By Don Manu (Sunday Punch, ST)
Dimbulagala chief incumbent hails it a historic event but will it be flashpoint to spark bigotry’s fires again?
Perhaps it is his karmic destiny to enter the Noble Order of the Sangha and follow the path of the Buddha at so young an age. Or perhaps it is his father’s good fortune to have found a convenient 24/7 care centre free of charge to relieve himself of his paternalistic duty of having to fend for the boy whilst the mother’s working abroad in the Middle East as a house maid.
MUSLIM BOY MONK: How Aslama became Rathnapure Siri Sudarshanalankaram whilst mother was away
Seven-year-old Ismail Aslama was recently ordained as a monk at the Dimbulagala Forest Monastery and given the new name Rathnapure Siri Sudarshanalankaram, the chief priest of the monastery, the Ven. Millane Siriyalankara Thera announced this week. He said that a certain Hameed Ismail, the father of the boy, whose wife was employed abroad had brought the child to the monastery and offered him to the Sangha. The chief monk hailed the ordination of the Muslim boy as a historic event and proudly declared: “This is the first time in the long history of the Dimbulagala Aranya Senasanaya that a Muslim has been ordained as a Buddhist monk.”
All very well. Except for one thing. Given the boy’s tender age and his mother’s absence from the country, does it revolt the Buddha’s Code of Vinaya tenets? Consider this.
Rahula was the only child, the only son of Prince Siddhartha. On the day of his son’s birth, Siddhartha realised another fetter, another barrier had risen to bar him renouncing the world to find the cause of universal woe. The more he lingered, the more he dilly dallied, the more would the tentacles of attachment grow to bind him to the world’s materialistic life and make it impossible for him to break free and leave his father Suddhodana’s Kapilavatthu kingdom.
That night he left. Under cover of darkness though lit by a pale yellow moon he embarked on an unknown path, on an unknown journey, in an unknown quest to find an unknown treasure.
Seven years later – one year after attaining the ultimate bliss of Enlightenment – he returned as Gautama the Buddha to his father’s Kapilavatthu kingdom. Yasodhara, his wife, who he had left behind in his search for the elusive Truth that would free mankind from accursed sorrow, was eagerly awaiting his arrival. She dressed the young prince, the Prince Rahula, in the best of clothes, and pointing the Buddha out to the young boy said thus:
“There is your father, the Prince Siddhartha, now known as Gautama the Buddha. Behold him son, behold that golden coloured ascetic resembling Brahma on earth. He is your father. And he has great treasures. Go, go to him, and ask for your inheritance. Say to him: I am Prince Rahula, your only child, the son and heir to your fortune. After my consecration as King of Kapilavatthu, I intend to become the Chakravartin, universal monarch. To become one I need wealth. Give me your great wealth: for the son is the owner of what belongs to the father.”
When young Rahula, aged 7, had walked up to his father, the Buddha, and said what his mother had bade him say, the Buddha remained silent. The boy persisted in repeating his request but still the Buddha gave no answer. When the Buddha finally left the palace after finishing his mid day meal as the guest of his father Suddhodana, young Rahula trailed behind, repeating again and again the refrain: “Give me my inheritance.”
No one stopped the young boy and neither did the Buddha prevent him from following him. When the Buddha reached the park with Rahula’s shadow still falling on his robe, the Buddha contemplated thus: “He desires his father’s wealth but it goes with the world and the world is full of woe. What I can give him is not the wealth of worldly riches, which I stood to inherit from my sire had I not renounced it all and taken the path I took; but instead I shall give him the infinite wealth of the Dhamma which I discovered all alone. I shall give him the noble wealth I received at the foot of the Bodhi by the banks of the River Neranjana. I shall make him a beneficiary of the transcendental riches I gained and bestow it ‘pon him as his rightful inheritance.”
The Buddha then called the Venerable Sariputta and asked him to ordain the seven year old boy as a member of the Noble Order of the Sangha.
When news reached the palace, Yasodhara was aghast. She had lost her husband who had left her and their new born son to go in search of some elusive truth. Now she had lost her son too, and was left bereft of the only joy she had left in the world. She rushed to her father in law, King Suddhodana, and grieved at his feet.
