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World Affairs








The Doctrine Of Hate

Meththa, Karuna, Muditha, Upekha - words pious Buddhists love to utter as examples of the benevolence of their faith. Roughly translated, these are loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. These, presumably, were the ideals the founding fathers of the Second Republic had in mind when they made it the duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhism. Yet, few ideas than these could be more alien to the most prominent proponents of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, as recent events have shown. For a religion that claims to be at one with the environment, Buddhism as practiced in this country appears to have gone terribly awry.

Buddhists have embraced with fervor the practice of tree-worship, which they inherited from the Hindus. Lord Buddha is more often than not portrayed meditating under a Bo tree, in which position He is said to have attained enlightenment. Nowadays, just about every Bo tree comes with loudspeakers attached. Bets are He would not have attained enlightenment had that tree of trees in Bodh Gaya been equipped with a loudspeaker blaring sacred stanzas at 93 decibels. No one - not even the Buddha - could meditate with that rumpus going on.

Nothing has served to promote a religious arms race (a classic case of "mine is bigger than yours") more than the loudspeaker, and one wonders how religions prospered and flourished before Ernst Siemens invented that accursed device in 1877.  Now, in an increasingly skeptical world, religion can, it seems, prosper only by turning the instruments of the devil -principally the loudspeaker - to its own use. Buddhism in Sri Lanka has come to be characterised by small minds wielding big weapons: much the same as Christianity in the United States of George W. Bush.

We tar all religions with the same brush advisedly, because they have all - whether Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or Hindu - embraced the loudspeaker with greater fervor than the teachings of their respective faiths. Loudspeakers have become an essential part of religion, especially Islam and Buddhism. Neither would have prospered and flourished, it seems, had Herr Siemens (a devout Lutheran) not been born.

When Bilal ibn Rabah recited the beautiful and familiar words "Allah hu Akbar" of the first adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) 1500 years ago, he did so without the aid of a loudspeaker. When the Buddha delivered his revolutionary sermons 2,500 years ago, derived from insights he received from deep meditation, he did so without a loudspeaker. Likewise did Christ deliver the beatitudes, sans noisy woofers and tweeters. Yet their ideas survived and prospered over the millennia without being cheapened, degraded or distorted by electronic amplification, or being a nuisance to others. That era has now gone, and religions are compelled to compete for audience with the lottery-ticket vendor and the ice cream man.

Mind you, there was a time when church bells (the Jews used horns) were necessary to summon the faithful to timely prayer - but that was before the invention of the wristwatch. Now, in a crowded and urbanised world, we can no longer afford the luxury of noise, whether from motorcar horns or loudspeakers. Regardless of the piety of their content, pollution is pollution.

And it is not just loudspeakers. The Catholic Church has been among the worst offenders. Between Colombo and Negombo, just about every street corner has a glass cage in which a statue of the Virgin Mary, Christ on the Cross, St Francis of Assisi bristling with arrows, or any one of an assortment of latter-day saints stands entrapped. All this in direct contravention of the Second Commandment; "Thou shalt not make any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them" (Exodus 20). 

The Buddhists have responded in kind, littering street corners with a variety of Buddhist icons in an assortment of sizes. Thankfully the Muslims have taken seriously their religion's ban on idol worship, while the Hindus restrict their idolatry mostly to their temples, save for the ornate phalluses that litter the landscape in areas dominated by the proponents of that religion.

Amazingly, it has been left to an environmental NGO and the Chief Justice, Sarath N. Silva to do something about this dreadful state of affairs. Both have received precious little public support, and politicians have rushed to side with religious extremists, whose patronage they crave and upon whose goodwill they prosper. A better test case for applying the noise control regulations could not have been chosen than that of Ven. Pannala Pagngnaloka Thero of the Welikadawatte Temple in Rajagiriya, for he is of the majority Buddhist persuasion. Had the respondent been a muezzin (who recite the adhan from the minarets of mosques, through loudspeakers, of course), there may have been overtones of minority persecution. This is especially so given that the Chief Justice is a devout Buddhist, well known as a scholar and a teacher of Buddhism - true Buddhism, not the loudspeaker variety. In choosing to take him on, Pannala Pagngnaloka Thero clearly made a bloomer and, having spent a week behind bars, was forced to beat an ignominious retreat, failing which he stood to earn the same desserts as S. B. Dissanayake.

