Lessons on moral authority from a venerable monk

Wednesday, 11 November 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

With Venerable Sobitha Thero’s departure, the best we can do is to learn from the path he followed and continue his efforts to engage and agitate for change. The Ven. Thero exercised a kind of moral authority unseen among the Buddhist clergy of the present day. The Asigiri-Malwatte monk duo may have the formal authority and make statements that say everything but lead to nothing, but, Sobitha Thero made issues come to life, like roti on a hot thachchi.   BUP_DFT_DFT-16-13

In the distant past in the 19th-20th century, under colonial rule, moral authority was easier to identify. Kudapola Thero and Wariyapola Thero, the monks who were moral authorities in their time, defined their authority in terms of resistance to colonisation. Tibetan monk S. Mahinda and ‘partial monk’ Anagarika Dharmapala too derived their authority in opposition to colonisers. 

In the recent past, in the 1990s, Soma Thero provided focal point for a war-besieged Sinhala-Buddhist community, but, there was no morality in his leadership. Morality cannot have racial tones, but, Soma Thero’s sermons were delivered to resonate with the worst racial fears in us. However, as late Ajith Samaranayake noted: “Ven. Soma’s vast popularity in a comparatively short time can be attributed to his vocal campaigning of the Sinhala Buddhist cause at a time when many prominent luminaries of the Maha Sangha either kept silent or took up ambivalent positions.”

Sobitha Thero, in contrast, offers a more complex definition of moral authority. In retrospect his actions may seem wrong to some. He was political and partisan, directly supporting or opposing political leaders, drawing the wrath of those on the opposite side. Even today after his death we see harsh words uttered against the Thero on social media by those who are upset by his role in toppling the Rajapaksa regime. 1

But, nobody can deny that Sobitha Thero was instrumental in changing the direction of the country at a critical juncture. Sobitha Thero’s best legacy is what he taught by his actions. He taught us that being moral is continually acting or reacting with your morality as a compass. The compass may not be always easy to follow and you may get into strange places, but, you always steer yourself in the right direction.


Life story

Others better informed than I may come up with a more comprehensive life story of the venerable monk, but, from what I gathered, he entered Buddha Sasana in 1953 at the age of 12, completed a degree in history at USJP in 1955. 

There seem to be two important landmarks in his youth. In 1975 he formed a temperance movement for the young (Tharuna Amdhyapa Sangamaya). In 1982 he formed and led a ‘Sinhala Balwegaya’ with the objective of protecting Sinhala Buddhist interests. He was still in his Sinhala-Buddhist-anxiety frame of reference when he was part of the 1988 protests against the Indo-Lanka Accord that attempted to devolve power to nine provinces through the 13th Amendment. 

The period from then until 2012 when he gave leadership to a broad coalition calling itself National movement social Justice would be an interesting study to see how the venerable monk navigated the troubled seas to get to a more pluralistic place from his Sinhala Buddhist interest stance.

In the rest of my article I want to examine what we can learn from Ven. Sobitha’s life to bring back the moral authority of the Sangha, the public servants and the educationists. Before I do that I want put the saffron robe driven moral authority in Sri Lanka in the context of moral authority concepts in the west. 



Moral authority in the West

Lately, I have been relying on David Brooks, a columnist in New York Times to explain the Western civilisation to me. It is intellectual laziness on my part, but, at least the readers are warned.

As David Brooks argue, external authority has been replaced by something more diffuse and ineffective in the US:

“As late as 50 years ago, Americans could consult lofty authority figures to help them answer these questions. Some of these authority figures were public theologians. Reinhold Niebuhr was on the cover of TIME magazine. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about everything from wonder to sin to civil rights. Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote a book called ‘On Being a Real Person’ on how to live with integrity. Other authority figures were part of the secular priesthood of intellectuals. John Dewey advocated pragmatism. Jean-Paul Sartre and his American popularisers championed existentialism. Hannah Arendt wrote big books on evil and the life of the mind. Public discussion was awash in philosophies about how to live well. There was a coherent moral ecology you could either go along with or rebel against.

