Is the Folk-Buddhism currently practiced in Sri Lanka a major shift from the Canonical Buddhism of the Sutras?
Posted on September 13th, 2011

R Chandrasoma

The Canonical Buddhism of the Sutras has at its heart the endevour to elevate the spiritual condition of the samsaric wayfarer theough a knowledge of the Noble Truths enunciated by our Compassionate Teacher – the Buddha. This task is quintessentially individual and cannot be short-circuited by the tranferable goodness of others in the way that the Abrahamic faiths counternance “”…” the notion of atonement and saving grace. The Mahayanist heresy “”…” which strongly influenced religious practice in Sri Lanka from about the 7th centuray AD “”…” introduced into popular Buddhism the notion of merit transfer (pin anumodan kireema) which made moral worth a computable “ƒ”¹…”algebraic sum’ of credits and losses in a kind of karmic bank account. More disturbling, karmic merit was not simply assessed as the issue of the “ƒ”¹…”good’ or the “ƒ”¹…”dutiful’ but as strongly attached to sacerdotal theatrics (dana and pooja) or forms of fetish-worship (the worship of the such things as historic trees and osseous relics).

What has been stated above are generalities. Let us look afresh at the folk-Buddhism as currently practiced in Sri Lanka. The core message is as follows: the attainment of Nirvanic Bliss through a systematic treading of the Arya Magga or path of purification is for a narrow elite of the morally and spiritually gifted. It is of marginal interest to the humdrum mass of humanity that has, as its chief aim, not an esoteric transcendence laeading to nirvanic bliss but the betterment of the prevailing conditions of existence in this troubled world or the next. The monkish advice, then, is to do the needful in this life that would ensure a better state of things in the life to come. A labourer can do what is karmically meet and appropriate in this life so that he will be born (perhaps) as a lord and supervisor in the next. Notice that in this strange mutation of authentic Buddhist practice, moral upliftment is set aside in favour of a formulary-based Buddhism that sets its sights on pr4actical strategies of how to be born better in the next life through easy acts of submission and reverence in this life. The lofty aim of the acquisition of moral and spiritual virtues leading to transcensence is replaced by a grossly mundane agenda of sacerdotal acts and submissions. Thus the Sanga is transformed into an organization that advices laymen on how to “ƒ”¹…”accumulate merit’ (pin ras kireema) through dana and poojas with their own aim of spiritual emlightrmment pushed aside in favour of a lucrative advisory role in lay affairs. The Sanga “”…” originally a band of renunciants pursuing a solitary path of spiritual discovery in an esoteric domain that is far removed from the bustle and strife of the outer world “”…” acquires a new (and much favoured) role as advisors to the lay population on how to manage affair efficaciously in this life so that things would be much better in the next, The also preside over rituals that purportedly transfer merit to the deceased – now elsewhere but happy to receive restorative karmic energies from from their dear ones still on Planrt Earth. The Sanga metamorphoses into a body of High Priests and Officiants presiding over healing rituals in much the same way as the Brahaminic soothsayers of an earler age.

It must be said at this point that this “ƒ”¹…”New Buddhism’ is actually very old. One has only to read a medaeval text in Sinhala such as the Pujavaliya to realise that Kings, Rulers and the Buddhist Elect of ancient Lanka at all times practiced a vulgar parody of the Buddhism they supposedly professed when actualized in their public acts. The Veneration of Trees, the adoration and adornment of Stupas, the magic and majesty of relicts and the lavish and public giving of alms constituted the sum and substance of their religiosity. Above all, the compelling need to react prudently to the hegemonism of an increasingly powerful Sanga made religon a “ƒ”¹…”public activity’ driven by the ambitions of the elite to maximize the socio-cultural impact of their supposed orthodoxy. Needless to say, this metamorphosis of an original (and irrefragably individualistic) message of spiritual reformation into a creed centered round grand rituals involving kings, high priests and the powerful of the land is a sad and astonishing denouement to a once great spiritual movement. This anomaly of great public shows and sacerdotal mumbo-jumbo ousting the quest for inner transcendence makes nonsense of an original message that abhors such misleading exhibitionism.

That this popular or folk-Buddhism is on the high road to spiritual degeneracy is made evident by the fact that its most ardent supports are among the most fervent believers in a deep ecumenism or inter-faith solidarity that sees all religions as tokens of a Universal Divine Order that enconpasses all that is true and good. In keeping with this belief in an overarching divinity, the “ƒ”¹…”Buddhist’ leaders of our country pray in Temples, Churches, Kovils , Mosques etc with great ease. Our Buddhist clergy sit easily alongside their confreres of other faiths and chant religio-magical matrams while their counterparts invoke God’s blessings.

