Sri Lanka: Revolt in Temple

The monks engage in much needed social service as well. They are in the forefront in providing basic necessities for the needy, as well as looking after the monks and other services in the impoverished temples all over the land.

by S. M. Sumanadasa 

Being a Buddhist by birth, with only a basic understanding of Buddhist teachings, one might question my competence to say what follows. However, as a keen observer of what goes on around me, I feel confident and justified in what I say. Although I am nowhere near perfect, I feel there is an obligation on my part to highlight the glaring problems in the Buddha Sasana at present.

The Buddha Sasana is nourished and sustained by four-fold groups; Bhikkhu, Bhikkhuni, Upasaka, Upasika. The first two groups are supposed to have renounced all worldly pleasures, embarking on a path, leading eventually to Nirvana. The other groups, while following the Buddhist way of life for their own salvation, have the added responsibility of looking after the interests of the former, who by the very nature of their undertaking cannot sustain themselves, for their basic worldly needs for survival and emancipation. The bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, while fulfilling their aims by abiding by the vows pledged, have a supreme obligation to preserve and perpetuate the pristine teachings of the Enlightened One, and to guide the laymen on the correct path. These interdependent components are essential for the survival of the Buddha Sasana.

Vast majority leading exemplary lives

It should be emphasised at the very outset that the vast majority of the Buddhist monks follow the edicts of the Buddha Sasana and lead exemplary lives. They play a vital role in preserving the Dhamma in its original form. The Dhamma sermons, delivered in public and via electronic media by erudite monks, go a long way in guiding the lay disciples on the correct path. The service they render by conducting Sunday schools for the children, in almost every temple in the country, is admirable. Training the laymen in meditation, an essential practice for disciplining the mind, is spearheaded by the monks. Almost all, without exception, study the Pali language, purely for the purpose of learning in-depth the Buddhist scriptures like the abhidhamma. Many have subsequently written extensively in Sinhala, which can be easily understood by the laymen, although owing to the complexity of the subject, there are variable interpretations. In addition, their literary exploits over the years have been remarkable.

The monks engage in much needed social service as well. They are in the forefront in providing basic necessities for the needy, as well as looking after the monks and other services in the impoverished temples all over the land.

A few, however, tend to deviate from the accepted and expected norms. It is necessary to guide the few errant monks on the right path, as it is they who attract the headlines in news media, bringing the Buddha Sasana to disrepute. Such collective action will ensure a secure future of the Sasana, avoiding ridicule by all and sundry. As is usual in every sphere, news headlines highlight the evil, not the virtuous.

Selfless service

If the monks are to strictly follow the path to Nirvana, they probably are better off in isolation, in a monastery, attending only to their own religious needs, with minimum interaction with the laymen. However, the monks in the community, like those in the village temple, have to attend to the various spiritual needs of the laymen. They are supposed to depend on the latter for their basic needs, the sivupasaya. If not for the selfless service rendered by the monks in the community, one wonders where the Buddha Sasana would be today. Essential Buddhist rituals like pansakula and Pirith ceremonies would have been a thing of the past. But, at the same time, monks may be found at fault, for misleading the laymen in conducting extravagant rituals with hundreds of thousands of flowers or oil lamps, and wrapping dagobas with cheevaras or Buddhist flags. It should be the duty of the monks to impress upon laymen that such expensive and time consuming ahmisa poojas have little merit in achieving the goals of a Buddhist way of life.

Despite the close interaction with lay people, monks are expected to maintain their discipline strictly, so that they are beyond reproach. It is unfortunate that in many instances the monks are found often to surpass the laymen in extolling the comforts of worldly pleasures. They insist on mentioning many titles and honours bestowed on them, every time their names are mentioned. There are many Mahanayakes and Nayakas as there are as many sects and subsects of the three Nikayas. No doubt these divisions are against the principles expounded in the Dhamma. The titles are followed by a list of several temples each monk is in charge of or “owns”. The robes some wear are much more expensive than the clothes worn by laymen. The vehicles they own, or travel in, are often of the highest standard of luxury. I am aware of a monk who received a “nayake” title recently purchasing a more expensive vehicle, declaring openly that such is essential to maintain the dignity of his new position! Many monks are rumoured to personally possess much wealth in the form of real estate. This is bound to be true, as quite a few of them end up in courts of law to settle property disputes. The current debate going on in the open between two groups of monks for the post of viharadhipathi of the Seruwila Raja Maha Vihara is most despicable.

