Grapes of wrath and the elixir of compassion

By Rohana R. Wasala


Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fatal lightning of his terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.

From ‘The Battle-hymn of the Republic’ by Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)


The Maha Sangha (the community of Buddhist monks) of Sri Lanka are on the march. But please don’t jump to the conclusion that I am going to assert that they are on the warpath or are going to voluntarily assume or advocate for others a literally militant role in the context of the country’s simmering politics, as would any reader predict on the basis of the ‘righteous rage’ of violated Truth and Justice depicted in the lines from the 19th century American poet Julia Ward Howe’s famous poem (It is one of my favourites) quoted in the epigraph above. She happened to be an abolitionist social activist against the evil of slavery, which was normal in her country at that time. However, the ‘march’ is only metaphorical in both contexts (i.e., here and in the poem).


What I mean is that the Buddhist monks have been forced to make a stand in response to what they perceive as the worst existential threat that they have faced since independence. However, their engagement is not of a militaristic nature. It is a nonviolent attempt to ensure the victory of truth and justice over injustice and falsehood that are now, according to them, are reigning. Monks are only advocates of righteousness (Of course, politically motivated critics will dispute this, irrespective of whether their conduct in any given situation deserves censure or not). It is truth that begins to march on when the upright monks point the way for the guidance of rulers (whether current or future). Monks’ involvement as a lateral or central or marginal force is bound to be misconceived or misrepresented as a purely political intrusion, particularly by those who do not believe that Buddhist monks have at least a quasi political role to play in our society. But this sort of benign mediation by monks in mundane affairs is a social responsibility that devolves on Sri Lankan monks with a conscience; they just cannot relinquish that responsibility even if they wish to do so. I need not invoke the historical and cultural background that leads one to make this assertion, because many speakers and writers have already commented on the subject, and for the average Sri Lankan it is a matter of common knowledge (a fact, cleverly shielded, like other positive pieces of information about the country, from foreign observers by anti-Sri Lanka propagandists). The other factor that legitimizes the advisory role of monks would like to unobtrusively play in governance is the very nature of Buddhism as a truly ‘secular’ (in the sense that the word is understood in the celebrated Western democracies) ethical philosophy, rather than a religion. I’d like to remind the reader of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s lucid essay titled “Tolerance and Diversity” in The Island of August 7, 2017.Here I am not dragging Bhikkhu Bodhi into local politics. My suggestion only (for those who need) to highlight the fundamental difference between Buddha’s teaching and monotheistic ‘religions’ in respect of the concept of secularism. The prominence given to Buddhism in the current constitution does not make Sri Lanka a Buddhist theocracy unlike constitutional recognition conferred on a monotheistic religion would turn the relevant country a strictly (religious) non-secular state. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court has declared that under the current constitution Sri Lanka is effectively a secular state.


Actually, it doesn’t matter if the monks’ social activism is interpreted as political or non-political. Throughout history they advised the monarch, which certainly influenced their political decisions. Rulers also provided legal authority for the enforcement of judgements that leader monks delivered on errant monks, as in cases of disrobing them on grounds of violated bhikkhu discipline. The monks are bound to be nonpartisan when they have to meet their historically assigned or inherited obligations towards the society that supports them with the ‘four requisites’ (food, shelter, clothes and medicine), for they are bhikkhus ‘mendicants’ in terms of the religious precepts they have undertaken to follow. The perfect democracy, humanity, and compassionate tolerance of Buddhism does not allow people of other religions to be disadvantaged in any way in a state where the majority are Buddhists.


The monks cannot abandon their duties towards the lay society which mainly consists of Buddhists – but they are not discriminatory towards people of other faiths – simply because their viewpoints and well meant activities could displease the minorities, who might wrongly view them as fundamentalist, or racist, or sectarian, or domineering; but they need to appreciate the righteousness that impels monk activism, the overriding universal compassion that blesses not only those in the Buddhist fold, but outside it, even non-humans.