It is unlikely that the flourishing folk-religion we see in contemporary Sri Lanka will be ousted by a mass reassertion of the original and authentic beliefs that constitute true Buddhism. Unlike the Semitic faiths “”…”where evangelism and mass conversions are the rule “”…” Buddhism spreads “ƒ”¹…”top-down’ in that the “ƒ”¹…”initiators’ and inspirational figures are the Kings and Nobles of the land. The the purity of this challenging faith thus depends precariously on the genuiness of its lordly practioners “”…” not on the fickle spiritual needs of the opportunistic masses of common humanity. Where the leadership wavers in its true belief and goes the way of the masses in worshiping all Gods, where the Sangha vulgarizes and adapts the faith they supposedly uphold to meet the needs of harassed supplicants for quick spiritual relief, there cannot be anything but a caricature of the true religion.

27 Responses to “Is the Folk-Buddhism currently practiced in Sri Lanka a major shift from the Canonical Buddhism of the Sutras?”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    Mr Chandrasoma has written a brave article, challenging the way Buddhism is practiced in the East, not just in Sri Lanka. We feel that what is lost here is the art of Meditation. In Dhana, Seela & Bhavana, the eternal tripod of true Buddhism, Dhana has become most important and become Dhana only, which is insufficient for a Buddhist to achieve that ultimate feeling of contentment & completeness within. If Bhavana is introduced by Buddhist monks into the mainstream Buddhist life in Lanka, wouldn’t the Seela automatically follow ?. For Buddhist monks to advice the people to do Bhavana, the monks themselves must observe Bhavana and be comfortable enough to teach all the aspects of Bhavana to the people. Since Dhana is already flourishing, Seela will almost automatically follow, wouldn’t it ?. Thus, in my humble opinion, there is hope for the Core Teachings of the Buddha to flourish. In daily living, the Breath & Awareness are very important in Buddhist practices. Let us not give up hope.

    I hasten to add that there are some wise & lucky individuals who do practice Buddhism in the correct manner and are reaping rich rewards by doing so.

    Personally, I have no protests to make against the worship of relics or sacred trees. However, thinking that those acts of veneration are the more important aspects is a mistake.

    Please correct me if I am wrong in the above assumptions.

  2. Ben_silva Says:

    I also have no issues about worshiping relics or trees, as these are merely symbols. I am however concerned if people attempt to reduce desires or are unduely concerned about pain, as the whole modern world economy is driven by the need to satisfy customer desires and as the general principle is ‘ no pain no gain’.

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ben, you have struck the heart of the problem : “the whole modern world economy is driven by the need to satisfy customer desires …” We think that customer desires in the present Market Place are created artificially by clever advertising and glossy magazines by PROFIT MOTIVATED businesses. Purely Profit Motivated people are not concerned about our real needs, pains & happiness. Rather, they want profit from themselves at our expense and are not concerned about our Health & Happiness. Therein lies the rub !

    We have to use our common sense in deciding what goods & services are needed by our people and go with that rather than a rampant Profit Motive which is the driving force in todays economy, which brings in Greed leading to poor goods & services and even production of unnecessary goods & services.

    A sense of Balance is needed in the Market Place. Practical Buddhist practices such as Dhana, Seela & Bhavana will bring in the Balance to a world economy of over consumption gone awry. At least, a sense of Balance to the Market Place in Sri Lanka.

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    While the Profit Motive is the entrepreneur’s reward and must be allowed, I am against rampant profiteering leading to poor goods & services and even cheat & deceit. Only Good & Services that are really needed and appreciated and conducive toward good Health & well being should be encouraged.

  5. Ben_silva Says:

    I am glad that Chadrasoma has obdrerved that Buddhism has degenerated to a religion that chant religio-magical matrams . Time to dump religion and learn critical thinking.

  6. Ben_silva Says:

    My main point is we need to analyse and understand systems and then take appropriate action rather than hang on to ancient beliefs that even Indians do not believe any more and that lead to the premature death of many of its followers. New threat is the destruction of forests and banana plantations by Dole. This will introduce cancer to our poor people.

  7. Ben_silva Says:

    To answer Fran
    In UK, there are strict trading standards, regulators and watch dogs and TV programs that keep an eye on rougue traders and expose them.

  8. Ben_silva Says:

    Looks like Fran and I are getting closer in our thinking. People will not put in time, money and effort in a business unless there is a profit motive. We need to understand economics and business systems and learn to compete in a fair and just manner. Problem as I see it is we do not know how to compete and as such we are losing out. However relegion and business need to be kept separate, if religion says reduce desires. Business is highly competiive and it operate in a dog eat dog world.

