Prince Siddhartha sought this freedom as he had a sense of being imprisoned within the cultural, dynastic and ‘Royal’ rules and traditions he was bound by in order to see whether he could get some answers to the feeling of discontentment and disillusion he had in his physically comfortable, but mentally anguishing world around him
– Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
Question posed to Venerable Mahinda as noted in ancient Sel Lipi, “Ven Sir, what would you say about the spread of Buddhism you brought to Sri Lanka from India? Venerable Mahinda’s response, “It has spread, but had not rooted”.
In the backdrop of the worldwide campaign ‘Black Lives Matter’, it is perhaps timely for Sri Lankans to look inwards and ask the question whether we are all equals, and treat everyone as equals not just constitutionally, but in spirit, behaviour and attitudes. The campaign slogan, if we were to have one, from a Sri Lankan context could be ‘All People Matter’, and to examine with honesty whether this is so in our complex and diverse society. It appears to the onlooker that one of the most powerful tools available to make this happen, religious beliefs and the religious institutions, have divided rather than unified our complex nation. Whether this is so or not is a discussion that must be had.
This article is inspired by the recent Poson day Dhamma discussion conducted by the Head of the Walpola Rahula Institute Venerable Galkande Dhammananda Thero and Venerable Yatalamatte Kusalananda Thero. The discussion centred around two contrasting historical narratives relating to patronage of Buddhism by the Royalty and high class noblemen and women, both in India and Sri Lanka, and the other, about the spread of the Dhamma during Buddha’s time in India, and later, upon the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Venerable Mahinda, how the Dhamma spread in large numbers amongst the very ordinary people in Sri Lanka without any Royal patronage.
Conventional Buddhism and Buddhists, perhaps form the backbone of institutional Buddhism. In saying this, no reflection is cast on them as most would be decent ordinary folk who live as good human beings. However, this category perhaps needs the institution of Buddhism as that is what gives them the rules and the guidelines, and the comfort of a cultural milieu where they have a great sense of belonging, and for some, a purpose for their existence. It is possible that many in this mass of people would be lost without these anchors, and who would feel that unless these anchors that Buddhism provides are protected, Buddhism itself will be lost
This latter view is expressed clearly in the article titled ‘Impact of Buddhism on Indian society’ published in the web journal, the Sociology Guide. It says: “Buddhism gave the greatest jolt to the orthodox Brahamism. Buddhism exercised profound influence in shaping the various aspects of Indian society. It developed a popular religion without any complicated, elaborate and unintelligible rituals requiring necessarily a priestly class. This was one of the reasons for its mass appeal. The ethical code of Buddhism was also simpler based on charity, purity, self-sacrifice, and truthfulness and control over passions. It laid great emphasis on love, equality and nonviolence. It became an article of faith for the followers of the Buddhism. It laid emphasis on the fact that man himself is the architect of his own destiny. It was devoid of any elaborate idea of God. Although Buddhism could never dislodge Brahmanism from its high position, it certainly jolted it and inspired institutional changes in Indian society. Rejecting the caste system and its evils including rituals based on animal sacrifices, conservation, fasting and pilgrimage, it preached total equality. Promotion of social equality and social justice helped Buddhism to cross the frontiers of Indian sub-continent and became a world religion. In the field of education Buddhism tried to make education practical, action oriented and geared towards social welfare. Most of the ancient Indian universities like Nalanda, Taxila were products of Buddhism”.
This description appears to be a clear reference to the mass appeal, and the mass following of the Dhamma that Buddha preached, and there is no reference here to any patronage or a top down approach to the spread of the Dhamma in India during Buddha’s time.
Buddhism and politics
In contrast to this view is an article by Matthew Moore titled ‘Buddhism and Politics’ published by Oxford Bibliographies, where, in his introduction he says: “Politics has always been part of Buddhism. The earliest Buddhists texts, the Tipiṭaka, contain numerous references to and discussions of kings, princes, wars, and policies. Later Buddhist texts, up to the present day, likewise contain advice to rulers about how to govern well, warnings about the dire consequences of ruling poorly, and admonitions to avoid arrogance and ignoring the needs of the common people. In the realm of political practice, since the time of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama (Sanskrit, Siddhartha Gautama)”.
