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CORE

DEFINITION OF
THE SASANA
AND ITS
MODERN
RELEVANCE

Sajeeva Samaranayake

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FOREWORD

Much heat – as opposed to light, is generated by the topic Buddha Sasana today. It is said that
some are out to destroy it. Calls are made upon sinhala Buddhists to come to its rescue.
Others are greatly perturbed by the reaction and resort to legislative activity by certain Buddhist
representatives, which they perceive as an attack on religious freedom. We do not enter this
controversy except to state that poverty, neglect and exploitation form a vicious circle that must
be tackled empirically without getting side tracked by the identity or religious denomination of
the exploited and exploiters. Those responsible for the different issues thrown up – the
economic, social, religious and legal must all shoulder their respective burdens and resolve the
issues that belong to their legitimate spheres. Coercion is always at the disposal of the State
but it must be used with wisdom. Let us define wisdom simply as that rare attitude which freely
acknowledges what is not known and looks around to find it.

This essay is intended to help all concerned to understand exactly what is at issue. What do we
understand by the term Buddha Sasana? As the Greek thinker Socrates put it; ‘before we start
talking, let’s decide what we are talking about.’

The Buddha Sasana has endured in Sri Lanka for over two millennia. Next to the family it is
perhaps our oldest social institution. Yet conventional thinking and historical generalizations
conceal more than they reveal. The story of the sasana that was originally established by the
Buddha; that which was planted in Lanka by Arahant Mahinda; and how it adapted, evolved
and survived the vicissitudes and upheavals of an island civilisation is one that must be
approached with utmost objectivity.

Any type of social convention or agreement, be it religious, cultural or political, acquires forms
of behaviour and organization designed to maintain the substance of human objectives sought
to be attained. In the beginning forms serve the substance efficiently. But in the course of the
inevitable cycle of growth, decay and decline forms acquire an egoistic and self perpetuating
existence of their own. This is naturally at the expense of the substance. The substance then
serves as a mere excuse for the perpetuation of forms that exploit the ignorant, the poor and
the powerless. This in short has been the progression of the Buddha Sasana in Sri Lanka.

Revival of the substance has in fact been undertaken since the beginning of the last century
and this great enterprise continues today as a silent cultural revolution which has naturally
shunned the limelight in accordance with the spirit of humility and simplicity inherent in the
Buddha’s teachings. This effort to extricate and champion the substance will define the future
of the Buddha Sasana in Sri Lanka with attendant positive implications for all of us who share
this island.

This essay seeks to lay bare the essence of the sasana. It relies on some well known existing
treatises to provide the student of the Buddha Sasana with a reference or a single reading that
updates him or her with the concept and its evolution. Needless to say the author owes a deep
debt of gratitude to Ven. Walpola Rahula Mahathera, E. W. Adikaram and Michael Carrithers
for their authoritative and illuminating contributions to this topic.

***************

2
Introduction
This is not about the politics of Buddha Sasana but about the Buddha Sasana
itself and what it means to the silent practitioner treading the middle path in
his or her search for inner peace and harmony. The political perspective is
dualistic, static and regressive. It leads to division and suffering. On the other
hand the perspective of the honest practitioner is holistic, dynamic and
evolutionary. It leads to unity and happiness. These two perspectives are not
opposed. The latter includes the former and is simply the broader view.

The true meaning of the Buddha Sasana is a matter that concerns all Sri
Lankans regardless of whether they are officially Buddhist or non – Buddhist.
This is because the Sasana was established by the Buddha for the benefit of
all human beings who aspired for liberation through right or holistic
understanding. As such it is a concept or institution that upholds human
freedom and dignity in substance and eschews superficial distinctions.
Nevertheless where ignorance reigns even a unifying concept can be abused
to divide and sow conflict among the people.

The historical association of the Sinhalese with the faith (dating back to its
formal establishment by King Devanampiyatissa with the blessings of Emperor
Dharmasoka around 250 BC) has been a great source of spiritual nourishment
and confidence to them. The writer of Revolt in the Temple (1953) notes with
reference to the Mahawansa that ‘For more than two thousand years the
Sinhalese have been inspired by the ideal that they were a nation brought
into being for the definite purpose of carrying the Torch lit by the Buddha.’

