Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2677

Are Buddhist institutions needed to safeguard the Buddha Dhamma?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Throughout Sri Lankan history, historians claim that for periods of varying lengths, Buddhism had been lost and then regained in the country. The debate should be about what was lost, and whether it was the Dhamma or the institutions that purportedly safeguard the Dhamma. One should also question whether the teaching and propagation of the Dhamma needs institutions as in many Western countries, this activity happens without any institutions of the type seen in Sri Lanka, and yet, like in Australia, Buddhism has become the fastest growing religion in the country where enquiring minds pursue the Dhamma rather than the rituals.

Much is being said about the role of so called Buddhist extremists in promoting and precipitating violence against other religions in Sri Lanka, especially against some evangelical Christians and Muslims.

While it must be unequivocally agreed that the recent Beruwala and Aluthgama incidents should never have happened, it should at least be considered, if not agreed, that those incidents should not be taken in isolation of other intertwining factors. Addressing the symptom alone will not help without examining and understanding the validity or otherwise of the underlying causes for the violence that emerged.

In this regard, at least in hindsight, one may argue that had the cause behind the initial violence unleashed by the LTTE been considered in context, understood that, and something was done to address the causes, Sri Lanka could have avoided the 30 year bloodshed and the deaths of some 100,000 Sri Lankans that followed.

If ever Sri Lanka learnt a lesson from that horrendous period of armed conflict, it has to be the need for understanding the causes that precipitate violence in the first place.

As much as there is still a denial that ethnicity of different Sri Lankans and how they were treated was at the heart of the problem, there should not be a denial that there could be more than one side to the story in relation to the disquiet amongst elements of Buddhists in regard to the activities of some Islamists and Christians.

It appears that it is natural for many, as they indeed should, take the view that Buddhists should adhere to its fundamental principles and not be influenced by the reality of institutionalisation of Buddhism and its impact on people. However the reality is different and institutions and ritualistic practices have become more common than the pursuit of the Dhamma. This is not unique to Buddhists as other religions which are more or less based on similar principles too do not always live according to them and they too do not seem to separate the institutions from the religion.

Institutionalisation therefore seems a common practice amongst all religions, and with it, the desire to protect the respective institutions in the name of the religion.

While the behaviour, the language and ethics of a Buddhist Monk like Ven GalagodaAtthe Gnanasara cannot be condoned in any way, the possible causes for his advent and others like him, seem to have been overlooked by all his critics.

Even during Buddha’s days, all Monks were not necessarily recluses seeking Nibbana although there was no formal institutionalisation of the Sangha during his time. This happened after his death, subsequent to the “Sangayanawa’s” or gathering of Monks that followed his death. Buddha reportedly desisted in appointing a successor to him fearing divisions within the Sangha and instead extolled that it was his Dhamma that was important and not individuals or institutions to carry forward his teachings.

His fears have been realised in the country that Sinhala Buddhists wish to refer to as the cradle of Buddhism and where Buddhism will be protected for all time.

Institutionalisation of Buddhism rather than living according to his Dhamma has become the priority for many within the Sangha fraternity, and many lay persons as well. Politicians pay homage to the institutions and not the Dhamma as some of these institutions have become power brokers for politicians of different hues. Lay persons have largely glued themselves to institutional Buddhism rather than the Dhamma.

Although during much of the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, three subdivisions of Theravada existed in Sri Lanka, consisting of the monks of the Mahavihara, Abhayagiri Viharaya and the Jetavana Viharaya, the contemporary institutionalisation may be traced to the 18th century when the Nikaya system based on caste, something totally abhorrent to the Buddha’s doctrine, came into being with the formation of the Siam, Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas. Today, these three and their sub orders number something close to 30 divisions.

The Malwatta chapter of the Siam Nikaya is by far the biggest of all, with around 5000 temples and 15,000 monks, each division and sub division carries its own influence and power. Unfortunately when it comes to national issues and issues that threaten the pluralism of the country and its religious harmony, the heads of these institutions have rarely expressed a unified view that is consistent with the teachings of Buddha. Instead, some have remained silent, some have taken a view consistent with the power and influence of their institution and very few have extolled adherence to the Dhamma as the solution to conflicts.

Today, this institutionalisation of Buddhism has created corporate entities in all but name, all functioning with their mission statements that their role is to promote and preserve Buddhism in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. What indeed is to be preserved is the question that should be asked of these saviours. Is it the Dhamma or is it the institution?

The question that arises then is about the difference between this corporatisation and the corporatisation of the Islamists and Christians. Possibly the single most difference is that for Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists, the corporate entities are in Sri Lanka and nowhere else, while for others, they are only the branch offices of entities established more globally in different parts of the world. Of course Theravada Buddhism does survive and does very well in some countries (example Australia) without Sri Lankan style institutions to do so.

Wherever they are, their Mission is also to promote and preserve Islam or Christianity as the case maybe, but essentially it is to preserve the respective institutions and not the individual teachings of these religions. Again, the divisions within these religions are many, and as happened during the earlier days of Christianity, the Islam world is tearing itself apart in some parts of the world, all in the name of Almighty Allah and the Prophet.

By itself, this mission for any religion is not an issue. The problem and the tensions arise when one group attempts to preserve what they have and another tries to promote and increase their flock, as the number available for preservation as well as an increase comes from basically a static mass of people.

If one were to preserve or increase numbers by adopting lawful as well as ethical means, and not resort to measures that do not come within this criteria, there will not be an issue as preservation or an increase will be happening through conviction and not compulsion based on commercial or material inducement, or force.

In sum, as long as these activities occur lawfully, and without disturbing the social fabric and the societal equilibrium of the country, no major incidents of any significance is bound to occur.

