Posted on June 21st, 2019

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

The unique national identity of Sri Lanka is founded on its historic, long-lasting Sinhala Buddhist cultural heritage.  As an island nation Sri Lanka is founded on Buddhist norms and principles. The impact of Buddhism is reflected both directly and indirectly, in the tangible and intangible aspects of the nation’s culture. Fundamental Buddhist principles of non-violence, tolerance, compassion and peaceful coexistence with others and with nature are among the essential ingrained principles that have shaped the outlook, temperament and lifestyle of the people from historic times.  Since the arrival of Buddhism in the country in the 3rd century BCE, during a long historic period of more than 2200 years, the outstanding accomplishments of her people in many areas of life, are largely attributable to the impact of Buddhist principles guiding their lives. It was Buddhism that inspired the people of this nation to develop wholesome qualities and skills enabling them to evolve a rich and enduring culture where peace, tolerance, generosity, creativity, wisdom, and spirituality are the cornerstones.  

Wholesome Buddhist values and norms that form the basis of the uniquely indigenous Hela Buddhist culture were reinforced during the glorious classical period of our country’s history. This period includes the greater part of the more than 2200 years of Buddhist cultural history of this country, between 3rd century BCE to 13th century CE, when Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were the royal capitals. This was a time when the population of the country was exclusively Buddhist and the country was ruled by Buddhist royalty. The nature of development of the country’s natural, human and cultural resources of the past is reflective of our long-held traditional Buddhist principles of peaceful coexistence and integrity, particularly on the part of those who assumed leadership roles in the country. Promotion of virtuous and spiritual lifestyles among people was a fundamental goal of the nation, and Buddhist leaders of the past including Maha Sangha were in the forefront in furthering this goal. The nation’s irrigation system developed during this time, with an extensive network of reservoirs and canals are considered in modern times as marvels in irrigation technology. In addition, the nation’s astonishing ancient architecture, sculpture, art, literature and other forms of visual culture including the Sinhala language and literature displayed magnificently across the country, are living evidence of this nation’s exceptional cultural heritage. They are reflective of the outstanding imaginative and creative powers of the people including their talents, skills, and foresight. The world recognition of the greatness of this unique Buddhist culture is reflected by the UNESCO designating our ancient royal sites as World Heritage Sites – Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Mahanuwara (Kandy), Sigiriya and Dambulla, all built upon and strongly reflecting inspiration drawn from Buddhism.

During this classical period of the nation’s history, it was the Buddhist Sangha community that provided education – both secular and spiritual and was the primary source of inspiration and assistance in the evolution of varied aspects of the nation’s culture.  The strength of this cultural foundation was tested several times in the past, especially during periods of foreign invasion and associated devastation and exploitation. There were 17 ruthless South-Indian Dravidian invasions and from 16th to about the mid 20th century European colonial powers used violent means to subjugate and exploit our country in order to serve their self-interests. They caused untold misery to the indigenous Buddhist community. But the nation stayed intact, withstanding threats, perils and calamities. This was largely owing to the power and potency of the nation’s Buddhist cultural foundation. 

Tolerance and the enormous adaptability of Buddhism are qualities that have remained unchanged throughout its remarkable history in Sri Lanka and many other Buddhist nations. With a down to earth philosophy of man in harmonious and cordial relationship to man, at a very visible and conceivable level, Buddhists have never stood up against any single man or groups of men in the name of Buddhism, either to defend or propagate the religion. That is quite a record for a faith with a history of more than two and a half millennia. That was very much before the time of the appearance of most of today’s great world religions.

Buddhism upholds everything worthy and meaningful. It promotes peace, peaceful coexistence, and democratic principles in governance. It promotes human rights, development of individual and community virtues and discipline in accordance with the pancha seela”. Respect for the natural environment and sustainable and participatory development of resources and upheld in Buddhism. In addition, Buddhism strongly promotes tolerance of other faiths, religious and social harmony, and cordial relations with other nations. Buddhist culture led to the evolution of a peaceful community structure. This provided order and stability to the respective communities in the country. Lifestyle of people in a Buddhist society has been simple and uncomplicated.  It was a quality of life that moved at a gentle pace where people enjoyed a high degree of leisure and freedom. As part of a close-knit community, people felt secure enough to be themselves. In this sense, they enjoyed a remarkably high quality of life.

Buddhist principles were reflected in people’s attitude towards each other, other communities, other living beings and their habitat – the environment.  People’s livelihood and institutions were reflective of the impact of the teachings of the Buddha.  A striking feature was that, overall, relations between people and between culture and nature were compatible, in harmony and well-adjusted and adapted. This is largely owing to Buddhism – the foundation upon which the way of life, culture and social values of the people evolved and established. People’s livelihood and economy reflected their interdependence with their natural habitat, with other people and other living beings. They enjoyed an abundance of natural resources by way of useable land, fertile soil, clean and dependable water resources, healthy climatic conditions, a rich and diverse biological resource base, an awe-inspiring natural environment pleasing to the senses and spiritually inspiring, and above all, a culture that valued harmonious relationship with each other and the natural environment which provided the basis of their livelihood.  

