Featured image courtesy PMDNews

One of the greatest challenges facing Sri Lanka today is the failure to bring about communal reconciliation in the island. Hate has grown, gone rampant and viral. On a recent visit to Lanka I was alarmed to hear fellow Sri Lankans freely express a high level of fear and hatred towards their counterparts. I remembered the words of Brian Eno, who once said, “Feelings are more dangerous than ideas, because they aren’t susceptible to rational evaluation. They grow quietly, spreading underground, and erupt suddenly, all over the place.”

The majority Buddhist (constituting approximately 75% of Sri Lanka’s total population) and the Sangha, have a critical role to play in solving this problem head-on. People around the world turn to monastic leaders to guide them in the Buddhist Dharma. Why are the monastic leaders in Sri Lanka silent when their very own cadres are abandoning the real practice of the Dharma by engaging in its desecration through hate speech, violence and unwholesome conduct?

Why the Sangha?

For decades, the most radical Sinhala nationalists have influenced successive governments to embrace religious nationalism. One such initiative was the campaign carried out by the Sinhala community which included Buddhist monks, who called to have Sinhala made the Official language of Sri Lanka.

The then Prime Ministerial candidate, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike aligned himself with these hardliners. He campaigned with the promise to make Sinhala the sole official language of Sri Lanka. After being sworn in as the 4th Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, he delivered on his promise. Sinhala language was declared as the only official language (with the subsequent amendment of the Constitution to reflect Tamil also as an Official Language). Today the Constitution of Sri Lanka also awards Buddhism the foremost place while protecting and fostering the Buddha Sasana.

Andreas Johnson in his article, “Why the peaceful religion of Buddhism has grown violent in Sri Lanka,” states

“When the civil war ended in 2009, many hoped that Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups would find a way to coexist in peace. But it did not take long before the country’s Buddhist extremists found another target.

Currently, Sri Lanka’s most active Buddhist extremist group is Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist power force, or the BBS). The BBS entered politics in 2012 with a Buddhist-nationalist ideology and agenda, its leaders claiming that Sri Lankans had become immoral and turned away from Buddhism. Whom does it blame? Sri Lankan Muslims.

The BBS’s rhetoric takes its cue from other populist anti-Muslim movements around the globe, claiming that Muslims are “taking over” the country thanks to a high birth rate. It also accuses Muslim organizations of funding international terrorism with money from halal – certified food industries.

These are not just empty words; in 2014, one of their anti-Muslim protest rallies in the southern town of Aluthgama ended with the death of four Muslims.”

This is without even mentioning the violence that erupted early this year in several cities in the Central Province.

The views of the BBS have been disowned by some mainstream Buddhist clergy, as not being the views of the entire Sangha Community. But is simply “disowning” sufficient in the current climate of hate that is causing irreparable harm to the country and its people?

The Sangha as we know, is a powerful force in Sri Lanka. They represent a distinct Sri Lankan and Sinhalese identity. Buddhism is present and acknowledged in the State’s affairs. The rise of the Sinhala identity to prominence invited the rise of Buddhist principles and values to prominence as well. Sinhalese nationalist politicians and politically-engaged monks have always cultivated and promoted a symbiotic relationship.

There is still well earned and deserved deep respect for the Sangha in Sri Lanka. They represent the majority and stand on a firm foundation as respected leaders of the community and country. They have emerged as powerful influencers of public policy and political longevity.

Their knowledge of the Dharma, their symbolic push to assert Buddhism and the Sinahala language, is not to be viewed or dismissed as simply bigoted as has been done by many, but seen as a push to affirm that the country has not lost its Sinhalese Buddhist roots after a long period of colonial rule.  The Portuguese, Dutch and the British suppressed Buddhist religion and culture, oppressed people and exploited natural resources.

Buddhism today wields high influence in Sri Lanka. The Mahanayakes (head priests of the three sects) are advisors to the President and Prime Minister today. Political leaders often pay visits to the Mahanayakes residence in Kandy during the time of election visit for blessings.

Some Buddhist monks have been voted to Parliament. Even liberal Buddhists who oppose monks being active in politics are not sufficiently vocal in their opposition to the extremist nationalist ideas spewed by the radicals. This is because the Sangha are seen as the vanguards of Buddhism, and indeed Buddhism is a very important factor in the daily lives of over 70 percent of the island’s population.

So why haven’t the Sangha done more to combat hate in Lanka?

Buddhism is larger than Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism

Millions of people around the world follow the spiritual path of Buddhism.

As a Muslim woman I began to practice the Buddhist virtues of meditation and mindfulness at a very early age. Today I am proud of my Sri Lankan, South Asian heritage and my association with Buddhism. I wouldn’t be the Muslim I am without the Buddhism I know.

The pain I feel at the desecration of Buddhism by the very people who have taken an oath to uphold it is real. Even the simple truths in Buddhism that I have learned, I don’t see in the public ‘Buddhist square’ anymore. I am not an expert on Buddhism by any means. But I am certainly a lover of it.

As an activist working in countries like Nigeria, a stronghold of the extremist group Boko Haram, the most potent advice I have given is to ask people to strive to attain the Four sublime states of mind taught by the Buddha:

  • Love or Loving-kindness (metta)
  • Compassion (karuna)
  • Sympathetic Joy (mudita)
  • Equanimity (upekkha)

These four attitudes can enable the whole world to a right or ideal way of conduct towards living beings (sattesu samma patipatti). They provide the answer to all situations arising from social contact. They are incompatible with hate. While removing tension in social conflict and promoting healing, these subliminal states also enable us to build harmonious communities.

