|Now the life of a Buddhist monk – you’d think – would be one of quiet contemplation, meditation and prayer. And not one mired in the dirty and sometimes undignified world of politics. Yet across Asia there many are examples of monks who’ve abandoned their traditional way of life. In Korea, monks waged pitched battles against each other for the control of the country’s most important Chogye order. In Myanmar many were killed by troops during anti government protests in 1988. Now in Sri Lanka another group is flexing its political muscles – stirring outrage and controversy in the process. Joe Kainz has the story. |
Celebrating a transition.
This novice Buddhist monk is being welcomed into a whole new world.
These monks though are being ordained into a very different order: Politics. In the April 2004 elections an unprecedented nine monks won seats in Sri Lanka’s parliament. All describe themselves as reluctant travellers on the JHU or National Heritage Party ticket.
Kotapola Amarakeethi, Chairman National Heritage Party says: "Ever since I was a novice monk, getting into politics has never crossed my mind. In Sri Lanka, even the subject is distasteful. None of us wanted to get involved this way, but since ancient times when the nation has faced difficulties – the monks have stepped forward to help find solutions. "
The venerable Kotapola Amarakeerthi balances his new job with old duties – such as preaching to school kids about the merits of honouring parents and protecting the environment.
In fact many of the successful monastic political candidates were those considered best at delivering sermons like these.
And lessons taught here have been translated into party goals.
Kotapola Amarakeerthi says: "We want a realistic alternative to the traditional way politics has been conducted here. The crime, corruption and cheating you find in politics causes great suffering, difficulty and unrest. It’s time for an alternative. We are trying to make a new administration based on good Buddhist principles."
But others say the path to enlightenment is not the best preparation for handling the weighty issues of state.
Jehan Perera, National Peace Council says: "They’re really not politicians, they’re community leaders. They are people with a lot of credibility - people have a lot of affection and regard for them. But in coming into politics, which is absolutely new for them, they have found, I think, that they are out of their depth."
Sri Lanka’s Buddhist men of the cloth are no strangers to political activity regularly appearing in rallies like this one.
Some have even been linked to political assassinations.
One of their primary complaints, a belief that the government has given too many concessions to the Tamil Tiger rebels. And a fear that foreign influences were undermining Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and Buddhist roots.
Dr. Ellawala Medhananda, Leader National Heritage Party says: "There is an illegal and unethical movement in this country to forcibly convert Buddhists to Christianity. In addition, we were seeing the nation being separated into two. Our 25-hundred year old Buddhist civilization and the majority Sinhalese nation is in danger of being destroyed. It is such a chaotic situation."
Sri Lanka’s political active monks say their Buddhist faith will help them adapt from life in the temples to life in parliament. But their critics argue they are too naïve to be truly effective in the dirty world of politics.
Some of the harshest criticism comes from the guardians of Sri Lankan Buddhism’s holiest shrine the famous Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Monks here say their brethren have gone too far.
Professor Warakawe Dhammaloka, Senior Secretary of Asgiriya Chapter says: "In fact it would be better if they resign. Yes in history we have had monks who have been politically active, but they have never contested elections. Even Lord Buddha’s advice has been that monks should be close to kings, but never become one. By contesting elections, they have disgraced the clergy and have left themselves unable to achieve any of the pledges they made to voters."
Dhammaloka says if the Heritage Party monks want political power they should take a similar path to that of the late Rambukwelle Sri Vipassi.
Though he never held office his influence with presidents and prime ministers was reflected in the military honours he was given at his recent funeral.
Kandy’s monks say that if had become an MP it would only have diminished his role.
Professor Warakawe Dhammaloka says: "These nine seats could’ve been used to benefit Buddhism in the country, but the monks who have been elected have begun to overestimate themselves and are taking a more political stance in parliament. So what I feel is that the way they behave in parliament has created more problems for us and will continue to do so in future. They are being fooled by the votes they gained because they are popular monks and don’t realize they are being used."
Within days of the elections the monks were at the centre of political intrigue. Sri Lanka’s parliament had no simple majority.
The group of nine suddenly held the balance of power.
When the monks declared their independence a power struggle ensued with allegations of monks defecting and even being held 'hostage.'
And culminating in an ugly brawl in parliament during which two monks were allegedly assaulted.
Jehan Perera says: "Suddenly they found themselves in the middle, the vortex of politics and in a divided way and in a highly controversial way."
It is a concern shared by leading religious laymen in the country.
The custodian of the temple of the tooth says Sri Lanka’s monks should take a cue from other predominantly Buddhist countries.
Neranjan Wijeyeratne, Chief Lay Custodian of the Tooth says: "They are higher than the politicians, why should they go and get involved in this dirty politics? They must give advice to laymen how to do because in Thailand, the monks they don’t have a voting right. The monks won’t get involved in politics."
