Poson Brings ‘Hope, the Only Thing Stronger than Fear’
Posted on June 21st, 2019

By Rohana R. Wasala

Buddhism aims at creating a society where the ruinous struggle for power is renounced; where calm and peace prevail away from conquest and defeat; where the persecution of the innocent is vehemently denounced; where one who conquers oneself is more respected than those who conquer millions by military and economic warfare; where hatred is conquered by kindness, and evil by goodness; where enmity, jealousy, ill-will and greed do not infect men’s minds; where compassion is the driving force of action; where all, including the least of living things, are treated with fairness, consideration and love; where life in peace and harmony, in a world of material contentment, is directed towards the highest and noblest aim, the realization of the Ultimate Truth, Nirvana.”

–          Walpola Rahula Thera

It is two thousand two hundred and fifty-five years since the official introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. The small mango-shaped island that is Sri Lanka lying at the southern tip of the large land mass of the Indian subcontinent is the homeland of the majority Sinhalese, which they share with the minorities in peace and harmony. It has been so from time immemorial. They have no other homeland. There is no other Sinhala speaking nation in the world. The Sinhalese have a recorded history of over two thousand five hundred years, but their indigenous tribal ancestors had been living in the island for countless millennia before the time that recorded history began, that is, prior to the date of the alleged arrival of the legendary prince Vijaya from North India. It was during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 BCE) that Arhant Mahinda Thera (285-205 BCE) came to the island of Sihaladwipa (the island of the Sinhalese, now known as Sri Lanka) to establish the Buddhasasana there in the year 236 BCE. Subsequent to that, when Theri Sangamitta (281-202 BCE) arrived in the island in order to establish the bhikkuni (female Sangha) order, she brought a sapling from the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya (located in the northern Indian state of Bihar as that area is known today) under which the ascetic seeker prince Siddhartha Gothama attained Enlightenment. According to the ancient chronicles such as the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, the two missionaries were, respectively, the son and daughter of the Maurya Emperor Ashoka of India (304-232 BCE). The official introduction of Buddhism under royal patronage marks the dawn of the great civilization that the Sinhalese built as a Buddhist nation. Sri Lankans celebrated the coming of Buddhism to the country on the Poson Full Moon Poya Day which this year fell on June 16.

The despatch of his own children by Emperor Ashoka as Buddhist missionaries to the country of the Sinhalese points to the fact that they received special attention from him. The arrival of the two royal Maurya siblings for the formal inauguration of the Buddhist dispensation with its symbiotic relationship with the secular state is historically well authenticated. Their legacy remains to this day. The late Ven. Dr Walpola Rahula Thera described Arhant Mahinda Thera as ‘the father of Sinhalese literature’ by virtue of the fact that he translated the Tripitaka (the ‘Three Baskets’ containing the Buddhist Scriptures) into Sinhala (‘the language of the islanders’ as he called it) and wrote a commentary on it in that ancient form of Sinhala (source: Wikipedia). This, of course, suggests that the Sinhala language already had adequate resources to receive and give expression to the new religious ideology. Besides, it is known that Mahinda Thera preached to them in their own language, that is, Sinhala. So, he had to have studied the language before he undertook the mission. Scholars tell us that the Buddha Dhamma had not been entirely unknown to at least some of the people of the island by the time the missionaries came. Canadian Buddhist scholar Professor Suwanda Sugunasiri has established the fact that Mahinda Thera was the  redactor of the oldest Buddhapuja (Offering to the Buddha) in the world in 247 BCE (Source: Wikipedia). The funerary stupa built at Mihintale for Mahinda Thera who died at the age of eighty is a hallowed site that Buddhist pilgrims visit in their thousands every year.

The humane approach that Mahinda Thera adopted in weaning the islanders off their native superstitious practices such as animistic observances and veneration of dead ancestors by modifying them to suit the Buddhist teaching was, no doubt, inspired by the same compassion he had towards ordinary people in the predominantly Hindu society into which he was born. He was mindful of the emotional distress that the people would have experienced if they were called upon to throw those time honoured practices overboard suddenly. This compassionate attitude was implicit in his accommodation of puja (offerings) in the Buddhist ritual practice that was mentioned above, although the Theravada doctrine that he represented excluded that element found in Hinduism. The native practice of supplicating to dead relatives for protection was replaced with ‘punyanumodana’ or sharing of merits with them. This is akin to the Buddha’s giving a new meaning to the ancient Vedic ritual of worshiping the six quarters of the earth and sky that the young householder Singala of the city of Rajagaha was performing early one morning, when the Buddha was passing by. Arhant Mahinda Thera’s elder sister Sangamitta Theri’s bringing of the Bodhi sapling to Sri Lanka seems to be a concession to the animism that the locals were familiar with.  The sacred sapling was received by the king with great reverence, conveyed in a procession and planted in the royal park of Mahameghavana at Anuradhapura the capital city. It stands to this day, known as the Sri Maha Bodhi. The ‘conversion’ of the island dwellers to Buddhism did not involve any use of force, violence or bloodshed.

