Sri Lanka’s debt to Buddhism and the way forward in strengthening its Buddhist identity
By Senaka Weeraratna
Buddhism has shaped the lives of our people, the identity, and the direction of our society in a way unmatched by any other religion. Buddhism has been the national faith for over two millennia and the bedrock of the culture and civilization of the Sinhalese people. Sri Lanka is the oldest Buddhist nation in the world. If not for the continuance of the Dhamma, through the study and practice of it in this country, it is unlikely that there would even be a semblance of pure Sasana in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, or Cambodia all of which countries have borrowed heavily from Sri Lanka.
It is in Sri Lanka that the Wheel of the Buddha’s law was truly set in motion with the arrival of Arahant Mahinda with the blessings of that great universal monarch, Emperor Asoka. If this event did not take place in Sri Lanka, the Pali Canon may not have got recorded and the noble doctrine of the Buddha, recited and accepted by the Arahats, at Rajagaha, Vesali and Pataliputta, i.e. three Great Councils of the Arya Sangha, would have disappeared into thin air long ago.
Arahant Mahinda not only introduced the Dhamma but he also taught it in such a manner that it soon became the overriding element in all the activities of our people in the past, enthused them to develop an altogether new culture and Social Order relying heavily on the teachings of the Buddha. It also became the basis of the social outlook of the vast majority of our people even to this day. Such is the hold of the Dhamma so ingrained in almost every facet of this country that the Buddhist public very rightly feel that it is something they cannot do without as it is now representative of their life blood, more or less.
In the pre-colonial period the Sinhalese Monarch protected the Buddha Sasana and maintained its purity as one of his primary duties. He exercised his power and authority over the religion to prevent schisms and heretical interpretations of the Dhamma. He invoked the “dasa raja dhamma” as a basis of governance. He developed an Animal Friendly Cultural Heritage. The protection and promotion of the Buddha Sasana was a primary obligation of the Sovereign. He was called the Sasanadikara (promoter of the faith).
It is indisputable that during 450 years of European colonial rule, Buddhism was displaced and degraded and Buddhists were subjected to all kinds of harsh treatment and discrimination while Christianity which was introduced by the Colonial West, became the religion of a small minority that received state patronage and was treated as the state religion in those parts of the country under colonial domination.
The British as a contracting party to the Kandyan Convention in 1815, (Article 5) granted Buddhism an inviolable status – in acceptance of the unique status that Buddhism enjoyed under the Sinhalese Kings. This pledge was however honoured in the breach by the British colonial Govt. no sooner the ink was dry after signing the Convention. Governor Robert Browning himself admits that he signed the Convention allowing Buddhism to be regarded as inviolate as a ploy to induce the Kandyan Chiefs to sign the Treaty without which it would have not been possible to clinch the deal with the Kandyans.
Buddhism was not taught in Government schools, disregarded as idolatry under missionary influence, and Vesak was not given any special significance until 1885 when it was a declared a public holiday, in response to a sustained campaign of agitation by the Buddhist Public and the Sangha.
Section 29 – devise to prevent rectification of historical injustices caused to Buddhists in the colonial era
Having demoted Buddhism in schools, public life and employment, and in a manner totally inconsistent with the way Buddhism was treated by the Sinhalese Kings in the pre- Portuguese Era, and with a view to preventing Buddhism from regaining its lost status and due place in an independent Sri Lanka the British colonial Government inserted what became known as Section 29 into the Soulbury Constitution.
This Section 29 enshrined a principle that even the British did not necessarily uphold in practice either in Britain or in any of its colonies, despite public declarations of a commitment to the ideal of a secular state. For example, in England the British monarchy i.e. the Queen, is officially declared as the defender of the faith i.e. Christian faith, and in spite of Britain being a multi – religious society, the laws against Blasphemy operate only when the Christian religion is denigrated or ridiculed. Only days of Religious significance to Christians have been made public holidays in Britain. Compare the situation in Sri Lanka where all four religions Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam have public holidays on days of religious significance. Sri Lanka issues commemorative postage stamps in respect of all four religions which are officially recognized. In contrast Britain has not recognized like the vast majority of European countries (except Russia and Austria), Buddhism as an official religion. Also, neither the Buddha nor Buddhism has been honoured by way of issue of a commemorative postage stamp in Britain. Members of religious and ethnic minorities of coloured backgrounds are never honoured in Britain as worthy subjects in commemorative postage stamps. In these respects Sri Lanka is far ahead of both Britain and the rest of Europe. They have a lot to learn from Sri Lanka.
