Midweek Review
Sinhala Buddhism - Part II

by Nalin de Silva
The Buddhists and Hindus are reborn because of avidya and maya respectively and even the Christians and the Catholics would have to admit that they are either reborn after death or if they are not prepared to admit rebirth, that their souls continue to live after the physical bodies die. In any event it could be said that in general, religions are concerned with (continuation of) life after death (of physical bodies) of sathva (men and women). They teach (continuation of) life after death and also there are various rituals associated with them and "preach" some form of liberation. So not only Islam and Christianity but Buddhism and Hinduism are religions. Those who claim that Buddhism and Hinduism are not religions and are only ways of life are to my mind being misled by some western definition of religion and taken the cultural aspects of a religion to be the most important.

The Buddhists differ from followers of other "world religions" in trying not to be reborn. Their liberation is from birth and not from death. Needles to say that when one is liberated from birth, one is liberated from death as well. (I do not know when ideas such as "mara parajaya" (defeat of death) entered mainstream Theravada Buddhism, but it could be due to the influence of Mahayana that created the concept of "immortal" Buddhas in the form of Dharmakayas and other "kayas" and of immortal Bodhisathvas in effect. The Buddhists also do not have a creator God. These two aspects make Theravada Buddhism a peculiar "world religion" without any common "object"that the followers could share. The creator God in any one of the other world religions is common to all people following that religion though the God may have been only a tribal god in the distant past. When a religion gets itself promoted from a local religion to a world religion the creator god, if any, is promoted from a tribal god to a universal God. In Islam and Christianity those who embrace these religions also transfer their allegiance from the local (or the tribal) god to the (new) universal God of those religions. (Buddhists who are converted get a God with their conversion.) As others have observed not many people are converted to Hinduism. Hinduism spreads now mainly through the migration of Hindus to various other countries. The "world religions" other than Buddhism have not only a common creator God but a common object like Heaven or Brahaman with whom they could unite. These objects and the creator Gods are objective "bodies" that exist independent of men (or sathva in general) and this "objectivity" of the God and the Heaven (they are united in Brahman in Hinduism) make these religions "world" or even universal religions with objective bodies, however subjective they may appear to a materialist. Some materialists would like to call it "objective idealism" of the world religions. What about the other "world religion" Buddhism? There is neither an "objective" creator God in Buddhism nor an "objective" Heaven. The gods such as Shakra are not immortal creator Gods and their abodes such as Thavthisa and Thusitha are not "places of liberation". Nibbana cannot be expressed in terms of other concepts or words (I challenge anybody including Dr. Asanga Thilakeratne whose Ph. D. thesis, I understand, is on the ineffability of Nirvana, and his thesis supervisor Dr. David Kalupahana to express Nibbana in words. For this purpose I am not interested in negative concepts and nirpravadas and Nibbana has to be expressed positively in terms of some other concepts.) The Theravada Buddhists have, in general, "negative theories" (nirpravada) of Nibbana and liberation. Nagarjunapada and the Madhyamikes tried to provide with a theory for Nibbana by making Nibbana relative to the Sansara. Nibbana not being a concept cannot be relative to a concept such as Sansara and in the long run all that Nagarjunapada achieved with respect to Bharat Buddhism both literary and literally was Sunyatha, which made it easier for Shankaracharya later on to formulate the positive concept of Nirgun Brahman and win over the Buddhists in Bharat. In any event it has to be emphasised that there is no "universal" concept, either in the form of a God, a Nirgun Brahman or a Heaven in Buddhism for Buddhists around the world to rally round. There is no "place" for the Buddhists even after liberation to "get together". Thus from the beginning there is nothing in Buddhism, especially in Theravada Buddhism that makes it a so called world religion. In Mahayana Buddhism, with the concepts of Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, Bodhisathvas and their abodes the situation is somewhat different and Buddhism in the form of Mahayana may have some ingredients that could make it a "world religion" where its followers the world over could rally round some positive concept. It should not come as a surprise that most of the western Buddhists are attracted to Mahayana Buddhism. Any attempt to make Theravada Buddhism a world religion is bound to fail and the attempt by Colonel Olcott and others to create a world Buddhism with the introduction of six colour Buddhist flag and similar concepts has not succeeded. One cannot even make a theosophical Buddhism or an intellectual Buddhism from Theravada Buddhism with its nirpravadas. People like Colonel Olcott succeeded not in making a "world Buddhism" out of Theravada Buddhism but by eliminating to a certain extent the Sinhala or jathikathva of the Sinhala Buddhism and Sinhala Buddhist culture.