Competition

Many monks have become virtual managers of building projects. There is hardly any temple where some building project is not ongoing, often for superfluous decorative effect. In some instances, they appear to be in a competition to look better than a temple in the neighbourhood. Many wealthy laymen make lavish contributions out of respect on requests incessantly made by the monks for donations. This is even more questionable as there are a large number of temples all over the country, lacking basic infrastructure or daily needs of the resident monks. I have come across several laymen who regretted ever undertaking Katina pinkamas, as the eventual cost turned out to be much more than they ever envisaged or could afford. This was to a great extent due to the unreasonable demands made by the temple monks during the period of three months.

Ever since the watershed in politics in 1956, where the Buddhist monks played a pivotal role in the “Pancha Maha Balavegaya”, petty politicians have been instrumental in bringing Bhikkhus into active politics. The utterances and other acts of these monks in politics are totally against all vinaya edicts prescribed for them. The chaotic and most disgraceful scenes that ensued when they entered Parliament, a decade ago, are still fresh in our memory. They are also guilty of promoting hatred and divisions between various diverse groups of people, causing much racial and religious disharmony, in total contradiction to peaceful coexistence, enshrined in the Dhamma. The prolonged ethnic conflict has been an impetus for Buddhist monks to engage in virtually open warfare in the pretext of saving the Sasana. Politicians continue to exploit the monks for divisive activity. One cannot justify the monks appearing on political platforms and behaving like any other laymen. The sight of young monks leading the demonstrations and processions of trade unions and political rallies, and getting assaulted and arrested by the police, is most depressing. It is sad to see a few weeks ago two monks openly battling it out shamelessly for the right to a seat in Parliament. The monks should avoid all these confrontations, making them the laughing stock of the people and causing much dismay to the Buddhists in general. In contrast, we are yet to see priests of other religions ever behaving in such a derogatory manner.

How a Buddhist monk has been the leader of a government service nurses union for many years is beyond belief. The ease with which he organises nurses’ work stoppages, harming patients under their care, can never be reconciled with the teachings of the Enlightened One, who espoused by example the merits of caring for the sick. This monk, enjoying much political patronage, is tarnishing the image ofthe Buddha Sasana.

Protests

A few years ago, several well-known monks indulged in fasts unto death, an act very much against the Buddhist edicts, to protest disputed governmental action. More recently, some were making public speeches on the merits of organic fertilisers and the harm done by various chemicals. They seem to be acting as mouthpieces of the various politicians, with no real understanding of the complexity of the issues involved. The violent behaviour of the young monks at various protests and marches, and invariably getting assaulted or apprehended by the law enforcement authorities, makes one wonder what the future holds for the Buddha Sasana. Same is true of a few monks recently seen with disgraceful behaviour in the open under the influence of alcohol.

The wisdom of elevating the two leading Pirivenas in the country, Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara, to university status has been questioned ever since. Both have now been reverted to status quo and the two universities given separate names. I believe the two respected centres of Buddhist learning lost their glamour and lustre as a result of that ill-conceived project. Allowing monks to indulge in the study of mundane subjects, of no relevance to the Buddhist teachings, is another point of contention. Their demands for employment and some getting employed as clerks in offices or teaching a variety of subjects at schools, deserve much rethinking. It is unfortunate that university education, supposed to enlighten one’s thinking, seems to have a deleterious effect on the behaviour of Buddhist monks. The pros and cons of very young prepubertal children getting ordained should receive urgent attention. A significant proportion of all these categories are said to leave the robes sooner or later. These ideas may sound old fashioned and regressive, but these are issues which are intricately bound to the future wellbeing of the Buddha Sasana.

