Midweek Review
Sinhala Buddhism — Part III

by Nalin de Silva
We argued in these columns that there is no Buddhism as such and that there are Buddhisms such as Sinhala Buddhism more precisely Sinhala Theravada Buddhism, Siam or Thai Buddhism, Myanmar or Amarapura Buddhism etc. Sinhala Buddhism introduced officially to this country went through a metamorphism during the time of king Dutugemunu and post Dutugemunu Sinhala (Theravada) Buddhism having undergone some modifications introduced by Buddhagosha Thero existed without much problem or challenge until Colonel Olcott and the Theosophists came to Sri Lanka in 1880. Though the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British had tried hard to suppress (post Dutugemunu) Sinhala Buddhism it was Colonel Olcott who managed to revise Sinhala Buddhism to such an extent that we may call the present day Sinhala Buddhism of most of the "Sinhala Buddhists", Olcott Buddhism. Today is a very important day for Olcott Buddhism in this country as its fate would be decided by the people at the general elections. We must realise that in less than four years we complete five hundred years of introduction of western Christian civilisation to this country and unless we are going to have annual elections that event would be remembered under the government elected today. Olcott Buddhism that has tried to erase the Sinhala part of Sinhala Buddhism and tried to establish some kind of an international Buddhism has survived with some form of assistance from the Anglican culture. What is being decided today is for how long this "sahavasa" (co-existence) could continue in this country.

Sinhala Buddhism from the very beginning has absorbed various concepts from other cultures. It is very probable that the religions of Nagas, Devas and especially Yakshas had number of gods either in the form of dead relatives (ne yakun) or some other "beings" and Sinhala Buddhism assimilated or absorbed all these gods into its culture. The Bodhi Vandana (worshiping of Bodhi) is nothing but assimilation of (Bharat) Buddhist concepts into Sinhala (Buddhist) culture. Not only the gods of the Nagas and the other tribes but even Vedic gods would have been absorbed to the Sinhala Buddhist culture. When these gods from other cultures, including those from Hindu culture later, (there was no Hinduism before Sankaracharya and Hinduism is seen by some as an amalgamation of Vedic religion, Buddhism and Jainism. Vedic religion with "yagas" and "homas" and animal sacrifices is different from Hinduism and some argue that the concept of Ahinsa was absorbed into Hinduism from Buddhism and Jainism.) were absorbed into the Sinhala Buddhist culture the Sinhala Buddhists wanted them to be (Sinhala) Buddhist gods. The gods thus absorbed were Buddhist gods after the assimilation and they (the gods)all worshiped Buddha. It was not a pantheon of Gods with Buddha at the head, as some western sociologists have pointed out, but a pantheon of gods that worshipped Buddha. It has to be emphasised contrary to what these western sociologists think, the Sinhala (Theravada) Buddhists, in general, did not consider the Buddha to be a god.

For the Sinhala Buddhists the Buddha was only an "uththareethara" "human being" who had "lived" and attained Nibbana.

The god Vishnu is a case in point, with respect to assimilation. Vishnu in Vedic religion and Hinduism is a form of Brahman and in that sense an immortal being. But in Sinhala Buddhism the god Vishnu is neither immortal nor a form of Brahman. The god Vishnu in Sinhala Buddhism is a Sinhala Buddhist god and a bodhisathva. He is not immortal as in Hinduism and Vedic religion and would attain Nibbana in the future. Though the same name Vishnu is used the Sinhala Buddhist god Vishnu is different from the god Vishnu in Vedic religion and Hinduism. Similarly Buddha has been assimilated into the Hindu culture in the form of an avatar of the god Vishnu.

Sinhala Theravada Buddhism has not only assimilated from Vedic and Hindu cultures but from Mahayana Buddhism as well. The Mahayana Bodhisathvas are quite different from Sinhala Buddhist Bodhisathvas. The Mahayana Bodhisathvas theoretically live indefinitely in Sukhavathi and other such abodes, and in a sense they are immortal. In fact certain Mahayana sects have made the Buddha also to be immortal. These concepts were most probably constructed as a response to an immortal Brahman but ultimately they had to give in to various forms of Hinduism that were developed later in Bharat. The above are examples for assimilations into one culture from a different culture and nobody could prevent these assimilations.