The history of Buddhist Sri Lanka is literally ‘written in stone’ throughout the island. Rock inscriptions recording significant events relating to the Buddhist dispensation are found in every part of the country. The land is strewn with ruins of mighty structures such as ancient viharas,  cheitiyas, palaces, and forts. Not all of these ancient constructions have disappeared. For example, many of the great irrigation tanks and canals that the Sinhalese built beginning with the Abhaya Wewa at Anuradhapura done under the patronage of King Pandukabhaya (437-367 BCE) still serve the nation. The Poson festival that commemorates the beginning of this long stretch of glorious history assumed added significance this year because of the besieged conditions in which the Sinhalese had to celebrate it.  

The passage quoted above  as the epigraph to this essay is the final paragraph of Chapter VIII ‘What the Buddha Taught and the World Today’ of the classic work containing the essentials of Buddhism titled WHAT THE BUDDHA TAUGHT by the late Ven. Dr Walpola Rahula Thera (originally published by the Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd., London and Bedford, England, in 1959). We may appreciate how deeply desirable the Buddhist goal delineated there is to the world in general, and to Sri Lanka in particular, especially at the present juncture. The recently held Poson ceremony must have brought this broad aim of Buddhism to the forefront of  the celebrants’ minds in a context where they are having a foretaste of the very antithesis of the ideal society that Buddhism wants to create.

As can be judged from media reports, Poson this year, celebrated across Sri Lanka on June 16, brought a new breath of life for our beloved motherland made terminally ill by unpatriotic politicians who represent the interests of external and internal forces inimical to her. One popular preacher monk advised that every Buddhist house be illuminated with a Vesak lantern, though Vesak is supposed to have been observed a month ago. Presumably, the monk’s request was because, on the past two occasions (i.e., this year and the last), Buddhists’ premiere religious celebration, the annual Vesak festival, could not be held the way it is traditionally done due to uncertainties created by unsettling political developments in the country. Bright illuminations are the norm for the duration of the Vesak week, light being an offering made to the Buddha. In the prevailing circumstances, a Vesak lamp in every Buddhist home on the Poson Poya might be taken as a demonstration of righteous defiance of unjust pressure exerted on Buddhists for their alleged extremism, as much as an expression of undimmed religious piety. The mainstream and social media reported a few Toranas (also usually associated with Vesak) being on display for public view. And there were some dansalas (alms halls) too. The country’s security services were able to reassure the Buddhist public to come out of the siege mentality they were driven into by the mindless and faceless Islamic terror attacks on April 21 and reassert their right to freedom of religious belief and practice.

For at least one hundred years to date, the Sinhala majority of the country have been the target of unilateral criticism on grounds of their alleged racist mentality and religious extremism. This criticism is entirely baseless. Sinhalese are not and have never been racists (if racism means unfair treatment of people of a different race or unprovoked violence against them). Sinhalese Buddhists are not religious extremists, either. It is a fact that no one can claim that Buddhists are less tolerant towards people of other faiths than Christians or Muslims are. It is an established fact that no exclusively Sinhalese race-based or  Buddhism- based political party has had any prospect of being popular among Sinhalese Buddhists. At least that has been the case so far. Sinhalese politicians invariably talk about the interests of the country – the land – first; they don’t exclude the minorities when they talk about the national interest. Racist minority politicians do not speak a word about the national interest or the country; they only talk about ‘the Tamil people’, ‘the Muslim people’, etc. (Of course, not all minority politicians behave this way.) The worst Sinhalese politicians do not behave in that manner. Yet it is the Sinhalese who get branded as racists. Even some discredited Sinhalese politicians are quick to condemn co-ethnic opponents who are courageous enough to speak up for the Sinhalese Buddhists when their rights are violated as racists in an attempt to curry favour with the minorities.  

Over the past five centuries of European colonial hegemony in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese have suffered many injustices at the hands of the ruling minorities (imperialists and their native lackeys). The situation hardly changed after independence. Although the colonialists are not there in person, their wish is being carried out by their local agents. Every legitimate attempt that the majority community makes to secure justice for all citizens and achieve progress as a single nation while conforming to the principles of humanity, equality, peace, and non-violence taught in Buddhism and found in other religions as well is somehow frustrated by the few racist minority politicians who manage to get elected to parliament by hoodwinking the masses they claim to represent. They oppose anything that goes against their narrow racist schemes, although it may be good for the whole country. But the ordinary minority Tamils and Muslims that these handful of racists draw upon as bloc-vote banks are, like the majority Sinhalese, non-communalist, non-violent, peaceful people who want to live and let live minding their own business. The Poson that came after the April 21 watershed rekindles prospects for creating in Sri Lanka the sort of peaceful and harmonious society that Buddhism aims at. All the communities Sinhalese Buddhists, Tamil, Hindus, Muslims, Christians (a large proportion of Muslims and Christians are racially Sinhalese) have become targets for Islamic terror attacks.  The quranic ‘People of the Book’ ‘Ahl al-Kitab’ – Jews, Christians, etc – are perhaps in less danger from mortal Islamic terror; but Buddhists and Hindus will have no reprieve; it is time Sinhalese and Tamils took serious note of this. Therefore, practically all Sri Lankans have a strong incentive now to unite against the common enemy, Islamic fundamentalism, in whatever guise it comes. Buddhist monks and clerics of other religions are getting together to provide the necessary spiritual leadership for intellectual engagement over the matter. The influence of the deep rooted Buddhist cultural heritage of the country is an important factor in this context.

(The quote in the title is from the late American thriller writer Robert Ludlum)

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