“Buddha’s disciples were never a horde of uncivilized beggars“~ Max Weber, The Religion of India
Starting with independence from British rule in 1948, mal governance in Sri Lanka has been steadily on the increase and practised by both major parties that came to power alternatively. Over time it has become pervasive and systemic, and has now infected the society’s underlying value system, bringing the society to the brink of disintegration known as “anomie” in the literature of sociology. This paper is an account of that dangerous decline and a call to the more progressive and ethically sensitive sections of the saṅgha of Sri Lanka to help the society regain its health by renouncing the Sinhala Buddhist worldview that is at the root of the problem, and living up to the noble teachings of their founder.
To begin with, we must recognize the distinction between Buddhism as a set of philosophical and ethical ideas, and Buddhism as it is popularly understood and practised by its adherents. We can call the first “Philosophical Buddhism” and the second “Cultural Buddhism”. Different Buddhist societies have different Cultural Buddhisms such as Sinhala Buddhism, Burmese Buddhism and Thai Buddhism. Philosophical Buddhism’s universalist ethical system makes it a potentially powerful influence in facilitating good governance and the rule of law. As reflected in the earliest Buddhist literature and the principles of governance allegedly followed by the paradigmatic Buddhist emperor Asoka, Philosophical Buddhism also includes a general outlook of urbanity, civility and modernity. Philosophical Buddhism thus defined is all good, but in contrast, Cultural Buddhism is a mixed bag of good and bad. The bad, if it gains the upper hand in any given society, can be detrimental to its happiness, prosperity and well being. In Sri Lanka, it is unfortunately the worldview of Sinhala Cultural Buddhism that has overwhelmingly taken hold over the society, to the near exclusion of Philosophical Buddhism. Our challenge therefore is to try and imbue the society with the universalist ethicality of Philosophical Buddhism, and its ethos of urbanity, civility and modernity; and, I am calling upon the more educated and dynamic sections of the saṅgha to accept that challenge, and give leadership to a social movement for meeting it.
In what follows, I try to show how Sinhala Cultural Buddhism’s worldview has functioned to the detriment of the society of Sri Lanka when the founding myth of its majority ethnic community was mistaken to be history, and its relation with the political exceeded the boundary of acceptability. This development, that we might call “politicization”, consisting at the broadest level the exploitation of sentiments of religion and ethnicity for political gain, gradually invaded the society as a whole, its myriad mutations infecting the value system on which the society’s health was anchored. The landmark event in which Sinhala Cultural Buddhism’s worldview effectively intervened in politics in a manner deleterious to the health of the society was the general election of 1956 when the then ruling United National Party (UNP), a party of western-acculturated upper class urban politicians was ousted by a party led by a more “nationalist” bloc of the same urban class, but widely supported by a rural middle class of the indigenous literati consisting of Buddhist monks, vernacular teachers and indigenous physicians. Since then it has been downhill for Sri Lanka as far as good governance, the rule of law, and general civility are concerned. The increasing hegemony of Sinhala Cultural Buddhism’s worldview over the society is the most damaging development of its mixed bag of good and bad, giving the bad a decisive upper hand.