Why are we in Sri Lanka, confining these teachings to our books and minds and not practicing them? Why are the Sangha and the Buddhist practitioners who can unite us by implementing the Buddhism they avowed, silent?

Today the Sangha has an important role to play. They must stop searching for consensus and mould it instead. The Sangha must bring brilliance and energy to communal problems and commit to communal reconciliation. The uncompromising advocacy for Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has divided our country. It must stop.

Positive or virtuous actions sow the seeds of future happiness, and negative or non-virtuous actions sow the seeds of future suffering. This definite relationship between actions and their effects – virtue causing happiness and non-virtue causing suffering – is known as the ‘law of karma’. An understanding of the law of karma is the basis of Buddhist morality.

Let these teachings be the foundation to communal reconciliation. The Sangha who have taken the precepts to uphold Buddhism in its truest state must do so. The Buddha wanted us to conquer negative states of mind. It is only when we can overcome anger, jealousy and ignorance, and develop positive minds through love, compassion and wisdom that we can claim to be true Buddhists. The Sangha must then pass this message on to others so they too can enjoy the same benefits. It is never too late to build that trust where all Sri Lankans will acknowledge that the Sangha can usher incredible possibilities when they move from preaching to the practice of the Dharma.

Sri Lanka Buddhism stems from the Theravada form of Buddhism. Its scripture and rules have passed down the ages unadulterated and devoid of ritual.

The current silence of the Sangha is untenable. The Sangha body must urgently look into address longstanding demands of minority grievances and majority concerns. Are there not sufficient solutions to address these problems within the Dharma? The Dharma contains universal principles and not dogma. It can be a powerful resource to end communal disharmony and discord in the country.

Dr. King in his famous speech, “I have a dream” reminds us that, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.  The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Speaking to the Daily Mirror, shedding light on some aspects of the communal conflict in Lanka, Minister of Integration, Reconciliation and Official Languages Mano Ganesan said,

The Sinhala people have two fears. They need an assurance from the Tamil community that they will not have this dream of the State of Eelam and that they will not take up arms again.

Similarly the Tamil people also have some fears. That is, that the Sinhala people may not accept that this country is necessarily a multi ethnic, multi religious multi linguistic country.

The Sinhala people should understand that diversity is not a weakness. It’s strength. The other fear is, the power sharing issue. The power should be shared democratically, demographically and geographically in all areas.

People everywhere are eager to accept and take for granted their beliefs. Unless we question our beliefs, we will never be able to understand why we believe what we believe.

Clearly in Sri Lanka, religious, political and national beliefs have divided the communities paving the way for fear, mistrust and antagonism. If these beliefs are creating a high level of intolerance, can we live without these beliefs?

Create a path to efficient collaborative decision making

Transformation can takes years. We live in a mindset where we can’t even commit to changing a bad personal habit. Changing communities and mindsets can therefore be a long drawn and problematic endeavor. But the good news is that the Sangha and faith leaders are well trained and equipped to influence their followers. Their access to large communities and the influence they wield are all the reasons why the Sanga should lead in the process of Communal Reconciliation.

To understand and implement the basic principles of collaboration and decision making, we must create an avenue for dialogue and movement. The goal clearly is not to dominate or conquer. We must uncover urgently solutions everyone can embrace. All parties must come together understanding deeply their needs and aspirations.

If Tamil people give an unequivocal assurance that they have no desire for an Eelam or take up arms, is the Sinhala majority willing to accept that assurance? What specific assurance might they need further than this? Our range of willingness when explored is much larger than our preferences.

People will be offended. But we must move with renewed vigour and purpose. We must move gently but with urgency. What is at stake is more important than our apathy.

Ijtihad not Jihad

 As a Muslim I have interviewed hundreds of non-Muslims whose perennial complaint has been the isolation of the community and the Arabisation of women’s attire. Muslims might not like to hear it, but it is the truth.

For a while now I have also watched with dismay the Arabisation of my community.

In my understanding of the Quran, it calls on men and women man and women to be modest. Modesty is not defined as a Burqa for women.

Embrace the contextual realities of what is happening and evolving in the margins.

Ijtihad is the reinterpretation of sacred text. To change that which does not serve the people. Fiqh is all Human Effort. Not divine. Therefore all that arises from human effort can also be reformed. Commit to building an egalitarian Muslim community. Social and contextual acts must be open to change and must evolve.

So Muslims, claim your place in the country. Be actively engaged in society and give preference to civic engagement and community activism.

The nationalists are clear in making known that they do not believe in interfaith and multiculturalism. Remember you have work to do.

It is urgently necessary that you understand the gravity of your safety and security. That you must build trust with all the communities, particularly the Sinhala majority and commit and collaborate to promote to communal reconciliation.

Sri Lanka has a very long and proud tradition of religious co-existence. Multi religious sacred sites are highly visible throughout the country. Public space is shared and our lives are intertwined with common customs, traditions, mixed marriages and a vibrant generation of youth who are looking to the future with hope.

Let us all work with fervor and purpose to establish our Sri Lankan National Identity, transcending ethnic and religious differences.

Let it be our hope that the silent Sangha will wake up and lead us on the path to reconciliation.

Editor’s Note: Also read “In the Springtime of Tyrants” and “Some Questions about Violence and Theravada in Buddhism