Reflecting on a compassionate intellectual in a post-conflict era

Professor of Archaeology, University of Peradeniya, and Cornell Visiting Professor, Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, Sudharshan Seneviratne delivered a speech on ‘Humanism for Peace: A Buddhist Perspective’ at the Inter Faith Dialogue on International Peace, Harmony and Co-existence
celebrating Vesak at the UN General Assembly on May 16.

I am most honored to share my sentiments on peace and harmony with an august gathering which represents the world community at this universally celebrated occasion. I was born to a culture nurtured by the sobering thoughts of an enlightened thinker, who expressed sentiments of compassion, equality, inclusiveness, contentment and the development of the intellectual personality liberating the mind. Some 2,600 odd years ago, Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha, unfolded the sublime message of liberation, peace of mind, new culture dynamics and intellectual ethos that moved from subcontinental to transcontinental spaces.

We are gathered here today not only to revere the memory of a compassionate and intellectual sage, but also to look at ourselves in the light of peace, harmony and co existence as a universal truth juxtaposed with injustice, conflict, discrimination and discord. It is my endeavour to place before you the environment within which the Buddha resolved mental and social conflict as well as the spirit of that very philosophical and cultural idiom understanding peace and harmony through concepts of shared culture, peace education and heritage for conflict resolution in the present world, especially in Sri Lanka.

Functional value of Buddhism

The success story of historical Buddhism has been its flexibility to intervene and engage itself, both compassionately and intellectually at different levels in society. The functional value of Buddhism, therefore, is found not purely in its doctrinal aspects dealing with remedial strategies for a series of contradictions relating to existence, but also in the realm of its inclusiveness embracing all living beings and the universe with loving kindness, understanding without discrimination.

Buddhism was a response to social, economic and political realities of a society that was transforming itself from a simple village culture to a complex urban and state society in 6th Century BC north India. These realities manifested themselves in the form of conflict, contradictions, competition and marginalization. According to the Agganna sutta preached by the Buddha, it is greed and forcible removal of wealth owned by others that originally led to social tension and conflict in the world.

Prof. Seneviratne addressing the UN General Assembly

Opposing actions of incompatibles were expressed through physical or mental responses arising from such discord. Pre-existing social, economic and political relationships were redefined and conclusively altered. Social values of the simple pre-urban society were replaced by impersonal relationships of the complex urban and state society.

The effort to secure economic and territorial hegemony often unleashed destructive confrontations between kingdoms resulted in pain and destruction. It was a society that indulged itself in extreme forms of sensual pleasures or self mortification, where individualism played a pivotal role. Hence, discontentment (dukkha), oppression and insecurity underlined the realities of social existence at that time.

The Buddha presented his version of the Middle Path neutralizing social and individual tension at different levels. One of the earliest documented social contracts for conflict resolution may be found again in the Agganna sutta. It describes the community, oppressed by conflict, elected from among them an individual to settle disputes. He was called Mahasammata or the “Great Elect” who was to maintain peace through laws of righteousness. The Great Elect, according to this sutta, was also expected to adhere to norms of good governance, accountability and transparency. This is further elaborated in the Mahasudassana sutta and the Chakkavatti Sihanada sutta where the commitment of the Universal King (Chakkavatti Rajan) is prescribed in the Ten Righteous Obligations or Dasa Raja Dhamma.

He was responsible, not only for just governance over subjects, but also to uphold the protection of the total environment of the domain as his moral obligation to maintain the quality of life. Thus society and its environmental habitat were considered synonymous. The Buddhist code of environmental protection, prescribed to its lay followers and monks, clearly reflects this symbiotic relationship between humans and environment and the value of its interdependency for our very survival. The sacred tree of the Buddhists or Ficus religiosa, under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, is a symbolic representation of the protected bio-sphere for sustainable existence.

