The Wrecking Crew In Sri Lanka

Last week in Sri Lanka, a group of roughly 100 Buddhist monks and their supporters destroyed a Muslim shrine said to have been built on a piece of property given to Sinhalese Buddhists 2,000 years ago. One of the participants, a monk named Amatha Dhamma Thero, told the BBC that “he and 100 other monks from various Asian nations destroyed the Islamic shrine because Muslims in the country were seeking to convert the locale into a mosque.”

According to the BBC report, “The mob waved Buddhist flags and – in one picture – burnt a green Muslim flag. There have been no other reports of what happened.” Witnesses to the incident claim the police were present but did nothing to stop the destruction. The police deny they were there, but the photo on the right, published on a number of sites reporting the incident, clearly shows men wearing some sort of uniform looking on.

A local senior Muslim denies that a mosque was planned.

Sinhalese is the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Most Sinhalese are Buddhist. Theravada Buddhism is the state religion. Politicians and government officials routinely make pronouncements about how Sri Lanka is the center of Buddhism, and responsible for preserving dhamma, and so on. It’s sort of a Buddhist version of American exceptionalism.

Sri Lanka has a democratic, socialist government (the President is Buddhist). And while Sri Lanka has universal suffrage, the government has been accused of human rights violations in regard to the treatment of minorities, especially the Tamil who are Hindu. To be fair, there’s probably enough questionable treatment of others to go around on all sides over there. However, since I am a Buddhist, that’s the part  that interests me.

Some time back, I read an article by Chamara Sumanapala  entitled “Can A Buddhist Be A Racist Or A Nationalist?” The gist of his piece is that Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka are “misusing Buddhism as a tool to achieve their own ends.”

Sumanapala begins his article with this statement,

An observer of Sri Lankan politics would notice that many if not all nationalist and racist elements of the Sinhalese community are Buddhists.”

The Sinhalese see themselves as a “chosen people.” This belief stems from The Mahavamsa or “The Great Chronicle”, a Pali text, actually a poem, which advances the notion that the Buddha made magical flights to the island of Sri Lanka and chose its people to be responsible for the preservation of Buddhist dhamma.

Gananath Obeyesekere, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton and a leading scholar of Sri Lanka, writes,

The Mahavamsa is not just a text that gives us information on Sinhala-Buddhist identity; much more importantly it is a text that helps to create such an identity in a way that the previous chronicle, the Dipavamsa, did not. And central to that process of identity creation is the hero, Dutthagamani Abhaya (161-137 BCE), the man who conjoins the land or the place, Sri Lanka, with the sasana, already blessed by the Buddha as a place where the Dhamma will flourish. And when the anguished king asks the monks what consequences will befall him for having killed millions of people, the monks reply, that no real sin has been committed by him because he has only killed Tamil unbelievers, no better than beasts. And more gratefully the Mahavamsa monks assign Dutthagamini a place in heaven in the proximity of the next Buddha, Maitreye.”

Of course, I don’t know the entire story of the incident last week, or how much of what Chamara Sumanapala writes is valid, or to what extent attitudes fround in The Mahavamsa have actually shaped the culture of Sri Lanka, but on the surface none of it sounds very buddistly, as Jeff Bridges would say.

Destruction, whether it be Buddhist statues carved in the side of a cliff or a Muslim shrine, is an act of hate. I’ve always thought of Buddhism as being concerned with the art of construction, specifically the construction of shrines of loving-kindness in human hearts.

All beings tremble before violence.
All fear death.
All love life.

See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?

He who seeks happiness
By hurting those who seek happiness
Will never find happiness.

For your brother is like you.
He wants to be happy.
Never harm him
And when you leave this life
You too will find happiness.

from the Dhammapada, rendered by Thomas Byrom


4 thoughts on “The Wrecking Crew In Sri Lanka

  1. Thanks, David, for bringing this to our attention. It’s ironic that the “chosen place for the preservation of the dhamma” understands the dhamma so poorly! It’s always so disappointing when we Buddhists turn out to be human beings like everyone else. Brian Victoria’s “Zen at War,” which described the support for aggression and anti-semitism in the Japanese Zen community during WWII, tells much the same story. It’s always possible to compartmentalize the dhamma, applying it to certain parts of one’s life, and segregating other parts of one’s life off from it. We can be Buddhisty in the temple, but sub-human in the trenches. This is a painful reminder of how the dhamma needs to suffuse every aspect of our being — and how easily we can twist the dhamma to justify unjustifiable things.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Seth. Yes, I agree that it is certainly disillusioning to discover that Buddhists are not perfect.

      I take it you have read “Zen at War”? I have not but I have read about it, and I read an account by Victoria of the Soka Gakkai during the war, which may be from some other work of his. I had some problems with it, and apparently others have had problems with his treatment of DT Suzuki and some other aspects of his work, to the extent that it seems his contentions have been discredited. That’s not to say that his basic premise is wrong, just that he twisted or got some of the specifics wrong. *Sigh* I guess that means there’s no perfection in academia either.

      1. No perfection anywhere. (Although everything’s perfect just as it is.) I’ve read Gary Snyder and Nelson Foster’s rebuttal of Victoria’s take on D.T. Suzuki. The actual story about Suzuki seems more complicated and ambiguous than Victoria portrayed…. Suzuki did oppose the war privately to friends, but kept quiet publicly to stay safe. Some of Suzuki’s ideas about Bushido were used for propaganda purposes by the Japanese war machine. (Some of Suzuki’s ideas about Bushido also sound a more than a little problematic to modern ears.) Some of Victoria’s mischaracterizations of Suzuki’s position were ones that should never have been made had Victoria’s scholarship been more careful. Nevertheless, Victoria’s overall indictment of Zen’s complicity in the war is largely accepted as true.

        1. I was not casting aspersions on Victoria’s scholarship in order to provide anyone cover. I am confident that all the Buddhist sects in Japan were complicit with the war machine. At the same time, if someone’s scholarship is sloppy in one area, it makes you wonder where else it might be sloppy, and I am more interested in reading accurate history, as opposed to someone attempt to take down “great men.”

          As far as Bushido goes, it served as the foundation for much of Japan’s military madness. The leaders of the Kempeitai, the military police, and many of the nationalist secret societies were all from Samurai families. The Bushido itself had only an indirect connection with Zen.

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