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Polemics, rhetoric and traditions

“Sri Lankan Buddhism has experienced numerous and serious crises over time, and has so far survived all of them. Referring to chronicle histories, people still recall the destruction caused specifically to Buddhism during the reign of terror unleashed by Magha of Kalinga beginning in 1214. In different ways, the European colonial rule also had a very negative impact upon Buddhism, and the revivalism spearheaded by Anagarika Dharamapala and his followers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had much to do with the rejuvenation of Buddhism in recent times.”

by Dr. Sasanka Perera

(March 06, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
The canonical Buddhist text of the 2nd century BCE, ‘The Questions of Milinda’, is a lucid exposition of the Buddha Dhamma given by Bikkhu Nagasena to the Greek king Milinda (Menandros). Impressed by Bikkhu Nagasena’s dhamma exposition we read that King Milinda became a lay disciple. In the course of this dhamma exposition Bikkhu Nagasena clarified the distinct roles of bikkhus and rulers in the Buddhist dispensation as laid down by the Buddha in the following words:

"So your majesty, it is the business of princes of this earth to know all about elephants, horses, chariots, bows, edicts, and seals, to be well versed in the textbooks of statecraft, in its tradition and custom, and to lead people into battle —- The Thathagatha (the Buddha) therefore urged the monks to devote themselves to their own work, and not that of others—-"

These famous words of the Buddha have been echoing in my mind since I heard a few weeks ago that a group of Buddhist monks would be contesting the upcoming parliamentary elections. At the time the initial interest was voiced by the monks concerned, not too many people took it very seriously simply because in the minds of many the entire notion was too absurd. But very soon, given the nature of real-politics that is very peculiar to our own socio-cultural context, the monks found a political vehicle to pitch their bid to campaign for a place in Parliament with the help of the political party Sihala Urumaya. The monks have named their political organization Jathika Hela Urumaya and have ushered in a brand new era of monk-politics. It would appear that none of them have heard of the Buddha’s injunction so clearly articulated in the ‘Questions of Milinda’ and many other Buddhist texts. Alternatively, they have simply elected to ignore such injunctions.

Sri Lankan Buddhism has experienced numerous and serious crises over time, and has so far survived all of them. Referring to chronicle histories, people still recall the destruction caused specifically to Buddhism during the reign of terror unleashed by Magha of Kalinga beginning in 1214. In different ways, the European colonial rule also had a very negative impact upon Buddhism, and the revivalism spearheaded by Anagarika Dharamapala and his followers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had much to do with the rejuvenation of Buddhism in recent times. But it would appear that in over half a century no other action than the present internal mobilization by a group of monks have threatened to rob Buddhism of its stability and respectability. After all, this is not an external threat as colonialism but very much an internal threat from within that has already divided the Buddhist polity. This itself merits an informed public discussion of this issue rather than an emotional shouting match. This is particularly so because what is at stake is not a simple matter of party politics but the entire future and integrity of institutional Buddhism and its place in this country.

Many people from all walks of life I have talked to and have heard since the monks of the Jathika Hela Urumaya publicly voiced their eagerness to enter parliament have been utterly appalled at the present turn of events. Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara, well-known novelist, poet and political commentator was one of the first to respond publicly in opposition to the monks’ bid for parliamentary politics. In his essay to the ‘Irida Divayina’ of February 22nd 2004, he made the following observation: "The decision made by 250 Buddhist monks in this country to invade the electoral domain in order to enter parliament would no doubt sadden and shock Sinhala Buddhists in this country." Clearly, this is a legitimate concern, and it has saddened and shocked many people. However, instead of attempting to understand the reasons and the background that made this scenario possible, he opted to heap all blame for this fiasco on a convenient scapegoat that he identifies as "colonial and non national forces, their agents, Tamil racists and those dependent on NGOs." Such rhetoric will not allow us to properly engage with the situation. Already, a number of well-known Buddhist monks including the powerful heads of the major Buddhist ecclesiastical orders have publicly registered their opposition.

Last weekend, when I went to the market near my home, I had an extended conversation with the vegetable sellers there whom I have known for many years. They too were quite dismayed because the respect they had towards monks could not be extended to them when they became politicians. A student of mine also quite alarmed at the Jathika Hela Urumaya Monks’ craving for political power articulated this fear quite well when he said "under the present conditions of corruption and lack of ethics, even if Lord Buddha was sent to our parliament, he too would have been corrupted." Mind you, these were all Buddhists who were legitimately upset and were expressing their views but without being disrespectful. One woman at the market pointed to a newspaper photo of Uduwe Dhammaloka, the well-known telemonk and said: "Look at his acting. Isn’t he a great actor?" Since the day she learnt that this particular monk was contesting elections, she had decided that she will no longer listen to his sermons or to the sermons of his fellow travelers in party politics. The people who talked to me were very clearly disappointed in what this particular set of religious leaders had embarked upon supposedly on behalf of these very people.

