[Editors note: The intense and interesting debate this article generated resulted in a longer response by the author. Read it here – Political Opposition in a Nihilistic Sinhala Society: Responses and clarifications.]

Taking off from the present

This new year loaded my “In box” with that ritualistic “New Year” wish which said, the year would be “wonderful-happy-prosperous-peaceful and even healthy”. Just one meanwhile opted out to say, this traditionally accepted “wish” had been so for decades and virtually forgets poverty, discrimination and injustice and instead wished “strength to treat all humans as equals with justice”. Unfortunately, both the commonplace wish and its antipathy means little or nothing, in this present day Sri Lanka.

This Sinhala society as a collective entity has no such will, though individuals may show a dislike to what’s around them. Its the societal mindset that matters. Governments reflect that and so are their budgets and plans. Budget for this year (2011) is no good proof. It is obvious that this regime has no political desire and a will to find answers to those long overdue issues of poverty, rural economic growth and national development in an inclusive, plural society with much diversity. The path on which this Rajapasksa regime treads, is definitely nowhere close to the path of decent national development for a disciplined, modern, inclusive society.

With that comes an unavoidable question. How will this Sinhala society that has usurped the responsibility of deciding national politics, react to this regime’s failure in delivering post war dividends ? Or, will they ever challenge this “Al Capone” type regime ?

A case for People’s Power

There is often reason to believe that people would sooner or later react against any “Al Capone” type government. Often there is reference to the Iranian people’s upsurge that removed Shah Phalavi and to throwing out of Ferdinand Marcos, in the Philippines.

Yet, my sad and pessimistic conviction is, this present day Sinhala, Heenayana Buddhist society would not play Philippines or Iran. Not in the foreseeable future. This Sinhala society is awfully different, seasoned over centuries by Heenayana Buddhist ideology. It has turned into a grumbling, cussed entity, very much nihilistic in its culture of living.

Iran had its resentment brewing from the 1930s with senior Shah, General Rezah  accused of “Westernising” Iran. His son President Shah Phalavi continued unchanged from around the 60’s with overt US support. Accumulation of resentment over decades, translating itself into an Islamic upsurge led by Mullahs, Iran finally threw him out of power and out of the country as well, in 1979.

“People’s Power” that came on the roads of Manila as an unstoppable force, was catalysed after a decade and more of Islamic Moro guerillas and the Maoist guerilla outfit, “New People’s Army” destabilised the society that Ferdinand Marcos strangled with his callous power. Thereafter with the assassination of popular Opposition leader Benigno Ninoy Aquino, sections of the army refused taking orders from the Marcos regime. It was finally the Catholic church with its “Radio Veritas” that brought people on to the streets in thousands that saw Marcos flee the country, in February 1986.

As one former President of the University of Philippines, Fransisco Nemenso put on record, “bringing hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets, in hours, in a day, would have been impossible, not just difficult, if not for Radio Veritas.”

Religious contradictions in history

This Sri Lanka is wholly different. This society lacks the religio-political inertia as in Iran and the Philippines, in translating social injustice into people’s actions. In both those countries, religion as an institution, was a socialising factor. Here in Sri Lanka, there are also no “Ayathollas of Iran” and a “Veritas Radio” as in the Philippines. There simply can not be, with Heenayana Buddhism.

Buddhist temples and monks are no organised institute like the “Church” and its clerics. It has no ideological capacity like Islam, to hold its loyal “faithfuls” from birth to adolescence to marriage and death. On a fundamentally individualistic imposition on life, Heenayana Buddhism is the opposite of the Catholic church that mobilises its constituency every Sunday and the Muslim mosque, every Friday afternoon.

There is also a feudal and a trader-business factor, hardly spoken of openly in relation to the Sinhala society and its type of Buddhism. “Nikayas”, as different “Sects” in Heenayana monkdom, were sponsored and patronised by a caste based trader community, ever since the “King” was made absent and the Shyamopali Siyam Nikaya restricted itself to the Kandyan Govigama nobility in 1764.

Amarapura Nikaya was established in 1803 by low country traders who funded a Salagama monk, Ambagahapitiye Gnanawimala thero, to make a sea voyage to Burma and return with higher ordination. Thereafter Karawa and Durawa monks were sponsored to travel to Burma for higher ordination, also by Southern traders and landed proprietors. Ramanya Maha Nikaya was later formed by another Salagama monk obtaining higher ordination, from Ramanna land in Burma in 1863.

All this keeps a feudal tag on Buddhists, with temples run by caste based monks and the trader community opting to assist their own “Buddhist taste” of the caste. To date the Vahumpura caste, making a significant presence in trade and commerce, proudly claim they are a strictly Buddhist caste. All of it in a half grown capitalist society leaves values, attitudes and social relations with rural land ownerships also intact, basically with a functioning feudal mindset, though living in a market economy.

