Midweek Review
Book Review
Reconciliation of problems involved in ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka

by D. Amarasiri Weeraratne
Book: "The Role of the Sangha in the Reconciliation Process"
Authors: Chandra R. de Silva and Tessa Bartholomeusz

This is a booklet of 34 pages and is part of a series of monographs reflecting recollections, reinterpretation and reconciliation of the problems involved in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. This has resulted in a civil war which is devastating our economy and our human resources. The destruction of civilian property and life is immense.

This monograph deals with the role the Sangha has to play in the reconciliation process with a view to ushering in peace which we enjoyed for 150 years under British rule. Rarely has this country known peace for more than 50 years during the days of our independence. It has been civil war, rebellion or foreign invasions that bedeviled our history. With the departure of the British the old proclivities to rebellion, and power struggle wrought with violence have come to stay.

The original Sangha of the Anuradhapura period were hermit-monks living in caves. They lived in conformity to the 227 Vinaya-rules laid down by the Buddha. King Dutugemunu in order to wrest the overlordship of the entire island raised the religious issue and solicited the support of Buddhist monks. The Vinaya forbids monks to associate with the army in warfare activities. They can only go to perform religious functions and rites, and not stay more than 3 days with the army. Dutugemunu got the Sangha to disregard this rule and took monks along with his army. All kinds of excuses are offered to rationalise this apostasy. One foolish monk who pretended to be an Arahath duped the King saying that he does not acquire the sin of killing men in battle because the Tamils were non-Buddhists and therefore tantamount to animals.

Later, after killing Elara and becoming the King at Anuradhapura, Dutugemunu corrupted the Sangha by offering palatial monasteries designed on celestial mansions. The monks because lax and bent towards worldliness. One got caught writing love letters to his brother’s harem-ladies. His successors continued the process of corruption by lavish patronage. Before long the monks became landlords, and slave-owners. They amended the Vinaya by making it lawful to own land, properties salters and incomes from tanks including levies for fishing rights.

The monks took to king-making. Often, by backing the wrong party and rebels, they got executed, and their monasteries were destroyed. Several kings are on record for merciless execution and punishment of monks for disloyalty and siding rebels. King Rajasinha I was demonised by the Sangha as he hounded Sangha-leaders who backed his enemies who were in league with the Portuguese. They raised revolts to thwart his siege of Colombo to drive away the Portuguese and free Sri Lanka. The leading monks of Sitawaka and Kandy were mercilessly rounded up and executed. Therefore it is not correct to say that all Sinhalese kings were subservient to the Sangha. Sangharaja Weliwita Saranankara was imprisoned for some time for his connection with a plot against Kirti Sri Rajasinha. King Sri Wickrama Rajasinha executed Paranatala Thero, the Malwatte prelate for backing chieftains inimical to the king. The British did not hesitate to depose or punish monks who fomented rebellion. It was the Malwatte prelates who, in league with Ehelepola and his henchmen, betrayed King Sri Wickrama Rajasinha to the British. The prelates helped draft the Kandyan convention and attended the ceremony of signing the Convention. Thereby they made themselves a party to the betrayal of the King and becoming vassals of the British imperialists. They cared little who ruled Sri Lanka provided their temporalities, privileges, as well as that of their relations in the Kandyan aristocracy were preserved.

The Sinhalese Buddhist Sangha by their out dated education, feudal-ideology, and insular thinking guided at least by a limited range of texts within the parameters of Sanskrit, Pali and Sinhalese sources of knowledge, understanding and appreciation modern democratic ideology, human rights, and feminism. The Buddha’s injunctions against caste cuts no ice with them. They have adopted practices that go against the letter and spirit of the Buddha-Dharma. I think Dr. Stanley Tambiay’s "Buddhism Betrayed" is sound and valid.

How on earth can Tamil and Muslim minorities expect fair play and justice from the Sanghahierarchy when the prelates refuse to be fair by their own people of the so called "low- castes" and women of all-castes? The Siamese sect closes the door of admission to men of non-Govigama castes. Rev. Dr. Walpola Rahula’s appeal to the Siamese sect to do away with casteism advocated in his publication called "Satyodaya" fell on deaf-years. All three primates oppose the revival of the Bhikkuni Order for women. Their stance goes against the Dhamma Vinaya of the Buddha. Racism, casteism, and antifeminism are entrenched in Sinhalese Buddhism.

What I consider most valuable in this monograph is the recommendation with regard to the education of monks. The current frog in the well system of education does not open up horizons of the modem world, its ideologies, thinking and sciences to them. Their educational curriculum should be enlarged to bring them into the mainstream of modem thought in religion, science, and philosophy. Once the monks are grounded in modem democratic ideals, human rights and values which are also a part of the Buddha’s teachings on Samanotmota (Equality) and Artacharya (working for the welfare of others), they are likely to see things in a different light. The ethnic problem and its spill-over to the civil-war could have been averted if the Sinhalse leaders were allowed to implement, the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayam Pact, the Dudley Chelvanayagam Pact, or the decisions of the All Party Conference convened by President Jayawardena. All three attempts were torpedoed by leading Buddhist prelates.

The Sinhalese Sangha is the most apostate Sangha in the Buddhist world. The Sangha of other Buddhist countries do not dabble in politics, Casteism is foreign to them. In the Mahayana countries the Order of Nuns (Bhikkuni-Sangaha) flourishes. Monks dabbling in politics will be disrobed. That is because they have a primate with legal-powers to discipline monks and sack those who bring the Sangha to disrepute. We must have a Sangayana or Church Council to draw up reforms, and to elect a leader with powers to discipline the Sangha. The education of Buddhist monks should be revised to wean them away from the feudalist ideology and democratise them. A parliament elected by the people should rule this land according to its laws. In the Vinaya, monks are forbidden to clash with kings, ministers, and disobey laws. Such monks should be dealt with by Vinaya-law or the secular law of the land.

The role of the Sangha should be to study, teach and preach the Dhamma. They should maintain the temples and look-after the spiritual welfare of the Buddhists. Whatever representations they make to the Government, or advise they offer should be through their primate and Council of Elders. The Buddha did not advocate or condone war. Then how can his modern disciples (Buddhaputras) condone and bless the war? The Buddha’s visit to the warring parties over the sharing of the Rohini river, his conduct and settlement of the dispute are well known. How can Buddhaputras decoy the path of negotiations under a mediator? Buddhist monks who advocate war, but neither go to fight, nor send their disciples and relations to war, are humbugs and cowards. In their bodhi-pujas, pirit-ceremonies and satyakriyas they should call upon the gods to change the minds of the Government leaders and the LTTE warlords to come to a negotiated settlement under the opportunities now available.

We lost the opportunity to have the civil-war stopped and a peaceful settlement achieved under the Rajiv J. R. Indo-Lanka Agreement. That was a golden opportunity lost due to the bellicose and arrogant stand taken by Sinhala chauvinists. Today we are paying the price for it in blood, tears and devastation of our economy. If the Maha-Sangha have not learnt the lesson and refuse to agree to a negotiated settlement under a mediator or the U.N.O., then we are digging our own graves and the "guardian angels of the nation and the faith" will have the role of the pall-bearers at the funeral of Sinhalese Buddhism.