Protecting and Reinforcing the Cultural Inheritance

What Sri Lanka clearly projects is its strong Buddhist imprint. It is a fact that, if there is anything unequivocally worthwhile that Sri Lanka can offer to the world today, it is the Buddha Dhamma and its outstanding culture, including its people’s attitude towards life and their natural habitat.  We should not let this wholesome Buddhist cultural inheritance be undermined and eroded away by economic, social, religious and cultural trends that are incompatible with the enviable Buddhist social values which form the basis of life in the nation.  We are duty-bound to work towards transforming and changing whatever harmful trends evident in our motherland. It is time to reinforce Buddhist principles that constitute the basis of the national culture of Sri Lanka since ancient times.

Building a stronger sense of national identity holds the key to achieving true reconciliation and social cohesion in our nation. Our nation needs to be united behind the nation’s Buddhist values. Extremism in any form, including religious, is not in-keeping with the Buddhist principles and values that form the basis of our nation. Attempting to implant in Sri Lanka, norms and behavior patterns of other countries aimed at being exclusive and markedly different to the long established social and cultural norms of our nation has a socially divisive effect. Buddhist community leaders, especially Buddhist Bhikkhus who have been the traditional custodians of the nation’s culture and values should necessarily be in the forefront in confronting in a legitimate manner, any extremist and divisive trends on the part of any community cultural or religious, who has made Sri Lanka their home. Traditionally the Buddhist leadership is duty-bound to prevent attempts by anyone to undermine the long-established Buddhist socio-cultural norms of our nation.

In general, separatism and divisiveness appear to dominate the thoughts of minority communities of Sri Lanka, especially the Muslims and Tamils.  This attitude inevitably prevents them from developing a sense of belonging to the nation and cultivating better relationships with the mainstream community of the country from historic times. This parochial attitude prevents extremist elements from appreciating the worthy principles and values that characterize the Sri Lankan nation, and that give this nation its identity as a peace-loving unique nation in the world. The development path of our country needs to be built from the grassroots, based on its Buddhist cultural foundation. It should involve the development of strong local economies in which producer-consumer links are shortened and cultural values are respected and peaceful coexistence in harmony with the environment and all diverse people are assured. Moving in this direction appears to be the appropriate way to solve the whole range of serious social, economic and environmental problems faced by the country today. Ultimately, we are talking about a spiritual awakening that comes from making a connection to others and to nature. This requires us to see the world within us, to experience more consciously the great interdependent web of life, of which we ourselves are among the strands.

The political philosophy of Buddhism is universal in that it directly concerns with the totality of human life. Not only does it deal with the social and economic aspects of life but also deals with man’s spiritual and ethical aspects too. According to Buddhist political thought the state or the ruler is expected to establish a just and selfless social order in which every individual of a country is happy and contended. The Buddha’s ideas were primarily based on the Noble Eightfold path and he advocated that all human problems could be easily avoided by following this eight-fold path, namely Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. In the past, during the long period of rule by Sinhala Buddhist royalty, the political scene in the nation strongly reflected the political thoughts of the Buddha. Two important political principles introduced by the Buddha were the elective principle of government and the acceptance of the peoples’ sovereignty. He introduced the voting procedures at the election of leaders such as in the Sangha and showed the importance of the freedom of expression to create public opinion in issues of public importance. He also showed that there is a close link between politics and the economy of a country. On various occasions the Buddha showed that economic welfare is all important for social stability, peace and good governance.  There is no doubt that if any country could follow at least some of these political ideologies enunciated in the teachings of the Buddha, such a country would be peaceful, free of wars, free of petty divisions and destructive evil thoughts and actions.

Living in Harmony with Nature

The Buddhist approach is to live in harmony with nature more than subduing it, conquering it, and exploiting it.  Buddhism emphasizes compassion for all living beings.  This Buddhist attitude to nature is enumerated in several of the Buddha’s discourses, such as the “Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta”, “Samyutta Nikaya”, “Vinaya Pitaka”, ” Dhammapada”, and Theri Gatha”.  The type of economic system, which the Buddha proposed, was one where the individual’s needs would be provided but there would be no overemphasis on the purely material aspects of life. One’s material needs would be essentially what one need to make one live happily and for one’s physical sustenance. Buddhism advocates the judicious use of resources, the elimination of waste, and the most productive use of resources. In the suttas mentioned above, the Buddha’s advice to laypersons was to develop both their material and spiritual welfare by fruitful use of nature’s resources. Cooperative spirit among people, a simple way of life based on a simple technology, a non-violent and gentle attitude towards nature, and all living beings are essential components of the Buddhist approach to development. Economic development must be placed against the wider background of the need to develop a well-rounded personality, and a happy human being. In the “Mangala Sutta” and the “Sigalovada Sutta”, the Buddha has said that the happiness of the average person depends on their economic security, the enjoyment of wealth, freedom from debt, and a blameless moral and spiritual life. In a number on contexts, the economic factor is linked to a wider relationship to the dhamma” or the teachings of the Buddha.

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

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