Maha Sangha – above the state

By Rear Admiral (Dr.) Sarath Weerasekera VSV, RWP, USP


An article appeared in The Island” on 10/7/2017 titled ‘Is there a Sangha State” behind the state?’, written by Laksiri Fernando ( LF). LF says that the Maha Sangha of the three Nikayas (Sangha) has given notice” to the government not to introduce a new constitution and expresses concern as to whether the government would succumb to that shadow” state. LF who questions the expertise/knowledge of the Sangha on the constitution”, says that the opposition to a new constitution at the moment, even without waiting for a draft, appears to be an extreme political mission and not a religious mission. For him, the objection by the Sangha to the Bill to implement the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPAPED), without knowing what it contained, was mooted on behalf of another party to the controversy; and the objection was baseless as the government already has become a signatory to it in 2015.

Referring to the statement of the Asgiriya chapter, LF says that its comment on the threat to our motherland…” was largely imaginary, prompted by political motives and he continues to state that the above statement is full of references to our motherland”, Sinhala nation” , Buddha Sasana” etc. but nothing about Buddha Dhamma”. What he implied, in no uncertain terms, was that the Maha Sangha should mind their own business without advising the rulers on political” matters.

It is an accepted fact that every citizen has an obligation to serve his/her motherland in whatever form. That is why the country of one’s birth is called Motherland” as s/he is supposed to love/respect/protect it just like s/he would his/her own mother. The History of a country is one of the main factors, which generates that feeling”. One’s view of the history shapes the way he observes the present. Through the study of history, people are better able to understand how the present came to be. We are a nation with a proud history of over 2500 years and as far as the Sangha is concerned, anyone who has an understanding of that history, will never try to belittle them when they raise their voice on matters concerning both social work and politics in the country.

Before I comment on the knowledge of the Sangha on the constitution/ICPAPED let me state the following. In Sri Lanka, the Theravada Buddha Dhamma is protected and proffesed by the Arya Sangha. The Sangha is maintained with deep respect by the Sinhalese, who are aware that their only home/homeland is Sri Lanka (earlier called Sinhale). So whenever the country is under threat or in danger, the monks consider it is appropriate to come forward to protect the nation as otherwise it would ultimately endanger the very existence of the Dhamma. Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka is preserved in its pristine purity because of the commitment of the Sangha. In doing so, on some occasions monks had to sacrifice their own lives. One of the main reasons why the former Buddhist countries such as the Maldives, Malaysia, Indonesia, Afghanistan etc. are now purged of Buddhists was the absence of such brave/selfless monks at the crucial periods in the history of those countries.

Although monks renounce worldliness they, from time immemorial, maintained close relationships with the community, society and the government. The Buddha himself advised kings and their ministers and sometimes delivered Suttas with a political content. The Buddha was also the first religious teacher on record to have gone to the battlefield personally to prevent the outbreak of a war. This was between the Sakyan and the Koliya clans. In Chakkavaththi Sihanada and Kutadantha Sutra, the Buddha explained how violence raises its head when the economy of a country is at a low ebb, the destitute are neglected and how, as a consequence, the incidence of crime increases. There would be a gradual loss of values due to economic instability. To say this very simply, people would take to stealing rather than perish. Thus it is clear that even the Buddha himself had not confined himself only to preaching the Dhamma.

History including the contemporary history has it that there is throughout a close relationship between ‘Church and State’ (here Church clearly means the predominant religion.) The Constitution of England, largely unwritten, gives the foremost place to the Church of England. The Act of Settlement of 1700 ordains that none but a person belonging to the Church of England can be King or Queen of England. It is the Archbishop of Canterbury who places the Crown upon the head of the King or the Queen. In the USA, Obama, (say an ‘ethnic Muslim’) would have been totally unacceptable had he not been a Christian. It was upon the Bible that he took his oaths as President. Although the US is considered by many to be a secular state, The Dollar Note carries the words ‘In God We Trust’. In Sweden the Lutheran Church is the official religion. In terms of Article IV of the law relating to kingship, the King shall be a person belonging to the Swedish Lutheran Church. The law requires that the children be brought up in conformity with this religious tradition. In Norway the Evangelist Lutheran Church is the official religion of Norway. In Pakistan, Iran & other Islamic countries in the Middle East, the Constitutions state that their law & administration are based on Islamist teachings. In Thailand (Article 7 of Chapter 11) the King is a Buddhist and is the protector of the religion. Countries including Russia, except during the Communist Rule, considered Orthodox Christianity as the most important institution in their identity.(Courtesy All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC). See Chapter 4 in particular on ‘Secular States Concept and Buddhist Identity of Sri Lanka’ of the ACBC ‘Report of the Commission Appointed to Inquire and Report on The Conversion of Buddhists in Sri Lanka to Other Religions by Immoral and Fraudulent Means.) However, there is barely a country where every single citizen is exclusively of a singular ethnicity and religion. It is therefore quite insensible to say of Sri Lanka exclusively is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country. Sri Lanka is a country of the Sinhala Nation with Buddhism as its predominant religion. My perception is that on the whole, Sinhala Catholics/Christians are as much Sinhalese and as much patriotic, as Sinhala Buddhists.

