05 May 2012

There are Buddhist revolutions and Buddhist revolutions

This was first published on August 1, 2010 in the Sunday Lakbima News as part of an exchange with the editor of that paper, Rajpal Abeynayake.  That debate is done (inconclusively, as is typical of such exchanges), but this article seems relevant given the recent fracas in Dambulla and the various claims of religious intolerance, extremism, fundamentalism and so on (on the part of 'Buddhists' of course). 

Rajpal Abeynayake claims that ‘the alleged Cultural Revolution happened’ (see his column in the Lakbima News of July 25, 2010).  That’s the title of his response to my comments on the subject of a ‘Sinhala Buddhist cultural revolution’ the previous week.  In the essay itself, the assertion is watered down, though.  He says ‘faintly traceable’.  The proof is pretty thin of course, but if Rajpal wants to believe there is some kind of silent move on the part of Sinhala Buddhists, that’s his choice (not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong in any social group stamping presence in a political, cultural, economic or other sense; it is the manner that one could object to, unless of course one says ‘it’s politics’ which means ‘anything-goes’). 

I am thinking of the French Revolution and all the secular rhetoric at the time and since.  I checked.  France has public holidays, like any other country.  France has 5 civil holidays: January 1 (New Year), May 1 (Labour Day), May 8 (End of WW II), July 14 (Bastille Day) and November 11 (End of WW I).  Surprise, surprise, France has 6 more ‘secular’ holidays: Easter (sometime in April), August 15 (to celebrate the Assumption of Mary), November 1 (All Saints’ Day), a Thursday in Mid-May (39 days after Easter, to celebrate Jesus’ Ascension), Pentecôte (50 days after Easter, usually on a Monday by the end of May) and of course December 25 (Christmas).  And just the other day, France’s lower house of Parliament overwhelmingly approved a bill that would ban wearing the Islamic full veil in public. 


The ‘state of revolution’ should not be based on the why and when and how many of holidays, but if France is secular then Sri Lanka’s ‘Sinhala Buddhist Revolution’ is to be preferred by religious minorities. Indeed, it can be argued that the Buddhist doctrine of tolerance and equanimity had something to do with the fact that other faiths were received and treated with respect even though those who came carrying bibles were also armed with Papal Bulls that sanctioned horrendous crimes against humanity (quite in opposition to the teachings of the Prince of Peace, Jesus of Nazareth). 


Rajpal says there is some kind of revolution happening.  I am not impressed. If this ‘revolution’ is about flag waving, pirith nool-wearing, pandals and festivities, not to mention being unable to adhere to Buddhist tenets of equanimity, compassion and the use of reason when deliberately provoked (by organizers of the Akon show and by Buddha-statue smashing, ‘Buddha-biscuit’ distributing people calling themselves ‘Christian Evangelists), then it would be ‘revolution by name’ and not ‘substance’ in my book. 


I don’t think that there is a revolution taking place and I am not even sure such a thrust is necessary. I think Buddhism is alive and well in the hearts and minds of Buddhists.  Having said that, I don’t think Buddhists have anything to lose by educating themselves further and more deeply about the fundamental tenets of the doctrine.  I believe that the best answer to those who vilify Buddhists and Buddhism is not to hang out Buddhist iconography from every nook and corner of the island (I think this defeats the purpose).  The best way to respond to ill-will is compassion.  The best way to respond to cross-waving fanatics is with reason and logic.


I heard how some bikkhus were upset that some group calling itself ‘Christian’ was smashing Buddha statues and ‘demonstrating’ the Buddha’s ‘impotency’.  They are supposed to have stormed into the premises of this ‘service’ and demanded that the ‘pastors’ (self-proclaimed faith-healers) cure a crippled who was waiting outside.  There was an easier and non-confrontational way, I believe: picking up the broken pieces of the statue as proof of the fundamental tenet of impermanence, and using the fact to elaborate on the concept and point out that it is universal.  No one and nothing is permanent. Not the Buddha, not Jesus Christ, not the Bible.  If on the other hand, reason is rejected in deference to faith and someone says ‘Jesus is God, is immortal’ and so on, the Buddhist response ought to be silence, respect for different opinion and if challenged further, polite reference to the Kalama Sutra with the observation, ‘not compelling enough, sorry’.


If ‘revolution’ is deduced from the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa makes‘Buddhistic’ noises, that’s pretty superficial and indeed aberrational.  We can, as Rajpal says, keep arguing whether or not there is a Buddhist Revolution or a Sinhala Buddhist Revolution, and we can throw in ‘evidence’ of non-Buddhist thrusts, but that will not make us a better society or better individuals for that matter. 


A few decades before the French made their so-called ‘revolution’ and began the liberty, equality and fraternity chant (for only those who are Christians, we later learnt), there was in this island, a saamanera, a novice bikkhu by the name of Welivita Saranankara.   This was a time of anarchy, moral decline and violence against all things associated with Buddhism.  There wasn’t a single bikkshu with higher ordination, upasampada.  The temples were full of corrupt ganinnaanses who were neither conversant in the dhamma nor interested in its basic practices.  A single person turned things around.  I believe that two things helped. 

First, the commitment to the dhamma on the part of Ven. Welivita Sri Saranankara Sangha Raja Thero, and two the deeply ingrained recognition of the Buddhism’s value in explaining how things are and in conducting one’s life in beneficial, benevolent and non-intrusive ways. 


Now if ‘revolution’ is required then the above is an example that one might want to study.  If what Rajpal has described is ‘Buddhist revolution’, then a) it is not ‘Buddhist’ except in name, and b) I don’t want any part of it, and c) it does nothing to make like better for anyone, not for Buddhists or anyone else. 


Buddhism is a reflective practice.  It is a doctrine that advocates simplicity.  Thrift.  Co-existence.  Concern for environment.  Like most other religious faiths, one might add.  It does not impose laws on pain of punishment, but recommends self-discipline as a necessary precondition for alleviating suffering.  All Buddhist practices can be adopted by anyone of any other faith without compromising his/her belief system.  A ‘revolution’ that promotes such things cannot harm anyone.  It can be called ‘Buddhist’ but it need not be.  All things, including names and labels are after all impermanent.

[Expect a similar missive that refers to the current debate in tomorrow's 'The Nation'.  I will of course post my article in the blog]

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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

small correction, Malinda. All buddhist practices may be acceptable to christians perhaps; but not all the teachings. A christian cannot find solace in him/herself. He looks outward, not inward.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

yes. :)

Ramzeen said...

Why the hell are we arguing, fighting, killing each other for something that in most cases was an accident of birth. How many of us in this forum CHOSE our religions, nationality, gender et al? This is the epitome of human stupidity: trying to ram down others' throat something that came to you by default - not choice.