Affronts to Buddhist monks must stop
Posted on January 14th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

This is a reply to the opinion piece under the heading ‘Separating Religion from Politics’ sent in by George Braine (The Island/January 13, 2020). According to Braine ‘The various Mahanayakes and other Buddhist leaders must act quickly before the deterioration of the Sangha hits rock bottom. Another danger is to the state; when the monks begin to opine on and influence all aspects of national affairs, they cross the line between religion and politics’. After reading his scurrilous comments on the Maha Sangha, unworthy of a scholar of his stature, I would like to draw his attention to the wisdom of the following verse (158) from the Dhammapada: 

‘One should first establish oneself
In what is proper;
Then only should one instruct others;
Thus the wise man will not be reproached.’

Or let me quote the same idea put more strikingly in the Bible (Matthew 7.5) that came later  thus:

‘You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will be able to see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye’ (from the Good News Bible/The Bible Society in Australia).

Braine’s criticisms (even if well meant, frivolous though they really are) acquire some significance in Sri Lanka’s current politically charged atmosphere. There is overwhelming evidence to show that the Buddhasasanaya (the Buddhist religious establishment), which has been part and parcel of the Sri Lankan polity for over two millennia, is under siege by various foreign funded fudamentalist groups, apparently  without enjoying any patronage from the traditional mainstreams of the Abrahamic religious communities in Sri Lanka. Today, the fundamentalist onslaught is at its most virulent. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa made an explicit public assertion of this fact recently. This is something unprecedented in his case, considering the fact that he is very prudent and politic when he speaks as a politician He is not the kind of political leader to make such statements without concrete evidence. 

This response to someone’s ill supported opinion is not an important enough context to dwell on the matter. But I wish to refute all the indiscriminate allegations that Braine makes against the Maha Sangha. Allegations against individual bhikkhus who are human and fallible and those against bhikkhus  as a single organized community are two different things. It is a fact that there is no more peaceful, no more nonviolent, no more spiritual, no more democratic, and no more altruistic body of men and women than the Maha Sangha, which literally means ‘The Community’ (of Buddhist monks).

Contrary to what Braine asserts without evidence, Buddhist monks are in the news for all the right reasons. It appears that the few monks who are active (out of a total of some 30,000) have been forced to talk loudly and agitatedly (which is out of character, but justified in the prevailing circumstances) about various controversial subjects do so because the traditional Buddhist leaders (Ven. Mahanayakes)  have been sadly remiss in attending to their duties until very recent times. The issues broached by the monks affect all Sri Lankans in general, and the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community in particular as a ‘targeted’ or victimised group of people. However, circumstances are now emerging that are conducive for positive changes to be effected in this respect, with a high level of awareness rising among the new generation of Sri Lankans about this and other matters. 

The professor monk who criticised the sex education book written for early teenagers (of Grade 7) substantiated his objections by referring to the inappropriateness of the language used, the explanations and examples given, etc. in terms of their apparent insensitivity to local Buddhist cultural values. He mentioned how mothers in the traditional Buddhist society educated their daughters in the past about sexual matters without violating cultural norms. Monks do not disapprove of or object to sex education for school children in accordance with modern trends; but they want it done in a culturally acceptable way.  We have enough sociologists, scientists and educators equipped with the necessary knowledge and linguistic competence who can collectively produce proper sex education textbooks for school children.

The other issues raised by the monks (Shafi, Rajitha, Champika, and Duminda cases) appear to be based on sound verifiable evidence, contrary to what people have been led to believe. They are not imaginary allegations designed to harm the reputation of some individual or group for some personal gain, which is the last thing that Buddhist monks would choose to do. Why can’t educated Buddhist monks express their opinions about such matters as agriculture, and foreign policy, etc.? Is it only the preserve of benighted religious fanatics, foreign NGO mercenaries, and Diaspora parasites? One young monk started a fast unto death at the Independence Square protesting against the  MCC agreement. He had read the original document before he did so. Those who habitually and maliciously underestimate the knowledge and intelligence of the Bhikkhus need some education and moral rehabilitation.  

Braine further writes: ‘Their tirades, sometimes leaden with obscenities, pollute TV channels and social media. Essentially, these militant monks are out of control. When added to their dubious financial dealings, religious and racial intolerance, drunk driving, sexual liaisons, abuse of minors and other escapades, there is little doubt that the Sangha is facing a rapid decline.’