While a huge international campaign is being mounted to shame and demonise Sri Lanka on ground of alleged lack of equality of status of religion in Sri Lanka’s Constitution on account of Article 9 which grants foremost place to Buddhism while affording protection to all other religions, what these campaigners do not say and what much of the world does not know is that Buddhism has never been granted a parity of status as a religion in the Constitution of any Christian or Muslim majority country. Leave alone parity of status Buddhism is fighting hard to gain official recognition as a religion in several Abrahamic countries despite the recognition granted by the United Nations to Buddhism as a global religion. In some of these Islamic and Christian countries Buddhism is even denied simple recognition as a religion because it rejects the notion of a creator God. According to these views, a belief becomes validated as a religion only when it subscribes to the belief in a God. In that sense Buddhism fails the test of a religion.
There are other reasons why the Church and the Vatican are opposed to Buddhism being accorded official recognition as a religion in Europe, namely to prevent the accrual of benefits from the State to non – Christian religions and organizations. In some Western countries it is not possible to register a Society as a Buddhist organization because Buddhism is not officially recognized as a religion. The alternative then is to have such a Buddhist Society registered as a Charitable Society where membership is open to people of all faiths.
While almost every Buddhist country in Asia has declared Christmas as a public holiday not a single Christian country has declared Vesak as a public holiday despite a significance presence of Buddhists in these countries. So much for reciprocity of obligations.
The Constitutional primacy of one religion is not something unique to Sri Lanka. Almost all Muslim majority countries have declared Islam as the State Religion in their Constitutions. In most South American countries Catholicism has been declared the State Religion and treated accordingly. In Philippines where the majority are Roman Catholics, Catholicism enjoys State patronage and protection over and above all other religions. In Israel, Judaism is the State Religion. In both Burma and Thailand Buddhism enjoys state patronage because of the large presence of Buddhists in these countries.
In the making or reform of a National Constitution an obsession with the ideal of the principle of equality of status of religions, while disregarding the overwhelming and virtually matchless contribution of one religion to the creation and structuring of a country’s civilization i.e. Buddhism in the history of Sri Lanka, can only lead to producing a document which will not have roots either in our history or our traditions, and like several other recent Constitutions it will be disowned by the majority of the people of Sri Lanka.
Inter – dependence and close nexus between the State and Buddha Sasana in Lanka’s History
Concepts that are bandied about by the West and their acolytes in Buddhist Asia such as Secularism, Pluralism, Multi-culturalism, Multi – religion and the like with a view to having Buddhism removed from the School, public life and influence on state policy, have their origin in Europe and are more appropriate to Societies and Cultures that spawned them to distance the State from the all powerful Church which was competing with the traditional Monarch to rule the State in Europe. There was no such threat to the King or the State in Asia particularly in Sri Lanka from the Order of the Buddhist Sangha. The Buddhist monks unlike the Christian Clergy in Europe never competed with the King to rule a country in Asia. In the pre – Portuguese era the question of separating the influence of Buddhism on the ethical and moral direction of the society and policy making and policy direction of the State was unthinkable. Buddhism since the time of arrival of Arahant Mahinda in 300 BC and until the entry of Portuguese in 1505, has been the main spring of our civilisation, culture, law and customs. The challenge for the Buddhists of the current generation is to consolidate this position and reclaim the Buddhist heritage as a living force in Sri Lanka. ‘Secularism’ is a concept totally alien to the character and foundations of Sri Lanka’s civilization which is essentially Buddhist.
