Sangha’s role is advice and guidance, not politics


Dr.Upul Wijeyawardhana’s defence of the part Buddhist monks have played in Sri Lanka politics was most timely, as many Buddhists are somewhat disparaging of the behavior of students and other monks who openly take part in ugly protests, and engage in secular jobs which are not acceptable to any Buddhist layman. As usual, Dr Wijayawardhana as an erudite writer, makes many pertinent comments.

Many years ago my husband and I were startled by the horrendous sight of a Buddhist monk carrying a bag of liquor, following two Japanese tourists in to the Cinnamon Grand (then Oberoi) Hotel. Giving the monk a glare (which he totally ignored) my husband went up to the reception desk and asked why they were allowing this sort of disgraceful thing to happen. The receptionist answered laughingly that the monk was a registered tourist guide and was a frequent tourist accompanist.

Now this does not reflect well on Buddhist monks and when questioned, prelates said that such persons were not real monks at all but were merely dressed that way. I find this excuse a trifle unbelievable since it is trotted out too often to explain away the transgressions of the Buddhist monks these many years past.

More recently, I was seated behind a Pirith Mandapaya and noticed that one young monk was playing games on his smartphone thinking he was well hidden behind his fan. I was seated behind the Mandapaya and was well able to see what he was up to. One wonders why on earth he became a monk, except for financial reasons perhaps? Of course I reported him to the Head monk of the Temple who assured me he would deal with the recalcitrant youngster who was so clearly miscast as a monk. Probably he had had no say in the choice of his career? Young boys are inducted as monks and who can foresee with any accuracy that they will want to be monks when they become adults? I know it is part of the Buddhist culture to ordain very young boys but has it not outgrown its usefulness?

To go back in time … the separation of Church and State was an underlying fact of the American Constitution. In fact Thomas Jefferson had great difficulty in finding a word OTHER than ‘sacred rights’ while writing the Constitution. He substituted the word ’inalienable’ for sacred so as not to strike the wrong note in a secular Constitution.

It is true that the USA uses the phrase ‘In God We Trust" but that phrase is acceptable to all religions, except Buddhists, who do not accept the same definition of a Creator God. As far as I know, religious observances in American schools are not allowed, unless the school is run by Catholics or other religious bodies.

In France, which used to be 90% Catholic (at one time) the same secular rules were followed. In India secularism was a highlight of Nehru’s governance policy and we can see the unrest there, now that Modi is infringing on the rights of minorities and killing Nehru’s ideal of a secular State.

And do we need to even mention what part the Catholic Church played in European Medieval politics without a shudder at the sheer tyranny religion had over men? If the Catholic Church wished to punish a man it simply excommunicated him. Such a man was an outcast thereon. No one would do business with him. No one would have anything to do with him. He might as well have been dead.

Excommunication was used to bring not only men but also nations into line. The Pope was all Powerful and religion dominated politics. One defence of such a system was that only the men of the Church were educated and therefore only such men understood the art of governance. Kings resented the control of the Church but generally fell into line, -- all except Henry Vlll who set himself up as Head of the Church of England.

The Pope ushered in one of the bloodiest 200 years of Churches doings when he told European rulers ‘Deus Vult’ meaning ‘God Wills It’, and for various reasons (most of them material) the princes and rulers of Europe rushed to obey. The Crusades began and rivers of blood both European and Saracen flowed for almost 200 years. The Crusades failed in their original purpose, except to illustrate what the power of religious leaders can result in.

The power of the Church and the blind faith of the people has been explained by the lack of education. Only the priests were literate so whatever they said was virtually gospel. But that is not so today. The world today is a literate one.

Lack of education is hardly a reason in the twentieth century for religious activity in politics. Sri Lanka has had educated political leaders but far too few educated MPs. This lack culminated in one of the most uneducated parliamentary groups in the last government- EVER. 85% or more MPs have not passed their O/Levels. The country feels it!

Nonetheless I feel our monks should act primarily as peacemakers, advisors , teachers of religion and defenders of it, if necessary. The British Queen is Head of its government but she does not ‘govern’. She reigns but does not rule. Likewise our monks should advise, warn and/or influence, but they should have nothing to do with the enactment of government business or take part in it.

It was a very welcome decision made recently that the SLPP would not nominate monks to fill parliamentary seats in future. They have an important role to play in the moral and ethical guidance of our young people and the development of this country. Let them play that role well following the Rishis of old who advised, guided and warned rulers but went no further.


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