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Buddhism, Peace and Development in Sri Lanka

by Professor Asoka Bandarage, Asian Tribune, May 26, 2007

New York, USA -- The teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma, is inherently committed to peace and positive human development. Non-violence, respect for the lives of all living beings, is the first Buddhist precept. Buddhism’s commitment to peace goes beyond the call against the use of physical violence.

<< Asoka Bandarage

It advocates non-violence in thought and speech, the cultivation of compassion towards all and ultimately the transcendence of the dichotomy of ‘self vs. other’. Buddhism recognizes that all phenomena are interdependent. We are not separate, but apart of each other. Our unity is greater than our separateness.

Buddha’s teachings begin with awareness of the reality of impermanence All mental and physical phenomena are impermanent; nothing is static. We are in a constant process of evolution. Buddha showed that our attachment to impermanent phenomena and the notion of a separate self cause imbalance and suffering. He taught people through meditation and other methods how to cultivate equanimity –mental equilibrium- the path to peace, human and happiness, that is, human development, advancement.

The Buddha imparted his teaching in a spirit of openness and tolerance. He did not impose his teachings on people. He asked people to accept his teachings on the basis of their own experience by seeking for the truth within themselves, a truly liberal and democratic approach, the antidote to authoritarianism The value of Buddha’s teaching is not limited to individual development or liberation. It is highly relevant to social transformation at both the local and global levels. The precept of non-violence pertains to reduction of the global arms trade and armed conflict. The Buddhist Middle Path which calls for the avoidance of extremes is applicable to the reduction of excessive consumption and poverty, the promotion of sustainable development and acceptance cultural diversity.

The real test or challenge for Buddhism, as for other religions, lies not in philosophy, but in practice. The pressure to succeed in a highly competitive, materialistic and fast paced world makes it evermore difficult to maintain contentment, inner balance and peace.

Does compassion mean that Buddhists must give into aggression and unjust demands of other individuals and groups? Does non-attachment require them to give up their distinctive cultural identities and the lands of their forebears? The Buddhist Middle Path is a path of compassion and of wisdom. Wisdom requires balance, balance between mental and physical aspects, and balance between concern for others and for self. The Buddhist path is not a call to self-destruction but a respect for self in partnership with others. The Dalai Lama, for example, exemplifies this commitment to both religious pluralism and to the protection of the historical Buddhist culture and territory of Tibet.

Buddhism was sent to Sri Lanka by Indian emperor Asoka around 3 B.C. True to the Buddha’s teaching, its acceptance on the island was not determined by use of the gun or economic or other incentives; it was a peaceful and voluntary process. The greatest contribution that Sri Lankan Buddhism has made to the world is the codification of the Buddhist teachings. The Pali Tripitaka which was committed to writing around 1 A.D., through the efforts of five hundred Buddhist monks chanters and scribes, has survived to date as the sacred canon of Buddhism. Without this commitment into writing, the world would have lost the Buddha’s invaluable teaching. After Buddhism was lost in India, Sri Lanka emerged as the primary center of Buddhism. It was the home to many outstanding centers of Buddhist higher learning. Scholars from many parts of Asia came to study in Sri Lanka where an intellectually and aesthetically advanced Buddhist culture flourished. The island was bestowed the name “Dhammadipa,” the island of the Buddha Dhamma by the Buddhist cosmopolitan community. Proficient in many languages and disciplines, Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar- monks maintained close relations with their counterparts in East and Southeast Asia as well as Buddhists in South India until Buddhism disappeared from that region.

Buddhist teachings helped Sri Lankan society avoid extremes in ideology and life style. The middle path influenced the development of appropriate technology and balanced models of economic production. The irrigation technology and the hydraulic civilization of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist past continue to inspire scientists grappling with contemporary environmental challenges. Westerns promoting Buddhist Economics and ‘Small is Beautiful’ thinking have paid homage to sustainable development in Sri Lanka.

Keeping with Buddhist teachings, Sri Lanka fashioned a basically tolerant, hospitable and relaxed culture. It absorbed and synthesized other religious faiths and practices including pre-existing animistic and later Hindu practices. The caste system among the Buddhists was relatively mild given Buddhism’s repudiation and the availability of Buddhist teachings and spiritual liberation to all. This was especially the case with regard to women. There was a vibrant community of Sri Lankan Buddhist nuns. Sri Lankan nuns were well versed in the scriptures and zealous in their missionary activities.

They were responsible for the establishment of the order of Buddhist nuns in China in 5 A.D. The Sri Lankan nun’s order was wiped out around 10 A.D. during the turbulent period of South Indian invasion and Cola rule when life in robes became difficult for women.

