Posted on December 15th, 2022

By Rohana R. Wasala

Ven. Samanthabhadra Thera used to be a very popular preacher in the past as Pitiduwe Siridhamma Himi. He has been claiming for a few years now that he has attained Arahanthood which is the highest stage of spiritual attainment in Buddhism and it is identical to the attainment of the ultimate Nibbanic bliss. Nibbana is the summum bonum of Buddhism.  Unlike in other religions, one does not have to die before one can attain that state of perfect happiness that the realization of the Ultimate Reality brings. Ven. Samanthabhadra Thera also says in a YouTube video that I watched that he is ‘inebriated with the Dhamma’, meaning that he has studied it thoroughly and imbibed all the doctrinal information it contains. It is more than obvious that he sincerely believes that he has achieved a perfect understanding of the Dhamma. For sure many other monks and lay Buddhists can justifiably make the same claim. Yet his extraordinary Arahanthood claim is problematic because his behavior shows signs, which, in an ordinary lay person, would be interpreted as symptoms of a serious personality disorder. But in the case of Ven. Samanthabhadra Thera, I hasten to add, such a diagnosis is out of the question, in fact, utterly unthinkable.

Buddhism can be variously defined as a form of practical psychology, an ethical philosophy, a science-based conceptual analysis of human existence, and a religion free from god belief and mysticism. Buddhism is Buddhism. It is unique. It cannot be totally identified with any of the above. In popular practice, though, it has the three basic distinguishing elements of a religion: a unique worldview, a system of rituals, and a prescribed way of achieving spiritual perfection. The last characteristic of a religion (the way to perfection) in Buddhism takes the form of transformative enlightenment about the truth of change and suchness…”. Here I am appropriating American Professor Robert Cummings Neville’s ideas about religion, arbitrarily applying them to Buddhism. The phrase quoted is from him. Professor Neville (b. 1939), Emeritus, Boston University School of Theology, is a philosopher, theologian, and Confucian scholar among other things. Ven. Ajahn Sumedho Thera, the American monk of the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism, defines suchness on Buddhism Now website (November 21, 2014) as follows: Suchness, or Tathata, the Tathagata, is right now. This is the way it is. But sometimes, when I say, ‘This is the way it is,’ somebody will say, ‘You mean this is the way it is forever?’ No! RIGHT NOW — this is the way it is. The only way it can be is the way it is right now! It’s changing, but at this moment, the Suchness of this moment is just this way. The thinking mind has to stop. Otherwise, you will want to ask, ‘Where is it? What is he saying?’ You just have to stop your mind and listen or watch. Then you will be relating to Suchness, the Suchness of the moment, the as-is-ness”.

Though the essence of Buddhism – the Four Noble Truths – is the same across the Buddhist world, there are numerous divisions of Buddhism as a religion, the three main ones being Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. (Even a Western version of Buddhism has developed over the recent decades.) Of these three, Theravada (which is found in such countries as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand) is considered to be closest to the pristine form of Buddhism. These various sects developed in different lands over the centuries as Buddhism got acculturated to those alien societies. Now, Buddhist devotional rituals are culturally shaped. These must be maintained for the perpetuation or survival of Buddhism. A mere religious ideology, however rational, and noble it may be, will not survive for long unless it is packaged in ritual observances. Ritual worship serves as a vehicle (medium) for the relevant religious ideology. Buddhism itself is safe from attack. What is to be protected is the Buddhasasana. 

(The Island published two very interesting articles by Professor M.M.J. Marasinghe, formerly of the Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Kelaniya,  about the adulteration of Buddhism by Mahayana under the titles:  ‘The great betrayal of Theravada Buddhism?’ and ‘The transition from Buddhism to Beggism’ respectively on May 21, 2014, and August 3, 2016. I think one could quote these in support of Ven. Samanthabhadra’s arguments against certain elements of Buddhist ritual worship.)

