‘A united inter-religious council is a need of the hour’ - Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi Thera


By Randima Attygalle

The inhabitants of the great city of Visala during the time of Lord Buddha about 2570 years ago faced three fears (thun biya) of famine, diseases and demons. The city was cleansed of suffering when Lord Buddha visited it and chanted Rathana sutra.

In this awakened sacred week of Vesak, we Sri Lankans today have to brave man-induced fears of violence, vandalism and bloodshed.

The Sunday Island reflects on the way forward through the great teachings of the Awakened One, in an interview with Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi Thera, founder of the Buddhist Cultural Centre and a catalyst of change in spirit of a true Buddha putra.

"In the name of Buddhism, in its history of 2,600 years, not a drop of blood has been shed for forced conversion. This is the essence of non-violence or avihinsa championed in Buddhism," says Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi Thera who remarks that certain parts of India and neighbouring lands where Buddhism thrived were bulldozed by Islam extremism.

"For instance, Kashmir is an area in which Buddhism shone during the reign of King Dharmashoka. But through means of violence and bloodshed, Buddhists were annihilated and to date these areas of the world are in eternal religious conflicts", he says.

"Having faced numerous South Indian invasions in the times of our monarchs, we became a colony of European invaders. With the eventual reinforcement of power by the British in the island, they found the ploy of ‘divide and rule’ favourable to achieve their ends", he said.

This was indirectly extended to the country’s main religion of Buddhism as well, says Wimalajothi thera. The division of the two main chapters of Asgiri and Malwatu as the prelate explains, is also a result of this ‘divide and rule’. "This division was a subtle result of this rule along with property rights given to temples through their legal framework such as the Vihara Devalagam Ordinance (Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance).

The concept of mahanayaka which evolved through this division is contradictory to Buddhism as Buddha preached that, after Him, it would be dhamma and vinaya which would exist, safeguarded by four-fold community (siwu wannak pirisa) of Bhikku-bhikkuni-upasaka-upasika. Although historically positions such as sangaraja existed, this did not attach chapter divisions, says the prelate.

The division among the bhikkus according to the chapter or nikaya they belong to has a strong bearing on a country’s political fabric, says the monk. "Each camp has its own political patronage which impedes national unity," remarks Wimlajothi thera, urging all religious camps of the country to be inspired by the role played by Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith.

"This is the type of religious leadership we need at this hour, to be a singular spokesman for the entire religion," says the prelate, who moots a common religious council with representation from all chapters. "Sad as it may be the division according to various chapters is deeply rooted here now despite the fact that Buddha’s compassion extended to everybody equally transcending social standing and advocating that man becomes superior not by birth but by deeds. The only feasible mechanism would be to have a common council representing all chapters which would deliberate on what is best for the country - be it governance, law making or otherwise."

Citing the words of Martin Luther King Jr, the learned monk reflects on his own dream of seeing a Sri Lankan which will realize a common Buddhist Council which in turn will give muscle to an inter-religious council backed by legal experts. This, as he points out can act as a ‘pressure group’ of a different kind to advice the government on policy-making and legal reform influence public opinion and counter religious extremism which spurs communal hatred and violence.

The conflicts between rulers, as in the case of Shakya-Koliya, were not uncommon during Buddha’s times, says Wimlajothi thera who alludes to Ten Royal Virtues or dasa raja dharma required for proper governance articulated by Buddha which can mitigate conflicts. The ‘middle path’ which is fundamental to Buddhism is the way for any nation to counter extremism, which results in violence, says the prelate further.

He noted that political differences cannot warrant extremism and at the same time, political parties cannot be based on religious differences. "The diversity of our natural landscape, its rich offers such as spices, fauna and flora bewitched our colonizers. Similarly, there is beauty in our ethnic diversity. For generations Sinhala people have lived in harmony with their Tamil and Muslim counterparts. Even our cuisine is rendered this ethnic diversity of rice and curry, wadei, thosai, biriyani and watalappan. This is the beauty of this country which should be our strength as well."

Without language or history, human existence is made poor. "Leaders who are handicapped in their knowledge about our rich civilization, its history and those who cannot take pride in being Sri Lankans is a double whammy to a nation in tears," bemoans the prelate who is critical of leaders that enable a space for certain western blocs to wield their power over the country.

"The strategic location of the country has always been a temptation and if the leaders of this country are making room for other quarters to wield their power over us, mortgaging the future of our next generations, that is going to be the biggest act of treachery", he further says.

Reminding of Lord Buddha’s wisdom of correct usage of language to suit the situation, Wimalajothi thera, an educationist himself, urges education authorities and parents to encourage cross-cultural dialogue for which language becomes an effective tool. "Countries such as Japan, China, Switzerland and Russia have taken strides as they pride in their language. It is tragic that we don’t encourage our children to learn each other’s languages. We need the power of English language to win the world but an understanding of each other’s vernacular is the first step towards reconciliation."

This hour of uncertainty and violence call for revisiting of the true meaning of Vesak which has traditionally been a spiritual exercise devoid of festivity, says Wimalajothi thera. "Unlike in the olden days, today people throng the cities, queue up near dansels for the mere thrill of fraternizing which should not be the case especially this year with lives at stake," says the prelate who encourages the public to focus on the spiritual aspect of this most hallowed day for Buddhists while invoking blessings on those who lost their lives in recent terror attacks and also on our armed and police forces reminding of the Awakened One’s universal compassion encapsulated in sabbe saththa bhavanthu sukhithaththa – may all living beings be happy…

(Pix by Dharmasena Welipitiya)

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