2 December, 2020

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Sobhitha Thera – The Bridge Between Mosque & Temple

By Ranga Kalansooriya

Dr Ranga Kalansooriya

Dr Ranga Kalansooriya

The demise of the Most Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha Nayaka Thera not only created a vacuum within the social fabric in fighting for social justice, but also symbolized the role of a Buddhist religious leader in creating national unity and ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the iconic monk told us a story how an extreme nationalistic fundamentalist could become a role-model in creating ethnic harmony and national reconciliation.

I have never seen a funeral of a Buddhist monk before where other religious and ethnic communities took a prominent role to such an extent, not only in respecting the deceased but also in providing facilities to the massive crowd gathered to pay their homage.

If one spent a few hours near the remains of Most Venerable Sobhitha Thera, hundreds of Muslims and other ethno religious representatives could be seen queuing up to pay their respect to this leading Buddhist prelate. They provided bottled water and food for the visiting crowds – who were mainly Buddhists, displayed banners and cutouts expressing their sympathies on the demise of their trusted Buddhist leader.

It was senior journalist Latheef Farook who wrote the first appreciation on Sobhitha Thera just after his death and circulated via social media. Non-Buddhist religious leaders volunteered in mobilizing their communities to pay homage to the prelate and visited Naga Viharaya from every corner of the country.

Why Muslims love Sobhitha Thera so much, I asked N M Ameen, veteran media practitioner and President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. “Because he was the only Buddhist leader who stood with us when we were in trouble,” said Ameen. There were extreme circumstances where our community was facing uncertainties (during previous regime). We had no any other person to seek assistance, but it was Sobhitha Nayaka Thera and he openly appeared for our cause, he said. “Other Buddhist leaders would accept our existence and agree to our requests, but they would never appear openly on our behalf. But it was a totally different story with Sobhitha Thera. Therefore, Muslims from all over the country are visiting Naga Viharaya to pay their last respect to this great Buddhist leader,” Ameen added.

These comments by Ameen remind me of a speech Sobhitha Thera delivered at the invitation of a group of Muslim youth in Colombo several years ago. The topic was religious harmony in Sri Lanka. The strong words and solid arguments Nayaka Thera used during his speech would never fade away from my mind. “The Buddha taught us the lesson of religious tolerance and co-existence through his own practice. Several monasteries of other religious leaders like Makkhalee Ghosala, Ajitha Khesakambala were closer to The Buddha’s monastery Jetavana, and The Buddha had powerful kings and all other influential segments of the society as his devotees. But never did he request those kings and his other followers to take action against those non-Buddhist monasteries – and remove them from his close vicinity – alleging that the existence of those monasteries was a threat to his own religion. He could have easily done that given his strong connection to the royalty. But what he did was totally opposite. The Buddha used to visit those non-Buddhist monasteries in the evenings – and when those people see Buddha was walking towards them, they would prepare a place for him to sit and ask their colleagues to be silent as Buddha always appreciated silence and serenity. Then they would discuss issues of Dhamma and this would be the most intellectual discourse on various issues – a specific symbol of The Buddha’s inter-faith harmony and religious tolerance.”

It was at this event where former Information Minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar proposed that the Thera should be the common presidential candidate where the monk would garner the support of all ethnic communities in Sri Lanka. This was somewhere in 2011, I guess.

In fact Sobhitha Thera was a totally different person a couple decades ago. His ideologies were more towards Sinhala fundamentalism and extreme nationalism. His engagements in nationalistic movements like Sinhala Veera Widahana, Sinhala Balawegaya provoked the Harvard social anthropologist Stanley J Tambiah to use a powerful image of Sobhitha Thera on the cover page of his book Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka (Chicago University Press, 1992). It stirred much controversy in the media and in Parliament for months eventually leading to the book’s banning in Sri Lanka and Tambiah being demonized as a ‘Christian Tamil’, wrote Nalaka Gunawardene in his latest appreciation.

Somewhere in 2006, I inquired about his change of stand when I was accompanying him for a Dhamma sermon at our home. I gave special reference to Thambiah’s book. “Mahattayo, everything is subjected to change. When we realize that our conduct is not according to accepted norms and practices – and especially to the guidance of our most respected teacher we should change – and that is what we call maturity,” he said.

No argument that this most respected Buddhist prelate became a symbol of ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka. He visibly displayed the courage of a Buddhist monk who could command the respect of all segments of society irrespective of religion and ethnicity. He was the bridge between the temple and the mosque. Some called him Desmond Tutu of Sri Lanka (where Sri Lankan Mandela is still missing) while others named him as Buddhist Ayatollah in Sri Lanka. But for me he was none of those, but a true son of The Buddha who taught us religious tolerance and ethnic harmony through strict discipline and sound knowledge. His funeral was the classic case study to prove this fact.

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  • 11
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    Dr Ranga Kalansooriya

    RE: Sobhitha Thera – The Bridge Between Mosque & Temple

    “I gave special reference to Thambiah’s book. “Mahattayo, everything is subjected to change. When we realize that our conduct is not according to accepted norms and practices – and especially to the guidance of our most respected teacher we should change – and that is what we call maturity,” he said”

    “But for me he was none of those, but a true son of The Buddha who taught us religious tolerance and ethnic harmony through strict discipline and sound knowledge. His funeral was the classic case study to prove this fact.”

