Buddhist Arts-Culture
Religion,Culture or National Identify?
Ven Omalpe Sobhita T
05/07/2011 00:06 (GMT+7)
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In the ancient city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka stands the world’s oldest recorded tree – a sacred Bodhi tree planted in the 3rd century BC. This tree, planted from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment in India more than 2500 years ago, is a representation of the deep roots that Buddhism has in Sri Lanka. Like this sacred Bodhi tree, the Buddhist Sinhalese tradition is the oldest living Buddhist lineage in the world, and the only religious culture that had managed to survive for more than 2300 years.

Ven Omalpe Sobhita Thero, Sinhalese BuddhismReligionCulture or National Identify

In the ancient city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka stands the world’s oldest recorded tree – a sacred Bodhi tree planted in the 3rd century BC. This tree, planted from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment in India more than 2500 years ago, is a representation of the deep roots that Buddhism has in Sri Lanka. Like this sacred Bodhi tree, the Buddhist Sinhalese tradition is the oldest living Buddhist lineage in the world, and the only religious culture that had managed to survive for more than 2300 years.

In 250 BC, Arahant Mahinda and his mission, dispatched by the great Buddhist monarch King Asoka of India, landed at Mihintale in Sri Lanka and was warmly welcomed by King Devanampiya-Tissa. Having heard the first sermon, the King took to the new religion immediately and declared it the state religion. Buddhism spread rapidly across the island and enjoyed royal patronage for successive centuries thereafter. Up to the end of Sinhalese rule in the 19thC, the supremacy of Buddhism was such that only a Buddhist had the legitimate right to be king of Ceylon, a “defender of the faith”, entrusted with the protection of the “alms-bowl and the tooth relic of the Buddha”.

In the Great Chronicles of Sri Lanka, the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, the underlying theme is the identification of the island as the “Island of Dhamma” (dhammadipa), a land for Buddhism:

“When the Guide of the World, having accomplished the salvation of the whole world and having reached the utmost stage of blissful rest, was lying on the bed of his nibbana, in the midst of the great assembly of gods, he, the great sage, the greatest of those who have speech, spoke to Sakka who stood there near him: `Vijaya, son of king Sihabahu, is come to Lanka from the country of Lala, together with seven hundred followers. In Lanka, O lord of gods, will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka.”

Hence, the pact between Buddhism and Sri Lanka was sealed. In the words of Sri Lanka’s first prime minister D. S. Senanayake in 1939: “Sinhalese are one blood and one nation. We are a chosen people. Buddha said that his religion would last for 5500 years. That means that we, as the custodians of the Religion, shall last as long.”

Through the centuries, despite frequent attacks from foreign enemies and four hundred years of colonization, Buddhism, though badly shaken at times, withstood the storms. Sinhalese Buddhist kings and leaders fought indefatigably and passionately, both for the cause of Buddhism and for the liberation of Sri Lanka from foreign powers. From the battle cry “Not for kingdom, but for Buddhism” of Duttha-Gamani in the 2nd century BC to Anagarika Dharmapala in the late 19th century, the sense of religio-nationalism was ingrained. Wary of the dangers posed by the spread of Christianity, especially in the establishment of missionary schools, and the erosion of traditional values among the Sinhalese population, Dharmapala warned, “As long as the religion of the pagan influences the Sinhalese Buddhists, so long will Buddhism decline and not prosper.” He beseeched all true-blooded Sinhalese Buddhists compatriots to serve for the “preservation of our nation, our literature, our land, and our most glorious religion at whose source our forefathers drank deep for nearly seventy generations.” “There exists no race on this earth today that has a more glorious, triumphant record of victory than the Sinhalese.” Underlining all this is the sacred mission of the island: “Ceylon, the home of the Dhamma, sacred to the Buddhists, hallowed by the touch of the blessed feet of the all-compassionate Lord, has become the beacon light to future Humanity.”

This Sinhala-Buddhist fervor played a critical role in the development of events that eventually led to Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948. The fruit of all this is the enshrinement of Buddhism as the “foremost” religion in the constitution of 1972, making it the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Susana while guaranteeing the rights of all other religions of the island.

