Protestant Buddhism - A flawed supposition needing retraction


By Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe

Sri Lanka has just been through the 154th birth anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala, one of its most undervalued and misunderstood national heroes, as signified by the muted remembrance of his birth. Correcting the misconceptions about the Anagarika would be essential if Sri Lanka’s hopes of transitioning from the currently grave political, economic and cultural despair to a religiously enlightened and ethnically harmonious nation capable of providing a decent living to its citizens are to be realised.

As far as widely prevalent misconceptions about the Anagarika’s role in the history of Sri Lanka goes, the anthropological construct, Protestant Buddhism, which refers to the process and the result of Buddhist revival he led in the latter half of the 19th Century is perhaps the most misconceived; the routine adoption of this description, uncritically, in attempted academic analyses of Sri Lanka’s post-independence religious, social and cultural developments has served to paint a fundamentally unreliable picture of the truth relating to the root causes of its social malaises.

Before considering the many conceptual flaws and methodological errors it introduces on application, it needs to be pointed out that the phrase, Protestant Buddhism, is an unfortunate expression in simple linguistic terms because as a figure of speech, it places two apparently contradictory terms in conjunction. In coining the phrase, its authors claim to have assigned it two meanings: reference to the ‘protest’ movement started by Anagārika Dharmapāla against the dissolution of the traditional state patronage of Buddhism by the British, and their partiality toward Protestant missionaries. The second meaning alludes to the adoption of elements of Protestant Christian stratagems to popularise Buddhism among the laity, including the adoption of some doctrinal elements of Protestantism.

It needs to be noted that the choice of the word ‘protestant’ to mean ‘protest’ movement against colonialism is a non sequitur. The early use of the adjective form of the word protestant in this sense — to refer to protests of Martin Luther and others following the decree of The Diet of the Holy Roman Empire in 1529 — quickly gave way, by the mid-16th century to its current, only meaning ‘relating to or belonging to Protestant Churches’. Therefore its use in this sense is confusing, to say the least.

More importantly, the use of the phrase by anthropologists has almost exclusively been in the second sense of a purported Protestant influences on the Buddhist revival movement of the late 19th century. It is a particularly maladroit turn of phrase in this context because it implies Buddhist leaders adopting the doctrinal essence of Protestant Christianity, the British were promoting, a proposition not supported by facts. Any Protestant influence on the Buddhist revivalist movement was limited to the ‘campaign’ tactics that incorporated some strategic elements of the missionaries’ methods, mostly under Colonel Olcott’s advocacy.

The purpose here is to enumerate some methodological concerns and errors attributable to the paradigmatic use of the concept Protestant Buddhism in descriptions, interpretations and conclusions in anthropological studies of the trends in Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka. One can hardly do better than the excellent discourse analysis by Vijitha Rajapakse (Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 1990, 13.2: 139-51) that delivered a comprehensive rejection of the concept of Protestant Buddhism and the analysis based on it, in the book Buddhism Transformed. The focus here is to take the analysis to the public domain.

In examining the development of the anthropological construct, Protestant Buddhism, to characterise Theravada Buddhism and its practice in Sri Lanka shows that it had a long gestation period before it was first defined and used by Professors Gananath Obeyesekere and Richard Gombrich in their 1988 book, Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka.

The definition of Protestant Buddhism provided in Buddhism Transformed is not very helpful. To quote the definition verbatim: The hallmark of Protestant Buddhism, then, is its view that the layman should permeate his life with his religion; that he should strive to make Buddhism permeate his whole society, and that he can and should try to reach nirvana. As a corollary, the lay Buddhist is critical of the traditional norms of the monastic role; he may not be positively anticlerical but his respect, if any, is for the particular monk, not for the yellow robe as such. This kind of Buddhism is Protestant, then, in its devaluation of the role of the monk, and in its strong emphasis on the responsibility of each individual for her/ his ‘salvation’ or enlightenment, the arena for achieving which is not a monastery but the everyday world which, rather than being divided off from, should be infused with Buddhism.

