Colombo Telegraph

When Government Plays Enlightened One

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

There are moves to bring in new laws to define what is kepa (permissible) and what is akepa (prohibited) for the Buddhist clergy, i.e. the Bikkhus. Whether or not this has been prompted by requests from the Buddhist Order as represented by the Maha Nayaka Theros of the three Nikayas, we do not know. In any event it is an initiative that resurrects the old discussion about the relationship between state and religion, whether the relevant institutions should operate independent of one another or, if not, what the rules of engagement should be.

There are some primary objections and these should be dealt with first. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri has made a relevant observation drawn from the notion of citizenship rights and the principle of equality (in a Facebook post): “All those who value religious freedom should unconditionally oppose the proposed laws related to the conduct of Bhikkus. It is the particular religious community that should decide on the affairs of that particular religious community, subject to the laws of the country. For example, it is not the state but the Buddhist Order that should decide whether or not a Bikkhu can apply for a driving license. If the state rejects the application for a driving license submitted by a Bikkhu it is simultaneously a violation of that Bikkhu’s rights as well as the Bikkhu’s rights as a citizen. What is important here is his citizenship and not his status as a member of the clergy.

In other words, the state cannot set the rules and regulations of any organization, be it religious or otherwise, and can intervene only if these are out of order in terms of the overall legal framework of the country. The state will not and cannot move to amend the rules and regulations, the articles of faith if you will, the articles of association etc., of scout troops, welfare societies, trade unions, blue chip companies or the bulathvita kade tucked into an alleyway off a busy street. The state will not and cannot dictate to the Chairperson or CEO of a company what the dress code ought to be. As such this move is an infringement of and an affront to the basic principles of freedom enshrined in the Constitution, for example, Article 10 of Chapter III, ‘Freedom of thought, conscience and religion’.

The state can and does set general rules for various sectors, for example companies (and within them sub-sectoral institutions such as banks and insurance entities for example) and cooperatives, but does not and cannot interfere with the details of the particular organizations with respect to behavior. It cannot specify the menu for lunch, whether women can or cannot drive, or determine that only men can hold positions in the top management. That’s silly, unethical and violates fundamental rights.

Perhaps a counter-example and the objections it could prompt might help. Suppose an Act is presented to Parliament to say that the Catholic Church or any other church of a Christian denomination cannot own or run a school? Suppose there’s an Act proposed to bar clergymen of such institutions from applying for a driving license? Suppose there’s an Act to open the Catholic priesthood to women? What would we have? First there’ll be howls of protest from the Religious Freedom NGO brigade and it’s academic and other adjuncts. The US Embassy will express grave concern. The Asian Human Rights Commission will issue a statement as would Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The Permanent Representative of the country’s mission in Geneva would be summoned by the head of UNHRC and perhaps even Ban Ki-moon. That they are pretty much silent on this occasion tells of their selectivity and their mostly unspoken but clearly evident anti-Buddhist sentiments.

Nirmal, in a phone conversation, brought up the valid issue of the insertion of ‘Buddhism’ into the Constitution, i.e. Chapter II (Article 9), regarding the foremost place given to Buddhism and the ‘duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana’. Nirmal argues that this is an invitation for interference of the kind that he objects to. Well, firstly, it is one thing to ‘protect and foster’ and quite another to play class monitor, head mistress, ombudsman and the Vinayarakshaka Sabha. Also, just as there are constitutions and laws, there are also things like culture, history and heritage which inform their making. “Secular” is not god-given, after all and neither is a constitution (or state) culture or religion free in word or application.

Anyway, since the issue is discipline and applies only (therefore selectively and illegally) to the clergy of a single religion, Buddhism, there are legal as well as political and doctrinal objections. The movers of this Act are assuming to have knowledge superior to the Buddha on matters pertaining to Bikkhu Vinaya or discipline. Whether or not the Buddhist Order and its membership in word and deed subscribe to the relevant tenets is of course something that the Buddhist Order should discuss, but it’s all there in the Vinaya Pitaka.

The basic rules of conduct for bikkhus and bikkhunis (Patimokkha) are set out in the Suttavibhange and these are complemented in the Mahavagga and the Cullavagga with relevant elaboration for instructional purposes in the Parivara. Whether or not the clergy abides by these or violates beyond the point of what is accepted as permissible in today’s context either through ‘error’ of omission or commission, is a matter for the Maha Sangha to deliberate and act upon. It is NOT the business of the state, NOT the business of legislators.

Law makers, whether Buddhist or otherwise, in addition to recognizing the fundamental error of this move in terms of articles enshrined in the Constitution, would do well to reflect on the arrogance of assuming equality or even superiority to the intellect of Siddhartha Gauthama, especially on matters of the Order he founded.

*Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at

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