Writing about the mal governance in Sri Lanka since independence by both major parties, H L Seneviratne, my former teacher in Sociology and anthropology at Peradeniya university, has compiled an erudite two part essay that includes a critique, diagnosis as well as a solution by way of a Sangha rebellion – bringing distant memories about a few failed rebellions in the country against the political establishment (Colombo Telegraph 15–16 June 2017). Seneviratne has however kept away from commenting on these politically motivated rebellions of the past. Instead he focuses on a religious rebellion of a sort to be led by more educated and cosmopolitan Buddhist monks while citing examples of past activist Buddhist monks and Anagarika Dharmapala –though the name of Maduluwave Sobhita is absent in his articulation. His reasoning is based on an argument that he has espoused through his own writings for sometime but the idea of Sangha rebellion seems to be a recent addition perhaps due to the dire situation in the country resulting from the crisis in value system, which has been politicised.
He claims that the mal governance has ‘infected the society’s underlying value system’ to the extent of the society becoming disintegrated and calls on the more progressive and ethically sensitive sections of the Sangha to help the society to regain its health. To do so, in his view they have to renounce the Sinhala Buddhist World View – root of the problem. To avoid confusion and wasted counter arguments, readers need to understand the features and boundaries of this World View in terms of Seneviratne’s articulations. He makes a distinction between Buddhism as a set of philosophical and ethical ideas on one hand and Buddhism as it is popularly understood and practiced by the adherents on the other. The latter he labels as ‘a cultural Buddhism’ similar to Burmese or Thai Buddhism all of which have received notoriety due to the violence enacted toward ethnic minorities instead of non-violence.
In Seneviratne’s view, for good governance and the rule of law what is helpful is philosophical Buddhism’s universal ethical system. Philosophical Buddhism includes a general outlook of urbanity, civility and modernity. He argues that ‘it is unfortunately the worldview of Sinhala cultural Buddhism that has overwhelmingly taken hold over the society’. As in the past, such an argument is bound to generate reactions from those who follow ritualistically oriented popular Buddhism rather than Philosophical Buddhism. However, given the nature of critical commentary about what is wrong with Sri Lanka’s governance, political system, ruling class behavior, hierarchical arrogance, failure of institutions that had been put in place around the time of independence to maintain liberal democracy and indeed the potential for inter ethnic violence led by radicalised religious figures, it is important to understand Seneviratne’s argument, articulation and the deep meaning. To do so, we have to dissect his economic and political arguments also, which are found in the latter parts of his essay.
Seneviratne shows how the consumerist oriented open economic system and changes in the political culture affected the value system culminating in corruption, suppression of dissent, black money, the mafia etc. He argues ‘that the crisis in governance in Sri Lanka is a symptom of a malaise that has infected the underlying system of values that a healthy society needs as its moral anchor’. According to Seneviratne, contemporary Sangha activism in lay society was born in ethno nationalist sentiment – an essential part of Sinhala Buddhist worldview. He argues that ‘To make the civility and urbanity of Buddhism an integral part of the innermost thought processes of the individual’ ethics need to be elevated over the ritual. He advocates an ethos of tolerance, inclusivity,urbanity,civility and modernity. To achieve this transformation and to reverse the society’s inner degeneration, a Buddhist reformation is necessary. The author highlights the importance of a reformed educational program to achieve these goals and the necessary shift or transformation and create equilibrium in society. I might add that it is also necessary to further examine what these inclusive values and ethics are, how the ritualistic popular Buddhism and its corresponding World View have undermined them, and how Educated and cosmopolitan Buddhist monks can advance the cause that Seneviratne maps out with lay support?