17 June, 2019

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Nasty Prejudices Underlying Neat Platitudes About Buddhism In Sri Lanka

By Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka

Prof. Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka

There is something intrinsically meaningless in the bare  assertion of the common platitude “Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country” where the denial that it is a “Buddhist country” is obviously the most contentious  part provoking  bitter controversy. However on any detached analysis the debate whether Sri Lanka is or is not a Buddhist country seems a useless anti-intellectual exercise in futility, over an emotive line in which words are strung together axiomatically without proper definition. Indeed from a linguistic perspective the plain statement “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country”sounds just as absurd and simplistic as saying that “Sri Lanka is a UNP country” just because say a UNP government is in power, or that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala country just because a majority speak Sinhala, or a dark skinned country just because a majority  happen to be dark skinned, or even that it is a stupid country just because most people seem to vote stupidly at elections !

There are of course numerous statements one could make about Sri Lanka that are objectively true. For example it would be entirely factual to state that Sri Lanka is a country where Buddhism was the most popular religion. Equally and to put it differently it would be perfectly correct to state that Sri Lanka is a country where the vast majority of people identify as Buddhists. It would also be a true statement of fact that Sri Lanka is a country that gives the foremost place to Buddhism in its Constitution. One can go on and say things like Sri Lanka is a tropical country, Sri Lanka is an Asian country, Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, Sri Lanka is a small country, and so on and so forth. Such affirmations and many more besides can be made without fear of contradiction. Indeed their validity is self-evident. 

By contrast the statement “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country” has the connotation of a universal all-encompassing core characteristic that defines the nation. To see Buddhism in that sense as an ingrained attribute  that somehow envelopes underlies and permeates everything and everybody is irrational. A country as commonly understood is more than its inhabitants. Consequently affirming that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country  ( if one takes the words at their face value) logically carries the implication  that there is something  intrinsically Buddhist about even the fields, rivers, forests, mountains, valleys, and beaches surrounding the island – which of course would be plainly absurd. So where words mean nothing without a clarification of terms the issue is what do people really mean when they insist  that “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country” ? What underlying ideas assumptions and attitudes make people claim that “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country” ? What are people really saying when they make such a claim ?

There may be several possibilities. Firstly it is possible that when people say that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country it is just another way of saying that a large majority of the Sri Lankan population identify as Buddhist – a simple demographic reality that no one in his right mind would deny. However if that is all what is meant, those who insist that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country for that reason might not be so vehement and bitterly condemn those who would agree but put it differently, when the difference between them was purely semantic ! 

The second possibility  underlying the statement that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country is the notion that there is a distinctly precious Buddhist culture which characterises and pervades society, underlies the Sri Lankan way of life and in some sense defines Sri Lanka. There might be some justification for saying that if only it were true. But it isn’t. What passes for Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka as epitomized by the lifestyle, attitudes, and mindset of its politicians  priests, professionals, business classes and proletariat is the very antithesis of an authentic Buddhist culture inspired by the dharma. 

On the contrary it is a brutal dehumanized culture characterized by selfishness, greed, intolerance, lawlessness cronyism, and corruption  pervading all echelons of society from top to bottom.  Sri Lanka is a violent society where people have become mercenary and materialistic, where crime is covered up and justice is frequently denied, where petty jealousy and patronage rule, where mediocrity is exalted over excellence discouraging the best and rewarding the third rate, and where in public life the outward show is consistently at variance with the inward reality in countless ways. Is that the Sinhala Buddhist culture people have in mind when they say that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country? Indeed, to say that there is anything Buddhist in the Sinhala Buddhist culture of the day is to insult Buddhism.

The so called island of Sinhala Buddhist culture is where doctors go on strike and make their patients suffer when they are not making millions in the medical expressway of the private sector, where lawyers rip off their clients in cases that may drag on for years, where the sordid culture of campus torture  that destroys young lives has polluted universities for generations, where  militant Buddhist monks are a law unto themselves and form a powerful wealthy arrogant and fierce theocracy to which all governments must kneel, and where school teachers turned rapacious business tycoons trap millions of students  in a bastard culture of mass tuition  running parallel to formal school education. Such is the ground reality of the much vaunted Sinhala Buddhist culture that people might mean when they say that “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country”. 

Those who are old enough will remember the historical  expression of that culture in the much acclaimed 1956 popular revolution which drove the Burghers as far as Australia, chased  out the Catholic nuns who were ministering angels in state hospitals, and at one stroke alienated the peaceful Tamil community with  a ruthless policy of narrow linguistic nationalism setting the stage for the 1958 riots, the 1983 holocaust, two bloody badly botched Marxist revolutions, and the brutal slaughter of a 30 year war.