But the MP monks say to quit now would be a mistake.
Dr. Ellawala Medhananda, Leader , National Heritage Party says: "Lord Buddha himself faced enormous challenges. So did his disciples and other followers. So those who say we are naïve or inexperienced do not understand the willpower and determination of a Buddhist monk and of Buddhism itself."
The new monastic parliamentarian credited with the most political experience agrees.
He insists that the path to power does not compromise his faith.
Athuraliye Rathana, spokesman, National Heritage Party says: "In my life, we have religion, politics and everything – interconnected. Why they depart from each other?"
The venerable Kotapola is also determined to stay the course.
Kotapola Amarakeerthi says: "We can’t help but get involved, and we’ll stay until we convince our countrymen that our view is the correct one."
But they have yet to achieve that task in Sri Lanka’s rural areas where traditionally the Buddhist clergy enjoy the greatest support.
In the recent election the politicised monks did well only in urban areas.
If they can win the support of Sri Lanka’s conservative heartland the monastic MPs may prove themselves true politicians.
|Bhikkus - the new gender of politicians|
Bhikkhus are a common sight on political platforms today. We now have even
bhikkhu parliamentarians elected directly and indirectly by the people. But, say prior
to early forties, the sight of a Buddhist monk on a political platform would have
amazed the people, and in fact shocked the devout Buddhists, Upasakas and
A bhikkhu becoming an MP was unthinkable in those days. Even at the time, the Eksat
Bhikkhu Peramuna spearheaded the MEP parliamentary election campaign in 1956
there was a general acceptance that though Buddhist monks may have their say in
politics a political career was certainly taboo for them.
In this context the writer wishes to quote what Ven. Udagaladeniye Somawansa Thera
says in his book titled ‘Bauddha Bhiksuwage aagameeka Sarnajayeeka karyabaraya’
(The Religious and social role of a bhikkhu) “Deshapalana bhiksu yai rate jathiya
yahapatha udesa katayuthukala bhikshunta apabasaathmakawa katha kalath kisidaka
bhikshun parlimentu manthrikam sandaha kara netha, tharanga karaneda netha”
(although the Buddhist monks who have worked for the good of the country and the
nation are being disparagingly referred to as ‘political bhikkhus’, bhikkhus have never
contested the parliamentary election nor will they ever contest in the future).
It was in the late forties the new phenomenon called ‘political bhikkhus’ appeared in
the horizon of Sri Lanka politics for the first time.
The patriarchs of Maha Sangha once considered that their younger brethren should
not engage in politics ridden with partisanship and bitter cut-throat rivalry without
observing the tenets of ‘Pratimoksha’ discipline in the breach Therefore, they frowned
on the young monks taking to active politics. In this context the writer would like to
recount an anecdote he had heard from his village elders, about how the
Viharadhipathi of the village temple pulled up a young monk for dabbling in politics.
This Viharadhipathi, a chief Sanganayake of two districts was highly respected for the
hermit like virtuous and disciplined life he led. The political bhikkhu he wanted to
reprimand was an author of several books and an orator who openly supported the
Communist party. (Later of course, he retracted his political views and that is another
story) At this time, the slogan ‘Save the Sasana from irreligious Sama-Samajists was
fast gaining ground in the country. Some monks who thought that the particular
‘political monk’ was backing a political ideology prejudicial to the Buddha Sasana
complained about his activities to the Sanganayake Thera.
The Nayake Thera immediately summoned the errant monk, and the latter soon after
appeared before him. Having paid obeisance to the Nayake Thera in customary
fashion, ‘errant’ monk stood on a side and respectfully waited for the elderly monk to
break the ice.
“I sent for the Sthavira, because I was told that the Sthavira has embraced some
political doctrine opposed to Buddhism,” Nayake Thera told the young bhikkhu.
“What is the heretic doctrine I am supposed to have embraced, Venerable Sir?, the
young monk asked.
“I am told it is a doctrine called ‘Sama Samaja’ that is aimed at destroying the Buddha
“Loku-hamuduruwo has been misinformed,” replied the young monk. “I am only a
Communist, not a Sama Samajist”.
“Ah! Is that so? Then there is some misunderstanding, Sthavira, you may go back to
your temple,” said the Nayake Thera dismissing the matter
This anecdote illustrative of the naivety of some elderly Bhikkhus of a bygone era
about certain mundane or secular matters is still being recalled by the people in the
area with a guffaw.
The Nayake Thera of this anecdote like most patriarchs of his times believed that
politics was a vocation meant only for the laity, and something that the Sangha should
not touch with a bargepole. A valuable tradition set by this Nayake Thera continues to
this date :that is the monks of his temple not only shun politics, but also refrain from
voting at elections.
