Evolving Role of the Sangha in Society

The role of the Sangha in Sri Lanka society has been evolving throughout history. Currently, there is debate about the monks’ active participation in governing the contemporary society. On the eve of Vesak Poya Day, Daily Mirror spoke to Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) parliamentarian and chief incumbent of Sadaham Sevana Rajagiriya, Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera about his views on the social responsibilities of modern day monks and their place in society. 

Delving into the discussion, Rathana Thera first explained the core and the true meaning of Buddhism. According to him, some are under the impression that Buddhism based on the depressing concept, centred on suffering. However, Rathana Thera explained that this was a common misconception about Buddhism, adding that Buddhism was in fact more closely tied to a person’s daily life than one may imagine.

“Many people argue that Buddhism should be about individual spirituality rather than social reforms, Rathana Thera pointed out. “However, if we look deeply into Buddha’s teachings we will understand that these two things are not mutually exclusive. Dharma concentrates on a person’s mental and spiritual wellbeing. It is about attaining harmony between the coexistence of humans and nature. This invariable affects society because the society is made up of individuals. So individual spirituality and social attitudes influence each other.”

In order to highlight his point further, Rathana Thera took an example from ancient Indian society. He explained that in Buddha’s time, India was heavily segregated according to social classes, based on religion. The privileged groups were the religious leaders and the royalty. The merchants were the middle class and the majority of the society was the underprivileged servants who were shunned from the community.

In a society where a few were enjoying luxuries and the majority was suffering, Buddha’s teachings caused uproar. Buddhism rejected both paths to spirituality which were widely accepted in the ancient Indian society, favouring the middle path. Rathana Thera explained that according to the Dharma, religion is not about performing miracles and mystic acts to impress one’s followers or belief in unknown gods.  Buddhism is about seeing the reality of the society with a clear, unbiased mind and accepting the truth about life. This concept, Rathana Thera explained, can be related to all aspects of a human’s daily life. Buddha’s Dharma also could be generalised to include all groups of people rather than favouring a particular social group.

“Most times we forget that Buddha rejected both extremes. He engaged in the middle path which can be applicable to any individual,” Rathana Thera said. “Buddha guided individuals to find themselves and advised that one must look into himself to find the truth about life. The instrument to find the truth is having a clear mind and that is the point of Buddhist meditation.”

Rathana Thera explained that some of those who accepted Buddha’s teachings voluntarily joined the Sangha society. They took it upon themselves to spread the word about Buddhist teachings and what it did for them. As people became informed about Buddhism it changed their outlook on life. By shaping individuals’ spirituality, they were changing attitudes and were engaged in social reforms.

Rathana Thera went on to draw a parallel between modern society and the ancient Indian society.

“In today’s society also there is a minority who enjoy special advantages and luxuries and a majority who are left with all the suffering the world has to offer,” he claimed. “The difference is that the ancient Indian society was ruled by beliefs about Gods. They believed that suffering and luxuries were handed to humans according to Gods’ wishes. However today’s  society is controlled by capital forces. Investment is the driving force in our society and this determines who suffers and who enjoys special privileges.”

By changing the structure of the society Buddha influenced the government, Rathana Thera said. When the majority accepted the concepts of Buddhism, it caused a radical change of attitudes and ideas. Buddha purified the minds of ordinary people. Rathan Thera called this a social revolution and said that in this way, the people were able to influence the rulers of the kingdom.

“Since Buddhists and monks created a kingdom among the kingdom, the ruler had no choice but to comply,” Rathana Thera said. “In this way Buddha and the Sangha society managed to provide a better quality standard of life for everyone in society.”

“This shows that there is no clash between social reforms and individual spirituality. Instead, the monks’ role is to reform corrupt society, starting at a personal level and by cleansing the minds of individuals.”

Rathana Thera added that just like in ancient Indian times, need has arisen for social reforms in the contemporary Sri Lankan society. In order to accomplish that, he attested that the society needs the strong, pure, Sangha community.

“Today our monk-community is corrupt. The monks are detached from the society. They are only concerned about their spirituality or individual gains” he claimed.
Speaking on the priorities of the Sangha society he said that a robed monks’ first priority should be to clearly understand Buddha’s teachings. Then he should live an exemplary life, taking Dharma as a guide. It was only then that a monk can influence society’s attitudes and make a positive change.

“Bikkhus should not be driven by money and wealth. Instead they should gain a deep vision and insight about Buddhism. It is only through this vision that we can make a positive difference in this corrupt society,” Rathana Thera said.

Speaking about his own involvement in politics he said that the need has arisen for monks to actively get engaged in politics for the collective good of the society. He added that the current parliament needed educated, knowledgeable, sincere, leaders to represent the common man.

“Politics are not about getting luxuries. It is true that some might accuse me of getting into politics to gain material comforts but that is not what it is about,” he claimed. “We monks did not want to get involved with politics directly. But we had no choice but to do so in order to defeat terrorism which was causing decay in all aspects of the society. Now that terrorism is defeated, question remains whether monks should remain active in politics.”

In order to answer that question, one must take a closer look at the society, he said. According to him, in today’s society Buddhist monks are like fashion accessories. The only role they are expected to play is as a ceremonial symbol.

However that is not the real responsibility of a monk. The Sangha should be actively engaged in the wellbeing of members of the society. They need to penetrate the lives and views of individuals. This automatically influences the government of a country, he said.

“Today society has been taken hostage by capital forces and the corporate culture. We are all trapped by endless marketing stunts. We need to break these barriers,” he said.

Speaking about the prevailing religious tensions in the country he said that if Buddhism is looked at as a philosophy rather than a religion, then other religions too can accept it without any barriers.

Speaking at a time when the Vesak spirit is lighting up in everyone’s hearts, he said that apart from the symbolic importance of this special day, the true meaning of Vesak was that everyone gathering to celebrate the holiday as one family.

“Sri Lankans celebrate Vesak as one family, no matter what religion or ethnicity they are. On this day, they all gather and come together to celebrate as a nation. That is what we need today to overcome our differences,” he claimed. “Vesak is not a holiday only for the rich. It is a celebration of the ordinary, common man. That is the true meaning behind this holiday.”

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