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Book Review
The Buddha, The Dhamma and the Sangha in
Sri Lanka – Rs 350/-

Professor Raja de Fonseka is a renowned Botanist with a long academic career in Sri Lanka, and as Professor Lorna Dewaraja says in the ‘Foreword’, "It is heartening to see a distinguished and much loved teacher of science of the calibre of Prof. R.N.de Fonseka taking so seriously to the study of Buddhism in Sri Lanka during his retirement".

Marked by a great deal of clarity and lucidity of perspective when dealing with complicated issues as the Sangha in Sri Lanka, there is something more in this work than an introduction to Buddhism for beginners. It is a fresh breeze of life dealing with the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, untarnished by ‘theory building’, full of descriptive settings of the engagement of Buddhist monks: in preaching the Dhamma and rendering social service, the forest monks and meditation centres, contributions to education and the skills of certain monks in fields as diverse as literature and architecture, rehabilitation of impoverished families, as well as reforestation projects. He has done a considerable amount of personal research as well as reading relevant literature on the subject.

A central thrust of this study is a discussion on "to what extent the monks have to go beyond their traditional role" due to emerging socio-economic issues, as well as natural disasters like the tsunami, using the resources of the temple for the welfare of the downtrodden. There is also a sense of balance in this study, as he is open and honest about drawbacks and wrong practices ranging from the Sangha indulging in the exorcism of evil spirits, generating issues about caste, to unhealthy involvement in politics.

Professor Dewaraja sums up: "The author has done a great service by listing several institutions headed by monks, who while leading the holy life, play a leadership role in promoting the rehabilitation of victims of war and natural disasters, irrespective of religious and ethnic differences". An important message that reverberates through the book is that the Sangha in Sri Lanka is not one monolithic entity, but composed of diverse strands, some inspiring, praiseworthy and exemplary, but other facets going counter to the Buddhist ideal of renunciation and spiritually detrimental. These patterns may also be found among the clergy in other religious traditions in Sri Lanka and abroad. This point to my mind is the most important contribution embodied in the book.

Short but graphic pen portraits of Ven. Kalukondayave Pannasekera, Ven. Hinatiyana Dhammaloka and Ven. Hendiyagala Silaratana present the monks’ contribution to rural development and crime eradication. Profiles of Ven. Totagamuve Sri Rahula and his contributions to literature, as well as the great German monks, Ven. Nyanatiloka and Ven. Nyanaponika, and a short glimpse on environment conservation and Buddhism present the reader with a wide variety of personality and project profiles. Ven. Galaboda Gnanissara’s academy for vocational training, English education, computer study combined with meditation study is a Buddhist response to the demands of a changing world.

The debacle of Ven.Mapitigama Buddharakkhita, the emergence of the J.V.P., and the opening of the Pirivena Universities backed by a strong lobby, indicates some of the political complexities of the time. Though the present book does focus some light only on the margins of these social and political complexities, it presents a valuable perspective to look at these socio-economic and political currents behind the screens of the Sangha and modernization concerns at a deeper level and with great objectivity, for one who wishes to study this complicated phase in the history of the Sangha in Sri Lanka.

Within the space of 94 pages of this book, while touching on certain inconsistencies in the monastic organization, it presents a rich tapestry and a diversity of profiles of monks in contemporary Sri Lanka responding to the socio-economic challenges of the times. Both strength and the weaknesses in the profile of the Sangha are presented in a natural, descriptive and conversational style, often non-judgmental, presented in a spirit of dialogue than of debate. Now more than ever, we need methods and techniques of communication that foster deep listening that go beyond the ‘argument culture’ - a setting where people sit side by side and realize that complex issues are rather like a crystal with many sides than one composed of two opposing sides.

There are a few issues about which I have mixed feelings, like the issues pertaining to salaried monks. Also, opening out an active social role for monks needs to be blended with the deeper study of the Dhamma, long retreats and the practice of meditation. In the world in which we live with the routine stress and strain that pervade our lives, often people turn to the monks as counselors, and this fact was quite evident during the tsunami experience in Sri Lanka. For me, as someone who shifted interest from studying Buddhist philosophy in academia, to the active practice of mindfulness-based counseling in Australia, I see this as an important role for the monk in the future, (see, Padmasiri de Silva, 2008, An Introduction to Mindfulness-Based Counseling). Christianity has developed a whole tradition of pastoral psychology and therapy. The Buddha excelled in counseling to people in crisis.

It is in this context that the practice of meditation needs to be a part of the regular agenda for a monk, and this would help them to develop self-knowledge and self-criticism. There is a very good analysis in the book about the dangers of monks in politics. But it is necessary that the lay people take an initiative in this matter and focus on positive resources like the current revival of meditation practice in Sri Lanka, and also develop a sense of detachment towards political rivalries, while rendering social service, promoting social reform and the eradication of crime. And if the monks are independent of political affiliation, they could take up the traditional role of monks advising the king.

This book would of course serve as a useful introduction to Buddhism in Sri Lanka for a beginner, especially for a foreigner. Reading through the first chapter, I was deeply struck by the author’s own confidence and trust in the Dhamma, which we may describe with the term saddha. The issues discussed in the work from the birth of Siddhartha to the enlightenment of the Buddha and the elucidation of the basic Dhamma (pp 1-19) are well written and locates the reader in a receptive state for a journey through the role of the Sangha in Sri Lanka with their varied functions.

The discussion of the Sangha in different settings is based on the author’s personal research and reading, and he avoids running into academic disputes, elucidation of theories, and such ramifications. From the point of view of methodology, the pervading descriptive quality of the work certainly adds to the value of this study. This is purely a personal response to the book as I read and reflected, and an attempt to generate fresh pastures for reflecting and exploring new and constructive lines on issues that end up with hardening our ‘adversarial frame of mind’ (see, Deborah, Tannen, 1998, The Argument Culture, Virago Press, London).

Padmasiri de Silva

(formerly, Professor & Head, Philosophy & Psychology Department, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka; currently, Research Associate, Monash University, Australia.)

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