Preserving the Buddhist identity: Back to basics

Wednesday, 3 July 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Defaced name board at Adam’s Peak

Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda

Now the Blessed One spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying: “It may be, Ananda, that to some among you the thought will come: ‘Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.’ But it should not, Ananda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone.” – Maha-parinibbana Sutta

By Niranjan Selvadurai

Let us establish one ground rule for this exposition. As the Buddha himself requested, just prior to parinibbana, let his noble teaching be our master in this discussion. Every one of us, including kings, presidents, prime ministers, ministers, mahanayakes, cardinals, monks and upasaka-ammas (lay female devotees), have a right to express views and opinions. However, let us patiently examine each such view point or pronouncement against the noble teaching before being swept away by emotion or bowing down to so-called authority.

A person may wish to have a Buddhist identity. Also, citizens of a county may wish to give the country they live in a Buddhist identity. How can each one of us (not just the Sinhalese among us) establish such an identity, if we so desire? If there is already an established Buddhist identity for an individual or a country, how can that identity be preserved?

In Sri Lanka approximately 70% of the population consider themselves to be Buddhists. While a clear majority of the Buddhists in the country are Sinhala, there are some Buddhists who are not born to Sinhala parents. There is nothing preventing a person of Tamil, Burgher, Malay or some other ethnicity from being a Buddhist. 

It is not necessary to change one’s name, from say Tuan Mohamed Dilshan to Thilakeratne Mudiyanselage Dilshan to establish one’s Buddhist identity. But whether a Sinhala identity rather than a perceived Muslim identity enhances a person’s chances to captain the national cricket team, is a different question. Further, all Sinhalese in Sri Lanka are not Buddhists. There are a minority of Sinhalese belonging to other religious persuasions. 

The Dipavamsa states that Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka in the third century BCE after the third Buddhist council by Arahant Mahinda thero, son of Emperor Ashoka, during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura (307 BCE to 267 BCE). Historically Buddhism appears to have had a majority following in Sri Lanka for about 2300 years. Based on these facts it may be reasonable to conclude that Sri Lanka is a country with an established Buddhist identity.

However, Sri Lanka is not the only country that has claims for a Buddhist identity. In fact based on the Buddhist head count alone, Cambodia (97%), Thailand (93%), Myanmar (88%) and Bhutan (75%) are clearly ahead of Sri Lanka. Both Thailand and Myanmar (formally Burma) time and again facilitated Sri Lanka to re-establish the Buddhist monastic order, when the monastic numbers in the country were dwindling. All these countries have established Buddhist identities independent of Sinhala ethnicity. 

Asgiriya Prelate’s recent pronouncements

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal. – The Buddha (From the Dhammapada)

The Poson Poya signifies the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and provides the country an opportunity to celebrate its Buddhist identity by reflecting on the Buddha’s message. It is in this back drop that the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter of the Siam Nikaya, Venerable Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana, decided to fan the flames of Islamophobia and hate within the Sinhala community. 

The Asgiriya Chief Monk, who is one of two of the most senior Buddhist monks in the island, made the following utterances on camera in Sinhala:

“The Muslims don’t love us…  But even I will say now, don’t go to these Muslim-owned shops, don’t consume the food they offer. I think those who ate from these shops will not have children in future.”

“(We) all know of the heroic (Muslim) doctor from Matale (who) destroyed several hundred-thousand of our children.” 

“Some female devotees said such traitors (like the doctor) should be stoned to death. I do not say that. But that’s what should be done.”

The learned prelate was tagging on to an unsubstantiated and random hypothesis that Muslims are systematically working to reduce the population of Sinhala Buddhists by making them sterile. If indeed the claims have any validity they would warrant orderly criminal investigations. This is not a subject to be dealt with by the Buddhist clergy and lay followers by passing arbitrary judgement.

These facile and flawed remarks from a person holding a privileged position of power in the Buddhist monastic order, may have been a misguided attempt to sustain the country’s ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ identity. However, these words have shamed to Buddha’s teaching that emphasises the four virtues of loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), empathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha). Why sow the seeds of hatred in place of these virtues? 

Any Upasaka-amma in Sri Lanka would know the five Buddhist precepts. The first and fourth precepts advise us to abstain from killing living beings and to abstain from false speech. Are the esteemed monk’s utterances in conformance to these two precepts? Is he a protector of the Sasana (teaching)? You are free to come up with your own conclusions. 

