A scary saffron surge

“Every faith has its rascals – but I think they are most in ours. No god – no fears.”

That quote above of two lines is from an email received from a powerfully thinking friend, just stated off her own bat. It however added weight to the thoughts that have been surging in my feared mind after seeing so many Buddhist monks in active politics and so much visiting of temples by those who won the recent election. Also a statement made by a monk loud and clear that the leaders who won the recent elections took their advice (the monks’) and should continue doing so now they are in power. Advice is fine but not active politics. Heard was a monk condemning the minorities using the word ‘yakko’ and saying they should be kept in their place. He was yellow robed, shaven headed but far from serene; rather was his face full of hatred, as seen on TV.

Saffron robe
Seen much of and heard much from. I mean a section of the Sangha of Sri Lanka which seems to be very political and considers this the opportune time to come forward and be counted and noted and heard. But to me – a Buddhist woman who loves this country and has lived through many decades observing national matters keenly – there lies dread and menace in Buddhist monks entering active politics whether using their influence to lever people’s votes; speaking on political platforms; lying down in the precincts of the Dalada Maligawa and fasting over some issue which could easily be negotiated and better left to civilians to resolve; even contesting elections and entering Parliament.

I have not mentioned here those in yellow robes who are in the forefront of public protests and a few who led assaults on minority groups. Political monks are definitely stepping out on the wrong path. Their place is the temple and the monastery; their duty to interpret the Buddha Dhamma and lead the people they have influence over to better lives, striving to enter the Path shown by the Buddha as bringing deliverance, but before that enjoying the satisfaction in this life full of dukkha (unsatisfactory samsaric existence) through meditation and improvement of their minds and sila. They get on the Path through renunciation and great effort and then they show us the Path and guide us.

Their greater duty – their national duty is ADVISING the leaders as they advised the Lankan kings of long ago. Not be out front and active politically. Many Head Monks do the former. Most others, follow the Vinaya rules strictly and guide people in true Buddhism.

Great good monks of the past and present
We have had plenty of these. To mention but two. Ven Madihe Pannaseeha who said the individual must improve himself knowledge-wise, economically and spiritually and then society would improve. Ven Narada helped spread the Dhamma internationally. We Buddhists are very fortunate to have had great good monks and have such monks even now in considerable numbers, whose bana is even better with more relevance to our lives. They lead their lives as prescribed by the Buddha.

I well remember Ven Dhammavihari Thera who was formerly a university professor of Buddhist Philosophy, making his abode in the Narada Bauddha Dharmayatana down Sarana Road, Colombo 7, saying that he and all monks have duties to perform for lay people, as the latter provide them with all necessities to sustain life. And thus their readiness and willingness to advice lay people; visit homes for danes and pirit chanting, and offer solace when that is needed. This was when I went to him to thank him for traveling to a nursing home with me and a niece driving, when her brother was direly ill. He came with Ven Mettavihari Thera and said that was all right traveling with two females, since he was accompanied by a brother Thera. He was soon after a cataract operation. Did he consider germs and infection? Was he reluctant to visit a hospital? Not at all! He realized the urgency of the request. The other monk in the Narada Centre on that evening was ‘claimed’ by a person to visit his home, who would not consider the greater need at hand. The two monks hurriedly came with us; chanted pirit as my nephew breathed his last, and thus the great deed of mercy and solace not only to the dying patient, but to his grieving family.

I must first say that very many monks are true Buddhist monks in this land of ours, following strictly the vinaya rules set down by the Buddha and wearing the robe he prescribed with solemnity, serenity and dignity. We also have monks in the forest tradition not only at Meethirigala Nissarana Vanaya Forest Hermitage but elsewhere too who spend their time in meditation with not much contact with ordinary life and lay people. In some abodes, people do not even see the monks; dane is left for them and they appear only to gather their food and return to their kutis and seclusion.

Recent speech and an utterance
Dullas Alahaperuma addressed a media briefing with other newly up front politicians which was telecast. I missed the beginning of his address and switched off before he ended. He described vividly how a bull is enraged for a bull fight. I suppose he may hae closely watched such in Spain; globe trotters as politicians are. He said the bulls are enraged by waving red cloths before them. Then he came to the crux of his address. He announced that in Sri Lanka there are the bulls who enrage when they see yellow. He meant those who censor the Sangha (justifiably) and by implication non-Buddhists, traitors and all those others who do not pay obvious puja to monks. Was he referring to Mangala Samaraweera and a viewpoint attributed to him? I heard about it.

Mangala Samaraweera is said to have announced he takes two refuges. We Buddhists, when we observe the five precepts, preface it with taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha. Thus Mangala S would take refuge only in the Buddha and the Dhamma, having lost faith in and respect for the Sangha. Mangala S is castigated for this. He has every right to an opinion. When faulted, the person or persons should look inwards and see whether the faulting is justified. We seem to have this habit in Sri Lanka of never tolerating criticism.

I had been told in sermons and came to realize after discussion that the refuges we accept are not Buddha as Gauataman Buddha; the Dhamma as the Tripitaka per se; the Sangha not all those in yellow robes. They are mere concepts: the first refuge being Buddhahood which is possible to all persons (please not only to men as some pronounce!). The Dhamma is the Truth and includes the four noble truths and the eightfold path as explained to us by Gautama Buddha and realized by him after nine years of diligent seeking as the recluse Prince Siddhartha. The Sangha is identified as those on the Path, and that means at least having reached the stage of Sotapanna, the first of the four stages to final release from samsaric existence.

The Ratana Sutta or Discourse on the Jewels has the Buddha identifying the third Jewel as “Those well engaged with a firm heart
Freed from passion, in the dispensation of Gotama,
They have reached the goals having plunged into immortality,
Having received free they enjoy peace.
This jewel in the Sangha is excellent!”

Thus the third refuge is definitely not every monk or layman who robes himself in the saffron robe of the Buddhist monk. It is they who have reached the goal – the goal of deliverance from mundane life. Thus we can confidently take refuge and say sincerely and with joy –

“Buddham saranan gachchami; Dhamman saranan gachchami; Sangham saranam gachchami”

Because in the last we do not mean the entire Sangha but only the Arahats or those on the Path to Nirvana.

A very learned monk on being questioned by me, replied thus: “The jewels found in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha are excellent. When we seek the third refuge we take refuge in the Noble or Ariya Sangha and not the sammuti sangha.”

Thus we can safely intone the taking of refuge which is a comfort and causes inner peace; and with calm gained, attempt closing our eyes and minds to monks – increasing in numbers and stridency – who do not keep the vinaya rules.