The greatest challenge to Buddhism as the national religion of Sri Lanka arose with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505. In fact all three western colonial powers namely the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British that governed Sri Lanka in varying degrees during the period 1505 – 1948, had as the cornerstone of their imperial policy the conversion of the Sinhala Buddhists and the Tamil Hindus into Christianity. This enterprise had the blessings of the highest strata of people of the imperial countries including the Crown, the State and the Church. The avowed political objective in converting the colonized was to transfer their allegiance from the local sovereign to the foreign sovereign, and alienate the converted from identification with their traditional religion, culture, language and sense of self-determination. This diabolical plan invariably required the use of manipulative methods of conversion e.g. force, fraud and allurement, and the repression of indigenous religions i.e. Buddhism and Hinduism, by both overt and covert means. It is pertinent to note that even the local sovereign was not spared from pressure by missionaries to change religion. The assassination of King Buwaneka Bahu the VII by a Portuguese Soldier in Kelaniya in 1552 A.D. is now seen increasingly by astute observers as a punishment meted out by the Portuguese because of King Buvaneka Bahu’s steadfast refusal to abandon the religion of his convictions i.e. Buddhism.
Unfortunately, this long term objective of displacing Buddhism from public life in Sri Lanka and even Hinduism as a mainstream religion in India continues unabated though the methods employed today by the rival camps are more subtle and deep seated than during the colonial era.
If Secularism was an essential part of State policy right from the dawn of state governance in history (Maha Sammatha), Buddhism may have never got off the ground despite the indisputable truths in the Buddha’s teachings. The State patronage Buddhism received from such Kings as Bimbisara and Ajasattu (Bimbisara’s son) of the Kingdom of Magadha, and King Pasenadi of Kosala, during the Buddha’s time played a critical role in alerting the public to the Buddha’s teachings. Within 200 years of the passing away of the Buddha, Buddhism got the biggest promotion when Emperor Asoka embraced Buddhism and sponsored Buddhist missionaries to travel to the four corners of the then known world. Asoka sent his beloved son Mahinda and daughter Sangamitta to Sri Lanka, to be openly welcomed by the reigning King Devanampiyatissa. The rest is history.
There were significant Buddhist Councils in India following the death of the Buddha. All of these great Buddhist Councils had the patronage of the reigning Kings and the respective Government of their States. In the Buddhist Social Order the King was also known as the Sasanadikara – Protector and promoter of the Buddha Sasana. Here is an outline of the support given by the Kings of India and Sri Lanka to the great Buddhist Councils of the past:
The First Council
King Ajātasattu sponsored the First Council. It was convened in 544 B.C. in the Sattapannī Cave situated outside Rājagaha three months after the Buddha had passed away. A detailed account of this historic meeting can be found in the Cūllavagga of the Vinaya Piṭaka.
The Second Council
King Kāḷāsoka was the Second Council’s patron and the meeting took place at Vesāli. The Second Council was called one hundred years after the Buddha’s Parinibbāṇa in order to settle a serious dispute over `ten points’. This is a reference to some monks breaking of ten minor rules. Their infringements became an issue of discussion and caused a major dispute as a breach of these rules was thought to depart from the Buddha’s original teachings. This historic council is also named as the Yasatthera Sangīti because of the critical role played in it by the Elder Yasa and his unreserved keenness for safeguarding the Vinaya. The Vajjian monks however refused to accept the Council’s decision and in defiance called a council of their own which was called the Mahāsaṅgiti.
The Third Council
The Third Council was convened under the patronage of Emperor Asoka at Asokārāma in Paṭaliputta in 326 B.C. It was presided over by the Elder Moggaliputta Tissa and one thousand monks participated in this Council. It was held primarily to cleanse the order of the Saṅgha of corruption and discard delinquent monks who held heretical views.
This Council also achieved a number of other important objectives. The Elder Moggaliputta Tissa, with a view to refuting heretical views and ensuring the Dhamma was kept pure, began compiling a book during the council. It was called the Kathāvatthu. This book comprises twenty-three chapters, and contains a series of discussions (kathā) and rejection of the heretical views held by various groups on matters philosophical. This Kathāvatthu is the fifth of the seven books of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. The Third Council was also instrumental in giving a royal seal of approval to the doctrine of the Buddha, by declaring it the ‘Vibhajjavāda’, the Doctrine of Analysis. Its content is identical with the Theravāda doctrine. One of the most significant outcomes of this Third Council and one which had far reaching effects for all time, was the Emperor Asoka’s visionary decision to send forth monks, well versed in the Buddha’s Dhamma and Vinaya and able to recite all of it by heart, and preach it in nine different countries. These Dhammadūta monks included the Venerable Majjhantika Thera who went to Kashmir and Gandhāra. The Venerable Mahādeva who was sent to Mahinsakamaṇḍaḷa (modern Mysore) and the Venerable Rakkhita Thera who was sent to Vanavāsī (northern Kanara in the south of India.) The Ven. Yonaka Dhammarakkhita Thera was assigned to proceed to Upper Aparantaka (northern Gujarat, Kathiawar, Kutch and Sindh].
