Posted on December 16th, 2022

By Rohana R. Wasala

Incidentally, disparagement or what appears to be attempted desacralization of the Tooth Relic by various individuals is not new. The famous Colonel Olcott (1832-1907), who greatly contributed to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and who initiated a school system for the education of the children of Sinhalese Buddhists (something denied them under the British), showed little respect for the Tooth Relic. When Anagarika Dharmapala, Olcott’s junior colleague in his Buddhist work, quarreled with him over this, Olcott abandoned his longstanding friendship with him. A well-known Buddhist teacher of the time associated with the activities of Buddhist Theosophical Society, and later made head of a school founded by Olcott, who probably shared the latter’s skepticism regarding the authenticity of the Tooth Relic, caused great displeasure and consternation among the Buddhist public when he used the same comparison that Ven. Samanthabhadra Thera used a few weeks ago to describe the Tooth Relic. Colonel Olcott’s knowledge of Buddhism and his practice had so impressed Anagarika Dharmapala that he had originally claimed that the former was an Arahant!  In spite of his reluctance to accept the genuineness of the Tooth Relic , Olcott had a clear understanding of its inestimable importance for the Sinhalese as a historical and cultural symbol, which has not changed to this day. 

The Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Tooth Relic is regarded as the palladium of the Buddhist world. There was also the time-honoured royal tradition that the Sinhalese monarch had to have the custodianship of the Tooth Relic to gain legitimacy as sovereign over the country, of which the British were so powerfully convinced during the famous 1818 Rebellion. Authentic or not, the Tooth Relic has not lost its symbolic value for the Sinhalese Buddhists. (There is an interesting account of the opposing views of the genuineness of the Tooth Relic during that period on pp. 192-5 of senior scholar politician Dr Sarath Amunugama’s book titled THE LION’S ROAR Anagarika Dharmapala & the Making of Modern Buddhism” {Vijitha Yapa, 2016} to which I owe most of the information in this paragraph; but the bit about the sacred relic being  dishonoured by a Buddhist teacher of the Anagarika’s day is not from that source.)

Ordinary Buddhists  know about the symbolism involved in Buddhist ritual worship. Objects of veneration such as sacred relics, the Bodhi tree, dagabas enshrining relics or things believed to have been used by the Buddha, statues of the Buddha hewn out of rock or sculpted using other materials symbolize the Buddha. Buddhists express devotion to the Buddha who resides in their hearts. In fact, their veneration extends to the Dhamma and Sangha as well, all three together known as the Triple Gem. Buddhist worship does not include praying to the Triple Gem or to any deity. Whereas devotees of theistic religions pray to the god they believe in, particularly in times of distress, Buddhists turn to the Triple Gem. ‘May the Triple Gem Protect You’ corresponds to similar formulas in theistic religions. But Buddhists only pay homage to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, reflecting on their virtues and express their devotion to them. This is in order to morally strengthen themselves through the ‘power’ of the Triple Gem. Actually, the power that protects them is within themselves, which Buddhism teaches them to tap (by following the Dhamma, without succumbing to superstitious beliefs). So, when Buddhists worship at the Temple of the Tooth Relic, or at a dagaba enshrining the Frontal Bone Relic, or other sacred relics, they are not indulging in superstition; they are not committing an akusala kamma (an unwholesome volitional activity) that will lead to birth in a distressful plane of existence, as Ven. Samanthabhadra Thera erroneously warns.