But the hero of this piece is not the Supreme Court alone: it is also a small NGO that had the courage to fight dragons. As Sri Lanka's environmental NGOs go, the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) appears to be the only one that is alive and kicking and doing its job. EFL has successfully lobbied the Supreme Court to take action against a number of environmental blackguards, be they illegal sand miners, encroachers into national parks or sound polluters. They litigate in the public interest, and we the beneficiaries seldom show the slightest gratitude. (Well, EFL, pray take this as a well-meant "Thank you" from all of us at The Sunday Leader: we doff our hats to you.)

Although 'militant Buddhism' seems at first sight an oxymoron, that is what Buddhism has now come to be in Sri Lanka (then again, weren't those bloodthirsty Samurai Buddhists, too?). Part of this, no doubt, owes itself to the nationalist fervor that has been whipped up by the Rajapakse administration to shore up support for the war (which, after all, is being waged against Tamils of the Hindu and Christian persuasions). The resurgence of Buddhist fundamentalism probably owes itself also in part to evangelical Christianity, which has seen an increasing number of converts, according to some Buddhists a result of material incentives to convert. Many see the proselytisation of Buddhists into Christians of the fundamentalist evangelical kind as a direct affront to their culture. Buddhists have long grumbled about the manner in which their members have converted to Christianity, joining the churches of assorted denominations mushrooming across the country.

Then, in 2003, Buddhist militancy came to a head in the wake of the death on December 12 of Gangodawila Soma Thero, which was portrayed to be the result of a Christian plot. Ironically, Soma Thero had argued for a reversion to personal, introspective Buddhism, and campaigned for the shunning of ritual, idolatry and tree worship. He urged true Buddhists to meditate and to adopt the discipline - the vinaya - of Buddhism. This did not endear him to the loudspeaker-loving Buddhist establishment, which maintained a stony public silence on his teachings while denigrating him behind his back- until he died in a Russian hospital. Soma Thero's death then became the focus of a resurgence of Sinhala-Buddhist fanaticism, fanned and fuelled by the Hela (then the Sihala) Urumaya in consort with the JVP. His body was hijacked by the neo-Nazis claiming that his demise was the result of a Christian plot, and used to unleash a wave of provocative attacks, both through the media and through posters on the nation's walls, against Christians in general. His embalmed remains were exhibited for two weeks, and the funeral held on December 24, 2003, in effect cancelling Christmas that year.

Even as the faithful lined up to pay their last respects to Soma Thero's remains, on December 20, 2003 the Jesus Lives Evangelical Ministry complex at Kirullabokka was fire-bombed and destroyed. In spite of eyewitness accounts to the contrary, the police attributed the fire to a short-circuit. Earlier in the year, Buddhists had taken up the call for legislation against "unethical conversions," and monks of the National Sangha Council began a 'fast unto death' against unethical conversions in front of the Ministry of Buddhist Affairs. Predictably, the fast did not last very long, but the animus against Christians did. Then, in August 2003 the Methodist Church at Rathgama was attacked by a crowd of some 50 Buddhist monks (no kidding). Mobs later attacked five churches in the Galle District, just a fraction of the 65 churches that came under attack that year, 15 of which occurred in the three weeks following Soma Thero's death. 

To her credit, Chandrika Kumaratunga, then President, spoke out fearlessly against Buddhist militancy and granted police protection to vulnerable churches. After all, her father had been murdered by a Buddhist monk, and she knew better than anyone what Buddhist militancy was all about. Although he is a devout and erudite Buddhist, the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who hails from a Christian family (even sporting an uncle who was a bishop), evidently did not want to look like he lacked proper Buddhist credentials. He stayed mum as the churches were burned, and paid the price in the 2004 general election, when the 'Christian Belt' that extends from Kalutara to Chilaw voted en masse against the UNP.

Despite the promotion of the Anti-Conversion Bill (there have been no prosecutions to date: it was simply a load of jingoistic hot air) Buddhist fundamentalists continue to be uncertain of their faith. Pogroms against other religions have been on the rise. Just last week, Colombo Additional Magistrate Ajith Anawaratne himself a no nonsense judge remanded the Chief Incumbent of the Grandpass Buddhagaya Viharaya, Sri Sapugasyaye Dhammanada Thero and three of his associates for desecrating the adjoining Sri Muththumariamman Hindu temple, which they attacked, smashing several idols in the process.

