February 2013


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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‘Sinhalabuddhism’ in Sri Lanka

Sharmini Serasinghe

“A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.”

If Lord Buddha were here now, there is one thing he would do: ban “Sinhalabuddhism” in Sri Lanka!
—with apologies to Mark Twain

A recent manifestation of “Sinhalabuddhism” in Sri Lanka are
efforts to abolish the halal food of Muslims, an initiative that
has been supported by even young Buddhist monks.
(Photo from www.srilankabrief.org)

As a Sri Lankan and a Buddhist by faith, I take it upon myself, as others have not the right, to define the significant differences between the philosophy of Buddhism as per the teachings of Lord Buddha and what is practiced by the majority in this country under the umbrella of Buddhism. This I do, not to wear my religion on my sleeve, but to explain to my fellow multireligious Sri Lankans and others who may be in a confused state regarding the current incidents in this country in the name of Buddhism.

To begin, the majority of Buddhists in this country who label themselves as “Buddhists” are those who were born into Buddhist families. Therefore, they did not become Buddhists through an understanding and conviction of the Buddhist doctrine but were simply born Buddhists.

Buddhism in its pure form is too deep and complex a philosophy to be understood by the average and undisciplined mind; its teachings, therefore, are greatly misunderstood and misinterpreted by “born Buddhists.” Hence, a majority of those Sri Lankans who label themselves as “Buddhists” and practice it as a religion do so with their own perception of the doctrine.

Consequently, what is practiced by most Sri Lankans under the umbrella of Buddhism is a conjured-up blend of ritualism and symbolism that bears no resemblance or relation whatsoever to the philosophy of the Buddha.

For instance, Lord Buddha never asked his followers to go to the temple on full moon days—Poya Day—or any other day for that matter and offer flowers stolen from a neighbor’s garden and deposit them in front of a clay or stone statue perceived to be his image. He never told his followers that by doing so a great load of merit would be bestowed on them.

Lord Buddha never asked his followers to pour pots of water on the “Bo tree,” or Bodhi Puja, thereby encouraging it to rot and die. He never told his followers that by doing so a great load of merit would be bestowed on them and deliver them from their misery of a “bad period” resulting in ill health, loss of employment, wealth, etc.

Moreover, Lord Buddha never asked his followers to invite home Buddhist monks to lunch (offer alms) in order to transfer merit to dead people so that they will go straight to heaven. He never told his followers that by doing so even rapists, murderers, child molesters, et al., will be born as angels in heaven or attain nirvana—courtesy of almsgivings.

Therefore, as illustrated above, “Buddhism,” as practiced by most Sri Lankans, is a theory that satisfies the simple-minded, uneducated and unenlightened majority of a “need,” whatever it may be.

The root cause of this phenomenon is that Buddhism has no God to appeal to in times of crisis like in other faiths. The average human being needs a supernatural power to look to when faced with a crisis. Thus, the first instinct of a Sri Lankan “Buddhist” is to run to the temple, pile flowers in front of statues, pour gallons of water on the Bodhi tree, visit the Hindu kovil and break coconuts and even run to a church and plead with Jesus, the Virgin Mary and saints, etc.

All these above-mentioned rituals, and more, are performed in the fervent hope that one will be released from suffering or to gain merit (Pin) in order to acquire more and more materially. Therefore, the Buddhist theory of “karma” (cause and effect), a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism, has no place in Sri Lankan “Buddhism” for it offers no divine salvation in times of need.

This is not to say that there aren’t any Sri Lankans, both among the Buddhist clergy and the laity, who follow Buddhism as it should, but the majority—unfortunately, politicians included—observe the other Sri Lankan Buddhism.

According to Sri Lanka’s political history, it was the late prime minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike who threw scruples to the wind and propagated the concept of “Sinhalabuddhism,” much to the detriment of Sri Lanka as we now know. Recognizing the fragility and weaknesses of the Sinhalese, who were mainly “Buddhists” and who made up the majority of the vote base, he, himself a born-and-buried-at-death Anglican Christian, became a pro tem “Buddhist” for political mileage and created a mass hysteria under the banner of “Sinhalabuddhism”—the curse that has become the root of all ills plaguing this nation today. As “karma” would have it, Bandaranaike was gunned down by none other but a pistol-toting “Sinhalabuddhist” in saffron robes.

