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THE PLIGHT AND FLIGHT OF BUDDHIST ORGANIZATIONS

By Shyamon Jayasinghe, Melbourne

Mr. Gamage Pilapitiya (I don’t know this gentleman) deserves praise for his thought-provoking piece in the Lankaweb written under the caption, “Buddhist organizations must clean up their own backyards”. He unveils a lot of information with regard to the erstwhile leading Buddhist organizations that once enjoyed considerable profile and repute in the island. The YMBA, the ACBC, and the Mahabodhi Society have all but fled today leaving a huge vacuum in national-level Buddhist leadership.

The above organizations were established largely as a counter to the growing threat of Christian action in the country during the 20th century. This earned its leaders the nickname “Protestant Buddhists”. In fact, the institutions had been modelled somewhat on the lines of pre- existing Christian organizations, for example the YMBA on theYMCA. As Gamage points out, eminent scholars, men, and women of stature who were able to hold their own led them. Perhaps their most productive and influential output over the last three-quarters of the century was the Buddhist Commission Report that helped to create the rationale of the Renaissance ushered in by SWRD. The report was largely factual- replete with facts and figures and with hard documentary evidence that revealed the steady undermining of Lanka’s dominant Buddhist way of life. I don’t think that our historians have acknowledged adequately the great importance of the Buddhist Commission Report in the evolution of contemporary Lanka.

Nevertheless, what have these organizations been doing after that? Gamage draws the course of their sharp decline and corruption. He has exaggerated all right; but he has made his point, namely that these organizations, as in a Greek tragedy, are going inexorably toward their death.

Historically, these organizations proved one thing, namely that a non-political organization can be shaped and employed as a powerful tool to lobby against anti-Buddhist policies and action. It is a tragedy that this tradition is now gone. In its place, we now see a phenomenon of Buddhist lay and Bhikku leaders entering the arena of power politics.

To the credit of Soma Hamuduruwo, it must be said that the latter did continue to show the power of that tradition in the style of Anagarika, until he himself fell into the spell of politics. Revd Soma in that pre-political phase pointed out something particularly important, namely the path to the strengthening of Buddhism by its liberalisation and its extrication from the shackles of Hindu ritual. I once referred to Soma Hamuduruwo as a “Prophet of our times”. That was because that monk saw the great need for modernising practising Buddhism in a way that would suit the children of the 21st century.

Now, we must take that cue from Revd Soma. I remember reading an article by Bhikku Bodhi where he stated that present day preachers were out of touch with the youth. In other words, they are not trained to address the contemporary mind. The training of Bhikkus should take place urgently and on a wide scale if Buddhism is to continue its dominance in Lankan society. The Ministry of the Buddha Sasana should get a fundamental facelift.

There are whole ranges of other social and economic issues that threaten Buddhism’s status in Lanka. Many temples are operating below poverty line and they have had to sell up their land to business people in order to survive. This poverty also reflects the growing poverty of the villagers. Younger monks, who are not properly trained in the Dhamma, become prone to worldly influences. Changing cultural norms that accompany globalisation have also had its adverse impact on temples. May be the style of life of monks would have to amend itself accordingly to meet the wider societal changes. May be practising Buddhism will evolve differently as time goes on. However, such changes in direction require the deft hand of wise leadership.

Issues such as the above and many others provide a host of variables that need attention if we are to protect the Buddha Sasana in this century. It is important not to berate the threat of conversion by Christian fundamentalist sects. One answer to this threat is for local Buddhists to organise themselves to offer peaceful resistance at local level. There is need to develop local Buddhist leadership and lobbying. Foreign converters go away when they see resistance. In the long run, however, Buddhism will have to learn to survive and prosper in a competitive religious environment. Buddhism, if properly imparted and practised has a cutting edge in the competitive environment. It is not possible to legislate against conversion. The JHU itself realized this and had to abandon its proposed anti-conversion Bill.

The re-emergence of political Buddhism in the garb of the JHU is ill advised. Many of these Bhikkus are well-intentioned, very erudite persons who can serve Buddhism effectively if they get back to the temples and join lay leaders in reviving the tradition of lobbying and activism now abandoned by the organizations referred to above. In so doing they can become powerful enough to have a clout in Lankan society and politics.


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