This idea of a favoured race can be found in most religious traditions. No


serious practitioner however would ascribe such a deliberate intention to the
Buddha. What the Buddha did however was to formulate 227 rules of
Dhamma Vinaya or righteous discipline for the sangha or monkhood he
established. [The reference to monks, bikkhus and the monkhood should also
be understood as a reference to nuns and the order of nuns.] There is clear
acknowledgement that the faithful and uncompromising adherence to Vinaya
is the reason for the survival and spread of the Sangha and the Buddha
Sasana in the East and now in the West. The intimate connection between a
Sangha that follows the Vinaya and the Buddha Sasana will be examined in
detail later.

It would suffice to underscore at the outset that there is nothing wrong in the
Sinhala Buddhist ideal referred to above provided that it is grounded in a
clear appreciation of the core definition of the Buddha Sasana. If it is
not, it can turn out to be a divisive and harmful political instrument, the very
opposite of what the Buddha Sasana actually stands for.

The basic path


It is useful at this point to obtain a basic understanding of the path outlined
by the Buddha. Once the Indian Master Atisha (982-1054 AD), accredited with

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founding Tibetan Buddhism, was asked the question – ‘what is the highest
teaching of the path?’ He replied,

The highest skill is in the realisation of egolessness. The highest nobility is in subduing your own mind. The
highest excellence is in having a mind which seeks to help others. The highest precept is continual
mindfulness. The highest remedy is in understanding the naturelessness of everything. The highest activity is not
to conform with worldly concerns. The highest accomplishment is the lessening and transmutation of the passions.
The highest giving is found in non-attachment. The highest moral practice is a peaceful mind. The highest patience is
humility. The highest effort is to abandon attachment to activities. The highest meditation is the mind without
pretension. The highest wisdom is not to grasp anything as it appears.1 [Emphasis added.]

In short therefore the path is a continuous process of inner cultivation or


mental development in which the monk or lay disciple is advised to exercise
continuous discipline, continuous vigilance and continuous letting go. The
acquisition of either material or spiritual credentials is eschewed as the way of
the world or samsara, the wheel of suffering which keeps ignorant human
beings entrapped.

In this chapter we examine the original and core definition of the sasana in
order to establish a reference point against which historical developments
after the Buddha parinirvana up to the present day can be assessed and
understood. Throughout the long history of the sasana in those Asian
countries where it took root fundamental reforms that were undertaken from
time to time were necessarily based upon an interpretation and application of
this core definition.

Michael Carrithers2 notes that the word sasana originally meant the ‘message’
or ‘command’ of the Buddha. Presumably this referred to those teachings
which established the rules of individual conduct and forms of social
organization for bikkhus through the 227 Vinaya rules. The Vinaya is also
described as the fencing on either side of the monk’s path serving to guide,
protect and ultimately enlighten him. The fundamental objective of these
rules therefore was to facilitate the eventual liberation of individual monks
from samsaric suffering. In this sense the sasana is not an end but the means
to an end.

Self-cultivation

There are three inter-dependent aspects of this process of individual


liberation. They are summarized as,

• Paryapti - learning
• Patipatti - practice; and
• Pativedha – penetration or enlightenment

1
Advice of the Indian Tibetan Master Atisha in Essential advice of the Kadampa Masters:
Translated from the Tibetan under the guidance of Geshe Wangyal BPS 1988 Bodhi Leaves
No. B 116
2
The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka, Oxford University Press 1983, 168,169

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These three aspects are elaborated by Matara Sri Nanarama Mahathera3 in
Vidarshana Parapura. Learning is the first step. The Buddha’s word should be
learned with a pure, faithful mind. From learning one goes onto practice,
patipatti, which is the fulfilment of learning, and is divided into sila, samadhi
and panna or discipline, concentration and wisdom. The successful
accomplishment of this practice is realization or penetration, pativedha. This
is enlightenment. Thus learning is the foundation; practice the cause and
enlightenment the effect.

The entire process of practice or sila, samadhi and panna (elaborated as the
noble eightfold path) is one of conscious cultivation of the mind or bavana.

