The contemporary Nikaya system, the most unBuddhist legacy of Buddhism

Friday, 21 June 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 When people discriminate, their behaviour reflects an ignorant and intolerant attitude towards other people 

 – Pic by Chamila Karunarathne 

By birth one is not an outcaste,

By birth one is not a Brahmin;

By deeds alone one is an outcaste,

By deeds alone one is a Brahmin – Buddha

The recent comments made by the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter of the Siam Nikaya hopefully will generate an objective discussion on the Buddhist institution and its role in Sri Lanka. The Venerable Mahanayake’s comments belied what Buddha believed in and taught mankind centuries ago. Coming from a Mahanayake of a major institution, his comments were sadly the opposite of Buddha’s message of ahimsa, tolerance and non-violence. One can only hope that followers of this Mahanayake, and Buddhists in general, will not heed the intemperate words of the Mahanayake. 

In the perfect world, neither this Mahanayake or any other, or the Buddhist clergy can and should be gagged by law. They should be gagged by the Buddhist public. However, incitement to violence is another matter and it would be adequate grounds for legal action to be taken against any individual irrespective of the individual’s station in life.

The underlying issue here is not about gagging or legal action. It is about the inter community discontent, mistrust and fear that is prevalent in the country and the inadequacy of measures taken by leaders of all faiths to dissipate this situation and create an environment where all faiths can have an objective discussion on how the country could move away from this situation and look towards the future rather than focussing on the past. What matters is where Sri Lanka will be tomorrow, in five years’ time, in 10 years’ time and so on. It is the future that matters as there are many generations to follow the current generation.

The Buddhist institution in Sri Lanka is credited for safeguarding the Sasana although several erudite monks like late Venerable Walpola Rahula have questioned this notion on the basis that the Sasana is the Truth according to Buddha and it is about living one’s life according to the principles enunciated by Buddha. Ven. Rahula maintained that the Sasana will disappear only when people deviate from this Truth.

A sad legacy of Buddhism or rather the institution of Buddhism that taints the fundamental premise of Buddhism is the division of the institution on caste lines. The caste based Nikaya system is the antithesis of what Buddha extoled. 

This legacy is a relatively new phenomenon in Sri Lanka considering the long history of Buddhism in the country. In 1753, a Buddhist monastic order (Nikaya) within Sri Lanka, was re-established on the initiative of Weliwita Sri Saranankara Thero (1698-1778) when the Thai Monk Upali Thera visited Kandy during the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1782). It was called the Siam Nikaya after the ‘Kingdom of Siam’. 

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the corruption of the original reference to the term Siam Nikaya. Corrupted from within rather than from without. 

The contemporary Nikaya system runs contrary to what Buddha introduced as the idea and practice of placing a higher value on morality and the equality of people instead of on which family or caste a person is born into. 

The Buddha was born into a society that knew the caste system. He regarded the system as unjust and unfair and took a principled stand against it. For Buddhists, if they follow Buddha’s fundamental premise on the equality of human beings, the caste system should be an example of something very unBuddhistic, discriminatory, unjust and a practice that should not be supported. 

Buddhism as taught by Buddha, teaches that prejudice is an example of ignorance and furthermore, believing that we are in some way superior to those around us is an example of craving or of fear. One might say, even a foolish notion.

When people discriminate, their behaviour reflects an ignorant and intolerant attitude towards other people. Buddhists should believe that ignorance and craving cause people to suffer – known as dukkha. Buddhists also believe in equanimity, or Upekkha. This means an equal attitude towards everyone and that everyone is equal and should be treated as such in society.

Buddhists believe that there is no fundamental difference between any human. Every individual should therefore be valued and should be treated fairly and therefore with justice.

The recent utterances by the Venerable Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter about the Muslim community in Sri Lanka begs the question whether the Mahanayake is a true Buddhist if he is to be judged against the basic Buddhist criteria mentioned here. The same should be applied to monks like Ven. Gnanasara Thero and any other Buddhist monk who espouses intolerance and violence. The same question should be asked of them. Are they Buddhists? 

Their defence might be that they are trying to protect the Buddha Sasana as it had been during previous periods of history. If this protection issue is to do with what the Muslim community did, or say or did not say or did not do, these avowed protectors must show how this issue could be addressed according to Buddhist principles of ahimsa, tolerance and compassion. They could have taken the leadership to conduct interfaith dialogues throughout the country using their thousands of temples and thousands of monks to bring communities together and find a way forward from what they perceive as a threat to Buddhism and the country

In this context, one is reminded of a statement by Dalai Lama who said: “We must build a closer relationship among ourselves, based on mutual trust, mutual understanding, mutual respect, and mutual help, irrespective of culture, philosophy, religion or faith”. How true. Are some of our monks practising these principles?

Instead, some of our leading monks are doing the exact opposite and exacerbating inter-community tensions.

The Nikaya Story (Compiled based on Wikipedia research)

How did the original reference to the re-established Buddhist order in Sri Lanka in 1753 which was called the Siam Nikaya after the ‘Kingdom of Siam’ (modern day Thailand) get corrupted to what Nikayas have become today?