In Sri Lanka, well before expressions such as the relationship between the ‘Church and State’ surfaced, it was customary for kings of the past to consult Bikkhus on all important occasions and on vital problems. According to an inscription of King Mahinda IV (956 -972 AC) the approval of the monks was necessary for a man to be crowned King of Sri Lanka. After the death of King Saddhatissa (77- 59 BC) Prince Lajji Tissa was to become the king but the assembly of monks who gathered at Thuparama selected Thullanatha as king. King Kashyapa had killed his father. Hence the monks unanimously refused to accept him as the King. Instead his brother Mugalan was enthroned.


It was the Sangha who settled the hazardous political turmoil /civil combat between King Gajabahu II and King Parakramabahu and restored peace in the country. The inscription regarding this peace treaty can be seen even today at Sangamuva Vihara in the Kurunegala District. King Parakramabahu (1236 – 1271 AC) consulted the Bhikkus and obtained their advice in the matter of selecting his most suitable successor, out of his six princes. Thus anyone who knows the basic history of our land would appreciate the role of the Sangha in politics in the country.

Buddhism and the State were interlinked to such an extent that there was a tradition amongst the ancient kings to consecrate the State of Sri Lanka to the Buddha Sasana. It was King Devanampiyatissa who first offered the State of Sri Lanka to the Sri Maha Bodhi. King Dutugemunu offered the State of Sri Lanka to the Buddha Sasana on five occasions. Having listened to a sermon delivered by Kalabuddharakhita Thero, King Saddhatissa offered the state of Sri Lanka to the Thera. King Sri Meghavanna and King Kasyapa 1 were two other monarchs who offered the State of Sri Lanka to the Buddha Sasana. That is why the concept of Sri Lanka is the Land of the Buddha” should be accepted without any reservation (Ibid page 67 Paragraph 151) Thus did the Sasana/Sangha protect the State.”

In the same token, the State protected the Sangha not merely by seeking and accepting their advice but also by intervening when necessary by applying rules governing the discipline and conduct of the Bhikkhus, in consultation with the Sangha. This was by means of Kathkavath or ‘ecclesiastical edicts’. An example is the Edict found ”in a rock inscription of 1165 CE by King Parakramabahu 1 (1153-1156)”. This was when, due to the degeneration of the Sangha, Royalty (the State) had to intervene to cause a reconciliation of three discordant schools of monks, Mahavihara, Abhayagiri and Jetavana.” The Council for the purification of the Sangha was of course held under a monk not the King, who but facilitated the reconciliation. The monk was the Venerable Dimbulagala Kasyapa. A Code of Discipline and Rules was promulgated and scripted on rock. (Ibid page 21.)

In more modern times a Gazette Notification was issued on 7th July 2004 by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, to provide for the registration of Katikavat.

‘This system of governance changed greatly under the period of colonization and the British took away the special status that Buddhism had, as our national religion, and established a new administrative structure. Thus the historical bond between the rulers and the Sangha became weaker.’ As a result of this unacceptable situation, a public declaration was issued in 1946, by the Vidyalankara Pirivena titled Bhikkhus and Politics” and it clearly stated that it was nothing, but. fitting for Bikkhus to identify themselves with activities conducive to the welfare of the people , whether such activities are labeled politics or not, as long as this activity did not impede the religious life of a monk.

It is considered pertinent to mention an interesting observation made by Dr. Chandre Dharmawardana. ….. it must be emphasized that this is not in conflict with any monk who may decide to follow the path of full renunciation. People who talk of pure Buddhism, usually proceed to argue that Bikkhus should not concern themselves with social and political matters. However if one is entirely centered on oneself, then there is no room for compassion!!”

What is important to mention here is that there is a great deal of historical evidence in Sri Lanka to prove that whenever occasion arose for monks to contribute their share, for the protection of the country, nation and religion, they have risen valiantly to such occasion to meet the need of the hour. In keeping with that tradition, now, the Maha Nayaka Theros have issued their statement on a constitution” which is struggling to be born and which is condemned by people like LF. Apart from criticizing the role of the Sangha one of main argument is that it is premature, as a draft bill on the constitution is not yet submitted by the government.