The Old ‘Left’ and orthodoxy

The strength of the old Sama Samaja movement (LSSP) was therefore seen in how it challenged this feudal orthodoxy in an evolving urban life. The pioneering Sama Samaja leadership openly challenged the then existing Buddhist acceptance of Sinhala social relations on feudal structures from late 1920’s. It was thus able to dictate terms politically, in a well entrenched Welfare State, much different to the present day society. With that urban influence on “welfarism”, the 1953 August 12 “Hartal” was perhaps the last of its socio political engineering and the first mass action which challenged social tradition. Within a day, it forced the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to fold up and take refuge in a British warship – HMS NewFoundland – anchored in the Colombo harbour.

The 1953 August Hartal brought out 02 fundamental issues. The first was the fact that political power lies centralised in Colombo. The rural polity has no decisive impact on State power and is only a passive “vote bloc”. Yet they become important in changing governments, with their Sinhala Buddhist feudal life, intact.

The second was that the Sama Samaja movement had no influence outside the Western Province and was to a lesser extent in the adjacent sub urban areas along the coast stretching North and South of Colombo and inland into the Kelaniya valley, towards Sabaragamuwa. It was evident therefore, the LSSP ideology could not challenge traditional rural life and therefore would not form an elected government on its own, for long years to come.

This led to a political faction within the LSSP that in its 1954 Conference proposed a change of strategy. They called for a “worker – peasant national government”, to address the majority rural voter, instead of living isolated and stubborn with its urban workers’ led anti capitalist politics. Having lost at the Conference, some like L.W Panditha, Samarawickrama and K.P Silva joined the Communist Party that was politically closer to their resolution. Thereafter Henry Peiris is said to have influenced political thinking in forming the nationalist MEP, which won the 1956 general elections, led by Bandaranayake.

Revival of Heenayana dominance

With Sama Samaja influence restricted to the urban minority and shrinking, this new nationalist alliance played alternate to the UNP with the type of Sinhala nationalism, that saw a Sinhala Buddhist revival with State patronage. Sinhala State capitalism of this newly revived Sinhala business and trader community, which depended on the Soviet bloc countries, justified the “progressive” nature of this new Sinhala nationalism.

SLFP politics thus defined the cultural potency of the Sinhala business and trader community in post independent Ceylon, that was geared to take total control of the market. This Sinhala business and trader community, perceived Tamil and Muslim business communities as strong competitors and sought State patronage for their own expansion and capture of markets. Sri Lanka thus came to be politico culturally defined as the “land of the Sinhalese” and of “Gauthama Buddha”.

The market component of Sinhala Buddhist radicalisation was amply demonstrated in the pogrom against Tamil people in July 1983. Industries Minister Cyril Mathew was in charge of the Sinhala campaign by then and represented a Sinhala Buddhist community that has specific business interests in society. In 1983 July, Tamil businesses from street corner eateries and groceries to cinema halls and big and established businesses like ‘KG Industries’, were all targeted after prior identifying. The UNP government of the day, used it politically to signal its readiness to allow violence, as answer to Tamil political grievances, that was also radicalising.

Heenayana negativism on social living

With the absence of the Sama Samaja ideology as an alternate platform that in pre independent and early post war period provided an alternate socio political ideology, this Sinhala business and trader dominance with increasing centralised State power once again provided space for Heenayana Buddhism to mould Southern social ideology. Emergence of a Sinhala Buddhist ideology based on historical rights as the superior social force in the island, structured a new and militant Sinhala political thinking (Chinthanaya) that helped decide politics, in the South. This gave legitimacy to Heenayana Buddhism as practised in the South with Buddhist monks emerging to assert themselves as a prominent social factor, embedding religion with politics.

The logical base of this Sinhala Buddhist thinking, though different to the philosophical preachings on “life and thereafter”, by Lord Buddha, stood on the broad Buddhist argument that greed and selfishness, passion and lust in a secular world of happiness and joy, leads to an extension of life in an unending cycle, which is a misery. To attain emancipation according to Heenayana interpretation which is different to Mahayana, “man” has to discipline life to dissociate from all such secular fixations, at the end of which “He” (Buddhism is a macho religion) could attain “nirvana” the sublime conclusion to life’s miserable journey.

A very individualistic and subdued approach to life, this denied the necessity to search for new knowledge in making life, a satisfying social experience. It contradicted the human necessity of seeking comfortable life and working towards such comfort. This explains why Buddhism lacks an enjoyable cultural aspect in social  life, unlike Hinduism and Catholicism, or even Islamism. Introvert in its approach to life, culturally very much subdued, Heenayana Buddhism has left the Sinhala society without a rich tradition of song and dance, of art and sculpture and a culture of entertainment.

