The ‘Mad Monk’ Phenomenon: BBS as the underside of Sinhala-Buddhism

Photo courtesy Today

The marauding Buddhist monks, who appear to be tied to a long political leash, have run out of control. They need to be stopped. But it is equally necessary to take a cold look at the complexity of the phenomenon that groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) have come to represent. This is no freak show, and is hardly an aberration in post-war Sri Lanka; also because we know now that critics such as Ven. Dambara Amila (JVP) who predicted that the BBS was bound to dissipate in a matter of months were hopelessly wrong.

Sinhala-Buddhism & BBS

That it is necessary to take a hard and uncomfortable look at the complexity of this BBS-phenomenon is brought to light when reading the Sunday Island political column written by CA Chandraprema, pithily titled ‘Saffron robed destroyers of Sinhala-Buddhism’ (13 April, 2014). While Mr. Chandraprema is to be congratulated for his bold critique of the BBS and the silence of the Buddhist Sangha community, it is difficult to agree with the broad thesis of his column. For Mr. Chandraprema believes that the BBS is primarily another conspiracy launched against the Sinhala-Buddhist majority of the country; that its aim, far from damaging the religious/ethnic minorities, is to damage and destroy the Sinhala-Buddhists.

This, I admit, may be an obvious by-product, one inevitable consequence, of the action of the BBS. But the BBS-phenomenon is a far more complex one, largely because the BBS, far from destroying Sinhala-Buddhism, is giving expression to the very causes espoused by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists. Thus, BBS is the underside of Sinhala-Buddhism.

This is largely because the underlying or foundational reasons that give birth to Sinhala-Buddhism and groups such as the BBS are somewhat similar.

One has to do with the historical grievances and fears harboured by the Sinhala-Buddhist community, given that the promotion of other religions, especially the Christian faith, was central to the European colonizing missions even in Sri Lanka; resulting in numerous forms of discrimination of the Sinhala-Buddhists (numerous scholarly works, ranging from those of Professors KNO Dharmadasa to Susantha Goonetilleke, would point this out). No religion has been, and can be, innocent in the hands of its zealous teachers and propagators. Sinhala-Buddhists would know that all too well.

But the more fundamental reason for the emergence of Sinhala-Buddhism, as well as groups such as BBS, has to do with the inadequacy of the true Buddha-teaching for contemporary political engagement, especially in an identity-seeking, identity-promoting multi-ethnic and pluri-national political setting. In other words, the teachings of the Buddha woefully lack those elements with which you can zealously promote, protect, construct your own identities, your own political interests and prejudices, or engage in contesting those promoted by other ethnic and religious groups (more so, in the contemporary state-centric geopolitical framework). The Buddha-teaching is unhelpful in this political struggle: since that teaching is one which, inter alia, promotes as an ultimate goal the ceasing of greed, hatred and delusion, the realization of all identities as constructed identities; in other words, it is a teaching which helps you to expose the artificial and constructed character of all identities, for they are all without self, without an abiding and unchanging self or core. So from the Buddha, you don’t get a clear teaching on how to defend your state and its sovereignty, how to increase your own kind, how to protect Buddhism, how many times to pray during a day, etc. Even the very idea of ‘protecting Buddhism’ the way it is sought to be done today would be meaningless for the Buddha.

This is what explains the yawning and enduring gap between precept and practice. And it is this vacuum of a solid political ideology which is sought to be filled through the adoption of a culturally-constructed form of Buddhism. In Sri Lanka, this comes to be called Sinhala-Buddhism. And the wonderful thing about this twist is that while you can be attached to the Buddha and his teaching, you can also satisfy many of your political prejudices, aspirations and grievances. That which you cannot do with the Buddha’s teaching, you do with the help of Sinhala-Buddhism.

So with Sinhala-Buddhism, you can pretty much defend a lot of things. You can promote war in the name of self-defence or in the name of protecting Buddhism (or you can be against war too); you can kill terrorists (or you can be critical of the careless use of the ‘terrorist’ tag); you can promote village-level devolution (or you can promote the self-determination of Sinhala and Tamil nations); you can be against the 13th Amendment (or you can call for the need to go beyond the 13th Amendment); you can build more temples in the name of protecting Buddhism (or you can be against such a practice); you can be vociferously critical about ‘Halal’ and call the Buddhists to ban the consumption of such products (or you can promote peaceful engagement and seek ways of ensuring how a valuable concept such as ‘Halal’ can be made useful for the Sinhala-Buddhist community as well in a non-religious way); you can go around crying out in utter filth on the pretext that this is what needs to be done if others are not willing to listen (or you can act in a refined manner); and the list goes on. History would suggest that doing those things stated outside the brackets is more convenient and a sure way of acquiring a greater following, and would help you avoid being bracketed as a separatist. But there is still that indeterminate character to Sinhala-Buddhism which gives you some freedom to construct different political positions. And like any other religion-inspired political ideology, this is the character of Sinhala-Buddhism too; and it is due to this indeterminate character that I am not an outright rejectionist of Sinhala-Buddhism – what depends is what you do with that label, and there is nothing essentially or inherently wrong with it, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with Tamil nationalism).