Fine tuned alternative options

The Buddha also fine tuned alternative options where knowledge or wisdom was equated with the truth. That is, to perceive the realities of existence and the transient nature of all component things in their true perspective. The spirit of Buddhist theory of knowledge is narrated in the texts as “lucidly is the Dhamma explained by the enlightened one, to be self realized, timeless, inviting investigation and to be realized by each one for himself”. The members of the Kalama clan were instructed that knowledge could not be imposed from above but is to be realized through an uninhibited spirit of inquiry. Those who seek knowledge, said the Buddha, needed to break away from the four extremes or fetters i.e. bias, prejudice, fear and delusion. This is freedom of inquiry and thought at its best.

Buddhism perhaps introduced the earliest conscious effort at People to People connectivity. The message of knowledge and peace was disseminated to the society at large by the bhikku and bhikkuni or the Order of Buddhist monks and nuns. They constituted a democratic and egalitarian collective, or sangha-gana. As members of the collective, lay members who joined the order of monks and nuns had to renounce their social identity and its affiliated status. This process is compared with “water from different rivers taking the taste of salt in the ocean”. None were discriminated in the Order based on pre- existing social or rank status. The Buddha explicitly denounced social discrimination and upheld the value of equality in no uncertain terms. The term Arya was redefined to identify the individual with humane and moral conduct and not a person with a higher status at birth.

The Buddha’s original pronouncement to the first disciples was “to wander far and near for the benefit of the people, out of compassion…” The monks and nuns were instructed to communicate with the local people in the vernacular, thus negating the power of an exclusive and hegemonic sacred language of instruction. Regional folklore of the local oral tradition was absorbed and retold in the form of Jataka narratives.

These simple stories conveyed to local communities the value and merit of a life of righteousness, spirituality, duties and obligations. Consequently these narratives also established a line of communication that enhanced People to People connectivity. The five precepts (pancha-sila or basic lay ethics) established a code of conduct where the individual held him or her self accountable to society thus reducing tension and conflict. The Buddha quite essentially used the local idiom to reach out to the people.

Transcontinental movement of the Buddha’s word

The transcontinental movement of the Buddha’s word was never disseminated by force, but as a peaceful movement of absorption, accommodation and adoption. It not only conveyed the spirit of the doctrine but also a higher culture represented in social norms of ethical behaviour, language and script, art forms and architecture. Buddhist monasteries were not only places of socio-cultural convergence, but were expressive centres of excellence for intellectual activity and where social friendly life skills and academic curriculum were imparted.

This is a testimony to the vibrant and holistic approach to knowledge valued at that time. By the first millennium AC such centers were thriving as international universities at Taxila, Nalanda, Anuradhapura, Odantapuri and Vikaramashila. Some of these centres had foreign students and faculty from India, China, Sri Lanka, Persia, Turkey and several other lands. It goes without saying that these monasteries and their urban centres were multi- cultural portals of the classical world, where individuals from different cultures and belief systems co-mingled devoid of any inhibitions. Buddhism truly represented a doctrine of the intellect and higher culture that went beyond borders and transcended ethnic, language, cultural and even religious barriers. Buddhist culture essentially was and is international in character.

For thousands of years my country, Sri Lanka, was a place of convergence for different ethnic, cultural, religious and language groups. The arrival of Buddhism and other north Indian social ideologies, such as Jainism, around 3rd Century BC heralded the beginnings of civilization and its cosmopolitan culture that provided a distinct identity to this island society. In the following periods, the doctrine of the Buddha and its monastic culture shaped the intellectual, spiritual and cultural personality of Sri Lanka. It was a land that embraced into its fold people from diverse cultures, where they maintained their own identity while positively interacting within this island society. The UNESCO declared World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka are a living testimony to the valued contribution of Buddhism as a philosophical force and where space was essentially provided to diversity. International connections maintained by the ancient monasteries with India, Southeast Asia, China, West Asia is a case in point.

The World Heritage site at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and even Tissamaharama yielded artefacts of Buddhist, Chinese, West Asian, Hindu, Indian and Islamic origin from primary habitation centres and monasteries.