Sila is to restrain the senses at the moment of sensory contact by focusing


attention inwards to watch the heart-mind (citta). Samadhi is the harnessing
of mental energy so conserved to focus accurately, i.e. honestly and openly,
on the beginning, the middle and end of feelings, perceptions, underlying
tendencies and thoughts (mental objects) generated by our sensory
experience. Chogyam Trungpa refers to this as “a state of totality and a state
of openness that does not seem to have any beginning or end.” According to
Bikkhu Bodhi,

The commentaries define samadhi as the centring of the mind and mental factors rightly and evenly on an object…
The two salient features of a concentrated mind are unbroken attentiveness to an object and the consequent
tranquillity of the mental functions, qualities which distinguish it from the unconcentrated mind.4

Samadhi is an outgrowth of sila that is consciously cultivated. Panna is an


outgrowth of samadhi which is sharpened by apprehending with greater
sensitivity and accuracy the different mental objects that pass through our
citta. This is the supreme knowledge that gives joy and peace.

Thus bavana is not merely sitting meditation but a mental culture that
permeates every thought, word and deed of the bikkhu on the path. This is
what is referred in the third stanza of the Maha Mangala Sutta, the Greater
Discourse on Blessings as atta samma panidica or setting oneself on the noble
eightfold path or in the right direction.

Rules of organization

1. The Patimokkha or 227 rules of Vinaya

This is the original sangha constitution as laid down in the canonical texts,
particularly the Mahavagga and the Cullavagga. Carrithers observes that they

3
Nanarama was the chief preceptor (meditation master) of the Sri Kalyani Yogashrama
Sansthava founded in the early 1950s by Kadawadduwe Jinawamsa Mahathera the pioneer
who initiated and accomplished a successful reform of the Sangha by reviving the Theravada
Forest tradition in Sri Lanka. A full account can be found in Op cit supra n 2.
4
Bikkhu Bodhi (1984) The Noble Eightfold Path – Way to the end of suffering, BPS Kandy, p
91.

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contain a complete and detailed legal system. Policy is conceived as already
established by the teaching of the Buddha.

The last 75 rules, called sekhiya or ‘trainings’ involve the personal and public
etiquette of monks. They bear on the monk’s training in careful mindfulness,
and they inculcate a grave and dignified manner. Most of the rest involve the
monk’s use of his requisites, such as robes, bowls and living quarters. Their
purpose falls roughly into two: some are designed to foster alpecchata,
contentment with little, and therefore control the amount or kind of material
goods used by the monk. Others are designed to prevent strife in the sangha
over such matters. In the case of these transgressions, as well as the
trainings, the monk purifies himself by confession to another monk, or when
an article of use is concerned, the monk both confesses and forfeits the
article.5 The first 17 rules specify offences that entail expulsion or suspension
from the order.

2. The egalitarian principle

Stemming from the goal of individual self-cultivation is the need to reconcile


personal autonomy with communal harmony among monks. This is done by
ensuring that organization is small – scale and within a face to face
community. Though monks do form small groups organized by papillary
succession effective control within such a group does not usually survive the
death of the eldest.6 A number of rules attempt to ensure that only monks
within a relatively small area (a boundary, sima) are allowed to participate in
communal ceremonies and those within the area must participate.
Consequently it is the whole community rather than a single monk in
authority that censures the wayward.7

3. Uposatha ceremony – recitation of patimokkha

The effective conduct of the Sangha’s affairs and ceremonies including


ordination requires the personal purity of each one of the participants. This is
institutionalised through the uposatha ceremony which is a fortnightly recital
in solemn conclave, of the 227 rules of Vinaya.8 According to Carrithers,

It is a ceremony which gathers the Sangha around the central expression of its communal
heritage, its discipline … it seems to be assumed that the ceremony was to be an occasion for
the confession of transgressions and therefore the occasion for purification. In later practice
however, transgressions were to be confessed by one monk to another in private, before the
meeting so that every monk who entered the uposatha ceremony was already purified. This
is the practice today.9

We find a dramatic example of this quoted from Cullavagga IX by Carrithers:

5
Id p 144
6
Id, pp 140,143/44
7
Mahavagga II
8
op cit supra n 2 p 142/43
9
Id

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Having gathered the monks to hear him recite the Patimokkha the Buddha stops and
announces that he cannot proceed, for the gathering is not entirely pure. One of the chief
disciples, Moggallana then reads the minds of the monks, and discovers the transgressor,
who is described in terms strong enough to merit quotation. He was ‘of low morals,
depraved, impure and doubtful in behaviour, deceptive, no seeker though pretending to be
one, not celibate though pretending to be so, rotten, full of desires, inherently filthy …’
Moggallana takes the offender by the arm, puts him out the door, shoots the bolt behind him,
and the Buddha proceeds.

