Sometime back the country has experienced Buddhist monks coming into direct politics. In recent times the country has experienced Buddhist monks grouped under various names rampaging in the streets, engaging in violence against other religions.
The topic, whether it is appropriate for Buddhist monks to engage in politics, was debated for a long time. In the 1940s Buddhist monks attached to Vidyalankara Pirivena took a bold step not only to engage in so-called politics as they interpreted but also to actively engage with it. The academic staff of the Vidyalankara Pirivena unanimously made a declaration dated 13th February 1946 which was subsequently called the Vidyalankara Declaration, justifying the reasons why Buddhist monks should engage in politics, which term was defined by them. The declaration was issued under the name of Kiriwaththuduwe Pragnasara who was the Head of the institution at that time.
There were very prominent monks who contributed immensely to the education and knowledgebase of this county in the Vidyalankara academic staff at that time, including Yakkaduwe Pragnarama, Kotahene Pannakiththi, Naththandiye Pannakara, Bambarande Siri Sivali and Walpola Rahula. At this time it is appropriate to discuss the contents of Vidyalankara Declaration against the behaviour of the present day monks who rampage in the streets.
About 60 years back Buddhists in this country did not wish to attain nibbana in this very life. Their intention was to attain nibbana after hearing sermons from the next Buddha Maithree. The Vidyalankara Declaration in the outset stated as follows as translated from Sinhala:
“It should be accepted that the economic, political and social status prevailed during the time of Buddha was changed very much now and therefore the life of monks also changed very much. In those days the intention of the monks was to attain nibbana in the same life. Intention of the bhikkus lived much later worked towards the benefit of themselves and others with the intention of attaining nibbana at a later life. It is very clear that the life of a monk changed very much later because of this shift of the basic intention.”
This situation was changed gradually with the Buddha Jayanthi, the 2,500th anniversary of the parinibbana, passing away of Buddha in 1956. In the Kandyan era Buddhism was lost in Sri Lanka and ordination to monkhood was carried into the country from Thailand and Burma.
Unlike in Sri Lanka in those two countries there were vipassana meditation systems passed on over a period from one generation to another without interruption. These meditation systems were spread around the world after the Buddha Jayanthi in 1956. When the Mitirigala Nissarana Vanaya Monastery was incorporated in 1967 by the late Asoka Weerarathne (later Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanisenthi) with most venerable Matara Sri Gnanarama as the abbot, it was the intention to facilitate the resident monks of the monastery to achieve nibbana in this very life. There is a considerable number of lay persons and monks who meditate to achieve this objective today in Sri Lanka let alone Burma and Thailand.
At the time of Vidyalankara Declaration and before that the education and knowledge of this country was concentrated around the Buddhist temple. The monks who thought in the pirivena established throughout the country were knowledgeable in various subjects. The influence of the monks was started diminishing after the establishment of the universities Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara after 1956. Presently the recognition to the subjects such as modern sciences is higher than that to the subjects where monks are conversant.
Validity in question
The Vidyalankara Declaration takes liberty to justify the political activities of the bhikkus by the statement, “Intention of the bhikkus lived much later served themselves and the others with the intention of attaining nibbana at a later life.”
The reason for this statement was that at the time of Vidyalankara Declaration the economic and social life was different to that of the time of Buddha. However the situation today is different to the time of Vidyalankara Declaration. Hence the validity of that declaration today is a question.
The main intention of the Vidyalankara Declaration was to liberate the common man who was suppressed by the then elites of the society. The monks who contributed to the Vidyalankara Declaration have done immense service to the education of this country. They were progressive, fearless and impartial.
At one point when there was no alms given to the Vidyalankara Pirivena by the laymen, under the influence of the powerful persons, Ven. Yakkaduwe Pragnarama had written a series of books Pancha Thanthra. The Thera had to face the anger of the then Prime Minister by stating at one place of the book that if one wants to go to hell, one has to do the job of the prime minister. Fearlessness does not mean to damage Muslim or Christian religious places with the support of the ruling elite.
Benefit of the common man
In the Declaration it was stated as follows as well: “We believe that every work done for the benefit of the common man belongs to politics. It is the duty of the monks to work towards the progress of the religion. The growth of the religion is depending on the growth of the people who believe that religion. It was proved by the history that at the times of Sinhala Buddhists were doing well Buddhism also was doing well. Therefore if there is any activity which contributes to the benefit of the common man of this country it is appropriate to for the monks to involve with that activity without damaging the monkhood whether the name of that activity is politics or otherwise.
“We accept that it is the duty of the monks to work for the progress of the common man and also work against the forces which would be a hindrance to the progress of them. For instance to work against the forces which try to destroy the free education which is beneficial to the common man and establish the free education is a paramount duty of the monks.”
Although at the time of Vidyalankara Declaration and around 10 years thereafter Bhikkus of this country did not enjoy adequate political power, Bhikkus who pioneered the Vidyalankara Declaration did not engage with any activity which affected the believers of other religions or damaged the monkhood.
We have to examine the conduct of the monks who are engaged in violent activities, harming Buddhism and the monkhood in this background. These monks do not belong to progressive camp in the political sense. They do not work towards the general progress of the common people in the country. They are communalists. They try to safeguard the religion just like the foolish companion who tried to chase away the fly who was on the body of the king by attacking the fly with a sword.
They are oppressors. They by any chance do not represent the oppressed. This behaviour is completely against the way recommended by the Buddha and the way followed by the monks who authored the Vidyalankara Declaration. They are also indifferent to the spiritual direction taken by the Buddhism in this country after the Vidyalankara Declaration. They work against the nibbanic way. They create a hindrance to propagation of Buddhism in the world at large. Although the monks who authored the Vidyalankara Declaration did not work towards nibbana in this life, they were engaged in progressive acts benefiting the common man of the country. On the contrary, these monks are reactionaries. Knowingly or unknowingly they work towards the political benefit of the rulers and mislead lay Buddhists. They betray Buddhism and monkhood for petty political purposes and hence their actions should be condemned and stopped. The day they will be thrown to the dustbin of the history is very close.
True Buddhists of this country should be very vigilant to ensure that the Buddhism of this county will also not be thrown into the dustbin at the same time.