There are a couple of monks who do sometimes use obscenities. But they have expressed their personal regret about having had to do that. However, had the Ven. Mahanayakes had intervened at the appropriate time/beforehand, those monks wouldn’t have resorted to such language. They will certainly return to their accustomed ministerial duties in their respective viharas and monasteries once these problems are sorted out by the state. If necessary, persons interested in the welfare of the Buddhasasanaya and the Sri Lankan people, may study the case of the famous/notorious Madakalapuwe Hamuduruwo, who was shown recently slapping a drunken evangelist who dared question him about his knowledge of Buddhism in order to insult him. Ven. Galaboda-aththe Gnanasara underwent a lot of persecution at the hand of the police and NGO types, even imprisonment, as result of his relentless attempts to reveal the unlawful activities of religious fundamentalists. His warnings were ignored by the authorities for seven years. The Easter bombing by Islamic terrorists happened killing 270+ innocent men, women and children at prayer in Catholic churches, and leaving over 500 injured, while the monk was still in prison, a few days before his release. He shed tears of sorrow over the perishing of those innocent people, and over the failure of his attempts to convince the authorities and help prevent such mayhem. That monk is not a demon. It was his violently prejudiced critics who created that image through the media.

Braine also quotes from an article by Dr Sarath Amunugama in The Island (“Bonds of friendship: Sri Lanka and Thailand”, Nov. 24, 2018), where the latter, according to him, had written to the effect that ‘…. the Sangha faced a crisis in the 16th century. Monks had become landowners, promoted demon worship, and kept concubines These women and their children even lived on temple premises. These “monks” were called Ganninanses, not Swaminwahanse, which was the common Sinhala term for pious Buddhist monks. Even upasampada had been abandoned and had to be restored with the help of Thai monks.’

This is a misinterpretation or an uninformed misreading of Dr Amunugama’s ‘presentation’ as Dr Amunugama calls it in that particular article. When the Portuguese came to the island in 1505, the country was passing an advanced stage of its economic and cultural achievements, although it was an unstable period of internecine political rivalry and fratricide. Still, the Portuguese recognized the king of Kotte as the ‘emperor’ of the island. The native population were at a higher stage of civilization than the invading Portuguese. (In this connection, one may read Dr Susantha Goonatilake’s ‘A Sixteenth Century Clash of Civilizations: The Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka’, 2010.) The degradation and the corruption of the Buddhist Order – this happened, not in the 16th century, but in the 17th and 18th centuries; it was was mostly an indirect result of the depredations of the rapacious Portuguese and Dutch intruders. The system of ganinnanses, which Dr Amunugama calls ‘lapsed monkhood’ in his biography of Anagarika Dharmapala ‘The Lion’s Roar’ (2016) was actually a temporary device to tide over that period in which the Buddhasasanaya and the Maha Sangha were faced with unprecedented trials and tribulations, that threatened their very existence. The ganinnanses did yeoman service to sustain the learning and practice of the Dhamma. However, the Dutch later assisted the King of Kandy – king Kirti Sri Rajasinghe – to bring by ship monks from Siam (Thailand) to restore the Upasampada or Higher Ordination ritual in the country, which had lapsed due to difficult circumstances, not voluntarily ‘abandoned’ as Braine irresponsibly claims.  There are no militant monks. The handful of monks who, on behalf of the whole Maha Sanga, volunteer to fulfill their historic duty of protecting the country, the people and the Buddhasasanaya when they are threatened – this obligation of theirs is 2300 years old – may feel forced to sometimes assume unexpectedly threatening (but ultimately nonviolent) postures to achieve their legitimate ends. Braine mentions some exceptional allegations such as drunk driving, sexual crimes, which, whether true or false, need to be investigated, as isolated cases, not reflecting on the whole Sangha Order, and the culprits punished according to the common law of the land. 

That would be in agreement with what Thomas Jefferson said about ‘the wall separating the church from the state’: ‘The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.’ That, however, better applies to the Christian nation that America was then and still is. As Buddhism is not a religion, Braine’s strictures on Buddhist monks’ alleged intrusion into politics do not hold water. Don’t worry about GR. He knows how to use the lessons he learnt as a distinguished military officer and as an efficient senior government functionary, and also to draw on the  social and professional experience he gained in America to serve our Motherland in the way he has pledged to. He is a man of his word.

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