A brief note on Buddhism, Ethnicity, and Peace

A walk through the archeological and artistic ruins in the North central province is not complete without a stop by the Sandakada pahana (the moonstone) that gives an artistic depiction of the milestones one may go through while practicing the eightfold path. The outer ring of flames depict what we experience in the society – sense of insecurity, urge to become something else, paranoia, jealousy, hatred, etc., that are wrapped up in one word called suffering. The next ring of animals depicts the causes of these sufferings. The convoluted ring of vines below it illustrates the illusive and confused state of mind that underpins the first two layers. The next layer of swans represents a state of wisdom in the mind that allows one to separate the good from the bad. The next layer of orderly vines illustrates the state of mind in harmony with the world-giving rise to a sense of comfort. The final lotus refers to the ultimate bliss of nirvana. In fact ancient kings were wise enough to slightly adapt this artistic presentation of a summary of Buddhist practice from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa eras to maintain social harmony between Hindus and Buddhists, because they knew that the survival of the fundamental teaching is more important than its symbolic or artistic representations.

Buddha expounded the eightfold path in his first sermon, Dhammachakkapavattana sutta. That essentially consists of some recommendations to establish self-restraint known as sila, a set of recommendations to develop concentration and insight known as samadhi, and an articulation of the notion of wisdom one needs to develop known as pragnya, to see Nirvana-the total freedom from compulsions to become. The above sutta elaborates that once this eightfold path is set in motion, it works like a wheel, gathering momentum, to take one towards the fruits of the eightfold path. Thus it is known as a Dhamma Chakra (wheel). In other words, pragnya helps to further establish sila, and so on.  Somehow, this practice takes one through few milestones. One becomes aware of the passing through these milestones because it has been well explained in the suttas. Though the outside world views these milestones as some graduation from one level to a higher, with Nirvana at the pinnacle, the one who follows the path feels the opposite – with a humbling feeling accompanied by more an more unconditioned comfort, security, fullness, freedom from compulsions, and stillness of happiness.

In this note, I wish to focus on the first milestone, known as the stream entry, for it directly defines social harmony in a society with Buddhists. Somebody who practices the eightfold path may enter the path of healing, knows as Sotapanna. Sota in pali refers to suvapath, or healing, and apanna in pali refers to arrival. At this arrival, one breaks three fetters out of the ten fetters that bind us to a journey trough the universe known as samsara. These three fetters are 1) Sakkayaditti, 2) Silabbataparamasa, and 3) Vichikichcha. Out of them, I want to focus more on breaking of Sakkayaditti in this brief note. Sakkayaditti refers to the personality view conditioned by the society (Sakkaya or samajaya), like how one might identify himself as a Sinhalese, Asian, or as a Brown man, etc. This self-identification with social labels is one fetter that binds one to the samsara. When one breaks it, one realizes that we have a deeper belonging in a set of Dharmatha or a set of natural laws than to these socially conditioned labels.

For instance, I am called an Asian. But who identified Asia as Asia? Planet earth didn’t have an Asia in its development. Global society put that label. However, on the surface, we see a set of traditions, thought processes, cultures, or value systems in this so called Asian region, that are somewhat different from the rest of the World. Well, true that they are conditions I was born into, and no wonder my thought process should be conditioned by it. However, what is more important is not my being an Asian, but the fact (Dharmatha) that the environment can condition me, or that my brain is a plastic organization (chitta niyama) that can be conditioned by my encounters with the environment. While growing up in Asia, I may have been conditioned by some traits, and life in other countries must have done the same. So, where is the Asian in me? Well, some programs in the mind may still be subject to natural laws of change and further conditioning. Take another example: one might say that I am Brown. There too, what matters is not my being Brown, but the Dharmatha that my parents’ genes do affect my genes (Bija niyama). Similarly, my being a Sinhalese derives more from a social conditioning of my tribal history than some unalienable fact of ethnicity in my blood. I may follow Sinhalese traditions, because of how my parents and relatives conditioned my values. A boy from another “ethnicity” adopted by a Sinhalese family would do the same. Therefore, such social labels of ethnicity are so superficial that somebody with mixed ethnic origins may still be identified as Sinhalese for social convenience. Therefore, at stream entry, one realizes the true value of clinging onto such superficial labels, and begins to appreciate the fact that natural laws of Dharmatha like citta niyama, bija niyama, dhamma niyama, utu niyama, and kamma niyama have a more unalienable and fundamental influence in the trajectory of somebody in this life and samsara than social tags like ethnicity. The realization that all other human beings also have a more fundamental belonging in these Dharmatha than their superficial social labels and appearances gives a sense of comfort, security, and brotherhood.

One may appreciate now that encouraging oneself and others to cling on to social labels like skin color, geographical region of birth, or ethnicity, directly causes to delay the entry into the path of healing (sotapanna), that a Buddhist must go through in the path to Nirvana. There is no use wishing somebody “Suvapath veva (may you be healed one day)”, or “Nivan dakithva (may you see the bliss of Nirvana)”, if one actively engages in further reinforcing sakkayaditti that dissuades others from entering the first milestone leading to Nirvana.

On this backdrop, I wish to urge Buddhists in Sri Lanka to take at least one weekend in every month, or a week or two in every year to retreat to a forest monastery to meditate under the guidance of a practicing monk. It is said that there were hundreds of thousands of lay people who had entered the stream (sotapannas) during the time of the Buddha and even in the Sri Lankan society when monasteries like Jethavanaramaya were active with practicing monks. Through my experience from a couple of such annual retreats in some forest monasteries in England, I can guarantee you that you will truly experience a difference in your feeling of comfort if you practice meditation with a confession of the true state of your present mind. I also urge the Government to build more forest monasteries to help people do such retreats, than using Buddhist monks to do ethno-centric politics. My feeling is that shortsighted exploitation of Buddhist monks to instil a sense of insecurity, paranoia, and even hatred towards other ethnic and religious groups by politicians is taking a dangerous turn towards irreversible damage to the society.

I leave it up to the wisdom of people to choose the right practice of Buddhism if you are a Buddhist in Sri Lanka.