04 November 2011

A return to the Buddha Vacana is called for in this 2600th Sambhuddatva Jayanthi

A friend of mine, a Christian, asked me a couple of years ago what ‘Sri Lankan culture’ was.  ‘Culture’, like ‘love’ is not easily defined. They can only be recognized by those who live it or experience it.  My response was something like the following: ‘There is, naturally, diversity embedded in the overall ‘Sri Lankan’ when it comes to culture, but to the extent that anything can be claimed to be the core of our overall culture, or has contributed overwhelmingly in terms of customs, traditions, art, literature and way of life, it is Buddhism.’
I have observed on occasion that while this does not and should not accord Buddhists any or affirmation when those who cannot allude to as extensive a history on this island speak of multi-religious as though all religions contributed equally or are an equal part of what is conveniently called ‘Sri Lanka’ and/or ‘Sri Lankan Culture’.  It is in fact political, and speaks of a politics that is not benign in orientation, practice and intention, especially in cases where the particular religion’s history (as evidenced by how its adherents/advocates have responded to the above cultural and religious reality) is not acknowledged or pooh-poohed by way of the easy and convenient ‘in the past’.  Such ignorance, arrogance and deliberate silence rebel against the basic tenets of humility and acknowledgment of truth inherent in all religious doctrines, and this itself speaks of pernicious intent.
Buddhism does not belong to this country or to any particular person or entity.  ‘Belonging’ is a term that can be associated with a doctrine only to the extent that the particular individual inhabits or is inhabited by or lives the fundamental tenets associated with it.  ‘Belonging’ in any other sense has nothing to do with teaching, but relates to self-identification with doctrine and requisites, as perceived by the keepers of the word or institution.  These ‘keepers’ are either self-appointed or made to inhabit posts or live with titles on the basis of particular interpretations of the word. 
This country was not born Buddhist.  Buddhists make the overwhelming majority of the population. Buddhism has influenced the arts, crafts, literature, governance culture and way of life of more people across the centuries and across the length and breadth of the island than any other religion or philosophy. It is only in a political sense that these realities are asserted, challenged, disputed and sought to be changed.  On the other hand, if ‘nation’ is about people and about culture, then attempts to unsettle the foundational elements of who we are have to be seen as deliberate designs to make us vulnerable to forces that seek to destroy us, even if such malicious and hate-filled agents do so under cover of constitutional guarantees about ‘religious freedom’. 
We are in the year of the Sambuddhatva Jayanthi, or the 2600th anniversary of that life-changing, civilization-giving moment when the ascetic Siddhartha Gauthama attained enlightenment, achieved ultimate comprehension of the Four Noble Truths and vanquished the kleshas.  The entire country is decked with signs that acknowledge this moment.  It is not unnatural for the pruthgjanas to seek refuge in frill rather than substance. It is not unnatural either for those who are unable to engage substance but have some emotional association with trappings, to affirm the same by decoration and cheer.  Understandable, also on account of the violence unleashed upon all things and persons associated with ‘Buddhism’ by those who do a lot of injustice to the doctrines they subscribe to, for example the word of Jesus Christ, all the way from the Vatican to the self-proclaimed god’s-work-doers. 
I’ve been reading Susantha Goonatilake’s ‘A 16th Century Clash of Civilizations’ and have discovered that I’ve known very little about the extent of hatred and ignorance that motivated bible-carrying, bullet-spewing Europeans to destroy and kill in the manner they did.  It is a book that all Christians in this country and elsewhere ought to read, to know what was done in the name of Jesus Christ and perhaps understand the suspicions with which evangelists are looked upon and indeed to understand the ‘why’ of the unjustified violence carried out against them.  This book, moreover, does not claim to cover the other eras of religious violence against Buddhists and the over structure of Buddhist social organization, including the destroying of temples, burning of libraries and books, institutional mechanisms to prompt convenience-conversions etc. 
All this explains to an extent the cry we hear now and then to ‘Save Buddhism’.  Lost in the rhetoric and related politics is the salient fact that Buddhism is a doctrine that is not soliciting protection.  The relevance and preservation of the dhamma is dependent not on flag, assertion and ritual, but by its acceptance and level of residency within, as exemplified by the extent to which it informs action. 
Buddhism is a way of life and ‘Buddhist politics’ is essentially about subscribing to tenets that shape action and word, thought and comprehension; in other words all engagements, personal and public, individual and collective. 
When I read this book I was surprised by the fact that there are still Buddhists in this country and that the dhamma is still alive, both in word and deed.  I realized that the reason for this has less to do with Buddhists getting mobilized than about Buddhists living the dhamma in accordance with their relative karmic strengths.  This is not to say, however, that Buddhists should not think ‘collective’, for the Buddha’s discourses did accord considerable value to things ‘social’ and reflect a deep consideration of interactions among people and groups.  Still, it was not ‘organization’ that saw this land fight back the wicked and ignorant.  If there was ‘Buddhist Politics’ that helped us get to where we were, it is because of individuals such as the Most Venerable Velivita Sri Saranankara Sangha Raja Thero, who were committed to relevant scholarship, deep reflection and had the knowledge, skill and will to teach. 
Listening to bana on the radio or associating with scholar bikkhus, attending discussions on the dhamma, following the five precepts, being aware of and reflecting deeply on how best to associate with different categories of people (e.g. in the Singalovada Sutta), abiding by the sathara brahma viharana (Loving kindness, compassion, equanimity and rejoicing in another’s joy) etc., is what will preserve Buddhism, and to the extent that preserving Buddhism preserves ‘Sri Lanka culture’ or ‘Sri Lankanness, if you will), protect this land. 
The Word of the Buddha or the Buddhavacana, was valid yesterday.  Today we celebrate the 2600th Sambuddatva Jayanthi. Tomorrow too, the Buddhavacana will be valid.  It will empower.  Not on account of frill, but substance. 
We have seen signs, recommending that this celebration be a matter of returning to and inhabiting the tenets of Buddhism, viz ‘pilivethin pelagesemu’. Inherent in this call is the recommendation for a collective effort.  It is the ‘pilivetha’ (practice) that makes celebration meaningful. It is the ‘pilivetha’ that makes a meaningful collective that is wholesome, not just to Buddhists but everyone else, all other communities and indeed even those individuals and collectives that are anti-Buddhist or believe that asserting faith necessarily involves vilification of and/or destroying of other faiths, by burning books, unethically converting and seeking legislative cover to carry out such operations.
Of all the Buddhist assertions I’ve seen in the recent past, one stands out: those who abide by the dhamma is protected by the dhamma.  Valid for the Buddhist and valid for this country, not because this is a ‘Buddhist Country’ (a meaningless proposition), but Buddhism contains the understanding, logic and practices that make for protection.

Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukhitatta!  May all beings be happy.