Who is the Chief Monk of Malaysia?

by Sumanaminda, The Buddhist Channel, March 29, 2007

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- I would like to refer to the "perceived" confusion with regards to the appointment of two Nayaka Maha Thera for Malaysia.

For the record, Venerable Dhammaratana Nayaka Maha Thera, the Chief Monk of Buddhist Mahavihara was appointed as the Chief Sangha Nayaka of Malaysia by the Malwatta Chapter of the Siyam Mahanikaya of Sri Lanka on 12th March 2007.

As for Venerable Saranankara Nayaka Maha Thera, the Chief Monk of Sri Lanka Buddhist Temple, Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was appointed as the Adhikarana (Judiciary) Sangha Nayaka of Malaysia by the Malwatta Chapter of the Siyam Mahanikaya of Sri Lanka on 29th January 2007.

The confusion could have been due to the familiarity of just having one Chief Sangha Nayaka, which was helmed solely by the late Chief Venerable K Sri Dhammananda since 1965. Another reason could well be that many are ignorant of what the title actually means, other than being designated as the chief of monks (of a country) under the lineage of the Malwatta Chapter. And what about the Siamese connection with regards to the "Malwatta Chapter of the Siam Nikaya", a title which is usually attached when one is conferred with the honorific "Chief High Priest"? (I personally think this is a corrupted translation for "Maha Nayaka Thera" - but more on this later).

I would like to share some research materials which hopefully will help give a better picture of the issue at hand.

The Portugese colonisation of Sri Lanka had an immediate impact on the island's Buddhist monastic structure. With the advent of the Portugese, came the Franciscan friars who carried out a vigorous campaign of religious propaganda. They persuaded the rulers to embrace the new faith and support it by conferring grants and making special consessions on it. Though the Sangha and the masses opposed this move, the despotic monarchs turned a deaf ear to their protests.

To add insult to injury, the rulers of Kotte granted revenues of certain monastic establishments for the spread of the Christian faith and education. Education which originally was in the hands of the monks was eventually handed over to the missionaries, so that the monks lost the close contacts they had maintained with the people.

In the constant wars with the Portugese the chief centres of monastic learning and other monasteries were destroyed and with their destruction the sacred books on Buddhism were lost. Hence the Sangha had no access to the genuine works of Buddhism and they were thus ignorant of the true doctrine.

Parallel to the Christian movement was the impact of Saivism on the court and the masses. There were occasions where special favours of Kings towards Hinduism had serious repercussions on the state of Buddhism and the Sangha. Some of the staunch Buddhists and members of the Sangha resented this partiality of the rulers and openly revolted against them, causing much disturbances to the Sangha and the religion. This partiality enabled Hinduism to make much headway, and certain Hindu rituals and customs left their influence on Buddhism.

As a result of the lack of royal patronage and the complete neglect of the Sangha by kings and the masses, the monks who were hard pressed for some form of sustenance resorted to various occupations to make a livelihood. Apart from the management of lands the Culavamsa and other contemporary literary sources state that monks were engaged in practicing astrology, medicine and propitiating demons. The chronicles also refer to corrupt monks who followed false doctrines. According to the statement of the Vimanavatthuppakarana, the monks' ignorance of the true doctrine (Dhamma) was the main cause in their accepting these views.

As a result of these external forces which were at work on Buddhism, monastic life started deteriorating rapidly. So much so that by the time of Kirtisiri Rajasingha (1747- 1782 AD) there were no fully ordained monks to perpetuate the traditional monastic life.

The annals of this period record the degeneration in the Sangha and the attempts of the monarch Kirti Sri Rajasinghe, King of Kandy (1747-1782) and the Elder Saranankara to revive the glory of Buddhism and the monastic order.

The biographies of Saranankara, the Sangharajasadhucariyava, the Sangharajavata and the contemporary literary works, refer to the activities of this monk and his revivalist movement. Saranankara secretly studied basic tenets of the Dhamma and the Pali grammar from a lay scholar, Leuke Ralahamy. He did this, risking his own life as Leuka Ralahamy was in banishment because he had incurred the royal displeasure. By intense study and adherence to true recluseship, Saranankara and his colleagues attracted attention of the masses, as well as the jealousy of monks from the two institutions Asgiriya and Malwatta.

The monks from these two establishments, who were identified as samaneras (novices), led carefree and corrupt lives. They later drove Saranankara from Kandy. When in banishment Saranankara was able to convince the king of his erudition (of Dhamma) by defeating a Brahmana (Hindu priest) in controversy where other monks had failed. This enabled him to gain favour from the king and also silence the jealousies of the monks of the two establishments.