But what’s problematic (and this is a personal perspective, of course) about contemporary Sinhala-Buddhism is that it is those projects and ideas that were mentioned above (i.e. those which remain outside the brackets) which are the dominant causes of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism today. And interestingly, they are the very causes and projects espoused by groups such as the BBS. The main difference however is that BBS reflects the more grotesque and dangerous expression and promotion of these projects. The BBS reflects the ugly underside of Sinhala-Buddhism; and it is the movement which will literally and forcefully execute the project of Sinhala-Buddhism. What some Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists think, the BBS will do. And that’s what’s happening today.

BBS as a necessity

The importance of a group such as the BBS for promoters of Sinhala-Buddhism of the above kind, lies precisely in this.

In a broad sense, and contrary to what critics would say, this is precisely the vehicle that powerful elements within the Sangha community would require to promote Sinhala-Buddhism. The Sangha community and its leading monks would, indeed, be quite uncomfortable about the particular modus operandi of the BBS. But there is hardly any rejection of the causes that the BBS stands for. This was most strikingly reminded to me at a recent public talk given by Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri at the Colombo University. During the discussion that ensued after the talk (which was on the theme of recent Buddhist political resurgence), Nirmal posed a question to a leading monk who kept on articulating the broader BBS-line (about the illegality of certain Muslim mosques, etc). Nirmal asked what the Buddha’s teaching was as per the Metta Sutta, the Discourse of Unlimited Friendliness. And then came the unabashed reply from the monk: it was the Metta Sutta that made life difficult for them! (i.e. a statement to the effect that ‘karaneeya metta sutraya thamai apita weraduna thena’!). This was a clear but extremely rare admission of the gap between precept and practice. But more seriously, it was damning evidence to suggest that the BBS is not without its use for contemporary Sinhala-Buddhist politics.

The broader necessity of a BBS-type movement is more acute in a post-war context wherein the promotion of Sinhala-Buddhism and establishing the dominance of the Sinhala-Buddhist ideology appears to be the fundamental and defining political goal of a government. We see this happening given the pace at which the building of temples and Buddha-statues take place (ably supported by the domestic film industry as well). This is not a project that can be carried out without some forceful entity in the backdrop. But also, a movement of this nature appears to be necessary for distracting purposes, given also the mounting international pressure, especially for a government which is not ideologically committed to adopting policies that are any different to those which have been adopted since the end of the war. In other words, the very political circumstances of the present make groups such as the BBS necessary.

So it is not the case that the BBS is determined to destroy the Sinhala-Buddhists. Rather, the BBS is the natural end product of unchecked and unrestrained Sinhala-Buddhist fervor; especially in a post-war context where the political victory and spread of Sinhala-Buddhist ideology is the principal and determining goal of a government. This is why the government rushes to ban Tamil diaspora groups (some of which promote separatism), but not groups such as the BBS. This is why a government would not see groups such as the BBS as a serious threat. If the BBS was out to destroy Sinhala-Buddhism (as Mr. Chandraprema claims), the government would have banned this group sometime ago.

Silence and Support 

Critics such as Mr. Chandraprema are angered (rightly so) and startled by the relative silence of the Buddhist Sangha community. He points out, for instance, that the Chief Prelates or the Ven Mahanayake theros and other senior monks cannot be unaware of the danger the BBS-type monks cause. Mr. Chadraprema refers to the “moral pressure” that can be exerted which would compel these groups to change or modify their behavior.

But then it’s difficult to expect groups and entities giving moral support for these groups to exert moral pressure to change their behavior.