The claim is made that Buddhist monks have played a part in statecraft from the times of ancient kingdoms. This I consider is a total misrepresentation of facts. Such involvement with rulers was mostly in an advisory capacity behind the scenes, and not by waging verbal battles in the open, spreading hatred. Their provocative revolting, at times taking a violent turn, against the invading armies and colonial masters were patriotic acts, to preserve the Buddha Sasana and its disciples and followers from annihilation by the invaders, a dire necessity of the times. (The contemporary happenings in Thailand and Myanmar show how Buddhist monks are revolting to ensure that the formidable armed forces do not harm the religion.)

Although at present many politicians are seen regularly paying homage to prelates in Kandy, Anuradhapura and elsewhere, as if to show remorse and seek forgiveness for all their misdeeds, it does not appear that the monks give any constructive advice to the rulers.

The President has given a forum for the Buddhist monks to express themselves in his monthly meetings of the Buddhist Advisory Council. Although we have not seen any detailed reports of this engagement, from brief news items we see on TV, there does not seem to be any constructive criticism or suggestions given. Such silence, followed by the valedictory statement made by a senior prelate at the end of the meetings, probably makes the President to erroneously believe that everything he said has been favourably approved by the participants.

Buddhist monks undertake a whole series of vows at their initiation that impose strict discipline on their worldly life. Yet there are many who openly violate even the basic five precepts. The apparent incapacity of the Mahanayakes and hundreds of other Nayake theros to discipline errant monks is inexplicable. It is said that there is no provision for an errant monk to be disrobed, in the way it is done in other religions. As a result, the robe is being abused as a cover for all nefarious and even anti-social activities. The whole concept of the title Adhikarana Sanganayake appears to be meaningless. Just calling them cheevaradariya instead of hamuduruwo once they are exposed and apprehended, will not erase the damage done or restore the tarnished image. Any organisation unable to instill discipline among their members or followers, even by punitive action or expulsion if necessary, cannot flourish or survive for long.

Misplaced impression

There is a general misplaced impression among some that laymen should mind their own business without interfering with the affairs of the monks, as we all are fallible human beings, pruthagjanas. Disciplining the body and mind is paramount. If there is no mechanism to bring the wrongdoers, disobeying the vinaya edicts to the right path, there will be the eventual degeneration of the Buddha Sasana, and the society in general. The Buddhists are perpetually worried about the possibility of various outside, non-Buddhist forces, destroying the Buddha Sasana. However, the Buddha himself has preached that the Buddha Sasana will decline and perish due to the activities of his own disciples, meaning from within, rather than by outside influences. The happenings of today make that possibility very likely.

Many important events, in relation to the life of the Buddha happened on Esala Poya day. It also marks the beginning of the Vas season, when the monks are supposed to restrict travel, and spend time strengthening within themselves the vinaya edicts. Hence this could well be the most opportune period for all concerned to address the issue of bringing back the errant monks to the mainstream.

The leaders among the monks and laymen have a historical responsibility to take urgent corrective action. It is high time even a Dhamma Sangayana was held to ensure that all the glaring shortcomings described above are addressed and rectified before it is too late. No doubt taking decisive and perhaps drastic action in this regard could be a step into a socio-political minefield. The Buddha Sasana Ministry could work with the leading monks to formulate a legal framework for maintaining the discipline. This is much more urgent than the current somewhat controversial steps being taken to preserve the Buddhist scriptures, Tripitaka, as a National Heritage. The Buddhist monks, as well as the right-thinking laymen, should not remain deaf and blind to what happens all around us that will eventually lead to the decline of the Buddha Sasana.

I started by asking the question “Whither the Buddha Sasana?”. Let me conclude by stating that we all have a great responsibility to see that it does not wither away!

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