This demonic concept of a “Sinhalabuddhist” introduced by the late S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was to become sine qua non for future politicians of Sri Lanka, especially in his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), to garner votes at elections. The United National Party (UNP), regarded more as a bourgeoisie party, practiced “Sinhalabuddhism” more subtly. The late Sri Lankan president J. R. Jayewardene portrayed himself as a prima facie Buddhist as per the Dhamma and therefore never openly encouraged “Sinhalabuddhism.”

His successor, however, the late president Ranasinghe Premadasa, turned “Sinhalabuddhism” into a form of art. Not satisfied only with what “Sinhalabuddhism” afforded him, Premadasa went on to embrace Hinduism as well. With this “conversion,” he set the trend for subsequent politicians to pray to Hindu gods at various Hindu temples in Sri Lanka and India for more and more of whatever they desired.

Consequently, here we are today in “Sinhalabuddhist” Sri Lanka reductio ad absurdum thanks to the myopic and selfish politicians of a bygone era. We are now nothing but a decadent nation of murderers, rapists, child molesters, rogues, et al., with an idiocracy for a government mostly made up of “Sinhalabuddhists” and a “Sinhalabuddhist” ruler who reportedly assures that “the government, while ensuring religious freedom for all communities by enhancing interreligious harmony and tolerance, is always duty-bound to safeguard and foster Buddhism.”

I believe what he meant was “safeguard and foster ‘Sinhalabuddhism.’”

Today, in the name of “Sinhalabuddhism,” the revered saffron robe donned by disciples of Lord Buddha has been turned by some into a uniform of bigots of “Sinhalabuddhism” who propagate intolerance, cruelty and disrespect of other religions—the very opposite of Buddhism as per the Dhamma.

As a lay student of the world renowned most Venerable Piyadassi Maha Thera, I consider myself privileged to have had such an eminent guru of the Buddhist order. The Rev. Piyadassi, as I referred to him, had been a close friend of my family for generations and with whom we had frequent interaction. Here was a Buddhist monk who would insist that we sit with him at table and have lunch along with him while I, as a curious teenager, bombarded him with questions on Buddhism, which he answered patiently and clearly. This type of interaction with such teachers is what is required today.

With the Rev. Piyadassi’s demise in 1998, in my eyes at the time, he left shoes too big to be filled. But now I know better, for there are many Buddhist prelates and monks of his caliber out there who are worthy of being revered and worshipped as the true messengers of Lord Buddha’s philosophy, and they are those who can guide Sri Lanka’s future Buddhist generations on the correct path.

If Sri Lanka’s incumbent president sincerely wishes to safeguard and foster Buddhism in its pristine form, then it is his bounden duty to disband all those “Sinhalabuddhist” bigots in saffron robes and either rehabilitate them or put them away for good—preferably behind bars—so as to ensure they will never sully our nation or the Dhamma again.

Furthermore, the president must also take it upon himself to bring forth a system whereby our impressionable younger and future generations of Buddhists are taught the Dhamma by intelligent and educated Buddhist prelates as opposed to those stick-in-the-mud Buddhist monks who by no stretch of one’s imagination are pristine models of Buddhism to do the job.

Moreover, it would augur well if the incumbent president was sincere when he reportedly assured “religious freedom for all communities by enhancing interreligious harmony and tolerance” to consider introducing the subject of comparative religion in all schools.

The primary benefit of this action would be to afford our children at a very early age an opportunity to acquire a deeper understanding of the fundamental philosophy of different religions practiced in Sri Lanka.

A child who has undertaken such a course of study will undoubtedly have a much deeper understanding of human beliefs and practices and therefore be more tolerant of each other and not feel threatened by the religion of the other.

This decision would ideally lead to finally a peaceful Sri Lanka where all ethnic groups and religions could live together in harmony as Sri Lankans under the undivided umbrella of Sri Lanka!

The question is, Are our politicians selfless enough to take up such a challenge?

* Sharmini Serasinghe was director of communications of the former secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) under Secretary-Generals Jayantha Dhanapala and Dr. John Gooneratne. She has been a journalist for more than 30 years in both the print and electronic media.
This article was published on Feb. 23, 2013, by the Colombo Telegraph, a public interest web site that relates to Sri Lankan issues and is operated by a group of exile journalists at <www.colombotelegraph.com>