established well in morality
Develops consciousness and wisdom,
Then as a bhikkhu ardent and sagacious
He succeeds in disentangling this tangle.
Visuddhimagga – Path to purification
It was called a ‘Fast unto death. It turned out to be a feast of fools. Feast of fools was a quasi-religious yearly event in medieval Europe. The purpose was to mock overbearing church dignitaries.
Victor Hugo made it consequential in literature. In his Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo is crowned King of Fools in festivities of a feast of fools.
The organized Buddhist church has now started issuing Fatwas in the form of Sangha Agnnas or edicts. It is time to take the bull by its horns.
Hence this essay on the ‘Four day fast unto death by Bhikkhu Parliamentarian Athuraliye Rathana thera. I undertake this voyage in the clear belief that conscience is not proprietary to the priestly vocation.
There is something that our Mahanayakes will not talk about and our ‘Jananayakes’ will not think about.
That is the spirit of free inquiry as contained in the instructions given by the master to the ‘Kalama community in the Kalama Sutta. It is the Buddha’s finest discourse to lay followers. It rejects fanaticism, bigotry, dogmatism, and intolerance. Qualities that are plentiful in those who constitute the core subject of this essay.
The time has come for us to seriously ponder on what the Buddha taught then and what the Sangha preach now. The sooner we undertake the task, the faster this nation will revert to sanity.
Sinhala Buddhism is intransigent dogmatism. Mangala Samaraweera has read the ‘Kalama Sutta’. He quotes it fearlessly. Why? Because he has no plans to be President or Prime Minster. On this subject Ranil Wickremesinghe is tongue-tied. Mahinda Rajapaksa is unconcerned. He is the patron of the clerical outfit. He won the war. So, he alone has the formula that allows his kids to hold Formula 1 grand prix races around the Kandy Lake and just outside the precincts of the Sacred Temple of the Tooth.
Plain, naked, hard truth
Siddhartha in Sanskrit means he who achieves his goal. Prince Siddhartha after his renunciation, found the ultimate truth. He discovered the Sea of Samsara and how it can be traversed.
As Buddhists, we are familiar with the analogy of the Sea of Samsara. It is the endless ocean we must cross, lifetime after lifetime to reach the distant shore of Nirvana.
According to conventional wisdom, the saffron robe marks a tranquil mind. The wearer has renounced worldly concerns. The Saffron-wearer is engaged in constructing the ‘raft’ that will take him across the sea of ‘Samsara’.
We learnt the story when we were quite young. A man trekking through the misery of suffering arrives at an enormous expanse of water. Danger, discomfort and drudgery surround him. Across the great expanse of water is the other shore; safe, secure and inviting.
There is no boat or bridge in sight. With assiduous application he gathers grass twigs and branches. He ties them all together to make a simple raft. Relying on the raft to keep himself afloat, the man paddles with his hands and feet to reach the safety of the other shore. Once over there, he continues his journey on dry land.
Buddha’s parable of the raft is virtually a ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) manual on how the raft is made and how it is paddled across the sea of Samsara. What is important is that the user must discard it after use.
An enlightened person, when safely across must know the difference between good and evil. Morality is still the main compass. That means holding on to any set of rules or teachings after they have served their purpose is futile.
The cause célèbre:
Ven. Rathana Thera does not intend to construct his raft any time soon. He does not intend to paddle across the sea of Samsara either.
To him the ‘Saffron Robe” is something of an Aqualung for diving into the deep waters of murky, tribal politics of prejudice. He seems hell bent in frolicking in the turbulent sea of Samsara!
Misinterpreting scripture, doctoring the doctrine are not the exclusive preserve of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
The ‘fast unto death’ operation that also was a rare display of rowdy piety and woolly-headed patriotism was called off after four days of sacrilegious suspense.
The venue chosen for the ‘fast unto death’ is significant. The majestic repository of the Sacred Tooth Relic is no ordinary shrine. It is the symbol of Sinhala Buddhist sovereignty.
In the uncertain times of the besieged Kingdom of Kandy, with Nayakkars on the throne, invaders entrenched in the littoral, the ‘Dalada Maligawa’ was the suzerain around which governance revolved.