  9. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ben: Yes, we are getting closer to consensus. I am all for business with good business practices. At no point in time have I said that I am against businesses with good practices. Has Buddhism anything against businesses with good practices ? No. For that matter, none of the religions are against good business practices.
    What I am against is business owners, who for the sake of high profit compromise on the environment and the good health of people.
    Question: Do you think we have the proper Laws in place to invite large scale foreign businesses into Lanka – Laws that will protect and safeguard the environment & the people after looking at long term effects of chemical & animal effluent from ventures ?
    Also, large scale animal farming should never be allowed in Sri Lanka, both for widespread disease prevention, animal & human, and also to protect the environment. Animal husbandry on smaller scales must be allowed.
    Production of chemicals : great Caution must be exercised in such ventures if we do not want to repeat India’s Bhopal tragedy (through Union Carbide-USA) in Sri Lanka.

    Since the subject under discussion is Buddhism, I still think that at least some of the Core Teachings of Buddhism such as Dana, Seela & Bhava, the 5 Precepts, and the application of the Eightfold Noble Path, are highly life supportive and should be practiced by those who profess to be Buddhists. Buddhist practices should not be this onerous, heavy weight to carry around, but a lighthearted delight to participate in life in happiest way. Once the basic rules are learnt, there is no more learning – only living well & happily. That to me is the real Buddhism.

  10. Fran Diaz Says:

    Is there a Consumer Protection organisation in Sri Lanka ? If so, it is not evident.

  11. ranjith Says:

    Consumer Protection Firms are everywhere including Sri Lanka.

    Bribery is rampant in Sri Lanka Consumer Protection Firms – top to bottom.

  12. Ben_silva Says:

    I tend to agree with Ranjith.I noticed a high level of corruption, dishonisty, lawless ness, fraud, theft, lack of ethics and morality. How evr there are many good people as well Supposed to be a Buddhist country ! I am saying as it is and calling a spade a spade.

  13. Fran Diaz Says:

    Here is the website for an article on Consumer Protection in Sri Lanka, from the Groundsview network.

    groundviews.org/2008/07/07/consumer-protection-in-sri-lanka-seeing-beyond-rice-coconut-and-milkfood/

    This article shows that there are a whole lot of players in this field of fleecing the consumer. Read on ….

    Why is Buddhism blamed for every evil in this country ???? There are others who are only too happy to make Sri Lanka look like a failed state. Buddhists are largely caught up in their Games.

  14. Ben_silva Says:

    To answer Frans question, Many people take Buddhism as a religion. The key thing in a religion is unproven beliefs. Unfortunately, once you have beliefs, it clouds and put a bias on your decision making process. Rather sadly, if we tie in religion, then the outcome could be biased. Fortunately our leaders separated military activities from religion which says do not kill. Nearly all our enemies said follow the religion and do not kill. If we followed our enemies in the peace camp, we would have been under terrorists and lost our country. In economics and business and in war religion has to be kept separate. You can see the progress the Chinese made marely 60 years after dumping religion. When they followed various isms, they faced decline, as found by Joseph Needham. So many wise scientists have said religion is a thing of the past. We need to listen to scientists

  15. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ben: While I agree with you that religion ought to be kept out of Security & Economics, religion still plays a part in both these items, whether we like it or not. We could attempt to be more objective about both items, but we must remember that both are handled by leaders who are finite human beings who all have some ‘religion’ or ‘philosophy’ to guide them in their decision making.

    Anyway, Buddhism, strictly speaking is not a Religion – it is a Philosophy. Religion is defined as a system of “Faith & Worship”, whilst Philosophy is defined as the “pursuit of Wisdom, and Study of Realities & general principles; system of Theories on Nature of Things, or on Conduct; Calmness of Mind”. This is the pure Buddhism. The true Buddhism is highly scientific. The rest of it, what Mr Chandrasoma has referred to as “Folk Buddhism” , is the Buddhism most of the ordinary folk practice. The only way to break into the higher teachings of Buddhism is to practice Meditation. I have personally noticed self control & wisdom arising in Buddhist people who practice Meditation, and ethics & morality follows. Our Buddhist priests must Meditate themselves and teach Meditation to all Buddhists, if such a thing is possible.

    As for China, please take a good hard look at the Chinese leaders of today, the calm, control & wisdom they exercise can only come from doing Meditation. The PM of India, Mr Manmohan Singh has the same demeanor.

    Jesus himself is supposed to have lived his ‘lost years’ (years not obviously accounted for), in India, learning the art of Meditation.