Coming of age with neo liberalism

Heenayana religious acceptance turned into individualism and a piously subdued life, the Sinhala mindset with no alternate thinking, was well seasoned to go roller skating with the neo liberal economy, introduced as the “Open Economy” from 1978, under the UNP government of JRJ. The open economy that took away all State controls on imports and exports, introduced a consumer pattern based on heavy competition for economic survival.

Opening of the economy sparked off an economic growth during the first years, that redesigned and redefined competition within a commercially expanding society. Commercialism, running on trade commissions, is very much competitive in a society that lacks both actual socio economic growth and new capital generation. Individuals and individual families, giving up on the traditional “extended family” was demanded adherence to consumer competition, for “choice” in living.

The new consumerist life, settled with home based entertainment and captive social dialogue through TV and FM channels. New and colourful communication brought both simple and soapy entertainment, mixed with controlled and edited political discussion and selected news, to the uprooted and isolated “man” held captive in the house. The fall of the film industry with all its other factors weighing in, is also due to this “locking in” of families to the new high paced lifestyle that allows no free time and social leisure. Within this neo liberal economy, socialising became restricted to seldom and carefully planned “family affairs”, not affordable to the majority in society.

In-house entertainment and FM-TV based communication thus controls the mindset of this new man, living within this highly competitive neo liberal economy. The new media phenomenon is programmed for profits, keeps an “atomised” collection of people fixed on light, a-political, contentless entertainment, all through day and night.

Accepting fate as Buddhists

The lonely, stressed out consumerist home life, especially among the middle class, is now driving people into a new religious trend, that evolves with the urban business and trader community in luxury “Ashrams” with “celebrity monks”. They preach the same Heenayana Buddhist ideology with the same individual approach to life, albeit with a more commercialised spin. This allows the Sinhala business and trader community to weigh heavily on this Sinhala regime that has Heenayana Buddhism providing the base for its official State ideology that talks proud in defeating Tamil separatism.

It has a dual social face. The urbanised middle class adopts the Heenayana tradition as their “Great Escape” from a heavily consumerised, high paced lifestyle, they would not move out from, in real life. The duality lies in being more Buddhist as escapists and more politically Sinhala to gain a bigger market share in a stagnant economy.

In more rural society, it is the strength of the Sinhala State, politicised to the grass roots, sponsored by the Sinhala business and trader community that holds power. Controlled from Colombo by a very centralised authority, akin to their Buddhist Kings, this system goes well, though with grumbling on day to day living, both in urban and rural life. This is no collective issue, for individualism that accepts life as fate, defined according to Heenayana Buddhism.

Will such an individualised, introvert society that lacks alternate thinking, have reason to challenge this regime ? Will it see political issues as common and collective issues that need to be answered on a social platform ? Not that soon for sure, more in the absence of a politically intelligent Opposition.

28 thoughts on “Political Opposition in a Nihilistic Sinhala Society

  1. Yawn. Another “it’s all the fault of the Sinhala Buddhists” article. We’ve heard the same old tired story over and over and over again. Time to flog something else besides the dead horse perhaps?

  2. Write Perera attempts to identify the subterrinean causes for the apolitical apathy (I assume towards a mobilized western form of democracy) amongst the Sinhalas and in a rather broad brush manner concludes that the reason is the institutionalized Heenayana Buddhist ideology
    I wished he explained further as it is not clear whether his focus is on Politics of Religion ( a theological aspect) or Religious Politics ( a Political Science question. Is Heenayaana school Buddhisms always a political vehicle or politics of SL as always is a product of Heenayaana?

    Then, the Buddhisization of politics in Sri Lanka is not merely a anti colonial or postcolonial aspect alone. At least from the 5th CE when the chapters of Mahawamsa was complied this was the case. Of course different actors, different enemies

    Also this ‘Buddhism Betrayed’ tool of analysis – which of course is a highly westernized/anglicized ( like late Prof Tambiah himself) colonial matrix. it does not explain why the Sinhalas are moved not only by indigenous revivalists like Anagarika, and later Venerabilities like Rahula and Soma, even by foreigners like Olcott and Sikkim Mahind (who is referred to as Tibet Mahinda)

    Then what is the difference Between Pali Buddhism, Political Buddhism and Personal Buddhism in SL?
    To say heenayana does not mobilize Sinhalas is an under statement. Sinhalas are compared to the size and resources behind them have always been a mobilized nation.

    If one is asking why the contemporary Sinhalas are not mobilizing to construct a Western model democracy- then that is a different question. The answer may be either in the process of Buddhisization of the island as much as in the form of Western democracy that is often advocated and by whom?

  3. Hi Kusal,

    Any suggested readings (in-depth articles or books) on Heenayana Buddhism? I’d like to close my knowledge gap in this area.


