26 November, 2020

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Is This Also A Buddhist Response?

By Sajeeva Samaranayake

Sajeeva Samaranayake

Is there a deeper problem at the heart of this society apart from its Government (according to some) and western conspiracies (according to others)? If there is a deeper set of causes will we ever identify them as a society? In this country where there are many Buddhists we must ask if there are Buddhist ways of looking at these problems. Since Buddhism ought to be a democratic and not authoritarian religion there must be many Buddhist ways of doing this. With these thoughts I am asking if what is set down below is also a Buddhist way of seeing, feeling and thinking… In this spirit I am content to offer my diagnosis without delivering a prescription in the same breath.

What is nation building?

Nation building is to build a common space which all citizens can call their home. It must necessarily bring into focus all excluded communities, the weakest and the most vulnerable. A state that marginalizes them is not a state at all but simply a marginalizing mechanism used by some against the many. From this perspective nation building is not simply about strengthening the political or economic power of some, but using inclusive processes to help the marginalized complete their long road to social inclusion and social justice. The marginalized individual and community, no less than the mainstream individual and community are dynamic actors in bringing this about. When we consider the kind of relationship that should emerge between the mainstream and the margin we must keep in view the words of former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold;

It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses.

Unless we are sufficiently human to relate to, understand and truly help one other human being how do we think we can help two, or ten or a thousand or millions? Hammarskjold was telling us not to get carried away by superficial ‘success’ but to come home to the real and the true; to focus on quality – not quantity. But how can we relate to others without relating to ourselves? The post World War II German leader Konrad Adeneur writing to Frank Buchman, the founder of Moral Re-Armament said:

It is my conviction too, that men and nations cannot outwardly enjoy stable relationships until they have been inwardly preparing for them.

This preparation is to deepen our sensitivity and understanding. To do this we need the most direct and human approach so that we cannot get sidetracked into any of the ‘professional and technical routes’ that entice us with the prospects of superficial ‘success.’ These routes are about advancing our small self or ego. Indeed nation building itself can be turned into a very attractive ego trip. We must guard against such trips.

The direct and human approach is the perspective of pain, hardship, disappointment, frustration and despair. These are our basic facts, the soil we have to work with. For all this and more, we use one compendious term, suffering. The Christians may call it bearing the cross and Muslims jahiliyah or ignorance.

We must look at the suffering of the poor and powerless; their origins during the British period and how their marginalization was accompanied by the disintegration of our native social values. We must also look at the suffering of the rich and the powerful as they scrambled to take their places within an emergent middle class under the British masters, how they sought to enhance and secure both their wealth and power, struggled to discharge their new role as political masters of the island and remained disconnected from the poor that they claimed to serve.

Their fall from grace was accompanied by a failure to preserve the British values of public governance this country inherited and institutionalized very effectively up to the grant of independence. The lack of understanding and disconnection between the powerless and the powerful ended in youth revolts and a civil war revealing a nation at war with itself and unable to make sense of the destructive emotions thrown up by a shattered relationship. There was basic suffering on the part of the poor and additional suffering on the part of the rich who found the poor an inconvenience, a constant reminder that all was not well. The responsibility must be shared as they were both confined to a narrow ethic of competition and consumerism – what we define as superficial success. They did not see each other as human beings – human beings who suffered and desired happiness and who had real potential for achieving that happiness.

Self interest, slavery and exploitation

A society of human beings must have some principles by which they regard themselves as bound apart from self interest or ego. When such principles are absent it is natural to have a state of anarchy and lawlessness in which the powerful and the wealthy dominate the weak and rule on the basis of that residuary principle of human society – might is right. Now ‘might is right’ as the actual basis of governance will never be conceded. This is for intelligent people to work out on the basis of their observation of reality.

Slavery was one of the first relationships that human beings devised to take advantage of the powerless, and it had one virtue in that there was no deception about what was happening. As human society advanced through feudal agrarian to capitalist trading systems the common man began to lose his land, livelihood and status in society and had to fit within the labour requirements of the capitalist state. What happened here was quite simple even though the process took several centuries. The weakest and the least literate part of the population were made vulnerable by the capitalist acquisition of traditional land so that they could be exploited generation after generation as cheap labour.

This was the next relationship of exploitation between the powerful and the powerless and it is the most fundamental principle that makes the current globalized economy run. All these political, legal and financial systems enable exploitation first and then seek to enforce some order and regulation second. Protection of the most vulnerable is not a priority. One thing that they do very efficiently is to hinder and block clear communication between the powerless and the powerful.

Attainment and non – attainment of social equality

In the western countries where this process was also accompanied by political and social revolutions the status of most of the ‘new poor’ was equalized by according equal respect and equal opportunities for education and social mobility. The same process did not happen in most of the third world economies like Sri Lanka for three reasons.

