point in our history, both king and villager were equals in the presence of the truly impartial monk; the only other place of social equality being the threshing floor. This was not a matter of the robe or of some mystique generated by the institutional trappings of the Sangha (upper case); but it was the natural and spontaneous authority that emanates from an independent being and his or her total indifference to power and wealth.
Monastic freedom could not be maintained without safeguarding this essential energy of independence. Where monks fell below these standards society would lack a visible standard. Thus the relationship between monks and society was one of inter-dependence, both externally in the matter of material support and internally in spiritual matters.
Quite apart from the precise technique used, the continuity of a tradition requires a supportive environment. When contradictory forces become too powerful a moral community can go under; or disappear altogether. What has disappeared can always be re-created. But these things cannot be hurried.
War and violence are outward manifestations of a society which has lost its sense of meaning. Within the heart of meaninglessness is found the external symbols of yesteryear we can keep dancing around. What is more important is to re-establish meaning. And this has to begin at the centre of life which is self.