This tradition continues even in the present. The world renowned Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak (nominated as a World Heritage site) is a sacred hill revered by pilgrims of all major faiths. The UNESCO World Heritage site at Polonnaruwa has several dozen Hindu shrines nestled within the Buddhist monastery. The pilgrimage site at Kataragama is a sacred space for Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic pilgrims. The famous pilgrims’ route or Pada Yatra originates from Jaffna in the North and culminates at Kataragama in the South and is shared by Hindu, Buddhist and Islam pilgrims. The shared heritage therefore is a historical legacy and living reality.

Post-colonial globalization and adjustments to its inherent contradictions manifested themselves in conflict situations and multiple dichotomies imposed for over 50 years in Sri Lanka. Today, in a post-conflict era, Sri Lanka is looking beyond its painful experience, thus moving towards material reconstruction and building bridges of connectivity for sustainable peace and co-existence. The process of reconciliation in Sri Lanka is an imperative. The plural cultural mosaic of Sri Lanka represents an inclusive island society.

Its diversity is nurtured by a rich and shared cultural legacy inherited from the past. While the government has initiated the Truths Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, the public at the ground level could support this endeavour with a genuine show of respect for diversity, accommodation and non- discrimination – as the future road map for sustainable peace and co-existence in this country. To disregard this sacred obligation is to lament over lost opportunities that will ultimately witness the re-emergence of the carnage we experienced for thirty years as a national tragedy.

Sri Lanka’s shared heritage

Though Sri Lanka represents a culture flavoured by the Buddhist ethos, there is also a legacy of a shared heritage enriched by Hindu, Islamic and Christian cultures, representing diversity and commonalities within its resident community. It is in this context that we have come to appreciate heritage as a multi-faceted catalyst and a source of People to People connectivity and conflict resolution. Heritage is seen as an idiom that expresses a common language of humanity where people reach out to each other for understanding, sharing and co-existence. It is also seen as an alternative space and bench-mark for future peace initiatives undertaken by individuals and statesmen respecting pluralism. For this purpose a paradigm shift is needed to redefine heritage beyond the narrow confines of culture per se. We now identify environment, culture, knowledge from the past and the next generation as integral components of heritage. It is in conjunction with this redefined concept of heritage that we also recognize the need to humanize education as an important feature in conflict resolution, especially through Peace Education prescribed by UNESCO.

In the past two decades and especially in the post war period, several inclusive and shared heritage initiatives on Heritage for Conflict Resolution were undertaken at UNESCO declared World Heritage sites, select Universities and the UNESCO school clubs at the World Heritage City of Kandy and at several other venues. As a basic premise heritage was presented as inclusive and not exclusive. The creation of new multi cultural museums showcasing our shared heritage, cultural mapping, heritage publications in all three national languages, out-reach programmes, training of trainers programmes, public exhibitions on diversity and shared heritage are some of the activities among a long list of initiatives undertaken in this regard. A series of training activities also established a permanent bench-mark for pockets of good practice on heritage management especially disseminating professional standards and information to the next generation devoid of parochialisms. I am pleased to note that, as socially engaged professionals, we have received consistent support from government agencies, UN affiliated bodies, especially UNESCO, various diplomatic missions and the public towards People to People initiatives based on shared heritage and peace education.

Today, in the larger world we are challenged by questions of social and environmental cost of arrogant political behaviour driven by aggressive globalization and its “imagined material development” imposed from above on unequal partners in the global world. This has resulted in traumatized communities and untold misery, damage to lives, property, social and moral fabric of the world. Conversely, humanizing social, economic and cultural interactions within a sustainable environment is seen as an alternative to such lopsided developments. The Buddha’s universal message for peace and co-existence based on reaching out to all beings with loving-kindness, accommodation and understanding underlined its importance to society of his own times and is critically relevant to us where human-created contradictions are yet rampant in the present world. This indeed is the bottom line in the dialectics of an Interfaith Dialogue.

I wish to end with a universal blessing for quality of life recorded in the ancient Buddhist scriptures:

Devo vassatu kalena. Sassasampatti hotu ca
Pito bhavatu lokoca. Raja bhavatu dammiko

May there be rains at the right season. May there be a plentiful harvest.

[Prof. Seneviratne was also Director General of the Central Cultural Fund (2007 to 2010) & Senior Advisor (Culture) to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs].

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