Travesty of Buddhism in present day Sri Lanka



The term ‘travesty’ is defined as a false, absurd, or distorted representation of something. In this case ‘the something’ is the Teaching of the Buddha and practices and customs done and followed at present times, arising thereof. Thus the propagation of false beliefs; the emphasis given to rites and rituals which the Buddha did not approve of, and things done which are completely against what He taught.

Crux of three previous articles

Three recent articles in the Island papers and Sunday Times dealt with relevant issues to what the title of this article implies. A very succinct article by ‘Member of the Silent Majority’ was on “The distortion of Buddhism and the rise of meaningless rituals” in the Sunday Island of November 26. S/He dealt with Katina pinkamas which were said to be more carnivals than religious festivals now. This is not only true but dangerous to the continuation of Buddhism which stresses simplicity and giving or doing good selflessly with no competitiveness or showing-off underlying intention.

Dr Upul Wijayawardhana listed in the following Sunday Island newspaper other distortions, mostly committed by monks themselves, one in particular. He titled his article Who is distorting Buddhism? and wrote “The biggest distortion happening at the moment is the rewriting of Buddha’s existence, Bhikkhus’ claim Buddha was born in SL. It is a shame that these individuals are allowed to disregard … historical evidence. Mahanayaka Theros have taken no action to prevent the spread of gross distortions.”

Tuesday December 5 The Island carried the article: “Is the Buddha’s teaching lost on us?” by Geewananda Gunawardana PhD. Talking of rituals that have crept into our practice of the Buddha Dhamma he writes: “The glaring proof that the Teaching is lost on us is the moral bankruptcy of the nation that led to the equally horrific economic bankruptcy. Moral and ethical conduct is at the root of the Noble Path; however it appears that this has been fully and completely ignored at all levels of society.”

Abuse of Buddhism –1. in places of worship

I have written many times about the gross violation of Buddhist pilgrims’ rights in the two most sacred sites in Anuradhapura.

There is absolutely no quiet and serenity in the premises of the Sacred Bo Tree. These are the two prime essentials of this most sanctified place where pilgrims can sit quietly and pay homage and gratitude to the 2500 and more years old tree which was a sapling from the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained Buddhahood, brought over by Theri Sangahmitta. We go to this place for quiet reflection on the Truths revealed to us and being thankful to the Buddha.

Long ago we imbibed the aura of sacredness that envelopes the place, shattered now by commercialism and false religiousness. Kapuralas, waving peacock feathers, act as intermediaries for money paid them to bless people who seek intervention in having their wants fulfilled. All against true Buddhism. Buddha showed the way to true happiness; no help from Him or from symbols of Him to alleviate trivial problems. This commonly practiced ritual demonstrates ego and soliciting material benefits either from the Tree or from devas.

Commercialism of the chanting men, cheating of gullible people and encouraging false beliefs are all allowed and maybe even connived at by the monks in charge of this most sacred site. At regular intervals poojas in the vihara below are amplified over loud speakers, blasting whatever quiet there is.

An ostentatious new vihara ge has been constructed adjacent to the Swarnamali Stupa and in the evenings, the premises are gaudy with myriad electric bulbs a-blazing. Noise of course is ever present, with a loud speaker announcing money donations.

At the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, I fault the fact that local pilgrims are treated so badly compared to tourists by distancing the shoe keeping kiosks so far apart. No person with less mobility can worship here now. Inside, the slew of ‘pin petti’ is an eye sore. It gives the idea of money making; added to the assumption I make that tourists have to pay much to enter the Temple. The Cathedrals in London, for instance, are free for entering to all.

Even in Anuradhapura, no help is given the old, handicapped or less mobile. In the Sacred Bo Tree site cars have to be parked a good distance from the entrance. They are not allowed to come nearer the gate to drop a person off. Does security still have to be so tight? Not so. Making it difficult to worship seems to be thought to add to merit acquired. Long ago a wheelchair was available for a less able person to be wheeled from one site to the other. No longer this nod to the old.