    To do Meditation is no easy task, but let us not throw the ‘baby out with the bath water’ and ‘dump’ all of Buddhism ! To me, it is the goose that lays the golden eggs of Wisdom, Understanding & true Happiness.

  16. ranjith Says:

    Fran Diaz,

    Chinese leaders worked hard. It’s true. Through meditation, they didn’t achieve success. Meditation gives a person some sort of contentment and calmness. That’s all. Nothing else!

    If any society works hard with religion or without religion, it can achieve success economically.

    Even if any society works hard with religion or without religion, it can achieve failure too.

    Your supposition that the Jesus lived in India and learned meditation is absolutely incorrect. It seems to be sarcastic.

  17. Dham Says:

    Fran,
    You have wisdom. By associating with fools in the web you can loose it.
    Buddhism is not a philosophy. This science has not been discovered by Buddha by mere thinking. If not Krishanamurthi, Socratese also fall in to the same category. Remember an arahant is absolutely pure.
    Fool does not like the root of the tree. He is not angry with the branches, flowers etc but he absolutely hates the roots. So he wants to destroy the roots.
    Fool thinks all white countries are developed and Sri Lanka is under developed because of Nibbaana idea. Bangaladesh is a poor country but they do not have Nibbana idea. You can name numerous countries like that. Greece , Spain , Portugal all in trouble because of too much greed. Fool ignoring all these because of his malicious intention of destroying Buddhism in Sir lanka.
    Do not associate with fools ! That is my advice.

  18. Fran Diaz Says:

    Thank you Dham for your advice. But, I think people do not know their facts and must be told of the facts.

    Ranjith: Through Meditation and knowledge of the subject to be attended to, Wisdom arises on what action should be taken.

  19. Ben_silva Says:

    Dham is the ‘intelligent’ man who said ‘We will earn less, be less competitive and die like Buddhist.’ Crisis in Europe is a ‘debt’ crisis caused by poor management of te economy. Follow Dham and be less competitive, earn less and be Buddhist.

  20. Dham Says:

    Fools will know one day that hapiness does not come from money,competitiveness and greed but from compassion,generocity and kindness. Such happines is foriegn to fools when times are good.
    By the way , a fool in UK who escaped from Buddhism should keep his parent’s Catholism and do not advice 2500 year old Sinhala Buddhist on how to thrive on meterilism.
    Fool,
    Poor management is another name to “greed”. If you do not have wisdom keep your mouth shut and at least keep us guessing rather than open you mouth and clear all doubts.

  21. Dham Says:

    Obvously this learned fool has not even read Mark Twain.

  22. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ranjith: Furthermore, please Google the words “Jesus life in India”. There are many articles on the life of Jesus in India. He was known as St. Issa and was thought of and revered in India as a Bodhisattva. Proof has been provided in the Tibetan writings.
    Many people do not know of these facts.

  23. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ranjith: Furthermore, please Google the words “Jesus life in India”. There are many articles on the life of Jesus in India. He was known as St. Issa and was thought of and revered in India as a Bodhisattva. Proof has been provided in the Tibetan writings.
    Many people do not know of these facts.

  24. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ranjith: Furthermore, please Google the words “Jesus life in India”. There are many articles on the life of Jesus in India. He was known as St. Issa and was thought of and revered in India as a Bodhisattva. Proof has been provided in the Tibetan writings.
    Many people do not know of these facts.

  25. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ranjith: Furthermore, please Google the words “Jesus life in India”. There are many articles on the life of Jesus in India. He was known as St. Issa and was thought of and revered in India as a Bodhisattva. Proof has been provided in the Tibetan writings.
    Many people do not know of these facts.

  26. ranjith Says:

    Fran Diaz,

    Tibetan writings and some sort of articles available from certain section of people about Jesus are not authentic. It’s nonsensical fiction.

    As I said earlier, through meditation only we could achieve some sort of contentment, calmness, some sort of physical relief, etc. Nothing Else!

  27. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ranjith: You say of Meditation: “Contentment, Calmness, physical relief, etc. …” To that etc. part, I can add many more attributes, such a Wisdom, Equanimity, Self Control, Socially well adjusted, to name but a few positive aspects. You can remove Nirvana, but you can NEVER remove the positive aspects of Meditation. Meditation is pivotal to the Buddhist teachings.

    I remember going through this same debate with other people about an year ago. Deja vu ! yet again. We’ll go through this many more times, I expect.

    Also, how do you account for the ‘missing years’ in the life of Jesus ? When he returned from the ‘missing years’ he became the Christ. He had learnt something extraordinary during those missing years. However, he was allowed only a short ministry of 3 years before the Crucifixion.

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