Suddhodana was also perturbed to hear the news. Along with Yasodhara, he had been the guardian of the boy during Siddhartha’s absence. Now he, too, was heartbroken to learn of the void created, grieved to face the loss of hope and happiness he had found in his grandson and pained to learn he had no direct heir to succeed his throne. The King, his world turning in turmoil, went to meet the Buddha; and told him thus:
“When thou renounced the world and left the palace, it was a source of great pain to me. It was the same when my other son, Nanda, left to join thee. And now my only grandson, Rahula, whose presence in our midst – Yasodhara’s and mine – had been the only ray of sunshine to light the darkness of these palace walls, whose voice had been the only lilting melody to resound with cheer through these long hushed corridors, whose childish mischief had been the only bundle of jollity to make us laugh, even in grief, both to me and to his mother Yasodhara, has been taken away from us without our knowledge, let alone our permission. We have been left entombed even before our bodies have run cold. Now it has been done. And it’s too late to reverse fate. But bear with me when I say this: The love of a father or a mother towards a son cuts through the skin, the flesh, the sinew, the bone and even the marrow. Grant, Oh Gautama, grant me as thy sire the request I make of thee: that henceforth the Noble Ones may not confer ordination on a child without the permission of his parents.”
The Buddha readily agreed to the King’s request. Even though he, as Siddhartha, was Rahula’s father, he had no right as a Buddha to ordain minors without the consent of both parents. He had unilaterally ordained Rahula only because he was his son and because the boy had been clamouring for his inheritance and this was the only inheritance he could give him, ordination being the only coronation he could bestow. But a child was not the sole property of a single parent. A child belonged to both parents equally. And the Buddha decreed and made it a Vinaya Rule that henceforth no ordination of minors could take place unless the voluntary consent of both parents had first been obtained.
Now take the case of Vessanthara. The legendary king of the Jatakas who for certain reasons, renounced his kingdom and went into exile to the forest with his wife and two children, a son and a daughter. One day, while the wife was away deep in the woods, gathering firewood to keep the home fires burning, an old man happened to stop by at Vessantara’s hamlet. When Vessanthara had nothing to offer him in terms of hospitality as custom demanded, the old man asked the exiled king whether he could take away the two children. Hardly batting an eyelid, Vessanthara obliged and handed over the children to the old stranger for good.
This selfless act of a Bodhisathwa, a Buddha to be, has been hailed through centuries as a supreme act of generosity. But the poet who wrote the masterpiece, the epic Vessanthara Kaviya, whilst praising the selfless act of Vessanthara as tradition demanded, also posed the question through the mouths of the two innocent children who were so freely given away, whether Vessanthara possessed the right to do so, without first gaining the permission of his wife and the voluntary consent of his two children to go with a total stranger, whom the poet through the use of innuendo conveyed to be a rather unsavory nasty character. In modern day parlance, a gonibilla or bogeyman at best or a pedophile at worst.
The question that arises now is whether, in the backdrop of the Buddha’s tenet contained in the Vinaya Code which regulates the admittance of the laity to the Buddhist order of monks, the ordination of a small Muslim boy, only 7 years old, without the express consent of the mother who is presently abroad and, like Vessantara’s wife, gathering the monetary firewood to keep the home fires burning, is correct and in keeping with the rules of admission to the Sasana?
Secondly, the chief incumbent of the Dimbulagala Aranya has hailed the Muslim boy’s ordination as evidence of religious harmony. He said: “This is the best precedent for religious harmony and national unity.” It’s no such thing. On the contrary, done in this cavalier manner, it will only have the opposite effect and may well indeed be the flashpoint to ignite bigotry’s flares again.
It is only natural that no followers of any religion, be they Muslims or Christians, will rejoice the loss of any one of their adherents to another faith and raise their faludahs after Friday’s Jumma prayers or sip their communion wine at Sunday mass in celebration that one of their flock, a lamb at that, had been snared and sneaked over the fence and is now grazing on a different pasture of an alien faith.
Not so long ago, certain sections of the Buddhist community, led by the Bodu Bala Sena were up in arms over the conversion of Buddhists to other faiths. Churches were stormed, mosques were attacked and, in the religious violence that erupted in Beruwela in 2014, one Muslim was even killed. Now that a Muslim boy has been ordained as a Buddhist monk, and, as it transpires, even without his mother’s knowledge or permission, will it not provide the justification for adherents of religions to do the same? How will it affect Buddhist sensitivities, if Muslim Muezzins were to trumpet from the turret tops of mosques or Catholic Bishops were to proclaim from their pulpits, the news that scores of little Buddhists boys have become Islamists or Catholics?
The Buddha was the first missionary. And, during his 45 years of missionary work, he converted thousands of Hindus and Jains to Buddhism. But he did so by preaching his Dhamma and those who followed him did so only after realising the validity of his message. There were no underhand conversions.
In present day Lanka, the right to preach one’s own gospel must be allowed. But not the right to kraal small ignorant children to the fold when the mother’s slaving away abroad. And then to hail it as a historic achievement and blare the bulletin from the Chuda Manikya at the pinnacle of the stupa atop Dimbulagala Rock.