Arya Sinhala and the restoration of the Commons of Lanka

Submitted to Groundviews as a response to Kalana Senaratne’s assertion that Buddhism does not have a means for contemporary political engagement, in The ‘Mad Monk’ Phenomenon: BBS as the underside of Sinhala-Buddhism.

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Being Sinhala to the village folklorist Farmer Mudiyanse Tennekoon  was not a matter of religion or ethnicity, it was the practise of an elevated or exalted (arya) way of living: if you live in dhamma, dhamma will protect you. A nation of sunworshippers from a time before time, this general or common consensus (Mahasamatta) formed the bedrock of the incorporation of Buddhist precepts into arya Sinhala.

Joseph Campbell described four key functions of mythology: metaphysical, cosmological, sociological and pedagogical. The metaphysical function evokes a sense of awe at the mystery of existence. The cosmological function presents an image of the cosmos that maintains and elicits this experience of awe. The sociological function is to validate and maintain a sociological system with a shared sense of right and wrong. The pedagogical  function of myth must provide the psychological support of the individual through the various stages of his life and to do so in accordance with the social order, the cosmos and the mystery of his group.

The institution of Mahasamatta represented the recognition of the supremacy of the unseen god, King Mahasamatta, who oversaw the sharing of grain in exchange for a portion. The King set the standard for the nation and as the King was not seen it was the rightness of his rule that proclaimed his adhesion to the ten royal virtues, the Dasa Raja dhamma:

  1. Aviroda: Non-revengefulness
  2. Khamthi: Patience
  3. Avhimsa: Non-violence
  4. Akkodha: Non-hate
  5. Tapa: Restraint
  6. Maddava: Courtesey
  7. Ajjava: Integrity
  8. Pariccaga: Recognition of talent
  9. Sila: Morality
  10. Sharing:Dana

The Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path are the means for the ultimate comprehension of the mystery through the individual cultivation of unbounded loving kindness. Arya Sinhala is essentially meticulously living the five assertions (from Pancha Sila by Asoka Devendra):

  1. I assure all Beings that, their lives are safe in my presence.
  2. I assure all Beings that, their possessions will be safe in my presence.
  3. I assure all Beings that, their moral goodness will not be violated by me.
  4. I assure all Beings that, their confidence in me will not be betrayed.
  5. I assure all Beings that, I will not abuse my own moral goodness.

While the individual is seen as secondary to the community the nature of a consensus requires cooperation not coercion. Accordingly this understanding of what dhamma is to the individual is of paramount importance to the community as a whole. Isaline B. Horner in the essay Dhamma in Early Buddhism:

“Primarily dhamma means the natural state or condition of beings and things, the law of their being, what it is right for them to be, the very stuff of their being, evamdhammo. If they are what it is right for them to be, if they are right without being righteous, they are true to themselves. So dhamma also means truth, with the derived meaning of ‘religious’ truth, hence the Buddhist doctrine, dhamma or saddhamma, the very or true teaching, our own teaching. If things and beings are true to themselves they will know how to act, or should know how to act, although dhamma may still have to be pointed out to them…

“Truthfinders not only gain a full comprehension and knowledge of dhamma, but in virtue of this they become dhamma: ‘dhamma-become’, Brahma-become, these are synonyms for a Truthfinder’… it is not peculiar to Buddhism, that when, and only when, you completely comprehend, then you become that which you comprehend…

“So, if you fully know dhamma you become it, and if you fully know truth you become it. Hence Gotama is not only spoken of as dhamma-become (dhammabhūta); he has as one of his epithets, ‘He whose name is Truth’, Saccanāma.”

From the same collection of essays edited by Ranjit Fernando, Frithjof Schuon specifies the perennial solution:

“To discern the Real, to concentrate on it, or more precisely, on so much of it as is accessible to us; then to conform morally to its nature; such is the Way, the only one there is.”
(from The Unanimous Tradition, Ranjit Fernando Ed., Sri Lanka Institute of Traditional Studies, Colombo, 2nd Edition, 1999.)

The Lion flag symbolises this understanding:

The Lion

(From The Lion Flag by C. Upali Senanayake. Click here for larger image.)