The Ven. Mahārakkhita Thera was sent to Yonaka-loka (the land of the lonians, Bactrians and the Greeks.) The Ven. Majjhima Thera went to Himavanta (the region adjoining the Himalayas.) The Venerable Soṇa and the Ven. Uttara were sent to Suvaṇṇabhūmi [now Myanmar]. The Venerables Mahinda Thera, Ittiya Thera, Uttiya Thera, Sambala Thera and Bhaddasāla Thera were sent to Tambapaṇṇi (now called Sri Lanka). The Dhamma missions of some of these monks succeeded beyond measure and changed the course of history in Asia. It bore great fruits in the course of time and contributed in a large way in ennobling the peoples of these lands with the sublime doctrine of the Dhamma and moulding their civilizations and cultures. As a result of the spread of the Dhamma based on the words of the Buddha, in due course of time India’s stature grew as a country of philosophical wisdom that no other country could match. Correspondingly it became known and respected throughout the length and breadth of Asia and beyond, as Visvaguru, the teacher of the world.
The Fourth Council
The Fourth Council was held in Sri Lanka in 29 B.C. under the patronage of King Vaṭṭagāmaṇi. The main purpose of this Council was to have the entire body of the Buddha’s teaching which was until then passed down from generation to generation by oral transmission written down so that the genuine Dhamma might be preserved for a longer period in its pristine purity. Ven. Mahārakhita and five hundred monks recited the words of the Buddha and then wrote them down on palm leaves. This remarkable project was executed in a cave called, the Āloka lena, located in the cleft of an ancient landslip near Matale. The success of the Fourth Council is one of Sri Lanka’s greatest achievements in history. It ensured the preservation in writing of the authentic Dhamma and enabled Sri Lanka many centuries later to share it with the rest of the world, particularly with Scholars and Colonial Administrators from the West in the 19th and 20th Century.
The Fifth Council
The Fifth Council took place in Māndalay, Burma now known as Myanmar in 1871 A.D. in the reign of King Mindon. The chief purpose of this Council was to recite all the teachings of the Buddha and examine them in minute detail to ascertain if any of them had been altered, distorted or dropped.
The Sixth Council
The Sixth Council was convened at Kaba Aye in Yangon, formerly Rangoon in 1954. It was sponsored by the Burmese Government led by the Prime Minister, U Nu. Under U Nu’s leadership and watch a huge cave called the Mahā Pāsāna Gūhā, was built from the ground up, to serve as the gathering place much like the Sattapānni Cave outside Rājagaha in India –the site of the first Dhamma Council. The Sixth Council met on the 17th of May, 1954. Its chief objective as in previous Councils, was to recite, affirm and preserve the genuine wording of the Vinaya, Suttas and Abhidhamma–the pariyatti–as related by the Buddha and his principal disciples.
However the unique feature in this Council in so far as the monks who took part in it came from eight countries. These two thousand five hundred learned Theravāda monks were drawn from Myanmar, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. Mahayana monks and representatives from all Buddhist countries also attended it. There were two German monks present at this Council meeting, namely Ven. Nyanatiloka Maha Thera and his disciple Ven. Nyanaponika Thera.
The traditional recitation of the Dhamma Scriptures took two years during which period the Tipiṭaka and its related literature in all the scripts were carefully examined. Their work came to an end in May, 1956. This Council’s work was undoubtedly an unique achievement of representatives from the entire Buddhist world. The version of the Tipiṭaka which it finally produced has been recognized as being true to the pristine teachings of the Buddha (Shakyamuni) and the most authoritative and authentic rendering of them to date.