The fusion of a religion with a chosen land, a chosen people (that forms the majority in this case) can often generate dissent among the minorities and is a potential trigger point for ethnic and religious conflicts. Fortunately, this is not the case in Sri Lanka. This may sound contradictory in the face of the civil war going on in the North Eastern corner of the island. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss at length about the civil conflict, some points ought to be highlighted. The LTTE claim for a Tamil homeland in the North has little justification. 65% of the Tamils in Sri Lanka live in the South harmoniously among the majority Sinhalese population. In addition, the Tamils carried out ethnic cleansing by brutally massacring hundreds or forcibly evicting thousands of Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims from the North and East. This is not an ethnic conflict but terrorism pure and simple. The fact that many Western governments had labeled the LTTE as a terrorist group and imposed travel ban on its cadre is a testimonial of this.

Regrettably, the civil war in Sri Lanka over the last 2 decades has ravaged the country, resulting in social instability and individual disorientation. This has provided opportunities for some factions to undermine Buddhism. In recent years, Buddhism has come under threat from a wave of unethical conversion by evangelical groups especially in the rural areas. There is nothing wrong with genuine conversion as such. However when it is done through material inducement or forced coercion, and in its course subvert another religion, desecrating its objects of worship, it is disconcerting. When it leads to violent clashes and bloodshed, it becomes alarming. The painful memories of the brutality and humiliation suffered by Buddhists at the hands of Christian missionaries of the colonial era had not been forgotten. The proposed Bill against Unethical Conversion tabled by Buddhist monks in Parliament in 2004 is not an attempt to curb the spread of other religions, but to protect Buddhism from such unethical forces.

The involvement of Buddhist monks in mainstream politics and a resounding call for a unitary Sinhalese Buddhist state had spurred strong criticisms from many fronts. Accusations range from violations of the right to religious freedom to the emergence of Buddhist fundamentalism. To challenge the validity of such charges, one has to look at the reality on the ground.

Modern Sri Lanka is a multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-religious democracy. Although Buddhism is been given foremost place in the 1972 constitution, the legal protection of all religious are also guaranteed in Articles 10 and 14. In many cities and towns across the island, Buddhist temples stand alongside kovils, churches and mosques. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims are allowed to practice freely within the law. There is no restriction of outward manifestations of religious beliefs such as the wearing of headscarves or crucifixes and the holy days of the main religions are declared as national and public holidays. There is no “bumipitra” preference in job opportunities and airtime is given to all the major faiths on the national broadcast stations. On the question of language, another defining feature of a nation’s identity, although Sinhala is the main medium of education in public schools, there are a proportionate number of Christian, Muslim and Tamil schools to cater to the needs of the minorities.

If one is to ask if Sri Lanka is a Buddhist or secular state, one could say that it is a fluid form of secularism unique to Sri Lankan. Sri Lanka is governed by a modern secular constitution. All are equal in the eyes of the law, irrespective of religion or race. In this aspect, it is a fine example of religious diversity and harmonious co-existence in comparison with other countries where the existence of a majority belonging to one religious group results in ethnic and religious tension. In the aftermath of tsunami disaster of 2004, Buddhist temples offered refuge for the many displaced, regardless of race or religion just as they did for the enemies in the past. Buddhist humanitarian organizations provided aid and relief without any discrimination, and built houses for all displaced without segregation. The driving force is not material but simply a compassion for a common humanity.

Inevitably, a Sri Lankan national ideology would be inalienable from the Sinhala-Buddhist culture through 2300 years of evolution. After all, Sinhalese Buddhists make up a majority of 73% of the population. For them, Buddhism permeates every aspect of their daily lives and defines the social fabric that connects them. The threads of Buddhism and Sinhalese culture are inextricable interwoven. Throughout Sri Lanka’s history, whenever Buddhism or the island was threatened by invading armies or ideologies, the Sinhalese Buddhists had always stepped forward to champion the causes. The fiery passion and patriotism that Sinhalese-Buddhists have for their country are so strong that it sometimes border on fanaticism but had it not been for their courage and determination, Sri Lanka may have remained in the hands of foreign powers or a mere stooge on the world’s stage. Sinhala novelist Gunadasa Amarasekara writes: “The main assumption behind Jathika Chintanaya (national ideology) is that, although there are many ethnic groups in this country such as Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims, all of them belong basically to the same culture; as such they must be referred to as one nation.” Hence, the covenant between Buddhism and the Sinhalese is fully expanded to include all other ethnic and religious groups on the island.

