With the direct involvement of Buddhist monks in the social political issues in the country, there is social discourse whether this direct involvement of monks is appropriate for Buddhism and for the monks. In this backdrop, Ven. Prof. Kotapitiye Rahula Thera, the Director of Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies - University of Kelaniya, spoke to the and shared the following views regarding the role of the Buddhist monks within society.
What has the Buddha taught about the role of a Bhikkhu in society?
The Buddha, who established the Buddha Sasana, established the Sangha Organisation and told the Sixty Arahats of the first mission that “ Caratha bhikkhave carikam, bahujana hitaya, bahujana sukhaya, lokanukampaya atthaya hitaya sukhaya devamanussanam .” It means “Go forth, Bhikkhus, for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit and happiness of Gods and men, and preach the Dhamma to all for their well-being.”
In simple language, the Buddha said that the Bhikkhus should act for the betterment and well-being of the people. They were considered to be responsible for guiding lay followers. At the inception of the Sasana, Bhikkhus were morally developed, and therefore they could guide the lay community on the path of the Dharma in order to morally develop them as well. Due to this fact, no serious issues were reported in the Sasana during that period because they were excellently disciplined and honestly committed to develop the Sasana. Later, people began to rally around the Sasana and entered the Sangha Community attracted by the Buddha’s teachings. But, during this period some people entered the Sasana with the objective of expecting worldly benefits. Others, who were having social issues and family problems also decided to enter monkhood intending to escape from the issues. For these reasons some accusations were levelled against some Buddhist monks even during the time of the Buddha. It is mentioned in the Vinaya-pitaka as to why the Buddha decided to promulgate ecclesiastical rules and guidelines to monks. During that period people began to condemn and criticise some misconduct the Bhikkhus and thereby the Buddha promulgated some rules in respect of the monks’ discipline.
If someone wants to protect Sinhala culture, he should provide a Sinhalese living example in practice other than a person who claimed to be a Sinhalese
Four main factors, referred to by the Buddha, explained the facts that are responsible for the deterioration of the Sasana. One of them refers to the Bhikkhus, who entered the Sasana to gain worldly benefits, and the second factor to the quantitative increase of the Buddhist monks without having developed their moral behaviour. There is no benefit for the Sasana with the increase of quantity without moral and spiritual development and discipline. The third is about the increase of so-called scholar monks who were responsible for creating issues. When these scholars were increased they tried to interpret the Dharma in accordance with their knowledge. This situation is apparent at present. Some people can be seen on media attempting to interpret the Dhamma in their own way. They give wrong interpretation to the society. Some monks were of the view that they were well-aware of all spheres in the society. The fourth factor for the deteriorating of the Sasana was that persons who were entering the Sasana to get petty advantages.
20 years after the Buddha’s enlightenment, a similar situation arose in the Sasana and the Buddha had to promulgate rules and precepts for the monastic order in preserving the Vinaya. The Buddha promulgated these rules and regulations not just to suppress the Bhikkhus but to preserve the Buddha Sasana. There were ten objectives for imposing those precepts over Buddhist monks. Any organisation can be changed when it evolves for a considerable period of time. The situation would be common to every political organisation, civil organisations and religious organisations. We should be happy for the fact that the Bhikkhu Sasana has been prevailing in our society with an unbroken lineage of tradition over a period of 2600 years. There is no other organisation in the world, which is older than the Bhikkhu Sasana that has evolved with an unbroken lineage. We should not wonder for the differences, divisions and various factions of an organisation when it evolves from ancient time. There are reasonable facts for these changes. One may allege that is why Buddhism has divided into two, namely, Theravada and Mahayana, and into several other sects. No organisation in the world still reflects its original form after a lapse of a considerable period even if it has been established with good intentions. It is common to all religious organisations but only few changes have taken place with regard to the Bhikkhu Sasana. I must say that there are some Buddhist monks who are still following the teachings of the Buddha as much as possible. That is why the Bhikkhu Sasana still exists in our society. Throughout the lineage tradition of the Bhikkhu Sasana, there have been some facts leading to the deterioration of the Sasana, therefore, we should not wonder about the present deterioration of the Bhikkhu Sasana.
Is it suitable for a Buddhist monk to engage in politics in accordance to Buddha’s teachings?
The Bhikkhu is a spiritual leader. In the Bhikkhuhood, he is dependent on the lay community for the basic requirements such as food and clothing. In return, the Bhikkhus engage in boosting people’s spiritual development. That is the main duty of a Bhikkhu. The Bhikkhus should guide the public for their betterment to get rid and free them from misconduct. Some Buddhist monks have given wrong impression about the Buddha’s words stating that the Bhikkhus should intervene into every aspect of the lay community including their food issues, job issues, political issues and family problems. If the monks interpreted the Buddha’s word in this way, they have to intervene into every affair of the lay-life. The activities of laymen are unlimited and they are interconnected with so many desires and aspirations. If a monk interves into these matters, he might be headed for deterioration. So we have to categorically differentiate the Bhikkhu’s role from affairs handled by the lay community. A Buddhist monk can give advice to a layman in a polite manner for good conduct. It is the noble thing that a Buddhist monk can do. Is it agreeable for Buddhist monks being engaged in farming activities when the people are suffering from food scarcity? The incident would seem to be admirable but how can a monk maintains a monastic life with these activities? Some Bhikkhus are of the view that some politicians and their political parties are the best and conversing on behalf of them. But do you think anyone can do politics truthfully with his conscience? Can anyone either a Buddhist monk or a layman say lies or cheat the public for political survival.