Buddhist attacks against Christians too, are back in fashion. In January 2007, Nallathamby Gnanaseelan, a 38-year-old pastor of the Tamil Mission Church in Jaffna was shot in the stomach and murdered by police "in self defence" while on his way to church. In February this year, Neil Edirisinghe, a Christian pastor in Ampara, his wife and baby child were assassinated in their home - again by police. Edirisinghe, who was shot in the chest, died instantly. Last July 6th, a group of Buddhist monks led a mob that attacked the Calvary Church in Thalahena, Malabe, and reduced it to rubble, assaulting the pastor, his father and five church workers with clubs. Just days earlier, the home of an Assemblies of God pastor in Middeniya was set on fire while he and his family were inside. Shortly before that, Father Ravindra of the Methodist Church was assaulted by three policemen and warded in the Ampara Hospital; and the Gospel Tabernacle Church in Ingiriya and the King's Revival Church in Matugama closed down by the police on the grounds that an attack was imminent. None of these attacks have been condemned by the Buddhist or political establishments. Coming to the aid of the persecuted is a sure-fire vote loser in Buddhist Sri Lanka.

The label Sri Lanka's Sinhala-Buddhists earned in the wake of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom seems just as valid today: 'sil on Sunday, kill on Monday.' Ironically, sil means observance of the five precepts of Buddhism: no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying or intoxicants. Whatever book it is that Sri Lanka's militant Buddhists learned their religion from, it ain't Buddhism as the Buddha taught it.

As a jurist and a Buddhist reformer, then, Chief Justice Sarath Silva has his work cut out for him. The 50 monks who protested in his court last week were but a small sample of the mob of charlatans out there, waiting with their wherewithal to defend what they prostitute as the teaching of the Gautama Buddha.

Sadly, the Asgiriya Mahanayaka, Udugama Buddharakkitha Thero, became the only Buddhist leader to chastise the protesting monks, telling them they were bound by their code to respect the courts. From the rest of the clergy, there was not a hum. Perhaps they took a cue from President Rajapakse who, within hours of Pannala Pagngnaloka Thera's release from remand, feted him at Temple Trees. Shoving his oar into this sordid mess, Environment Minister Champika Ranawaka announced plans to introduce legislation exempting religious institutions from noise pollution regulations.

Although Ranawaka paints himself as an environmental zealot, one needs only to scrape slightly beneath the paint to find the can of worms. The environmental tax introduced last year seems not to have helped the environment one bit, and no one knows quite where the money goes. Now, even as we write, a huge and unsightly mobile phone antenna is being erected at Yala National Park, evidently a sign of the landscape Ranawaka has in mind for this pristine natural reserve. That, perhaps, will be the Environmental Foundation's next lawsuit, given the torpor of mainstream wildlife NGOs such as the once exemplary Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, now snoring gently in its Battaramulla hideout.

 But the noise pollution issue is not about to go away. Sarath Silva has been fighting a lonely battle, with little support from the public (who, after all, are the beneficiary), the media and the political establishment. Sri Lanka's Buddhist majority has shown itself to be a formidable and violent adversary, and one needs to be brave indeed to confront it. It is to the Supreme Court's credit that it tried: it has the satisfaction at least of knowing that. But Sri Lanka is not yet ready for a clean, quiet environment - evidence, if more evidence is needed, that we are indeed a failed state, when the likes of  Pannala Pagngnaloka Thero and Mervyn Silva call the shots. For lay Buddhists of the sincere kind, there is much to do to transform the Sri Lankan version of their faith from a doctrine of hate and belligerence to a doctrine consistent with the Buddha's teachings. Sadly, it seems there are few pilgrims on that avenue. The advent of Buddhist tolerance in Sri Lanka will take until the cows come home - or until the Siyam Nikaya ordains Sarath Silva as a monk. The question that comes to mind in observing the malevolence of the Buddhist establishment towards non-Buddhists, quite simply, is "What would the Buddha have done?" You can bet your bottom dollar it isn't what Pannala Pagngnaloka Thero and others of his ilk have done. They are a disgrace to everything Gautama Buddha stood for and believed in.

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