The Three Day Monk Syndrome
Posted on July 15th, 2015

By Rohana R. Wasala

We are familiar with the case of individuals who become obsessed with some project, plan or ambition and who devote themselves to it with great enthusiasm only to give up disheartened after a short period of focused engagement with it. I think it’s a fairly common experience among people. The Japanese have a special phrase to describe this problem: the Three Day Monk Syndrome. But it can be a blessing in disguise when the projects undertaken are either too impractical to pursue or are plainly ill conceived.  The plight of some Buddhist monks who found themselves drawn into the vortex of party politics some years ago provides an example: most of those monks developed this syndrome before long and quietly returned to their monasteries. But this was a fortunate turn of events for all Sri Lankans, including particularly the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.  Parliamentary politics nowadays  is a field where even laypersons with some sense of self-respect would think twice before entering, unless they are genuinely confident that they can get elected through fair means and serve the nation honestly, or feel obligated to do so in the national interest due to some special capacity or qualification that they possess. It is not an arena for Buddhist monks (or other religious personages, for that matter) to barge in.

The involvement of monks in Sri Lankan politics as MPs will take some time to gradually diminish and altogether disappear, leaving the field clear for lay politicians to run the rowdy business of politics. Though there still are a few monks in the thick of things in parliamentary politics, and still more are threatening to take the plunge, it is unlikely that many monks will be elected to parliament at the forthcoming election (even given that they might  contrive to surf the current groundswell of  patriotic nationalism, notwithstanding the damage they are bound to cause to it). The reason for this is that the average Sinhalese Buddhist voters are wise enough to understand that sending bhikkhus to parliament is no way to solve the country’s problems, the least of which are concerned with religion; and Theravada Buddhism is not a totalitarian political religion that invariably encourages xenophobia. Our monks are its principal protectors as one of humanity’s greatest spiritual traditions in a hostile world that paradoxically needs it for survival.

This is not to argue that Buddhist monks should not have anything to do with the task of ensuring that the country is well governed and the rulers are righteous or that instead they should remain in their monasteries and confine themselves to the task of attending to the spiritual needs of the congregation, oblivious of whatever harm is done to the people through bad governance by elected rulers or through aggressive interference in the country’s  internal affairs by anti-national foreign elements . Monks  do have a vital advisory role to play for the guidance of rulers in a strictly apolitical, non-partisan, and ethical way,  just as much as leaders of other religious communities do. The reason is that the Buddhist monks represent the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and there cannot be any genuine democracy in the country without the participation of that majority in governance. My saying this should not be misconstrued as advocating the sort of religious racism implicit in the theory of Chosen People of Zionism.

Over the millennia, Buddhist bhikkhus have had nothing to do with wielding political power. Since the bhikkhus (literally,  religious mendicants) are devoted to a spiritual goal that is considered incomparably superior to the position of the highest secular authority, that is, the ruler of the country, the latter pays obeisance to the former. Yet, the Sangha do not occupy the status of a god-king. The Sinhala Buddhist state that the historical Mahinda Thera helped found was never a Buddhist theocracy like the (now virtually defunct) Tibet of the Dalai Lama.

The official beginning of the Sinhalese Buddhist state in Sri Lanka (that was) is better documented and is more certainly known than the advent of the Sinhalese or the origin of their evolution in the island. The Buddhist state began with the arrival of Thera Mahinda with his retinue, the conversion of the king and the courtiers, and the populace, and the subsequent establishment of the sacred city (of Anuradhapura).  With the characteristic zeal of a person who had embraced an attractive new doctrine, king Devanampiyatissa, when marking out the boundaries of the Mahavihara to be built shortly on the instructions of Thera Mahinda, said to him: I will steadfastly continue within the pale of the religion of Buddha: include therefore within it the capital itself: quickly define the boundaries of the consecrated ground.” The monk asked the king to do the demarcation himself. The latter holding the plough shaft, defined the line of boundary”. Thus began a Sinhalese Buddhist Kingdom in which the king, a Buddhist, became effectively the ‘defender of the faith’ with power to purify the sasana, a power often exercised by later kings, for example, by King Gothabhaya (249-262 CE) who seized sixty of the monks at Abhayagiri who had embraced the (Mahayana) Vetulya doctrine, and excommunicated and banished them from the country according to the Mahavansa. (It is a fact that the intended or original meaning of a text gets compromised in translation. In the fragments quoted above from Geiger’s Mahavamsa translation, formal or technical terms like conversion, religion, doctrine, defender of the faith, excommunicated, etc. mean different things from what they would usually indicate in a Christian religious text. Translations are also negatively affected if the translator does not share any cultural empathy with the people to whom the work intrinsically belongs.)