Farmer Mudiyanse Tennekoon accordingly could not agree with Kalana Senaratne’s statement:

“…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).”

Arya Sinhala necessitates constant mindful awareness and if practised properly increases sensitivity and  discernment. The restoration of the common wealth of Lanka required no less than a return to the Village council and the rule of Mahasamatta. Only if the rights of the peasantry to live a traditional life was honoured could any semblance of democracy return to Sri Lanka. It would be honoured when all living things were protected from the depradations of man. When our clean waters ran free nourishing the land and all that lived in it. When the people had leisure to pursue their interests, Tennekoon often said, “Everyone must dream their dream.”

A pamphlet Tennekoon co-authored with a retired civil servant Mr. Luckuruppu titled, Universal Welfare Organisation, (UWO) describes the four types of villages in Sri Lanka prior to 1833:

  1. The Gabadagam (or royal villages) owned by the King and benefiting both the inhabitants and the rulers by way of mutual obligations. These provided the revenues for the good governance of the country;
  2. The Nindagam (or villages) entrusted to the chiefs and officials for the common sustenance of themselves and the resident people. Mutual obligations enabled the social hierarchy to co-exist peacefully;
  3. The Viharagam (or temple villages) which were administered by the lay officials for the maintenance of buddhist institutions, monasteries and places of worship, to provide a blessing to the people;
  4. The Devalegam (or villages) dedicated to various local deities, and administered by lay officials for the maintenance of rituals and ceremonies which formed an integral part of the traditional culture, its arts and crafts.

Village elders constituted an ad hoc village council or Gansabha that conducted the affairs of each village. These were essentially the fulfillment of their individual obligations called Rajakariya, nominally service to the King, but in reality community service on behalf of the village. The gansabha also formulated the village Cultivation Plan and the regulation of irrigation water. The gansabha adjudicated disputes and dispensed justice and was entrusted with the conservation and maintenance of all natural resources. A network of village councils were grouped together as korales or divisions, next in to districts or disavas and finally a rajaya a kingdom or commonwealth with community ownership of land and natural resources.

“…The legal administrative and social reforms initiated by the Colebrook-Cameron Commission in 1833 set in motion the disappearance of the traditional social system that had prevailed from the 3rd Century B.C.E… The Colebrook Reforms opened the way for the expansion of the colonial plantation economy with resultant wholesale degradation and destruction… of the forests, waterbodies and waterways, soils, flora, fauna and humanity nurtured by 2500 years of Buddhist civilization…” – Tennekoon, UWO.

Tennekoon said that the restoration of the Commons of Lanka required direct political involvement by the universal adoption of Mahasamatta. Each individual must recognise Mahasamatta as the only legitimate ruler of Lanka. The key was not to consider the objective but simply to live it. He believed that once a majority of Sri Lankans began practising it, a tipping point would be reached and it would again become distasteful (appirri) to act outside it.  We must restore the inherent sustainability of the puranagama system of life with the application of appropriate modern technology. It was crucial that such technology was from the public domain and capable of being built locally.

As I said above, Tennekoon believed that everyone had a dream, and his was the resurrection of Dharmadvipa, the adhesion to arya Sinhala in a modern idiom, and saw among the first steps in this direction the adoption of the principles of ahimsa by society at large. He especially felt that it was wrong to kill cattle but allowed that one could follow the Kataragama tradition and eat fish or fowl.

Tennekoon’s revolution is a passive one, its weapons are the banishment of ignorance and an aspiration to arya Sinhala. Despite colonial attempts to systematically destroy the arya way of Sinhala some semblance of it yet remains. There is still something worth saving. He dismissed as profane what he called the Galle Road culture and its post-colonial dystopia. His reality was a different one: “There is a way to behave and we learn it at the feet of our Mother.”

