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Home Academic Work Articles Archive Comfort or Challenge? - 3

Comfort or Challenge? - 3

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I agree that the Sangha and politicians have quite different parts to play. From the very beginning it has been essential to Buddhism that the Sangha and the laity have roles that are complementary. Those who take the Buddha’s message seriously are to renounce the world, giving up both the burdens and the pleasures of lay life, and devote themselves to Buddhist principles. It is the role of the Sangha to keep the Buddha’s message alive, and that means to preserve Buddhist values and ethical principles. The Sangha are moral leaders, or they are nothing. Many matters, from economics to sexology, they are to leave to the laity. Monks and nuns are no more expected to get into the rough and tumble of political detail than they are expected to carry arms and fight. But I put it to you that it is their duty to advise political leaders on the moral principles which must guide how they govern, and even how they make war, if that cannot be avoided. Why should Buddhist principles, under that name, be kept out of government and politics? Buddhism is not some kind of frivolous game or pastime: it is there to be applied to the whole of life.

Such crimes as torture and murder are not a matter of politics, but fundamental to morality. Anyone who acquiesces in them on the grounds that the torturers and murderers are powerful people who rule over us does not deserve to be called a Buddhist, or for that matter a member of any religion. Of course, people who achieve prominence in public institutions do sometimes find themselves in uncomfortable positions when the state does something obviously wrong; but surely that is the price they have to pay for their eminence. At the end of the Falklands war, the Archbishop of Canterbury presided over a service in St. Paul’s Cathedral. He led the congregation in prayers for the dead on both sides in the conflict, not just for the British victors. It was known that Mrs Thatcher was angry about this, but that is the difference between a mere politician and a religious leader: the Archbishop was doing no more than his duty in following Christian values. Since Britain is a democracy, he ran no great personal risk. Church leaders in Germany and Italy under Hitler and Mussolini were in a much more difficult position. It is common knowledge that the Pope at the time, Pius XII, did not behave well, whereas some members of the Christian clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, had the courage and sincerity to protest and even became martyrs, to their everlasting glory. (Though I am not a Christian, such Christian language is surely appropriate in this case.)

If an individual, whether monk, nun or layman of either sex, has decided to opt out of society and to lead a secluded life, we cannot demand that they make pronouncements on public affairs – pronouncements to which in any case few people would listen. But if they have willingly assumed leadership roles in religious institutions like the Sangha, they surely have thereby undertaken to play those roles with moral sensitivity, and not just to give silent acquiescence to every atrocity perpetrated before their eyes.

If the leaders of the Theravādin Sangha fail to raise a finger to help or a voice to protest against the maltreatment of their brethren in other countries, I believe that this has to do not just with cowardice and moral indifference, but also with nationalism. It turns out in the modern world that most people feel a stronger bond with those of the same nationality than they do with those of the same religion. If I draw my next two examples from Sinhalese Buddhism, please understand that this is not because I wish to single out the Sinhalese for criticism: I simply happen to know more about them.

Here is my first example. The first Theravāda Buddhist vihāra, wat, or whatever you like to call it, was set up in London in 1926 by the Sinhalese Buddhist reformer Anagārika Dharmapāla as an arm of the Mahā Bodhi Society. To this day, that monastery, now called the London Buddhist Vihāra, is controlled by trustees who are members of Dharmapāla’s family and live in Sri Lanka. This means that the Vihāra cannot be registered as a charity in Britain, which in turn means that it has serious financial difficulties. Most of its supporters are Sinhalese and most of its activities are aimed at them. Not long ago I received an invitation from Colombo to become head of the lay branch of the British Mahā Bodhi Society with a mission to revive it, but when I found that all major decisions, including the appointment of the monastery’s incumbent (who is always Sinhalese), would still rest with the Board in Colombo, I saw that this could lead nowhere. As some of you will know, the Mahā Bodhi Society, dominated by Sinhalese, maintains a similar stranglehold on its establishments in India.

This is not a terribly serious matter: compared with failing to criticise the murder of monks it is indeed trivial. But since this conference intends to discuss the problem of disseminating Theravada Buddhism to the rest of the world, it seems to me highly relevant.

On much the same topic, think of the history of Sinhalese Buddhist missions over the last century. Sri Lanka prides itself on being the Island of Buddhism, the Dhammad¥pa, and thus a suitable base from which to bring Buddhism to the world. It also contains, however, a sizeable minority of non-Buddhist Tamils; and it happens to lie just off the coast of Tanilnadu. Despite this, there have been pitifully few attempts since Independence to bring Buddhism even to Sri Lanka’s Tamils, let alone to those on the Indian mainland, because missions to the West seem so much more glamorous. How many Tamils have been ordained into the Sangha since 1947? I do not believe that anyone knows the precise answer to this question, but all would agree that it cannot be more than a handful.

I repeat that I have no wish to single out the Sinhalese for criticism. Similar stories can be told about the other Buddhist nationalities, and not only the Theravādins. But what would the Buddha have made of this? It is worth pausing for a moment to compare Buddhism with Christianity and Islam in this regard. Of course, nations states and the terrible emotions they can arouse are a part of the modern world, and nationalism crops up in religions which fervently preach the brotherhood of man. But on the whole Christian and Muslim religious leaders, and even their followers when the context is religious, do not fail to respect or co-operate with fellow-religionists on the ground of nationality.


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