Historically, then, the monks had only the power of advising the monarch in spiritual matters though these were rated higher than the secular affairs of state, but they had nothing to do with the latter subject. Even the punishment of errant monks was done by the king. The reverse was true about the relationship between the king of England Henry II (1133-1189) and Pope Alexander III. As Robert Burton describes in Wonderful Prodigies of Judgement and Mercy” (1685) this formidable medieval English king was whipped in public with a rod by each of 80 monks in the Cathedral at Canterbury in July 1174 by the order of the Pope in Rome.  The king willingly submitted to this humiliating punishment because the church held him responsible for the murder of Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, a crime which he strongly denied having anything to do with. It was an act of penance the king performed in order to get back into of the good graces of the priests. Nothing like this ever happened in the Sinhalese Buddhist kingdom.

The oncoming parliamentary election will be as decisive for Sri Lanka as the final stage of state military operations against separatist terrorism in May 2009. The influence of Buddhist  monks on public opinion did strengthen the morale of those who fought for the country in the latter instance. But this influence was not because of any political role that monks traditionally play in the country. It derives from the traditional recognition of Buddhism and the Sangha community as an integral part of Sinhalese ethnic identity. The targeting by the terrorists of  Buddhist monks (the Arantalawa massacre, June 2, 1987) and Buddhist places of worship (Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura, May 14, 1985, the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, January 25, 1998) etc. for attack was prompted  by the knowledge of this fact.

It is good that some politically active monks have submitted nominations for the election as independents as well as in groups. The results will show whether the Sinhalese Buddhists overwhelmingly support them as politicians. Their most likely poor electoral performance  will demonstrate the true extent of monk power in Lankan politics. The Sangha, divided and rudderless as it is, will not be able to influence the final outcome of the parliamentary election to any appreciable extent; but unfortunately, they will drive voters away from the candidates they’d probably align themselves with. The poor reception of monks at the election will be good, because it will help debunk the false allegation of a rising religious fanaticism among Sinhalese Buddhists.

As a Sri Lankan who cherishes the country’s valuable Sinhalese Buddhist cultural heritage I wish to propose that the Buddhist leaders, both the clergy and the laity, work towards creating a united Sangha devoid of sectarian divisions. Let the new parliament establish a second chamber of unelected members like the House of Lords in the British Parliament, where Christian bishops are given seats. In Sri Lanka, some of the seats may be reserved for a specified number of Buddhist monks and clergy from other religions; they must be without any political affiliations. These unelected religious figures, along with other members representing non-religious non-political interest groups, can be assigned an important consultative or ratifying role in the legislature. In the case of Buddhist monks, a committee of nayake theras, can nominate suitable monks for the new chamber.  Such an arrangement will enable strengthen good governance and also reinforce religious harmony in the country. It is up to politicians to consider whether this is a workable proposition. I am submitting here this proposal and the premises on which it is based with a view to generating discussion among the concerned. Evidence supported criticism is welcome.

(This article was published in The Island/July 15, 2015. Here it is being published again with some marginal corrections.)

One Response to “The Three Day Monk Syndrome”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    36 Buddhist monks contesting the election from UPFA – 2, UNP – 2, BJP – 15, JSP – 17.

    This is a joke. NONE will get into parliament.

    Strangely the 2 EVANGELICAL pastors are likely to get into parliament from UNP.

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