The Mandate of the State
Buddhism has been the most powerful single factor in the development of Sri Lanka’s civilization. For more than 2, 300 years, Sri Lanka developed and projected a country image that was predominantly Buddhist. Though this pre-disposition was held back during the period of 450 years of western colonial rule, no sooner an opportunity arose after the grant of independence in 1948, the majority of the people again turned to Buddhism as expressive of their national identity and gave a mandate to a newly elected Government to restore Buddhism to its rightful place and make it an unifying and integrative force in the nation.
Today, the State has a mandate to perform its historic public duty, as enshrined in the National Constitution, to extend patronage, protection and foster Buddhism both within and outside the country.
The Presidential Buddha Sasana Commission Report (2002) observed ‘ that the constitutional obligation accorded by the Constitution of Sri Lanka to give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana devolves on the Government of Sri Lanka, all state institutions, other organisations, and all its citizens”.
The Report further declared:
“Sri Lanka is the centre of Theravada Buddhism. It is the duty and responsibility of everyone to preserve it for the future generations. The Government, the bhikkus, the Buddhist societies and organizations, and the Buddhist people should work for this because preserving Buddhism in Sri Lanka leads to the development of worldwide Buddhism. Further, the Commission believes that its recommendations do not disturb the constitutional rights of the followers of other religions, while it improves the harmony rather than animosity among people who follow various religions”
Sri Lanka – Civilizational State
It may well be said that Sri Lanka is more than a mere nation state as defined and understood in International law. It is also a civilizational state given the heavy underpinning of Buddhism and Buddhist culture in almost every aspect of life in this country, lasting for more than 2000 years.
The Presidential Buddha Sasana Commission Report (2002) dealing with the responsibilities of the Government of Sri Lanka, further said:
“ It is seen that the religion of the majority of the people in a country becomes the state religion. Bhutan, Nepal, United Kingdom, certain European countries, and Arabic countries are examples of this. In the Sri Lankan society, this condition prevailed until 1815. In Malaysia, even though its Islamic population is 52%, the state religion has become Islam. From the Devanam Piya Tissa era to 1815, the state religion had been Buddhism”.
Religious Tolerance in Sri Lanka
Buddhist societies are also tolerant of other religions much more than societies belonging to the Abrahamic fold. Despite the heavy pre-dominance of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, other religions also flourish in the country and are officially recognized. They are also protected under the Constitution. Populated townships in the country would show places of worship and presence of adherents belonging to all four religions.
In Sri Lanka, the number of Public Holidays in a calendar year granted to the various religions is further illustrative of this accommodative and tolerant attitude of the State. For example:
- a) Christianity – Good Friday, Christmas (and 52 Sundays)
- b) Hinduism – Tamil Thai Pongal day, Maha Shivarathri and Deepavali Festival Day
- c) Islam – Milad – un Nabi ( Birthday of the Prophet), Id –UI –Fitr ( Ramazan Festival Day) and Id – UI- Alha ( Hadji Festival Day)
In Sri Lanka, as narrated in the Mahawamsa (ancient Chronicle) and supported by epigraphy (stone inscriptions), among others, a significant number of pre-colonial Buddhist Kings donated large tracts of lands to the Buddhist Temples for the sustenance of the Maha Sangha. For example, King Devanampiyatissa, upon embracing Buddhism, made a gift of the Maha Megha Vana (Maha Mevuna Uyana) in Anuradhapura to the Maha Sangha. It is a sacred area for the Buddhists and belongs to the Buddha Sasana which was established by Arahat Maha Mahinda Thera.
These sacred areas of the Buddhists which belong to the Buddha Sasana can be established by evidence, not necessarily legislation. As much as people of non – Buddhist religions expect their sacred areas in the holy lands to be respected ( some areas in the Middle East are out of bounds for non – Muslims) and not used for building places of worship of other religions, Buddhists of Sri Lanka too expect similar respect and courtesy from non – Buddhists. It would be grossly unfair to make indefensible claims and attempt to multi – culturalise the historic sacred sites that are exclusively meant for Buddhist veneration.
What is the “Buddha Sasana?”
