On Gods, Religion and the Public
Posted on August 13th, 2018

R Chandrasoma

In a learned article on Buddhism (published recently in your Journal) Prof N A de S Amarasekara speaks highly of the rejection of ‘transcendentalism’ and the more overt forms of ‘sacerdotalism’ in the Theravada Buddhism of contemporary Sri Lanka. Unfortunately public displays and the ‘parading’ of  piety in what can be called ‘religious theatrics’ are also dominant features of religious practice in this country.

Historically, the Buddha and the state of ‘Buddhahood’ became enveloped in a distorting mysticism that made them in many ways close to the mythology of the Saviour God and Redeemer of the Monotheistic Faiths. ‘Karmic Merit’ became a quantised and transferable meliorative force that acted across generations.  Apart from a brief period in our history when Mahayana fancies dominated Buddhist religious thinking in Sri Lanka, as a nation (supposedly) we have largely retained the purity of the Theravada metaphysical tradition that sees the individual and his personal moral crusade as the centrepiece of  the samsaric struggle to be truly liberated. However, there is a difference between ‘declaring’ and ‘doing’ – that which is the major source of error and corruption in our country – in both Politics and Religion.

Let us take first a monstrous error – the idea of  ‘transactions’ or ‘Merit Transfers’  with third parties as benevolent ‘intermediaries’ – this is a strange and alien intrusion into a religion that affirms the primacy of personal effort in the pursuit of those beliefs and practices that symbolise true fidelity to the liberating creed. Indeed. ‘praying for the amelioration of the Sins of Others’ through ‘Temple Services’ such as Poojas is at the heart of Buddhist Practice in this country. There is no need to add that this is a monstrous perversion of the Original Buddhism.

This is the cardinal error.  It cannot be denied, however,  that in this day and age there are other very evident threats to the supposed (and admirable) loyalty to the ideals and practices of  the Original Buddhism  – both in Sri Lanka and beyond. –  threats which can be succinctly referred to as the Three P’s – Priests, Poojas and Prayers. As a consequence, Sri Lankan Buddhism has lost its metaphysical bearings and its ethico-religious puritanism  It has become the ‘group practice’ of a a socio-geographic collective that strives speciously to be the authentic survivours of a long-lost and historically-endangered creed   Let us speak of Priests first.

As Officiants or ‘ Intermediaries’ in the personal quest to achieve moral transcendence there cannot be two opinions – the Monk is a dedicated seeker himself and has no critical role to play  as an ‘officiant’ or advisor in a religious struggle of any kind. He is simply an ‘exemplar’ and cannot ‘play God’ . Indeed he is supported by the laity as an exemplar – not as a player with a mission to show the way to poor sinners. The fact that Buddhism today in Sri Lanka is doninated by priests is the principal cause of the rise of a ‘state religion’ that meretriciously claims a historical purity and primacy. In this  questionable varient of Buddhism the ‘pooja’ plays the primal role – where ‘offerings to the Gods’ and ‘Temple Services’ constitute the principal means of ‘securing benefactions’  – as opposed to ‘seeing the light’- as an aid to that ultimate emancipation which is the ‘summum bonum’ of the Buddhist Pilgiim.

On Prayer. let us start with a definition  – the concept of prayer is closely related to that of surrender and supplication. – a more powerful being is humbly entreated to help a sinner. This stance has no strict meaning in Buddhism. The Buddha is a Teacher – not a forgiver of sins. It follows ‘a fortiori’ that prayer and worship in Buddhism are mere fashions  as against true spirituality – which by its very nature is without symbols and gestures.  In  contemporary Sri Lanka  public displays and priestly theatrics take centre-stage in the practice of religion. All this arises from the delusion that a ‘saint’ must broadcast his ‘saintliness’ if it is to be authentic – a ‘truism’ well-understood by politicians who lose no opportunity to broadcast their devotion to any and every God.

2 Responses to “On Gods, Religion and the Public”

  1. Nimal Says:

    With my very limited time I must say I agree with this article. Must add, just as in other failed states our politicians use the main religion to hide behind and do all the evil. This is because the person in the street as bad as our leaders. Just drive in our street and judge for yourself the pure evil in our people, give them a contract to get a job done, one will find the stupidity, carelessness and dishonesty in our people.
    I faced how good our culture, day to day life in 1948 to 1953 was and then I personally felt this defect in 1958 when I and my burgher friend supervised the concreting of the dam in Kandy and part of the water project. Since I mingled with the sudda type where they used to discuss with much frustration about the work ethic of our people. This was in a hotel in Kandy where they would come to relax in the evening and over the days past I introduced them to my American friends who were there as the peace Corp which I learned a lot. The Americans recommended me to the foreign construction engineer and we both were hired to supervise the work which we found it very difficult to get the standard of work that is expected out of them. With respect to building a concrete dam the Danish engineer always reminded us his theory that the strength of a chain is the weakest link. When ever find a section that is badly done we make them break it down and redo it again and again and we two became instant enemies.
    Just like our politicians we pretend to be pious and caring whatever religion we belong but actually we are not. Come to UK judge for your selves just the way they drive, tells much about the caring culture of the people in UK.

  2. Christie Says:

    Buddhism has changed a lot in recent years.

    We learned about Bodhi tree to show how to appreciate something that was given to you and respect the giver.

    Note that Bodhi tree is a useless tree and the only thing that one could get from it is shade.

    Today it has become some sort of mystical tree that gives you all sorts of things and you feed it with milk etc!

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