Colombo, Politics and Governance, Religion and faith

The Buddha Sasana: Sri Lanka’s biggest NGO?

Sometimes words are used so often and so uncritically that they not only lose communicative value but those who utter them and those who hear them no longer know what they mean.  We really don’t know what ‘democracy’ means, do we?  Decency, anyone?  How about justice?  Love?  There are thousands of such words and terms including ‘people’,  ‘sustainability’, ‘development’ and ‘hegemony’, but I am thinking of a name, an acronym, a term, a phenomenon, a curse and an agent, all rolled into one.  NGO.

Non-Governmental Organization.  I first heard it in May 1988 at the Marga Institute, while engaged in a study of development assistance, its sources and destinations.  It didn’t take long for acronym to comfortably replace term.  And so we had NGOs and INGOS (i.e. those NGOs that were ‘international’ in character), repositories of wealth, residences for all kinds of shady creatures and especially internally displaced and thoroughly confused self-styled Leftists.

A study on the ‘NGO Sector’ commissioned by the Asian Development Bank and carried out in 1996 revealed that most NGOs were mom-and-pop affairs, veritable cottage industries that benefited slick operators who could string together a few words of English and that even those outfits that were engaged in advocacy were in fact engaged in various projects which in various ways undermined the national interest and sought to entrench conditions of dependency.  They were the Zamindars of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, a friend of mine opined, based on a study of the phenomenon in Bangladesh.

It didn’t take me long to realize that for all the ‘civil society’ posturing of such entities, NGOs were essentially businesses.  They don’t really fall between ‘state’ and ‘private sector’, they belong to the latter.  Those in NGOs would like to be an alternative to the state and indeed operate as though they are even though in reach, delivery, scope and range of operations they are but glorified maranaadara samithi and as ridden with corruption as any state institution.  Or any corporate entity, for that matter.

Let’s take this acronym apart.  ‘O’ is for ‘Organization’.  N-G is for Non-Governmental.  Thus anything that cannot be categorized as a government institution/body would theoretically be an NGO. Every corporate is an NGO. From the most powerful and visible multinational to the petti-kade at the street corner and the maalu laella and the paththara laella are countless NGOs.

But let’s ask a simple question.  What is the biggest NGO in Sri Lanka?  ‘Big’ has to be understood in terms of budgets, scale of operations, reach and spread, range of activities, overall impact in multiple spheres etc.  Some outfits can have a major impact although small and a lot of NGOs that made a lot of money touting federalism and feeding the LTTE can in this sense be called ‘big’.  In physical terms Sarvodaya is big, some would say.  The thrift and credit cooperative movement, better known by its Sinhala acronym, SANASA, is as big or even bigger considering impact and reach.  SANASA is a network of over 8000 community based thrift and credit cooperative societies and is therefore ‘bigger’ than Cargills Food City, which has a little more than 100 outlets.  The underworld and especially those sections engaged in drug trafficking is ‘big’. The LTTE was big.

There’s another ‘big’ one that I am sure most would miss: religious organizations.  These are also non-governmental organizations technically speaking and any insult by association is unintended, let me state at the outset.  Some of them operate in quite the same way perhaps because intent and interests are similar.  We have hundreds of evangelical outfits that are an embarrassment to Jesus Christ (given methodology of operation and the utter lack of humility and a corresponding lack of respect to other faiths) going about sowing anger and hatred in the zealous urge, paradoxically, to spread ‘the word of the lord’, using the cover of ‘religious freedom’ and abusing the general tolerance of Buddhists and Hindus in this country.  This is something quite absent in supposedly ‘secular’ countries that nevertheless privilege the Christian faith/religion through constitutional edict, education and cultural policies and ‘national’ iconography).

And yet, all such operations, big and small, vile and benign, identifiable or utterly incongruous with the life and philosophy of Jesus Christ, are in every sense ‘tiny’ compared to what is arguably the largest NGO in Sri Lanka: the Buddha Sasana.

If we are talking about ‘potential’, then the Buddhist order can if it puts mind to it, make all other NGOs and much of the state irrelevant.  Indeed, given that it is an advocacy outfit (again, no insult intended but just employing NGO terminology to make a point) it has the strength of numbers, intellectual weight and all the advantages of history, heritage, social acceptance, mobilizing ability etc to out advocate halmessas or, to use street lingo, haal-kaeli like the Centre for Policy Alternatives, National Peace Council, MIRJE and poorer and wannabe versions of these shady outfits.  Indeed if there is any entity that has what it takes to supplant the state (the perennial wish of the Colombo 3/7 NGO boys and girls), it is the Sasana. And this can be good and it can be bad, but that’s an issue we shall come to later.

This is why the rare occasions that the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Theros make comment on issues of national import we need to sit up and take notice.  This is why, for example, the Government got quite jittery when the Mahanayaka Theros of the Siyam, Amarapura and Ramanya Nikayas announced that a special convention of the Maha Sangha would take place on the 18th in Kandy and issued a special statement regarding the arrest of General (Rtd) Sarath Fonseka.  The statements contained a liberal dose of the NGO buzz words pertaining to democracy, rule of law, good governance etc etc.  On the face of it, this is a good sign.