In a discussion of Sinhalese Buddhism and national identity, one aspect need to be touched upon - that is the role of the sangha in Sri Lankan politics. The involvement of monks in politics is not a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Although there is little evidence in the Chronicles to suggest that monks wield direct political power in the kingdom, it is clear that they exercised considerable influence over matters of kingship as advisors, settling disputes between political leaders and even in the selection of successors to the throne. Even the foreign powers from India and Europe that occupied Sri Lanka from time to time recognized the need to rein in or appease the guardians of Buddhism in their dominion.

In 2004, Sri Lankan monks stirred up a huge controversy by running for elections under the banner of Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage party) and winning nine seats in Parliament. This direct involvement of monks in partisan politics was seen by some as a sign of growing (Sinhala-) Buddhist fundamentalism that undermines the secularism of the country. This is a misconception; the aim of the monks in Sri Lankan politics is not to challenge the established political system. Their main objective is to protect the Buddhist heritage from the threats posed by the spread of unethical conversion throughout the country and the corruption and decline of the Sri Lankan society in a rapidly changing global economy. The Act to control the sale of alcohol and tobacco forwarded by the monks in Parliament and that came into effect in 2006 is a prime example of governance by Buddhist principles to protect the moral, social, mental and physical well-being of the people.

Like their fore-fathers, the present generation of Sinhalese Buddhist leaders is once again at the forefront to fulfill the mandate handed down to them – to protect the motherland, not just for Buddhists but also for all Sri Lankans. Their ideology, based on Buddhist principles, is shared by all who cherish a pluralistic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society and true democracy in a free world. What they champion are the protection of the vulnerable, the naïve, the uneducated and the poor from exploitation and manipulation, the protection of human lives from terrorism, and the protection of indigenous cultures and age-old traditions, and of the rich legacy that they have inherited.

From its birthplace in India, Buddhism now has more than 350 million followers across the globe. Buddhism is a religion that seeks to harmonize and synthesize, rather than to destroy or fragmentize. It does not seek to challenge the status quo, to create social turmoil and dissent. Wherever it spread, Buddhism assimilated the native practices and customs of each land, giving rise to its many different forms – Thai Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism etc. This, perhaps more than any other factor, speaks about the universality and fluidity of the Buddha’s teachings.

The Buddha taught respect for other religions and tolerance, compassion and non-violence. “Khanti paramam tapo titikka.” “Tolerance and forbearance is the highest moral practice.” (Dhammapada184). Buddhism does not insist on people converting to it, nor does it condemn those who convert to other faiths. When Upali, a rich follower of Niganthanataputta of Jainism, wanted to become a disciple of the Buddha, the Buddha urged him to reconsider his decision.. When Upali showed firm commitment, the Buddha consented on condition that Upali should not forsake his former teacher but continue to respect him and offer alms.

Albert Einstein remarked “if there is one religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.” Buddhism is an intellectual and rational philosophy, one that does not support blind subordination, but demands of the individual much effort on his or her own path to enlightenment. There is no room for dogmatism; Buddhism does not seek to impose or prescribe strict adherence to its beliefs. Upon his parinibbana, when questioned by Venerable Ananda about a successor, the Buddha answered, “Dhammo ca vinayo mamaccayena sattha.” “When I am gone, the Dhamma and vinaya will be your teacher and leader.” While this encapsulates the efforts of individual self-realization central to Buddhism, it has left a vacuum in authority and leadership. The same qualities that allow Buddhism to adapt and integrate itself to new cultures also expose the Buddha’s teachings to variant interpretations, sometimes with undesirable consequences.

Unlike missionary religions like Christianity and Islam, Buddhism lacks a central authority and is highly vulnerable, especially in a world of growing religious intolerance and globalization. Even as we speak, Buddhists are being persecuted in different parts of the world by extremisms trying to shape the world according to their systems of beliefs. Buddhism does not have militias to ward off the enemies, nor the strong political or economic powers to protect it. The dearth of the Buddha’s teachings would indeed be a tragic loss for humankind, the loss of what historian H G Wells had described as “the advance of world civilization and true culture than any other influence in the chronicles of mankind.”

At no time in our history is there a greater need for the Buddhists communities all over the world to stand united. More than national identity, Buddhism needs a universal identity that can speak in one voice and reawaken the Buddha’s teachings to make it relevant to the 21st century. Only then can Buddhism engage in meaningful and constructive dialogue with other major faiths to build peace and harmony, and a better world for future generations.

Ven Omalpe Sobhita Thero

Sri Bodhiraja Foundation, Sri Lanka

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