What is surprising is not the fact that these monks have publicly shown that they have enormous craving for political power, but the amazement and shock shown by ordinary Buddhist people across class and other boundaries over this act. This was articulated by a well-read elderly retired Buddhist civil servant who told me "this is the beginning of the end of the sasana." Like him, many others seem to believe that this rather amazing act of trying to set up a Buddhist theocracy has fallen from the sky all of a sudden. But surely anyone who has even a marginal interest in recent Sri Lankan social and political history would know that the necessary foundation to do what the monks from the Jathika Hela Urumaya have done has been laid in a very concrete fashion since the late 1940s. Since that time, we as a society have tolerated the activities of monks in politics so much so that the idea has now become so natural to many of them.

While at different political moments throughout our history, monks have played certain limited roles in politics, the institutionalization of monk-politics began with the establishment and entrenchment of the Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya Pirivenas in the late 19th century. The publication of the ‘Vidyalankara Declaration’ (formerly known as the ‘Declaration of the Vidyalankara Pirivena’) in 1946 was the first time when monks very clearly and publicly articulated their interest in affiliating with politics. It ushered in a period of national controversy and debate over the issue of monks’ participation in politics. Even at that time, there were Buddhists who publicly supported as well as vehemently opposed this position. It would seem now that the people who supported had won the day and laid the foundation for what is happening today.

But for different reasons, many politicians did want monks’ participation in politics on their behalf. Referring to the controversy over the publication of the ‘Vidyalankara Declaration’, Reverend Yakkaduwe Pragnarama, in his 1970 publication ‘Pavidi Vaga Saha Sasun Maga’, makes the following observation: "early in 1946 the idea was expressed by some prominent political leaders that it is inappropriate for monks to engage in public activities like politics. Before that, some of the same politicians had asked the help of the monks during elections, which the Vidyalankara monks had refused" (quoted in Seneviratne 1999). When Venerable Walpola Rahula wrote his well-known text, ‘The Heritage of a Bikkhu’ also in 1946, he was not writing a book on Buddhism but a manifesto for political participation of Buddhist monks, which was a much more articulate extension of the ideas contained in the ‘Vidyalankara Declaration.’ Anthropologist H.L Senevirtane in his 1999 book ‘The Work of Kings: The New Buddhism in Sri Lanka’ has aptly referred to ‘The Heritage of the Bikkhu’ as "charter for activist monks." In fact, at the present moment, Professor Seneviratne’s book provides an excellent historical narrative that would help us understand the historical processes and dynamics that have preceded the present bout of monk-politics.

Since that time, the interest of selected monks in politics not simply in the philosophical sense of the word but specifically in the sense of party politics have not been so subtle. Many have addressed political party rallies since the 1950s and have routinely taken part in party processions and other activities. In the public discourse monks are now often identified by people on the basis of their real or perceived party affiliations as JVP monks, SLFP monks, UNP monks and so on. In that discourse, Rev. Galaboda Gnanissara of the Gangaramaya in Colombo is considered a UNP monk, a reputation he has lived up to. In the last general election, Baddegama Samitha, another monk was elected to parliament from the Southern Province representing the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, that remnant of Trotskyite politics. But during his political campaign or afterwards, the issue of his entry to parliament as a monk never formed a part of any kind of informed public debate. It was also quite recently that the late Rev. Gangodawila Soma publicly announced his interest to contest the Presidential Election, no doubt encouraged by his own enormous public appeal generated primarily through electronic and print media. But again there was no public debate. These recent incidents that generated no public outcry or debate and the historical conditions and tolerance of monk-politics perhaps encouraged the monks from Jathika Hela Urumaya to decide on contesting elections.

