THE PLIGHT AND FLIGHT OF BUDDHIST ORGANIZATIONS
By Shyamon Jayasinghe,
Mr. Gamage Pilapitiya (I dont 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 Lankas dominant Buddhist way
of life. I dont 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
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
There are whole ranges of other social and economic issues that threaten
Buddhisms 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
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.