Furthermore the answers given by Arahant Mahinda to Devanampiyatissa’s


question if the sasana was established in the island, yield the conclusion that
the unblemished observance of the Vinaya by monks is the essence of the
sasana of which the uposatha ceremony is the clearest manifestation. The
Samanatapasadika10 records their conversation in the following terms:

M: ‘O great king, the sasana is established, but its roots are not yet gone deep.’

D: ‘When will the roots go deep?’

M: ‘When a son born in Ceylon (Tambapannidipa), of Ceylonese parents, becomes a monk in


Ceylon, studies the Vinaya in Ceylon and recites it in Ceylon, then the roots of the
sasana are deep set.

Rahula Mahathera11 states citing the same source that this ceremony was
performed much later, even after the Maha Bodhi had been planted at
Anuradhapura. The king’s nephew Maha Arittha Thera, who had formerly
been a minister of state was elected by Mahinda for the act of reciting the
Vinaya at the ceremony.

It must be emphasized by way of explanation that observance of the Vinaya


for the Buddhist Monk is not discipline for the sake of discipline but discipline
for the sake of liberation from suffering. The undertaking must be whole
hearted or not at all. According to Bikkhu Bodhi12,

True discipline must be undertaken freely, with understanding and appreciation, and this can
come about only when one sees it as a source of joy and inner freedom, not as a clamp
bringing fear and frustration.

Rahula Mahathera also cites the Ariyawamsa sutta held in great esteem in the
past13 by both the Sangha and the laity as containing ‘the essence of the life
of a bhikku on whom the perpetuation of the Sasana depends.’

The four sections of the sutta are as follows:

10
Smp. (SHB), 60.
11
Rahula Walpola (1956), History of Buddhism in Ceylon, The Buddhist Cultural Centre, 56.
12
Bikkhu Bodhi (2000) Sangha at the crossroads, in Facing the future: Four Essays on the
social relevance of Buddhism, BPS Kandy, Wheel 438/440, p 62.
13
Op cit supra n 11 at p 270,271. The footnote by the Mahathera records that it is still recited
at Dimbulagala during the annual rains retreat or vas season.

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i. A bhikku is satisfied with whatever robes he gets … So is
he with regard to
ii. Whatever food he gets, and
iii. Whatever lodgings he is provided with14
iv. The bhikku takes delight in meditation and abandonment
(renunciation). But on account of this quality he does not
exalt himself, nor does he look down upon others.15

4. Autonomy of the Sangha

The unequivocal direction that the Sangha must ‘shoot the bolt’ on corrupting
influences and gather in its own purity has a fundamental implication for its
relationship with the rest of society. It becomes self-referring and
autonomous with the Vinaya texts allotting no role at all for the monks in
society.16

This independence of the monk in the pursuit of his primary business of self-
cultivation must not be frittered away by getting sidetracked by ‘bahira vada’
or mundane matters. In the words of Kadawadduwe Jinawamsa Mahathera
quoted in Carrithers17:

A person who becomes a monk renounces even the hair that belongs to the lay estate. What
is the point of putting on a yellow robe if you are just going to enter greedily the rat race (i.e.
the field of strife) for office, gifts and honours, and property? This is like eating what you
have just vomited …

‘However confident the monks are of their learning,’ writes Nanarama, ‘the
dispensation is not complete unless there is also practice and penetration.’ As
noted above this ideal requires monks to actually transcend the society of
which they are a part. The essential relationship between the sangha and laity
as laid down in the Vinaya was simple. The monks depend absolutely upon
laymen for food, clothing, medicines and other supplies. This dependence is
reinforced by other rules such as that which prohibits agricultural work.

