In many ways we are thankful to Ajahn Sujato for his "outside" views which truly opened some local eyes. Indeed what the venerable said about the interfaith situation here is (somewhat) true, that "the Malaysian people have built a society where interfaith relations are so good that this (a Muslim King presenting an award for public service to a Buddhist monk.) can happen, and no-one even bothers to notice."
Indeed Malaysians have taken much for granted of the peaceful co-existence of her many racial and religious peoples. This is a Muslim majority country, and yet It is one of the few in the world which have declared each of the major religious sacred days a public holiday (Eid'ul Fitri [Muslim], Diwali [Hindu], Wesak [Buddhist] and Christmas [Christianity]). Also, name me one non-Muslim western country that have done so.
Contrast this with the language and action of violence demonstrated in other Muslim societies, such as the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and the intolerant and rigid Islamic laws implemented in such places as Somalia, Sudan and some regions in the Middle East.
And yet while its many diversities is something to be admired about, it is also true that Malaysian society is fractured by symbolism. We take our religious symbols seriously. We have religious freedom here. This is not in doubt. However, there is a silent decree where it is said that non-Muslim religious artefacts or buildings must not be higher than a nearby mosque. Also, there are local issues pertaining to the establishment of temples and churches in residential areas, whereby if there are more Muslims in the area (even if there is a slight majority), temples or churches will only be considered for construction if "it is deemed not sensitive to the majority of the people there".
Whether a building is allowed to be built or not, or what the appropriate size or height of that struture should be, it indicates the birth or non-birth of that represented symbol, which relates directly to the existence of that belief, its adherents and their way of life.
In one of the comments in Ajahn Sujato's blog, James Stewart quoted something from the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker. He writes:
"In it, Ernest Becker has a lot to say about symbols and why mankind venerates them. His central thesis is that mankind’s central anxiety is his knowledge of his own mortality, for which he creates society to shelter himself. Becker believes that all people have what he calls an immortality project, which is essentially an effort to attain relevance in a frighteningly animalistic, impersonal, and hostile universe.
Interesting psychological research has been done in this area whereby people’s interactions with sacred symbols such as flags or the crucifix are studied after having received gentle reminders of mortality. The people were much more unwilling to violate the sacredness of these symbols after having received death reminders.
The monks robe is powerful symbol for the lay community that brings them comfort in their own “immortality project”. From a rational standpoint, a monk not wearing robes is just a monk not wearing robes, no big deal. But the reality is that not wearing robes was a direct affront to the psyche’s of lay community, and in a very freudian kind of way, actually threatened peoples feeling of safety from the hostile universe. People will respond in a predictably hostile manner when their well-being is threatened, and that’s what happened.
Another consequence of Becker’s hypothesis is that when faced with other cultures, whose collective immortality project is different from our own, we will instinctively be hostile. This is because if their sacred symbols and beliefs are correct, then ours must be wrong, and thus their very existence threatens our quest for relevance/immortality in the universe.."
So it figures that when we express that we are "saddened, disturbed or just plain horrified" to see our Chief Monk of a major temple not in his robes, it just shows how deep the hold of symbolism and symbolic ideas permeate the Malaysian psyche.
The issue lays out a peculiar dichotomy which neither end provides an adequate answer. In trying to appease royal protocols so as to "safeguard and demonstrate religious tolerance" in the country, is that good enough reason for Ven Dhammaratana to remove a significant Buddhist symbol (i.e. his robes) to accept a wordly, secular title?
Should we treat this as a "minor Vinaya offence" and bask in our Malaysian tolerance while at the same time accept the absence of a Buddhist symbol in what should be a moment for public embrace?
As a monk, he embodies the symbol of the Buddha's teachings. And as many lay Malaysian Buddhists are taught, "the gift of Dharma excels all other gifts" (Dhp V. 354). Obviously many will ask which is more treasured now: the suit in which is worn to receice a secular gift, or the choice to stay in the robes because it symbolizes the way to the greatest gift of all, Enlightenment?
This of course can easily degenerate into a Country vs Faith argument. Would you die for your country or your faith? As I've said there are no easy answers to this. By far, this is one the most difficult and touchy challenges faced by any administrators of a multi-racial, multi-religious society.
It requires equal dose of wisdom, compassion and pure common sense.
The late Ven. Dr K Sri Dhammananda have shown his wisdom by both accepting a secular public service title and yet was able to maintain his dignity as the head monk of the country (he did not attend the investiture and the title was delivered to him by palace officials).
We ask of our current religious leaders of no less but to do the same.