Something that bears out the fact that Sinhalese Buddhists do not use their vote on the basis of race or religion is how poorly Buddhist monks generally fare at parliamentary elections , except perhaps in rare circumstances brought about, for example, by perceived non-reciprocation of their goodwill by other communities, and how deeply they embrace democratic ideals. Average monks, on the other hand, with no special spiritual attainments to their credit are, like ordinary laypersons, are pathujjanas or worldlings (‘The world is too much with us…’ as they could truly confess with poet Wordsworth). Not all monks can be thought to perfectly fulfill this requirement of being non-partisan, for a stake in party politics is usually worthwhile in ensuring material gain or worldly success in this corrupt world, be the pathujjana a monk or a layperson. A few loudmouthed monks, particularly the corrupt handful that act as if they are oblivious of the abundantly available evidence that the Buddhasasana is being targeted by inimical non-Buddhist forces (which, nevertheless are a marginal element among the traditional minority communities), have joined the ranks of critics of the strengthening Sangha unity. The Buddhasasana includes the Dhamma, the monks, the Buddhist laity, the monasteries, Buddhist shrines, all properties donated to the Sasana by ancient royalty and lay upasakas (lay followers of the dhamma), including those given at later times, ruined places of worship and other Buddhist archaeological treasures, which are our historical heritage, and extant rituals such as the Dalada perahera in Kandy, and other ritualistic and architectural monuments that proclaim the proud cultural identity of Sri Lanka. It is no racism to speak up for the assertion and preservation of this unique identity, when it is in danger. It is no threat to peaceful co-existence with other religionists to do so. Unfortunately, it is the strident noises of mindless extremism against the majority community that are heard drowning out the mature mellow words of sage advice uttered by these monks.


The eminent monks who are being drawn into the movement that is gaining momentum (sucked in despite themselves, as Buddhists know very well, without ignorant aliens having to berate them about it) were criticized for keeping quiet in the face of numerous acts of barefaced aggression and blatant hostility against Sinhalese Buddhists in the recent past, especially in the north and east provinces, and for naively trusting the false assurances of protection offered by opportunistic politicians of both the major parties who have taken the vote of the patient Buddhists for granted, while exclusively focusing on the bloc votes of the minorities led by self-righteously communalist politicians . Leaders who come from the majority community are often ready to implicitly disown the monk activists, even though they would love to use them to garner Buddhist votes. On rare occasions when a leader with some courage dares speak about injustices that the Sinhalese Buddhist community are subjected to, he or she gets shouted down as a racist. The relative shyness of the southern leaders to associate themselves with the monks openly is demonstrated by the fact that no important political leader, perhaps with the exception of NFF leader Wimal Weerawansha, according to the media, has fully endorsed the viewpoint of the Maha Sangha, so openly, although it is not only the most non-communalist, non-totalitarian, non-sectarian but the most democratic approach proposed to resolve the religious fundamentalist problem that the Buddhist monks have been instrumental in foregrounding as a crucial aspect of the deeper national crisis now facing our country – the threatened disintegration of the unitary state with a predominant Buddhist cultural identity to accommodate federalism.


No foreign observers, nor persons alien to our language and culture, can understand or appreciate what these monks are saying. These strangers who want to interfere in the internal affairs of an independent sovereign state with a unique recorded history of over two and a half millennia do not have any empathy with the monks or the rest of Sri Lankans. Hence the external and internal opposition that is being registered against the monks. Despite such opposition, the monk leaders are determined to replace the poisonous harvest of ‘grapes of wrath’ (In Julia Ward’s poem, the phrase means an unsatisfactory situation that calls for divine intervention/retribution, i.e., just punishment of those responsible) with the rare elixir of universal compassion that Buddhism offers.


The sensible majority of all Sri Lankans have welcomed the recently announced unanimity of opinion among the Maha Sangha regarding the deteriorating state of affairs in the country. Issuing the now well known Asgiriya Statement of June 20th the Asgiriya Karaka Sangha Sabha suggested that something is not alright with the way the country is being run by the current regime. That is a damning observation coming from the Maha Sangha. The July 4th declaration by the same Maha Sangha that the country does not need a new constitution at this juncture was received by the general public as a more concrete manifestation of the positive development heralded by the Asgiriya Statement. What is needed is the implementation of the provisions of the current constitution to stop the rot, including the attacks on the Buddhist cultural heritage and heritage sites of the country.


But there has been opposition to this Sangha rising from the beginning. It comes from a minority, which, although it has little justification for getting involved in our internal affairs because of being effectively alienated from the majority of the population on the basis of one reason or another, now seems to be doing everything in its power to destroy the historical, cultural, and political basis of our Motherland that the Maha Sangha unequivocally represent. This hostile, small minority (rendered powerful by default in a local political context shot through by meteoric disturbances of regional geopolitics) consists of six marginal sections, according to my own amateur reckoning, namely: unfeeling neo-liberalists, moribund Marxists, federalist communalists, anti-Buddhist religious fundamentalists, unprincipled, opportunistic politicians, and a set of well meaning but deluded young political theorists who call themselves ‘secularists’, which I will reserve for a future write-up.


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