A crisis in Buddhist Sangha leadership

Daily FT

The days of Ven Narada, Kotahene Pragnakeerthi, Yakkaduwe Prajnaratne, Madihe Pannaseeha, are gone it seems forever. The great line of tradition begun by Ven. Sariyuth Mugalan disappears before our eyes. The Sangha is fast become a mere trailer attached to the corrupt political brigade

 Sri Lanka is full of political games these days than never before. It is kolam theatre that we see because in the typical game the players hide under masks or pretences. The discerning sophisticate can see through the agenda but the undiscerning vast are beguiled into believing that what appears is what is. Take a good look at the recent warning by the three Mahanayakes in a joint statement and you will get what I mean.

Conspiring cabal

The statement itself was a follow-up of the unilateral statement issued previously by the Holy One at Asgiriya. Hence, the hand of conspirators in a widening game can be inferred. The conspirators tricked Asgiriya to come into the spider net and then, with enhanced confidence, went up to the other three Holy Ones and got them to sign up.

Our conspiring cabal are indeed ‘smart patriots,’ to use a phrase innovated by Dayan Jayatilleka. GMOA is already in their fold. GMOA, in turn, tried to rope in the trade unions in one collective assault on the government but hardened workers are street smart and they refused to be caught. Thus the GMOA’s ‘unending strikes,’ like the Permanent Revolution (Nonewethena Viplyavaya), keeps going sans the working class until they eventually get a backlash from the suffering people.

Unlike the GMOA, however, the monk platform has only one stated theme, and that is the preservation of the Sangha and Buddhism. The GMOA has the SAITM, the Government international trade pacts and so on and any public policy matter they might think fit to include. When eminent economist Saman Kelegama passed away recently, the GMOA even thought it appropriate to circulate an email that the author of the trade pact with India has gone!


On the other hand, the Mahanayakes’ joint statement focused on the growing public shaming of the Sangha. The immediate provocation had been the public castigation of the doings and undoings of Gnanasara. Social media went viral on rampaging Buddhist monks. A simple mobile camera can capture misbehaviour and broadcast in an instant.

Professor Kapila Abhayawanse, formerly of the Pali and Buddhist University and currently teaching Buddhist philosophy in a Thailand university, wrote a brilliant piece that appeared in the Colombo Telegraph on 6 July. He has correctly spotted the game as he questions whether the three Holy Ones’ statement is a pointer to the Government or a pointer to the Sasana.

The statement is supposed to protest at the trend of shaming of Buddhist monks by the public and the social media, etc. and wants the Government to stop the rot. This wave of criticism was provoked particularly after Gnanasara’s campaign to attack Muslims begun in 2013 and revived vehemently recently.

Listing old stories

Professor Kapila questions the Mahanayakes’ need for listing the destruction to Buddhist religious places, the smashing of Buddha statues and the theft of valuable archaeological treasures buried in temples as among the untoward things happening today. These have been happening for many years in the past. The suggestion is that the widened list of undesirables has been meant to give a depth of context to Gnanasara’s BBS brigade and point the finger at the Yahapalanaya Government.

The Professor reminds us how even some Buddhist monks have been implicated in such destructive acts of theft around sacred places. There have been charges that monks have themselves been party to the stealing of cash donations and tills in temples. One monk has been charged with giving such monies on interest.

Auditing of temple money

It is no secret that we have numerous rich temples spread over the country. Kelaniya, Bellanvila and Kandy are prime examples. Massive amounts of donations keep pouring into these institutions. The Kalutara Bodhi has millions of passing travellers emptying their pockets as an insurance for a good journey. These have been occurring for many years.

The Kings of the past had donated massive assets to places of worship in the form of Nindagam, Devalagam, and Viharagam. The Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters know that too well. I am not aware of any auditing of these donations that have ever been carried out in the face of such considerable cash handling.