    Post DJBS Scenario

    1. @ post DJBS
      if you permit me to,

      there are number of very good books on Theravada (Heenayaana as Kusal prefers it) depending on the area you wish to read on ( from History to anthropology and institutional politics even Theravada Buddhism and violence etc)

      Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka By Richard Gombrich is a good start. of course you could google.
      there are few individuals who have done thier PhD studies on the modern Buddhism in SL

  4. [Edited out: Extreme prejudice against any religion is not tolerated on Groundviews. You have been warned once before for outright racist commentary against the Tamil community. In the comment below, you outrageously target all Sri Lankan Christians in a similar fashion. If you wish to continue with your hate speech, do so elsewhere – you are banned from this forum.]

    Suren has outlined some very important aspects of the Sinhala-Buddhist society that the writer has ignored. The mobilization of the Sinhalese has always occured in the past when there was a need, but it won’t happen when there is no need for it, or the need is a figment of imagination in the minds of a few.

    The conflict between enjoying the worldy pleasures which the Buddha equated to the act of ‘scratching an eczema’ and practising of the humble and disciplined life-style as shown by the Buddha has always existed in Sri Lanka and it is not a new phenomenon. In spite of this seemingly nihilistic approach to life the ancient Buddhist civilization managed to do wonders in the fields of architecture and engineering. How do you explain this? True the industrial revolution didn’t take place in ancient Sri Lanka. The fact it took place in Europe is somewhat debatable, but it could well be an accident. Or It was bound to happen with most of the forestry at the time consumed for firewood and a total catastrophy imminent, the steam engine was invented in Britain as a result of this need to find a new kind of fuel in coal. It could well have happened in ancient China or ancient Greece if not for some crucial events in the history(in the case of China the banning of naval expeditions by the Chinese Emperor in 1200s and in the case of Greece the invasion by the Romans)

    And also can you prove with facts that the Islamic culture which forbids any kind of statues or carvings as well as dance and music is more “socialising and pleasurable” and more sophisticated in its content than the arts, dances and crafts of the Buddhist culture? Don’t quote me examples like the pre-Islamic Persia etc.

    This duality(which I mentioned is the first part of the above paragraph) is overcome by the sensible Sinhalese Buddhists by adopting a philosophy that allows them to indulge in the ‘futile wordly pleasures’ to an acceptable limit as allowed by the cultural traditions of each family. There are instances of over indulgence as in the case of any society, and this alone is a fact that points at the harmful aspects of indulging in worldly pleasures.

    If this is true, the competition and the rat race to acquire more and more assets should be less in the Buddhist society.

    [Edited out.]

    The relative lack of an in-depth knowledge about the cultural ethos of the Buddhist society is in fact amply reflected by the content of articles like these.

    1. Dear Groundviews;

      I don’t understand your reaction towards longus’ above, may be due to edited out portion. However, the part remaining I consider as a very creative classical new perspective of looking at things which should attract the attention of many conservative writers.

      Further, I think more aggressive Pro-Tamil/LTTE and outraged comments against Sinhalese and Buddhism were tolerated and being tolerated in the forum.

      I think you should allow him too to engage in the discussion in the name of Freedom of Thought and Freedom of Expression.


      1. We trust you can and do appreciate the difference between debate and submissions, founded in ignorance and fuelled by a thinly veiled supremacist mindset, that defile race and religion. The internet and web is free and open for this kind of expression. This forum is not.

    1. Dear GV! Greetings to All!

      Although, being neither a contributor nor a regular participant in debates, it has become a ritual for me to visit regularly and spend at least half an hour with GV once a day – compelled by keen interest in reading the postings and the heated intellectual volleys in debates between the little, the gentle and the genteel men – to replenish / recycle my thoughts and thus improve and enhance my knowledge.

      To pass my judgment on public forums, I am immature – not a journalist or a decorated academic but a just thinking layman who knows only to distinguish black from white – a right from a wrong – to an acceptable degree of fairness and moral standard. Thereby, I find there is nothing wrong and has ever gone wrong with GV’s moderation and her standard of evaluation of contents and their inherent / implying worthiness of message that is conveyed in such comments. Once again, GV has demonstrated her caliber of fairness and impartiality with impeccable still unquestionable tolerance in applying uniquely self-designed yardstick in arbitration.

      At least, we who believe that we are fair and broad-minded, let’s appreciate GV for practicing and thus mercilessly enforcing a disciplined system of ‘Rule of Law / Ethic’ in form of her moderation – without changing the goal posts in the middle.

      I really admire and appreciate the editor and his editorial staff and the team of GV moderators for their zeal in upholding journalistic professionalism; and use this opportunity to convey my greetings to them. Keep-up GV’s flag bearing journalism & keep it flying! Thanks! Nithy!

