20 October, 2020

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Sharmini On Buddhism And Ritual

By H.L. Seneviratne

H.L. Seneviratne

H.L. Seneviratne

I started this as a comment on Sharmini Serasinghe’s “Open Letter”, but it turned it to be too long for a comment. So I am asking CT to publish this as a separate piece.

My view of Buddhism is broadly similar to that of Sharmini, and there obviously are many other non-ritualist Buddhists like Sharmini and me. But there is another side. While the monks can fairly be accused of making a ritualism of Buddhism, it is ritualism, and not the “philosophy” of the Buddha, that has enabled it to gain popularity and become a world religion. Even in the modern west, Buddhism is often culticized by individuals and groups, though free of the gross ritualism of the traditionally Buddhist societies.

Thus, though a necessary condition for the popularity of Buddhism, ritualism came at a price, that of tarnishing Buddhism by an excess of it. The invention of ritual was a large-scale project that spread over the centuries, and its nature varied from locality and time, with the effect that in some places and at certain times, it was disciplined and remained more or less compatible with the spirit of Buddhism, and in others, took bizarre forms.

Had it not been for the ritualism that catered to the emotional needs of the many, Buddhism may have remained a “philosophy”, as many intellectual Buddhists claim it is. And the Buddha may have been not the great teacher of world stature that he is, and has been for centuries, but a philosopher like Socrates, unknown except to philosophy students.

This does not absolve the ritualist monks from the blame of making Buddhism into a ritualism, because it is obvious that they have overdone their use of ritual to popularize Buddhism, ignoring in the process its ethical content. The failure of the monks is not that they ritualized but that they failed to achieve the right mixture of ritual and ethics that could have enabled Buddhism to remain true to its ethical core while it spread across continents. Any cultural concessions the monks made should have been made only after ensuring Buddhism’s ethical autonomy.

Why did the monks overdo ritualization? They did it out of their un-Buddhist craving for gaining more supporters among the laity. In order to gain supporters, monks came up with rituals that they thought were more appealing to the religiosity and needs of their clients. This is a process that goes on today in front of our eyes, although we often fail to notice it. Colored Pirit threads, monks leading a bride and bridegroom to the Poruva and in other ways officiating in weddings, monks writing songs urging soldiers to kill, Bodhi Pujas for gaining profit and power and destroying enemies, holding a highly publicized Buddhist substitute for Valentine’s Day, and television Buddhism, are all part of this.

The initial spread of Buddhism in India and along the trade routes was made possible not by a vulgar ritualism but by the needs of the emerging trading and other non-agricultural classes for a code of ethics for success in their business, and its legitimization. This tells us that degeneration into cultism is not necessary for the popularization of Buddhism.

The above observations also mean that we cannot paint all monks with the same brush stroke. There certainly were virtuous and intellectually schooled monks, who fashioned rituals that remained true to the core values and doctrines of Buddhism. Unfortunately the disciplined ritual of those monks did not prevail, and what has prevailed is the kind of ritualism that Sharmini righty criticizes.

The greatest historical failure of the Sangha is its failure to encourage and achieve that mix of rationality and ethical religiosity among the populations it ministered to. Such a mix would have infused the society with an urbanity that would have accommodated ethnic and religious difference, and a civility that would have minimized parochial thought, laying the foundations for a healthy, prosperous and happy society.  The reason for this failure on the part of the Sangha is its quite un-Buddhist greed for wealth, power and status, whether it’s at the level of the village, or at the level of the political centre. This is not confined to Lanka, but is common to all Buddhist societies.

In our bemoanings about the state of Buddhism today, we tend to explicitly or implicitly posit a golden age of Buddhism in the ancient period of our history. I doubt very much that there was any such.  The likelihood is that things were not very different from what they are today. Tyrants like Dutugamunu used religion for purposes of gaining and remaining in power, and as opium of the masses, and there were willing supporters among the Sangha, as there are plenty that support the tyranny of our own times.

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Latest comments

  • 0
    1

    But there is a still problem, if you didn’t practice that kind of religion those days we don’t have a separate country. This will be another peace of India as Chola has wild dreams to capture this land. Sinhalese would replace with Tamils by cultural destroying. Can you tell me all these people who insult Mahavansha need a country called Sri Lanka or not ?, if those things were not there this is just another peace of earth.

  • 1
    1

    Evangelical christianism is the christian alternative to Wahabism.

    these Fake buddhists are supporting the Evangelical Christianism.

    • 2
      1

      JimSofty

      “Evangelical christianism is the christian alternative to Wahabism.”

      Protestant Sinhala/Buddhism complements militant Jihadi Wahabism, Hindu fanaticism, Christian born again fundamentalism, Zionist expansionism, ……..

