No more backing out at the hour of need, please!



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By Rohana R. Wasala


I am not making an indiscriminate attack on all monk activists. The vast majority of them genuinely represent Buddhist interests while upholding those of the minority communities. I have no doubt that the monks of the Bodu Bala Sena organization belong to that category despite their raucous bluster. My idea is that it would be good if those of our monks who have decided to agitate against perceived or real threats to their peaceful existence were properly restrained, responsible and non-violent as behoves all of us, including especially bhikkhus. Though I hold no brief for the apparently confrontational way they are putting their case at the moment, I don’t question their right to air their views.


Ven. Galaboda Atthe Gnanasara Thera, General Secretary of Bodu Bala Sena, who had been charged with contempt of court, was arrested and remanded on surrendering to the Homagama magistrate’s court on January 26 Tuesday. Some young monks of the BBS behaved riotously trying to prevent their leader from being taken to prison. But Ven. Gnanasara calmly advised them to restrain themselves. He spoke words to this effect: "It is true that I raised my voice in the court because my emotions were frayed; that constituted contempt of court. It must be admitted that what I did was wrong. I am being remanded for that offence. That’s OK. What’s a day or two in prison? We have no quarrel with the law enforcement officers. We must all respect and obey the law. Our struggle is only with the ‘big ones’. This is just the beginning. Now, all of you please disperse peacefully". His advice seemed to take effect, more or less. (At the time of writing, January 28 Thursday, the media reported that a bail application filed on behalf of the remanded monk was rejected by the court.)


When State Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation A.H.M. Fowzie called on the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter Reverend Galagama Sri Atthadassi Thera in Kandy on 27 January, the latter made some grave comments on the arrest of Ven. Galaboda Atthe Gnanasara Thera. The Prelate reminded the minister of the historical fact that (Sri Lankan) Buddhist monks always acted even at the risk of their life whenever the country faced critical situations. He said that Ven. Gnanasara Thera who has been remanded is also a monk who serves the country with similar dedication; therefore the case must be handled properly. He stressed that communal harmony must not be harmed. The High Monk added that (when dealing with the problem) duplicitous talk should be avoided, and that sincerity of intention, and humaneness must prevail.


I remembered that on a previous occasion, Ven. Gnanasara of the BBS, along with a group of fellow activist monks, visited the Mahanayake Thera of the Malwatte Chapter Reverend Thibbotuwawe Sri Siddhattha, and asked him for advice. In response the Nayake thera suggested that they continue with their agitation if those responsible in the government neglected to address their grievances, which, at the time, I described in an article as not very wise counsel! The monks’ ‘agitation’ at that time had acquired a rather violent character in speech as well as in deeds, which was very unbecoming of even law abiding ordinary citizens, let alone Buddhist bhikkhus.


The current problem of the monks is almost entirely the responsibility of the Mahanayakes of the three Chapters, which they must carry out with the help of other leading monks. It is known that there are some 30,000 monks in the country. If they are so organised as to be able to speak with one voice on any issue, no political potentate, however powerful, can go against their advice. The monks’ power is apolitical, though. For this to work, the Nayake Theras must take the initiative. They must not back out at the hour of need on some pretext or other. The Asgiriya Mahanayake Thera has given the right signal.


These current developments reminded me of the chapter on G.P. Malalasekera in D.B. Dhanapala’s "Among Those Present". Explaining the analogy I see between then and now, in spite of the contexts being fundamentally different, is the burden of my story here.


Like Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prologue to his "The Canterbury Tales" D.B. Dhanapala’s "Among Those Present" is a collection of biographical sketches scintillating with satirical wit. It is a portrait gallery of twenty-two outstanding personalities (such as Anagarika Dharmapala, Ananda Coomaraswamy, D.S. Senanayake, John Kotelawala, S.W.R.D. and Sirima Bandaranaike, Arunachalam Mahadeva, P. de S. Kularatne, L.H. Mettananda and Ediriweera Sarathchandra) that graced Sri Lanka’s political and cultural stage. In his opinion, they "shaped events in Ceylon" in the first half of the 20th century including roughly the first two decades after Independence. D. B. Dhanapala who obviously had remarkable familiarity with these individuals, their motivations, strengths and weaknesses, presumably through personal contact with some of them and through literature and hearsay about others, was the doyen of Sinhalese journalists of the time, and his book was first published by M. D. Gunasena & Co., Ltd in 1962; a new edition came out just a few years back. The book is an anthology of the author’s occasional newspaper articles. No character represented in this classic volume was a more defenceless victim of Dhanapala’s, at times rebarbative, criticism than G.P. Malalasekera, oriental scholar, patriot, polyglot, Lankan Ambassador in Russia, Buddhist cultural icon, and president of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, etc.


