By Ameer Ali –
“It would be a crucial weakness”, wrote Professor Ven. Walpola Rahula (1907-1997), “if you do not express your honest and forthright views fearing public opposition. Persons seeking personal gain, glory, praise and power are reluctant to go against public sentiment by expressing their honest opinion”. I quoted these words when I reviewed in this journal on 22 March 2019 the English translation of his Sinhala publication Sathyodaya. Even before that review and in another piece titled, “Sangha Needs Cleansing”, appeared in Colombo Telegraph (12 April 2018), I ventured to say, “When religion is politicised religious leaders lose their spiritual charisma and religious institutions become partisan players among competing political forces. This has been the sad story of Buddhism and its apex institution, Sangha, ever since SWRD began to exploit that religion and its monks to win his political battles.” Although Buddhism, like every other faith in Asia, is not a religion in the Western sense politicians have reduced the dhamma into a ritualistic tamasha to gain political advantage.
Buddhism is a blessing to Sri Lanka. Sangha is its protector and promoter. Throughout the history of this country, services rendered by this institution to rulers and the ruled and to every other creation are unique and incomparable. Likewise, Sangha’s warnings, advice and guidance to holders and executors of power kept the regimes in check from going astray, prevented misrule and ensured peace and tranquility in this island of riches. There was of course the usual struggle for political power among rivalling personalities and dynasties, but that struggle was never allowed to escalate into wider chaos, causing agony and distress to the wider community.
Sangha’s unrelenting commitment not simply to preach Buddhism but to demonstrate its virtues of simplicity, compassion, tolerance and kindness through its members personal behaviour and lifestyle added moral attraction and strength to the regimes in power.
No wonder then that the Sangha in the past carried so much respect and veneration not only from local Buddhists but even from believers of other faiths. It was that milieu of true Buddhism, which made the island economically prosperous and culturally glorious, and it was that combination of virtuosity and resplendence and not simply the “beauty of the faces of its women”, which prompted the 8th century Umayyad Governor of Iraq, Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, to describe Sri Lanka Jeziratul Yaqut or Island of Rubies.
What was even more significant in the history of the Sangha is its readiness to cleanse itself whenever signs of distraction or deviation in its committed path were detected. Outspoken critics and reformers from within that institution emerged from time to time to protect the purity of Buddhism as well as the integrity of its guardians.
Such was the role for example played by that incredible reformer Weliwita Saranankara Sangharaja Thero in the 18th century, when he witnessed an aristocracy or ganinnnanses dominating the Buddha sasana and were more interested in rituals and worldly concerns than in exegesis of texts and original teachings of the master. He spearheaded the reorganization of Buddhism in Kandy and redirected members of the Sangha on the noble pursuit of seeking and spreading the true message of the Buddha.
The same was the role of Ven. Walpola Rahula during our times who was forthright in condemning the intrusion of casteism which had divided the Sangha into different segments. His interpretation of the concept of Nibbana as an achievable status for every human irrespective of his or her faith is a uniting and revolutionary message for a culturally heterogenous Sri Lanka.
It is in light of this proud historical background that one feels astounded at today’s silence of the Sangha when members of its community indulge in activities that are totally demeaning and destructive of that institution’s illustrious reputation. There are plenty of recorded instances in recent past where the behaviour of certain monks was utterly disrespectful even to the robe they wear. How could the Mahanayakas tolerate such behaviour?
In the name of consultation with the Sangha the current regime seems to have successfully subdued that institution by awarding its members with special privileges and luxury lifestyles to remain supportive of the rulers.
Nowhere has this subservience been demonstrated more clearly and of course disturbingly than in the silence of the Sanga over the appointment by the President of an ex-prisoner and rabble rouser Gnanasara Thero to preside over the One Country One Law Task Force. While every quarter of the polity irrespective of its ethnic, religious or political orientation has questioned the suitability of this person to that position, which requires at least a modicum of knowledge about law, Sangha seems to have no qualms in endorsing the President’s choice. Even if a Buddhist monk were to fill that position, is the Sangha so bankrupt of credible candidates?
Besides, the hidden agenda behind this task force seems to be the continuation of portraying the Muslim community as the latest villains of peace and to deflect the rising tide of popular discontent over the regime’s lengthening catalogue of failures. Another anti-Muslim riot would be a welcoming distraction and an opportunity to strengthen the militarized state of Gotabaya. Monk Gnanasara is the best man to accomplish that task. Does Sangha want to be his accomplice?
This task force is another instrument in reducing the minorities into sub-nationals. The long-term consequence of such moves in the name of creating a Sinhala Buddhist state would be detrimental to the very “vistas of prosperity and splendour” trumpeted by the President. Sooner the Sangha rise up to the occasion and help to halt this unfolding tragedy better for its own reputation and that of the country at large.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia