Buddhism is the oldest of the four great world religions; the other three being Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Buddhism like the other major religions addresses itself to all mankind and has also found adherents in all parts of the world. Buddhism is also a world religion in the sense that it has been able to [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

The middle path and the way forward for Buddhism in the 21st Century


Buddhism is the oldest of the four great world religions; the other three being Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Buddhism like the other major religions addresses itself to all mankind and has also found adherents in all parts of the world. Buddhism is also a world religion in the sense that it has been able to adapt itself to diverse geographical regions, a variety of social systems and above all, to succeeding industrial, scientific and technological revolutions. It has been estimated that, today there are as many Buddhist adherents as Christians or Muslims distributed in every conceivable country, region and continent.

The reasons for this upsurge in voluntary conversions to Buddhism are many. Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula Thera has offered a plausible explanation to this phenomenon. He has said that “Buddhism is always a question of knowing and seeing and not that of believing. The teaching of the Buddha is qualified as “Ehi – Passiko”; inviting you to come and see but not to come and believe.”

The world in turmoil

The world today is in a constant state of flux and turmoil. Human beings are killing human beings for political, social, economic, racial or religious reasons. The widening gap between the rich and the poor especially in the developing countries is fuelling jealousy, hatred and social disintegration. Uncertainty of life has become the order of the day. From the Buddhist point of view all these manifestations are due to insatiable desire, hatred, conceit and ignorance.

The relevance of Buddhism in dealing with the vast array of contemporary problems rests on the fact that Buddhism is more concerned about attacking the root causes of a given problem as against its symptoms. The numerous crises such as social, cultural and ecological confronting mankind today can be seen from the Buddhist perspective as a manifestation of a deeper moral and psychological crisis. All such crises are aspects of the same predicament that is described in Buddhism as “Dukkha” or suffering or unsatisfactoriness. When “Lobha” or greed, “Dosa” or hatred and “Moha” or delusion are the driving forces of society; such crises of great magnitude and complexity are unavoidable. The Buddha recognised the human potential to overcome all external constraints with understanding and insight instead of becoming powerless victims of such conditions.

Preserving the Buddhist scriptures

As recorded in the Pali Canon itself, three months after the Parinirvana of the Buddha a convention was held in Rajagaha, the then capital of Magadha Kingdom under the leadership of the Elder Maha Kassapa Maha Thera to compile and rehearse the Dhamma and the Vinaya. It was conducted in the language of Magadha and after the convention, the original compilation was translated into several Indian dialects which included Pali. Since the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century B.C. Sri Lankan elders preserved these invaluable Pali scriptures, sometimes even at the cost of their lives during times of political unrest and numerous South Indian invasions.

In Theravada Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, Pali texts and commentaries are considered authoritative in dealing with any subject related to early Buddhism. Also, it is on record that initially the Pali Thripitaka was committed to writing in Sri Lanka and thereafter generously shared with the other nations of South and South East Asia.

The Buddha presented to posterity his teachings as his virtual successor. It is said that one sees the Buddha when one sees the Dhamma and vice versa. When the Buddha Sasana almost disappeared from Sri Lanka in the 18th century, all that was left for Venerable Velivita Sri Saranankara Sangharaja Thera was Buddhist literature that was preserved in a few Buddhist temples of his time. It is through this literature that he found the way to revive learning and through it the Buddha Sasana. Therefore, the importance of preserving the vast Buddhist scriptures along with their commentaries need not be overemphasised.

The Pali Thripitaka is indeed an irreplaceable treasure for the study as well as the propagation of Buddhism. However, concerns have been expressed about its preservation as well as its circulation both nationally and internationally. Two hundred years of western scholarship has produced a vast literature of Buddhist studies which need to be reviewed, revised and corrected. The Buddhist countries do possess collectively the material and intellectual resources to undertake this important task. We still have a high level of Pali scholarship for research and study.
Study of Pali language and Pali studies

Pali has been the vehicle of Theravada Buddhism for well over 2000 years. The Buddhist scriptures including the Tripitaka have been committed to writing in the Pali language. It is said to be a well articulated and highly advanced language even though like Latin a dead language today. Throughout the ages the study of the Pali language was given pride of place in traditional temple education and subsequently in Pirivena education in Sri Lanka. In fact Pali is so ingrained and infused in our way of living that Sri Lankan Buddhists to this day not only observe the five precepts but also recite all the religious stanzas in the Pali language.

However, it is both incongruous and unfortunate that other than the Sangha and a few oriental scholars who are conversant in Pali the ordinary lay person is ignorant of the meaning and depth of the rhythmical and soothing Pali recitations. I still vividly recall how my Dhamma school teacher forced me to memorize the highly advanced “Abhidhamma” stanzas in Pali which I abhorred, as it sounded “Greek” to me and unfortunately the teacher too had no knowledge of Pali to explain to the class the meaning of those advanced teachings. This anomalous situation can be rectified by making the teaching of Pali compulsory in Dhamma schools.

Another matter that needs urgent attention is the dwindling interest in the study of the Pali language as well as Pali studies in many Buddhist countries in particular. It is universally acknowledged that a high level of expertise in the Pali language is indispensable for the proper understanding of the Buddha Dhamma. A critical mass of Pali scholars is essential to preserve the Tripitaka, its commentaries and other important treatises. This is especially so because the authenticity of the original text has to be preserved in translations and secondary interpretations. It is heartening to note that in Sri Lanka’s Pirivena education pride of place is given to the teaching of Pali; so much so that it is a compulsory subject for the Pirivena Final Certificate Examination which is equivalent to the General Certificate of Education (ordinary level), Examination.

Secularisation and politicisation of the Sangha

The phenomenon of rapid commercialization and globalization of the 20th century has resulted in the unprecedented secularization and politicization of the Sangha. The majority of Bhikkhus led exemplary, disciplined and restrained lives as dictated by the “Vinaya Rules” or the disciplinary code for monks and in conformity with the high expectations of the laity who sustain them. The Buddha has spoken of the Sivupasaya or the four basic requirements of mendicant monks. They are Pindapatha (food), Civra (robes), Senasana(shelter) and Gilanapaccaya (medicine). These are the four basic needs of all human beings as well. Also, Buddhist teachings emphasize the moral values of frugality, resourcefulness, control over excessive craving and conspicuous consumption. However, there are Bhikkhus who engage in certain activities, practices and professions which have been prohibited by the Vinaya Rules such as astrology, medicine, exorcism and spiritualism. It is unfortunate that such Bhikkhus cannot be disciplined appropriately by the relevant disciplinary authorities of the respective Nikayas due to lack of punitive legislative backing.

The era of the dedicated, selfless and disciplined monk is no more. Almost all the monks other than maybe a few who are meditating in the jungles crave for secular education, lucrative employment, all the worldly possessions and comforts and finally the Nayakeship of one’s own temple. The laymen are also partly responsible for corrupting the Sangha. They shower the Sangha with the most mundane and luxurious gifts such as computers, air conditioners, household appliances and luxury vehicles. This is done with ulterior motives such as to gain access to the innermost sanctum of the shrines or to be treated as a very important person at temple ceremonies.

Almost all these wants could be easily satisfied through appropriate political patronage which has resulted in the politicization of the Sangha. Such political patronage obviously has strings attached to it. There is nothing in this world today called a free “dana” or lunch offered purely to acquire merit. This new phenomenon of the Sangha getting drawn into the mainstream of politics does not augur well for the furtherance of the Buddha Sasana. Once inveigled into the political mainstream there is no escape from political hell in this birth and of course eventually from “Sansara”.

The Presidential Commission on Buddha Sasana of 2002, having examined the grave dangers posed by the politicization of the Sangha has recommended a four fold code of ethics to be observed by all political parties as follows. Firstly, political parties should refrain from granting party membership to Bhikkhus. Secondly, Bhikkhus should not be deployed for political activities of any kind. Thirdly, political parties should refrain from giving nominations to Bhikkhus to contest local, provincial, parliamentary or presidential elections. Fourthly, legislation should be introduced preventing Bhikkhus from contesting elections to political institutions / office as such activity infringes on Vinaya Rules.

In a predominantly Buddhist country such as ours it will be of paramount importance to establish by law a Supreme Sangha Council representative of all Nikayas (orders) not only as a coordinating and unifying organ but also as a disciplinary authority for the enforcement of vinaya rules pertaining to the Sangha bearing in mind the techno, economic and socio cultural changes of our times which are of course unavoidable but manageable if handled judiciously. Also, the Supreme Sangha Council should be empowered to relax the Vinaya Rules in keeping with the demands of modernization and globalization.

Erosion of bonds between the village and the temple

The secularization of the Sangha and the politicization of both the Sangha and the laity has resulted in the gradual erosion of the exemplary and salutary bonds of co-existence between the village and the temple. The gap between the village and the temple is widening with greater modernization, commercialization and globalization. The lifestyle of the Bhikkhu is getting more and more attuned to consumerism while that of the villager is degenerating to frugality through economic hardships.

The total cleansing and reformation of both the Sangha and the laity is not only imperative but also an absolute must today. The role of the Sangha has to be exemplary if the laymen are to lead lives in accordance with the Dharma. This is possible only if the Sangha could be made to lead a life in conformity with Vinaya Rules while disseminating the message of the Buddha to the laity on the practice of Buddhism in daily life. Once again the temple should be reverted to the attractive, useful and indispensable entity it was to the villager in his daily life. In most temples sermons on full moon poya days and Dhamma schools on Sundays are the only remaining linkages between the temple and village.

The scope and content of the role of the temple can be enlarged to cover a nursery school, a day care centre for the elderly and a reading room, library and communication centre. Also, conducting occasional health camps, regular English classes and organizing “shramadana” or self-help programmes would be beneficial and meaningful to the laity. Further, the Sangha can contribute to the strengthening of bonds between the temple and the village through regular “Pindapatha” or begging for alms, visiting the sick in their homes or hospitals for counselling and chanting of ‘Pirith” and organising regular meetings of the Dayaka Sabha or the temple society.

Unethical Conversions

Buddhism as an ethical path of freedom from suffering has never resorted to anything other than rational persuasion for proselytizing. Even in rural Buddhist heartlands of Sri Lanka people are not left alone in their peacefulness. Unethical conversions are taking place rather blatantly and brazenly. The inducements offered are many ranging from rewards in cash or kind, jobs, education and foreign travel to permanent residence abroad.

The Presidential Buddhist Commission of 2002 has established utilizing 1981 and 2001 census data that the percentage of Buddhists in the country has declined while there is a disproportionate increase in the number of Muslims and non Catholic Christians. Between the censuses of 1981 and 2001 the percentage of Buddhists in Sri Lanka has decreased from 77.3% to 76.7% while Muslim population has increased from 6.9% of the population in 1981 to 8.5% in 2001. The increase of Muslims has been attributed to natural increase while that of Christians has been attributed to unethical conversions. These unethical conversions are being carried out by Evangelical Christian organizations from USA, Europe and South Korea which have been registered by the Registrar of Companies. They have targeted the poor, the unemployed and basically the helpless people with social and physical disabilities, the destitute and the orphans. There is an unprecedented increase in unethical conversions in poor districts such as Moneragala and Nuwara Eliya.

Buddhism and Hinduism have existed in Sri Lanka for well over two millennia. Islam and Christianity have been in our country for seven centuries and five centuries respectively. Peaceful co-existence with one another is a sine qua non for inter religious amity and harmony.Followers of all religions have a right to follow their own religion and educate others on it. Yet for all one should not attempt to outdo the other by unfair means. In this type of mutual acceptance the best approach is to be open and sincere towards other religions without any hidden agenda.

Largely due to unethical conversions backed by international funding there is resentment and early signs of counter fundamentalism raising its ugly head spearheaded by a handful of Buddhist monks masquerading as saviours of the Buddha Sasana. For such groups any little excuse is good enough to cause mayhem comparable may be to the use of an axe to kill a mosquito perched on the enemy’s neck. Inter-religious amity is the gateway to peace because most of the conflicts in the world have arisen due to lack of understanding, harmony and tolerance between and among religious groups.

There is a need to introduce legislative and administrative measures to curb unethical conversions in accordance with international covenants. Our priority should be poverty alleviation and raising living standards across the board so that people have less reason to succumb to material inducements. It is indeed the bounden duty of the government to closely monitor unethical conversions as well as the establishment of unauthorized places of worship without leaving room for religious extremists to take the law into their hands.

The Middle Way ; the best way forward

In overcoming all these challenges and obstacles as clearly stated in the Pali texts the Middle Way is the best way forward for Buddhism. A classic example for this is to be found in the first sermon delivered by the Buddha to the five ascetics in Benares as follows. “There are Bhikkhus, two extremes to be avoided. One is self indulgence which is mean, common, practised by the worldlings, ignoble and unbeneficial. The other is self torture which is painful, ignoble and unbeneficial. The Thathagatha, without resorting to either of these two extremes, has realized the middle way which is an eye opener and the way to freedom.”

Accordingly, we can conclude that the Middle Way is the most appropriate Buddhist way which is applicable to every aspect of life and society. It is a way of moderation and critical examination for it rejects extremism. In the Pali Sutras this doctrine is represented by the words Dhamma, which is described as lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle and lovely in the end. This is indeed the Dhamma propagated by the Buddha’s disciples for well over 25 centuries. Consequently, the “Middle Way” as expounded by the Buddha, carefully avoiding either extreme which can be precipitous is undoubtedly the best way forward for Buddhism in the 21st century.

( The writer is a former Secretary to the President)

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