  • 2
    2

    Sharmini Serasinghe writes:

    I am appalled at how you, a Professor of Buddhism, could relegate the Philosophy of Buddhism, to “any religion”. But for the purpose of argument, let me refer to Buddhism as “any religion” as it seems to suit your mindset better.

    You say, “….they do not know what their religions mean.” Now, with regard to Buddhism, who is to blame for that? Is it not the Buddhist monks, and learned academics such as yourself, who have lead, and are still leading Buddhists, up the garden path, with your own superficial and hollow interpretations and theories of Buddhism?

    Does Sharmini Serasinghe expect all Buddhists to have a deep philosophical understanding of Buddhism?

    What is the logic behind this statement? Do most people have the capacity or the interest for such an exercise?

    Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere uses the term “Protestant Buddhist” to identify people like SS who need a religion but doesn’t like the traditional ritualistic Buddhism. So they find a subset of Buddhism “Buddhist Philosophy” which fits their thinking and make that their religion.

    What SS is doing here is trying to establish that it is only that subset or the “Buddhist Philosophy” or the “core of Buddhism” which is the real Buddhism. Therefore on one hand this debate is really about protestant Buddhist trying to condemn traditional Buddhist — or which religion is better!

    On the other hand, this is also about the dislike that urbanized elite like SS in our society has towards more rural, poor, less educated people. They cannot express this dislike directly so they find other ways to sanitize their rancor before putting it out. Finding little faults here and there and then blowing them out of proportion is one way of doing that. Going to Daladha Maligawa to worship what could very likely be an “animal tooth” is one example. For SS many things that these people hold sacred in their lives are cons. SS wrote once that in Sri Lanka there are “Sinhala Buddhists” and Buddhist moderates. These statements that condemn every Sinhalese as an extremist demonstrates SS’s own dislike towards Sinhalese. Most urban elites who condemn rural masses are suffering from inferiority complex.

    Has Buddhist Philosophy got any more meaning than Buddhist rituals practiced by many? It does NOT. Everything in Buddhist Philosophy is based on rebirth which has no scientific basis. In fact modern scientific discoveries make it extremely unlikely that there is any such thing. Buddhism sans rebirth is nothing. If one says he is a Buddhist but doesn’t believe in rebirth then he is really an Atheist.

    “Enlightened” protestant Buddhists like SS who like condemn more traditional Buddhist masses for engaging in meaningless practices should first think whether what they hold sacred “Buddhist Philosophy” has any meaning when analyzed according to the reasoning/calculus that they profess to other people?

    What is the difference between believing in rebirth and believing in gods or believing that Buddha’s footprint is at Sri Padha? All are supernatural phenomena lacking any scientific basis. One can certainly believe in them but that’s one’s own faith. People have no right to question other people’s faith.

    SS blames monks for people’s shallow knowledge of Buddhist Philosophy. Even if we assume Buddhist philosophy is “THE TRUTH”, “the Holy Grail”, how many people have the capacity, the resources, the time or the interest to dive deeply into the subject matter?

    Most people have no interest in Buddhist philosophy! Is that wrong? On the one hand it is doubtful whether you get anything by studying this “Buddhist Philosophy” and on the other hand even if one did, many are unlikely to have that ability, the time or the resources. A simple set of rituals and faith in supernatural phenomena that help one maintain sanity and hope through difficult times is what most people need.

    Denying so called “rights” of minorities, political monks, monks and delinquent youth that engage in violence especially towards other religious practices are all very different issues from “what is real Buddhism” whether it is the Buddhist Philosophy or the rituals.

    • 2
      0

      Navin,

      The next time you make a comment on a public forum, I suggest you write a draft first and read it several times, before publicising your confusion.

      You will then realise, how often you are contradicting yourself.

      Weather you like it or not, Buddhism IS a philosophy and one who performs rituals as Buddhism, without any understanding of the philosophy is NOT a Buddhist. They are followers of a religion called ‘Confused Buddhism’, and you appear to be one of them.

      • 2
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        Mahadana Muththa (Jnr)

        “They are followers of a religion called ‘Confused Buddhism’, and you appear to be one of them.”

        They are followers of Sinhala/Buddhism and Navin is one of the ardent adherent.

        Sinhala/Buddhism is a narrowly defined nasty political force which has nothing to do with Buddha’s teaching.

        • 0
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          … another vermin making hay while the sun shines.

        • 0
          0

          NV, What do you think of Thai and Burmese Buddhists who are fighting Islamic invaders. They are not doing anything different.

          • 1
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            NAK

            “They are not doing anything different.”

            Are these Sinhala/Buddhist saffron clad thugs competing with other saffron clad thugs to prove which country produces the worse saffron clad thugs in this world?