Buddhism, especially Theravada Buddhism, from the beginning has always being a "local" religion(s). In that sense there is no Buddhism or Theravada Buddhist civilisation as such and always there have been Sinhala Buddhism, Thai or Siam Buddhism, Myanmar or Ramanna Buddhism etc. People like Toynbee when they say that there is no Theravada Buddhist civilisation or that the Theravada Buddhist civilisation has been fossilised they may be subconsciously thinking of this aspect of Theravada Buddhism. A civilisation first of all gives a sense of belonging to a large set of people and Theravada Buddhism is unable to provide the people with symbols and concepts to come together with some kind of bondage. It is not that Theravada Buddhist civilisation is fossilised but Theravada Buddhism cannot create a civilisation to begin with. It can only produce "local" cultures such as Sinhala Buddhism.

The above should not be taken as a criticism of Theravada Buddhism(s). I like Theravada Buddhism for what it is and we should not try to make a world religion or an intellectual religion out of Theravada Buddhism. When Arhat Mahinda came to Sri Lanka more than two thousand three hundred years ago what was introduced officially to this country was a Sinhala Buddhism. Arhat Mahinda when asked by the king Devanam Piyathissa said that Buddhism would be established in the country only after a person born in this country enters the sasana as a Bhikku and preach Dhamma. Arhat Mahinda not only did not get rid of tree worshipping that was prevailing in this country at that time, but gave it a Buddhist touch by obtaining a branch of Sri Maha Bodhi for people to worship. The people on the other hand did not give up their pantheon of gods and instead made them Buddhist gods. Further they were able to accommodate any other god that came from India afterwards. What was established was a Sinhala Buddhism that would not have been found anywhere else in the world. I think the situation was no different in the other Theravada Buddhist countries.

However in the Sinhala Buddhism that was established in the time of Devanam Piyathissa the "war" was missing as most probably it was influenced by the Buddhism of the king Asoka of Bharat, the latter becoming a Buddhist after fighting a war and giving up war. In no time two horse traders who came from Bharat, probably from Sindh, captured Anuradhapura. Though king Asela was able to defeat the horse traders it was left to the king Dutugemunu to add "war" as a component of Sinhala Buddhism. In the process Sinhala Buddhism went through a kind of metamorphism. Post Dutugemunu Sinhala Buddhism was not the same as pre Dutugemunu Sinhala Buddhism and if not for the metamorphism that was introduced by the king Dutugemunu, most probably on the advice of Vihara Maha Devi, Sinhala Buddhism would have disappeared from this country long time ago. It has to be emphasised that only in Sri Lanka or Sinhale, the "missions" sent by the king Asoka was successful and it was due to two reasons. Firstly the Sinhala culture (with the Sinhala language) was compatible with Theravada Buddhism. This is shown by the answers given by king Devanam Piyathissa to Arhat Mahinda on trees that were mangoes and not mangoes and also on king’s relatives and non relatives. I analysed these questions and answers about twelve years ago in an article (not a so-called research paper to collect points for promotions) published in "Divaina". I have now developed this analysis further taking into consideration the role of the observer within and outside a system (with connotations in Quantum Physics) and hope to publish it in my research journals "Divaina" and "The Island", in the near future, knowing very well that I would not get any points for my "promotions" from what are known as newspaper articles in the academic circles. Fortunately my wife and girlfriend, though an academic herself, continues to ignore these circulars on points and has no hesitation to promote me at home as well as at various fora. A culture that had produced a king who could think of somebody left when both the relatives and the non relatives were taken off from a set of human beings, unconsciously making use of the fourth case of "catuskoti" (four fold logic), that is very important to Theravada Buddhism, was ready for "anatma" of Theravada Buddhism that explained rebirth of sathva as that of neither the sathva nor of some other sathva. ("na ca so na ca anno" in the Pali of Ven. Buddhagosa Thero). What a contrast is it from the answers given by the present day rulers. The story is that when a politician was asked by a visitor from another country whether there were any jack trees other than that was before him he had answered that all the other trees have been fell and the last one before him was marked for the afternoon. When he was asked whether there were any people who were not his relatives he had said that the whole world is his relatives and so is the visitor who asked the question and as such the visitor could help him (the politician) with a foreign trip.

Secondly Theravada Buddhism survived in this country for so long because of the metamorphism that it went through during the time of king Dutugemunu. The king (and Vihara Maha Devi) introduced "war" as a part of Sinhala Buddhism to defend the country from invasions. However unlike the present day bell bottom Vihara Maha Devis and cardboard Dutugemunus they did not make war a holy war in defense of the country, the nation , or the sasana (religion) as in some other cultures. Thus there is war in Sinhala Buddhism but no holy war. The irony is that those who preach holy war and who have practiced holy war for thousands of years and who are fighting wars against terrorism want Sinhala people not to launch operations against terrorists in Sri Lanka.
(To be continued)