  • Kalana Senaratne

    Dear Feisal Mansoor,

    Thank you for this response. But I don’t think the
    late Mudiyanse Tennakoon would have disagreed entirely with my basic contention.
    I think your very first paragraph wherein you write “…incorporation
    of Buddhist precepts into arya Sinhala” proves the point I
    briefly mentioned in my article: that there is something lacking in the ‘authentic’
    Buddha-word for politics (hence the need to incorporate, add, introduce, etc.).
    Your statement also makes it clear that it is the Arya Sinhala project that
    makes use of Buddhism, and it’s not that Buddhism constructs an Arya Sinhala
    identity that needs to be protected (in which case, “incorporation of Buddhist
    precepts” would have been unnecessary because the Buddha’s precepts would have
    come with the whole package of protecting Arya Sinhala!). However, let me
    explain.

    What I meant by the argument that the
    Buddha-teaching is inadequate for contemporary political engagement is this: that
    the Buddha-teaching is a problematic reference to support notions which are
    essentially based on the concept of a ‘self’. So, what we call nation, country,
    Lanka, Sri Lanka, Sinhala, Arya Sinhala, etc. (and this applies to similar
    concepts that any other ethnic or religious group would promote) are all concepts
    that are guided by the idea of ‘self’ (i.e. the belief that there is something unalterable,
    self-like, that is natural, is long-lasting, needs protection and promotion).

    These are the very concepts that Buddha’s teaching
    of ‘not-self’ would help us deconstruct, exposing their constructed and artificial
    character. And these are only ‘conventional truths’ (because they are ‘real’
    concepts since we deal with them, talk about them, etc in our engagement with
    peoples and societies), but not ‘absolute truths’ (because fundamentally, they
    are constructed concepts, constructed as such due to greed/hatred/delusion).

    Buddha, I argue, was never convinced about politics
    in the way we understand and practice ‘politics’ today. This is because: one
    goes against the fundamental teaching of ‘not-self’ the moment one begins to
    promote those very concepts and ideas that have ‘self’ as an underlying force. This
    is precisely why, I claim, the Buddha was reluctant to address issues of
    politics during his time, and Buddha-teaching does not have a set of teachings
    that can be conveniently used for the kind of nationalist-politics practiced
    today. Had the Buddha included such a component, his entire teaching would have
    been a bundle of contradictions; and one could never have escaped the trap of
    greed/hatred/delusion – the eradication of which is precisely what leads to
    that final and ultimate goal which the Buddha wanted his followers to pursue
    and attain, ‘nirvana’.

    Now, one might raise the question (as you seem to
    have): but what about the pancha-sila?
    What about the dhasa raja dharma? Yes,
    Buddha’s teachings have a socialist bent, and can be useful to engage in, or
    inspire us to undertake, social work; and the Buddha did articulate some broad
    principles that can be useful for governance purposes. I don’t deny that; and there’s
    a vast body of literature on this topic.

    But I would raise three points here: 1) these are
    not unalterable laws (for example, the pancha-sila,
    and one can correct me if I am wrong, was not set out by the Buddha, but is
    rather a formulation that was constructed for purposes of Buddhist moral/ethical
    practice, derived of course from the larger body of Buddha’s teachings); 2) these
    principles are universal, in that they can be used by, and even taught by,
    anyone and are not the sole preserve of Buddhism (i.e. the dhasa raja dhamma, for example, contains principles which are broad
    and vague – and while they can be practiced by anyone, their interpretation and
    application can take on different forms in the hands of ‘un-enlightened’
    beings; and 3) related to the above, one really doesn’t need to be a follower
    of Buddhism to understand those principles, to promote them, or to make them a
    set of guiding principles. What I mean is, you can follow or not follow any
    religion and still come to realize the virtues of ‘patience’ (khamthi), ‘recognition of talent’ (pariccaga), ‘non-hate’ (akkodha), etc.

    This leads to the final question: so wouldn’t the
    Buddha help in protecting the Sinhalese? Of course, the Buddha would have had
    no problem with the Sinhalese protecting themselves, but not because there is
    something truly authentic, or essentially great, in the Sinhalese that needs
    protection. He would have been concerned about their protection for completely
    humanistic reasons; and that concern would have been extended to the protection
    of all beings, irrespective of their religious or other identity. In other
    words, there’s nothing in the Buddha-word to promote and protect the political
    projects of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism per se. Why? Because Siddhartha
    Gautama, in my view, is not the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist you find in the Mahavamsa.