So When people maintain that “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country” assuming a distinctive Buddhist culture that pervades society, they make a mockery of the pristine culture of true Buddhism  which if it ever existed  in Sri Lanka disappeared a long time ago being replaced by a grotesque dangerous distortion that is better designated as “militant Sinhala Buddhist nationalism”.  

The hard reality is that what passes for a distinctive Sinhala Buddhist culture today is nothing more than the widespread sanctimonious humbug of false religion epitomized by manifold superstitions, interminable empty rituals, pantheistic worship, and all the vain ceremonial  trappings and symbolism of religious formalism the chief beneficiaries of which are clergy who are enabled to  lead a pampered comfortable existence revered by high and low alike.

One is therefore left with the  third  and arguably most plausible underlying reason why most people might insist that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. What they might actually mean is that Sri Lanka ‘belongs’ to the Sinhala Buddhists! When put like that the implications are alarming  and it is no surprise that such an outrageous suggestion should be disguised in the more benign language of “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country”. However the underlying perception in the depths of the heart is that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists. Of course religious and ethnic minorities are welcome to peacefully live and work as Sri Lankans provided they know their limits. They may even be treated with every kindness and consideration like the way we lavish attention on our pet cats and dogs provided they know their place in the overall scheme of things. But if they were to ever step out of line and resist submitting to the overarching paternalistic hegemony of Sinhala Buddhism they would need to be sharply chastised and brought to heel. Those are the terms. Indeed the sting  in the controversial Article 9 of the  Constitution that guarantees the foremost place to Buddhism is that for all the guarantees in Articles 10 and 14(1)(e) it will be naturally perceived by many  as a way of saying that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists.

A perfect example of that unstated assumption is  the way it is generally taken for granted that notwithstanding  constitutional guarantees of equality  it is unthinkable that anybody but a Sinhala Buddhist should be the President or Prime Minister in Sri Lanka – not even the  distinguished Lakshman Kadiragamar who having rendered unique service to the nation’s war effort as foreign minister finally paid with his own life ! He did not stand a chance either in a society where what the vast majority of monks and millions  who pay homage to them actually mean by saying that “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist Country” is that “Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists” ! What somebody who provoked the recent controversy by having the guts to question this popular axiom did, was to touch the raw nerve of the critical interface between  the innocuous sound of what people say and the frightening reality of what they actually mean. It has revealed the cruel prejudice that may underly a common platitude.

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Latest comments

  • 14
    3

    Buddhism originated in India and some Indians brought Lord Buddha’s teachings to Srilanka. Over the 2000 years this island never declared this island as a Buddhist Country or belongs to Buddhists. Until the constiution changed in 1978,there is no place for Buddhism in the Constitution. It is the opportunistic Sinhalese political leadership who wanted to cheat innocent Sinhalese massess brought the Buddhism into the constitution, For Hindu’s or Muslims it was never be an issue whether Buddhism in the constitution or not but the real cost is for the country where they created opportunity to escape from corruption, murder, rape and bribe and ransom.

    • 1
      0

      When did the British make our Gautama a ‘Lord” by granting a peerage?
      ]
      Its it intended to be an insult to our great ‘enlightened one’?
      ]
      We don’t him to be associated with Henry VIII!

    • 2
      0

      Mahavamsa does not support your version of history. There are many legendary stories also that lend support to the prejudicial contention that SL belongs to S/B. The story of Ven Panadure Sumangala, and Panadura wadaya are two such legends. Buddhism went into the constitution not 1978; it was in 1972 with Marxist Colvin R de Silva as the head of the team that drafted it. But, I would argue that it was SWRD’s politics that made the prejudice a powerful force in national politics.
      However, I would like to ask a different question: Is this phenomena of prejudice by the majority ethnic group confined only to the S/B in SL or is it common to all nations with their own criteria being used for the same purpose? My answer is that it exists everywhere. To give some very recent examples: Trump won the last election by playing race the card; BREXIT won for the same reason. As a matter of fact, there was a wave of political victories throughout Europe based solely on racial discrimination! That is b’cos humans, even in most advanced democracies, cannot escape from the tendency to have prejudicial attitudes over others. Even though almost all religious principles as well as democratic norms always preach for egalitarian society, in real life, discrimination is the underlying practice. As I often say, the reason lies in human instincts which are as old as the evolution of organic life itself!
      But, I believe that there is a way to overcome this instinctive behavior.

  • 11
    2

    Well Said Mr. Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka.

