The thrice blessed day of Vesak is being marked all over the world this weekend by millions of people. The United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki moon has issued a Vesak statement in which he says that this year’s observance, “falling at a time of widespread strife and misery” is opportune to examine Buddhist teachings on [...]


Go forth and spread the Dhamma


The thrice blessed day of Vesak is being marked all over the world this weekend by millions of people. The United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki moon has issued a Vesak statement in which he says that this year’s observance, “falling at a time of widespread strife and misery” is opportune to examine Buddhist teachings on how to respond to prevailing challenges. That the world is torn asunder by civil wars; nuclear threats; natural disasters; hunger; poverty; malnutrition; the lack of water, electricity, sanitation and habitation; pollution; shaky financial markets; unemployment; climate change and a whole host of other calamities, is a reality.

Buddhist teachings are not the panacea for all these ills, but the UNSG makes the point that they help to respond to these challenges – if only they are examined. That the UNSG now issues a Vesak Day message is largely due to the efforts of our own one-time Foreign Minister, the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, who proposed that the world body should observe this momentous occasion.

In Sri Lanka, long considered the virtual custodian of pristine Buddhism, the philosophy in the form of the Dhamma (Buddhist teachings) has been swamped by organised religion. Related factors such as the wellbeing of the nation-state and by extension, the very survival of the religion have taken precedence for centuries up until today over the sublime teachings of Gautama the Buddha. Sometimes, there is a contradiction in terms, and critics ask whether the actions of its followers truly correspond with its pacifist teachings.

These contradictions are bound to continue as long as its followers fear for its very survival. They have learnt from the bitter lessons of colonisation and proselytisation, and how Buddhism which spread a wave of humanism from Persia to Japan has been overpowered in many countries.

Sri Lanka had a pre-eminent position in the Buddhist world for centuries. But today, it plays an inadequate part in the dissemination of the Dhamma. For one, its own record in modern times has been tarnished. The UNSG says the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka was the modernist exponent of human rights, democratic governance and respect for the dignity of human life. Modern Sri Lankan governments have a dismal record on these grounds. On the other hand, the intellectual prowess of the nation as a whole to take the message of the Buddha to the outside world has been wanting of late.

If Emperor Ashoka was the first Buddhist missionary, hundreds of years ago, Lankan Kings sent monks and envoys to far-off lands with the message of the Buddha. They went to Thailand and the Indo-China countries of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. A contemporary scholar, Dr. Hema Goonatilake, in one of her papers says Sri Lanka was so respected by these countries that the daughters of Lankan Kings were in great demand in royal palaces of Indo-China. Buddhist missions went out to change the mores of these people who believed in cults, spirits and animal sacrifices. Buddhist Viharas were named after Lanka and Sri Lankan art and architecture found a place in those countries. Golden Buddha images were exchanged and in the 14th Century, resident Sri Lankan Buddhist monks were advisers to the Cambodian Kings.

Despite the colonial conquest thereafter, erudite scholar-monks like Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nahimi were well known in the Oriental Studies Departments of western universities. Anagarika Dharmapala launched the Maha Bodhi Society, the first Sri Lankan multi-national venture, at the height of British Imperial rule, and regained control over Buddha Gaya and Saranath in India for Buddhist pilgrims worldwide.

In more recent years, Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera, Ven. Narada Thera and Dr. G.P. Malalasekera through the World Buddhist Federation he jointly co-founded gave Sri Lanka that status as the receptacle of Buddhism. They were well known outside Sri Lanka, and yet, despite the many Buddhist universities and Pirivenas, and despite all the state sponsorship for Buddhism, there has been a strange vacuum in Sri Lanka’s role in promoting Buddhism in the world of today. Tibet’s Dalai Lama is now the face of international Buddhism, for whatever reason.

One of the major reasons for this is the lack of training of monks and scholars in foreign languages. To take the message of the Buddha to the world, those engaged in its dissemination by the written and spoken word must be conversant in two aspects, firstly, knowledge of the Dhamma and secondly, a foreign language. While there is no deficiency in the first, there is in the second.

There is a duty on the State to propagate Buddhism – not just locally, but overseas as well. Foreign language teachers must therefore be absorbed, from here or abroad to uplift the standards and language skills of these university monks, many of whom come from rural schools that had little, if no foreign language teaching.

This is something government leaders must reflect upon as we mark another of the holiest of holy days in the Buddhist calendar.

Democratic dissent is not sedition

Despite claims by the joint Opposition that organised last Tuesday’s one-day token strike to protest the steep rise in electricity prices, the event did not, shall we say, bring the country to a grinding halt.

The Government has now adopted a one-to-one confrontational approach; a demonstration for a demonstration; a pro-rally for a protest rally in a show of strength. It allowed last Tuesday’s strike to take place, but unleashed its men and machines, both covert and overt to neutralise the strike.

In a country that is replete with public holidays, this week being one example, the ordinary people seem averse to such work stoppages that disrupt their daily lives. Daily paid wage earners just cannot afford to skip work for a day in these hard and pressing times. The Government should not run away with the thought that the non-participation of many in the strike translates to support for it.

The gloves seem to be off now; Opposition members made it clear that the token-strike was the beginning of their campaign to topple the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government. The swords are drawn as speculation is rife that a major election next year is on the cards.

One can only hope the ‘demonstration-for-a-demonstration’ approach will not degenerate into an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ policy. Democratic dissent and opposition must not be viewed as ‘terrorism’ or ‘sedition’. Whatever façade of democracy exists in this country, it must not be allowed to completely disintegrate into a one-party state.

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