The BBS receives this support, perhaps a bit grudgingly, by the leading monks (as explained before) because the BBS appears to be the contemporary vehicle through which an uncomfortable message can be spread most speedily within a population; a message that is in any case central to the Sinhala-Buddhist project (for e.g., one cannot expect the Mahanayaka theros, or even lay figures of leading Sinhala nationalist parties, to get on the podium and demand Sinhala girls to make more children; but that’s the task the BBS-monks did). In any case the promotion and protection of (Sinhala) Buddhism along with the nurturing of political leaders to take up that task, has been one of the defining historical roles of the Sangha community in Sri Lanka. Mr. Chandraprema considers these monks to be unknown during the war-time. But then, some of the leading monks behind this phenomenon are those of the caliber of Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi (who is the founder of the Buddhist Cultural Centre of Sri Lanka). That’s how serious the BBS-phenomenon is. And perhaps this involvement of the Sangha community also explains the relative silence maintained by the likes of Ven. Sobitha. After all, the saffron robe carries tremendous political clout in the country; and politically ambitious monks like Ven. Sobitha know this all too well, having been in the forefront of the political movement that rejected devolution for the Tamil community some decades ago.

The BBS-phenomenon derives moral and ideological support, not only from the Buddhist monks, but also from political entities and the state apparatus. And it is surprising how an astute political analyst and the distinguished author of such works as ‘Gota’s War: The The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka’ did not deal with this aspect and pose the question to the government in his column. Furthermore, the BBS-phenomenon can be expected to receive much ideological support from Buddhist scholars and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist writers.

These are then, to borrow a fantastic line from Prof. Nalin de Silva (who uses it to explain the ideological forefathers of the LTTE), the granduncles, uncles and cousins (the seeyala, baappala, ha massinala) of the BBS. Their silent acquiescence is not a consequence of their inability to understand what’s going on; but precisely because they understand the underlying project promoted by the BBS.

Damage

A critical question then is about damage and destruction: who is the BBS trying to destroy? Is it, as Mr. Chandraprema thinks, the Sinhala-Buddhists? Groups such as the BBS would not intentionally destroy Sinhala-Buddhism. This is also because their attack is more widespread. There is, for example, the targeting of the Muslim because he is a Muslim, and therefore a particular ethnic and religious bias is clearly evident in BBS-inspired action. Apart from the attack on the ‘Halal’ logo, we gather this from the statement once made by a monk about Muslim restaurant holders spitting into the food that is served to their (non-Muslim) customers; a practice which, according to this monk, is sanctioned by the Quran. This is one specific way in which a Muslim is targeted for being a Muslim.

Also, the sense of fear and terror spread by groups such as the BBS is not something felt by the Sinhala-Buddhists alone; rather it applies to all ethnic and religious communities. This is irrespective of the claim made by some that many there are certain sects within the different religious groups that are not targeted by the BBS.

Therefore, in short, the BBS needs to be stopped, not primarily because it is destroying the Sinhala-Buddhists but because it is a menace to the Sri Lankan polity and its constituent peoples. The BBS and such groups need to be stopped because they are generating such hatred that people will come to view violence as the only practical option available in the face of the marauding monks approaching them.

Conclusion

Contrary to what I had thought a few years ago, it is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to critique or reform a phenomenon like the BBS from within. One cannot be attached to the contemporary project of Sinhala-Buddhism and seek to dismantle groups such as BBS. In other words, BBS is just the ugly underside of Sinhala-Buddhism; but they are, in their view, clearly and convincingly on side of Sinhala-Buddhism.

In the short term, BBS will perish only if it decides to clash head-on with the most powerful in the country, President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The chances of that happening are slim. But for a phenomenon like the BBS to be rooted out, what is needed is a radical rethinking and re-articulation of what it means to be a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’. It is only such a re-thinking and re-branding of the Sinhala-Buddhist identity which would make groups like the BBS redundant, unnecessary, deplorable.

That again, however, is a long-term political project; one which has little support on the ground anyway. In the face of the actual dangers posed by BBS-like entities, swift and quick action is required. Perhaps Mr. Chandraprema’s provides the hint. He calls the BBS-phenomenon a “mad-monk phenomenon”; and he considers the monks involved in this movement to be “mad monks”. So the message ought to be clear. It is customary to lock up those who have gone mad.

  • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

    The best (i.e. most thoughtful) single piece by a Sri Lankan I have read so far, this year.

    • Fitzpatrick

      In the short term, BBS will perish only if it decides to clash head-on with the most powerful in the country, President Rajapaksa..

      So you are saying that MR is the root of all evil?

    • Justice & Fairplay

      DJ; Sri Lanka needs people like you to be even more strident now than before, in articulating the TRUTH without fear or favour, diagnosing the root cause and laying it firmly at the foot of the right door, and encouraging and urging the police and the judiciary to act impartially in stamping out this menace. This would be a very good topic to address in your excellent fortnightly talk show on MTV, but the time has come for the likes of you and Kalana, to be even more direct and spell out that the likes of this saffron robed monk has no place in the civilised world.

