Buddhism in Sri Lanka imperiled by Doctrinal Archaisms and an outdated Orthodoxy
Posted on September 25th, 2013

R Chandrasoma

In a recent address to the Plenary Session of the International Buddhist Confederation, New Delhi, India on September 11, 2013 the renowned Buddhist scholar and activist Dr Ananda Guruge had this to say about the future of the religion that was aforetime universally hailed as the Light of Asia.

Dr Guruge asks – -ËœWhat will happen in the future when the younger generations, with increasing exposure to science and technology, participatory democratic processes and new trends in spirituality, find dissatisfaction with what is taught and practiced as Buddhism by their elders?

This is a tremendous challenge for the Buddhist leadership in general and the Sangha in particular in the twenty-first century. How should they prepare to face this challenge especially because the issue is the credibility of what Buddhism stands for?-â„¢ We must thank Dr Guruge for that nobility of spirit that seeks to strengthen within before jousting with external foes.

There is no shortage today of -Ëœdefenders of Buddhism-â„¢ who with considerable vainglory battle perceived external threats to the religion of their forefathers while being supinely indifferent to that greater threat arising from a widening mismatch between what is taught as canonical (i.e. based on the ancient sutras) and what is presented to the public as having the warrant of contemporary science. Thus the -Ëœfolk Buddhism-â„¢ of the indigenous preachers of our land has long abandoned any pretense to be consistent with the facts as collegially revealed in the West through that great enterprise known as Science.

It is the past that is miraculously brought alive as the context for the exegesis of doctrinal verities. Thus they (the Monks) speak of -ËœFour Elements-â„¢ and -Ëœdefining essences-â„¢ that constitute the Stuff of the World. In flagrant defiance of the Cosmological wisdom pf our age, the Universe is supposed infinitely old and meshed in cycles that repeat endlessly in time.

The Human species is an everlasting archetype and so are the diverse kinds of living organisms -” that supposedly have no origin or extinction as specific types. There are fearsome Hells below a Flat Earth where wrong-doers are subject to horrifying tortures. There are -ËœHeavens-â„¢ above for the good and gracious wherein exist fabulous -Ëœdevas-â„¢ with no metabolism or reproduction. (They are fleeting reifications of karmic energy that fall back to earth like rockets that have exhausted their fuel).

To rebalance matters, there are accursed and foul-bodied -Ëœpretheyas-â„¢, -Ëœboothayas-â„¢ etc. that form a parasitical and invisible army eternally pestering mankind. Animal existence is a kind of Hell established for the purpose of -Ëœsending-â„¢ miscreants that do not quite qualify for a place in the Four Great Houses of Horror (Sathara Apaya or Niraya). This is only an outline -” let us pass to the predicament of Man. His main struggle here on Planet Earth is to prevent that awful prospect of being transferred to Hell on account of his misbehaviour in this place of trial.

There is Mara the All-Powerful Devilish Tempter ever ready to lead folk astray and it is only through rigorous sacerdotal practices ( of the right kind with the intercession of the Sangha) that perdition of a most awful kind can be avoided. The primary (and true) ambition of the Buddhist pilgrim -” the need to achieve a world-eclipsing transcendence based on an extraordinary vision of reality -” is totally ignored in the Buddhism of the monks. The latter see as their chief -Ëœwork-â„¢ the inculcation of those sacerdotal -Ëœstrategies-â„¢ that will ensure good results after our departure from this miserable vale of existence.

The body -” extoled as a marvel of organization in modern science -” is identified as the disgusting enemy that must be crushed if relief in an absolute sense is to be obtained. That what has been given succintly above – the Tale of the Sinhala Buddhist Monks – is a strange and idiosyncratic departure from true Buddhism will be conceded by most intelligent people.

Indeed, a 10-year old child with a modern education will reject the main -Ëœhypothesis-â„¢ of this fantastic folk interpretation – that we are actors on trial in a strange world that values rule-conforming pietism and nothing else. Let us return to the main point.

In our country -” as in most parts of the contemporary world -” the true spirit of religion falters -” indeed, perishes – when it burgeons under the aegis of robed elders chanting ancient -Ëœhyms-â„¢ under conditions when questioning and challenge are considered impious. Nor can matters be improved by sticking to ancient and outdated metaphors in the unending quest to understand the why and wherefore of existence.

Buddhism has an answer that has an aspect of eternal refiguring -” this necessitates a spiritual redefining of the true fundamentals of our ancient religion as we move forward in time. It is this challenge that the new generation of scholarly Buddhists in Sri Lanka must take up if our ancient faith is to survive in a world enraptured by a domineering secularism and inclined to be robustly skeptical about other-worldly claims.

A pessimistic thought seems appropriate by way of conclusion -” there is no doubt that the intelligentsia of Europe and North America are deeply intrigued by Buddhism as a source of esoteric wisdom -” but it is the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama that is making the waves. Theravada Buddhism is strictly for historians.

5 Responses to “Buddhism in Sri Lanka imperiled by Doctrinal Archaisms and an outdated Orthodoxy”

  1. Nanda Says:

    “Indeed, a 10-year old child with a modern education will reject the main ‘hypothesis’ of this fantastic folk interpretation – that we are actors on trial in a strange world that values rule-conforming pietism and nothing else. Let us return to the main point.”
    What a stupid statement.
    There were thousands of smart 10 year olds in Sri Lanka ( than Chandrasoma) in the last 50 years who learned modern science along with Buddhism, who are the original inventors of so many “gadgets” of modern science. None of these professors discredit Buddhism like Chandra Soma.