Even in the present day in the Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian state, the sanctity of the preeminent Buddhist shrine of the ‘Theravada’ Buddhist world serves as an instrument that can confer political legitimacy. Rathana Thera chose his venue for politics of piety and protest wisely and judiciously. Despite my unconditional solidarity with Mangala Samaraweera on his no holds barred secular political values and multicultural social norms, I think he was hasty in faulting his eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith for his visit to the site of the fast and for his exchange of views with the fasting prelate. He discharged his duty as a prince of the church. “Then render to Caesar what is Caesar but give to God what is God’s.” (Mat 22:15-21).
The eminent Sri Lankan Social Anthropologist H.L. Seneviratne has written a comprehensive ethnography of rituals observed in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic perceived as the shrine that bestows bounteous benefits to the Sinhala Buddhist realm.
A few revelatory passages from his ‘Rituals of the Kandyan Sate’ will help us to understand the predicament we are in and how we got there.
“..in Kandyan times the ‘Dalada ‘ was a legitimizer of political power. ..today there is no belief in the Dalada as a direct legitimizer of political power :but indirectly the Dalada has clear political meanings.
Thus, when a new government is sworn in, their first act is to visit the temple from where the mass media broadcast the ceremonial proceedings. The function of this act is twofold. First, it identifies the rulers with the religion and in this sense gives them a kind of legitimacy. Second it identifies the Government with the culture of the past, the revival of which is promised by all parties. “
“The Asgiriya and Malwatta monasteries have traditionally and jealously guarded their exclusive right to the custodianship of the Tooth Relic and the rights of residence in, and special association with the Temple accruing to them thereby.”
“Conflicting ideologies and attitudes such as that broadly termed conservative and radical as well as social forms that can be called archaic and modern, all seem to find both, a place and legitimacy in the Temple and its rituals. The Temple cannot but be considered a cherished symbol meaningful to diverse and conflicting groups.”
Professor H.L. Seneviratne wrote these passages in 1978. Nothing has changed. The time warp of Sinhala Buddhism is intact and safe.
We, ordinary folk worship the Sacred Relics from a distance. Only the powerful and the privileged can worship in the sanctum sanctorum. That too, by the grace of the two monastic orders, who claim the prerogative of its custodial care.
Lest you forget, that is, from the time the British voluntarily vested them with the task. It was the royal obligation of the dethroned king who the other acclaimed social anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere calls the ‘doomed king’.
The visit to the site by his eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith is portentous. The collective resignation of all nine Muslim Ministers is menacingly momentous.
In the aftermath of the carnage on Easter Sunday, two perilous consequences have surfaced. There is an overpowering rise of zealotry. There is a decisive decline of civility in the political debate.
The fasting monk targeted two Governors and one Cabinet Minister. The other eight holders of ministerial office resigned not so much as an act of solidarity with the three who were specified by Rathna Thera but in simple recognition of the polarization that the ‘Fast unto death’ precipitated with several supportive demonstrations staged in Colombo and in some provincial towns.
What Athuraliye Rathana Thera did with his ‘Fast unto death’ at this critical hour must be recognized for what it is. He removed moderation from our political discourse.
Indologist and Buddhist Scholar Richard Gombrich explains the essence of Buddha’s teaching in luminous clarity. Nirvana is the abolition of passion. Passion means wanting something very much. It is the opposite of hatred and confusion. The two factors that influenced the staging of the ‘Fast unto death.”
Unburdened by a manufactured past, the Buddhist scholar explains the concept of the ‘three jewels’- the ‘Thrivida Rathnaya.’ “Buddha is the physician. Dharma is the medicine. Sangha is the nurse.” In Sinhala-Buddhism the nurse is also the proxy physician. Moderation is the political temperament that values self-restraint. Self-restraint is normally a personality trait. But in the case of a Buddha Srawaka who answered the great Master’s call to spread the message of compassion for the benefit of the many, it must be more than a personal trait. It is the existential meaning of the saffron robe.
Religious passion in any form enslaves the human mind. It is incompatible with either reason or ethical conduct. The events in Kandy would be a stark reminder of how easy it is to slide from expedient politics to unbridled fanaticism.
Politics, by its very nature thrives on divisions and disagreements. A Buddhist Bhikkhu in politics can wield a greater influence by injecting an element of moderation through a higher commitment to dialogue and compromise.
Rathana Thera is a Buddhist Bhikkhu. That is undisputed. But is he a Buddhist who practices compassion for the world?