Post Dutugemunu Sinhala Buddhism was modified to some extent during the time of Buddhagosha Thero. During this period the Sinhala texts were translated into Pali and the former was displaced by the latter among the educated circles including the Bhikkus. Since then Sinhala Buddhist "academic" tradition has taken a back seat and as a result creation of knowledge within Sinhala Buddhism has been neglected. The Sinhala Buddhist academic tradition is yet to recover completely from this set back. However, the worst damage was done after the sixteenth century with the arrival of world colonialism. Towards the end of the nineteenth century a revival of Sinhala Buddhism began under the leadership of Bhikkus such as Mohottivatte Gunananda Thero and others like Anagarika Dharmapala. Sinhala Buddhism had been a living phenomenon from the time of the king Devanampiya Thissa and what Anagarika Dharmapala did was to give a name to this phenomenon, if that name had not been used at any time in the history prior to that. The five debates, the most prominent being the "Panadura Vadaya", were a turning point in the history of Sinhala Buddhism in this country. As a result of the Panadura Vadaya Colonel Olcott and the other theosophists came to this country.

It is clear that what is known as the Buddhist revival in the nineteenth century was not a homogeneous movement. There were two important trends in the movement. One was the trend led by Bhikkus such as Mohottivatte Gunananda Thero and Anagarika Dharmapala. The other was the trend of the theosophists. The former was a continuation of post Dutugemunu Sinhala Buddhism with necessary modifications and the resulting Buddhism could be called the Dutugemunu - Dharmapala Buddhism. The other trend resulted in the Olcott Buddhism. However, this does not mean that these two trends were independent of each other and that they were mutually exclusive. The Chinthana Parshadaya has undertaken an investigation into the differences in these two trends, studying articles written by Mohottivatte Gunananda Thero, Anagarika Dharmapala and others and the preliminary results establish that gradually Olcott Buddhism took the upper hand. It was not due to the arguments put forward by them but was a result of the social forces operating at that time.

Dutugemunu - Dharmapala Buddhism was a Sinhala Buddhism and it appealed to the Sinhala Buddhists. Anagarika Dharmapala and others considered themselves to be Sinhala Buddhists. On the other hand Olcott Buddhism was international in outlook and was more appealing to the westerners. In Olcott Buddhism there was no nationalism. Colonel Olcott himself considered himself to be a world citizen. They were theosophists first and Buddhists later. As far back as 1929 Mr. L.H. Mettananda who later became the principal of Ananda Vidyalaya, writing to "Swadesha Mithraya" from London has said that in the English Buddhist schools

Theosophy was taught in the name of Buddhism. It is clear that the British preferred Olcott Buddhism to Dutugemunu - Dharmapala Buddhism and there was some kind of understanding between Olcott Buddhism and the British Anglican culture.

Colonel Olcott should be compared and contrasted with S. Mahinda Thero who came to Sri Lanka from Sikhim. Mahinda Thero was not an internationalist and very soon he became a Sinhala Buddhist. In otherwords he absorbed what was there in Dutugemunu - Dharmapala Buddhism and was to play a leading role in the independence movement. Even by the time of Mahinda Thero the Buddhists had lost most of the Jathikathva feeling and the Thero had to write poems to arouse the national feeling among the Sinhalas. I am not saying that this was entirely due to Olcott Buddhism but its non national character played a role in this unfortunate state of affairs.

What we have today is mainly an Olcott Buddhism. The politics is directed by Olcott Buddhism and not by Dutugemunu - Dharmapala Buddhism, except for brief periods of time, 1956 being one such moment. The Olcott Buddhists among the educated have turned out to be internationalists. International culture in this period is nothing but western culture and the educated Olcott Buddhists try to interpret Buddhism to the westerners. In the process they have created a so-called objective rational Buddhism that appeals to the west. This Buddhism is interpreted as the Buddhism when the so-called scholars talk of Buddhism betrayed. By Buddhism they mean this abstract imaginary Buddhism that exists in the minds of the educated Olcott Buddhists and probably the western Buddhists. They fail to understand that there is no Buddhism as such and that there are only Buddhisms.

We have a long way to go from Olcott Buddhism to Sinhala Buddhism. If not for the Olcott Buddhism no Sinhala person would have talked of injustices to the Tamils, when there is an aspiration of Tamil racism to deny the rightful place being given to Sinhala nation, Sinhala culture, Sinhala language and Sinhala history. Tamil racists and non national forces promote Olcott Buddhism to achieve their objectives.