Monks, protests and changing times

by Ravi PERERA, Lanka Daily News, July 7, 2008

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The week before last, on the sizzling streets of Colombo, we were witness to the depressing scene of protesting Buddhist monks running hither and thither. They were attempting to escape the effect of tear-gas used by the Police in a bid to disperse them.

<< Monks protesting. Pic: Rukmal Gamage

The monks were apparently members of the Inter-University Bhikku Federation and had gathered in the heart of the City to articulate several demands including hostel facilities and a Buddhist education faculty.

They were insisting on an audience with the President himself and chose for the protest a time when our crowded streets are at peak use.


It is obvious that no Government can meet all the demands put to them. Particularly in a poor country the administration has to allocate its meagre resources in a manner consistent with its development policies.

There are many relatively disadvantaged segments in this country whose situation must be taken in to consideration when resources are allocated. However deserving one’s cause, there will always be other groups, which objectively would be more deserving.

Loud demands made by politically active groups should not necessarily be given priority. In cultures where faith is strong and religion an integral part of Government, protests by the clergy can be potentially volatile.

In his ‘Among the Believers’, an insightful analysis of the effects of faith based politics on modern day societies, VS Naipaul the Nobel Prize winning writer takes us to the believer’s unreal landscape of distant misty mountains and the reality of a life full of tortuous ravines.


The believer has his eyes set on a far-away peak, for ever unreachable, while he is destined for the pitfalls, which are all around him. He is awkwardly suspended between the lofty ideals of his belief and the shoddy realities of his existence.

Buddhism, during its long evolution, unlike many other religions has escaped the tag of being a component of a State structure. The religion’s profound philosophy sits ill with the coarse worldliness of State imperatives.

While a State is naturally occupied with matters such as the marching of armies, minting of money and marshalling of resources, Buddhism challenges the reality of these ephemeral events and declares them essentially unsatisfactory.

No armies have marched in the name of Buddhism, no pogroms urged by its inner imperatives and no burning of witches sanctioned by its bureaucracy.

On reaching the shores of this island more than 2,000 years ago, Buddhism found an abiding and devoted following.

The small, relatively untroubled kingdom with an established agricultural economy provided the ideal base for the contemplative philosophy, which synthesised and then developed some of the most ancient spiritual concepts of India.

To this day the quietude of a village temple sitting at the edge of a verdant paddy field will unfailingly evoke a deep sense of spiritual longing in a Sri Lankan.

But between the tranquil then and the turbulent now much has happened. In the interim other, more recent civilisations have taken a tremendous march over in technological and even intellectual capabilities of the older societies.

New thinking

Most countries in the world have now adopted models and methods developed by new thinking originating there.

Today we cannot conceive of a world without regular elections, parliaments, legal and medical systems, electricity, telephones, computers and a million other things, all conceptualised in these new civilisations surging forward relentlessly.

The stresses and demands of this reality on older civilisations and their institutions are manifested in various ways. Our time hallowed spiritual orders are also subject to these stresses.

The ideals of the priesthood envisage an order of ascetics surrendering the comforts of the material world for a spiritual quest. From time immemorial the denials undertaken by the Monks and their devotion to a higher way of life has earned an abiding respect from the devotees.

Material comforts

It maybe that in the days gone-by the material comforts available in any event were Spartan by our standards. In the modern day it seems we cannot even conceive of an existence without comforts like electricity, pipe borne water, fast comfortable transport and even a mobile phone. Consequently our concept of a spiritual life is bound to change with the times.

Education is perhaps the greatest agent of change. In the olden days temples were the centres of learning. Literacy was a very rare commodity and that too was predominantly occupied with matters religious.

Today we have near universal education classified into an incredible range of subjects including many sciences. Now there is much more learning in the lay society than can ever be matched by clerical orders.

In this background there is a sad undertone of irrelevance if not egoism when the clergy take to public protests. Like all other institutions facing the challenges of the modern world, it maybe time for those concerned about the continuity of clerical orders to rethink their role and guide its progress accordingly.