Do we have to wait for a draft bill before commenting on the making of the present constitution? This government turned the entire parliament into a constituent assembly”, then appointed the Lal Wijenayaka committee to obtain the views of the public, thereafter, the six sub committees made their recommendations public. Anyone who has monitored the above process would know that the draft bill will have to be prepared based on those recommendations and nothing else.

The main Sub Committee of the above constitution-making process was the Centre Periphery Relations Sub Committee” and it was headed by former PLOTE member, MP Dharmalingam Siddharthan. He starts his report stating that the unitary” status of the country is a great impediment for the smooth functioning of the Provincial Councils and obviously all the recommendations that follow are measures to erase the Unitary” status of the country.

Although our country became somewhat federal” after the 13th Amendment, the unitary” status is being preserved mainly through the Governor and the concurrent” list.  The Governor is above the Chief Minister and exercises powers of the President; and the Province and the Centre both have to concur” before a law is passed on any one of the 36 subjects in the Concurrent list. For example, in case the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, Wigneshwaran, tries to pass a law prohibiting the erection and maintenance of Buddha statues in the North, the Governor can intervene and reject it by exercising the powers of the President. If the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province wants to pass a law allowing Muslims to marry girls under the age of 12, then the Central government can stop it as the subject of marriages and births falls within the concurrent list. The two main recommendations of the Centre Periphery Relations Sub Committee are to strip the Governor of all the powers and to cancel the concurrent list. No brilliant brain is required to understand what would happen to the country if those recommendations are implemented.

At present, the NPC Chief Minister Wigneshwaran openly says that Sinhalese have no right to live in the North. He has prohibited the erection of a Buddha statue at Nagadeepa and participates in protest marches at Kilinochchi demanding the removal of Buddha statues in the North. What would happen if such a person is given all the powers recommended by the above Sub Committee? Also, the Provinces would be largely independent without any control from the Centre thus compromising the unitary” character of the country. The LTTE leader Prabhakaran tried to destroy the unitary status of the country for 30 years using terror and 29,000 of our soldiers were killed and 14,000 critically wounded trying to prevent it. Now what Prabakaran could not achieve through terror, this government tries to serve on a platter to the separatist Tamil politicians. Under such circumstances, it is the duty of all patriotic citizens in the country to raise their voice against it and when the Maha Sangha has taken the initiative we find people like LF trying to condemn that effort. Only the people who are completely ignorant of the constitution-making process or the ones who are absolutely not concerned about the Motherland would criticize the Sangha for calling upon the government to stop this treacherous act.

LF may not know that we are a dualist country and just because we sign an international convention it doesn’t become law unless it is passed through a bill in Parliament. The Enforced Disappearance Bill (EDB) if approved, would put all the war winning military and political leadership in danger. If an officer/soldier is found guilty by the Office planned to be established by the OMP bill, he has to be extradited as per the provisions of the EDB, if anyone files a case against that officer/soldier in any one of the countries which have ratified the relevant international convention. The Sangha had come forward to protect the war heroes who defeated the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world and LF says that move” was mooted on behalf of another party to the controversy! It should also be stated that out of 193 countries only 52 countries have signed the above convention and except Sri Lanka, (under the present government), none of the South Asian countries has signed it. Hence, it is clear by the above explanation that those who criticize the Sangha on this issue are either clueless on the subject or do that with dubious motives.

Finally, LF says that he is a Buddhist but not a Sinhala Buddhist. He doesn’t have to say that because it is clearly so, judging by his article. To the Sinhalese, Buddhism is like the bark unto the tree. They were the Sinhalese who protected Buddhism throughout history. King Dutugemunu declared that he waged war against Elara not for the purpose of acquiring the legendary pleasures associated with Royalty, but to protect the Sasana. There are many people in many countries, like LF in Sri Lanka, who are ‘simply’ Buddhists. They do not come forward to protect the Buddha Sasana when it is in danger. Only the Sinhala Buddhists who are prepared to sacrifice their lives to protect Buddhism could foresee the danger looming large. Only the Sinhalese, like their ancestors, would volunteer to protect the Unitary character of the country. Sinhala Buddhists, in addition, would go hammer and tongs to oppose Federalism as it would endanger Buddhism and remove it from the pedestal that it has justly been placed in our culture and tradition. So obviously, Laksiri Fernando, not only on his own admission but also absolutely in fact, is not a Sinhala Buddhist!  

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