In discussing what’s what in current Sri Lanka with diverse groups this last week there was one fact of unanimity: the Sangha should not get actively involved in politics. But they are, at least some of them, and leaders of Sangha sects included. This is very distressing to Buddhists who have at least gone beyond blind rites and rituals and have lived to senior citizenship and seen so much good in the past.
We had certain Buddhist monks coming up with two pronouncements to be taken note of by the President, the Prime Minister and the government. We may not have been alarmed had it been some random monks or even the BBS making the pronouncements. But we were truly perturbed to find the pronouncements were made from the Asgiriya temple in Kandy, which is the seat of the Asgiriya Sect of the Siam Nikaya of the Maha Sangha in which resides one of the Venerable Mahanayakes. We then had many senior monks forming a large formidable group gathering in Colombo to chant pirit and evoke blessings on Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and even advising the government or the UNP not to fault him, leave aside agitate for his resignation. That was a couple of days ago. Come Wednesday 23 August, the President acceding to a request of the UNP presented to him by the Prime Minister, expelled Dr Rajapakshe from the Cabinet of Ministers as he publicly stated his dissent after participating in a collective decision whatever his position was at the discussion. If he strongly disagreed with a majority decision, he could have resigned then not go public with his stance ostensibly to score brownie points for himself
We the people who had been discussing the latest issue facing the government applauded loud and clear the decision taken by the Prime Minister which the President acted on. We had been afraid the two leaders or the President would buckle down to the monks and overlook the faults of the Buddha Sasana Minister. On a larger scale we are sure most of the country’s apolitical public was relieved and thought well of the President for acting in the way he did in spite of heavy pressure on him by a section of the Sangha who now seem to think they are a powerful political lobby.
The Buddha’s Ordained Sangha
After Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment at age 35 after nine years of intense striving to realize the truth of life and explanation of its unsatisfactory nature, causes and eradication, the Buddha decided to share the knowledge he had gained. He needed dedicated persons to propagate his Dhamma. Hence his ordination of men who wanted to live an ascetic life of doing good like him. Thus was the Sangha made to be. With enough of them able and willing to share with others the Buddha’s philosophy and more so the life and living he advised to get out of the samsaric cycle, he sent forth monks as preachers, teachers and examples of the happy life free of greed, envy, enmity and ignorance. He said: “Go forth for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the weal, the good and happiness of gods and humans. Let no two of you go in the same direction. Teach the Dhamma which is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and beautiful in the end. Explain both the letter and spirit of the holy life, completely fulfilled and perfectly pure.” What awe inspiring and beautiful words. Did he mention advising the king, getting into government, playing an active role in politics, defending persons they considered needed defense? NO! And NO again!
Who or what is the Sangha?
“The Sangha is the third of the Three Jewels (Ratnathraya) in Buddhism, the first two being the Buddha and the second his Dhamma. Common over all schools is that the ?ryasangha is the foremost form of this third jewel. As for recognizable current-life forms, the interpretation of what is the Jewel depends on how a school defines Sangha. Example, for many schools, monastic life is considered to provide the safest and most suitable environment for advancing toward enlightenment and liberation due to the temptations and vicissitudes of life in the world.” (from a Wikipeda article)
In Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha each are described as having certain characteristics. These characteristics are chanted either on a daily basis and/or on Uposatha days, depending on the school of Buddhism. In Theravada tradition they are a part of daily chanting.
Sometimes skeptics disillusioned with monks prefer to give dana to beggars or to orphanages or the aged in Homes, for they contend the monks of today do not deserve this honour. But dana and with it respect is given not to present individuals but to the entire Sangha from the Buddha’s time, symbolized by the shaven head, saffron robe and bowl. “The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples (s?vakas) practice the good way; the upright way; the knowledgeable or logical way; the proper way. They are worthy of gifts; worthy of hospitalities; worthy of offerings and reverential salutation.”
Thus do we chant the Itibiso gatha and aver that the Sangha is righteous and to be honoured. It is claimed that they could advise the king or leader of a land. Wonder in which Sutta the Buddha said this. However, we may accept that, but we cannot accept interference in political issues and strong attempts by the saffron clad to influence government decisions taken. Coming to Colombo in numbers led by senior monks to meet and bless a Minister of State who has been faulted and his faults proven, is not acceptable behaviour. Wisely and winning the respect of apolitical Buddhists, the Malwatte Mahanayake has maintained his dignified stance; he receives politicians, grants them an audience and even advices, but keeps away from active politicking.
Great monks of yesteryear
We remember with respectful gratitude monks of the caliber of Ven Narada, Piyadassi and Madihe Pannaseeha Nayaka Theras. They led people in Buddhism, to live good, clean lives. Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera did involve himself in the politics of the country, but as a sage- like advisor who saw the threatened demise of democracy and stepped in, but with the same dignity stepped out of the arena leaving it to lay persons to correct political matters and lead the country. We have many erudite, pious monks who observe the Buddha’s laid down vinaya rules and who preach to rich and poor and help the helpless with material goods they receive and assistance with the help of their dayakas. No activity in politics as they know it’s not their province Many such devout monks can be named but I refrain from doing so as I know only a few among hundreds who may be true members of the Sangha created by the Buddha, having an unbroken lineage from the 6th century BC onwards.