  5. An usual Sinhala Buddhist bashing by a naive (or cunning?)
    anti Sinhala Buddhist….a familiar sight. The use of the term
    ‘heenayana’ as opposed to ‘theravada’ itself is a concious choise
    in line with the overall theme. Though the writer tries to hide and
    degrade the Sinhala Buddhist will, an independant observer would
    certainly find the extraordinary will shown by Sinhala Buddists to
    survive as a miniature nation in global terms through out the
    history up to now. In our lifetimes during the past few decades we
    saw the demonstration of that will against a huge campaign to
    destroy that nation by various elements including intellectually
    important sounding hacks lead by the world’s most brutal terrorist
    organisation. Survival is the first instinct of any species. Maslow
    defines it under physical security. Progression to self
    actualisation begins with security. In a non threatening, peaceful
    environment, Sihala Buddhists and their philosophy will show how to
    build a peaceful and prosperous society too. The ramnants of
    feudalism in Sri Lankan society is certainly not because of
    Theravada Buddhist influenece though the writer tries to make a
    very poor attempt to portray as such. It is evident in all
    religious (though Christian’s might appear ‘modern’ due to Western
    imitations) societies in the country. It is also evident in all non
    Buddhist third world countries as well. The post 1977 model of
    expansion in consumerism is again totally contrary to Theravada
    Buddhist concepts. Therefore the consequences of post 1977
    experiment cannot be pinned on Theravada Buddhism or Sinhala
    Buddhists as such. The writer is invited to re-read (if he has
    already done) ‘Dharmishta Samajaya’ of Prof. Ediriweera
    Srachchandra for an excellent critique of 1977 model and the deep
    contradictions between that model and essentially Sinhala Buddhist
    values. Here the writer gets clearly exposed and his ulterior
    motives are clearly visible to discerning readers.

    1. The Hela,

      I am agreeing fuly and comletely and maybe even 100%. The Sinhala Buddhist will is very much on the strong side. We are beating the most murderous and dangerous terrorist group in the world because of this most strong and stubborn will that is never bending or twisting, not because the China is giving us the arms, the India is giving us the radar, the Americans are catching the SAM missiles before they are coming to Sri Lanka and above all the things, because the other great leader we are seeing in the country, the Prabhakaran is anagonising the whole world and convincing everybody it is time to say bye bye to him. NO it was the Sinhala Buddhist will and that will only that is helping us to be winning the war. And never be minding that a part of that will is now in the Welikada side eating the nation’s gratitude with the bread and sambol.

      And also, as you are saying, it is only when the security is there for all to see and feel that the Sinhala Buddhists will be showing the whole world what they can be doing. Until then we will be cleverly hiding our Buddhism, behaving like everybody else because there is not enough security for us to be showing off to the world (And I am sure the cows will also be coming to the home and the elephants will be starting to be flying all over the place before this is happening but we are waiting for 2500 yeas and we can be waiting a little bit longer)

      1. The Merwyn 8/01/11.

        We are digressing on the core subject of Kusal’s article here. But I couldn’t resist responding to The Merwyn.

        Though the SL govt was able to align international forces of diametrically opposite interests from Pakistan, India, China to elements in US and EU, the key factor in defeating the terrorist, separatist project was the Sinhala Buddhist support as the vanguard. Elements of all other communities rallied around primarily the rural Sinhala Buddhist core element with an effective and committed leadership at the centre. They supplied the key resource, i.e. the foot soldier who ultimately faught and sacrificed at the battleground. Some like to denigrade this by saying that it was poverty that led to the rural youth joining the army. But they fail to explain why SL govt under MR was able to mobilise the rural Sinhala youth in crtically large numbers and reduce desertions as opposed to previous regimes who struggled to retain recruits.

        Merwyn may be able to learn the significance of above, if he compares the scenario gainst Vietnam where South Vietnam had the fourth or fifth largest standing army with the support of the full military might of the US, or Afganistan govt under Soviet support where Soviet Union had a common border providing a huge strategic logistical advantage still unable to withstand and defeat the Mujahideen.

        LTTE understood it better than Merwyn and other pundits. They new the ultimate outcome will be decided at the battle field by the will, moral and committment of the foot soldiers and therefore the significance of achieving strategic military parity which they almost did.

        Throughout history Sinhala Buddhists have shown their civilisation building skills during peacetime when Merwyn’s namesakes were just tribal hunters. That capacity can and must be harnessed to build a prosperous Sri Lanka rather than bashing Sinhala Buddhists.

