By Sajeeva Samaranayake –
Buddha takes no prisoners: but the ignorant do
Pride, arrogance and blindness is natural, indeed to be expected, from politicians, generals and most others who feel powerful. But it has no place within Buddhist practice. As Buddhists we are taught to reflect on the impurities and foul nature of this body and the greater defilements of the mind that bind and deceive us. Whether we cover this body in white or black, and whether or not we cover it at all is a cultural preference. It does not change the fundamental character of any of us as human beings. We remain mired in self deception and suffering until reality dawns that we are stuck and we seek to understand why.
Until then our ‘Buddhist birth’ and cultural conditioning helps us to believe that we are Buddhist and when we dress in white and raise Buddhist flags we feel Buddhist. Likewise when we see women dressed in black covered from head to toe we feel they are different and alien to our culture. This is how the ignorant worldling or puthujjana thinks. A Buddhist goes deeper than these superficial impressions: indeed s/he learns to be open and tread the middle path in so far as sense impressions are concerned, avoiding both extremes of ignorance and false certainty.
Buddhism therefore is not a religion; as religions are widely understood today – exclusive clubs with their own subscriptions and benefits. It is simply a way of clarifying what we see, a path of liberation or vimukti marga. It is not a path that is cluttered by compromise, adjustment, cultural and historical baggage. It was discovered by Buddha and taught 2600 years ago. This path was walked by countless men and women across the centuries, through the rise and fall of kingdoms, empires and nations. In fact Buddha’s own clan – the sakyas were annihilated by the Kosala King Vidudabha about two years before his own demise or parinirvana – a stunning reminder of the transience of worldly formations. This path is now being walked around the world by free men and women belonging to many countries, cultures, languages and colours who find in it a worthy personal challenge.
On the other hand the repetition of verbal formulas, cultural events and merit making ceremonies centered on external symbols that are of Buddhist origin provide a kind of gateway towards the comprehension of the teachings or the dharma or law that the Buddha used. They also ensure that the outer framework survives from generation to generation so that the substance will be safe from the vicissitudes of change.
That of course is the theory. In reality we find today – just as the Buddha found in relation to Brahmanism that people have become enslaved to rituals and that they use the key of liberation to lock themselves within an impregnable prison. Once they do this it is a numbers game and the more prisoners they gather around themselves the merrier. Just a few solitaries whose paths lie far away from the corridors of money and power will use the key to open the doors and walk out. These are the people who remain faithful to the original purpose of early mankind who sought the meaning of life – not as a scholarly pastime but as a guide to living.
From herd to individual
Long before the advent of abstract writing and modern ways of religious and political separation early human beings commenced a process of authentic self-expression rooted in their concrete experience of life in nature. They drew animals before they knew art and made stone tools before the idea of engineering arose. Likewise they devised rituals for placating the forces of nature before religion was conceived. This collective folk worship served them as gatherers, hunters and scavengers. However when they moved into more settled occupations like herding animals and farming, society had to contend not just with nature but with a whole human environment. The emphasis shifted from violent rituals like animal slaughter to non violent sacrifices that eventually produced the idea of self-sacrifice, the surrender of self and ego as the highest gift to the divine. In India where these ideas evolved in the centuries before Buddha the emphasis shifted from a mere struggle for physical existence to the lofty object of freedom from karma and samsara – the cycle of births and deaths for the individual. Peoples of this age were generally united and defined by this common quest for meaning as Samuel De Lanerolle (Origins of Sinhala Culture) observed:
The Manushyas, Nagas, Devas and other religionists mentioned in Buddhist literature were united not because of their colour or their blood relationships but because of the similarity of their faiths and modes of thinking.
This integrity – the aligning of the deeper self of heart and soul with the more operational mind-body self as the core of all quests for meaning is affirmed by Karen Armstrong (Search for God) who says:
Religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle. Without such practice, it is impossible to understand the truth of its doctrines. This was also true of philosophical rationalism. People did not go to Socrates to learn anything – he always insisted that he had nothing to teach them – but to have a change of mind.