First and foremost the colonizing British wanted the island to be an economically productive proposition that fitted into their imperial economic order. The inquiries and consultations that took place prior to the introduction of the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms of 1833 took place within this frame of reference. The reforms were in any event top down and the peasants who were going to be most affected had no say in this decision making. Secondly the traditional elite and the new rich who took their places within the emergent middle class were as merciless as the British in depriving the ‘new poor’ of their land and wealth for the purpose of their own economic advancement freed of the traditional social norms that made excessive greed and consumption shameful and foolish conduct. Thirdly the new economic order was built on the graveyard of the old social system and its values which had sustained the Sinhalese and Tamil societies in the island for over two millennia.

These values have been documented by J.B. Disanayaka in his book Monk and the Peasant. All Lankans must know

 

  1. That we are, after all, equal
  2. That things must be shared
  3. That animals too need our love
  4. That money isn’t everything
  5. That elders deserve respect

 

Social life is enabled once the basic requirements for living are secured. Leisure is a pre-condition for civilized living that makes time for cultural and spiritual learning and advancement. It is the dialogue that develops between secure social beings that produces that necessary wisdom for ordering society for peaceful co-existence. Institutions for the public good are established and sustained upon this footing. In short personal security is translated into social security and this in turn is used to achieve structural and institutional security. However it cannot be ignored that the very acquisition and consumption of basic requirements is also a social activity that cannot ignore the values inherent in social relations. But this precisely what happened under the new economic order ushered in by the 1833 Reforms. The old social system was dismantled for the economic advancement of the powerful within the Colony. A minority benefited but the rural majority fell from a position of relative dignity to a state of landlessness, poverty, unemployment and hunger. As K.M. De Silva noted in History of Sri Lanka:

Throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and in the first decade of the twentieth, there are frequent references in published official documents to famines, conditions of near famine, chronic rural poverty, destitution and above all, starvation in many parts of the country, especially the dry zone. After a century of rule, the British colonial administration had not succeeded in improving the living standards of the rural population in most parts of the country. Peace and stability they certainly had brought, but they had alleviated little of the hardships of the Sinhalese peasants.

A principal feature of the current globalized capitalist order and its normative framework in governance, finance, trade and law is its apparent self-sufficiency and rigorous exclusion of the social norms and cultural traditions of people in the third world. This has taken place because the educated elite professional in the third world is generally a creature of western language, knowledge, values and training who is ignorant of his own indigenous value system. This allows the (generally) less educated politician to play on the rural voter’s sense of alienation and insecurity with the parochial rhetoric of race and religion. Neither the professional nor politician sees the social well being of the peasant as part of his responsibility.

To summarize, we don’t really like each other in this society. There is a fundamental crisis in interpersonal relations and this has struck the very heart of society – our family relations. Many children today have no family apart from the fact that a man and woman have copulated to produce them. All this indicates that we are living within a spiritual and cultural vacuum. So long as this vacuum exists we can try and solve the problems created by and within institutions, like the education system, the legal system and public service etc, etc but without ever confronting what needs to be confronted – our darker side, our shadows. We continue to beat around the bush, talk in figures and concepts quite unaware that the ground beneath us has been pulled away.

When all pretences have come crashing down what are we left with, my friends?

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    “…This has taken place because the educated elite professional in the third world is generally a creature of western language, knowledge, values and training who is ignorant of his own indigenous value system. This allows the (generally) less educated politician to play on the rural voter’s sense of alienation and insecurity with the parochial rhetoric of race and religion. Neither the professional nor politician sees the social well being of the peasant as part of his responsibility.

    To summarize, we don’t really like each other in this society. There is a fundamental crisis in interpersonal relations and this has struck the very heart of society – our family relations. Many children today have no family apart from the fact that a man and woman have copulated to produce them. All this indicates that we are living within a spiritual and cultural vacuum. So long as this vacuum exists we can try and solve the problems created by and within institutions, like the education system, the legal system and public service etc, etc but without ever confronting what needs to be confronted – our darker side, our shadows. We continue to beat around the bush, talk in figures and concepts quite unaware that the ground beneath us has been pulled away.

    When all pretences have come crashing down what are we left with, my friends?”

    Very insightfully presented Sajeeva. The last two paras call for much introspection from all Lankans (or, any country’s people who think, countries that have gone through similar cycles).

    Thanks Sajeeva.