    Lord Buddha himself would object to Sri Lanka – referred to as a Buddhist Country.

    If all those Buddhists who are so incensed by and are hung up on this label “Sri Lanka is /is not a Sinhala Buddhist country” – would only behave as Buddhists, just Buddhists then we can have peace and harmony.

  • 14
    2

    A heartfelt examination here with a resolve for truth.

    To have this published in Sri Lanka by a Sinhala author itself is a huge stride; this is shining light for all those who wish to live peacefully and in harmony with respect for all beings.

    Inspired and hopeful.

  • 5
    15

    Prof Ekanayake: Earlier, I respected you as a Buddhist. Now what you talk is all politics and help those who wants to Destroy Buddhism in Asia and want to use christianity (not Catholicism) achieve their objective. In that direction Salafis and Wahhabis do a great job as there are so many Muslim Extremist groups in the world. It looks you are writing for them. I think they got laid you off from the Thai buddhist University. Since 1940s, they have written books about Thailand, Myanmar and Sri lanka, all to destroy buddhism. They do not lke the buddhism in those countries as it is Not Institutionalized and can not take over the control. But, it is not the same in Japan or Vietnam.
    On the other hand, they use Sri lanka to train Evangelists for China (Chinese temporary immigrants in Sri lanka.and Wahhabis for Tamil Nadu (Estate Tamil school children).

  • 11
    2

    If One follows the Buddha’s Dhamma, One will Understand that there cannot be a Buddhist Country!
    A Buddhist Country would be a Country where Everyone Understands and Practises the Buddha’s Teaching!
    It would Not be a Country where People believe that Worshipping the Buddha will help them to attain the highest Buddhist Goal of Nirvana! A Country, Where People follow Hindu Practices, like chanting Suttas and Tying ‘Pirith Nool’, which they believe is the Easy way to call Oneself a Buddhist!

  • 11
    1

    “The hard reality is that what passes for a distinctive Sinhala Buddhist culture today is nothing more than the widespread sanctimonious humbug of false religion ………… the chief beneficiaries of which are clergy who are enabled to lead a pampered comfortable existence revered by high and low alike.”
    A classic analysis of what passes for Buddhism in this benighted country. The barely educated clergy have fixed things so that even highly educated laity are mortally terrified of criticising them. Doubtless Prof. Ekanayaka as a non-Buddhist will get a load of flak for writing this piece. This is how hierarchic religions operate, like the Catholics / Christians. But Christian clergy do provide selfless service at times. Have we ever heard of a Sinhala Buddhist Mother Teresa?
    What happens to the huge collections of the large temples? Will any politician risk his neck to ask?

    • 3
      1

      Unfortunately, you have no clue about what christianity has done to eliminate native Indians in Americas, and native aborigines in Australia and in Africa. This is not to take sides or endorse “Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country”, on the contrary, I totally disagree with such claims. I also dont agree on your claim on selfless service of Christian clergy, because history proves otherwise.
      It is human nature to capitalize when opportunity is there to achieve what they want, whether it is greed for power or wealth, regardless of the religion. However, generalization and comparison is unfair, because most characteristics of Sri Lankans in general reflects kindness, acceptance, tolerance and humbleness. Those characteristics have nothing to do with the religion. Religious and political leaders are opportunists taking advantage of the current situation.
      Large collections of things including elephants, tractors are totally another matter.

      • 0
        1

        S.B,
        “It is human nature to capitalize when opportunity is there to achieve what they want, whether it is greed for power or wealth, regardless of the religion.”
        Yes, and would it not be possible to say the same about the Christians who wiped out the aborigines?
        Re. selfless service, you have to admit that Christian charitable activities are way out of proportion to their declining numbers. The monks seem more interested in building bigger and bigger lumps of concrete.
        “most characteristics of Sri Lankans in general reflects kindness, acceptance, tolerance and humbleness. Those characteristics have nothing to do with the religion. ” Well those thugs attacking Muslim businesses didn’t look very tolerant. Were they on holiday then from their usual holy selves?

  • 4
    5

    Dear Sir

    I can apply all what have logically argued/written and just by changing names ‘Hindus’ and ‘Caste system’ in Jaffna which is the worst form of racism that I know of will equally a fitting analysis too. The same could be said about/applied to the entire segments of our Nation of people from all walks of life??.

    The problem existed in a post colonial cocktail of a nation like us needed a tolerant journey for us all to get to a place such we can compare more advanced societies/equity/fairness. But by our armed responses and foreign involvements we ended up muddying all the solutions we ever had that all of us should take equal blame for this??.

