A response to Dr Tilak Fernando’s ‘Englishman Ordained as an Upasaka’/September 23, 2021
Posted on September 23rd, 2021

By Rohana R. Wasala

‘Englishman Ordained as an Upasaka’ by Dr Tilak Fernando (Lankaweb/September 23, 2021) prompted me to write this response. The Englishmen that the writer mentions as having been impressed by Buddhism are no doubt highly knowledgeable about Buddha Dhamma, because, as he claims, they have read books about the subject. Western scholars who have correctly understood the human intelligence based doctrine will not be misled by this sort of rigmarole, but it is different with those who are newly hearing about Buddhism. Hence, the urgency to reply to Dr Fernando’s obviously well meant, but unfortunately misleading, contribution.

 The picture shows an Englishman becoming an upasaka (lay follower of the Buddha) by taking pansil (the five precepts of abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking substances that intoxicate one and lead one to heedlessness). The monk shown is Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya. An upasaka is not ordained, just as a Christian convert is not ordained. Besides, conversion is meaningless in a Buddhist context. So, ‘ordained’ is a wrong term to use in that context. The word ordain is normally used in the technical sense of ‘make (someone) a priest or minister; confer holy orders on’ as the Google Dictionary defines it . A bhikkhu is ordained; there is a certain set procedure for formally admitting a lay person to the Sangha (Community of bhikkhus), initially as a samanera or novice bhikkhu, then after the specific period of novitiate is over, as a proper bhikkhu. American theosophist Colonel Steel Olcott, pioneer of school education for Buddhist children, who had the young David Hewavitarana (later Anagarika Dharmapala whose 157th birth anniversary fell on September 17, 2021) introduced to Buddhist revival work, became a ‘Buddhist’ by taking pansil at a temple in Galle. I put the word Buddhist within inverted commas to mark a certain reservation, because in Buddhism labels don’t matter.

Taking pansil for the first time is a symbolic act that shows one’s acceptance of the Buddhist teaching; it need not be ‘solemnized’ with supplication to any supposed divine authority as in the case of a theistic religion. Any person can at any time accept Buddhism, and having accepted it give it up without any ado if they feel dissatisfied with its teachings. There is no penalty or punishment for that. Buddhism has no blasphemy or apostacy laws that, in some religions, prohibit, respectively, rational questioning of their religious dogmas and leaving the religions altogether at will; both were once considered offences punishable with death or in some cases, alleged blasphemers and apostates, are punished even now, sometimes with death. 

The writer says:

‘Lord Buddha said on his deathbed: Do not believe what others say just because others say so! Do not believe it because you heard it from a wise being, but only believe something when you know it in your Heart.”’

This is a garbled version of what the Buddha actually told a group of young men called the Kalamas of the small town of Kesaputta, who visited him and asked him what to accept and whom to believe among the many visiting religious teachers (recluses and brahmanas) that they often listened to; they were utterly confused. So, they requested the Buddha to instruct them. What the writer has offered is a gross misinterpretation of the words of wisdom that the Buddha uttered in response to the young Kalamas’ question. These words of the Buddha have a great appeal to the rational scientific mind of Western scholars. That is the main attraction of the Buddha’s teaching for them: the freedom of inquiry advocated for every individual.

 Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi (American Jeffrey Block, b. 1944, before his ordination as a Buddhist monk), a philosophy graduate of Brooklyn College (1966) and a PhD in philosophy from Claremont Graduate University (1972), has published many books on Theravada Buddhism under the sponsorship of the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka. After his studies, he travelled to Vietnam where he became a samanera under a Mahayana teacher monk; then he travelled to Sri Lanka where in 1984 he received higher ordination as a bhikkhu in the Theravada tradition under the tutelage of Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya (see the picture that illustrates the article under discussion). Having done much work explaining the Buddha dhamma to the world, he went back to the country of his birth, the US, where he is still engaged in his ministry.

Anybody interested in learning the meaning of the words the Buddha spoke to the Kalamas can go to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay on the Kalama Sutta which is about the Buddha admonishing the Kalamas at this link: http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/kalama1_l.htm. He describes the Sutta as a Charter of Free Inquiry. Bhikkhu Bodhi was invited to deliver the keynote address at the UN celebration of the first UN Vesak holiday in the year 2000. Our late Lakshman Kadirgamar mooted the declaration of the UN Vesak holiday and did a lot of  preliminary work within the international body to make it a reality. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s address to the UN Assembly on May 18, 2000 the Vesak Day, can be accessed at the same website. It is a very stimulating and informative introduction to Buddhism, which we need to remember is not a religion comparable to your average religions, however widespread in the world they may be. The Buddha travelled on foot throughout the Magadhadesa in the north of what is called India today and preached all life to save humanity from religious delusions. He didn’t propagate a religion. He formulated and taught an ethical way of life that leads individuals to put an end to suffering through individual realization of Nibbana.

For the purpose of this essay, I’ll try to answer the question: What did the Buddha say when the Kalamas approached him? Let me quote from the most authoritative author I know about this, Ven. Walpola Rahula: Yes, Kalamas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher’. But, O Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (akusala), and wrong, and bad, then give them up……. . And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them”. ‘The Buddha went even further’, says Ven. Rahula, ‘He told the bhikkhus that a disciple should examine even the Tathagata (Buddha) himself so that he (the disciple) might be fully convinced of the true value of the teacher whom he followed.’

