By H.L.Seneviratne –
In the 1930s and ‘40s educated urban Buddhist monks launched a movement of rural development, proclaiming that their work is not ritual but “social service”. They achieved some successes in the early period of their work, but by the mid-1940s this largely social and economic movement had deteriorated into a majoritarian political movement that identified the island with Buddhism and the Sinhala ethnic group, thereby marginalizing the minorities. Thus, while these monks talked about social service, their actions were devoid of a social conscience. With the assassination of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike by a Buddhist monk, their vociferous support of the ethnic war while obstructing attempts at a negotiated settlement, and most recently, the attacks on Muslims in Dambulla and Pepiliyana led by them, the image of the “political monk” has been severely tarnished. The ochre robed monk, the messenger of the world’s most peaceful religion and symbol of tranquility and compassion, has become the symbol of violence and intolerance.
But, recent statements by some monks seem to indicate the stirrings of a monastic conscience that had been asleep for centuries. The Venerable Galkande Dhammananda, a lecturer at the Kelaniya University, has spoken out against ethnic violence, and the related problem of stereotyping individuals or groups as a prelude to demonizing them. In two video clips published in the Colombo Telegraph, the Ven. Dhammananda reminds us of some simple truths well known to Buddhists, but hardly ever practised, though given lip service at the drop of a hat. He emphasizes that differences can and should be settled before they escalate into violence; and that could be achieved through the practise of virtues that the Buddha advocated, like compassion, patience, and tolerance.
The Ven. Dhammananda further impresses upon us that every individual is different, and that it is senseless to stereotype a given group as violent or gentle, lazy or industrious, greedy or generous. Each group has its mixture of good and bad individuals, and our challenge is to seek internal action in our own communities so that the bad are reformed. He places the blame for our past ethnic violence squarely on the elites. And elites are also behind the present violence perpetrated by the Bodu Bala Sena and other extremists. He takes the realistic view that differences are bound to arise within nations, like within families, and the wise approach is to settle these with compromise and mutual understanding. He sums up by saying that we must make a firm determination to bequeath a peaceful society to the next generation. Sentiments similar to these have been expressed recently by some other monks as well, like Madoluvave Sobhita, Baddegama Samita and Dambara Amila.
Renunciation of the world is always problematic, because the renouncer must at least have minimal contact with the world. In the case of Buddhist renunciation, that contact has been elaborate and luxuriant, with the Sangha, the monastic order, developing into a class of ritual specialists, scholars, political activists and holders of property interests, in sum, an influential social elite. Their social organization represents a displacement of goals as reflected in recurring attempts to seek alternatives, like contemplative isolation in caves and forest hermitages. This process itself could get routinized as we see in the division between the village dwelling (gramavasi) and forest dwelling (vanavasi) monks, with the latter eventually developing the very organization it escaped from, and returning to the fold of worldly monasticism.
Some pious laymen have been critical of established monasticism and have called for reforms, and at times, tried to form alternative religious cultures. While understandable, such responses could be excessively harsh and socially negative. From the point of a healthy relation between religion and society, it is more useful to accept divergences from orthodoxy when these are consonant with positive social goals. Thus the laity should accept monks playing such positive roles even if these might seem to them inappropriate when viewed from a purely orthodox perspective. The laity however are entitled to expect from the monks an internalization of ethics and a resulting genuineness of interest in facilitating social well being. This has indeed been forthcoming in the case of some monks, and has been pithily articulated by a leading mid twentieth century scholarly and activist monk, the Ven. Hendiyagala Silaratana, in his maxim “economic development is inner development”. We can oversimplify this to say “business must be ethical”, business meaning not just economic activity but all activity that relates to society, most importantly political activity. Since such ethical standards ensure equality and fairness, they contribute to social wellbeing, and are therefore rational.
