Colombo Telegraph

Venerable Voices: Stirrings Of A Sleeping Conscience ?

By H.L.Seneviratne –

Prof. 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.

Back to Home page