It follows from a rigorous application of this rule of autonomy that the Ariya
Sangha or noble order is a state within itself and that it has no necessary
claim to patronage and support from the secular state. Any relationship that
develops between the lay state and the sangha would be a matter of
convention or agreement – however hallowed it may be due to inveterate
practice. Such a practice cannot be considered part of the ‘message’ or
‘command’ issued by the Buddha to his disciples.

These observations require a re-appraisal of the linkage forged between the


Buddha Sasana and a Sri Lankan state since 1972 with the unfortunate

14
Medical requirements are included in the pindapata or food itself. Id p 271.
15
Id
16
Op cit supra n 2 p 142.
17
Id p 208/09.

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repetition in the Constitution of a formula first adopted in the Proclamation of
1818 to placate the sinhalese that the Buddhist religion would continue to
enjoy the same position under British rule. Such a provision was no longer
required after the British left in a country where more than 70% of the people
are Buddhists.

It must be stated with all due respect that Article 9 of the Constitution which
requires the State to give foremost place to ‘Buddhism’ is ignorant of the
dharma, (in particular the teachings on anatta or egolessness) and insensitive
to the adherents of other religions. According to Bhikku Nanananda18:

Concepts, be they material or spiritual, worldly or transcendental – are not worthy of beig
grasped dogmatically. They are not to be treated as ultimate categories and are to be
discarded in the course of the spiritual endeavour … the uninstructed average person
succumbs to it; the disciple training on the Ariyan path resists it; and the Emancipated One
transcends it.

Wise rulers of the past, like Emperor Asoka, used formulations that were non-
alienating and in accordance with the teachings. Thus he proclaimed through
a rock edict:

Dhamma sadhu, kiyam cu dhamme ti?


Apasinave, bahu kayane, daya, dane, sace, socaye.

Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma?


(It includes) little evil, much good, kindness,
generosity, truthfulness and purity.

In short the present linkage is with a state possessing dualist fundamentals.


Forming an ethic of separation (as opposed to an ethic of unity) it was
superimposed on an island culture after the top down Colebrooke Cameron
reforms of 1833. That state is now undergoing a convulsive transition before
giving birth to what may hopefully become a modern and egalitarian nation
state.

The sangha today is the only institution that survives from the triple
configuration of the ancient lankan state made up of the king, the sangha and
the self – sufficient village. It is thus qualified to be at least one of the
midwives of the future Sri Lankan state. So long as it remains linked to an
obviously failed state, a relict of British colonisation, it would remain
constrained from achieving the autonomy conceived for it by the Buddha. And
until the sangha becomes autonomous it would lack dispassionate objectivity
to guide the laity towards a modern nation state.

This would appear to be the full significance of the following section found in
the Kelaniya Declaration:

18
(1971) Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought BPS, Kandy, p 54,55.

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We, therefore, the Sangha of Sri Lanka, the Guardians of the Life and Liberty and Sponsors of
the Well – being and Happiness of the people of this island, assembled on this hallowed spot
sanctified by the feet of the Master, do hereby declare and publish, on behalf of the people,
that Sri Lanka claims its right to be a Free and Independent Sovereign State, that it has
resolved to absolve itself from all allegiance to any other Power, State or Crown, and that all
political connection between it and any other State is hereby dissolved;

5. Nature of the advisory role and attendant implications

The laymen (including those exercising power in society) would depend upon
the monk for spiritual sustenance and guidance. The advice given is thus
personal, directed purely towards elevating the hearts and minds of the
recipients. This dependence is a natural consequence of the spiritual stature
of the genuine monk rather than the assumption by him of any role in society.
As Francis Story pointed out,

The Buddha did not essay to lay down laws for the conduct of human affairs in any but a
strictly personal sense. He gave advice to rulers, as he did to ordinary householders, but did
not attempt to formulate principles of state policy.19

More recently the renowned Vietnamese Meditation Master Thich Naht Hanh
gave the following response to an interviewer20:

Q: You led a retreat for some members of Congress. What did you tell them about
responding to violence or the threat of it?