  2. Fran Diaz Says:

    In our humble view, Buddhism (Theravada Buddhism) as a Way of Life, will never die. This is because of the Eternal Truths embodied in Buddhism as taught by Guathama Buddha.

    Buddhism (mostly in Theravada Buddhism) emphasizes the Breath which is a universal Need to all of humanity. Buddhism (Theravada) emphasizes Mindfulness and that too is a universal Need. No, Buddhism will never die away !

    However, there will be less ritual and chanting as time goes on. People will use the computer (convenient and time saving), to gain more knowledge on Buddhism (videos on YouTube etc), and even use CDs for pirith etc. Where does that leave our Buddhist clergy ? They will still be needed to propagate Buddhism, preside over various functions and funerals, etc.

    For me, the Dhana, Seela & Bhavana triad is a perfect Path to follow. Buddhism, simplified, will never die. “Truth is Within You” said the Buddha. “The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You” said Jesus Christ. Islam means “Peace” (Within You). The highest of Hindu teaching, the Raj Yoga, is Meditation to reach God/Truth (Within You). All religions are coming together in the New Age that is dawning. Parts of the Middle East is yet to awaken to the meaning of Islam, Peace Within.

    There is still a struggle on for material Needs. In Asia, people still place a lot of value on status symbols, money etc. In Maslow’s Theory, the need for Self Actualisation comes after Safety, Love/belonging, Self Esteem needs are fulfilled. In some unusual cases, Self Actualisation comes above everything else.

    The real War is within us all, to reach the inner sanctum where Truth resides. In the Peace beyond all definitions, lies Truth or God within us All. Knowing That brings Bliss and Self Knowledge that the Kingdom of Heaven is indeed within us All !
    Keeping to that Feeling of Bliss ALL the time we are alive, is Nirvana or Heaven on Earth or Union with God/Truth. There is also a term called Thaddanga Nibbana which refers to the brief experience of this Bliss, which many may have experienced in the presence of the living Buddha.

  3. Naram Says:

    Many good points I see in this very topical discussion. From the little knowledge I learnt about Buddha’s teachings I am convinced that it is a philosophy that gives no concession to believers or non believers, one nation or the other.

    Study of history show that Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka too has gone through many transformations, and revivals more recently in the time of Weliwita Sri SAranankara there in the 18th century and post Panadura debates in the 19th century. Previously at various stages Sri Lanka had ascendency of Mahayana school too as seen in sculptures of Thara Devi, Avalokatheshvara etc.

    Of course vastly rich temples of today with attached Kovils in some cases that profess a system of strong beliefs in an afterlife and encouraging good deeds to build up a Karma stock is a far cry from the original philosophy encouraging one to take a trip of the universe in all the sin bins inthe universe before reacihing the Nirvana in the time of Maithriya Buddha.

    Still that is a vast improvement on the bianary system of Hell or Heaven in some other beliefs with associated ‘indulgences’ that can buy the afterlife that have caused many rifts. Sadly the Priest class have to make their living by reinforcing Karma beliefs to get the Dana and the other gifts in situations where they do not have a salaries job or Nindaagams.

    I take the secular view thar whatever the religions, equality of men and women in all walks of life and particularly in education, right to live together or apart, have children or not, sharing of responsibilities at home should be enshrined in law. The number of children one woman may produce may have to be limited for all as a part of its cost on societyin providing the sustenance etc as a part of social norms for all.

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    Actually Science and Buddhism are on common ground. There are really no great differences. The transitory state of all material things, human life itself included, are the most important in the common ground area. In modern psychotherapy,
    Cognizant Behavioral therapy is based on Vipassana Bhavana.

    The Buddha saw the nature of things, and explained it to the ordinary folk as best he could. He had an experience of transcendence and he said that such an experience could be had by all human beings, if they try. Having a living teacher could make a lot of difference, and make the Path to SELF REALISATION easier.

  5. Cerberus Says:

    Buddhism is the most rational of all religions. Like all religions the original teachings have got encrusted with some mythology and fictitious stories over the 2600 years history. The core teachings are essentially profoundly true today as then. Of the different types of Buddhism practiced in the world today Theravada is the closest to truth in that it emphasizes going within by meditating. All the great religions show that truth is within. Jesus said the Kingdom of heaven is within, Buddha said the truth is within.
    One of the main teachings of the Buddha is that all that we see and hear and feel is illusory which is very much in line with the modern quantum theory. According to quantum theory matter is mostly empty space. They say an atom has a nucleus with the electron far away from it. It is equated to a foot ball field with a plum which represents the nucleus at the middle. It also postulates that the particles can behave either as particles or as waves. This means there is really no solidity in the universe. It is just pure energy taking different forms. Also Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle means there is no reality without an observer. In other words we create our reality by being the observer.
    I believe that by turning our attention deep inside we can experience our true nature which is non-material. There are two wonderful little book lets written by Mahsi Sayadaw on Practical Insight meditation and Progress in Insight meditation. He describes step by step what you experience in deep meditation.

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