Breakdown of Praxis (yoga) and the descent to violence
It is this deep alignment of our spiritual energy with our thoughts and actions we refer to as yoga. Typically however most Sri Lankans – like their brothers and sisters of the west only know yoga as a different form of physical exercise, a good ‘de-stresser’ and nothing more. Nor have we made the connection between the western term praxis (the interaction of theory and practice) and its older eastern sibling yoga. In the absence of practical methods for incorporating spiritual practices into daily life the spirit of dharma practice dies out. As far back as 1963 the English Bikkhu Ven. Nanavira Thero stated:
Quite in general, I find that the Buddhists of Ceylon are remarkably complacent at being the preservers and inheritors of the Buddha’s Teaching, and remarkably ignorant of what the Buddha actually taught. This fact, combined with the great traditional reverence for the Dhamma as the National Heritage, has turned the Buddha’s Teaching into an immensely valuable antique Object of Veneration, with a large placard in front, DO NOT TOUCH. In other words, the Dhamma in Ceylon is now totally divorced from reality.
Indeed much has happened in the 50 years since then. The overall picture is complex and significant advances were made in both Buddhist learning and practice. However the noxious mix of Buddhism and confrontational politics has continued to pollute the environment strengthening and hardening the original foundation of ignorance that Ven Nanavira referred to.
Sasana as nation
The current attempt In Sri Lanka to create a frontier mentality or tribal consciousness among the Sinhala Buddhists is an immediate result of the war. Although the war ended in 2009 a war mentality has been fostered, leading to continuing political instability and a crisis of meaning. This vacuum is now sought to be filled by a sense of purpose. Fundamentalism all over the world share this pattern.
The nature of Sinhala Buddhism has at time been contradictory, with one strand stressing spiritual objectives and the other political. The preferable and sacrosanct view, however, is that the Sinhalese belong to the Sasana; not the other way about. The Sinhalese cannot own and have not owned this transcendent, transnational conception. It is a relationship with duties rather than rights and powers. The standing of Sri Lanka as a Buddhist country, especially in East and South East Asia will be threatened if the sasana continues to be used as a mere legitimizing mechanism for political power without a true allegiance by the state to Buddhist principles. This will be further elaborated below.
According to Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere (Buddhism, nationhood and cultural identity: The pre-modern and pre-colonial conceptions)
Our conception of sasana is a ‘form of nationhood’ constructed by the ethnographer on the basis of a phenomenological reality existing in Sri Lankan culture and consciousness. Not so with ‘identity’ which is a conceptual invention of the analyst. There is no word that resembles ‘identity’ in the Buddhist lexicon.
Consistently with this assertion the wikipedia makes the following statement on Naga people in a widely known but grossly under-appreciated fact about the origins of the ‘Sinhalese’:
“Yaksha,Raksha,Naga,Deva groups who were divided according to what they worshiped lost their identification after all converting to Buddhism.”
This very change was an act of liberation and transformation by which these ancient tribes merged within an ethical order – the Sasana. It affirmed the truth of the absence of any fixed or permanent identities. This is a legacy of freedom that Sri Lankans must cherish and should not forget.
Buddhists as a faith community
Tribal identities were not exchanged for a “Sinhala” identity. These tribesmen and women simply embraced Buddhist thinking and the Buddhist way of life. We find references to these tribal identities even up to the time of King Dutugemunu and it is reasonable to assume that his ‘people’s war’ served to further strengthen the collective solidarity of this faith community. In the course of time a common language, common values and a common culture unified these people as a nation. Yet this was not a defensive nation with closed doors who felt that this island was the only place for them in the whole wide universe. On the contrary it was a confident nation with open doors which welcomed and naturalized people from India and other countries into its fold. As Buddhists they shared a worldview which was rich in tolerance and understanding and deep in its commitment to liberative ideals.
What went wrong? The reasons are more internal than external. They have less to do with western imperialism and more to do with historical choices made within the Sangha.
What the faith community lost – and has failed to recover
After the Brahmanatissa famine in the First Century BC the monks took a decision to codify the Buddhist Canon. What is less well known is the great debate that took place between town monks and forest dwellers as to the foundation of the Sasana. The question was posed whether this is learning or practice and the town monks who argued in favour of learning won the day.
While it is common to refer to the three refuges ultimately the sole refuge of the Buddhist is practice. In place of this was substituted the refuge of the written word and the living dharma was converted to a Religion of the Book.
This was a silent revolution within the Sasana that helped to transform a liberative discipline into a domesticated communal religion that would be presided over by scholar monks and cultural specialists. Society from this day gave greater preference to the vocation of learning rather than meditation and practice. This was the beginning of the trek back from nirvana to a social institution that would in time come to share the privileges, divisions and defilements of society. The Sasana tied itself close to society at a cost to its independence.