To my knowledge, with the exception of Minister Mangala Samaraweera, no other Sinhala or Buddhist political leader of standing has come out to rebuke the Asgiriya Prelate’s regrettable pronouncements to date.  Pithy words often attributed to Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke come to mind. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” 

Respecting other faiths

‘Householder since long your clan has been a welling spring to the nigantas. I think morsel food should be offered to those that come.’ – The Buddha to Upali the householder (Upali Sutta)

Sri Lanka has been an inclusive society embracing persons of multiple faiths. For centuries the majority Buddhists have lived in harmony with Hindus, Muslims and Christians.  This no different to the society in India at the time of the Buddha, which included six other spiritual teachers. Having a Buddhist identity should not be interpreted as showing disrespect and intolerance to other religions. 

Recently there were reports of some vandals having defaced the English and Tamil language writing on the name board denoting the way to Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak). The Adam’s Peak is considered a place of significance and veneration not only to the Buddhists but also Hindus, Muslims and Christians. On Palm Sunday this year a Methodist Bishop and his congregation was held hostage at a prayer centre in Anuradhapura. This clearly was not the Buddha’s way, as exemplified by his counsel to Upali the householder.

Upali was a very wealthy householder from the town of Nalanda and a known follower of Niganta Nathaputta (the founder of the Jain religion). On one occasion he approached the Buddha and agreed to have a conversation based on truth. Upali was so pleased with the Buddha’s exposition of the Dhamma that he instantly expressed his desire to become a follower of the Buddha. But the Buddha advised him, saying—”O householder, make a thorough investigation.” 

Though Upali became a lay follower, the Buddha, quite in keeping with his boundless compassion and perfect tolerance, further advised Upali to continue supporting and providing food to his former religious teacher and disciples. 

Lessons from the Panadura Debate

Buddha:  “Householder, if you will debate on the basis of truth, we might have some conversation about this.”

Upali: “I will debate on the basis of truth, venerable sir, so let us have some conversation about this.”

Upali Sutta

The Buddhist identity cannot be preserved by Sinhala Buddhist parents producing more offspring, by defacing name boards or simply by declaring the Tripitaka to be a national Heritage.  We need to focus on creating a positive image for Buddhism through promotion and practice of the Buddha’s teaching. If Sri Lanka is to be regarded as a Buddhist nation, the country needs to lead by example. 

In this context much can be learnt from the public doctrinal debates held between Buddhist and Christian clergy between 1863 and 1873. The period of colonization under the British, saw Buddhism driven almost to the verge of extinction. There was much ridiculing of Buddhism through books and pamphlets written in the vernaculars which Christians distributed in propagating their faith. 

This was besides the mass proselytising of Buddhist children through the school system. These resulted in an open challenge being made by Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda to the Christians to defend their faith. It was accepted by the Christian clergy. The debates were held at Baddegama, Udanwita, Waragoda, Liyanagemulla, Gampola, and culminated with the most famous Panadura debate in 1873. 

The debate was held 24 and 26 August in 1973. Gunananda Thero was the debater on the side of the Buddhists while Rev. David de Silva and Catechist S. F. Sirimanna represented the Christian side. The debate revolved around topics ranging from nature of God, the Soul and Resurrection, concepts of Karma, Rebirth, Nirvana and the principles of dependent origination. 

Records indicate that crowds estimated between six and eight thousand attended the debate. According to reports at the end of the second day of the debate the jubilant crowd uttered “Sadhu, Sadhu.” The Christians present were displeased with the noise made by the Buddhist audience. Realising the volatile situation Ven. Gunananda promptly addressed the crowd requesting them to remain silent. The crowd dispersed quietly. Compare this with the aftermath of Ven. Galgodaththe Gnanasara’s Aluthgama speech in 2014. 

There was wide coverage in the press for the Panadura Debate where rules were laid down for fair play. Both Buddhists and Christians should be commended for their maturity and for debating based on truth. Reports of the debate and the efforts made by the Sinhala Buddhists to safeguard their rights reached America and inspired a young American lawyer, Henry Steele Olcott to come to Sri Lanka in May 1880 CE and fight the Buddhist cause. 