Ritual worship (enacted through devotional offerings or Amisha puja, marking holy days, celebrating festivals, conducting Peraheras, almsgiving, and observing age-old traditions, etc.) contributes to making a religion a force for unifying a community, besides giving it a sense of emotional security. They also sustain and increase the piety of the adherents. It is due to amisha puja that Ven. Samanthabhadra conducts alms givings at his temple, is able to send his disciples on alms rounds so devotees perform Amisha puja. The same is responsible for the huge donations that the devout make towards the monk’s charitable projects. We are told that he is going to build the biggest Buddhist temple complex on a 50-acre land that has been donated by a philanthropist. At the same time, he attacks relic worship as a big superstition, which makes him unhelpfully ambivalent. (The last of the Four Noble Truths or the Noble Eightfold Path does not contain worship, which is an essential feature of any religion; but worship is an inevitable element in Buddhist religion/cultural practices, like in any other religion.)

The twin goal of Buddhism is creating empowering harmony for society and enduring happiness for the individual. In ultimate terms, any religion is concerned with the ultimate fate of the individual. But what is the happiness of a single individual relative to that of a whole society? Ven. Samanthabhadra Thera’s outrageous attack on an important aspect of essential Buddhist devotional worship will be counterproductive. Instead of promoting Buddhism as the beautiful ethical-philosophical system it is (what the ordinary adherents follow, part as ritual, part as serious practice), the venerable thera’s sudden onslaught on relic worship is likely to endanger its very existence, particularly at a time like this when the country’s ancient Buddhist cultural heritage is being threatened in various ways. 

The attainment of spiritual goals including the highest is strictly a personal matter that does not concern others, like regaining good health after an illness. If Ven. Samanthabhadra Thera has attained Arahanthood, it is for himself. It is none of our business. Other Buddhists need not initiate a personality cult centering on him, as he seems to be encouraging them to do (e.g., by erecting a statue of himself at his temple. This is something that most Buddhists cannot rationalize). Each individual must realize the Ultimate Truth for himself or herself.  But a person of high spiritual attainments can and usually does play a useful social role. Such a person inspires others to follow his or her example and to make the same achievements; he or she can teach and guide others, but the teacher and guide cannot make spiritual attainments for others. In Buddhism, there are no saviours, but only compassionate teachers and guides. Ven. Samanthabhadra Thera acts as if he has attained the status of the highest type of such teacher, but his subtly egotistic, characteristically exuberant demeanour belies his claims. 

Yet, even if his self-assessment is true, he cannot be any more important to others than as a teacher and a mentor. However thoroughly steeped in the Dhamma he may be, however spiritually accomplished he may claim himself to be, and however sincere in his intentions he could be, what he felt provoked to say about the Tooth Relic and the Frontal Bone Relic is absolutely frivolous and unimaginably foolhardy. Ordinary Buddhists are not concerned about the authenticity of the relics they worship. If Ven. Samanthabhadra Thera was taken seriously by the average Buddhists (when he insulted both those objects of veneration and the worshippers who venerate them), he would have been consumed by their outrage at what would be universally condemned as a sacrilegious speech, for such an apparently baseless attack on the long-established Buddhist devotional ritual of relic worship would be like touching an exposed high voltage electric cable with his bare hands. Fortunately for him, the average Buddhists are still patient with him. Buddhists traditionally respect the civaraya (robe) that the Buddha used to wear” (Don’t they call it the Arahat dhajaya or Flag of Arahanthood”?).  

However, on several occasions, groups of Buddhists staged protests against him, not because of their fault. They are now familiar with the subversive anti-Buddhist activities of certain fanatical religious groups that employ corrupt individuals with a smattering knowledge of Buddhism disguised as Buddhist monks, particularly active in remote village areas where poverty makes spirituality a secondary concern. It is natural that people tend to believe that this monk is also one of them, though personally I do not subscribe to that view at all (for his explanation of the Dhamma is compatible with a rational approach to it in spite of his controversial utterances, which are not unfounded, criticizing traditional Buddhist practices.) A couple of months ago, there was an incident at Piliyandala involving Ven. Samanthabhadra Thera, where the Buddha  civaraya he was wearing could barely save him from being manhandled. Some protesters who disapproved of his unorthodox style of preaching threw eggs at him, and nearly assaulted him, before the organizers of the Dharmadeshana (preaching) event managed to get him out of the place.I am painfully concerned that such things should happen in my predominantly Buddhist country. Wouldn’t  it be better if our venerable monk be wiser in his ministry? (To be continued)

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