On the other hand, even a cursory delving into the politics of that particular issuance of statement would be enough to dampen whatever enthusiasm one may have had regarding the Buddha Sasana asserting itself on behalf of and for the betterment of the general citizenry. To begin with, the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Thero of the Malwatu Chapter was motivated by political loyalties and not a general concern for democracy, decency etc.  C.A. Chandraprema quite eloquently and quite convincingly argued earlier this week that if that were the case, the Venerable Thero ought to have chided Fonseka for irresponsible statements, lack of decency, absence of basic civility and most seriously his frivolous, adventurist and utterly irresponsible act of jeopardizing the security of every member of the Army’s 58 Division and potentially compromising national security as well.  It is not a question of trying to hide wrongdoing (something that is quite unpardonable), but the real threat constituted by the fact that even a lie uttered by a person who was commanding the troops in the last phase of the battle could potentially override other evidence and would in any case cause untold embarrassment to the state and the citizens in all international forums.  Needless to say the enemies of Sri Lanka salivated.  The Venerable Mahanayaka of the Malwatu Chapter was silent.

The complaint here is about inconsistency.  There have been numerous instances where the Mahanayaka Theros have issued statements, retracted them, showed disagreement among themselves etc.  There have been numerous instances where the Mahanayake Theros have been scandalously silent when the nation faced grave dangers.  The signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord (J.R. Jayewardena and Rajiv Gandhi) and the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (Ranil Wickremesinghe and Velupillai Prabhakaran) didn’t see an informed, well-argued and united response from the Venerable Mahanayaka Theros.

If there is genuine interest in things like democracy, good governance and the rule of law, then there should be a constant and consistent engagement in relation to these issues on their part.  What we are seeing is ad hoc, politically motivated, and almost knee-jerk like missives coming from these leading Bikkhus.

Indeed, I believe they have to do much more than this.  Recently I met a devout Christian who writes to newspapers occasionally and defends uncivilized and hate-filled acts of evangelical zealots as ‘that’s politics, if politicians can bribe people into conversion, this is similar; just another device to win people over to a particular ideology’. He had no ‘charity’ Christian or otherwise to treat the customs and practices of other religious faiths with any degree of respect or tolerance. He blurted out that the Dalada Perahera was nothing but an expression of Buddhist Nationalism. He virtually spat it out.  He also said, ‘Buddhism is in decline because the haamuduruwos are corrupt and because Christianity is a more compelling doctrine’.I don’t think Buddhism is in decline, but if its all about corruption then the Christian faith would have died long ago, not just in Sri Lanka but all over the world for the high priests of that faith have caused suffering and orchestrated more bloodbaths than all Buddhists put together from the time of the Buddha have.  As for the issue of one doctrine being more compelling, that’s a matter of opinion.  Still, the learned gentleman got me thinking.

The Mahanayaka Theros preside over, as I mentioned earlier, the biggest NGO in the country.  The Buddha Sasana does not require, unlike these other NGOs, any foreign funds.  The Venerable Mahanayaka Theros oversee a massive economy, such is the wealth at their disposal.  This material wealth amazingly complemented by human resources for the Sasana is not made of just the clergy but the upasakas and upasikas as well, large numbers of whom can be mobilized quickly and effectively. Yes, for the good and the bad, for the betterment of society or the celebration of extremism and bigotry.

Just as Christianity is a doctrine of liberation that has also been perverted in practice to cause suffering to the very people that Jesus sought to help, just as Marxism, a doctrine that too sought to engineer emancipation, was employed in ways that caused suffering, so too Buddhism, a philosophy that advocates the sathara brahma viharana (kindness, compassion, rejoicing in another’s joy and equanimity) can be manipulated to similarly destructive ends.  Of course people would argue, like that kind Christian gentlemen, that that would not be ‘Christian’, just as certain Marxists would say ‘no, that’s not Marxism’ and Buddhists would similarly say ‘the Buddha never advocated this and therefore this is not Buddhism’, but that’s just being academic and silly.

The statements and posturing of the Buddhist prelates on account of Sarath Fonseka’s arrest therefore should be seized by all Buddhists as an ideal occasion to question and redefine the position and role of the Maha Sangha in these times when the nation, having extricated itself from a destructive war, attempts to move forward.

Let there be consistency. Let there be a conscious effort to avoid becoming pawns of politicians and political projects. Let there be, most importantly, vigilance so that the Mahanayakas don’t become pawns of those treacherous little mom-and-pop NGOs and their anti-national agenda.  Let there be a better and more efficient employment of resources to uplift the poor and underprivileged, a condition that necessarily requires submission to proper auditing procedures (a practice that all religious bodies should submit to).

The bottom line: a return to the dhamma.  There has to be humility to acknowledge that the Christian gentlemen has a point (even though he does not have the eyes to see the same ‘wrong’ in institutions professing his faith), that there is corruption, veering away from the path Lord Buddha advocated, an unhealthy fascination with things material and a parallel distancing from engagement with the core tenets of the doctrine, including the considerable sections of the canon devoted to developing a just and peaceful social order.

The Buddha Sasana is an enormous and unique resource.  And given its dimensions, we must acknowledge that in the wrong hands it can cause harm to society.  As a Buddhist and therefore a member of the Sasana, I humbly call upon the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Theros to consider a Dharma Sangayana. It is long overdue.  If this is not done, let there be no doubt, the Sasana will become a pawn of the NGO gang, which is clearly anti-Buddhist.  Let the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Theros take note.

[Editors note: An edited version of this article appears in the Daily Mirror today.]