Now, in Buddhism, doubt (vicikiccha) is one of the five hindrances to understanding Truth and to the achievement of spiritual progress or, for that matter, to the realization of any progress. So, Ven. Rahula continues:

‘The Buddha was always eager to dispel doubt. Even just a few minutes before his death, he requested his disciples several times to ask him if they had any doubts about his teaching, and not to feel sorry later that they could not clear those doubts. But the disciples were silent. What he then said was touching: If it is through respect for the Teacher that you do not ask anything, let even one of you inform his friend” (i.e., let one tell his friend so that the latter may ask the question on the other’s behalf”). So, those were the last words of the Buddha, not the words the writer quotes at the beginning of his piece, which, as I said, constitute a garbled version of what the Buddha actually told the young Kalamas.  

Extracts above from Ven Walpola Rahula are taken from his book ‘WHAT THE BUDDHA TAUGHT’ (First published by The Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd, London and Bedford, 1959)

What Dr Fernando asserts about Buddhism ( for example, heart being the seat of sentiments, some sort of ‘dualism’, universe depending on balancing this dualism, one Andrew Redhead having memorised the following  absolutely meaningless words attributed to the Buddha

Brethren ye have no mother and no father to take care of you. If you will not care of each other, who else. I ask will do so? Brethren, he who would sit with me, let him wait on the sick) is incredibly mystifying. 

I am afraid what Dr Fernando says about Anagarika Dharmapala is also mixed up and false (‘Anagarika Dharmapala lived 157 years ago’). He describes the Anagarika as ‘a religious propagandist’. The words propaganda, and propagandist have negative connotations. Dharmapala wanted to propagate (spread) the word of the Buddha in the West, but he was by no means a propagandist (he did not want to ‘market’ Buddhism for some personal advantage. He just wanted to disseminate the message of the Buddha (about the supremacy of the human mind in achieving mundane and supramundane happiness, social well being, peace, compassion for all living beings, nonviolence, etc.,) among those unacquainted with it for the ‘happiness of the many, for the welfare of the many’ (bahujana hitaya, bahujana sukhaya). Anagarika Dhatmapala explicitly said (for example, during his tour of America) that he was not seeking to ‘convert’ Americans to Buddhism. Conversion was not his purpose. His missionary work was not driven by any religious zealotry. The Anagarika believed that people who adhered to various religions could benefit from learning Buddhism, without leaving their religions. This is already happening in the world today, a state of affairs that causes Buddhism to be seen as a threat to the established religious cultures whose political power depends on their religious identities. This natural perception of Buddhism as a menace to the established political order is bound to pose a challenge to its survival. 

3 Responses to “A response to Dr Tilak Fernando’s ‘Englishman Ordained as an Upasaka’/September 23, 2021”

  1. aloy Says:

    Well written article that can be presented in any ‘forum’ in the world, I believe.

    Yes, the context is the attempt by Anagarika Dharmapala to inform the average human being about the philosophy behind Buddha’s teaching in a way not to profit from it.

    I believe that philosophy holds up until today and that different personalities at different times become ‘converts’ and then relinquish it as they see how it is practiced in different places. I have observed some TV presenters on media like BBC who have displayed Buddha statues prominently in their bookshelves hide them when that ‘religion’ is being abused in such countries like ours, which are supposed to be the beacons that propagate it to the world.

    I believe everything has a time and space. When it becomes irrelevant it gets discarded. Even new inventions should be timely. If it is ahead of its time, the producer who attempt to mass produce it will go bankrupt; the same if it is too late also. I would like to give an example and predict what would happen to another our bigwigs trying to embark on with tax payers money:
    The British inventor, Sir Clive Sinclair passed away a couple of days ago. He became a multi millionaire by selling his wonderful product, the first home computer, ZX80. But when he spent lot of money and produced the electric scooter, people did not buy it and he almost went bankrupt it seems.
    And I read today an article that our government is trying to invest about a million dollars on a facility to produce a gadget to detect Corona!. This pandemic has come and almost gone away for another century. Is it an investment for future GOSL?.
    Sorry to divert a bit away from the thread.

  2. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    Interesting take on Fernando’s article and the Kalama Sutra but it lacks when applied to Buddhism and the West. The West’s scientific approach to the world has failed. The West is marred by societies that are morally defunct and dying, unable to replace their aging populations. That logical mind that Mr. Wahala refers to stays sequestered within academic walls.

    As for Buddhism it is not simply a reflection of Buddhas teachings 2500 years ago but the evolution of it through that time and includes concepts found in religion. There is nothing “meaningless” in the those two quotes. It depends on ones perception. The first is to trust ones own sense and the second is on compassion. Going back to the West, to apply the Kalama Sutra to the Pandemic is to reveal the irrationality of shutting down societies to deal with a virus. In the face of that the Western mind has failed basic logic and needs Buddhism to center it

  3. aloy Says:

    The westerners believe in superstition much more than we Sinhalese do. Perhaps Indians are the ones who over do it ( If not can any Indian explain what happened inside a court room very recently – is that not a human sacrifice expecting some good results?).

    In the case of west, if anyone thinks otherwise, take your smart phone and look at the symbol they represent ‘Blue Tooth’ signals. It is a combination of two runes from Nordic mythology. They had tried many times for the successful implementation of that technology but did not succeed until they put that symbol and it is still holding to this day.

    With the limited scientific knowledge we have, the west had sent a rocket to a planet billions of kilo meters away and control a robot from earth to drill holes on it and carry out experiments on its soil. But the same fellows cannot figure out what’s happening just a few kilo meter under their feet. They cannot explain why the interior of the earth does not cool down over four billion years of its existence even with such a big temperature difference and stop spewing larva to the sky displacing and killing many people on the surface.

    And now they are talking about global warming. That also must be like trying to figure out what Corona exactly is and how it had originated and how it evolves!.
    Perhaps the answer to all that is to understand how ancients, including Lord Buddha had a knowledge and a sixth sense to a much higher level than the people of present generations.

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