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What should the strategic direction of the Bhikkhu society be today?


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Untitled-1Walpola Rahula Thero wrote a book called ‘Brikshuvage Urumaya’ in Sinhala in 1946, justifying so-called Bhikkhu politics or as he emphasised public service of bhikkhus. He translated this book into English later. 

The reason for writing this book was that there was an ideology in those days mainly promoted by a group of politicians headed by D.S. Senanayake that the bhikkhus should not be engaged in politics. The well-known declaration of Vidyalankara Pirivena supporting bhikkhu politics under the signature of Ven. Kiriwaththuduve Pragnasara who was the Head of the Vidyalankara Pirivena at that time also was released in this very year. 

Rahula Thero started his book as follows: “Buddhism is based on service to others. Sumedha the hermit (Bodhisattva who became Gothama the Buddha) renounced nirvana, which was accessible to him, at the feet of Buddha Dipankara and resolved to remain in samsara to serve the world…A true Buddhist should have the strength to sacrifice his own nirvana for the sake of the others.”

He then highlighted the Buddha sermons related to worldly affairs such as Sigalovada sutta and Parabhava sutta. Then he pointed out that the Buddha himself changed his own disciplinary rules subsequently depending on the circumstances. Different sects were originated and Councils (Dharma Sangayana) were to be held due to different views of the monks. 

As a result Buddhism continued without extinction. After Buddhism came to Sri Lanka it became the national religion so that there was a union of the nation and the religion, resulting in increasing influence of the bhikkhus in governance of the country.

Role of the bhikkhus

Going by the interpretation of the Dutugemunu-Elara battle in the ‘Mahavamsa,’ he pointed out that the bhikkhus in that era played a leading role in national and religious service. It was stated in the Mahavamsa that the Arahats approved the killing of Tamils in the battlefield. Although it was against the Dhamma, he stated that it revealed the common thinking of the people at that time.

Rahula Thero emphasised that during the time of King Valagamba after the Baminitiya famine, bhikkhus came to a conclusion that doctrine (pariyatti) was more important than practice (patipatti) and realisation of ultimate truth (pativedha). Even Rahula Thero admitted that this was against what Buddha preached. 

However this cannot be discussed taking it in isolation of the background. The reason for this conclusion was that then the Buddha’s teaching was carried forward by memorising the same by the monks. This was only possible through the emphasis of doctrine rather than practice. 

During the Baminitiya famine, several bhikkhus died and some migrated to India. Hence the continuity of Buddhism was challenged. However during the same period bhikkhus took a decision to write down the teachings of Buddha in ola leaves for the first time in history. That was the greatest service done by the bhikkhus in Sri Lanka to Buddhism. 

Doctrine vs. practice 

The conflict of doctrine against practice and realisation of the truth was later developed in to two; village-dwellers who were engaged in scholarship (grantha dhura) and forest-dwellers who were engaged in practice (vipassana dhura). This is how Rahula Thero justified the scholarship citing a book written by a forest-dweller who engaged in practice.

“It is probable that by this time they were forest-dwellers only by name, but for the most part they behaved like the village-dwelling bhikkhus. Undoubtedly these forest-dwelling bhikkhus also must have realised that the village-dwelling bhikkhus’ way of life was more useful and beneficial and won the respect of most people.”

Thereafter Rahula Thero citing the illustrations given in the Commentaries (atuva) proved that during the Anuradhapura regime scholarship was considered greater than the practice. “I have become a monk in old age. I am incapable of following the vocation of scholarship. Hence I will follow the vocation of meditation.”

In the early stages scholarship was meant teaching and learning of what Buddha has said but later it meant teaching and learning of history, languages and laws imposed by the kings. According to Rahula Thero, all most all the temples were institutions of free education and as a result learned bhikkhus were bestowed with lot of respect. Also the Government provided large amounts of funds for the maintenance of temples since the bhikkhus were doing yeoman service for the upliftment of literature and art and preserving national independence and peace.

Rahula Thero pointed out that during the time when the country was under the rule of Western nations and when they tried to spread Christianity by creating conflicts between bhikkhus and laymen, bhikkhus worked tirelessly to safeguard Buddhism. The Government withdrew from the administration of Buddhist temporalities in order to put Buddhist prelates in a difficult situation. Finally Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara pirivenas emerged against the efforts of the Government to uplift Christian education in the country.   

