An end to monk militancy in sight?

gotha and bbsBy Rohana R. Wasala

The unsuccessful suicide attempt by a Buddhist monk protesting against cattle slaughter some time ago was the second such event staged by a bhikkhu over a couple of months. In the first incident that occurred in Kandy, a young monk died by burning himself. The apparently suicidal desperation of certain young Bhikkhus demonstrated in these cases may have in some measure catalysed the emergence of a more meaningful remedial process than previously seen on the initiative of the state and the Sangha: On the one hand, the police thwarted the second suicide attempt and arrested the suspect monk on the other, one of the three Buddhist clerical sects, the Amarapura Chapter of Bhikkhus, unanimously banned politics for its members, according to news reports (circulating at the beginning of February. Another sect, the Asgiriya Chapter, was to follow suit; the remaining sect may be expected to do the same. The Asgiriya prelate travelled to Jaffna and met some important Hindu priests to further strengthen the common cultural ties between Tamils and Sinhalese. He was reported to have appealed, in the course of his tour, to his Hindu counterparts to join the Southern Buddhist monks’ call for the banning of cattle slaughter and they were reported to have responded positively.

While remaining neutral about the issue of this anti-cattle slaughter campaign, I believe that the high priest’s approach is obviously more sensible than that of the young monks who are ready to resort to extreme measures such as self-immolation. It is also more compatible with the Buddhist way. Perhaps equally or more important, the leading monks of the three Chapters have recently agreed to unite in asserting their historical role in defending the country and the Buddhist dispensation from foreign aggression. If the Buddhist monks succeed in uniting themselves into a single apolitical body, they will become a very formidable force to reckon with.


That ideal, however, is a far cry from the present reality. Buddhist monks are unnecessarily getting involved in dirty politics when they can easily influence and guide politicians without leaving the precincts of their monasteries. We are faced with a paradoxical situation where Buddhist monks whose duty it is to provide moral guidance to the laity seem to be in need of such guidance themselves! It is unfortunate that politically motivated monks don’t realise that each single good monk is more respected, hence more influential, among ordinary Buddhists than a bunch of unrestrained political monks. Monk politicians count for little as monks or as politicians per se.


These days the reported sayings and doings of a few Buddhist monks have earned them notoriety. Though I count myself among those who believe that they understand what these monks are really saying and doing, without at all agreeing with their methods however, I was not a little displeased and even shocked by a snatch of fiery speech delivered by a leading young member of Bodu Bala Sena at their Kandy rally a few months ago which I later happened to watch on the You Tube. In the part of his speech that I heard, he said two things: quoting various statistics (without divulging the sources, as I remember) he maintained that the Sinhalese population numbers were significantly falling; so he appealed to young Sinhalese boys and girls to rise to the occasion; the second thing he said in a casually militant tone, apparently referring to the relative numerical strengths of the two sections of the population allegedly at loggerheads with each other (which actually is not the case in reality) in the present context, was that one swing of a sledgehammer was equivalent to forty strokes from an ordinary hammer! What added to my shock and shame as a Sri Lankan was the fact that the speaker was a monk who is often featured in sociological and religious programmes in at least one of the government controlled TV channels.


However, being aware of the traditionally peaceful and tolerant Buddhistic ethos of our people, I am sure that most of his listeners didn’t take him seriously I am equally sure that the monk himself didn’t expect to be taken seriously when he uttered those sentiments just for stage effect. I asked a number of ordinary people that I normally move with whether they attended the rally mentioned earlier. They said they hadn’t because they were not interested. But a young couple (husband and wife) who had attended the meeting revealed to me that they disliked the monk’s speech and his militant posture. Their opinion was that not even a lay Buddhist adult would exhort young boys and girls to contribute to an increase of the population in the uninhibited manner that the monk speaker did at that public meeting. This I take to be further proof that ordinary Buddhists of this country are not easily misled by mere bluster.


I understand what these monks are really saying and doing. But I do not mean to imply that I intend to be an apologist for a group of militant Buddhist monks who are utterly unrepresentative of the Sangha order as a whole. But my belief is that they deserve a fair hearing before being dismissed offhand. We are a people who have time and again rejected and overpowered extremist violence, and accommodated moderation. If the particular organization of monks is perceived by the common people to be extremist and violent, then we can be sure that the organization will die a natural death before long. There is a cogent need for a balanced assessment of this expression of grievances by an important section of the Sri Lankan polity. Meanwhile, let’s hope that sanity will ultimately prevail.