Buddhists know   that the essence of Buddhism is expressed as the Four Noble Truths. Mere worship of something considered sacred is not central to Buddhism. However, this knowledge is not necessarily apparent when Buddhists engage in normal devotional observances. Of course, in ritual worship the (really extraneous) liturgical aspect is given prominence. But, with regard to offerings or puja, Buddhists are regularly reminded that offerings in Buddhism are of two types: amisha puja and pratipatti puja. (This we were taught when we were small kids.) The first means showing respect to the Buddha by offering flowers, food, lighting lamps or burning incense before a Buddha statue, a sacred relic, or some object believed to have been sanctified by physical association with him. The better way to show respect/pay homage to the Buddha, however, is the second, which involves cultivating sila (virtue or morality), Samadhi (concentration achieved through mental discipline) and panna (wisdom). The Buddha’s teaching went ‘against the current’ (patisotagami) in that it deviated from the normal religious traditions of the day, which, he explained, were designed to feed  the egoistic desires of human beings (e.g., imagining a supreme power that is supposed to protect one like a father does his children, perhaps, and believing in an eternal soul, that ensures one’s preservation for eternity). It appears that the Buddha devoted all his life to the task of curing people of the affliction called religion. 

This idea of religion as an affliction I owe to Richard Dawkins (b. 1941), University of Oxford  professor, who is a noble human being I greatly admire. He is famed as the world’s foremost evolutionary biologist; his speciality is the study of evolution from a gene-centred perspective, in which he has introduced to the world of science, among other contributions, the concept of the meme, which he elaborates in Chapter 11 of his THE SELFISH GENE (Oxford University Press, 1st pub. 1976). The meme idea is implicit in his statement, Cultural transmission is analogous to genetic transmission……it can give rise to a form of evolution,” something relevant to our topic. He is a prolific writer, a promoter of scientific knowledge and science based ethics among common people, and a passionate critic of religion.  In the Author’s introduction (which he wrote soon after a ‘breathtaking’ visit to Arizona’s Grand Canyon, sacred to native American tribes) to the anthology of his writings entitled SCIENCE IN THE SOUL: Selected writings of a passionate rationalist” (Transworld Publishers, UK, 2017), which is dedicated to the memory of Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), another distinguished author and critic of religion, Dawkins writes: The Grand Canyon confers stature on a religion, outclassing the petty smallness of Abrahamics, the three squabbling cults which, through historical accident, still afflict the world.” (This brings to mind Dr Sam Harris’s idea of spirituality without religion”. See part I of this article.)

I imagine that Ven. Samanthabhadra would endorse the idea of faith-based religion as a disease.  Though he has not, I think, described it that way, a principal defect that he has identified and seems to work to remedy is that most ordinary Buddhists have turned Buddhism into your average religion. According to the Buddha’s teaching, emancipation from the unsatisfactoriness of samsaric existence cannot be secured by  praying to or propitiating some external divine agent or agency; those who profess Buddhism turn inside instead, and engage in mental culture or meditation.  The Fourth Noble Truth is that of the Path. There are eight steps which are collectively known as the Noble Eightfold Path. These eight steps are divided into the aforementioned three categories, i.e., sila, samadhi, panna.(See part II of this article.)

If there is anything wrong with his interpretation of the Dhamma, monks and lay Buddhists who are well versed in it (I am not in this category; it would be ridiculous even to suggest such a thing), ought to point it out to him in a suitable way, for he always invites questioning or debate. He challenges those who disagree with him to come and argue. Most probably, they will find that what he is saying is true. (Yet, the way he reacts to any sort of disagreement with his views is utterly questionable). However, considering the fact  that the Buddhasasana (meaning the Buddhist religious establishment comprising the bhikkhus, laity, Buddhist places of worship, temporalities, educational institutes, rituals such as peraheras, and everything else connected with Buddhism professed by 70% of the Lankan populationI is under threat, this is a time when all Buddhists must remain united and strong, and powerful enough to fend off attacks in the ideological field as well as in the socio-political interface where we have to peacefully interact with persons of other faiths. The way Ven. Samanthabhadra Thera behaves himself is not supportive of the aforementioned crucial aims of Buddhism (social harmony and individual happiness), and belies his Arahanthood claim.