The defeat of the Christians in debate, more than anything else, broke the myth of the infallibility of the Christian Church and was one of the major contributing factors to the Buddhist revival in the country. According to records, “The Rev. Migettuwatte Gunananda proved himself to be a debater of very high order, mettlesome, witty and eloquent...”

The impact of the debate was phenomenal, both locally and internationally. Locally it was the principal factor behind reviving the Buddhist identity. Internationally, it was instrumental in raising awareness of Buddhism in the West. 

Caste segregation within the monastic community

Birth makes not a man an outcast,

Birth makes not a man a brahmin;

Action makes a man an outcast,

Action makes a man a brahmin. – The Buddha (Vasala Sutta)

The Buddha stood firmly against the discriminating of persons based on caste or ethnicity. Many discourses in the ‘Thripitaka’ emphasise this position. However, the practice of caste based segregation is clearly prevalent among the Buddhist monks of the Siam Niyaka. It is worth-while tracing the history of how this shameful practice crept into the Buddhist monastic order.

The Siam Nikaya is a Buddhist monastic order 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).

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

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 the British held their own upasampada ceremony at Totagamuwa Vihara in 1772. Another was held at Tangalla in 1798. Neither ceremony was approved by the Siam Nikaya which claimed that this was not in accordance with the Vinaya rules.

King Rajadhi Rajasinghe (1782-1789) of Kandy ratified the position taken by the Siam Nikaya by issuing a decree to restrict the right of obtaining higher ordination to members of the Govigama caste.

As a consequence of this ‘exclusively Govigama’ policy adopted by the Siyam Nikaya, the Buddhists in the Maritime Provinces were denied access to a valid ordination lineage. Research indicates that this casted based discrimination made many Karava, Salagama,, Durava, Bathgama, Deva and other caste people considered as ‘low’ by the Govigama to become Catholics and Anglicans. Hoping to rectify this situation, wealthy laymen from the Maritime Provinces financed an expedition abroad that resulted in the creation of a new monastic lineage known as the Amarapura Nikaya.

The establishment of the Amarapura Nikaya in 1800 was significant because it signalled a change in social dynamics of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. For the first time, a monastic lineage had been created not through the royal patronage of a Buddhist king, but through the collective action of a dedicated group of Buddhist laymen. It should be noted here that Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda, the leader of the Buddhist revival during the late 1800s was a member of the Salagama caste and was a monk from the Amarapura Nikaya. If the Siyam Nikaya did have its way, would there have been a Buddhist revival?

The chief monks of the Siam Nikaya are regarded as the custodians of the Buddha’s 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 chief monks of the Siam sect proudly proclaim themselves as the custodians of Buddhist teaching, while openly flouting the teaching under the pretext that it is ‘tradition’ or that it is an order issued by an ancient king. But does a decree of a worldly king over rule the doctrine expounded by the Buddha?

Time to reflect

 The Buddha’s teaching is universal and for the benefit of all beings. He did not target a specific group people with his doctrine. Therefore unwholesome action of anyone would be a stain against his legacy. – Ven. Walpola Rahula (Sathyodaya – Truth awakening)

In the recent times Sri Lanka appears to have lost her way in pronouncing her Buddhist identity to herself and to the rest of the world. Both as a society and as individuals the time is ripe for wise reflection. The best place to start would be to go back to basics and attempt to understand and practice what the Buddha taught.

Do you simply acquire a true Buddhist identity by being born to parents who consider themselves Buddhists?  Do you become a Buddhist by merely taking refuge in the triple gem through a verbal utterance? Could not there be true Buddhists among those who wear the cross and others going under another religious label? Can any robe wearer have claims to be a protector of the Buddha Sasana (teaching) irrespective of his or her views and conduct? 


  • Wikipedia research on Panadura debate, Migettuwatte Gunananda, Siam Niyaka, Upali Sutta, the Dhammapada
  • Maha-parinibbana Sutta, DN 16 - Sister Vajira & Francis Story translation (1998)
  • Sathyodaya – Truth awakening by Walpola Rahula 

(Niranjan Selvadurai is an Australian of Sri Lankan origin living in Sydney. He is a Physics honours graduate from the University of Colombo, and worked in the aviation and banking sectors in Sri Lanka prior to migration. In Australia he has pursued a career in enterprise architecture and information management across private and public sector organisations. He has post Graduate qualifications in Information Technology and Mathematics from Monash University and University Technology Sydney.)