If monks are able to make an ethical and rational contribution to social wellbeing they should not just be allowed but actively encouraged to do so. This was the position taken by the Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala who sought to enlist monks in a war of economic and moral regeneration. Unfortunately, the empowerment of the educated modern monk that ensued led them on a different path, that of building a Sinhala Buddhist utopia in which other ethnic and religious groups were to be second class citizens. This pursuit came to fruition when forces led by the nationalist monks of the Eksat Bhikshu Peramuna (United Monks Front) elected to power the beginning of our problems, the Sinhala nationalist government of 1956. The most disastrous of its ill-conceived legislations was Sinhala Only, which marks the end of the attempt, going back to late colonial rule, to build a multi ethnic and multi religious nation.
In the monks mentioned above, Madoluvave Sobhita, Baddegama Samita, Dambara Amila and now, Galkande Dhammananda, we seem to have a growing nucleus of monks with a social conscience whom we must encourage and persuade to take up the task of resurrecting the nation that was killed in its infancy by a previous generation of their colleagues. All patriotic citizens, especially those who have the power to do so, must urge these monks to participate in organized action to spring up a thousand streams to confluence into a river that would douse our racial and other petty hatreds and turn our charred land into a fertile field. As numerous correspondents have suggested, now is the day, now is the hour, when we must organize, calmly and systematically, putting our heads together, and preparing ourselves to brave all odds. Some ideas have already been mooted, such as a single-issue candidate for the presidency, and the need to prepare for the Provincial Council elections. We need more. We also need more effort to raise public awareness of the need for action. For, it is neither a question of halal, nor women’s apparel, nor indeed any anti-Muslim violence at all that we are facing. It is a question of the spectre that is haunting our land, the all pervasive dysfunction of the social organism rooted in corruption, nepotism, the abuse of power, the dismantling of democratic institutions, and the imprisonment of the rule of law. We must proceed with the conviction that even an apathetic people can be persuaded to rise.
Sujewa Ekanayake / April 19, 2013
Great article. Thanks for writing it.
Safa / April 19, 2013
Monks with wisdom and knowledge are needed to guide society on the correct path. They must epitomise the teachings which they preach.
Inciting hate and violence as in the case of BBS / Sinhala Ravaya indicates a perversion of the teachings they profess to follow. It is more rooted in the desire to acquire material and political power at the expense of others than propogating the teachings of the Buddha. It is the conflict between race and religon with race gaining the ascendency over the religous teachings.
Dinuk / April 19, 2013
Excellent essay! Many thanks Prof. Seneviratne!
We need a census on lands, houses, properties and super luxury cars and SUVs owned by Buddhist monks. We need a study of Diaspora Buddhism – in LA the Buddhist monks drive MERCS and BMWs!
We need scholars like you to analyze the political economy of the Sinhala Buddhist Sangha establishment which like the Catholic Vatican has morphed into a massive land and property owning empire in Lanka.
We need a study of the systematic militarization of Sinhala Buddhism by Gota the Goon, and the land grabbing from the minorities that this has enabled – particularly in the northeast but also sout.
On Wijerama Mawatha Colombo 7 a small Tamil Kade that had stood there for the past 60 years was evicted and the Land taken over and a Buddhist statue planted there.
The militarization of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is the new culture “war” waged by the Rajapassa dictatorship against the people of Sri Lanka – a means to DIVIDE, DISTRACT and RULE the country in perpetuity.
Jimena / April 19, 2013
Who is funding the Balu Sena, their accounts must be investigated..
Don Quixote / April 19, 2013
Sir, you have analyzed the situation in depth but don’t you agree that what is needed is honest and just leadership ?
How do we proceed without that ?
What are the possible options or is this just another academic lecture !
sunila Mendis / April 19, 2013
The most important step is to rally round the enlightened monks, Rev Sobhithe, Rev Dambara Amila and Rev Dhammathilaka for social transformation
Sama / April 19, 2013
what do you think about them being deaf not reacting to protests these days ? Is that just because them being fully ignorants OR lack of vision in them ?
suren sumithraarachchi / April 19, 2013
I too had the privilege of listening to the venerable Galkande Dhammananda, and was impressed to note that there are more and more people joining the band wagon against racism.