Historically, in India, the advent and thereafter, the spread of Buddhism after Buddha would have ruffled many a feather throughout the areas where it did spread, and naturally, there would have been opposition and reaction to this from others who opposed this spread. However, there is no record of any violent means adopted by those engaged in spreading the Buddhist philosophy.

Either in India or later in Sri Lanka, it is possible that depending on how opposing religious (or power centres) moved, one lot would have acted in various ways, including in violent ways at times, to protect their power centres. One logical way to protect a power centre would have been to expand it, as it happens in global politics to this day. As expansion meant encroaching into another to safeguard themselves, it then produces a line of thought and action amongst these power centres that are being encroached that they should protect what they have and prevent others from encroachment.

The spread of Buddhism and its winding back (even a threat of that) due to encroachment by others, cyclical as it has been throughout history, is and has been a power game and it is impractical to think otherwise and argue a case for institutional Buddhism to “think and behave” in line with the lofty ideals of Buddhism and not react to the activities of other religions, if such activity is seen by some segments of activist Buddhists, lay persons as well as Monks, as a threat to institutional Buddhism.

No doubt as happened then, and even today, there will be a vast number of Buddhists (lay persons and Monks) who will be passive whether they support the institution or advocate adherence to Buddhist ideals. For many average Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Buddhism is very much something very institutional and something they can anchor themselves to. Philosophical aspects of Buddhism are very nebulous to many such people and not an adequate anchor for them.

A threat to the institution which is represented by temples and Monks, is seen by them as a threat to Buddhism itself. Historical records like Mahavamsa articulate this thinking as it is not a commentary on Buddhism but on history, very much centred around Buddhism and replete with the institutional aspect of Buddhism. Mahavamsa therefore gives rich descriptions of how various rulers, Kings and Queens, strived to “safeguard” Buddhism (meaning the Buddhist institution) from others who were threatening it. These others were non Buddhists, and could have been from within and without.

To make matters even more complex, the Buddhist institution has been associated with the Sinhala race in the Mahavamsa, and therefore, the story line has been that Buddhism has flourished and been safeguarded in Sri Lanka by Buddhists who were Sinhalese.

Safeguarding Buddhism that’s been inextricably linked to institutional Buddhism therefore has been a premier consideration for rulers, then and now. Winning the hearts and minds of the Sinhala Buddhist constituency was important then as it is now. Even the British, when they signed up the last Bastion in Colonial Sri Lanka, the Kandyan Kingdom to the King of England in 1802, made mention that Buddhism will be given a special place and safeguarded under them.

From a broader perspective, one has to observe recent disturbances against the Muslims in this context. On the one hand it could be that the more vociferous elements of the Buddhist institution saw that the social equilibrium in the country was being disturbed by the expansion of what they saw as new brands of Islam that some called fundamentalists or extremists, and was a threat to the Buddhist institution.

Dr Amir Ali, a prominent Islamic scholar and a former adviser on Muslim Affairs to former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard's Government, and an academic at the Faculty of Management and Governance of Murdoch University in his interview with Colombo Page on July 19th 2013 *and reported in the Asian Tribune on July 23rd 2013**had mentioned the spread of these new brands of Islam in Sri Lanka, and how Muslims were alienating themselves from other communities.

On the other hand, some may have seen the inaction on the part of ruling politicians and even Opposition politicians towards the new brand of Islam expansion as an immediate consequence of the global power of the Islam lobby, and more specifically for Sri Lanka, due to these countries primarily located in the Middle East being the land/s of opportunity for hundreds and thousands of employment seekers.

The birth of the BBS has to be viewed in this context, as it was a result of this disturbance to the social equilibrium due to the expansion of more fundamentalists brands of Christianity and Islam in the country and the inaction they saw on the part of authorities who could have intervened to have a dialogue amongst all religious groups to arrive at a consensus as to how this issue could be addressed.

In the absence of such leadership and the recognition that there was an issue to be addressed, it is possible that the BBS decided that they had to do something about this as others were silent. The Halal issue encapsulated the growing power of this new Islam lobby and the likes of the BBS feared that unless something was done, this power will expand the influence of the new Islam lobby and impact on Buddhism (or the institution of Buddhism), and in general, the social cohesion within the country.

While no organisation, whether religious or otherwise, should be allowed to take the law on to their hands, they should neither be led to do so by the denial of the existence of issues and conflicts, and authorities entrusted the task of ensuring people adhered to law and order, not doing so because of fear or favour or indifference, and not taking any remedial action to prevent a mole hill becoming a mountain. The last molehill that became a mountain, the Sinhala/Tamil conflict resulting in the advent of the LTTE, the death and destruction that they caused surely must be very fresh in the minds of the politicians, religious and civil society leaders and of course the general public.

They cannot and should not be allowed to bury their heads in the sand and hope that winds of discontent will just pass by and life would be fine after that.

It took 30 years for some of the last wind to pass and it has still not passed fully as the underlying causes have not be addressed or what has been addressed has not been implemented adequately for all communities to feel they are things of the past.

Sri Lanka cannot afford to make a similar error in judgement with this religious issue. While adherence to the noble principles of Buddhism should be the goal of all Buddhists, the reality of institutional Buddhism and the power games that take place in the name of Buddhism cannot be discounted or ignored.

*Muslims are self-alienating – Dr. Ameer Ali

**Muslims in Sri Lanka are self-alienating themselves from the mainstream community – Dr Ameer Ali

- Asian Tribune -

Are Buddhist institutions needed to safeguard the Buddha Dhamma?
diconary view
Share this