The ‘relic’ racket

The news that the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka was fingerprinted on arrival at the Tokyo airport a fortnight ago was the talk of the day, but given the visa complexities inherent in today's foreign travel, the incident was overshadowed by a different episode; a questionable temple function he attended in the city of Kobe.

From all accounts, not only was the Prime Minister taken for an unholy ride, but the entire despicable episode opened a can of worms into how the highest in the land are misled into lending their patronage to questionable people.

An entire week has passed and the Government has maintained a deafening silence about what happened at this event in Kobe, Japan -- purportedly an exposition of the Buddha's relics from Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister attended the ceremony along with the Ports Minister who went as the President's Special Envoy.

Bad enough that the Minister's entourage comprised a 'Buddhist monk' who had been blacklisted by Japanese Immigration and was deported promptly, it has now transpired that these are in all possibility, fake Buddha relics.

Our reporters detail on the opposite page the insistence on the part of the head monk of the Ratnapura District temple that donated these relics, that they are genuine Buddha relics. He was, however, unable to tell our reporters from where the Temple got them. The Mahanayake in Kandy and the Archaeological Department basically rubbish his claim. None in Sri Lanka have ever heard of Buddha relics - Buddha relics mind you - being enshrined in such a temple. Even the monk next door had not heard of them.

Should these be genuine holy Buddha relics by some chance, custom and tradition demand that they be taken in a procession of majestic elephants, with drummers and dancers attending and people lining the streets in veneration after a public announcement is made. At the airport the Head of State, usually would hand them over to the person taking them across the seas for exposition and public veneration.

Instead, these so-called relics seem to have been taken in a casket, without any fanfare, quite secretively in fact, transported in a van to the airport. At the other end, at the Osaka airport, these 'relics' of Lord Buddha were carried not on the head as a mark of reverence, as it should be the case, but as just another piece of accompanying baggage.

This whole sordid saga has one common factor - money. The yen for Japanese donations to build another two floors of one's temple; to buy a car and a mini-van for one's travel; and to buy a ticket to the Cherry Blossom Land is a temptation too great for some monks, who are supposed to have left worldly affairs to the laity, to resist. Our reporters have found out that in this case, it may also have some connection with the Government's recent announcement to build nine new dagobas in the nine provinces.

It is known that the Japanese Mahayana School of Buddhism has greatly influenced many Sri Lankan monks. The ordinary Japanese meanwhile has great regard and admiration, and indeed affinity to Sri Lanka as a 'Dhammadvipa' - the land that is the repository of pure Buddhism. And, there are those who seek to exploit this genuine goodwill of the Japanese people and Sri Lanka's image by playing broker.

In the process, many of Sri Lanka's Theravada monks have imbibed Mahayana ways - and beyond - and got thoroughly corrupted in the process. They are no more than mere 'men in robes'.

Politicians are drawn to these types like moths to a flame, and because of their busy schedules don't go seeking the pious, erudite monks in the hermitages, but give appointments to the 'big and powerful' who bring with them pirith nool, Buddha statues and invite them for their functions - and who very often, are willing partners in peddling their patronage.

In India, the role of 'god-men' dubbed 'con-men' and their influence over politicians have been regularly highlighted ever since some of them seemed to tell Prime Minister Indira Gandhi what to do and what not to do.

While it is up to individual politicians to be wary of these 'men in robes', what happened to the Prime Minister and the Ports Minister should open the eyes of all and sundry. The Government itself has a duty over and above everyone else to protect the religion of the majority of this country.

The Sri Lanka Constitution states;

"The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place, and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana…"

The Malwatta Adhikarana Sangha Sabha might do well to conduct an inquiry into what is clearly a bogus Buddha relics exposition and ascertain who has desecrated the name of Gautama the Buddha and brought disrepute to the Buddha Sasana, and the people of Sri Lanka. Our guess however is that the Malwatta Chapter will not want to do this.

One of the greatest injustices that occurred as a fall-out of this saga is the Government's decision to recall our ambassador in Tokyo on the twin counts of not attending to the Prime Minister's protocol on arrival and not co-operating in this despicable fake Buddha relic episode.

The ambassador actually deserves a Deshamanya (pride of the nation) award for not subjugating the embassy to this racket. If he is at fault, then it is for not drawing the attention of the President's Office to this fiasco in the name of the Buddha and the country. But then, he is a mere career diplomat who must report to his ministry. This he did - in the face of orders from the then Foreign Secretary who ordered him to co-operate personally with the Kobe Temple organisers as, in the words of the Foreign Secretary, "there is a very high level of interest at this end regarding the ceremony".

Then, the onus falls on the Foreign Minister to have advised the President. The unfortunate ambassador has become the fall-guy, the sacrificial lamb, so to say, in this most unfortunate faux pas by the State, while the others evade responsibility and reprimand.

One would have thought, given its history, that the leaders of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in particular, would have learnt to be a little bit sceptical of these 'men in robes'.

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