Racism seems to be the agenda of some very powerful individuals, presumably to ward off the issues currently faced by the citizens. My humble opinion of course is that racism is gaining ground at a very high speed and those who oppose must respond with similar speed and vigour. They must unite as a group and not be seen as individual opinions, develop not only valuable view points, but also an agenda to stop racism from growing, particularly among the school and university students, so that with time there is a group to whom one can appeal for sane responses. Already, there are signs of complicity by the police, who claim they are helpless in the wake of massive attacks on religious and business institutions. The best examples were when the Pepiliyana business was attacked and when the Christian Minister’s house was attacked during a time when only his wife and children were at home, and the police claimed they could not control the crowds. It is also evident that the attacks are spear headed by a group of Buddhist clergymen, which is why the police are hesitant to intervene.
Parakrama Abeygunawardena / April 19, 2013
Excellent article , this should be translated into Sinhala and publish in Sinhala papers (if possible).
ahmad / April 19, 2013
I second that!!
Rambler / April 19, 2013
The gap between precept and practice is unfortunately a universal phenomenon. It is not unique to Buddhism. Similarly the increasing role of religion in politics even in non-theocratic states as a reaction to modernization and to the more current process of globalization is also quite common. It is not unique to Sri Lanka. It is especially evident in countries where there is no clear cut separation of religion and state in the constitution. But the situation in Sri Lanka is obviously much more complex due to the following additional factors:
1) In Sri Lanka while all four major religions are practiced and there are different ethnic groups and three languages, the Sinhala Buddhists are a preponderant majority. This causes inevitable power imbalance even if the majority acts in good faith.
2) Whereas Buddhism is the precept, Sinhala-Buddhism is not just its mundane practice, it is also the political ideology of the Sinhala-Buddhists as shaped by the Mahavamsa.
3) As political ideology Sinhala-Buddhism instills in its followers the belief that the Buddha specifically chose them and their land to protect and perpetuate his teaching. This leads to an exclusivist mindset that views the other ethnic groups and religions as aliens and as threats.
4) Because Buddhism is distinguished by its unique emphasis on the unreality of this-worldly identities and subjectivities and the exhortation to renounce them, Sinhala-Buddhism’s role as a political ideology makes it an obvious target for ridicule and attack. The rigid identity and virulent nationalism fostered by Sinhala-Buddhism can only appear as blatant hypocrisy and even blasphemy to eager critics.
5) The Sinhalese people and their language are native only to Sri Lanka.
6) The Buddhist Sangha in Sri Lanka is overgrown. Too many people become monks not for religious reasons, but to gain a livelihood or an avenue for social mobility.
While moral exhortations and appeal to good sense are absolutely necessary in order to stem the tide of intolerance and hatred threatening to engulf the country in another round of suicidal violence, it is my view that the above factors should be taken into consideration in any realistic plan to address the problem.
Native Vedda / April 19, 2013
In essence Prof H.L.Seneviratne wants to liberate Buddhism from Sinahala/Buddhists.
I have been working on this matter for years.
kali / April 22, 2013
How old are you and how long have you been trying and have you reached the Grand Old age. If I remember correctly you are stil getting a lot of advice from your elders the wise counsel.
What is their advice please are they saying that it is achievable.
You are trying to liberate the Slave ( Buddhism ) from the Masters ( Sinhala/Buddhists) which is impossible as the Master has at his disposal an army of volunteers Monks/BBS.
Forget Liberation as even the LTTE tried and failed and you are up against 120 mm calibre guns.
Anura / April 19, 2013
When you think about the huge people support and political power (money) earned in very short term by these BBS monks, Madulawe Sobhita like monks with social conscious and intelligence should be able to do exactly the opposite or the real good to SL people very effectively. As Prof Seneviratne suggested we should persuade these intelligent monks to come forward and get back the country towards right direction… One of them can come to power, abolish executive presidency, vested political power back to the parliament, help to change the Constitution back to maintain the balance of legislators (political), judges and execution (police) and then handover the country back to laymen, like what Nelson Mandela did in South Africa…
But how do we deal with masses of people who elect people like Mervyn, Pabha and other film starts with huge majorities to parliament…??
Dr.Rajasingham Narendran / April 19, 2013
Something more tangible than expressions of ‘Aney Pow!’ And ‘ Aiyo Paavam’ are definitely coming to the fore. This seems rather spontaneous. I hope it becomes a force that will change and shape this country in the coming days, months and years.