While forest dwellers remained influential the tradition of meditation itself was not maintained in Sri Lanka. This absence would be felt keenly in the wilderness years from 1215 to 1815 and beyond. The great monks of the post Dambadeniya era were all celebrated scholars – even though Veedagama Maitriya Thero – the author of Loveda Sangarava was a forest dweller. A concerted effort at reviving meditation was only commenced in the 1950’s by the Sri Kalyani Yogasrama Sansthava within the Ramanna Nikaya.
Other great losses after Polonnaruva were:
The Order of Nuns who provided dignity and leadership to women and balanced the excesses of a patriarchal society
The Buddhist critical tradition that was fostered by inner democracy within the Sasana which maintained the three Great Schools of Mahavihara, Abhayagiriya and Jethavanaramaya. Abhayagiriya was in fact an International centre of Buddhist learning, exchange and fellowship.
The tradition of self reliance that would be substituted by a tribal return to polytheism, superstition and the worship of territorial Gods
Facing the west – without non violent tools
Consequently the Sasana was already disarmed when it confronted a new religious phenomenon in the Catholicism of the Portugese. A Buddhist response to violence had to be fashioned but the requisite mental tools were lacking. Eventually it was the adversarial western approach that influenced Buddhism. Western ideas of fixed identities, certainties and dogmas, their printing presses and technology and methods of impersonal education were all adopted to produce a society which now finds itself in a state of permanent division and conflict. The grand Sasana that focused on just three objectives:
is now blown up into a massive corporation with a great deal of possessions and no idea of letting go. This is evident in the definition of the Sasana in the latest Buddhist Commission Report.
The futile attempt of Article 9
It is this reduced religion that was mentioned together with the other faiths and given first place by the British in their 1818 Proclamation.
Parroting this idea in Article 9 did not enhance the status of Buddhism. Instead it was affirmed as a religion in its reduced state; a grave error. Just as Hinduism is the fundamental and underlying faith and spirit of India, so is Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Pluralism and inclusion is part of the great legacy of Anuradhapura and its three great schools of Buddhism – Mahavihara, Abhayagiriya and Jethavanaramaya. The near intact Shiva temples of Polonnaruva testify to the continuation of the same legacy there. It took an Englishman, Richard Gombrich to point this out in his book Theravada Buddhism, first published in 1988.
What has been irrevocably lost…is the perception of the Sasana as unique and sui generis: contact with the wider world, now formalized in the apparatus of government, has lined up Buddhism , Hinduism, Islam and Christianity as the four religions of Sri Lanka, four objects on a par. (That the state assigns Buddhism a ‘special place’ is irrelevant to this subtler concern.) the recurrent claim that Buddhism is not a religion on par with others but something of a different order , may be a ‘way of life’ so that the other religions are or may be compatible with it, is, among other things, an attempt to reclaim Buddhist uniqueness. What is being claimed, usually in a very vague and muddled way, can be expressed in my terms: that the other religions are all right on the communal level, but only the Buddha pointed the true way to salvation. Liberal Buddhists add that you do not have to call yourself a Buddhist to follow the Buddha’s way.
The way forward – enhancing our collective wisdom
The centuries old shift of Buddhism from an individual liberative discipline to a communal religion provides a key to why the Lankans lost their cherished independence to the British in 1815. The reservoir of collective wisdom cannot be fed when there are no wise individuals. Spiritual anxiety at the individual level is what motivates serious practice and guarantees progress on the path. Sinhala Buddhists have glossed over this imperative to develop a collective spiritual anxiety regarding pre-conceived objectives like the perpetuation of the Sasana for 5000 years and maintaining a 70% Buddhist majority in the island etc, etc. The erection of Buddha statues all over the country, chanting prayers day and night and proliferating merit making ceremonies with high visibility seems designed to provide this re-assurance of the continuity of the ‘Sasana.’ Complacency dominates the issue of personal morality and advancement. The slavish attachment to rituals bars the way to stream entry and keeps one trapped in samsara. Independence and freedom – unless won at the individual level cannot blaze the way to collective wisdom and collective independence.
Consequently the agenda of action I propose with utmost respect to my brethren and the noble Sangha is to ensure that we guide at least one half of this Buddhist majority (35%) back to a path of humility, silence, discipline, compassion and wisdom. 50 years after the perceptive comments of Ven Nanavira we are paying the price of apathy and non action in terms of further national disintegration. If we wish to avert this nation becoming a playground of great global powers the time for action is now.