'Beggism', 'Gautamism' and popular Buddhism


Tissa Devendra

Before I begin my argument I believe I should state my 'credentials' . I am an 85+ 'born Buddhist'. Most of my schooling has been in Buddhist schools [Nalanda, Dharmaraja, Anuruddha, Sivali, Ananda] where we, without much ha-ho, participated in traditional Buddhist practices such as Dhamma classes, 'ata sil' on Poya Days. 'Popular' Buddhist practices were a feature of our lives and the society we lived in.

I am grateful to The Island for its frequent, and absorbing, featured articles on Buddhist doctrine, culture and history. I have been most impressed by Dr. Upul Wijayawardena's recent articles giving a fresh perspective on the Buddha Dhamma and its practice. But, I decided to write my own comments after his last article on what he irreverently, calls "Gautamism". I will also refer to Dr. M. M. J. Marasinghe's abrasive piece , where he slanders popular practices of Sinhala Buddhists by inventing an awful word - "beggism'.

I do not claim to be as learned in Buddhist doctrine as these two gentlemen. They display great erudition and a deep study of Buddhist texts. Having spent many years in the West they have clearly interacted with learned Bhikkus who have been there to study and preach - to the [ let's face it] "elitist" Sinhala Buddhists who have made their homes there. No whiff of popular Buddhist practices sullies their sterile surroundings.

Let me, at the outset, state my argument. If not for the customary practices and rituals of simple Sinhala Buddhists - 'pirith', 'dana', 'ata sil','pinkamas', peraheras and so on ['beggism' in Dr.M's sarcastic phrase] there would be NO Buddhism alive in Sri Lanka and the world. The Buddha charita shows that the great Teacher preached to multitudes. His was not a secretive doctrine shared with a few adepts in monkish cells. If that were so He would not have won over the thousands of men and women he spoke to in the simple Magadhi they understood.

According to the Mahavansa Buddhist 'celebrations in Sri Lanka began with King Devanampiya Tissa leading a procession with Arahat Mahinda to Mahamegha Uyana. Down the centuries this unbroken tradition continued of Buddhist peraheras with elephants, music, men and women dancers. These enthralled the faithful bystanders. Our magnificent stone sculptures of the Buddha in the cradle of our civilization were not objects for silent contemplation. Situated in great temples they provided the simple faithful with a visual object which they could honour with blossoms and lighted lamps. A fine example of this image worship has been described in The Robe and the Plough where the dayakas coated a Buddha image in wax and embedded it in flowers from head to toe.

An Indian scholar once remarked that the decline of Buddhism in India was the attraction of its more esoteric doctrines to 'intellectuals' and consequent neglect of the common people -who were left teacherless and , inevitably, slid back into old folk rituals.

Thanks to our enlightened kings and the Sinhala Sangha, older folk traditions came to be seamlessly absorbed into the 'new' Buddhism. Thanks to these far thinking pioneers the common man's traditional practices came to be integrated with his Buddhism.While scholarly and meditative monks pursued Thier work with the support of kings and commoners, the latter had developed their own popular practices to sustain their belief in the Buddha Dharma. While some of these may have veered away from strict Buddhist doctrine, it is these rituals that drew the Buddhist multitudes to temples for communal 'ata sil', bana and homage to The Buddha image and Bo tree. These practices knit Buddhists together.

In conclusion, I reiterate my conviction that Buddhism has flourished in this Dharma Dipa of Sri Lanka; for over two millennia, thanks to the 'beliefs' and popular practices of the common Sinhala people. Let us not consider them as a lesser, ignorant, superstitious breed but, instead, honour for keeping our country Buddhist.

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