K.M.Ganeshalingam / April 19, 2013
Respected Professor Sir,
Many many thanks for your article which enlightened most of the people. The moral values of the societies have become a rare commodity not only in SriLanka but the whole world as well.
The social reformation through moral and economic (values) studies are extremely important to every citizen in SriLanka to make good leaders in the country. In my opinion that this kind of social reformation of all the communities can only be achieved by respected,eminent and educated personalities like you with the help of educated religious and political leaders.
Sir, Please go ahead and write more articles and enlighten us.
Pol Pot / April 19, 2013
Professor Seneviratne, A voice in the Wilderness! It is like a lotus blooming out of the mud in a swamp, as the Buddha would have put it.
punchinilame / April 19, 2013
Sir, Better late than never. The intellectuals are always late!
Casandra / April 19, 2013
Dude, the intellectuals are often too early so no one understands or listens to them – that is my experience!
Karu / April 20, 2013
How and why BBS monks could easily obtain visa for USA? Normally embassy is very careful when issuing Visas!
Are really they funded by The WEST?
With one stone two birds perhaps?
This can be used against on one hand and at the same time Muslims can be disturbed ????
This unruly monk should never have been given visa to USA!
Shyamon jayasinghe / April 20, 2013
The attention of all those concerned about the future of our once beautiful island should be drawn to this profound message of Prof HLS.:To quote:
“to raise public awareness of the need for action. For, it is neither a question of halal, nor women’s apparel, nor indeed any anti-Muslim violence at all that we are facing. It is a question of the spectre that is haunting our land, the all pervasive dysfunction of the social organism rooted in corruption, nepotism, the abuse of power, the dismantling of democratic institutions, and the imprisonment of the rule of law. We must proceed with the conviction that even an apathetic people can be persuaded to rise.”
Let’s redeem our resplendant Lanka from the click of a corrupt kleptocracy. As suggested by HLS the BBS is an outgrowth of this developing national crisis caused by a totally corrupt ruling establishment. How else can one explain an alcholic monk leading the band of “new heroes”, and receiving acceptance by the regime?
kali / April 22, 2013
I share your despair but I am afraid your optimism is far fetched and a mirage. The enimity between Tamils & Sinhalese is centuries old and the Monks have been a thorn in the eye and the vast majority of the Sinhalese are inherently racist.
There is a lot of soul serching by some of the decent civilsed intelectualls ( not all) to change Sri Lanka for the better which is a monumntal task and why would this centuries old habit change now.
The Ven. Dhammananda further impresses upon us that every individual is different, and that it is senseless to stereotype a given group as violent or gentle, lazy or industrious, greedy or generous. Each group has its mixture of good and bad individuals, and our challenge is to seek internal action in our own communities so that the bad are reformed.
The above statement is although desiarable is not a reflection of the society today as the Ven Dhammananada is a tiny minority.
You are right to say that each group has a mixture of good and bad individuals but wrong to suggest that it aplies to Sri Lanka when it comes the Tamil issue and the Sinhalese attitude to the Tamils issue is pretty much consistent and the Bad group are in the majority and that will never change.
If monks are able to make an ethical and rational contribution to social wellbeing they should not just be allowed but actively encouraged to do so:
There is a contradiction with the above statement as the reverse is the case and if you want proof you dont need to look beyond the patronage given to BBS by figures such as MR & Gotha.
In the monks mentioned above, Madoluvave Sobhita, Baddegama Samita, Dambara Amila and now, Galkande Dhammananda, we seem to have a growing nucleus of monks with a social conscience whom we must encourage and persuade to take up the task of resurrecting the nation that was killed in its infancy by a previous generation of their colleagues.
How do you achieve the above and it is a million dollar question. If you hold public meetings to educate the general public even Monks will not be spared and will be atacked and branded as traitors.
I dont want to sound pesimistic but the following is not possible and not achievable. “We must proceed with the conviction that even an apathetic people can be persuaded to rise”.
So if you ask me to look into the Crystal Ball I would say ” MORE OF THE SAME FOR ANOTHER THOUSAND YEARS”