Rather than providing a concise working definition of the subject, the authors go on to highlight its alleged role in initiating the ascendancy of the laity over monks. This observation is hard to sustain in view of the fact that there was no widespread adoption of the Anagarika model by the wider population, following Dharmapala’s example. While movements like the Vipassana meditation campaigns may have become popular, they did not necessarily involve a ‘take over’ of the function of the monk as spiritual guide in soteriological Buddhism. The emphasis on the laity and monks however, conforms to the pattern of age-old attempts — from the Brahmins to the British — to target the Sangha as the primary focus of their attacks on foundations of Buddhism.

Looking closely at the emergence of this concept and the errors of analysis it gives rise to, can be traced back to a debate on the fundamental character of Buddhism in Sri Lanka that took place a quarter century earlier. In 1963, the late Canadian anthropologist Michael Ames (1933-2006) observed that ‘magical animism and Buddhism’ coexisted without being confused in one Sinhalese religious system (Journal of Asian Studies, 22.1: 21-53). He concluded that these two religious units lie on two intersecting continuums, serving the worldly (laukika) and the supra-worldly (lokottara) interests respectively. Most native Buddhists and other unbiased academics would attest to the accuracy of this view.

The same year however, Gananath Obeyesekere published a study that disputed Ames’ view, cautioning against equating Sinhalese Buddhism with Theravada. He advised that it be seen instead as a fusion and a synthesis of beliefs derived from Theravada with other non-Theravada beliefs to form one integrated tradition. Obeysekera’s associate Richard Gombrich later provided moral support to Obeyesekere in his book, Theravada Buddhism - A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo: ‘if this book breaks new ground it will mainly be in my treatment of this question of Theravada Buddhist identity’. Later issues relating the use of the concept can be sourced to this apparently fundamental error in ignoring the wide spectrum of Buddhist practices in Sri Lanka, undertaken by people belonging to different social and educational strata. The fundamental flaw in the concept its attempts at grasping a wide range of facts and considerations relating to Buddhism in Sri Lanka, without recognising the inherent variations in the phenomena discussed.

While the life and work of Anagarika Dharmapala is generally presented as the personification of Protestant Buddhism — on the unpersuasive grounds that the social, moral and religious values he advocated exhibited a specifically Calvinist derivation — it also includes Professor K. N. Jayatilleke’s observation that Buddha’s teachings incorporated positivism and empiricism, as representing Protestant-influence.

Attempts to draw parallels between the Sinhala Buddhist reformism articulated by Dharmapala as a local resistance and a ‘Protest’ against the colonial hegemony, and Weberian Calvinism — involving fundamentally different epistemologies — clearly could not have been undertaken in good faith. So were the attempts to link K.N. Jayatilleke’s views expressed in Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge — that resulted from his interpretation of Buddhist teachings, founded on a comparative study of early Buddhist knowledge preserved in Pali and Sanskrit texts with the epistemological teachings of the pre and post-Buddhist non-Buddhist philosophies of India, and the Western traditions recognised as philosophy at the time — as displaying influence of Protestantism.

Notwithstanding such issues involved, the phrase found immediate resonance in the echo chamber of American anthropology, with the neologism becoming common currency almost immediately, with George D. Bond, using the phrase as second nature, in The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka:

Religious Tradition, Reinterpretation and Response (1988), in his examination of the origins and growth of the revival of Theravada Buddhism among the laity of Sri Lanka following the Buddha Jayanthi in 1956. Unsurprisingly, his study focused on the rational reformism of the early ‘Protestant Buddhists’ led by Anagarika Dharmapala.

The use of the concept in Buddhism Transformed serves as the most potent indicator to its inadequacy as an analytical framework for the study of trends in Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Many dissimilar phenomena have been generalised and discussed as forming integral part of Protestant Buddhism, without following the rules of inductive generalisation. Dramatic claims and speculations are made in the book — that represent a disturbing departure from rational Buddhism — on the basis of studies largely based in Colombo and suburbs, to suggest that new cult groupings, practices, and leaders necessarily representing widespread significant changes in themes and trends in Sinhala Buddhism, including a total destruction of a traditional village life. The analysis overlooks the specific forms of spirit religion, manifestations of gods, demons, magic, sorcery, possession, bhakti, Tantra ever having been a part of practice by different social and economic segments among Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and do not represent a significant change.

Major differences between Buddhism and Protestantism

The use of the label ignores the many differences between Buddhism and Protestantism, the obvious and most important difference being the concept and belief of God and other main differences involving the concepts of salvation, suffering and the afterlife.