    As for concepts such as Dharmadvipa (or the idea of resurrecting the Dharmadvipa) etc., these, today, are just names that are given to one’s
    fantasy of having a mono-ethnic/mono-religious political structure wherein (Sinhala)
    Buddhism dominates. While I don’t place importance on such concepts, I am clearly
    opposed to such a project. So yes, the late Mudiyanse would definitely disagree
    with me on that.

    Thank you.

    • Feisal Mansoor

      Mr. Senaratne, Before I can respond properly to your reply I need clarification as to what you mean by the “Arya Sinhala project”? If by this you are referring to a post-colonial artifact then perhaps you missed the last paragraph.

      • Kalana Senaratne

        ‘Arya Sinhala project’ (especially, ‘project’) was simply
        meant to be a reference to the broader objective to construct, or give
        expression to, the Arya-Sinhala identity, along with the movement that gave
        life to this objective (i.e. the theorists/propagandists, their writings, etc.), –
        especially during the early part of the 20th century.

        • Feisal Mansoor

          Dear Mr. Senaratne:

          The essence of arya Sinhala is that one must live nobly. This has demonstrably nothing at all to do with any projects especially ones that initiate from race. I believe I made Tennekoon’s distinction in the first line. As you are talking about Buddhism as it might relate to a Western system of governance, and while even Tennekoon might have agreed with your general thesis, to his thinking, all such things are post-colonial artifacts and come from an institutionalised insecurity as the writing of people like Memmi have described. Tennekoon was not a colonized person, his mind had not been captured before the age of six by any foreign influence. What framed his worldview were the oral traditions of the Wanni. It was the restoration of the Commons and the right of the peasantry to live a traditional life that was his pre-occupation. Tennekoon scoffed at the idea of discrete homogenous races in an island of 25’000 square miles and believed that one could behave in accordance with arya Sinhala whatever one’s alleged race, religion or creed.

          In Imperium et Libertas Bernard Holland (London, 1901) makes the observations:
          “… the expression Imperium, as used by the Romans, meant neither geographic space nor populations, but in the earlier times a military and subsequently a political power, whether exercised by an individual or a State. It most nearly corresponds to our words ‘command,’ ‘rule,’ or ‘control,’ and we speak in the Roman sense if we talk of ‘exercising empire.
          “… If Imperium is power over others, Libertas may be defined as power over oneself, whether the ‘one’ in question is a person, or corporation, or a nation.”

          A geographical state does not a nation make. A nation is framed by common experience and bounded by a cultural response to that experience. It is a notion of an ideal, it has many names, we call it arya, a state of being / consciousness to which each of us individually aspire. It is as much a search for the lost chord as it is a belief that if we live in dhamma the people and the land will be safe. It is in exploring this power over oneself that one gains arya Sinhala and its incorporation of Buddhism after the advent of Arahat Mahinda is what is referred to in my text. The fact that the King is shown to be hunting when he meets Arahat Mahinda indicates that the Kingdom had fallen from arya Sinhala.

          My contention therefore is not that you are not correct in your analyses of the post-colonial quagmire we inhabit it is rather that any failure is not in Buddhism but in the Western constructs some seek to apply it to. I tried to be clear that we had a system that used to work in this country and it worked primarily because it was sustainable. It was replaced by an extractive prerogative that had no interest in sustainability and was in fact completely at variance with a culture that revered and cherished all life.

          You may not agree and as you have indicated in your final paragraph, you might even take it as a fancy, but to Tennekoon his oral traditions were more relevant and truthful than history gained from a book. Tennekoon told me that in the days of our Kings, if the King broke faith with Mahasamatta his life would be forfeit. He also told me that in the puranagama tradition one’s obligation to the community (rajakariya) outweighed any perceived obligation to oneself. When everything in life took place in the village one’s life was forfeit by banishment and ostracism. He told me this was the beginning of the rodi.