The efforts of Saranankara gained ground during the reign of Rajadhirajasingha. This new ruler was tutored by Saranankara and he himself was sympathetic towards Buddhism. Saranankara made the king realise that the stability of the Sangha could be assured only so long as there were fully ordained monks in the island. Since the country (then) was devoid of any such monks, he prevailed upon the ruler to despatch a mission to Siam (now Thailand) and bring down monks to establish "higher ordination".

He was aware that the higher ordination existing in Rakkhanga was not the genuine Theravada and directed his attention to Siam, where the purity of the monks had been maintained from early times and where the orthodox Mahavihara tradition has been established by monks from Sri Lanka in an earlier period. Saranankara was anxious to re-establish the ancient lineage.

Two missions to Siam subsequently failed, but in the third mission, King  Boromakot of Siam (1733-1758) or Dhammika as he is called in the Mahavamsa, received the delegation with pleasure. The King of Siam despatched 18 Theras and seven novices. The mission was headed by the Upali Thera. They arrived in Sri Lanka on Saturday the 20th of July 1753 on the full moon day of Asela.

On their arrival, the Siamese monks were lodged at the Malwatta Vihara in Kandy. Their first act was to establish an Uposathaghara in Malwatta Vihara and in this sacred boundary (sima) higher ordinations (Upsampada), which had long disappeared from the island was confered on numerous novices.

Saranankara himself received higher ordination and his immediate followers were eventually ordained in this sima. These monks also established a sacred boundary in Asgiri Vihara and in an Uposathaghara established in that Vihara, ordination was confered on numerous services.

The Siamese monks, after they had performed these ecclesiastical acts, toured the counrtyside and opened up more Uposathagharas in the rural areas. This enabled monks in remote areas to perform their Vinaya acts according to the ancient tradtition. Once again, monastic life was revived in its traditional pattern.

The Siamese monks did more than just to enact higher ordination. They also taught meditation, especially the system of insight meditation (vipassana bhavana) as well as revived the correct manner of Pali chanting, with regards to the Paritta text. When King Dhammika learnt that there was a dearth of religious works on the island, he sent 97 manuscripts to Sri Lanka, containing the religious scriptures and the commentaries. These works belonged to the orthodox Theravada School and were those taken from Sri Lanka at an earlier period.

Through these efforts, the lost teachings were restored together with Higher Ordination. As a result of all these activities, monastic culture was once again revived on the island in the traditional Mahavihara system.

(Source: History of the Buddhist Sangha in India and Sri Lanka; Author: Gunaratne Panabokke, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka)

As can be seen above, the reintroduction of higher ordination from Siam - emanating from the viharas of Malwatta and Asgiri - was an outstanding event in Sri Lanka's monastic history. It gave a new lease of life to the Sinhalese Sangha and marked the re-establishment and continuation of the orthodox Theravada tradition (paramparawa).

The late Chief Monk of Malaysia, the much respected Venerable K Sri Dhammananda comes from a long line of this holy lineage. Through his contribution in Buddhist education and outreach, it is clear the late Chief have done justice to the Malwatta Chapter's hallowed tradition by establishing the seed of Dhamma growth and planting it firmly into Malaysian soil. His conferment of "Sangha Nayaka Thera" (Chief Monk) of the Siam Mahanikaya of the Malwatta Chapter was apt and Malaysians can count themselves most fortunate that he made his domicile at the Buddhist Mahavihara, Kuala Lumpur.

It is a shame that very few local Sinhalese know about this important aspect of the Buddhist historical development in Sri Lanka. Clearly, the seed of Buddhist downfall stems from a weak and corrupt leadership. It would be foolish if we do not take heed of lessons from the past and learn from it to safeguard current posterity.

Those learned in Sinhalese Buddhist history can do their part by spending some time to expand upon this literature, to publish it in layman language and disseminate it widely as educational resource.

It is imperative - not only for the Sinhalese community - but also the Buddhist community at large, to be educated about what it means to be conferred as a "Nayaka Maha Thera" (Chief Monk) of the Siam Mahanikaya of the Malwatta Chapter. This will go a long way to to avoid future misconception about such appointments, espcecially for those designated head monks based in Malaysia.

Above all, we have to look at such appointments by not just by venerating upon the title, but to also have a true understanding of its value. Truly, one who holds the title "Nayaka Maha Thera" is one whose moral and spiritual integrity is able to stand up to the principles and value systems espoused by reformists of the Malwatta Chapter, as led by the great Ven Saranankara Thera and Upali Thera.

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