Any paradigmatic similarities between the Buddha’s message and Protestant Christianity, are limited to the Buddha’s rejection of Brahmanical Hinduism including its critique of religion defined in terms of rites performed by a priestly elite to the Protestants’ rejection of the religious hierarchy. But the label Protestant Buddhism wrongly implies that Buddhism as contained in the Pali canon — that predates Protestant Christianity by two millennia — emulated many of the theoretical concepts and organisational features of Protestant Christianity. There is no evidence to suggest Sri Lankan Buddhism underwent any doctrinal transformation similar to Protestant or any other external influences.

Even in its more contextual application to the development of 20th century Buddhism in Sri Lanka as an explanatory frame, it exaggerates the degree of formative influence Protestant Christianity has exerted over peripheral reformist action aimed at social enhancement and adaptive change, all perfectly consistent with the inner doctrines of Theravada Buddhism.

Many characteristic stances in Dharmapala’s reformist thinking can be traced to Buddhist teachings in the Dhammapada and the Nikaya texts. The key elements of the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka reflected the Buddha’s final advice to Ananda: ‘Be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge’.

Buddhism was not forced to respond to modernism

The reform in Buddhism Transformed represents an alleged attempt to study Buddhist response to what has been described as the ‘revolution of modernisation’ that has confronted all major world religions. This claim was typical of anthropologists’ rationalisation of studies of tradition and interpretation of Theravada Buddhists. Bardwell L. Smith in Tradition and change in Theravada Buddhism (1973) described returning to the canon as ‘a broad spectrum of responses to the modern scene’.

This observation may be accurate in respect of the rise of modern science in the West that created a deep spiritual crisis, but did not apply to Buddhism. The advent of Darwinism and new disclosures in geology, biology, and astronomy challenged Biblical accounts of the origins of the natural world and the place and purpose of humans in it. Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared ‘God is Dead’. Philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead wrote: ‘The future course of history would centre on this generation’s resolving the issue of the proper relationship between science and religion.’ While traditional Judaeo-Christian theologies struggled to address the post-modern dilemma to reconcile science with spirituality, Buddhism had the intellectual foundation to traverse the new terrain with ease.

Anagarika Dharmapala announced to his largely Judaeo-Christian audience at The World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 that ‘the theory of evolution was one of the ancient teachings of the Buddha.’ Swami Vivekananda, the delegate from India, proclaimed to the same audience that the latest discoveries of science seemed ‘like the echoes from the high spiritual flights of Vedanta philosophy.’ Much later, Prof. K.N. Jayatilleke pointed out that Buddhism was not merely a religion or a belief system but also as a system of thought that could be valued from the perspectives of the highest achievements of the human intellect in philosophy and modern science.

The Buddha stressed the primacy of the mind in the perception and even ‘creation’ of reality. In 1989, Venerable Walpola Rahula, virtually a modern Buddha, warned against the capitulation of religion to scientific positivism and the yielding of almost all competing schemes of values to the scientific juggernaut. He doubted the sufficiency of science as a religion, and saw the need for religion to critique science.

Ven. Rahula argued, Dharma, including such concepts as the atom, the relativity of time and space, or the quantum view of the interdependent, interrelated abiding spiritual truths, were discovered without the help of any external instrument, by insight and purified by meditation. Ven. Rahula concluded, ‘It is fruitless, meaningless to seek support from science to prove religious truth. It is incongruous and preposterous to depend on changing scientific concepts to prove and support perennial religious truths.’

Later development of science that unleashed ‘advanced’ weapons of mass destruction including the nuclear bomb, chemical-biological warfare, the inconsiderate tampering with nature giving rise to widespread environmental pollution; haughty experiments with human reproduction, cloning, genetically engineered life,—all threaten to make reality more frightening than fiction. Despite the failure of science as an arbiter of eternal truth, or to incorporate an obligatory ethic, science still constitutes something of a ‘religion’ in the West, and rapidly encroaching on the rest of the world.

In conclusion, many deficiencies of the concept of Protestant Christianity as a frame of analysis for the presumed changes in Sri Lankan Buddhism places demands on its proponents for its retraction aster 30 years of experience based on its usage.

As Shakespeare wrote in The Taming of the Shrew: ‘Better once than never, for never too late.’

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