If we believe Dhanapala, around the time of Independence, Malalasekera was a contented entity. Let me quote some sentences from the book. The following is from its first (1962) edition:


And the sun shone, the wind blew, the rain fell, and the birds flew and Malalasekera was happy.


When Independence was celebrated with fanfares in Ceylon Arthur V. Dias put up a tiny black flag in his house along with the lion, as a protest against the new Government not paying any attention to the religion of the country. But the Buddhist Congress and Malalasekera had nothing to say.


When pressure was mounting up from the people Malalasekera did go to D.S. Senanayake, the new Prime Minister, and begged of him to appoint a Commission regarding the rights of Buddhists.


Senanayake turned round and asked him – whether he wished to change the first refuge of the five precepts to "I take refuge in the Government", in place of "I take refuge in the Buddha".


And Malalasekera came back empty handed to pass the word round in whispers. (p.126)


Malalasekera thought that the angry Buddhists’ subsequent suggestion that they themselves appoint such a Commission was impracticable and absurd. Eventually, the Buddhist Commission resolution had to be conjured up behind Malalasekera’s back, and it was adopted unanimously, due to the enthusiasm of Buddhist leaders like D.C. Wijewardane and L.H. Mettananda. By the time the Commission Report was ready John Kotelawala was Premier. Though Malalasekera wanted to present it ceremonially but privately to the PM, the commissioners themselves insisted that it be issued to the Buddhists at a public meeting at Ananda College, which proposal prevailed. A great awakening of Buddhist opinion ensued, but Malalasekera was not among those who championed the cause.


While according to Dhanapala that was the case, Professor K.M. de Silva says in his Sri Lanka and the defeat of the LTTE (2012) that Professor Malalasekera was among the many (if not most) of the advocates of ‘Sinhala Only’ policy who "also argued the case for assimilation of the minorities of Sri Lanka into the dominant Sinhalese-Buddhist culture" though no government ever tried to adopt it as a systematic policy, and "no major politician in power advocated it as a national objective to be imposed on the minorities." (p.135)


The average Buddhist leaders’ (including, particularly, the nayake monks’) general failure to address the Buddhist majority’s perceived or real concerns, major as well as minor, in a brave rational manner as members of a multi-religious, multicultural society was thus early exemplified not only in Malalasekera, but in others as well. Their failure (which, in reality, amounted to a betrayal or desertion of their followers) was (as it is at present) due to those individuals putting their puny selves above the national interest. (All this, however, is subject to the important reservation that Dhanapala does not deny them the honour they deserve for their great contribution to national revival.) Here is Dhanapala again:


At the hour of need of Buddhists for great leadership, Kularatne had backed out laboriously. Malalasekera’s silence became ominous. Mettananda’s lone voice could be heard above the great silence of the leaders and the uneasy hum of the low clamour of the populace. (p.128)


It appears that at the moment we are being treated to the same silence among those who have a duty to raise a voice at least in response to "the uneasy hum of the low clamour of the populace" that can be faintly heard amidst the cacophonous din of some pointlessly militant young monks or politicians masquerading as monks; "the clamour of the populace" in the present case is against those elements, as much as against what seems to have provoked them. Paucity of wise, selfless, unified and focused, leadership seems to be the perennial problem.


I am not making an indiscriminate attack on all monk activists. The vast majority of them genuinely represent Buddhist interests while upholding those of the minority communities. I have no doubt that the monks of the Bodu Bala Sena organization belong to that category despite their raucous bluster. My idea is that it would be good if those of our monks who have decided to agitate against perceived or real threats to their peaceful existence were properly restrained, responsible and non-violent as behoves all of us, including especially bhikkhus. Though I hold no brief for the apparently confrontational way they are putting their case at the moment, I don’t question their right to air their views. But I totally disagree with them when they seem to adopt the language of extremism in reacting to perceived extremism against them. Some time ago, the members of the Buddhist clergy and officials of an Islamic organization put their heads together and worked out a very peaceful settlement of the halal issue. They earned our praise. That happened under a no-nonsense state official who, unfazed by adverse criticism, was capable of taking effective steps to prevent possible mischief from trouble-makers and rumour-mongers inimical to the state.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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