Colombo Telegraph

The Role Of The Maha Sangha In Sri Lanka

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Raj Gonsalkorale

It was to help humanity that the Buddha founded the Order. He intended it to be a voluntary association of dedicated persons who would devote themselves to the task of making the process of wayfaring through life easier for such among their fellow beings as were weak, helpless and stricken. It is another matter that the order never quite became what it was meant to be. The Bhikkhus (homeless ones) very soon became Priests, living in temples built like palaces. Today the lazy and ceremonious Church, split into Nikayas based on caste divisions, maintains its place in society, not by tendering to the sick, the poor and the helpless but by placing a Messianic halo above the Buddha-myth, and by chanting faint Pali gathas to the cold, fruitless moon – J.R. Jayewardene, Sri Lanka’s President 1977-1987, A Life of Service 

J R Jayewardene was not and is not a fan of many Sri Lankans. Of course he is not there to pat himself on the back or defend himself from criticism. For the writer, a single event dwarfs whatever his achievements were. That was 1983 and either his complicity in the debacle or his sage like indifference to what was going on around him and his three Monkeys depiction of not seeing, not hearing and not talking when all hell was breaking loose in Colombo during that fateful July.

However, in the light of the much talked about resurrection of Hitler by the Venerable Anunayake of the Asgiriya Chapter and the jailing (and subsequent release on bail) of Bodu Bala Sena head Ven Gnanasara, J R Jayewardene’s point of view has gained some life.

The role of the Maha Sangha in the politics of the country, possibly a topic in the minds of many, but remaining there silently, as do many other important topics, is something that ought to be discussed in an orderly, objective and emotionless way without resorting to foul language or violence.

The role of the Maha Sangha in Buddhism and in politics has been researched and written about a countless number of times. No doubt there will be many more writings in years and generations to come.

The scope of this article is different; as such writings could be left with other more learned individuals. There are others who are more or less detached from the wider role that the Maha Sangha plays in community life who also write equating the extreme elements within the Maha Sangha as the norm within it. Those who identify the Maha Sangha as the prelates and their flock in well corralled institutions of Malwatta, Asgiriya or others, or the so called “rogue” Monks like Venerable Gnanasara, do not necessarily know the role of the Maha Sangha from a wider context, in particular, from a rural and semi urban context.

No doubt many from the wider mass of the Sangha have moved away from the fundamental tenant of Buddhism, if we wish to call fundamentalism here as the renunciation of all things worldly and the pursuit of cessation of one’s life cycle and attaining nirvana. 

However, there is no formal evidence that all who entered a monastic life during Buddha’s time or thereafter, to pursue such a fundamental tenant of Buddhism, in fact did achieve it. It is quite likely that many Monks did not, and they became teachers and counsellors to lay people, as many of them are today.

Irrespective of the cultural aspects associated with Buddhism, whether it is Sinhala Buddhist culturalism or otherwise, the reality is that a Buddhism Monk is fundamentally a teacher, and a counsellor to lay people. They are also part of a community, large or small, and in this respect, they behave as social beings in that community where there role gets defined by the environment they live in.

They are also human beings, and while some Monks have overcome material and biological desires of lay people, some have not. 

The role of a Buddhist Monk has also undergone change due to State intervention. An example is the conversion of Pirivena education entities into Universities, and the narrowing of the gap, maybe unintentional, between lay life and Monkhood. Some may argue that this was an inevitable outcome arising in the world we live in today. This goes for Monks entering the governance system at different level of the system as well, including the National Parliament.

Then, we have the activist Monks who rise to “protect” the Sinhala Buddhist “Jatiya” and the Sasana itself from an existential threat. The persona of some activists, their demeanour, their language and behaviour eclipses their cause, and some like Ven Gnanasara have paid a price for it.

There is another class of Monks who devote their time and effort to humanitarian activities and who genuinely believe that human conflict arises from unhealed wounds of the mind and they pursue avenues to heal minds and work at grass root levels to reach out to people to do this. Unfortunately, there are very few Monks of this calibre. Venerable Galkande Dhammananda, the head of the Walpola Rahula Institute is one such rare Buddhist Monk.  

Ideally, notwithstanding arguments about past history or contemporary times, unless they are able to pursue the path described to them by Buddha, the Maha Sangha should essentially be engaged in humanitarian work and be pious beacons that lay persons could follow. In the contemporary world and within the cultural environment we live in, it would be impractical for many Monks to retreat into caves and practice meditation and work towards their emancipation and freeing from the cycle of life. 

However, the alternative should not be for them to seek protection in the robe from demeanours they may commit where lay persons have no such protection.

Whatever way Buddhist Monks, especially Monks belonging to the Theravada tradition are engaged in today’s society, they are all governed by the Cannon that applies to their behaviour and what they can and cannot do, the Vinaya Pitakaya. As much as the law of the land will punish anyone found guilty of a civil or criminal offense, the Vinaya Pitakaya has to govern the behaviour of Theravada Buddhist Monks. There is a Sangha Court or a Sangadikaranaya for this purpose.

If the Vinaya Pitakaya needs revision because it is not practical or needs interpretation because it is unclear or ambiguous in certain areas, then action has to be taken to address these. It is not the personal views of one or another that must prevail, but the law as applicable for the behaviour of Theravada Buddhist Monks enshrined in the Vinaya Pitakaya and the universal, equitable and transparent application of that law as prescribed in the Vinaya Pitakaya.

It is likely that the structure of the justice system in the Vinaya Pitakaya, and the lack or absence of application of justice as outlined in the Vinaya Pitakaya is the cause for discontentment amongst many lay persons about the Maha Sangha in Sri Lanka. 

Control of the senses, contentment, restraint according to the code of monastic discipline — these form the basis of holy life here for the wise monk –Dhammapada, Verse 375

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