      If you ask any enlightened man he would say that Buddhism is fine and there is nothing to rescue it from, but it is men like this mad monk who need help and rescue. Buddhism is an idea and it live in the minds of every enlightened man and woman. It cannot be destroyed.

  • Thrishantha Nanayakkara

    Very well articulated. BBS can be traced back to Dharmapala’s falling away from Olcott in my view. The deception started from there. A lot of people use “Anagarika” to imply that Dharmapala was somebody who had left home to spend a monastic life (ana – not, garika – man with a house). This was pure deception. He was a self styled “Anagarika” just to use a robe. He traveled in the West, and saw the concept of “citizenship” growing in the civil rights movements in the West. This is the time when Carl Copek wrote “Rossum’s Universal Robots” condemning slavery (Robot – forced labor in Czech language). Dharmapala feared that this concept of equality will trickle down to Sri Lanka one day. Then he preached – “Remember, one day western educated Sinhalese will come and tell you that Sinhalaya, Demala, Hambaya, and Bora karaya are all equal, and that there is not need for discrimination based on ethnicity..”. I was told that one leading school in Colombo celebrates this saying by displaying it at the entrance, but I am not sure. Olcott told Dharmapala that what he thinks as Buddhism is not Buddhism! Dharmapala who learnt Buddhism from Olcott fell off at that point, and enjoyed racism growing around him. This prevented Buddhism from going to any other community in Sri Lanka other than Sinhalese. So, his Sinhala-Buddhism took root.

    Apart from that, Dharmapala was closely monitoring British efforts to excavate Buddhist archeological sites in India. Finally, the British proved that Buddha actually existed. The British handed over the sites to their owners – the Indians, and Indians started to worship the newly found archeological sites. Dharmapala saw the opportunity to launch a political campaign to “save Buddhagaya” from Indian Hindus – just like BBS tries to save Buddhist archeological sites from Muslims. This cut off Hindus from re-embracing Buddhism as a home religion.

    The blind followers of this man still cast shadows of hatred, narrow mindedness, and division among all communities without seeing the broad teachings of Buddhism.

    The dissolution of BBS should therefore come from information. Unfortunately successive prime ministers and presidents in Sri Lanka just profited from this ignorance than trying to tell the truth.

    • abey

      Who destroyed Nalanda University & Buddhism in India. Who destroyed Buddhism in Indonesia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Maldive Islands & in some more countries? Please think reasonably.

  • James Chance

    Excellent piece, indeed. I have only one serious criticism.

    Does Kalana really think Chandraprema was being serious when he lets the govt off the hook? Could somehow who knows Gota and knows the workings of this regime so closely believe that they would allow an internationally-funded conspiracy in their own community to function without offering any resistance – without even enforcing the law? This is a laughable claim that no one as intelligent and as informed at Chandraprema could believe. Instead, it’s much more reasonable to believe that Chandraprema was either a) being a bit ironic, maybe even tongue-in-cheek and in fact indicating in this roundabout way that he knows quite well that BBS is part of a national, not international, conspiracy, encouraged by the country’s most powerful man, or b) simply being cautious and producing an alibi for the regime’s clear encouragement of the BBS because it’s too dangerous – esp. for someone close to the regime – to be honest and tell the truth, even though everyone knows it already.

    Otherwise, an excellent essay. I’d love to read more about what I think is the most interesting and important part of the argument – the ways in which prominent members of the Sangha, in their quest to forward the project of an ever-more Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lanka, are supporting BBS in explicit and implicit ways, and the effects of the activism/actions/hate of BBS (and others like Sinhala Ravaya) on the practice and understanding of Sinhala Buddhism in the clergy and outside.

    Can we have more – either from Kalana or someone else?

  • Mawm

    Excellent analysis of the BBS phenomenon. The BBS, as this insightful piece by Kalana Senaratne recognizes, is an unadulterated expression of a private “Sinhala Buddhist” fantasy in the public realm. “Moderate Buddhists” are silently or subconsciously cheering the BBS. They may disagree with Gnanasara’s methods but not necessarily his intent or objectives. Kalana should also be congratulated for not being historically determinist and essentialist — Buddhism and indeed Sinhala Buddhism can and should be channeled in more positive directions.
    But where do we go from here? Clearly the political and social configuration at the moment overwhelmingly favors the BBS and what they represent. How can we then contest this discourse? I have no answers but I think the answer lies somewhere in both individual and collective action which engages with Sinhala society at large. Necessarily a long term project and one which as history would show has not been very successful but one we should nevertheless pursue.

  • Mawm

    Would also like to add that while the distinction between doctrinal Buddhism and “cultural Buddhism” (for want of a better term) or Sinhala Buddhism is a useful analytical distinction to make, (and useful in terms of making a moral and ethical criticism of the violent expression of Buddhism we see in BBS) it is one which is likely to have little appeal in society at large.