With the arrival of successive European colonizers, the Portuguese, Dutch and British beginning in 1505, Buddhism was castigated as idolatry, and heathenism. Buddhists and their institutions were subjected to various forms of violence and destruction. Still, tolerance and peace prevailed within Buddhist society. As Robert Knox, a Englishman who lived among the Kandyan Sinhalese for seventeen years between 1660-1679, wrote in his A Historical Relation of Ceylon, the Sinhala Buddhists, ‘ …are not biggotted in their owne religion, they care not of what straingers that dwell amongst them are of, they do believe there is a plurality of Gods, and more than they know;…all nations have a free liberty to use and enjoy their own religion…’ In this spirit of tolerance and acceptance, the interior Kandyan kingdom welcomed Muslims from the European controlled coastal lowlands who were fleeing religious persecution and later Catholics from those areas into their midst.

There were no attempts to convert the Muslims and the Catholics by the Buddhists; they were allowed to maintain their distinct religious identities and practices. The open-mindedness of Buddhist monks was such that some even welcomed Christian missionaries into their temples. The Bible was reportedly first translated into Sinhala by a Buddhist monk.

The Convention of 1815 which the British signed after their capture of the Kandyan kingdom stated that the Buddhist religion and its rights and places of worship would be inviolable, maintained and protected. However, under colonial rule Buddhism was greatly suppressed. In order to gain access to English language which became essential for advancement in the colonial society, some Buddhists converted to Christianity. As the local elite became Christian, Buddhist culture and the Buddhist monks were marginalized. Responding to the downtrodden position of Buddhists, a Buddhist resurgence movement emerged in the late 1880s. It sought a balanced approach seeking to impart English language and modern skills to Buddhists without abrogation of their traditional religion.

In the current era of economic and cultural globalization and armed conflict, maintenance of a Buddhist way of life is even more challenging. But, the Middle Path remains a useful guide in both individual and social life. Contemporary Buddhists in Sri Lanka uphold the historical legacy of pluralism in the island and the right of members of all ethnic and religious groups to live and own land anywhere on the island. Despite the on-going conflict and frequent terrorist attacks, the Buddhist majority lives and work side by side with the Hindus, Christians and the Muslims in relative harmony and peace. Continuing their historical tradition, Buddhists welcome other groups fleeing troubled areas into their midst. The openness and tolerance of Sri Lankan society are at least partly attributable to its Buddhist traditions. Unlike many other countries, freedom of conscience and belief prevail and individuals are legally free to change their faiths. Poverty eradication and satisfaction of basic social needs however need to be addressed in order to allow true freedom of choice.

Notwithstanding seemingly insurmountable odds, the Buddhist community in Sri Lanka continues its historical tradition as a community of survivors. Its resilience was particularly evident during the recent tsunami. During that disaster, Buddhist temples became places of refuge for people regardless of ethnicity or faith. Westerns that were there were amazed by the generosity of the poor who offered them all they had, their food, shelter, clothes. Stories abound of poor peasants, Buddhists from inland villages walking long distances bearing packets of rice and clothes for their Muslim and Hindu brethren in the coastal areas of the Eastern Province devastated by the tsunami.

Although separatist forces and even well-meaning outsiders try to keep the communities and the relief efforts apart, some local Buddhist temples and temples of the Sri Lankan Buddhist Diaspora continue to support Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim schools in Sri Lanka which they helped rebuild after the tsunami. The Buddhist contribution to peace and development in Sri Lanka has not been limited to humanitarian relief. Attempts have been made to develop a Buddhist approach to globalization as evidenced, for example, in the social movement to protect the phosphate deposit in Eppawala. This movement was led by the local village monk of Eppawala with support from Catholic priests and local and international activists. It does not oppose all transnational corporate involvement. Rather, it calls for the middle path of socially and environmentally responsible investment, ecological sustainability, local participation and corporate accountability.

There has been relatively little acknowledgement of the daily acts of kindness and selflessness on the part of Buddhists. Take the case of the large number of Buddhist monks who donate kidneys to needy patients in Sri Lanka. Given the widespread misuse of pesticides and other environmental problems kidney disease takes epidemic proportion in Sri Lanka. Responding to the growing need for healthy kidneys, many young Buddhist monks have voluntarily donate their kidneys to save the lives of others regardless of faith, ethnicity or gender. These selfless acts do not bring money or fame to the monks.

They do not make the international news. But, they alleviate human suffering; touch the human heart helping transcend the self vs. other dualism. Despite the incredible suffering due to war, environmental disasters, poverty and disease, there is tremendous compassion and generosity especially among ordinary people. Their humanity and universalism are Buddhism’s greatest contribution to peace and development in Sri Lanka and the world.

Professor Asoka Bandarage of Georgetown University delivered the above speech at the Conference on ‘Civilizations and the Challenge for Peace: Obstacles and Opportunities,’ United Nations General Assembly, 61st Session, New York.

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