As three weeks passed after the 2019 Easter Sunday massacre of innocent citizens and their children, the crisis took another turn, with violent mobs engaging in acts of arson and murder. To the tremendous fortune of the Sri Lankan people, the public outcry from all quarters against this kind of vandal violence was very high. The work of the armed forces in drawing the line on these riots must be commended. Certain reports have accused members of the armed forces of alleged collusion. An investigation is underway. However, this writer would categorically emphasise the fact that the armed forces have been exemplary in their efforts to contain the rising tensions. The courage, dedication, and devotion to public security of every single servicewoman and serviceman deserves unreserved and unconditional commendation.
It needs to be mentioned, for the record, that the arson attacks and mob violence were similar to acts of violence in the early 1980s, wanted, conceived, and coordinated by men at the highest levels of government. The Wickremesinghe government desperately needs mayhem of this nature at the moment, so that it can engage in its agendas of postponing forthcoming elections and implementing the promises it has made to its benefactors in Washington DC.
A major absence?
Strong calls for calm and nonviolence came from religious leaders. Ministers of religion from all the main faith traditions in the country came together in making this request. Their role has been highly influential in calming the situation. If one takes a look at these calls for calm, interfaith dialogues, conversations on inter-religious coexistence and understanding, and calls for nonviolence, one can notice a conspicuous absence – that of women.
In Sri Lankan public discourses on issues related to peace dividends, nonviolence and interfaith harmony, the role of female ministers of religion has been severely downgraded and subjected to erasure. The Catholic cardinal, a man known for his misogynist and homophobic views, emerged as the absolute hero in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks. This by no means is an effort to downgrade His Eminence’s very laudable appeal for communal harmony and nonviolence. His Eminence certainly deserves our respect and appreciation for the leadership he provided to the Catholic community in the face of such tragedy of unprecedented proportions. However, what we can also notice is that the tremendous work done by Catholic nuns, especially in working with the distressed families, orphaned children and inured people, has not received much deserved attention and appreciation.
This writer, a Sinhala Buddhist, will focus below on the erasure of female members of the Buddhist clergy in the face of the current crisis. Commenting on this problem in other faiths is best left to followers of those faith traditions.
A ‘second place’ for women?
In the practices and codes of the Sri Lankan brand of Theravada Buddhism, the position given to women in the clergy leaves much to be desired. There is a great deal of resistance from male monks to any discussion on full equality and rights to their female counterparts.
Buddhist clergywomen are categorically kept away from many sacred spaces. They are, for example, not allowed in the inner sanctum where the tooth relic is kept at the Temple of the Tooth Relic. The rituals of the inner sanctum are exclusively the domain of monks. This is all the more ludicrous given the fact that it was a woman, Princess Hemamala, who is said to have brought the Tooth Relic to Sri Lanka, hidden in her hair.
The same goes for the uda maluwa of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. Only monks and laymen are allowed up there. The rare exceptions would have perhaps been the Bandaranaike mother and daughter during their prime ministerial and presidential tenures, and….the Queen of England!. This is yet another stupid and shameless restriction, as it was a Bhikkuni, the Most Ven. Maha Sanghamitta, who is said to have brought the sapling of the Bodhi tree to Lanka.
A reality of restrictions and exclusions?
Highly patriarchal codes and practices continue to haunt and impede the progress of the Buddhist establishment in Sri Lanka. Despite the fact that Higher ordination has been restored in Sri Lanka, and although we do fare slightly better compared to other Theravada traditions such as the Thai Forest Tradition, Lankan Bhikkunis are subjected to categorical exclusion from the hierarchies in our Buddhist establishment. Bhikkunis do not occupy any decision-making positions or seats in the high-level committees of any of the major nikayas. The Mahabodhi Society has chief prelates in many countries around the world. All of them are men. All the Mahanayakes and Anunayakes are men. In terms of media exposure and political leverage, the only Buddhist ministers of religion who are given priority are men.
Birds of a feather?
The patriarchal practices of the Lankan Theravada Buddhist establishment are the root cause of the large majority of problems it faces today. When one compares some of their discourses with Islamic and Christian fundamentalisms, they are all near-identical. This is explained in the close ties between some Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalist men and Islamic/Catholic fundamentalist men. Bodu Bala Sena, for example, once visited the Catholic cardinal to express their appreciation of the Cardinal’s archaic views women’s rights to bodily autonomy. A group of Islamic clerics and laymen – whose sexist credentials require no reiteration – once visited the Ven. Galagoda-atté Gnanasara at the prison hospital. To date, not a single Buddhist clergy wo/man has questioned the misogyny of the Cardinal’s views on many issues that concern women and non-heteronormative people.
It is time to end the highly condescending and secondary treatment accorded to women in the Buddhist clergy. Time has come to shed the monopoly and supremacy of men, and to grant Bhikkunis all the privileges and possibilities reserved for Bhikkhus. Until considerable progress is made in this direction, Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism will be ill-equipped to face the challenges of the day.
The biggest threat?
Indeed, the biggest threat to the continuation of the Buddhist faith, traditions and culture in Sri Lanka is not some Wahhabi extremist idiocy or some obscure Christian fundamentalist inanity whose congregation can barely fill a tuk-tuk and is desperate to convert disempowered people. Instead, the biggest threat is the inability of a very large segment of the men who compose the Maha Sangha to look past their highly patriarchal, misogynist, heteronormative and ethno-centric understandings of: a) Buddhist teachings, and, b) their role as monks.
Fixing our house is an essential priority if ‘Sinhala-Buddhism’ is to be protected and developed as an advanced spiritual discourse, and as an influential religious establishment that will keep violent extremist threats at bay. Today, it is a rather hilarious sight to see monks known for their misogynist, homophobic, male-centric and exclusivist views [and consequently of an ilk bordering on the ‘extremist’] calling upon Lankan Muslims to ditch Wahhabi/Salafi/Deobandi [WSD] extremisms!
The likes of WSD extremisms are best addressed not by other extremisms, but by offering a modern, cosmopolitan and inclusive alternative. When Buddhist ministers of religion call for the repeal of the MMDA, for instance, such criticism can only be viable if it is preceded by a concerted effort ‘within’ the Buddhist establishment to challenge its own patriarchal excesses and advocate for stronger policies of gender equality, gender justice, empowerment, and parity.
Only one way forward?
There is only one way to go beyond ‘pot calling the kettle black’ religious politics led by men of different faiths who, when it comes to their social conservatisms, are something more than birds of a proverbial feather; the Sinhala-Buddhist establishment needs to take concerted steps to challenge and change its archaic, illogical, meaningless and self-destructive practices, customs, ideologies and politics of centring everything around male fragility.
Overcoming these conservatisms, and providing clergywomen with all the opportunities in the Buddhist establishment, and debunking the myth that they are accessories to, if not subordinate to male monks, are essential steps forward. Bhikkunis need to be provided with the tools and authority to play stronger lead roles in the training of future clergywo/men. A powerful and influential position for Bhikkunis in this sphere carries the potential of ensuring safer spaces for children and young adults growing up within the Buddhist establishment as Samaneris and Samaneras, and could in turn help them grow up to become balanced, open-minded, and healthy citizens. The current system of highly gender-segregated and conservatism-filled up-bringing is far from suitable to create the modern Buddhist clergy wo/man who can genuinely challenge the social conservatisms, extremisms, classism/s, casteism/s, sexism/s, ethno-centrism/s, and other woes in our multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Reforms of this nature are absolutely essential if the Buddhist clergy is to play a truly constructive role in disseminating the Dhamma outside our shores, and presenting our brand of Buddhism as a philosophy, a monastic practice as well as a way of life that appeals to people from any inherited religious background.