Politics is something dealing with power and strategies. In order to fulfill certain strategies, the politicians would use powers and other measures available in the lay society. If a Buddhist monk began a political journey, he would definitely fall into this situation. When some Buddhist monks entered Parliament what did they promise to do? It was to establish a Dharma Rajya (Righteous Society). Have they headed our country to a Dharma Rajya after several years lapsed? I don’t see any diversity between the politico Bhikkhus and lay politicians. It is a wrong example. The Buddhist monks’ direct political involvement is the biggest deterioration I have personally identified in the recent past of the Sangha Organisation.
The Bhikkhus, who actively involved in social politics, claimed that they were compelled to do politics since the laymen who entered politics did not take adequate measures to safeguard Buddhism. What is wrong with this argument put forward by politico Bhikkhus?
I don’t see any truth in this statement because both laymen and the monk representatives are doing the same thing. I don’t see any monk, who is involved in politics, is working with a calm and pure mind. We cannot expect such a state. No monks need to enter parliament to make a good society and to make a well-disciplined lay community. Good laymen could be produced to the society through the Dhamma Education in temples by the Bhikkhus while being within the monastic life. There is nowhere in the Pali language a term called “Rights.” Instead of rights, Buddhism has given us the good term “Duties.” This indicates us that we should perform our duties properly. I personally believe that the monks should firstly perform their duties without staging protests to demand various rights. As the Buddhist monks, they should help the laymen to achieve their spiritual development. That is the main duty of a Buddhist monk. They should cultivate an unbounded mind towards all beings, and loving-kindness, patience and compassion towards everyone including the enemies. Is it rational for a Bhikkhu to struggle for the rights of others without performing his duties properly? The Buddhist monks’ behaviour should be exemplary to the lay community.
The Buddhist monks’ direct political involvement is the biggest deterioration I have personally identified in the recent past of the Sangha Organisation
How do you see the recent trend of Buddhist monks’ behaviour at protest campaigns on the streets?
When the Buddhist monks are involved in a protest campaign on the street, can we witness any difference between the laymen and the Bhikkhus? All participants whose hearts are filled with hatred are involved in these protests while behaving in an aggressive manner. Monks are treated with a great respect by people because of their traditional robe. Why do people worship a Buddhist monk? They tend to do so because they wear a traditional robe. The chairs with white cloths are generally provided to the Buddhist monks as laymen respect the robe. What would happe to that respect when a Buddhist monk clad in a robe sat on the road during a protest campaign?
Some monks argue that the prime responsibility of a Buddhist monk is to work to safeguard the nation and religion. Is it correct to say that a prime duty of a Buddhist monk is to protect Sinhala Buddhist rights?
No, it is a wrong attitude. In order to protect something within our possession, we should be protected ourselves. If someone wants to protect Sinhala culture or the Sinhala tradition, he should provide a Sinhalese living example in practice other than a person who claimed to be a Sinhalese. The person, who is agitating for the rights of Sinhala Buddhists, should firstly provide and exhibit a Sinhala Buddhist living example to the laity. If a monk wants to protect the Sangha community in the country, he should firstly act and behave within the scope of bhikkhuhood.
The action of a Buddhist monk is the most important thing than just talking about protecting Sinhala culture or Buddhism. Everything in this world is indefensible and not permanent. That is the core teaching of Buddhism. We should not tend to think that our religion or nationality or our country would prevail eternally. The eternal concepts are not included in Buddhism.
What kind of mechanism is put in place regarding the monk’s discipline?
It is a big issue. Supreme Sangha Council of each Sect is handling disciplinary actions against the ill-behaving monks. These Sangha Councils were established during the Kandyan era in accordance with the then requirements. The deterioration of the Sangha community is not an isolated matter and it could be the result of the deterioration of the whole Sri Lankan Society. It is not a common factor to us. Due to globalisation and the industrialisation the whole world has deteriorated. Therefore, the Sangha community cannot escape from this prevailing situation as it is a part of the society. In order to prevent this situation, we are not having sufficient legal remedies. If any Buddhist monk is found guilty for misconduct he has allegedly committed, the Mahanayaka Theras of each Sect should have power to remove him from the Monkhood. The powers of the Sangha Councils need to be empowered.
The person, who is agitating for the rights of Sinhala Buddhists, should firstly provide and exhibit a Sinhala Buddhist living example to the laity
What are the practical difficulties a Buddhist monk face with society?
With the development of modern technology, communication and the physical development of the society, Buddhist monks have to face many challenges. This is an organisation which was established by the Buddha more than 2500 year ago. There is a huge gap between the modern society and the early society. This is the reality of the world and it is a common fact for the Sangha Society also. The only thing we can do is to minimize the changes. It is difficult for a Buddhist monk to follow the life relating to the early Buddhist tradition. The Buddha also accepted the fact that some conditions prescribed by him to the monks should be changed in line with the time period and special circumstances.
Politicians do not listen to Buddhist monks now though they advise them to stop some immoral activities and policies detrimental to the country as a whole?
It is because of the politicisation of the Sangha Community. There is no unity among the Sangha Community. Once a group of monks opposed the government not to implement a certain harmful policy, another group of monks would emerge to defend the government. The Sangha Community itself should be held responsibility for this unfortunate situation. The current situation would only benefit the politicians because they can do whatever they think due to the division of the Sangha Community. Earlier, the Sangha Community was the greatest challenge for the politicians.
What are your main suggestions for the prevailing situation?
It is essential immediately to pass in Parliament several acts to safeguard Buddhism and the Sangha Community. The first thing is the Sangha Adhikarana Act that must be passed in the Parliament to empower the Sangha Councils. The second one is the Act which should deal with incorrect publications relating to religious matters. I personally believe that the time has come for another Sangayana. In order to reiterate and reaffirm the Dhamma-vinaya within all Sects of the Sangha Community, it is essential to have a Sangayana.