His preaching seems to still have its popular appeal, but his actions generally do not seem to match his words (i.e., there is a mismatch between his talk and his walk: simply, he talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk). Some reasons for saying this: While claiming to have attained Arahanthood, Ven. Samanthabhadra Thera sometimes implicitly refers to himself in the third person, as when he talks about those noble ones who have become Arahants, anagamis or non-returners”, etc. There is no re-becoming for him, he claims. When asked about the suitability of making such claims, he answered that the Buddha himself did that! Doesn’t this amount to comparing himself to the Supreme Buddha?  When he is shown quietly descending the stairs of his palatial residence like a designedly holy man, one feels that he cares too much about his public image. Once he was heard praising his own imposing looks. He gave the impression that he imagined that he was one like a medieval ‘prophet’ (he didn’t explicitly use this word, though) expressly ‘sent to this world’ for the benefit of ordinary worldlings. The question arises ‘Who sent him to the world?’ God? Brahma? Such a belief is alien to Buddhism. He describes himself as a ‘Dharmaraja’. Aren’t these utterances contrary to his claims of renunciation, asceticism, etc.? Does he sit in a throne because he is Dharmaraja (King of the Dhamma)? (Again, the name ‘Dharmaraja’ is traditionally applied to the Buddha.)

The video recently posted by his Siri Sadaham Ashramaya in which he is shown insulting the sacred relics, he is in a robe that is stitched in a way that is entirely new. A Buddhist monk’s robe is not pleated, but his is pleated as seen in the video mentioned. I imagine that if someone drew attention to this he would at once say something like Don’t look  at my robe; see whether my words are true”! Of course, he would be right. But can he deviate from the hallowed traditions that give legitimacy to his identity as a Buddhist monk in the first place? In the same video one can see that he seats himself in a throne-like chair as he has been normally doing  presumably from the time of his alleged ascension to Arahanthood. He describes himself as a Dharmaraja. What is the point of this showing off? It is not only a showing off, but a way of distancing himself from others he considers to be lower than himself. How can an Arahant be so preoccupied with self? An Arahant is supposed to have overcome that illusory notion (something that Richard Dawkins scientifically explains in the first of the two of his books mentioned here).

 Is the genuinely learned Ven.  Samanthabhadra Thera unaware of the fact that there are religious fraudsters in the country today who claim that they have become Buddhas? They have substantial numbers of followers among innocent,  ignorant, gullible  ordinary Buddhists in rural areas. Often anti-Buddhist subversives are behind them. I heard one of them named Siriwardana explaining (in a video) that a monk’s yellow robe is called ‘sivura’ because it has siv ura, four ‘ura’, so siv+ura  = sivura! I can’t remember exactly how he explained ‘ura’. Probably, he said it meant a ‘corner’. But the word ‘uraya’ in Sinhala means a cloth cover as in ‘kotta uraya’ (pillowcase). Be that as it may, it is common knowledge that the Sinhala word sivura derives from the Pali word ‘civara’ (robe). There is another fake monk, who is also regarded as an Arhant by his misguided followers (apparently a retired engineer turned Buddhist monk after retirement in old age when his faculties cannot usually be expected to function well) propagating the ridiculous myth that Gautama Buddha was born in Sri Lanka and he is preaching a heretical version of Buddhism. These rogues in robes appear to be well supported financially by various foreign anti-Buddhist religious outfits. (The ridiculous Ravana myth promoters (who argue that an ancient imperial ruler called Ravana possessing immense scientific and technological knowledge, with aviation skills) belong to the same category of treacherous heretics.)  There are others writing books misinterpreting/misrepresenting the Dhamma in various fantastic ways that threaten to divide the Buddhist community internally. There appear to be concerted efforts by certain non-Buddhist sects to dilute the distinct Buddhist cultural identity of the country. In such a context, it is natural that even the most genuine Buddhist reformists, being misled by these charlatans, sometimes question the established order. Ven. Samanthabhadra cannot be thus misled. But he should give priority to saving the Buddhasasanaya from religious subversives, before trying to rescue it from its traditional custodians who may not be perfect in their knowledge and practice of Buddhism, but somehow protect the Buddhist establishment. 

To be completed in part IV 

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