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Buddhism, Dhamma, collectivism and individualism


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In today’s context in Sri Lanka it is difficult to understand the role of certain Buddhist monks and lay Buddhists where they do engage in certain activities in order to protect Buddhism but in fact by those very actions they attack the very basics of Buddhism and pave the way to destroy it. In this article the writer tries to review this situation by analysing the prevalent culture in Sri Lanka and the impact on it to Buddhism. Collectivism and individualism Individualism and collectivism are concepts developed by the scholars who studied the cultures of the countries and the organisations. Geert Hofstede developed the most prominent conceptualisation. Individualism pertains to societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family. Collectivism as its opposite pertains to societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. "In collectivist cultures, laws and rights differ by group whereas in individualist cultures laws and rights are supposed to be the same for all. In Sri Lanka there are different laws and rights based on the level of influence one can exercise. This is evident today in the behaviour of politicians, police and to certain extent of the Judiciary as well" In Sri Lanka, by and large there is a collectivist culture. There are various groups starting from the race, cast, and religion up to the informal in-groups. There are strong ties between individuals and very often relationships prevail over tasks. Identity is based in the social network to which one belongs, rather than based on the individual as in the individualist cultures. Special recognition is given by a person to another if the latter is studied at the same school of the former or the latter’s hometown is same as the former. Very often opinions are predetermined by group membership and having private opinions are not encouraged. This is somewhat evident in political thinking of minority communities in Sri Lanka. It is evident in thinking patterns of the university students as well. In the electoral system also there are a large number of voters who are not members of political parties and who do not want to change their loyalty to a party. It is a question whether proper democracy can be established in collectivist cultures. Collectivist cultures are not rule-oriented. They always try to take shortcuts or try to deviate from the accepted procedure/rule. In Sri Lanka when there is a queue, people try to break the order since, in the point of view of one person, the other persons who are in the queue are not belong to his in-group. They are generally hostile towards the members of the other groups. In collectivist cultures, laws and rights differ by group whereas in individualist cultures laws and rights are supposed to be the same for all. In Sri Lanka there are different laws and rights based on the level of influence one can exercise. This is evident today in the behaviour of politicians, police and to certain extent of the Judiciary as well. Finally, the ultimate goal of collectivist cultures is harmony and consensus in the society whereas the same in the individualistic cultures is self-actualisation by every individual. However there is a positive correlation between national wealth and individualism. When the society is modernised the urban family is nuclear, so that it paves way for individualism. Buddhism and Dhamma Gautama the Buddha rediscovered the law of nature 2,600 years ago. Law of nature is not an opinion, a dogma or a philosophy developed by the Buddha, but he just discovered it. If he did not discover it, we would be ignorant to that effect but the law of nature would be in force. Also it was a rediscovery. Many discovered the same in the past and many will discover it in the future. Therefore there was no such ownership to the law of nature by Gautama the Buddha. Law of nature is called Dhamma in Pali. The Dhamma is not sectarian; it is universal. People cannot be divided based on Dhamma; instead it unites people. Dhamma is not for war but for peace. The Dhamma is not a belief but the reality. But anyone and everyone cannot understand the Dhamma. It is not so easy to understand and at the same time it is not so difficult either. If one could not understand the Dhamma in depth, one can develop a philosophy out of it, if one so wishes. This philosophy, which is based on the superficial understanding of the Dhamma, could be named also. The name given to this philosophy is Buddhism. Buddhism developed in various countries acquiring the beliefs and ways of life in those societies. Therefore there is a clear difference between Dhamma, the law of nature rediscovered by Gautama the Buddha 2500 years ago and Buddhism, which was developed by his disciples, who could not or did not want to understand Dhamma. Buddhism is sectarian; it divides people. If it divides people it should also