    Thanks for the succinct write up. Ven. Sobhitha Thera is the closest a Sri Lankan Buddhist Monk came to since Independence, following the Enlightened Buddha’s path for a long time. What a contrast from Buddha Rakita and Somarama, who conspired to kill SWRD.

    The loss of Ven. Sobhitha Thera is truly a National and Sinhala Buddhist loss, who cared about Buddhism and Buddha’s teachings.

    May Ven. Sobhitha Thera achieve Nibbana.

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      Appreciate you did not bring in the name of Gnanasara to pollute those whose names you have mentioned.

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      Ven. Sobhitha Thera -Sobitha Hamuduruwo, A True National Leader, A True Democrat, and a True Disciple of the Enlightened Buddha.

      A brief history of a true leader.

      https://youtu.be/env1HTRZVKU

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      Amarasiri,

      I was bout to say what you said, now you said it all ,

      Thanks , my dear, great comment

      I think this Ranga Kalansooriya’s article is one of the best, if not the best,
      thanks Ranga

  • 10
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    “The Buddha taught us the lesson of religious tolerance and co-existence through his own practice….”

    I would be Happy if the people who came to pay Homage to the Ven Sobitha, came because He Also Taught us a lesson in Religious Tolerence; not because He helped to Dethrone the Rajapakses!

    As I have always maintained; even if the Maithreya Buddha were to arrive in Sri Lanka, the ‘Sinhala Buddhists’ would not be able to recognise Him!

    They would prefer the likes of BBS’s Gnanasara.

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      @ Hamlet

      With all due respect to your candid comment,I would opine that your point on” They would prefer the likes of BBS’s Ghanassara ” is not quite rightt.Three facts make me think so.1) The white wash the BBS suffered at the last General Election,despite a Gotabhaya Rajapaksa led and massively funded campaign.2)The number of letters written by Sinhala Buddhists to the media decrying the BBS hate campaign against the Christians and Muslims.3)The stand taken by the likes of Ven.Sobitha,Ven.Amila and public figures such as Dilan Perera, TB Tennakoon ,SB Dissanayake and even the usually incorrigible Meryn Silva etc against the BBS

      So all is not lost in our fair little isle !

  • 5
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    I would think that a human being with the ability to break free of his initial thinking on a matter and think radically anew is as great as the person who never did wrong.Ven.Sobitha had the rare capacity to do that and he serves as a beacon for us to follow, no matter what religion we subscribe to, or what vocation in life we belong.

    The massive and rare presence of non Sinhala Buddhists and their large scale assistance at the late Prelate’s final rights , as highlighted by Dr. Kalansuriya ,is a testament to his greatness.Even in death the Venerable Thero had a lesson for all of us . It is indeed a tragedy that he has left us.Whence comes another ?Hope it is really soon.

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    [Edited out]

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    Ven Sobiitha was a true religious leader we lost prematurely . His operation to replace the Aortic valve is a common very successful operation carried out through out the world , for unfit and very elderly its carried out very successfully as a minimally invasive day or two procedure. Lessons cab be learned for Colombo General heart surgeons, if they have a mortality meeting.

  • 4
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    One can hold a point of view which he considers is right under some circumstances bu the desire to change that point of view to adopt to changing circumstances to promote healthy situations is what is reqired of personalities who wish to serve the people and country. The Late Thero demonstrated this and set a unique example to politicians and others.

  • 6
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    Thanks for also highlighting the rabid phase in Sobitha thera’s early political life. His ability to learn, think and evolve into the man he became in later life is the index of his real greatness!

    He indeed was a great man!

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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    “”The Bridge Between Mosque & Temple””

    passion in emotions…. keep up the stupid faith !!shape shape lankans.

    Between the `Mosque and Viharaya` would suit both Estado Nuevo islanders.
    (like synagogue is for jewish)

    Both parasites cannot survive without democracy but the faith is for infidel/bestiality breed??

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    Absolutely, Muslims can learn a lot from Sobitha thera.

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    Late Theros work has to appriciated and the august socity has ensure his good work is continued. as Mr. Imitiaze suggested the late thero should have been the common presidential candidate. Now it’s left for is following to protect and promote his legacy.

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    a GREAT MAN with a GREAT HEART. We lost him when we needed him THE MOST.

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    Actually I can’t understand this so Called ethnic and religious harmony , only Buddhists should practice harmony when most of Buddhist temples are invaded and perished, like muhudhu mana viharaya. , kuragala. ,invade mahamewnaawa in Anuradhapura sacred area and many more,?

    Still Buddhists should pay for halal on behalf of harmony?

    Many more. ,no no. Lot more to write. ,but no point wasting time , I’m not sure this post will be published in this site

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    There are Vishnu Shrines in the premises of many Buddhist Temples.
    Devotees of The Buddha, after offering flowers at the main shrine, also pray at these Hindu shrines, donate cash and even gold, make vows and even curse their enemies by dashing coconuts.
    God Vishnu is said to be the Protector of Buddhism.
    These Vishnu Shrines thus are a good source of income for the managers of the Buddhist temples.
    Thus, there is a ‘bridge’ between the Hindu and Buddhist temples, in the south.

  • 0
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    Brilliant tribute to an iconic and noble monk he was.

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