    • 3
      3

      thiagarajah venigopal
      I commented sometime back regards your illness. You seems unable to understand anything just muddled up with your own thoughts. It is very clear you are suffering from severe psychiatric condition known as catatonia, currently the accepted treatment is ect (Electroconvulsive therapy) therapy, I am not sure whether it is available in Srilanka.. I suggest you talk to your doctor about it.
      Here is a very good analytical paper written on What is sinhala buddhism in Srilanka, you go on blurbing incongruently.

      • 0
        0

        Dr Umberto

        I have given you a thumbs up. Thank you once more for reading what I write and keeping a close eye on the content.

        I very much hope you are not a phychiotrist allowed to practice in any western countries too. Now I have to inform them of the impending danger to the patients/system. I already know few not fit for anything but thrive under the democratic principles allowed cohabitant yet misused.

        As I said please identify yourself we can take matters further as required.

  • 7
    2

    blind servitude to people under trees, who are economically producing nothing of value have resulted in a country with low economic output and thinking. the general trend of burning businesses due to infractions with other communities though buddhist are the main employees, shows what regard the yellow robes have for there own worshippers. Yellow robes who dont pay taxes/no payroll/ no school fees or to put food on the table, basically no -resposibility have always created trouble for all people.

    When kings ruled- The yellow robe was kept in place in the temple, if the yellow robe came to politics, his head was chopped off.

  • 7
    2

    All major religions started before the 7th century, when the society was based on tribal values.
    ..
    Eye for an eye was introduced to take these tribes towards a peaceful tomorrow.
    ..
    Hence why Islam is a religion of peace but when you learn these words of Quaran, out of context you become a tribal person.
    ..
    When Buddha taught 12 centuries before Islam, the world had better ethics.
    ..
    Looks like our ethics are fading away fast and religion is becoming a joke to many.
    ..
    Only a few are actually religious and most are just pretenders. Yet everyone points the finger at religion to cover up their own faults.
    ..
    Fighting to save Buddhism without Buddhist values. Fighting to save Islam without Islam values. Other religions are not much different.
    ..
    Kindly stop this hypocrisy and follow the ethics of your respective religions

  • 4
    2

    Some people keep on asserting vehemently and vociferously that “Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist Country’ (‘Mehka Sinhala Bauddha Ratak’). Then there are other well-meaning people, mostly from civil society, who are constantly exhorting us to think of ourselves as Sri Lankans first. Both these positions are highly contradictory and so the Non Sinhala-Buddhists in our population are feeling rather confused about this. Therefore, I think more people like this good professor must come forward and express their views on this topic so as to clarify the situation and guide us all.

  • 3
    1

    All major religions started before the 7th century, when the society was based on tribal values.
    ..
    Eye for an eye was introduced to take these tribes towards a peaceful tomorrow. At the time it was an improvement to the system.
    ..
    Hence why Islam is a religion of peace but when you learn these words of Quaran, out of context you become a tribal person.
    ..
    When Buddha taught 12 centuries before Islam, the world had better ethics.
    ..
    Looks like our ethics are fading away fast and religion is becoming a joke to many.
    ..
    Only a few are actually religious and most are just pretenders. Yet everyone points the finger at religion to cover up their own faults.
    ..
    Fighting to save Buddhism without Buddhist values. Fighting to save Islam without Islam values. Other religions are not much different.
    ..
    Kindly stop this hypocrisy and follow the ethics of your respective religions

    • 4
      0

      Suranga Gunasekera:- Well Said!
      “Fighting to save Buddhism without Buddhist values. Fighting to save Islam without Islam values. Other religions are not much different.”

  • 0
    0

    I understand another side to what Prof. Ekanayake says. Negatives can be helpful to understand what changes should bed done.
    The difference between buddhists and Other religions is buddhists are free to think and take actions. Other religion say you must do this way.

    • 1
      0

      JD,
      ..
      Please kindly don’t speak of things you have no clue about. Learn about other religions thoroughly and then comment.
      ..
      Every religion is a way of life. Learning the philosophy only will not make you religious.
      ..
      Everybody has their own will. From the UN human rights resolutions, every one is given the freedom to choose freely.
      ..
      If you want others to smell the beautiful lotus flower, don’t punch them in their nose first. This way they will only smell blood.
      ..
      My intention is to open your eyes and not to hurt your pride.
      ..
      I wish you success in finding the midway path .

  • 1
    0

    Sri Lankan Buddhism and NTJ are not much different. Both are radicals, one uses technology to anti socialize, other uses hooligans and impunity.

