Featured image courtesy AntanO

The world is going from bad to worse, day by day; with the spread of conflict, terrorism, political instability, poverty and impending economic crises spreading like wind. At times, the interpretation of religious teachings too cause controversy and can wreak havoc. However, above all Buddhism is purely based on nonviolence. Yet, in countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Tibet a group of monks (not all of them) have been behaving in a violent manner, at times even with the support of political leadership in those countries. They are unnecessarily influencing the country’s political affairs and spreading racism. In summary, they promote violence, which can be considered as deeply disrespectful to the Lord Buddha who endorsed a philosophy of non-violence.

The Purpose of Buddhism

Buddhism is not a traditional religion or series of rituals. It is a way of life or philosophy. According to Lord Buddha’s teachings, all livings beings are entangled in an interminable cycle of life and death. To be born as a human is a rare thing. In this lifetime, what humans should do is to try and understand the reason for suffering and make an effort to eradicate the cause by following the Eight-fold Path.

Ideal Bhikku Life

A Bhikku or Buddhist monk is a person who has dedicated his whole life to being rescued from the interminable cycle of life and death, while supporting and guiding lay followers to do the same. There is sufficient evidence from Buddhist tripitaka scripts depicting Lord Buddha advised his followers what path to take. Two hundred and twenty seven (227) disciplinary rules are included in the vinaya pitaka (The moral guide for bhikkus). According to these rules, the ideal bhikku should be a simple character in society without consuming money, or pursuing a luxury lifestyle.

The Theravada tradition encourages self-enlightenment and solitude for monks. The below stanzas, extracted from the Khaggavisana Sutta, reflects this view.

Renouncing violence
for all living beings,
harming not even one,
you would not wish for offspring,
 so how a companion?
Wander alone
like a rhinoceros.

For a sociable person
there are allurements;
on the heels of allurement, this pain.
Seeing allurement’s drawback,
wander alone
like a rhinoceros.

One whose mind
is enmeshed in sympathy
for friends and companions,
neglects the true goal.
Seeing this danger in intimacy,
wander alone
like a rhinoceros.

From the Bhikku Vagga in Dhammapada:

Cakkhuna samvaro sadhu
sadhu sotena samvaro
ghanena samvaro sadhu
sadhu jivhaya sarmvaro.

Kayena samvaro sadhu
sadhu vacaya samvaro
manasa samvaro sadhu
sadhu sabbattha samvaro
sabattha sambuto bhikkhu
sabbadukkha pamuccati.

Verse 360: Restraint in the eye is good, good is restraint in the ear; restraint in the nose is good, good is restraint in the tongue.

Verse 361: Restraint in body is good, good is restraint in speech; restraint in mind is good, good is restraint in all the senses. A bhikkhu restrained in all the senses is freed from all ills (Samsara dukkha).

Lord Buddha expected his followers or monks to be disciplined in this way. According to Buddhist philosophy, the tendency to direct attention on external things can become a barrier for his spiritual journey towards Nibbana. Lord Buddha discouraged his followers from talking about mundane things and always encouraged them to talk about the Four Noble Truths – the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering and the truth of the way to cessation of suffering.

According to Buddhist scripts, there are 32 types of chatter (colloquially known as animal chatter) which fall under the category of idle / frivolous chatter: The first five types are mentioned below.

  1. Rajakatha – Talk about kings
  2. Corakatha – Talk about robbers
  3. Mahamatta katha – Talk about ministers of state
  4. Senakatha – Talk about armies
  5. Bhayakatha – Talk about dangers

Monks who did not behave with physical and verbal discipline were severely criticised by Lord Buddha in his sermons according to the Tripitaka scripts:

Na mundakena samano
abbato alikam bhanam
samano kim bhavissati.

Yo ca sameti papani
anumthulani sabbaso
samitatta hi papanam
“samano” ti pavuccati.

Verse 264: Not by a shaven head does a man become a samana, if he lacks morality and austere practices and tells lies. How could he who is full of covetousness and greed be a samana?

Verse 265: He who has totally subdued all evil, great and small, is called a samana because he has overcome all evil.

The Sri Lankan Context

Historically, real Buddhist teachings have become polluted by so-called, “Sinhala Buddhist Culture”. This practice has continued even from the age of ancient kings. The most recent significant event was the Mavil Aru incident. According to Buddhist texts, when the Sakya and Koliya people entered into conflict for water resources, Lord Buddha became the buffer for war and preached to them about the bad effects of war and the good effects of harmony. Here in Sri Lanka, in 2006, Buddhist monks became the front-liners for a disastrous war. This depicts how far the purity of Buddhist teachings has deteriorated here.

During the war and even after, many Buddhist monks appeared to give preference to the Sinhala race. However, pure Buddhism rejects racism and ultimately, the very concept of “race”. Buddhism itself teaches about the impermanency and emptiness of all prenominal things. How can a factor like race be said to prevail in such circumstances? Race is not a determinant of a person’s character. People are good or bad solely in terms of their actions, and that’s how they should be judged—not by their race. There’s a wonderful saying in the Vasettha Sutta   where the Buddha notes that, with common animals, you know the animal by its coloring and markings, whereas the same standard doesn’t apply to human beings: There’s no physical mark that tells you whether a person is trustworthy or not. If you judge people as good or bad by their appearance, you’re reducing human beings—yourself and others—to animals. So, Buddhist monks should have nothing to do with racism, nor should they advise Sinhalese to have more children which would only serve to increase craving.

Lord Buddha appreciated silence, calmness and serenity. Yet today, as is apparent from many protests, Buddhist monks are the main force spreading violence, both physically and verbally. The recent incident involving Rohingya refugees being housed in Mount Lavinia can be considered as a prime example.

Lord Buddha only advised the kings and did not issue orders. What Lord Buddha did during his time was not related to racism or extremism. Yet what is currently happening is that monks are giving orders to the government to avoid bringing about the long awaited new constitution. The reasons they are putting forward for this is solely based on religious extremism and racism; principles that the Lord Buddha totally rejected.

It’s clear that despite Buddhist teachings preaching of the pure and eternal, religious institutes and implementation on the ground are deteriorating rapidly. There remain pious monks in Sri Lanka who live calm and serene lives while giving spiritual advice to lay people. However, an increasing number of racist, extremist groups have been tarnishing the image of Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka. There is a famous quote by the Lord Buddha. “My dispensation will be vanished, not because of external forces, but as result of some empty people, who will become monks in future.”

It seems that his prediction is being realized.

Editor’s Note: Also read “Power, Religion and Impunity” and “Some Questions about Violence and Theravada in Buddhism“.