In Kataragama is an ancient dagoba, the Kiri Vehera, dating from the reign of Kavan Tissa and Dutugemunu, I believe. But most Buddhist pilgrims head with great fervour bearing pooja vatti to the Kovil first. Veneration to the Kiri Vehera is an afterthought almost. I did not go into the kovil on family pilgrimages when I came to realize that the veneration of the Hindu Pantheon was not within Buddhism. I respected the veneration by others but did not do it myself. I was once rewarded by a monkey doing his business on me. The God teaching me a lesson?!

2. Ancient sites being sacrileged

Prez Premadasa having a stark white Buddha statue hoisted at the top of Mihintale sacred site after his Mihintale Gam Udawa; Prez Mahinda R and Gotabaya getting a stupa constructed among the ancient ones in Anuradhapura to confer merit on dead soldiers (I believe); the ostentatious Golden Temple built at the bottom of Dambulla rock temple are all sacrileges to me. Maybe these acts circumvented the rules governing heritage sites,

one example is that the rock caves at Dambulla are designated heritage sites, not the rock per se. But building new constructions on ancient sites is simply outrageous, now more than ever followed by lesser mortals sticking Buddha statues on top of hills, road junctions and in any free space, not terminated or forbidden because it is in the name/realm of Buddhism.

The latest abhorrent gimmick was robing the Aukana Buddha statue. No interference with ancient sites should be a rule strictly followed. Consider the cost of the material for that robe that covered the pristinely elegant statue of the Buddha with the folds of the robe so wonderfully carved in stone. What if a man or men climbing up to the top of the statue damaged a part of the statue which time and weather had eroded?

3. Members of the Sangha

Sri Lanka is proud to be home to excellent monks of the Theravada Sect, of local and foreign nationality, temple resident or forest dwelling, who observe the vinaya rules strictly and make clear the Teachings of the Buddha. Many are revered overseas too. For instance Ven Uda Eriyagama Dhammajiva Thera preaches alongside Bhikkhu Bodhi in New York State; local monk are invited to overseas countries to preach.

But, as being bad is easier than being good, for each praiseworthy monk there are many unworthies in yellow robes. Consider protests on streets, especially of university students. Many monks live lives of luxury and do not miss out on any pleasures. (I need not enumerate them). Heard and seen monks who support their families or ‘girl friends’ with pooja stuff given them.

A bad example of being loose mouthed, egotistic, material minded and claiming to have achieved higher mental states was written about recently in the print press. This agri-monk claims arahantship while proclaiming sacrilegious, totally unacceptable comments on the Sacred Tooth Relic and even about Bodhisatva Siddhartha Gautama while on his way to enlightenment.

Then this monk goes before the Kandy Mahanayake Theras and probably a Sabha and seeks forgiveness and is given it, for the second or third time of gross transgression. Consider in contrast what happened to Preacher Jerome Fernando and that hapless singer whose injurious remarks about the Buddha could easily have been treated with a reprimand.

Another travesty committed by over jealous persons has resulted in the demise of the white cloth covered, straight backed chair on which bhikkhus sat to deliver sermons. Pragna TV Channel shows all sorts of gruesomely designed and elaborately crafted thrones for preaching monks. So against simplicity implicit in Buddhism.

Responsible for maintaining the sanctity of Buddhism

There exists the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs which is a Cabinet Ministry responsible for the country’s de facto state religion -Theravada Buddhism. Its duties given short below, cover much ground through overseeing: general welfare of Buddhist clergy; Buddhist education; development of temples as community and spiritual centres; maintenance of selected places of Buddhist worship as tourist sites; propagation of Buddhist philosophy; maintaining the nature of the Buddhist state.

PHEW!! Do they fulfill all or many or even a few of the above duties? If so we need not write these articles.

The Most Ven Malwatte and Asgiriya Mahanayake Theros have the responsibility of keeping the Bhikkhu Sangha pure, chaste and with no blemishes accruing to any Bhikkhus. I leave it at that.

The conclusion is that segments of the public who are followers of true, unadulterated Theravada Buddhism are the ones who see obvious faults in Buddhist matters as they are now. Additionally, it looks as if they are the ones who try correcting matters. The only way open to them is to write to the media drawing attention to misdeeds and shortcomings, and suggest, nay plead, for correction, protection and elimination of abuses to the Teacher, His Teaching and its interpretation; and to Buddhist sites.