In my view, the emergence of this organization brings to the fore the problem of the apparent incapacity of the Sangha establishment to function as the intrinsically democratic, autonomous and united institution it ought to be. This incapacity is due to the serious erosion of authority among the Buddhist clerical hierarchy over the rest of the monks and the laity. The failure results from sectarian divisions among the Sangha that have prevailed over centuries now (in the form of Nikayas or chapters), but more importantly, from the average monk’s embrace of ( there are significant exceptions, however) party politics, especially since the mid-fifties’ national revival. The latter development is, ironically, an unpleasant offshoot of that national awakening itself. So nowadays we have monks who are diehard supporters of one or another of the various political parties such as the UNP, the SLFP, the JVP, the JHU, the LSSP, etc which normally have a Sinhalese Buddhist majority, but which are committed, among them, to irreconcilably opposed political ideologies. The associated problems are compounded for the monks by their increasing incursion into other aspects of the non-religious sphere such as secular education and employment.


Because of these divisions among their own ranks the Sangha seem incapable of performing their proper ecclesiastical role, or of asserting their due position of influence in today’s predominantly Buddhist but multi-religious, multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilingual, and politically diverse and volatile Lankan society. So these monks are often seen to fall short of their inescapable obligation of providing proper spiritual guidance to the Buddhist laity (which, in fact, is the raison d’etre of their existence). At the present rate, their ministry will no longer look like a ministry at all, but a form of trade unionism which is itself undermined by internal divisions.


The negative situation I have touched on here amounts to a void which it would be unnatural to be left unfilled for long. It means that the Buddhist majority, having no powerful single voice to speak up for them when their rights are perceivably threatened, are either compelled either to take these infringements lying down or left to their own devices, which is not a healthy situation. Some educated, well informed, young but mature Buddhist monks have been drawn into the vortex of a societal maelstrom by this critical lack of a unified leadership that I have tried to expose above, and organizations such as the Bodu Bala Sena group are the eventual outcome. In their view, they have compelling reasons to raise a voice on behalf of the Buddhist majority, which in fact is not against the minorities at all, but partly on their behalf, as well. Since their argumentation is in Sinhala, those who usually depend on the English press do not always get to see their point of view without an element of inadvertent distortion or wilful misinterpretation and exaggeration. When a critic pointed out that their behaviour was a contradiction of the principle of loving-kindness taught in the karaniyamettasutta, a young monk was reported to have retorted that the karaniyamettasutta was the problem! Here the monk was not criticising that particular piece of Buddhist teaching. He was merely saying that Buddhists’ accustomed tolerance was being abused or exploited by those ill disposed towards them .


The militant monk syndrome is partly due to the apparent failure of the established Buddhist leadership to take effective measures to defend the Buddhist majority against internal and external foes such as religious fundamentalists. What is being strategically inflated by interested parties as xenophobic extremism that these monks are alleged to represent must be understood for what it is. It cannot be denied that there are a couple of monk activists who woefully lack a sense of decorum and discipline. However, at least some incidents of violence in which monks are shown to be involved could be the work of a few misguided individuals or real criminals or agents provocateurs capitalizing on false alarms raised by spoilers waiting to throw a spanner in the works whenever possible. Even more important, there is evidence of a sustained campaign against the cultural identity of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority supported by foreign and local agents of neo-colonialism who come in various guises, and this movement is being exploited to promote separatist political ends. The anti-national activities of certain foreign NGOs, and the not- much-publicized subversive acts of fundamentalist religious groups (of which there is compelling evidence) cannot be expected to go unchallenged. These elements try to obscure the traditionally accommodating, tolerant, cosmopolitan attitude of Sinhalese Buddhists towards minorities which, though it may have been at times disturbed by politics, still survives among ordinary people. They are seeking to put an end to the conflict-free peaceful environment that we are at present enjoying after a long time of terrorist-caused violence.


Dr Susantha Gunatilake’s concerted study of foreign funded NGOs in Sri Lanka published under the title Recolonisation (2006) throws some light on the deleterious effects of their activities on Sri Lanka’s economic, developmental, sociological, political, and diplomatic spheres. This means that the problem affects not only the Sinhalese but also other sections of the population, though the subversive thrust of such organisations is mainly directed against Sinhalese Buddhists.


So, there is enough reason for Buddhist monks to agitate on behalf of the Buddhists. But they need to set about this in a way that is compatible with the unique doctrine of compassion, understanding, tolerance, and non-violence that they profess. I know the popular mind of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. They reject violence and intolerance. And they don’t want to see Buddhist monks destroying their own image by getting involved in politics. But the problem is the apparent failure of the establishment consisting of both the leading clergy and laity to properly address the grievances of the Buddhist majority in the face of threats from various sources. The opportunistic abandonment of responsibilities by leaders can be identified as a major cause of the unfortunately multiplying breaches of the normal sedate behaviour of Buddhist monks. It is heartening to witness the emergence of signs of a gradual turning of the tide.