“All of that went away over the past generation or two. It is hard to think of any theologian with the same public influence that Niebuhr and Heschel had. Intellectuals are given less authority and are more specialised. They write more for each other and are less likely to volley moral systems onto the public stage. These days we live in a culture that is more diverse, decentralised, interactive and democratised. The old days when grey-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over… Intellectual prestige has drifted away from theologians, poets and philosophers and toward neuroscientists, economists, evolutionary biologists and big data analysts. These scholars have a lot of knowledge to bring, but they’re not in the business of offering wisdom on the ultimate questions.”

There you have it. The old sages are gone, but the new sages don’t bring the same level of moral authority and religion is not in Brook’s picture. 


Moral authority of the Sangha

We should thank the starts that we still have the hope of a Sangha that guides us because we can’t afford to go Brook’s next stage where scholars give you knowledge but no moral guidance. Given the state of our scholarship and lack of recognition of its paucity, we will be totally rudderless with no guidance from knowledge or morals. 

I came from the USA more than decade ago having experienced a Western style Buddhism and I was feeling quite smug about my focus on Prathipaththi Pooja or living according Buddhist principles, as opposed to Aamisa Pooja, the ritual side of Buddhism.

The ‘alternative’ Buddhist temple I attended in Washington, DC, had no resident monks. The whole community of practitioners was considered to be the Sangha. When I communicated this fact with much confidence to an uncle at an almsgiving, I got an earful. A retired school teacher and a simple farmer, he reminded me that the present day Sangha is a continuation of the Sangha led by Sariyuth-Mugalan, the chief disciples of the Buddha and we have the responsibility to sustain that order no matter what.

I was still a sceptic until very recently a younger colleague, a telecommunications engineer, admonished me again. Do not ridicule the Sangha, however, un-Buddhist the behaviour of the majority of them may seem, she told me. There may come a time when all you have is yellow string to tell the Sangha from others but we need strive on to keep the order and reform it. 

Given these sentiments in Sri Lankan society, the Sangha in Sri Lanka will continue, in good or bad form, with or without digitised Tripitaka. It is good news for all of us – Buddhist, Muslim, Christians or Hindu – if Sobitha Thero has inspired at least some of our Buddhist monks to convert the authority of the saffron robe to a true moral authority guided by the moral compass of Buddha’s teachings. 


Moral authority of public servants

In a recent article I wrote that a functioning state should not be seen only at election time. To the Sinhala version published in Dinamina, a Government official responded with an article titled ‘Why MAKO only, we can too’.

The moral authority exercised by the Elections Commissioner (popularly known as MAKO) during the 2015 presidential election is legendary. He famously said, “Why shoot below the knee, shoot in the head” regarding aspiring lawmakers who violated the law. Authority can be legal, moral, reverent expert or punitive. MAKO could not have extended his legal authority, even metaphorically, to suggest a shot in the head, if he was not guided by the moral authority that comes with the adherence to a body of law. 

Much weight is put on politicians for their role in Yahapalana, but, the real responsibility for Yahapalanaya lies with the secretaries to the ministries and other officials under them. The secretaries have the legal authority to approve payments and sign the checks. Many public officials including the former Secretary to the President are now in trouble because they exceeded their legal authority and flouted the moral authority which comes with the body of law to which they are expected to adhere. We will have attained Yahapalanaya truly, only when pubic officials regain their moral authority to say no to law breaking by anybody, even the Minister-in-charge, Prime minister or the President.


Moral authority of the educationists

FUTA, the Federation of University Teachers, took to the streets in 2012 when nobody dared to oppose the Rajapaksa regime. Thanks to them, the university teacher community as a whole, including those who sided with the previous regimes in most disgusting forms of servility, has been able to whitewash itself. 

However, the university teachers including those who took to the streets will not have earned the moral authority as educationists, unless they extend their credentialing authority to truly educate the students who are under their charge. So far we have not seen serious efforts by the university community to give 21st century skills and attitudes to their students.

In contrast, I have met more school teachers and principals who go above and beyond their teaching or administration duties to follow up with the full development of each child often venturing into the communities. 

A more recent case is that of a principal in a school in Colombo serving disadvantaged communities that live in the vicinity. The principal had moved into the simple official quarters provided on site and opened the school for the children and the community from dawn till dusk and sometimes till late at night. When I last visited with her she had to rush to a community event where she was the chief guest. 

Sobitha Thero’s truest legacy would if our educationists are inspired to go beyond their credentialing authority to a moral authority derived from a student body and a community duly served.

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