Should Bhikkhus play an active role in politics?

9 March 2020 12:29 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has decided not to accommodate any member of the Buddhist clergy in the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) nomination lists for the upcoming General Elections, according to Minister 
Keheliya Rambukwella.
At the same time, Ven. Warakagoda Sri Gnanaratana Mahanayake Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter told Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya that amendments should be brought into the Election laws to prohibit granting nominations to monks to contest elections. 
The Mahanayake Thera said that the duty and role of the Maha Sangha was to offer counsel to the rulers to govern the country in a righteous manner as in the past. If the Maha Sangha went beyond this limit and got directly involved in politics, it would result in a severe degeneration of the Sanga Sasana. 
EC Chief Mahinda Deshapriya said in response that the Mahanayake Thera of the Malwatte Chapter expressed identical views when he called on him and received his blessing. These are three interesting sentiments offered by the Head of State and two leading Maha Nayakas of the country. In my opinion, we should take these advice as a starting point to initiate an honest and frank discussion about the role of Buddhist monks in Sri Lankan politics. 
There are a number of questions we need to ask ourselves. Should monks have the same freedom of political expression as lay persons who are political representatives?  Should the monks sit together with other laymen in parliament, where they can inhibit changes in the law, claiming special insight into suffering? Should they have privileged access to some perks like luxurious motor vehicles and other allowances entitled 
to parliamentarians? 

  • History

Despite the often-repeated claim that Buddhism and politics are, or at least must be, separate matters, Buddhism has been closely intertwined with politics one way or another for a long time. The earliest Buddhists texts, the Tripiṭaka, contain numerous references to and discussions of kings, princes, wars, and policies. Later Buddhist texts, up to the present day, in the same spirit contain advice to rulers about how to govern well and warnings about the dreadful consequences of ruling badly with arrogance and ignoring the needs of the common people. 
Buddhist monks’ “involvement” in politics was only in the form of advice given to rulers and not direct participation in political field. But things began to change in mid-19th century with the Buddhist revival, later known as Sinhala-Buddhist reawakening.   

Buddhist monks’ “involvement” in politics was only in the form of advice given to rulers and not direct participation in political field. But things began to change in mid-19th century with the Buddhist revival, later known as Sinhala-Buddhist reawakening

It was Anagarika Dharmapala, the father of modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, who gave the initial momentum it needed in late 19th and early 20th century in response to the British Colonial rule. Along with that revival, Buddhist leaders backed by powerful monks became active in the movement for Independence and securing recognition of and its due place for Buddhism. In 1946, Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera wrote a book titled “Bhiksuvage Urumaya” (The Heritage of the Monks). He maintained that Bhikkhus could directly get involved in politics given their mandate to perform social service, and had done so since the time of the Buddha. The book was treated as doctrinal cover for monks engaging in politics. 

Cumulatively, these historical experiences have left a deep impression in the psyche of many Buddhists. They believe Sri Lanka is the last bastion of Theravada Buddhism. This feeling also gave rise to ultra nationalist Buddhist monks’ fringe groups, who called themselves guardians saving Buddhism and the distinct identity of Sinhala nation.
A serious Bhikkhu involvement in politics began to materialise following independence in 1948. In effect, it transformed Buddhism into a highly politicised religion. Bhikkhu-sponsored interest groups mushroomed and got involved themselves with active politics. They made demands like making Sinhala the official language and Buddhism the official religion of the country. 
In 1956, a large segment of Buddhist monks supported SWRD Bandaranaike to form a government. They actively participated in the election campaign which gave the desired result. It was the forerunner and thereafter, politicians began to seek the support of organised Buddhist groups to win elections. 21 years later, this relationship between the state and Buddhism was given special constitutional status with Buddhism being accorded the “foremost place.”
The new custodians who took control of managing Buddhism began to unfold a brand of new Buddhism with political patronage. From that time onwards political Buddhism has become a permanent feature of Sri Lanka’s politics. 

  • Last citadel

When the Government forces won the war against LTTE terrorism, the victory offered a tremendous boast and momentum to the growth of political Buddhism. Some Buddhist monks were involved in the war, not in the front, but actively conditioning the mindset of the soldiers, politicians and Buddhist public. A radical section of the monks transformed this victory into an unshakable concept that Sri Lanka belongs to Sinhala Buddhists and that they are the sole owners of this island. The political Buddhism became a power to be reckon with. They were in a position to make or break Governments. They justified their campaigns against radical Muslims as legitimate actions to protect Buddhism and there were a number of instances when they went berserk. 
Gautama Buddha in his lifetime never got involved in political sphere of the Kings.  His approach to “politics” was the moralization and the responsible use of King’s power. In Anguttara nikaya he said: ‘When the ruler of a country is just and good, the ministers become just and good, when the ministers are just and good, the higher officials become just and good, when the higher officials are just and good, the rank and file become just and good, when the rank and file become just and good, the people become just and good.’
In the Kutadanta Sutta,Buddha suggested the king should use the country’s resources to improve the economic conditions of the country. He could embark on agricultural and rural development, provide financial support to those who undertake an enterprise and business, provide adequate wages for workers to maintain a decent life with 
human dignity

  • Buddhist concept

Why Buddha did not encourage monks to intermingle with politics. He just gave specific guidelines for governing a country in a proper and peaceful manner and these rules are known as “Dasa Raja Dharma”. Any political system, any political ideology, or any political party can apply these ten rules if they want to create a just society in the country.
The basis of Buddhism is morality while that for politics is just retaining power and securing more power. The power of the Buddha Dhamma is not directed to the creation of new political institutions or working with existing political groups. Basically, it seeks to approach the problems of society by reforming the thinking and behaviour of individuals constituting the society.
It suggests some general principles through which the society can be guided towards greater humanism, improved welfare of its members, and more equitable sharing 
of resources.

  • Lessons learned

Our mixing Buddhism with political activities had been behind much of our own country’s disasters. Sangha Nayakas of the highest order were aware of it. Political and social leaders were well aware of it. For obvious reasons they kept silent while watching how these ultra-organisations led by a segment of the monks were causing severe damage to the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious social fabric. 
Although Buddhism and the Buddhist monks have always played a vital and important role in our society, the greatest Buddhist scholars were the ones who refused to have their ethical and moral dispositions determined by the needs of power. Instead, they served as a sort of check and balance to the policies of each government. They understood that when the monks play political roles, they corrupt both good governance and religious integrity.
If we learn anything from the past, from our own country and elsewhere, it should be that any religion, reduced to political ideology, does little for one’s faith and even less for society. In principle, let the religion remain ready to offer political guidance and criticism, without seeking theocratic power or adherence.
Today both these ultra-Buddhist monks and politicians need a radical change. It is time for them to re-evaluate their opinions, attitudes, principles and values in conformity with the pristine teachings of the Gautama Buddha. And politicians, too, should be forced upon to practise the basic principles of dharma. As Buddha said, “if political leaders are righteous and spiritual, the whole society can flourish and 
be uplifted.”

  Comments - 1

  • Mohamed Hussain Wednesday, 11 March 2020 07:08 AM

    Very very good. For the country development.


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