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    Sri Lanka is in difficulties because Buddhism is a tolerant religion that quite rightly gave respect to all other religions and ethnic groups, from time immemorial, but some of them were not at all grateful and instead tried to destroy the nation by dividing it on ethnic oe religious criteria.
    There are many examples of how buddhism in SriLanka has been tolerant and accommodating, unlike the rulers in many nations as well as those colonial powers who ruled sriLanka.
    Four of the many examples are: (a) Though King Elara was killed in battle, he was given respect and dignity posthumously and his South Indian forces allowed to settle down in sriLanka and practise their own religion (b) when the portuguese were persecuted, the srilankan King allowed them to settle down in the East coast to escape the portuguese; (c) When the British colonial rulers were persecuting the Catholics, again the SriLankan kings gave them protection; (when the British left behind indentured Tamil labour from South India, who were legally either Indian or British Citizens, Sri Lanka conferred citizenship to millions of them, unlike in many other countries the same problem was left behind by the Britis. The list of buddhist tolerance and accomadating others as equals is no secret, but buddhists are also assertive and will try their best to protect their own right to practise their religion and enjoy equal rights.
    No one must play the card that buddhism is a tolerant religion and therefore, be like King Sirisangabor, giving anything and everything others ask for, including dividing the nation into separate nations or provinces, on ethnic or religios grounds. SriLankans must have equal rights to settle down wherever they wish and practise any religion.

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    Sajeeva, very thought provoking, thank you.I wish the Rajapakses read it.Talking of disconnect the LLRC report in sinhalese and tamil did not come out for 9 months and that too in limited supply.I really do not agree that we were a great civilisation as claimed,a despot called the king did whatever he wanted and his sychophant adigars and other minor court officials managed the state for the king while people paid tribute and had no voice in anything what is there to be proud of this system.The British at least gave us a codified set of laws and regulations most everyone abided with. I am being very objective even though Iam a sinhalese and call a spade a spade.I think we as sinhalese get too wrapped up in our past and are a dismal failure in dealing with the present.

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    The analysis is good, will the present generation repent & reform.

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    This ia the one and only Sinhala Budhist country in the universe.

    So the Budhist Monks are the most knowledged people to answer wheather it is also a Budhist response or not. Budhist monks must decide how the country should be ruled in accordance with Budhist way of practise.

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    This ia the one and only Sinhala Budhist country in the universe.

    So the Budhist Monks are the most knowledged people to answer wheather it is also a Budhist response or not.

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      So by Buddhist Monks do you also mean Sinhala Buddhist Monks? Buddhism is the teachings of Lord Buddha. Sinhala Buddhism is the religion established by the Sinhalese in the name of Lord Buddha. The two have significant differences. To start with, there are no Buddhist Monks, Sinhala or any other ethnicity, as enlightened as the Buddha. To that extent, no one is qualified to answer whether anything is truly Buddhist, other than the Buddha himself. Just because one calls him/herself a Buddhist Monk, or wears an orange robe, it does not make one qualified to speak on behalf of the Buddha.

      I have told many a Christian that Jesus will be spinning in his grave for what Christianity has justified, and continue to justify, in his name. The same applies to the Buddha, and what the ‘Sinhala Buddhists’ have, and continue to, justify in his name.

      Religions are all the same. They ride on the wisdom and popularity of an enlightened being, but water down the teachings to fit mass society, that provides identity and ego to the masses, which in terns the masses into mobs of holy ignoramuses.

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        Navin most of what you say, by way of comment is lost on many of the Colombo Telegraph readers.
        I don’t for the life of me understand how the gentleman calling himself “Raja” could link the article to his comment “but some of them were not at all grateful and instead tried to destroy the nation by dividing it on ethnic oe religious criteria…”
        We are a country that has lofted racism to a state of reverence. The rest of the world is willing to suspend nations from the sporting arena for racist remarks. Naturally we revel in insulting our fellow citizens, make absurd claims and have no shame in doing so.
        The world you and I want to see is utopian and will remain an unrealizable dream, and the peoples of our motherland an unfathomable enigma.

        I know you wont stop doing what you have to do. Nor will I.
        Nabil

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          Hi Nabil, I guess all we can ever do is voice our concerns/ opinions, and provide an alternative perspective to those of the likes of Raja. In the hope that younger generations will not be exposed to just the ‘easy’ side of the argument to digest.

          People can be so passionately patriotic to their nationality/ religion etc, they become blind to flaws associated with them. You will see this in pretty much every country/ tribe/ religion etc.

          Of course the greatest frustration is, if we picked what is at the source of pretty much any religion, or even any culture, we will find so many tools with which to not be as ignorant and blind as humanity has been for centuries. It seems for humanity, including Sri Lankans, religion and nationality is only about identity and maintaining blissful ignorance. Actually testing themselves against the fundamentals of their religious or cultural identities and beliefs/ teachings is a step too far, and of course anyone who challenges them to do so, is cast a traitor…

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