Buddhism in Challenging Times

Dr Upul Wijayawardhana | 03 December 2022
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When the Buddha was asked who would be the successor, the unhesitating answer was that it was the Dhamma. He wanted the followers to tread the path, as enshrined in the Dhamma, rather than what we seem to be doing mostly now: indulge in a vast number of rituals invented since. It goes without saying that the behaviour of some members of the Sangha, who are supposed to be the guardians of the Dhamma, has been a significant source of disparagement of Buddhism for some time. Most Buddhists would have cringed to witness the spectacle of a Buddhist monk being taken into custody, for helping a confidence trickster to plunder money from the rich by recommending such pseudo-investments in a trance! In the land-like-no-other, there is a Bhikkhu leading a nurses’ trade union who has got involved in a suspicious transaction of a super-luxury vehicle! Worse still, a political monk had the audacity to proclaim proudly “Sinhala Buddhist dominance is over”, when President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa resigned.

In this milieu, it was so refreshing to see a Buddhist prelate deviating from the prevailing norms. It is the “Way to go” as stated in the editorial in The Island on 14 November:

“Religious leaders, especially Buddhist monks, usually draw heavy flak for ingratiating themselves with politicians. Some of them have even earned notoriety for dancing attendance on political potentates in public and seeking patronage. But the newly-appointed Chief Incumbent of Atamastahana in Anuradhapura, Most Ven. Pallegama Hemarathana Thera, has made a difference. He chose not to invite any politicians when he assumed duties in his new post at Anuradhapura, the other day. Way to go!”

Commenting on the same issue, in an article printed in another English daily, a writer who writes often on matters related to Buddhism has made some strange remarks; he has claimed that the common goal of both religion and politics is to gain political power and abuse it to achieve their ambitions.

Though he does not refer specifically to Buddhism, when taken in context, it is safe to assume his reference to religion is primarily regarding Buddhism. It is very true that the goal of politics is to gain power and sometimes abuse for personal gain than for the good of many. Maybe, some organised religions too attempt to gain power and control using emotional blackmail but such actions are never condoned in Buddhism. What some unscrupulous elements do, hiding behind the Saffron-robe, reflects badly on Buddhism but it is grossly unfair to blame Buddhism for the evil deeds of men in robes.

The aforesaid columnist has said time creates new challenges and a religion has to respond to them for its survival by adjusting its teachings accordingly until a situation emerges when a religion finds it difficult to respond to unique challenges and finds hard to adjust according to new situations.

This view, in my opinion, denigrates Buddhism. Maybe, this critique holds true for some religions but, again, failings may well be due to the inflexibility of the present-day leaders of these religions. However, this does not apply to Buddhism, at all. Since I retired, I have been studying the relationship of Buddhism and science. The more I study Buddhism, the more I find how scientific Buddha’s teachings are. I am referring to the core teachings, not the stories that have been built around which I have criticised in a number of my articles.

My concept of the Buddha is an exceptionally intelligent and compassionate human being who, noticing the all-pervasive sense of dissatisfaction around (Dukkha), pondered over to find the root causes as well as a solution to this problem. After a prolonged journey of experimentation and thought, the Buddha found the way for ultimate detachment (Nibbana). The Buddha’s analysis has stood the test of time and advances of science. In fact, His analysis of the mind has not been surpassed by any.

In the same issue there was a review of ‘Premanishansa’, a Sinhala novel written by Mr Chandrarathna Bandara, which won the best novel award at both ‘Vidoyodaya Literary Awards’ and ‘Swarnapusthaka Awards’ this year. The reviewer has stated:

“‘Premanishansa’ is the ultimate story of love and love is the basis of all value structures that most religions have created. Even though the story traverses mostly on the Asian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, when it comes to the main premise on which ‘Premanishansa’ is developed and created, it is very clear that it is the Western Christian value structure that has solidified its grounding. The kind of deep love and compassion that we as a country need right now, is the kind of love that ‘Premanishansa’ proposes. The Christian concept of inherent value and dignity of human beings – the idea that all human beings are equal in terms of their intrinsic value is a constant presence in the book.”

Jesus Christ no doubt preached equality, love and compassion, but ‘Christian Western value structure’ is an oft-misused term, by academics who are ignorant of the Asian value systems which are much older than the Western value systems. In fact, for a long time there have been attempts to have us believe that Buddha’s birth coincided with that of Socrates, as most Western values seem to originate from the Athenian period. However, recent archaeological finds have confirmed that the Buddha was born in 563B CE. Gautama Buddha, born half-a-millennia before Jesus Christ and even before Socrates and Confucius, rebelled against the existing order for equality, decrying the caste system which was the great divider of the time, by stating:

Na jacca vasalo hoti; na jacca hoti brahmano

Not by birth is one an outcast; not by birth is one a brahman

kammana vasalo hoti; kammana hoti brahmano

By deed one becomes an outcast; by deed one becomes a brahman.

Buddhism was the first religion to offer equality to all including women. Some say that the Buddha showed ambivalence to the ordination of women and it is very likely that the Buddha may have initially had some reservations considering the social milieu of the day.

Unfortunately, attempts are being made to denigrate Buddhism, perhaps due to ignorance at times. However, we Buddhists too should play our part in preserving the Dhamma, which has stood the test of time and challenges of science, by encouraging the separation of religion from politics and getting away from rituals to practice.

Dr Upul Wijayawardhana, Author. 

This article was originally published on Island
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.