Nikaya is a term assigned to a Buddhist monastic fraternity within Sri Lanka. Today there are three main Nikayas or Sects. 

Siam Sect: A Buddhist monastic order (nikāya) within Sri Lanka, founded in 1753. On the initiative of Weliwita Sri Saranankara Thero (1698-1778) the Thai monk Upali Thera visited Kandy during the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1782) and once again re-established the Buddhist order in Sri Lanka in 1753. It was called the Siam Nikaya after the ‘Kingdom of Siam’. The Siam Nikaya has two major chapters (Malwatta and Asgiriya) and five other divisions within these two major units. The Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters have two separate Maha Nayakas or chief monks.

Amarapura Sect: A Sri Lankan Buddhist monastic fraternity (nikāya) founded in 1800. It is named after the city of Amarapura in Burma, the capital of the Konbaung Dynasty of Burma at that time. Ramanya Sect: A Sri Lankan Buddhist monastic fraternity (nikāya) founded in 1864, when Ambagahawatte Saranankara, returned to Sri Lanka after being ordained at Ratnapunna Vihara in Burma. It appears to have re-introduced the forest meditation tradition to Sri Lanka.

Caste-based discrimination

In 1764, merely a decade after the re-establishment of the Buddhist order in Sri Lanka by Ven. Upali, a group within the newly-created Siam Nikaya conspired and succeeded in restricting the Nikaya’s higher ordination only to the Radala and Goigama caste, Sitinamaluwe Dhammajoti (Durawa) being the last non-govigama monk to receive his upasampada. 

This was a period when Buddhist Vinaya rules had been virtually abandoned and some members of the Buddhist Sangha in the Kandyan Kingdom privately held land, had wives and children, resided in the private homes and were called Ganinnanses. It was a period when the traditional nobility of the Kandyan Kingdom was decimated by continuous wars with the Dutch rulers of the Maritime Provinces. In the Maritime Provinces too, a new order was replacing the old. 

Mandarampura Puvata, a text from the Kandyan period, narrates the above radical changes to the monastic order and shows that it was not a unanimous decision by the body of the sangha. It says that 32 ‘senior’ members of the Sangha who opposed this change were banished to Jaffna by the leaders of the reform.

The principal places of Buddhist worship in Sri Lanka including the Temple of the Tooth Relic, Adam’s Peak, Kelaniya and over 6,000 other temples were brought under the administration of the Siam Nikaya. Moratota Dhammakkandha, Mahanayaka of Kandy, with the help of the last two Kandyan Telugu Kings victimised the low country Mahanayaka Karatota Dhammaranma by confiscating the Sri Pada shrine and the retinue villages from the low country fraternity and appointing a rival Mahanayaka (presently, an exception is the Rangiri Dambula sect which welcomes all communities while being a Siam nikaya subsect). 

The caste-based discrimination made many Karava, Salagama, Durava, Bathgama, Deva and other castes people considered as ‘low’ by the Govigama caste to become Catholics and Anglicans.

The Siam Nikaya as custodians of the Tooth Relic have always received the full support and patronage of the Govigama dominated Sri Lankan State and its Ministers and Ministries of Buddha Sasana, Cultural Affairs and others, the monopolisation of the ‘Tooth’ relic by the Radala and Govigama combination on caste based lines have brought a questionable reputation to Buddhism in Sri Lanka, in the context of adherence to Buddhist principles.

Emergence of other Nikayas 

The Govigama exclusivity of the Sangha thus secured in 1764 was almost immediately challenged by other castes who without the patronage of the King of Kandy or of the British, held their own upasampada ceremony at Totagamuwa Vihara in 1772. Another was held at Tangalle in 1798. Neither of these ceremonies were approved by the Siam Nikaya which claimed that these were not in accordance with the Vinaya rules. 

King Rajadhi Rajasinghe (1782-1798) had made an order restricting the right of obtaining higher ordination to the members of a particular caste. As a consequence of this ‘exclusively Govigama’ policy adopted in 1764 by the Siam Nikaya, the Buddhists in the Maritime Provinces were denied access to a valid ordination lineage. Hoping to rectify this situation, wealthy laymen from the Maritime Provinces financed an expedition to Siam to found a new monastic lineage. 

Birth of Amarapura Nikaya

In 1799, Walitota Sri Gnanawimalatisssa a monk from the Salagama caste, from Balapitiya on the south western coast of Sri Lanka, departed for Siam with a group of novices to seek a new succession of higher ordination. Two Sahabandu Mudaliyars and the other prominent dayakayas undertook to bear the expenses of the mission and make the necessary arrangements for the journey. But during the trip, they had an incident where the ship suddenly stopped moving. 