            You are pathetic.

            “What do you think of Thai and Burmese Buddhists who are fighting Islamic invaders.”

            This forum discusses difference between Buddha’s teaching and Sinhala/Buddhism.

            In case if you are interested in Burmese and Thai saffron clad political thugs you may have to wait for the right time or send a piece to CT about Buddhism in those two countries. We will be happy to rubbish your article.

            Remember, we are indeed discussing the state of Buddhism in this island, about Sinhala/Buddhism, how it adversely affect rest of the minorities of this land, how saffron clad political thuggery is being given protection and legitimacy, how political thuggery in the name of Buddhism pays off to a few, ………..

            This discussion is not about the state of Buddhism in Burma or Thailand.

            If you are worried about Islamic invaders in those countries please feel free to recruit a saffron clad Jihadhi army to deal with them, however not in my ancestral land.

      • 0
        0

        There way too many people in this world who think that “their religion is right”, “their religion is the most authentic version” and worst that “all other religions are wrong” and “everybody who believes in other religions are stupid morons, sinners and damned to hell.

        Long before SS thought Sinhalese needs to be rescued from their false religious beliefs so did the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British….

        Your argument that Buddhism is this and that and hence so and so is a fraud and so and so are stupid is the same.

        It goes against respected norms of the world that people do not question other peoples’ religious convictions. Clear?

        SS believes most monks are frauds. Those monks who went on rampage destroying a church believed the church and the priests were frauds. SS is only a one step away from where those monks are!

        No religion has any scientific basis. In fact according to science they are all likely to be false. Buddhist Philosophy doesn’t fair any better. Hence there is no rationale in the argument that Protestant Buddhism is any more rational than any other form of Buddhism.

        SS has every right believe whatever she wants about what is “real” Buddhism and engage in that. But she has no right to condemn other peoples’ beliefs and worst mix that with different issues like politics and violence to look down upon a whole community as stupid extremist. Does the phrase “white man’s burden” ring any bells?

        • 0
          0

          Navin,

          “No religion has any scientific basis. In fact according to science they are all likely to be false. Buddhist Philosophy doesn’t fair any better. Hence there is no rationale in the argument that Protestant Buddhism is any more rational than any other form of Buddhism”.

          Navin, you couldn’t be more wrong.

          For instance, Nobel-prize winning physicist Albert Einstein, who developed the general theory of relativity and the special theory of relativity, also known for his mass–energy equivalence, described Buddhism as containing a strong cosmic element.

          Nobel-prize winning philosopher Bertrand Russell described Buddhism as a speculative and scientific philosophy.

          The American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer made an analogy to Buddhism when describing the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

          Navin my son, read more on this subject of ‘Buddhism as Science’.

  • 1
    1

    There is a ritual to worship the penis in Hinduism.

    What can be more barbaric!

    • 1
      0

      Fathima Fukushima is frustrated, since no man wants his penis worshiped by her. Poor woman.

      Can some benevolent man please help this woman out, at least after a good f–k, she might shut up.

    • 0
      0

      Hinduism is an all-embracing Religion. It even accepted the Teachings of the Buddha, into its Pantheon. Each Man/Woman can worship their own version of God or live by the ‘Panch Sila’ as the Buddha taught it. No one tells anyone what to do, in a Hindu Temple.

  • 1
    0

    Fathima Fukushima

    In Yoni Tantra Puja vagina is worshipped which ancient tantra considers a more than just a sexual reproductive organ.

    Therefore there is no discrimination as far as worshipping is concerned.

  • 0
    0

    In Yoni Tantra Puja vagina is worshipped which ancient tantra considers a more than just a sexual reproductive organ.

    For native Vedda , will worship Yoni, what else you can do without proper education in jungle

  • 1
    0

    Lord Buddha is considered as a saint and his teachings are manifold. Proper interpretation will relieve the present situation totally. Humbly suggest follow the principle and do not allow rabid monks misuse the teachings. Now unfortunately we have uncouth criminals among them. Eradicate them, all is well!
    Ananda Yoga

    • 1
      0

      Eradicating anyone is NOT the path of the Buddha. Engaging them with compassion, even if they are “rabid monks”, or caste conscious Hindu extremists who practice “honour killings”, is supposed to be the Buddha’s way. Unfortunately, hardly anyone has the capacity to exude so much compassion, and so the formula fails in practice, at least for ordinary people.
      If you read HL’s article, or Sharmini Sera’s article, you see that instead of compassion, they have expressed their imagined moral superiority and patted themselves with a lather of smug righteousness, actually displaying their moral shallowness in the process. You need a Bernard Shaw to put down their false facades.

  • 0
    0

    Penis worshipper!

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