      2. Hi The Mervyn Silva “We are beating the most
        murderous and dangerous terrorist group in the world because of
        this most strong and stubborn will that is never bending or
        twisting, not because the China is giving us the arms, the India is
        giving us the radar, the Americans are catching the SAM missiles
        before they are coming to Sri Lanka and above all the things,
        because the other great leader we are seeing in the country, the
        Prabhakaran is anagonising the whole world and convincing everybody
        it is time to say bye bye to him. NO it was the Sinhala Buddhist
        will and that will only that is helping us to be winning the
        ” That is interesting. Earlier the Sri Lanka received
        the Chinese arms and other help including from Western countries
        that earlier leaders were friendly with (but not the Mahinda). Yet
        the Sri Lanka lost the war and had to sign humiliating CFA. So
        maybe you are correct that these external factors were not so
        important. Maybe you are closer to the truth talking about “Sinhala
        Buddhist will” but then did this not exist in the 1980s and 1990s?
        There was no “Sinhala Buddhist will” in the 1983 violence that
        started the war? Therefore I am having thoughts that there was
        something else that played the critical role. “And never
        be minding that a part of that will is now in the Welikada side
        eating the nation’s gratitude with the bread and sambol.

        I am remembering that part of the will that was imprisoned by the
        Mahinda also had been promoted to Army Commander by the same
        Mahinda, while the Chandrika had done her best to keep that part of
        the will from reaching high places because he was perceived as

  6. It’s interesting that Kusal Perera uses the term “nihilism” to explain the political apathy of the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese society. The philosopher Nietzsche also considered nihilism to be the end result of Buddhism:

    Nietzsche criticized Buddhism for many of the same faults he attributed to Christianity, though he showed more respect for the former as being more realistic and opposed to revenge (he believed Christianity was a manifestation of latent resentment). He praised Buddhism for setting out to treat ‘suffering’as opposed to ‘sin’, but believed the treatment itself represented a surrender of life, and ultimately a weaker response to the human condition than his own. In the following passage from Beyond Good and Evil, he contrasts his interpretation of Buddhism (along with Schopenhauer, a major contributor to this interpretation) with a general sketch of his own ideal response:

    ‘Whoever has endeavored with some enigmatic longing, as I have, to think pessimism through to its depths and liberate it from the half-Christian, half-German narrowness and simplicity in which it has finally presented itself to our century, namely, in the form of Schopenhauer’s philosophy; whoever has really, with an Asiatic and supra-Asiatic eye, looked into, down into the most world-denying of all possible ways of thinking – beyond good and evil and no longer, like the Buddha and Schopenhauer, under the spell and delusion of morality – may just thereby, without really meaning to do so, have opened his eyes to the opposite ideal: the ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity…’


    Now, I am no expert in philosophy, but it seems that (from the above point of view) Buddhism is not an affirmation of life, but a denial, that is subject to its own moral ethos. Kusal Perera seems to be saying the same thing in the second paragraph, e.g “Heenayana negativism on social living”: “The logical base of this Sinhala Buddhist thinking… stood on the broad Buddhist argument that greed and selfishness, passion and lust in a secular world of happiness and joy, leads to an extension of life in an unending cycle, which is a misery.”

    The way I interpret Kusal Perera’s is that Buddhist SL has never really embraced the future. This passivity is amply demonstrated in politics, vaguely defined cultural mores, and the inability of neo-liberal economic reforms to spur significant social reform and a shift in social values. The reason I have quoted Nietszche is to show that some of this passivity is rooted in the doctrine itself. In the SL case, one must also include caste and the corresponding feudal mindset – as Kusal Perera has brilliantly done- which have never been fully extinguished, but metamorphasized into a myriad of convolutions, many of which are present even today.

    1. It is true that Theravada Buddhism (Heenayana as preferred by Kusal) ultimately focusses on ending human suffering by breaking the bond of ‘thanha’ or craving. In ‘Paticca Samuppada’ this cause and effect cycle is explained in detail. Accordingly, it explains the futility of slavery to material comforts and encourages renunciation of such life style. The pundits who take this aspect in isolation, brand the Theravada Buddhist philosophy as nihilistic as Kusal and others do.

      They forget the Buddha’s key message related to the middle path as explained in Theravada Buddhism. Buddha has been much more rational and balanced than these pundits. Given the nature of human beings, Buddha knew more than anyone else that only a minute fraction would properly understand what he taught and take to the path of achieving ‘nirvana’ in that same life time. Therefore, he taught one of the most progressive ways of life for the rest of the mankind (defined as upasaka & upasika) to follow which despite of overwhelming evidence in ‘Sutta Pitaka’ these pundits ignore.

      He was the first to challenge the myth of creation and elevate the capacity of human mind above all other forces. He challenged the existing social structures and gender bias and pronounced the equality of all human beings irrespective of cate & creed. Therefore it is no surprise that Sri Lanka has a higher gender equality than many countries.

      In ‘Mangala’, ‘Parabhava’, ‘Wasala’, & ‘Sigalovada’ suttas (which you find in Theravada teachings) He taught us how a harmonious society can be built by everyone not only focussing on their rights but their obligations towards fellow human beings.