  • 1
    0

    The good Professor has demonstrated why Sri Lanka cannot properly be described as a Buddhist country, merely because the majority are Buddhists. A Buddhist country is one where the way of life follows Buddhist precepts and the Buddhist religion is actively lived. The recent attacks on Muslim homes and properties hardly attest to such virtuous living. Minister Samaraweera found himself in hot water with his recent remarks. His ‘offence’ was uttering an uncomfortable truth. But the point was valid. Far too many regard SL a ‘Buddhist country’, and consequently that religious minorities have lesser rights.. Too many also think of Sri Lanka as a ‘Sinhalese country,’ with the minorities entitled to lesser rights. Such thinking is of course flawed – and dangerous. For instance, I see the recently pardoned Reverend Gnanasara Thero, is quoted as saying, “Sinhalese don’t have to consult Muslim women to ban Islamic dresses worn by them. This is our country and we don’t have to be guided by what they believe is the proper dress code”. Yes, Sri Lanka is the country of the Sinhalese; but it is no less the country of other communities who call it home. It was heartening to see in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks a great display of solidarity with Christians shown by the Muslim community and its leaders and their condemnation of those who carried out those attacks. And pictures of Buddhist priests sweeping the grounds of the Katuwapitiya church provide eloquent testimony of genuine concern and goodwill.

  • 0
    0

    Prof. Ekanayake. In many of the articles written by this Professor he has made it a point to attack the Buddhists, and I realise why. Buddhists saw the latest ‘invasion’ of this country by an offshoot of the Christian religion, the Evangelists, zealously working to convert the poor in this country using money as a bait. Most shameless and unethical. Some time back Buddhist monks protested and asked the government to stop this menace, but the government succumbed to the threats from the ‘world power’, which is spearheading this evangelisation behind the scene. This menace is still continuing giving rise to social unrest because of the problems created by these outside elements trying to impose on the native community an alien religion and an alien culture. When we resist, we are branded as racists. These shameless people know that they cannot convert Buddhists by preaching because the superiority of the Buddhist philosophy cannot be challenged, hence using these devious means. The Portuguese came to this country carrying the bayonet, bottle and the Bible, and converted the population by force. Till they came this was a 100% Buddhist country. Even today after Buddhism receiving a bashing over 500 years under foreign rule the large majority are Buddhists. As such we can say that this is a Buddhist country.

  • 1
    0

    Prof. Ekanayake, my congratulations on a good, thought-provoking article. My comment is that it is pompous, impudent, and insulting to think that Buddhism needs the patronage of politicians or political structures. I like your expression “sanctimonious scoundrels”. If I am permitted to present an anecdote:- The brilliant agricultural scientist, born into a family hugely Christian, and having attended a Christian (CMS) School – the late Dr. Ernest Abeyratne , towards the end of his life, became a serious student of Buddhism and deep into meditation. He was once asked “Sir, have you become a Buddhist”? After a brief silence he replied “Whatever I am, if I answered your question, then that I would cease to be.”. A statement full of meaning.Those who are so inclined, could refer a small book by him entitled “A scientist’s view of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama,” (which I believe is/was available at the Buddhist Publications shop at Nedimala or at the Sarana outlet down Sarana Road off Buller’s Road). The best definition is ” one endeavouring to follow the Dhamma”. This might disqualify some of our “Sangha”, but certainly not the many, who are worthy examples.

  • 0
    1

    [thiagarajah venigopal
    I commented sometime back regards your illness. You seems unable to understand anything just muddled up with your own thoughts.]

    Umberto, I cannot disagree with what you have said about our friend Venugopal. He is formulating his thoughts built on very rigid foundation without any room for analysis, understanding or accommodating better views. He is preoccupied with some thoughts, may be due to some traumatic past (or even present), that is haunting him and thus preventing him from the ability to look at things in a more rational and logical manner and thus leaving no room for changing realities. He is having difficulty in expressing what exactly he wants to say. He just goes back to where he started despite all the inputs. On top of all that he has some serious “Yaalpanam Bias”! I do not know whether it has anything to do with the caste issues? Caste system is in existence since Vedic times and Brahmins made it worse for their own benefit. Buddha denounced it. Yet even today Sinhalas have a strong caste system though milder than the Hindus. Even in other countries this type of discrimination is there in some form or another. India is the worst. But these issues will go away with time, whether we like it or not. So VenuGopal need not worry about the caste system and to be preoccupied if that is the issue, since the time will solve that. Already we have come a long way.

    • 0
      0

      Dear Nathan we are all traumatised now more than before because of what you have written (not about my mental problems).

      Respect you for being honest yourself sincerely.

      take care Bro.

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