The Report of the Presidential Buddha Sasana Commission (2002) defines it “as the Buddha, the nine super-mundane (navalokuttara) Dhamma, the Sangha, the Buddhist temples (viharas) with their ancillary structures, forest hermitages (aranya senasana) and meditation centres, Bo trees, stupas, image houses, relic chambers, dhamma books and libraries, designated buildings for performance of vinaya acts by the sangha (uposathagara), fields, gardens and properties belonging to the Buddhist temples, Buddhist education, devalas, nuns and nunneries, the laity who had taken refuge in the Triple Gem, Buddhist literature, culture and civilisation, Buddhist festivals and processions (peraharas), Buddhist customs and traditions, Buddhist principles and values and all that are required for its perpetuity “.
This Report also deals extensively with the question of Lands belonging to Buddhist Religious Places (Siddhasthana) and Temples (Viharas) in Sri Lanka in Chapter 5.
The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka categorically says that It shall be the responsibility of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana in terms of Chapter II of the Constitution. The Government, all institutions and the citizens are bound by the Constitution of this country.
Official Recognition of Buddhism in Europe
It is estimated that there are now altogether between 1 and 4 million Buddhists in Europe, the majority being in Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom.
Despite the highly publicized commitment to ‘religious pluralism’ and ‘multi – culturalism’ of European nations, the official recognition of Buddhism is confined only to two states.
Russia and Austria are the only two European states today that recognize Buddhism as an “official”, though not necessarily “state religion” in their respective countries.
Even UK denies Official Recognition to Buddhism. It does not allow the construction of new Buddhist Temples. But allows Buddhists to occupy existing Buildings and use them for their religious functions. This is also true of several other West European countries.
However, despite restrictive laws, there is public acceptance and accommodation of Buddhism in several European countries including UK, France and Germany.
State Recognition of Religion – What does it mean?
Official State Recognition in the West would enable Buddhists to secure a place and standing in each country and also avoid being subject to derogatory treatment as members of ‘sects’ and ‘cults’, among other things. It would also allow them certain rights such as access to the media, financial support, legal standing, and recognition equal to those of Christian churches, and right to teach in a school. It would allow them the legal right to form voluntary societies as Buddhist Societies with membership restricted only to Buddhists.
The absence of State recognition to Buddhism in almost all European countries bar Russia and Austria functions as an impediment to the proper practice and development of Buddhism in Europe.
There are no public holidays for Buddhism or any other non – Christian religion in the Public Holiday calendar of European nations i.e. with a Christian heritage.
1) Buddhism lacks influence and clout in the international arena to the extent that Christianity and Islam enjoy.
2) Buddhists do not have the equivalent of a World Council of Churches to raise issues concerning Buddhists in International fora to create World Public Opinion.
3) Predominant Buddhist Countries e.g. Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam etc. which were comfortable with their traditional Buddhist identity in the past are now being approached by powerful western countries and NGO lobbies to drop their ‘Buddhist’ identity and embrace a ‘secular’ and ‘multi-cultural’ image.
4) It is unthinkable for any majority Muslim nation to drop its ‘Islamic’ identity and embrace a ‘Secular’ Image. Malaysia is the closest to a Multi-Cultural country with a predominantly Muslim population, but it has not dropped its Islamic tag. Nevertheless, Vesak is a national holiday and there is official acceptance of Buddhism being the second largest Religion in Malaysia. India, Bangladesh and Indonesia have all declared a Public Holiday for Vesak (also called the Buddha’s Birthday).
5) Multi-culturalism is no longer treated as a panacea for ensuring harmony and cordial relations between ethnic communities in an increasing number of countries. The leaders of UK, France, Netherlands and Germany among other western nations have spoken out against multi-culturalism. It is no longer promoted as an instrument of State Policy. It is in Sri Lanka’s interest to learn appropriate lessons from the rejection of Multi-culturalism by leading Western European countries and devise policies that promote social, ethnic and religious harmony without diluting Sri Lanka’s overriding Buddhist identity.
Senaka Weeraratna is an Attorney at Law. Holds a Bachelor of Laws degree (University of Sri Lanka), and Master of Laws (Monash University, Australia). Holds a Diploma (Buddhist Studies) and Master of Arts (Buddhist Studies) obtained from the Post – Graduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Kelaniya.