      Buddha, according to Theravada Buddhism explained the importance of economic freedom as a stepping stone to achieving spiritual freedom. The example is feeding a hungry man before preaching ‘Dhamma’. Under such economic freedom, he advised the individuals to split their income in to 4 parts, use 2 parts for consumption, 1 part for saving & 1 part for spiritual/social service activities.

      He advised on governance models to ‘Liccavi’ kings.

      Sangha was the earliest most democratic and collective society one could find. It is a clear response to pundits who claim that Theravada Buddhism is only an individualistic philosophy. An unbiased researcher would find all the aforementioned in Theravada Buddhist teachings.

      It was the philosophical foundation on which the great hydro based civilisation was built by the Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Their engineering skills, the arts & crafts are equal to any contemporary great civilisations. They faught against invasions, rebelled against occupations and yet these one eyed pundits blame Sinhala as non futuristic and nihilistic and therefore a passive community.

      Theravada Buddhism finds common ground with the middle path. It rejects extremisms. Accordingly, ultra capitalist models encouraging unbridled consumerism, where profit is the sole motive does not find common ground with Theravada Buddhism. It also rejects ultra socialist models as the Theravada Buddhist philosophy accepts individualism and fairer profit making.

      Perhaps the key issue to Kusal and his ilk could be that Theravada Buddhism does not have a problem with benevolent autocracy where principles of ‘dasa raja dharma’ were applied.

  7. There are many links of information on various aspects of buddhism in
    The buddhism practised today by the buddhist clergy and buddhist laity is not what was practised earlier, or preached by The Buddha.
    Today buddhism is immersed in politics, in sri lanka.The Buddha never envisaged clergy to take active part in politics. Such activity has led to loss of respect for the clergy.

  8. OK if sinhala heenayana Buddhism is the mother of all problems, will it explain why all the African (necessarily Muslim) nations and Latin American ( Christian) nations too struggle against similar problems?

  9. Thanks Suren for the suggestion,

    I am not looking for any specific aspect of Heenayana Buddhisim. I’m just trying to get a general sense of the subject by reading 4-5 books.

    Really I I wanted to know what sources Kusal drew on to write this article, especially because some people clearly have very difference views.

    So if those of you who don’t agree with Kusal’s take on Heenayana Buddhism can direct me towards books that you feel better reflect Heenayana Buddhist I would appreciate it.

  10. For me ‘Blaming (Theravada) Buddhism’ for social degradation – as that has happened in almost all Theravada societies ( Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand)is a non-starter. Sure there are correlations between the majority religion of a society and the politics they produce ( see Sydney Verba’s famous thesis on this)
    But if one is interested in empirical results in promoting democracy- a democracy that is synchronizing and sustainable with the endogenous cultural setting, Blaming Buddhism becomes a barrier in Sri Lanka.

    I wonder how many academics and intellectuals will be listened to, if they go to Middle-East and ask them to give up Islam in order to have peace and democracy?

    Naming, shaming and blaming Buddhism for the illiberalism in Sri Lanka ( even with valid evidence) will not take us anywhere near a dialogue with Sinhala Buddhism or the section of extreme religionationalism that is produced. Instead it sends a apocalyptic sense of ontological insecurity and produces even stronger and violent resistance. This is the historical evidence ( See Ven. Sirimalwatte Chanwimala’s PhD thesis in which the venerable thero deals with the violent clash between the Mahavihara and Abayagiriya chapters in ancient Sri Lanka)

    My humble thought is that the responsibility of those who desire democracy in SL (like writer Perera and commentator Heshan) will be to ask how and what aspects of modern form of democracy that could easily and naturally work with the Sinhala Buddhist political psychology. In this like any unbiased social science approach, they will have to respect the given realities as independent variables even while they may disagree with. Because the Sinhala Buddhists are a three times threatened island majority but in real sense a global and regional minority.

    This paradoxical paradigm continuous to reproduce a galatic majoritarian politics with a minority mindset ( See Prof. Wijeratne de Silva -uni of Monash- and Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda -Uni of Colombo- on this)

    All other efforts will be like the Naive Norwegian Narrative and reproduce further violent resistance against them.

    If western form of democracy does not take off in SL, should we not question the incompatibility and limitations of certain nuances of modern democracy too?

    1. This very valid question has been asked by me, just to be humiliated from those who think any western ideology as undeniable self evident universal truth. They think questioning anything in them as a great sin.

      In my view, main thing is to get out of this “imitator slavery mind set” if we need to get out of this muddle. My belief is, out of place political theories that were forced upon us and planted in the heads of our educated, using cunning tactics is the base of the problem.

      I don’t think any (licensed) political expert accept that Sri Lanka had political ideologies. I think for them to accept something as political ideologies, they should have at least fulfilled the following pre-conditions.

