23 February 2015

The Mahanayakas, Maha Nayakas and the issue of custodianship

It is no secret now that Chief Prelate of the Malwatte Chapter, the Most Venerable Thibbatuwawe Sumangala Thero actively supported the presidential bid of Sarath Fonseka.  After Fonseka lost and was subsequently arrested, the Mahanayaka Haamuduruwo protested to the President and clearly chagrined by the President’s refusal to respond went on to mobilize the other Mahanayakas and issue a joint statement regarding the issue. The Venerable Thero also attempted to mobilize the entire Maha Sangha against the President. There was talk of the Maha Sangha planning to issue a Sangha Aggnawa or edict/order censuring the treatment meted out to Fonseka.  

All these efforts came to naught due to ‘better sense prevailing’(according to some) and ‘intimidation’ (according to others).  This little sub-plot of the political drama following the Presidential Election raises important issues about the Maha Sangha, the Buddha Sasana and the matter of ‘custodianship’ over the latter, in particular the location and sway of the country’s ruler in and over these institutions respectively. 

Throughout the past two thousand years, there has been a symbiotic relationship between ruler and the Maha Sangha.  There has never been a clean cut separation of church and state in this country and indeed except for very rare and infrequent periods where invasion and/or anarchy had overarching impact on the political, social, cultural and religious life of society, the ruler has essentially been the key patron or dayaka and the Maha Sangha the main approver/advisor on a range of issues that could fall within the ambit of government. 

The Mahanayaka Thero’s involvement calls us to revisit history and the historical relationship of ruler and the Maha Sangha, I believe, in terms of constitutional provision, the realities historical weight as in tradition and expectations thereof, the realities flowing from political and economic sway of each over society in general and over each other.

Tradition has it that the King (read ‘ruler’) has the support and blessings of the Maha Sangha as long as the dhamma is protected, there is responsibility in all actions and the wellbeing of the people taken care of.  Where these basic conditions are violated or absent, the Maha Sangha can act against the king.  It is however not an arbitrary decision of a single bikkhu but the consequent to a comprehensive process that includes debate and discussion eventually coming out as a collective decision. 

Moreover, the engagement of the Buddhist Order in affairs of the state was not supposed to take ad hoc, knee-jerk form. There was a tradition and there was consistency in that tradition.  Historically, also, there were no ‘Mahanayakas’. That was essentially a title conjured by the British.  The organic title was that of ‘Sangharaja’ whose history can be traced back to the Kurunegala Period.  That title did not devolve upon an individual on account of ‘kinship’ ties (theoretically, all such ties are erased upon being ordained) or caste (again something that is incongruous with the Buddha Vachana).  A bikkhu is appointed ‘Sangharaja’ after a lengthy process.  First the particular bikkhu has to be the chief of a pansala (temple) and then head a cluster of pansal, terms ‘Moolayathana’ (Mul-Ayathana or Root/Base-Institution) and it is the entirely of such institutions that elect the ‘Sangharaja’.  Even this post, alternates among the aranyawasi (ascetic) and the gramawasi (temple-based) bikkhu orders.  The Sangharaja had to be a bikkhu who absolutely well versed in the dhamma and fluent in at least 6 languages, according to tradition.  This system was adopted in or was exported to Thailand during the Gampola Period. 

The authority to engage/interfere comes not on account of knowledge of the dhamma or social standing but the fundamentally social character of the Buddha Sasana.  The word sangha, broadly, refers to ‘collective’ and a group consisting of the siw-wanak-pirivara the bikkhu, bikkhuni, upasaka and upasika or all those who have taken refuge in the Noble Triple Gem and therefore belong to the collective of shravakas.  In common parlance sangha refers to the bikkhu order.  The Sasana is therefore not the preserve of those in the kasavatha.  The strength and sway of the Sasana therefore resides in the extent to which there is ‘inclusivity’ of all ‘stakeholders’ (ugly word, I know).  The relationship among the parts need to be governed by commitment to the dhamma and adherence to all tenets pertaining to solidarity, peace, cooperation and commitment to the arya ashtangika marga (the Noble Eight-fold Path). 

Where such commitment is evident, the Sasana is strong and ruler containable.  Where ruler, as the most visible upasaka or at least dayaka is righteous, then he/she can in the true spirit of cooperation embedded in the best traditions pertaining to the relationship, help make the Sasana a better and more effective institution in society.  Although the Bikkhu Sangha has its own internal mechanisms to correct itself when individual and institution strays from role decreed by the Buddha as laid out in the Vinaya Pitaka, there are instances/situations where the laity can have a say in the overall discourse pertaining to the social function of the Sasana.  Thus the entire body of norms as well as the play of tradition makes for an institution that has the potential to be extremely strong to the point that it functions like a state within a state.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.  The Sasana was tainted from the outside by the British who instituted the ‘in-organic’ post of ‘Mahanayaka’ for the Siyam Nikaya and internally from that Order itself by a manifest embrace of a kind of materialism that is out of sync with the Buddha Vachanaya and the maintenance of an inexplicable and patently anti-Buddhist ‘caste-purity’.  The British also put in place a system of property transfer that has served to subvert the Buddhist Order and alienate the Bikkhu from the laity; a system where vast wealth embedded in extensive property is handed down according to the wishes of individuals and not the collective, typically keeping wealth within ‘family’ and not under the stewardship of the Sasana, in which case it could be deployed to uplift the lives of the most underprivileged and dispossessed sections of the population.

These realities notwithstanding, the Maha Sangha has retained significant power in political affairs and this comes not so much from institutional strength but the appeal of the institution to a general public that is not unaware of tradition and that has extensive historical memory.  This is why even ad hoc interjections on the part of important bikkhus causes rulers to pause and why all leaders obtain the blessings of the Maha Sangha at every turn. 

The elected executive authority has extensive powers in accordance with constitutional provision and, in the terms of the Kandyan Convention (repeated in subsequent constitutional enactments) is the supreme patron of the Buddha Sasana, mandated and required to protect it.  It can be argued therefore that ‘king’ or ‘president’ is the ultimate custodian. On paper, perhaps yes.  On the other hand, not everything in society that is significant can be written. Quite outside what exists on paper, the Buddha Sasana and the broader sangha, the collective that includes the laity, does have political power and most importantly the potential to act as countervailing power to the formal institutions of political power and those who inhabit these and abuse such powers as are at their disposal. 

If I was pushed, I would say that the Buddha Sasana is currently at about 1% operational strength partly due to it being crippled by 500 years of colonial rule, partly due to a manifest straying from the dhamma and partly due to the lack of commitment on the part of the bikkhus and the dayakas to be pro-active in making the institution work for themselves, for society and community, citizen and nation. 

It is time, I believe, for a Dharmasangayana. 

Malinda Seneviratne is the 'Editor-in-Chief' of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.  This article was published in the now defunct Sunday Lakbima News, February 28, 2010.