In the declaration of Vidyalankara Pirivena, it was stated as follows: “We therefore declare that it is nothing but fitting for bhikkhus to identify themselves with activities conducive to the welfare of our people – whether these activities be labelled politics or not – as long as they do not constitute an impediment to the religious life of a bhikkhu.”

The time when Walpola Rahula had written the heritage of the bhikkhu was the golden era of Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas. It was the era where the bhikkhus had a great influence over the education of this country although they did not have monopolistic authority over it. 

It was the era where great monks such as Welivitiye Soratha, Kiriwaththuduwe Pragnasara, Yakkaduwe Pragnarama, Kotahene Prajnakirti, Naththandiye Pannakara and Bambarande Siri Sivali directed the bhikkhu education of this country. Also it was the era where there was a great interest of the people about independence.  

Buddhist rejuvenation worldwide

Now the situation has changed. Firstly the authority of the bhikkhus over the field of education was reduced. The Bandaranaike Government upgraded Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara pirivenas to the level of universities and there was lesser demand for the learning of the subjects thought by the bhikkhus due to the socioeconomic changes of the country. As a result the social recognition of the bhikkhus was reduced. 

Secondly, there is a Buddhist rejuvenation worldwide due to the introduction of vipassana meditation techniques, which were brought down from generation to generation by Thai and Burmese bhikkhus to the laymen. There are 166 meditation centres spread throughout the world teaching a method of Burmese origin of S.N. Goenka, a well-respected meditation master who passed away recently. The control of those centres are with the laymen and not with the bhikkhus. 

Extensive research is carried out in Western countries about vipassana meditation and awareness – Sati. Western medical practitioners prescribe vipassana meditation for reduction of stress. Vipassana meditation is being spreading in this country as well and there are quite a number of lay persons engaged in that and they are well ahead of the village-dwelling bhikkhus.

Rahula Thero once met J. Krishnamurthi, one of the great thinkers who lived in the last century. After listening to the detailed explanation of Buddhism by Rahula Thero, Krishmanurthi said a person cannot be liberated by his knowledge. Knowledge uplifts ego. As pointed out by S.N. Goenka, there is no point of mastering the prescription without taking medicine. Hence practice is certainly more important than scholarship.

What is Buddhism? 

What is Buddhism? Buddhism is the research methodology of the noble research one has to undertake in order to understand self in this very life before death and not at the time of Maithree Buddha. Buddhism is propagated in the world today because of documentation of the same at Aluvihara, Mathale during the time of King Walagamba and because of the introduction of age old vipassana meditation techniques brought down from teacher to pupil by Burmese and Thai meditation masters to lay persons as indicated above. 

Michael Porter is a professor based at the Harvard Business School and he is a leading authority on competitive strategy and the competitiveness and economic development of nations, states, and regions. Michael Porter introduced his generic strategies in 1980. 

Empirical research on the profit impact of marketing strategy indicated that firms with a high market share were often quite profitable, but so were many firms with low market share. The least profitable firms were those with moderate market share. This was sometimes referred to as the hole in the middle problem. 

Porter’s explanation of this is that firms with high market share were successful because they pursued a cost leadership strategy and firms with low market share were successful because they used market segmentation to focus on a small but profitable market niche- differentiation. Firms in the middle were less profitable because they did not have a viable generic strategy. (Porter’s Generic Competitive Strategies-Ritika Tanwar) They had neither cost leadership nor differentiation. So that they were stuck in the middle.

Therefore what Bhikkhus have to do now is abandon scholarship – granthadhura – which was a deviation of the original teaching of the Buddha and by which they could not get a prominent place in the society now due to socio economic changes of the country. In turn they can adapt practice – vipassanadhura – which was the main objective of the Buddha. 

The interpretation given by Rahula Thero to practice has changed due to the introduction of vipassana meditation to the laymen. One do not have to go to a forest and spend his whole life meditating. He can learn meditation, achieve a certain stage and come and direct lay persons in meditation.

Bhikkhus either should excel in granthadura or in vipassanadhura. One has to be an emperor or one has to attain Buddhahood. If neither can be achieved, bhikkhus would get stuck in the middle as preached by Michael Porter. If different words are used, in the future we may have to learn vipassana meditation from the West institutionally. That would be a real challenge and disgrace.


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