Looking at the present manifestation of monk-politics from within the context outlined above, it would be clear that this is merely the logical extension of a long historical process that we have tolerated and allowed to become an entrenched tradition within local Buddhism. However, the problems that can emerge and consequences of monk-politics have at the same time concerned many people even though that discourse never reached a visibly public forum except in the 1940s. In this regard it is of interest to take note of some of the recommendations and observations contained in the ‘Presidential Commission Report on the Buddha Sasana’ of 2002. The Commission included a number of lay Buddhists as well as clergy such as Rev. Bellana Gnanawimala (President), Rev. Warakawe Dhammaloka, Rev. Kotugoda Dhammawasa, Rev. Welamitiyawe Kusaladhamma, Rev. Balangoda Pragnawansa, Mr. Olcott Gunasekera, Dr. Anula Wijesundara, Professor Mendis Rohanadheera, Mr. P.A. Senaratne and Mr. S. Kariyawasam (Secretary). In 4’ dealing with the Sangha, the Commission makes the following observations:

"4.66: In every village of this country supporters of a number of political parties reside. If the monk in the temple is affiliated to one party or is a pawn of such a party, he would be perceived by supporters of other parties as an opponent. The monk will also perceive such dayakayas (congregation) in the same manner. So the trust towards each other would be fractured. Distrust will build up. Sometimes, dayakayas engaged in worship might harm the monks. There have been instances in which temples have been destroyed. Animosities will emerge in villages. The traditional relationship that has been formulated between the village and the temple in this country over the last two thousand years would be harmed (70)."

On the basis of documented experience as well as representations made by people, the Commission has made a reasonable assessment of the possible consequences of monk-politics. It further observes:

"4.67: For their own benefit, some politicians have encouraged monks to engage in such wrongdoing. The monk will succumb to such inducements made with promises of certain power and other benefits. When monks induced in such a manner are taken along in processions, the pain that would emerge in the minds of devotees would be very great. Many lay people as well as monks have made written and verbal representations to the Commission that monks should not engage in active party politics (71)."

So according to this Commission, appointed by the President to look into the present conditions of Buddha Sasana clearly says that many lay people as well as monks were opposed to the idea of monks in politics. This is also reflected in current politics as there was never any kind of concerted public demand that monks should contest the upcoming elections just as there was no public demand to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections. On the basis of their own assessment, as well as the representations made by concerned individuals, the Commission makes the following observations and recommendations specifically pertaining to political activities of Buddhist monks:

"The Commission accepts that party politics should be completely banned to Buddhist monks, and monks should be completely independent so that they can advice and provide guidance to any party that might come to power.

Therefore, we recommend that all political parties follow the following code of ethics:

1. Political parties should not give party membership to Buddhist monks.

2. Buddhist monks should not be involved in political activities of parties.

3. Buddhist monks should not be given nominations to contest Pradehsiya Sabha/ Provincial Council/ Parliamentary elections.

4. All Headquarters of Buddhist monks (Bikshu Mulasthana) should request from all political parties that Buddhist monks should not be given nominations for any kind of election (71)."

Had the recommendations of the Commission been implemented and had become law, then the entire process of politics unleashed by the monks of Jathika Hela Urumaya would have been illegal as would have been the political activities of other monks. Yet, the ‘Presidential Commission Report on the Buddha Sasana’ (2002) is largely an unknown document. The issue of monks in politics is not a legal issue but an ethical one. After all, the country’s legal system does not bar any individual from contesting elections except under specific legal conditions. Therefore, it is perfectly legal for monks to do what they are doing. But in terms of Buddhist traditions and ethics as well as common sense, what they have undertaken is not a sensible thing. But unfortunately we have tolerated such activities for such a long time, it is very difficult to stem this tide now without some serious and concerted effort. It is of course quite possible that Buddhists of this country would be adequately alarmed and ashamed of what is going on, that they might decide not to vote for these monks. That would be the only possible way in which a strong and clear message can be sent to political monks that everything they do will not be tolerated by the people. This is also a moment for us to ponder over the consequences of mass media’s creation of public personalities who would in time embark on political paths no one other than themselves would be able to control. It is not an accident that many of the main spokespersons of the Jathika Hela Urumaya are monks whose public personalities and mass appeal were created by the media in recent times. It is also very clear that when the Jathika Hela Urumaya decided to contest elections, the popularity and public recognition of its main leaders, telemonks such as Uduwe Dhammaloka, Ellawala Medhananda and Kolonnawe Sumangala were key inducements. Only the results of the election will inform us whether the monks have over-estimated their own popularity. In any event, a theocracy set up in the name of any single religion or theocratic tendencies in any form of governance is a bad thing as history of theocracies in different parts of the world has documented time and again. In the end, only the evolution of history and the vision of the people (if they have any vision) would tell us where this latest bout of monk-politics would take the country and institutional Buddhism, and how this political moment would be remembered in times to come. May the light of the Dhamma that constantly eludes many of us nevertheless be upon all of us in these difficult times.

- Sri Lanka Guardian

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