Sharing wealth with poorer temples

Professor Kapila rightly states that these rich temple worthies should consider sharing some of their wealth with the thousands of poor temples where monks have to battle daily for mere existence. Many temples in poor rural areas do not have many facilities to extend to the burgeoning number of faithfuls who flock to worship and to find solace. I know one temple in Pilimathalawa where the Nayake monk died young of complicated diabetes. He had drawn out a last will passing on the inheritance to his sisters’ children! The villagers were shocked.

We blame the Christians, but their churches better manage donations and keep audited accounts. They also assist poorer diocese. This better management practice is partly related to the fact that churches are hierarchically managed under one unifying head whereas temples freely crop up and freely grow without any regulatory body. 

To come to the ostensive theme of the Holy Ones’ statement, it is absolutely unfair to blame the Government or the public or the growing social media for the attacks on the ill-discipline of members of the Sangha. The three Mahanayakes should have pulled up the misbehaving monks. I have many images saved that show how young monks in robes behaving worse than lay rowdies. Many of the latter are unshaven and they are seen at various protest venues rushing to the attack and unable even to contain the robe on their bodies.

Gnanasara represents the apotheosis of this trend. I have already dealt fully with this guy. How he entered a Magistrate’s Court and threatened the grieving widow of Eknaligoda; how he turbocharged and spat filth on the Police who came to bring him under control; how he organised goons to burn mosques. The videos have had wide circulation.

Violence in thought and deed is anathema to Buddhist thinking. We say, “May all beings be happy!” (sabbe saththa bhavathu sukkhi). That is our daily wish for all the living species. Is this what Gnanasara and his many likes practice? And what the Mahanayakes’ underplay? And, thereby, encourage?

The Mahanayakes don’t want us to criticise these ruffians and they don’t want us to call them by their personal names without the prefix “swameen wahanse” (something like, Oh Lord). Thus, I have sinned several times by calling this bloke simply Gnanasara. According to the Mahanayakes, if I were to address him I have to say, “Venerable Sir”! The Police must first worship Gnanasara; then say, “Venerable sir, please don’t instigate people to violence! Be quiet!”

To digest such stuff would have to take our sense of humour to impossible heights.

Isn’t it confounding when the Asgiriya Holy made the infamous statement that Gnanasara’s “message is good but his behaviour unacceptable?” In effect, the Holy was exonerating the blackguard. 

Message and behaviour no distinction

Message and behaviour cannot be distinct. The message is embedded in behaviour and the behaviour itself gives another message, namely, that it is right to verbally and physically assault another. Hence, the distinction here made between the two things makes no sense. 

Professor Kapila makes the point that the first precept of the Noble Eightfold Path is ‘right view (samma sankappa). What is this but one’s message? From that flows three other steps of the Path, namely right intention, right action, and right speech. This is the whole point: Gnanasara’s foul speech, and his physically violent disposition to act, and his very act of burning Muslim shops and mosques are an outrageous violation of the Noble Eightfold Path. 

The three undesirable characteristics of a person leading to akusal (demerit), namely raga (desire), dosa (hate) and moha (delusion) are personified in the images of young monks I mentioned earlier and Gnanasara. It was reported how Gnanasara is said to have verbally assaulted Rev. Watareka Vijitha, another monk, calling the latter ‘balla’ (dog).

Is this what we are advised to condone? Is this why we should worship such monks? Crazy isn’t it?

Clearly, like in politics, in the Sangha, Sri Lanka has lost leadership. The days of Ven. Narada, Kotahene Prgnakeerthi, Yakkaduwe Prajnaratne, Madihe Pannaseeha, etc. are gone it seems forever. Is the great line of tradition begun by Ven. Sariyuth Mugalan disappearing before our eyes? The Sangha is fast becoming an uncritical, naive, vacillating, and gullible lot lacking in the vast reservoir of erudition that their predecessors possessed. Naturally, they cannot lead a vast population thirsty for the Dhamma.

I dare say, there are still some in the tradition of Sariyuth Mugalan in Sri Lankan temples but they are a minority and they, avoid publicity. Publicity is what builds public and international perception.

Sinhala Buddhism is in crisis.

(The writer can be reached via sjturaus@optusnet.com.au.)