    From the perspective of the BBS types “cultural Buddhism” is fundamentally important because without it, they would argue, doctrinal Buddhism will never survive. In fact this is a point that Gnanasara made in a YA TV interview where he made spoke about a tradition of “Grama Vasi” (village dwelling) versus “Wana Vasi” (forest dwelling) monks. Gananasara’s argument was that it is the tradition of “Grama Vasi” monks with their socio-political involvement that has preserved Buddhism in Sri Lanka and what he and the BBS is doing is a continuation of this tradition. It is here I feel that the secular-liberal critique of Sinhala Buddhism faces its greatest challenge.

    There have been many attempts to delegitimize the nation, religion and people triad of Sinhala nationalism from both academic and activist fronts. For instance many revisionist historians have argued that the links between Sinhala identity, Buddhism and the nation were far more complicated in pre-colonial times than what we imagine today (e.g., how come a Nayakkar Telegu king who spoke Tamil and signed his name in Tamil became the last king of the Kandyan kingdom?). However, none of these debates have had much traction on the popular Sinhala psyche.

    One option is to argue that state and religion need to be clearly separate in a classic secular arrangement but this is unlikely to have much impact because electoral politics in Sri Lanka replicate very closely the ethno-religious divisions of the country. Again I have no answers but changing the Sinhala psyche from within will require some serious and creative thinking on how to alter the Sinhala Buddhist mindset that preserving Sinhala identity at any cost is equal to preserving Buddhism because of the ingrained sentiment that Sinhalese are the inheritors and protectors of the Theravada Buddhist tradition in its purest form. It is this thinking that has led to what some have called “just war” ideology — that it is just to wage war, to kill or maim because it is done in service of the higher principle of preserving Buddhism.

    Kalana’s kind of intervention, I feel, has a significant impact to make here. But it needs to happen in the Sinhala language and not just among Sinhla progressives or “radicals”. This discourse needs to break into the Sinhala mainstream. I have no answers and I am just posting these thoughts as food for discussion.

    • http://www.groundviews.org/ Groundviews

      Ref. last para, once the holidays are over, will get this translated into Sinhala to publish on http://www.vikalpa.org.

  • Sam

    The issue lies with whole political process in Sri Lanka,
    regardless ethnic background all racist elements attached to any political
    parties must not be allowed whether it is Sinhala, Muslim or Tamil. The good
    political governance in the country it must not tolerate the racist ideology in
    political system which will allow people to see and think equally.

    This must start from Majority in the country from Sinhalese,
    when/if the Muslim minister doing something wrong and if it is affecting
    innocent (Sinhala, Tamil or others) this must be addressed with the law, if the
    law is not strong enough this could lead to see what is happening today ! Affected
    people have to seek different alternatives rather than the law….

    So, this simply means
    we must ensure the law and order in the country to treat equally to all citizens….

    Unfortunate Buddhism
    and monks in Sri Lanka have become frightening word to the outside world! Which
    is very shame indeed….

  • alex f

    The issue at heart which is not entirely addressed here is how strong is the silent support for the BBS (and the Rajapakse regime). As DJ keeps suggesting, Sri Lanka is a democracy and Rajapakse is popular. His conclusion is that the international community can’t do anything about Sinhala natonalism, and so all present UN policy is flawed. So is it the case that the silent majority of Sinhalese support the Rajapakse’s and by extension endorse groups they sponsor like the BBS? I think that is the critical question.

  • Stel En

    why the author obviosly a tamil or a Muslim use a Sinhalese name? BBS is very welcome in many parts of the country where Buddhists are been marginalized and discriminated.

  • Stel En

    Few years ago for Muslim Eid festival hundreds of cows were killed in streets. Many Buddhists looked at this scene with bleeding hearts. BBS is an answer to these heinous crimes committed by Muslims. There is no compassion for animals in Islam. Also Muslims has no concern for the sensitivities of Buddhists

  • sajeeva samaranayake

    Reading the piece by Feizal Mansoor I checked this out. Its good but Kalana seems to have left a massive gap in his analysis…..Then seeing the warm praise from DJ it was possible to put 2 and 2 together and figure out why…. Certainly there has been a violent streak in Sinhala Buddhism as seen from 1759 – attempted assassination of Kirthi Sri and 1959 successful assassination of SWRD and the whole post war scenario of triumphalism…. but the peculiar shape and novelty of extremist BBS can only be attributed to the fascist orientation of the Presidency. Someone other than DJ will be mighty pleased with this analysis…..