Which to Respect? The Saffron Robes or the Man within ?

Buddhism has long since held sway in Sri Lanka. It is one of the few places in the world where Theravada Buddhism is practiced. The ‘Sangha’ or clergy has played a prominent role in the history of my country, be it by advising my countrymen in choosing wise/ morally responsible Kings, opposing invaders (there are instances where they left robes to fight wars) or educating the people on the path to enlightenment; the most prominent role of them all.
For the purposes of reading this article at least, it is important to understand Buddhism, and the mentality of a majority of Sri Lankan Buddhists. The Sangha is one of the three main pillars of Buddhism, and is supposed to guide us on our spiritual path to enlightenment (nirvana), while working on reaching enlightenment themselves. Enlightenment is the ultimate achievement for Buddhists, since after reaching it we will have no rebirth, and hence, no more suffering.

As our spiritual guides, the Sangha hold immense respect among lay Buddhists (Buddhists who are not clergy). In the past, while fulfilling the duties of the clergy, they were also the educators of the village society and unofficial advisers to the headmen of the village (the Arachchi). Since they were among the most educated, they were also extremely respected and their recommendations were usually followed. However, make no mistake; they were respected because of their wisdom and education but at no point would they ‘rule’ land/ people. The Sangha depends (or should depend) on the lay Buddhists to provide them with food and provisions. True Buddhist clergy are supposed to go door to door to ask for food in exchange for sermons ‘Pidu singha vadeema’. This would serve a double purpose of reducing pride/hubris in the monk while educating people the path to Enlightenment. The monk uses the time saved by not having to create his/ her own food to engage in meditation and reach Enlightenment. This is supposed to be the balanced relationship between Buddhist practitioners and monks.
Some of the Sangha today however, are a far cry from what the Buddha intended them to be. Whereas the purpose of donning the saffron robe is to abandon all material things and to remove all attachments to concentrate on meditation, many of the clergy today seem to have conveniently forgotten all of this. They own car dealerships, lucrative businesses and are involved in politics. It is safe to say that spiritual enlightenment is the farthest from most of their thoughts.

The newest scourge is an activist group called ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ (the army of Buddhism). Apart from just being racist and intolerant of religions, they are led by some militant Buddhist monks. Now, anyone who knows even the slightest bit of Buddhism will know that the two previous statements are a direct contradiction to everything Buddhism teaches. The Buddha never counseled military means to achieve any goal; Buddhism preaches non-violence and tolerance of others, no matter what. The very name ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ contradicts itself since Buddhism has never ever raised an army in its name or gone to war to spread its beliefs. With the same reasoning, militant Buddhist monks are a contradiction that cannot exist. The clergy are supposed to be disciplined with word and action, and there are even laws for monks that forbid even violent limb movement! This discipline is sadly lacking with some clergy today.

Recently, the leader – I refuse to recognize him as a monk – of the Bodu Bala Sena, was arrested on charges of contempt of court. He surrendered, but it was interesting watching the proceeding arrest. A throng of people had gathered to see this happening, monks as well as lay supporters. The mood was tense, and the leader actually made a small speech while in custody trying to calm them down saying that the matter was now in the courts. However, mob mentality had now taken over, and they were yelling and screaming at the leader himself. The police eventually took him into court, where he was remanded without bail and, like every other Sri Lankan politician, promptly fell sick and was transferred to the hospital.

The scene outside the court after the judgement was made public brings disrepute to all Buddhists, monks in particular. A cordon of policemen stood outside the gate of the court with riot shields. A group of monks were shoving these policemen around, yelling and screaming ‘api yanna nevei awe’ (we didn’t come here to leave) trying to get into the court. The funny thing is, as they shove and get violent with these policemen, they are also screaming ‘hamuduruwanta atha thiyanne na’ (don’t you dare lay a hand on priests). These were simply thugs who were using the respect shown toward priests to their advantage. There were other scenes where the priests were jumping on a bus, and laying their heads next to the tires of the bus, daring the drivers to run them over. Our spiritual guides indeed.

To dissect these actions one by one, first of all, pushing shoving screaming are all against the discipline that Buddhism asks monks to practice (as well as lay practitioners actually). One of the main teachings and first steps towards the path of enlightenment is ‘Seela’ (discipline). Clergy are supposed to set an example, as well as maintaining a higher amount of discipline. Secondly, you cannot behave like a thug and demand the level of respect a true Buddhist monk deserves. A thug does not deserve that respect; and these monks were acting exactly like that. The police in this case, showed an admirable amount of restraint in not retaliating and by just defending themselves using a minimum amount of force. Thirdly, our lives are supposed to be precious since we can use it to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of ourselves and others. If the monks were trying to show how brave they are, they failed miserably; they knew no one was going to run them over. Everyone present, and everyone in Sri Lanka knew that. Even misbehaving monks are shown respect; in this case, more respect than they deserved.

At the risk of repeating myself, true Buddhism does not condone violence of any kind. Racism, anger is abhorrent to it, only patience and tolerance should be practiced. Some of these monks may think that they are protecting Buddhism or the Sangha by the comments they make and their actions (although I have no idea how they can have made that leap), but in reality they are just dragging it into disrepute. The majority of Buddhists will say that these men do not represent Buddhism and the public actions of a few misbehaving monks should not be a reflection of what true Buddhism is.

These monks should not be tolerated, or given the respect usually given to clergymen. They should be disrobed and exiled from the priesthood. That is why the introduction of the new Theravada Bikkhu Bill, enabling the leaders of the priesthood in Sri Lanka (the Mahanayakas) to remove monks engaging in disreputable practices, has been long awaited. Obviously, it is also opposed by the clergymen with lucrative practices to lose, but if they are so invested in their businesses, what are they doing as clergymen? The very reason to become a monk is to remove attachment and focus on spiritual development on the path to enlightenment.

Buddhist lay practitioners have an important role to play in this. It’s been long said with regard to misbehaving monks that we respect/ tolerate them because ‘api siurata wadinne’ (we respect/ worship the robe), not necessarily the person wearing it. This mentality should be changed. We should respect the robe only if the person wearing it is worthy of our respect. If they are engaged in practices unworthy of a monk, they should be disrobed and banned from the priesthood. They are free to leave as well; Buddhism does not force them to be monks! The number of monks may be diminished in numbers because of this action, but it will be pure, and will be deserving of the respect accorded to them. The Sangha was created to help relieve mankind from suffering, it is time that it focused on that.

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