Buddhism’s close links to kings, princes, and their patronage, and also links in general to politics, is the theme outlined by Moore which is consistent with the belief that patronage was a key element associated with the spread of Buddhism.
The issue discussed in this article is not about Buddhism and politics not being intertwined, or, in a sense interdependent. The issue is whether what is practiced as Buddhism is the practice of the Dhamma through conviction rather than labelling oneself as a Buddhist by convention, and whether it is this practice that has forged these interdependencies.
For most people who call themselves Buddhists, Buddhism is a set of rules and traditions that one follows to the extent one could and when one could, as most of us do when it comes to rules. Human beings generally need rules and where there aren’t enough, they make more of them. These rules give them the structure within which they find their comfort zones.
Rules and traditions extend to cultural norms and it is these rules that differentiate human beings besides other attributes such as race, colour, caste, and religion, none of which a new born comes with at the time of birth. So, post birth, an individual is fashioned into someone else, having being just a human being at birth. The individual acquires a new identity and a persona by becoming a dark/light skinned, a Sinhalese/Tamil/, Christian/Buddhist/Muslim, high caste/low caste. This new person is then subject to the cultural and social rules and values that define the particular group that he or she belongs to. There is little or a questionable amount of freedom for this individual to operate outside of these rules and traditions.
Some opine that in a relative sense, Buddhists have more freedom to do so than say Muslims and Christians, mainly Catholics. The love and fear of an all-powerful God makes it very difficult for exercising freedom outside the bounds of the rules that define these religious groups.
Prince Siddhartha sought this freedom as he had a sense of being imprisoned within the cultural, dynastic and ‘Royal’ rules and traditions he was bound by in order to see whether he could get some answers to the feeling of discontentment and disillusion he had in his physically comfortable, but mentally anguishing world around him.
He must have felt his sense of freedom invigorating and intellectually challenging for him to continue pursuing what he was learning, as we know that he never looked back and never returned to what he had left behind including his throne.
If the writer remembers right, Siddhartha, no longer a Prince, having found the answer for the reasons he left his lifestyle and his inheritance, entertained doubts whether most ordinary folk would be able to follow the path he could show them, for them to travel down and realise the reasons for what is termed ‘unsatisfactoriness’ about their life and existence. It is said, or thought, that he then came up with easy to follow sets of rules for such ordinary folk who would live as good human beings, causing no harm by word or deed or action, to fellow human beings and other beings, and even the environment around them.
These rules and traditions are not a different set of rules that describe the path he outlined as the one that we should traverse should we wish to find the answer to the state of unsatisfactoriness of our existence and how we could reach a state whereby we are liberated from the shackles that bind us to this state of unsatisfactoriness.
Following rules through conviction not convention
The difference exists not in the rules or the teaching, but in the understanding and following them through conviction, rather than by convention. Following rules through convention is much easier than doing so through conviction. The latter involves a mental process that is not easily able to be practiced, whereas the former is easier to follow and abide by, of course to varying degrees of adherence.
As we know, Buddhism thrived in India for a considerable period of time after the passing of Buddha. It is said that what started more as a doctrine for the ordinary folk in parts of India during Buddha’s time, had begun to decline as the ordinary folk over a few centuries had lost interest, perhaps in the simplicity of the doctrine, and in comparison, the flourish of new forms of Hinduism now around them. It is said that this fading interest had consequences such as the loss of patronage by the Royalty and other high society classes. While there may have been Kings and noblemen who were Buddhists by conviction, it is more likely many of them were Buddhists by convention, and they had been patrons when masses of people, by convention, called themselves Buddhists. Royals are also politicians, and they too need the support of the people for effective rule, as do modern day politicians.
The Dhamma is devoid of any politics and it never needed and even today, does not need the patronage of rulers for it to survive. Buddha Dhamma is not an institution and it cannot be destroyed unless we destroy it in our minds. On the contrary, Buddhism has been institutionalised, and institutions have been, and can be destroyed from within and without
Conventional Buddhism and Buddhists, perhaps form the backbone of institutional Buddhism. In saying this, no reflection is cast on them as most would be decent ordinary folk who live as good human beings. However, this category perhaps needs the institution of Buddhism as that is what gives them the rules and the guidelines, and the comfort of a cultural milieu where they have a great sense of belonging, and for some, a purpose for their existence. It is possible that many in this mass of people would be lost without these anchors, and who would feel that unless these anchors that Buddhism provides are protected, Buddhism itself will be lost.