It should be said to the credit of the few bhikkhus who entered the political arena in
early forties, they were not motivated by narrow chauvinistic objectives. These
bhikkhus mostly Marxist-oriented were inspired by humanitarian ideals transcending
religious, ethnic, caste and parochial barriers. They were liberal thinkers fashioned by
the “Ehi Passika!” (come and examine) spirit of Buddhism. By some strange
coincidence almost all these monks who came to be labelled ‘political bhikkhus’ in
early forties were products of the Vidyalankara Pirivena, Peliyagoda. Meanwhile some
of their contemporaries who hailed from Vidyalankara Pirivena made their mark in the
field of Sinhala Literature.
Prominent among ‘the political bhikkhus’ in early forties were Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula
Thera, Ven. Udakendawela Sirisarankhara and Ven. Narawila Dhammaratana. When
they were adding colour and vigour to the country’s leftist movements, bhikkhus such
as Ven. Bambarende Siri Seevali Thera, Ven. Kotahene Pagngnakitti Thera and Ven.
Dr. Kotagama Vachissara Thera, revolutionised the thinking of the contemporary
society with their copious writings Ven. Kalalelle Ananda Sagara Thera, who was a
leading light in the field of literature – he was a poet par excellence- briefly served the
country as a Parliamentarian.
‘The political bhikkhus’ of the early forties did not espouse narrow sectarian causes
unlike those who spearheaded, the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna of 1956. The former
greatly influenced by Marxism stood for democratic ideals and social justice and
actively participated in common man’s struggles for fairplay and justice.
In more recent times Ven. Baddegama Samita Thera followed in the footsteps of great
bhikkhus like Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula.
The entry of Buddhist monks into the political arena to espouse the Sinhala Buddhist
cause in 1956 marked the beginning of a new era of the post independent Sri Lanka
which saw a tragic end to centuries – old friendship and co-existence between the two
main communities culminating in the virtual division of the country.
It is a historical truth that the ethnic divide between the Sinhalese and the Tamils
began to widen since 1956 and the Sinhala only Act set off the time-bomb. It is a sad
commentary that the bhikkhus who should have really acted as a catalyst for National
harmony were largely responsible not only for the communal disturbances that
followed but also for frustrating all attempts made to work out a lasting solution to the
ethnic issue ever since. How the nationalist bhikkhus took to streets when the late Mr.
S.W.R.D.,Bandaranaike and the late Mr.Dudley Senanayake tried to grant a measure
of self administration to the Tamil community in North-East is now part of history.
Even almost six decades of communal disharmony marked by death and destruction,
untold misery and suffering both in the war-theatre and outside it do not appear to
have made our political bhikkhus of the 1956 origin any wiser.
The Jatika Hela Urumaya bhikkhus are yet to reconcile themselves to the stark reality
that we are a pluralist and secular nation. They are blissfully ignorant of the fact that
the continuity of a Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian rule would mean a divided country-
perpetuation of Velupillai Prabakaran’s sway over one third of the country with two
thirds of the island’s coast line. It is a pity that a large section of the Sinhala Diaspora
in Australia in particular is lending moral and material support from a safe distance for
the JHU to beat their war drums.
Ever since it won representation in parliament, the JHU was being gripped by a
They first told the electorate that their objective was to usher in a ‘Dharmarajaya’.
That was a mere slogan and they had no agenda to pursue to attain their Utopian
goal. Later the monks found themselves adrift buffeted by political currents. They
vowed not to align themselves with either of the two main political parties. But soon
they forgot their avowed stand and decided to support the candidature of Prime
Minister Mahinda Rajapakse because of his assurance to ensure the unitary status of
The JHU which came to parliament on the wave of a Buddhist nationalist upsurge
generated by the late Ven.Gangodawila Soma Thera, is now fast losing its urban
middle class vote base. The JHU suffered the first blow when the respected monk
Ven. Kolonnawe Sumangala Thera resigned utterly disillusioned. The party’s very
foundation cracked when later the Hela Urumaya founder Tilak Karunaratne left the
party and joined the UNP. The third fatal blow it received was the defection of popular
monk Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka Thera.
The JHU is a party in death throes. When it is no more, let us say a collective prayer
that there be no more political bhikkhus to espouse ethnic nationalism ever in Sri
The JHU’s commitment to a unitary Lanka is based on fallacy. The term ‘unitary’ it
looks, is something sacred to them; in their opinion no country is sovereign if its
government is not unitary in character! They day-dream of the day when Prabakaran
meekly lays down his arms and says: ‘I surrender for peace on your terms’ or our
three armed forces swing into action and wipe the LTTE off the face of the earth in
one fell sweep without shedding a drop of blood! When this dream comes true every
Sri Lankan will live in a unitary Sri Lanka happily ever after! [Courtesy: Daily Mirror]