      1. There origin must be in the west.

      2. They must be found in written form in stylish books.

      Anything other than this, our experts cannot identify. That is why I am used to say they are just tape recorders played only when their western masters push their buttons. They have no at least the instinct to ask from themselves, if not political ideology/philosophy, what the hell that ruled this county for over couple of thousand years. Have any of our political experts ever given a thought at least to identify “the thing” that ruled this country, rather than trying to impose each and every clause of western theories on our heads.

      Thanks Suren, for having courage to ask this valid, but taboo question of our scholars.


    2. Suren,

      I would like to know what social degradation you talk about in Theravada countries as opposed to other societies.

      Similarly would like you to elaborate the evidence of illiberalism as against any other society.

      I would like to submit that Sinhala Buddhist culture is one of the most liberal cultures. It has only reacted negatively and sometimes violently when there is sustained attacks on it and it’s very existence is threatened which has been the case on numerous occassions throughout the history.

      Theravada Buddhism played a pivotal role in bringing different communities together to build the Sinhala Buddhist nation as it is known today in this country. An illiberal philosophy would not be able to achieve it. Only and open, liberal and benevolent philosophy could achieve it considering extreme violence employed by other religions in conversions and expansion.

      Sinhala Buddhists were liberal enough to accept non Sinhala Buddhists as their kings. The only condition was the requirement that those kings become the custodians of Buddhism as symbolised by being the custodian of Buddha’s tooth relic. To my knowledge this has never happened in the most liberal societies (that the head of state/king being a ‘non believer’) that you may worship as utopia.

      However, your open minded approach is a welcome sign in this debate and applauded.

  11. Hi Post DJBS Scenario,

    To start with, we can dump the term “Heenayana” as it is not a term that any Buddhist uses to identify themselves. The proper term is “Theravada” or the less-well known “Vibhajjavada,” although I myself don’t identify very strongly with those terms.

    A good place to start might be this introduction:

    Here’s an article on tolerance and diversity that you may find interesting:

    If there’s any specific question you have, let me know.

    1. Dear wijayapala;
      Dear wijayapala;

      Yes, if we forget the bad side of the trend or the whole and only take the components separately into consideration, yes. But we must keep in mind that the whole is not equal to the total of the components. If we are only concerned about the individual components and see only the good sides of them forgetting the whole, the end could be pathetic. The whole might devour you as in the case of the following old story.

      There were three brothers, who have attained their youth hood, and wanted to develop some skills to use as their means of living. So they discussed about it and departed to find some teachers. After traveling together through a jungle a few days, they decided to go in three directions to meet their destinies. Before departing they came to an agreement that they would meet at the same place on a certain date, irrespective of whether they achieve their objective or not.

      Long time after, that day came and three brothers met at the rendezvous. After hugging and kissing with affection, they talked about what they had learnt. All had learnt some different skills.

      The first brother has learnt to make a complete skeleton from any single bone. The second brother’s skill is he can fill any skeleton with flesh and skin and make the perfect carcass of that animal. The third could give life to any carcass, ALL INNOCENT SKILLS!

      So they decided to put their skills into practice, and went in search of raw materials in the jungle. They found a small piece of bone lying beside their way.

      The first brother took it and exhibited his skill making a complete skeleton out of it. All praised his skill and the second brother filled it with flesh and skin and there you see a perfect carcass. Praises came again, and the third brother, set to his business, and again a success. However, before praises came into the lips of the brothers,the tiger who got life from the third brother’s skill sprang onto them and devoured all.

      This could happen to you too!


    2. To Wijeypala
      Heenayana is the actual term. The division came about as “Maha Yaana” and “Heena Yaana”. But the Maha Vihara monks did not like the term, as it denoted, or was identified as the “smaller” version of Buddhism that differed and stood for dogmatic interpretation. Therefore the term “Therunge (Buddha’s) Vaada (Words)” were introduced to identify Heena Yaana division. That twin-word term became “Theravada” and was preferred as a more prestigious label.
      Rest of the debate on politics, is for you to indulge in.
      – Amarnath

  12. Yapa, here I am responding to your post on “Democratic Debates.”

    I agree that this article by Kusal Perera is precisely the sort of garbage that doesn’t contribute to any kind of reconciliation. But what about the interviews posted by Dushiyanthini? How are they anti-Sinhalese or anti-Buddhist?

    1. Dear wijayapala;

      None identifies tyres and steering wheel as cars, but they are components of a car. I don’t say the interviews posted by Dushiyanthini are anti-Sinhalese or anti-Buddhist. But I feel like they are components of the said trend.


      1. Dear yapa,

        I don’t say the interviews posted by Dushiyanthini are anti-Sinhalese or anti-Buddhist. But I feel like they are components of the said trend.

        But cannot they be used as components for another trend of Sinhalese understanding the suffering of Tamils?

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