Rulers of years gone by have all done their bit to protect the institution, as it is the institution that directly or indirectly communicates with the people. These conventions go back hundreds of years, and even the British colonialists, when they finally did their deal with the Kandyan chieftains to cede the last bastion of unconquered Sri Lanka to the British, the colonialists recognised the special place given to Buddhism.
The conventions related to this age old practice continues to this day, and it is true to say that no one could become the President of Sri Lanka unless he or she is a Buddhist, conventional or otherwise. These conventions are, as they were before, political tools, and little to do with Buddha Dharma or convictions.
The conventions dictate that Buddhism, meaning the institution, and the anchors it provides, have to be protected in order to protect Buddhism itself. The institution that ‘protects’ Buddhism is a Sinhala institution although Buddha had no institution nor any one or any particular group of people protecting something he had clearly stated as being in our minds and which could not be taken away by anyone except by ourselves.
During the Dhamma discussion referred to at the beginning of this article, Ven Dhammananda mentioned a very important and apt response that Venerable Mahinda had given to a question as to whether the Buddhism he had brought to Sri Lanka from India had taken hold in the country. His answer had been that it had spread, but had not rooted.
This describes the position of Buddhism perhaps even today. It has spread by conventional means, but not rooted deep enough by conviction in order to stand the vicissitudes of time. Hence a fear amongst some that Buddhism will disappear unless it is protected.
Institutionalisation of Buddhism is probably a reality that has to be faced unless more and more Buddhists take refuge in the Dhamma by conviction rather than in the Buddhist institution through convention.
The Buddhist institution has probably looked at such a directional change as a threat to its very existence, and therefore for purpose of self-preservation, limited the institution to the Sinhala, Buddhist race and excluded all other races from it. Besides this being totally contrary to the Dhamma and Buddha’s own attitude and practices, which had no such boundaries, it has made other racial groups non inclusive, virtual second class ones in Sri Lanka although lip service is played that they are all equals in the country.
Fundamental teaching of the Dhamma
The point here is not about people becoming Buddhists, conventional or by conviction, but about the fundamental teaching of the Dhamma, and living according to that Dhamma. No labels are required to practice the Dhamma and any individual can practice the essence of the Dhamma, which are described in the four principles, Love or Loving-kindness (metta), Compassion (karuna), Sympathetic Joy (mudita) and Equanimity (upekkha).
These four attitudes are said to be the right or ideal way of conduct towards living beings (sattesu samma patipatti). They provide, in fact, the answer to all situations arising from social contact. They are the great removers of tension, the great peace-makers in social conflict, and the great healers of wounds suffered in the struggle of existence. They level social barriers, build harmonious communities, awaken slumbering magnanimity long forgotten, revive joy and hope long abandoned, and promote human brotherhood against the forces of egotism.
We who call ourselves Buddhists should ask the question whether we live and practice these ideals.
The Buddhist institution is a power entity and it derives its power from the mass of people who belong to it. It is this mass which in turn becomes the source of power for political parties that are predominantly of Sinhala Buddhist orientation.
In the post-independence era, since SWRD Bandaranaike, this institution has wielded a considerable amount of power, and they have made sure their support stands between a party forming a government or being in the Opposition. Ironically, the leader who rode the crest of the Sinhala Buddhist wave in 1956, paid with his life as he had stood firm against the commercial interests of a leading Buddhist Monk who helped to catapult him to power. That incident demonstrated the power of the institution as well as the ulterior motives of some in the institution. The paradox for Sri Lankan Buddhists arises from the fundamental discussion point mentioned in this article. This is the question of whether one follows the Buddha Dhamma by conviction, and treats everyone as equals, and lives and practices Loving-kindness (metta), Compassion (karuna), Sympathetic Joy (mudita) and Equanimity (upekkha) or whether one follows convention and becomes part of the Buddhist institution that promotes the notion that some are more equal than others in the Sri Lankan society. The Dhamma is devoid of any politics and it never needed and even today, does not need the patronage of rulers for it to survive. Buddha Dhamma is not an institution and it cannot be destroyed unless we destroy it in our minds. On the contrary, Buddhism has been institutionalised, and institutions have been, and can be destroyed from within and without.