          As Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, I believe, pointed out to know the Tradition one must live the Tradition and this is why arya Sinhala with its aspiration to the highest knowledge possible to man is of paramount importance to us. In this everyone in Lanka is Sinhala or should try to be. It matters not if one arrives at one’s destination through the Buddha dhamma, the portals at Kataragama, through the Annointed one, or the Message of the Prophet, only that the journey itself is the means of arrival. It is why I referenced Joseph Campbell at the outset so that those who have studied his work will know the perspective or lense through which what follows should be seen.

          I think Tennekoon would have little argument with you about the post-colonial use of Buddhism as a nationalist tool but would argue you over-reach when you equate organized religion with the authentic dhamma. The first is a political device, the second a matter of the spirit: You have confused arya Sinhala with Arya Sinhala and there is a chasm between the capitalisation and the simple. The brilliance of our ancient system, which appears to have been observed more in the breech in historical times, was that as the king was never seen, it was only behaviour that said anything about anyone. In such a situation anyone could be the king. In fact every denizen was potentially the king, Dharmaraja. The aspiration to arya Sinhala is one of King of the World or Universal Man or Insan-il Kamil or Yogi or Siddha or Christ or Buddha. This is because truth is one, Tennekoon did not believe in dichotomies and thought that if something appeared to be such, it was because we did not have enough information about it.

          Sat Chit Anand = the Father the Son the Spirit = The God the Beneficent the Merciful = Being Consciousness Loving-Kindness.

          In other words fundamentally the method is loving kindness through which we will understand the symbols and annihilate the self in the Self. So it is an individual response that is made societal by the sacerdotal and temporal authority in the institution of kingship, wherein the monarch sets the standard for the nation.

  • sajeeva samaranayake

    The present day Lankan has stumbled upon an inheritance of incredible complexity and richness. And he is floundering ….. We need not be in different camps, like boxers in their own corners. But this is the mood of the day. Do we draw a line after 1815 or 1833 and say that all our rights must be derived from either what happened before or after? Why did the vernacular speaking man feel left out and develop such hatred towards his English speaking brother? Is it because the latter based his power on alienation and social distance from the former? The people in power today may seem less respectable and more disreputable but they have clambered onto the same structure and today the social distance is enforced not with a ‘kaduwa’ but by heavily armed bodyguards. This new breed of thugs is taking over the world. And all we have is an amoral, ahistorical, highly technical human rights document. Robespierre learned on the guillotine that when you abandon religion and history you cut yourself away from a whole network of relationships that connect you to your forebears from time immemorial. Each and every one of us has ancestors who walked this earth in every epoch. That is how rich we are. Sri Lankans today are left with a piece of paper which tells them they are sovereign and equal and what not. But when you separate that piece of paper from our rich historical heritage we are nothing – like the Jews in Europe when the Nazis decided to solve the minority problem once and for all. When I say rich historical heritage – it includes everything eastern and western that we made part of our civilized life. Feisal’s point cannot be understood with mere words. It is a matter of the spirit which cannot be refuted. There is no phenomenon equivalent to BBS in the whole Buddhist history of this country. Binary logic of self vs. no self is not very useful in approaching the dhamma which is basically a paradox. Contrary to what Kalana asserts the self and uncovering its nature is the whole of the Buddhist path. To state that self and identity is not relevant to a Buddhist is to reduce Buddhism to a nihilism. And that is an old mistake of the missionaries that our own enlightened catholic fathers like Fr. Aloysius Peiris and Fr. Tissa Balasuriya have since rectified.
    But this is all in the spirit of a discussion. I may always be wrong. My main point is that we cannot reject the baby with the bathwater. There is something of value in Sinhala Buddhist culture that we cannot deny – but must in fact reclaim if we are ever to hope for peace in this land again. The British changed the course of our history because we were already disunited. We still are. A complete severance from the past is not possible. The middle path of not knowing, questioning and walking with an open mind beckons us.

    • Feisal Mansoor

      Yes Sajeeva, practise makes Perfect. The very fact that we are living means that the universe is irrevocably changed by our presence. Typically if we are Sinhala, we should traverse this life disturbing others and other things as little as possible. If we were to live and die having consumed energy then we are rakshayas, if we add to the energy field we are potentially gods.