Once it was able to move again, the Dutch national Captain of the ship suggested that Buddhism was in a more flourishing condition in Amarapura, Burma than Siam. The monk agreed to the suggestion of the Captain and the latter, through the Dutch Consul at Hansawathy (in Burma), obtained the necessary introductions to the religious and administrative authorities in Amarapura. The first Bhikkhu was ordained in Burma in 1800 by the sangharaja of Burma, his party having been welcomed to Burma by King Bodawpaya. The members of the mission studied under the Sangharaja for two years.  The initial mission returned to Sri Lanka in 1803. Soon after their return to the island they established a udakhupkhepa sima (a flotilla of boats moved together to form a platform on the water) at the Maduganga River, Balapitiya and, under the most senior Burmese bhikkhus who accompanied them, held an upasampada ceremony on the uposatha of Vesak. 

The new fraternity came to be known as the Amarapura Nikaya after the capital city of King Bodawpaya. Several subsequent trips to Burma by Karava and Durava monks as well, created by 1810 a core group of ordained monks and provided the required quorum for Higher Ordination of Amarapura Nikaya monks in Sri Lanka. The higher ordination denied to them in 1764 by the Govigama based Siam Nikaya Monks had been regained and they were soon granted recognition by the colonial British government. 

The establishment of the Amarapura Nikaya was significant because it signalled a change in the social dynamic of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. For the first time, a monastic lineage had been created not through royal patronage of a Buddhist king, but through the collective action of a dedicated group of Buddhist laymen. The Amarapura Nikaya was thus both independent of government and royal power, and more closely tied to its patrons in the growing middle class. The Amarapura Nikaya is said to have around 12 000 monks although this needs to be verified.

Ramanna Nikaya

The smallest of the three nikayas is Ramañña Nikaya, which was founded in 1863, not in caste opposition to Siam Nikaya but rather as a religious reform movement. It is caste-inclusive, though many of its lay supporters are known to be from the karava caste, many of whom are wealthy. It is estimated to consist of approximately 8,000 monks. This too needs verification.

The Ramanna Nikaya was founded in 1864 when Ambagahawatte Saranankara, returned to Sri Lanka after being ordained by the Neyyadhamma Munivara Sangharaja of Ratnapunna Vihara in Burma.

In the beginning, the Majority of monasteries of Ramanna Nikaya were forest monasteries. Although many village temples have been emerged in modern days, the forest tradition is still being continued by Sri Kalyani Yogasrama Samstha of Ramanna Nikaya which is the strictest forest tradition in Sri Lanka.

Though it has been impossible to resist completely, many old and simple traditions have been still survived in Ramanna Nikaya. The monks of the Nikaya can be distinguished by the traditions such as using Palm Leaf Umbrellas and Alms Bowls and covering both shoulders while traveling.

Siam Nikaya monasteries and monks

The number of monks belonging to the two chapters Malwatta and Asgiriya total around 18,800 according to estimates of the Ministry of Buddha Sasana. 

The Nikaya also has around 6,000 temples according to this source. Similar data is not available for temples and monks belonging to the Amarapura and Ramanna Nikaya. It is perhaps unlikely that their numbers exceed that of the Siam Nikaya.

How could the Buddhist institution and Buddhist monks help to safeguard the ‘Sasana’ and the country?

The structure of the Buddhist institution in Sri Lanka, with its hundreds and thousands of temples and monks could be put to constructive use to save the country from its fast track into an abyss of despair, inter community mistrust, fear and economic collapse. We have not learnt from the catastrophe of 1983. This time, unless the Buddhist monks and the Buddhist institution take a lead to forge unity rather than disunity and build accord rather than discord, and preaches tolerance rather than intolerance, we are doomed. 

Rather than following the intemperate words of some monks, including those of the Asgiriya Mahanayake, the Buddhist population of this country which far outnumbers the population of monks, should act according to their knowledge of what Buddha taught rather than the words of monks who profess the opposite. They should take the leadership to save the Buddha Sasana and the country by following the teachings of Buddha. In fact if they follow Buddha’s teachings, they would not even have to think of saving the Sasana as it will be very safe in their hearts and minds.

The political leadership and politicians of the country in general stand discredited and condemned today for their failure in safeguarding the security of the country. They have failed in every sphere of social policy and economic policy. They are now not in a position to be even a flickering beacon to the people of the country. 

If the Buddhist population of the country allows a few, but powerful and influential monks to discredit Buddhism and all that it stands for, then Sri Lanka will have no one to turn to and no anchor to hold on to in the vortex of communal and economic unrest that will follow. 

The Buddhist institution has an island-wide or mostly island-wide structure with some 10,000 temples and resources in the form of thousands of monks who are respected by the Buddhist population. With a monk population of perhaps in excess of 25,000, and a country population of some 23 million, what is required is for each monk to take the leadership to avoid the catastrophe mentioned above and instead, spread Buddha’s true message of peace and harmony to say 1,000 people of all faiths and ethnic groups. This requires a vision, leadership and inspiration from one or a few amongst the monks to show to all Sri Lankans that it is the future of the country that is at stake here, and not the future of Buddhist institutions or the lifestyle of some monks.


Recent columns