If there is a lay-clergy distinction that people want to have, it must be applied consistently
The three theras are tugging (metaphorically) at a baby
On December 26, 2004, just two days after Sri Lanka was hit by the tsunami, an infant was found among the debris on the Kalmunai beach. Abhilash was his name, but no one knew it. He was given a number, 81. There were various people claiming parenthood. The matter was eventually resolved by court and DNA tests.
Now in the Ummagga Jathaka, the pundit Mahoushada, not having the benefit of DNA tests, resolved a dispute over maternity by asking each claimant to grab the child and pull. It appeared to be a test of physical strength but the pundit was depending on the strength of the heart to resolve the dispute. The ‘mother’ who let go was given custody of the child.
This is a fable that cuts across time and place with slight variations, for example in the Judgment of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible. Bertold Brecht used it in his well known play ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle,’ but with a twist. A DNA test would have wrecked it and Azdak would have had to rule in favour of Natella, but Grusha, whose love for the child was true and unfettered by thoughts of estates and finance refuses to comply. She lost, technically, but won the judgment.
It’s all about attachment. About true sentiments. And that’s the preamble to the matter at hand, that of the tussle for the solitary national list seat allocated to the Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya. In this case, there are three claimants, all of them bikkhus.
There is Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera, a veteran parliamentarian and a long-time activist on all kinds of issues including environment, chemical-free agriculture, countering terrorism and at times a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist. He played a key role in the regime change that occurred in 2015. There is Ven. Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, the strident voice of the Bodu Bala Sena. Some would call both of them ‘extremists’ but one notes that the name-callers are loath to use the nomenclature when speaking of ardent advocates of terrorism and fundamentalism in other ethnic and religious communities. Then there is Ven. Vedinigama Wimalatissa Thera, the Secretary of the party, who is relatively unknown.
Now we can have a discussion on whether bikkhus should be in Parliament. Well, they cannot be denied privileges that other citizens have if the Buddhist Order does not object. Anyway, if it’s alright for Eran Wickramaratne (a pastor) to be in Parliament, then it can’t be wrong for any of these bikkhus to be there; if there is a lay-clergy distinction that people want to have, it must be
If it is alright for Pilleyan, it can’t be wrong for Ven Gnanasara. Pilleyan is a former terrorist, Ven Gnanasara has taken extreme stands and has infringed upon the law (and paid for it) but no one has accused him of forced conscription of children, deadly attacks on civilians and the like. If it’s alright for M.A. Sumanthiran and C.V. Wigneswaran, both with track records of either openly celebrating terrorists and terrorism or else being mouthpieces for the same, then it should be alright for anyone who speaks for his/her community, these three theras included. No, this can’t be about such things.
At first glance it sounds ridiculous. Parliament can be a place where any ideology can be articulated or where the interests of any community (ethnic, religious, ideological) can be represented, true. However, to imagine that having the seat is crucial is downright silly
This is not even about who has the legitimate claim. It is not about who has what it takes, legitimacy notwithstanding. It’s about the why and why-not, the how and how-not-to, as per the philosophy and truth-ascertaining in the stories mentioned above.
What do these theras want? Well, the seat. What do they say they want it for? Why, to represent Sinhala Buddhist interests. It’s a parliamentary seat that is being treated like a baby called ‘Sinhala Buddhist Interests’ or ‘Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism.’
At first glance it sounds ridiculous. Parliament can be a place where any ideology can be articulated or where the interests of any community (ethnic, religious, ideological) can be represented, true. However, to imagine that having the seat is crucial is downright silly, as is the perception that one is the best articulator of the particular standpoint. I recall the film director and senior journalist at the Divaina, Jayantha Chandrasiri, making an interesting observation about 15 years ago: ‘Hela urumaya naaganiddith sinhala bauddha jaathika mathakaya issarahata yanava [even as the (Jathika) Hela Urumaya messes things up in style, Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism goes from strength to strength].’
Now maybe the JHU did play a role, but it would be simplistic to reduce whatever gains of this particular political project to their efforts alone. It just does not happen that way. Indeed the Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya is politically very much weaker than the weakest the JHU has been. Furthermore, they cannot claim sole ownership of the Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism brand. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) makes no bones about being nationalist. The SLPP has in Parliament people like Sarath Weerasekera, Gevindu Kumaratunga and Anupa Pasqual (if you want to say that Mahinda Rajapaksa is a fake nationalist just like his most ardent followers in Parliament). The President of the country is a nationalist. The Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa and his party (Samagi Jana Balavegaya) have been badmouthed by those who have an axe to grind with anything Sinhala and Buddhist. Premadasa is by default a nationalist. None of them are anything like Ven Gnanasara Thera, but they all belong to the same school.
The three theras are tugging (metaphorically) at a baby. They would like Sinhala Buddhists to believe that each of them is best suited to take care of the baby. They would like Sinhala Buddhists to believe that the baby is, indeed, ‘Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism.’ Well, it is hard to believe that Sinhala Buddhists would in the first place want to have an entire community reduced to a chair in a large hall.
No, people and ideas, communities and identities have multiple addresses. These three theras are trying to make their loyalists believe that everything can be irrecoverably lost if the seat itself was lost. If they truly believe this, they are mistaken.
In any event, at some level, this side of the Buddha’s advocacy of treating things with equanimity, it is ‘true concern’ that is being tested, then the truly concerned will take a step back. The seat will be lost, but the right to represent community will be regained.