The Sunday Leader

Disproving Twain To Be Buddhists

“I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics,
a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.”
— Mark Twain in Eruption

The Temple of the Tooth

University students are back on the streets and universities have hit the front pages. The government is trying to curb student activities using outsiders as “parents” to guard universities. The ugly incident at Kelaniya exposes how buffoons are brought to handle student unrest, instead of educational authorities providing answers.
It’s not that “thugs” can not be “parents”, but using them to beat students and getting a court order to disperse university students from university premises is no answer to any issue. Using the court order and allowing men in civvies to roam within universities, speaks much about turning universities gradually into “defence” enclaves too.
Yet so far, neither the “parents” nor the students have gone to the Malwatte/Asgiriya chief prelates with their woes. Nor have they come out with any advice or warnings to the parties involved. Probably the type of “parents” brought to the streets don’t believe in religious mentors and the IUSF leaders have no time for such religious consultations.
Mainstream politicos and civil leaders, nevertheless take these religious leaders very much seriously. During the recent past at least, the list of important persons who met the chief prelates at Malwatte and Asgiriya temples include almost all one would include in such a list, depending on who, one lists as important. All of them met these chief prelates on issues political. From the President to Leader of the Opposition, the Common Opposition Candidate and thereafter his wife, the revolting and rebelling leaders in the Opposition UNP, the Defence Secretary, wives of the disappeared persons, groups of lawyers asking for justice, representatives of businessmen to have better deals, all have travelled to Kandy to meet the chief prelates for advise, help and for political intervention.
Over 100 lawyers during the last elections met the Most Venerable Thibbotuwawe Sri Sumangala Thera of the Malwatte Chapter, to complain that the state continues to disregard Supreme Court orders on media coverage.
Deputy Leader of the UNP, Karu Jayasuriya visited the Malwatte Temple, again during elections, to complain about election violence and violation of the law.
Gen. Fonseka visited the Malwatte Chapter Chief Prelate and was blessed for his candidacy as the war hero who would not allow this country to be divided here after.
After the general elections in April this year, Minister S.B. Dissanayake called on the Malwatte Chapter, to be told it is time to stop what was said on the political platforms and all must forget the differences and work together to develop the country.
When informed of Fonseka’s arrest, the Chief Prelate lost no time in condemning the arrest of a war hero.
Most Ven. Buddharakhitta Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter had telephoned President Rajapaksa to raise the issue of Fonseka’s arrest.
Talking on business and trade, the Chief Prelates of Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters promised the Colombo Young Lanka Businessmen’s Association, they would request President Mahinda Rajapaksa, not to sign the proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India.
Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited the two Chief Prelates of Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters to invite the Venerable Theros to the “Jaya Pirith Deshanaya” at the BMICH and both accepted the invitation.
When families of the missing media personnel went to seek advice and plead for help, the  Malwatte Chapter high priest complained, “Mahinda and his politicians, do not come to this Temple for advice and blessings.”
Though university students and “parents” have not been up there yet, the Chief Prelates have been extremely busy meeting leaders, representatives of oppressed groups, making comments and issuing statements on political issues wholly outside religious obligations and practice. Politicians and public leaders seem to believe, or pretend, they respect Buddhism by visiting these Chief Prelates with media coverage. They tend to believe these sojourns provide them with better social acceptance, at least in the Sinhala South.
Unfortunately for all of these politicians and public figures, the ordinary man and woman on the street and the rural folk, rarely remember who went for what, if one asks them now. They would certainly say in general, “Yes they run to Malwatte – Asgiriya…. but nothing happens.”
The incumbent two big chiefs have been entertaining every “Percy Aiya and Nancy Akka” on any issue and event, rubbing out the revered aura of the old high monks of repute, who sat in those hallowed positions in the past. How these two positions came to be so important to the Sinhala Buddhists is a case of deformed “branding” by the Buddhists themselves. Leading a sectarian, caste based clergy, should not have given them any authority over Buddhist loyalty and Buddhist thinking. Why Malwatte is given priority and a pride of place even over Asgiriya in this Sinhala Buddhist society, reveals the feudal mind of this so called modern society.
Buddhism in ancient Ceylon had never been a continuously healthy doctrine as claimed and was always driven with bitter rivalry between Mahaviharaya, Abhayagiriya and Jethawanaramaya, vying against each other for allegiance with the King. Monks often went astray to lead lives unbecoming of Buddhist monks and often kings stepped into clean up the “monkdom”. From the first recorded such intervention by King Vijayabahu (before 1114) in Polonnaruwa, right up to the Malabar, Hindu King Sri Vijaya Rajasingha in Kandy (in 1753), there had been many other kings in between in Kotte and Kandy too, who had intervened in bringing back the higher ordination (Upasampada) from different parts of Thailand (Siam) and Burma (Amarapura and Ramannadesa) when monks were almost absent, except for the yellow strip they wore.
“Malwatte Chapter” as it is commonly called in English, also came with King Sri Vijaya Rajasingha’s intervention. In Buddhist parlance, this is the “Shyamopali Siyam Nikaya”. The name “Siyam Nikaya” is derived from the higher ordination that was brought to Kandy in 1753 from Thailand then known as Siam. The prefix “Shyamopali” comes from the name of the Thai monk who carried out the higher ordination, Upali Thero (Siyame Upali). Malwatte got its prestige status being the temple where this higher ordinations were carried out. Asgiriya came into existence, as the Siamese monks who came for the higher ordination thought it best to have two sects ordained to avoid earlier degenerations into “Ganinnanseys”.
These two sects immediately monopolised the higher ordination and refused to ordain any outside the Kandyan kingdom and from 1796, they restricted the higher ordination to the high caste elite in the Kandyan kingdom. Meanwhile those in the British controlled maritime provinces with no “king” of their own, but keen in establishing a higher ordained Buddhist monkhood, were left to be financed by the Sinhala traders. Thus the two alternate “nikayas” that came into existence in 1803 and 1864 as “Amarapura” and “Ramanna”, initiated by castes considered low and for the first time supported by Low Country traders and businessmen of those castes.
It thus beats sanity in accepting such caste based, sectarian sects still continuing on feudal divisions, as worthy of advice and guidance in a modern secular world, to sort out conflicts and issues with modern thinking. Obviously they still wish to maintain their feudal dominance with state patronage as of yore. Obviously too, they run into contradictions in maintaining their hermitage life, while interfering in lay politics. This day is different to that of “kings” who patronised them with large tracts of land as “Viharagam” and “Devalegam”. Today they have to compromise with modern luxurious patronage instead, leaving them quite a distance away from a true Buddhist monk with higher ordination who lives a life of “Sila Visudhi” (Moral Purity).
It is therefore time, society leaves them for what they are religiously worth, if Buddhism is to prevail in this institutionalised way at least, instead of getting back to the days of “Ganinnanseys”. That would at least prove Mark Twain wrong.

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