lead them to war although it preaches otherwise. Like any other organised religion, Buddhism is having lot of rituals, which has become an integral part of it. When the South Indians invaded Sri Lanka, Hinduism also came to the country. Buddhism was accommodative towards Hinduism and with the influence of the Sinhala kings Hindu Gods came to the Buddhist temples in the Polonnaruwa era. This was the greatest influence the Sri Lankan Buddhism had. In the Kandyan era, the then King, Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe ordered only the members of Govigama caste should be accepted for ordination as Bhikkus since a low caste Bhikku worshiped the king contrary to accepted practice. The order of the king was simply the opposite of Dhamma. But it prevails to date and the members of the other castes had to have different Nikayas for them. When Western powers invaded Sri Lanka and started spreading Christianity, Buddhists became an in-group organised against Christianity. Buddhism and collectivism In collectivist countries, members of a religion act as members of an in-group. Buddhism also suffered the same fate in Sri Lanka. It was used to organise people against the South Indian invaders by the Sinhalese kings. It organised Buddhists against Christianity. It mobilised the masses against the Western invaders. Therefore it established as ‘Sinhala Buddhism’. Later it had different variations such as ‘Rural Buddhism,’ ‘Olcott Buddhism’ and ‘Dharmapala Buddhism’ identified by different scholars in order to denote different social groups. Therefore present day Buddhism has a lot of variations from the original Dhamma. In some instances, it is completely the opposite of Dhamma. The laymen and the Bhikkus are practicing different social religions called various names such as Sinhala Buddhism, etc. In this context only we can examine the behaviour of certain Bhikkus coming to politics and promote ‘non-Buddhist’ concepts. In the present day social context there is nothing wrong in this act. Some time back there was a book titled ‘Buddhism Betrayed’ written by renowned Sri Lankan social scientist Dr. S.J. Tambiah, who passed away recently. As we discussed, by and large the prevailing Buddhism in Sri Lanka is Sinhala Buddhism. Therefore there is no question of betrayal of Buddhism, considering the acts taken by Sinhala Buddhists against the Tamils. However there is a question of betrayal of Dhamma in favour of Sinhala Buddhism. But Dhamma still prevails in this land. Still there are people interested in Dhamma. Still there are people practicing Dhamma. Still there are people achieved very high spiritual statuses in this very life through Dhamma. Dhamma and individualism In a course of vipassana meditation, if a Westerner is asked not to talk with other meditators or not to open his/her eyes while sitting in meditation he/she will follow the instructions up to the letter. If the same instructions were given to a local he/she will try to communicate with others with body language or open his/her eyes ‘little bit’ and see what is happening around while in meditation. If an individualist promise to observe five precepts there are many chances that he/she observes the same so that there is no need to promise over and over again. In respect of a collectivist it would be the opposite. In Dhamma the final understanding is individualistic. Initially one has to understand that he is a ‘robot’ not a real person. There is an entity due to causes and effects and there is no real person. The entire view one is having about the world shatters down with this understanding. Yet this understanding is individualistic although the result is that there is no individual. Collectivism does not promote people to have this type of self-actualisation; instead it promotes harmony in the society. That is why there is a saying in Sinhala to condemn a person who wants to achieve a higher worldly status in life that he wants to achieve Buddha-hood all alone. In fact spiritual gains have to be achieved all alone, not with kith and kin. Dhamma says that one has to find out his own liberation and there is no God to help him. A Guru can guide him/her but he/she, no one else, has to go along the path. This type of thinking is alien in collectivist cultures. However the individualist Bikkus who meditate in isolation are well supported with food, clothes, lodgings and medicine by the collectivist cultures. Collectivist cultures would help to preserve Dhamma but those cultures would fail to get the benefits out of the same. Therefore Dhamma was degraded to Buddhism and then to Sinhala Buddhism in the hands of Sri Lankan collectivist culture. Dhamma will get firmly established in the individualistic Western cultures if introduced properly. (The writer is a Chartered Accountant by profession and holds a Master of Business Administration degree awarded by the Postgraduate Institute of Management of University of Sri Jayewardenepura.)

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