A: I did not tell them anything, except offering them concrete tools in order to have more
time for themselves, more time for their families; so that they can release the tension in their
daily life, bringing some joy and happiness into their daily life so that they can serve better
their nation and the world. I am not a politician. I am not going to prescribe a political
solution for them. I am only a monk, and the best thing I can do is to help them to be more
of themselves -- more peaceful, more compassionate. That is enough for me and for them,
well, as a purpose in the retreat.

The significance of this human developmental approach is that the Sangha


would thus refrain from providing conceptualised and therefore impersonal
solutions to conceptualised issues, like for example poverty, crime and to
name the current issue – ‘religious conversion’. Let us examine this
proposition in depth in view of its obvious importance.

From reality to concept


To conceptualise is to place a whole range of ‘similar’ situations within a pre-
determined or fixed category or definition. A lawyer may label an incident as a
crime while a doctor would come up with the diagnosis of a specific illness.
One implication of this isolationist and professional approach is that the

19
Story, Francis
20
INTERVIEW:
Thich Nhat Hanh
September 19, 2003 Episode no. 703
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week703/interview.html

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‘decision maker’ defines the problem, and with it the solution which also
happens to be pre-determined either in a legal or medical book.

How well the decision maker understands the ‘full picture’ or the reality
depends greatly upon the quality of communication between him and the
laymen affected. The context is structured against the attainment of such
clarity because,

a. the relationship is vertical and unequal; and


b. the thinking process of the professional is to move the reality as it
affects the layman into a concept or a fixed category.

Truth or reality is superseded by the concept which then becomes the sole
operative criterion for understanding, thought, speech and action. The
present world order is built upon two master concepts that complement each
other. They are the human being as the ‘consumer’ and the human being as
the ‘criminal.’ The former is rooted in greed and the latter in aversion. The
former facilitates exploitation of man by man leading to the accumulation of
wealth and power by a select few. This generates powerlessness and poverty
among the many leading to disaffection and hatred against the social order.
The consequent anti-social behaviour is suppressed by an overt symbol of
public morality which operates as a covert instrument of social control. Have
we ever wondered why it is always the powerless and the poor who are at the
receiving end of the criminal process? Have we also wondered why it is
always flawed implementation that is blamed for the iniquities of the criminal
process but never the structure? This is what happens when concepts which
simplify and solidify reality start ruling over us. They become an end instead
of the means they were originally supposed to be. When people start
mistaking the concept for reality and when the two are not critically examined
the concept becomes the end and the human being the means. This also
applies to the principal topic under discussion – the Buddha Sasana.

The end result is that people become mechanical, blindly following ritualised
forms – trapped by their own failure to see things as they are. They become
victims of the forces of craving, aversion and delusion. This global pattern
which gathered pace with the industrial and technological revolutions in the
West and then spread to the rest of the world through colonization and
globalisation was aptly summarized by Tanner in the following words:

Just as the world is coming to be dominated by impersonal forces so also are the inhabitants
of this world becoming as impersonal, mechanical and inhuman as the forces that guide
them.21

From concept to reality

21
Tanner, Tony (1963). The Lost America: The Despair of Henry Adams and Mark Twain, in
Henry Nash Smith (Ed) Mark Twain. A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, Englewood
Cliffs, N.J.

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That truth is not a static entity which can be conceptualised, fixed and proved
but a process which must be experienced and engaged is a fundamental
lesson learned by a Buddhist disciple – monk or layman, who follows the
noble eightfold path of sila, samadhi and panna. Thus the meditative practice
is a movement from concept to reality – to uncover the true nature of
physical and mental phenomena we experience in their simplicity, immediacy,
freshness, uniqueness and what Nyanaponika Mahathera22 describes below as
their ‘self-luminosity’.

Generalizing thought inclines to become impatient with a recurrent type, and after having it
classified, soon finds it boring. Bare attention, however being the key instrument of
methodical insight keeps to the particular. It follows keenly the rise and fall of successive
physical and mental processes. If mindfulness remains alert, repetitions of type will, by their
multiplication, exert not a reduced but an intensified impact on the mind.

The three characteristics – impermanence, suffering and voidness of self – inherent in the
process observed, will stand out more and more clearly. They will appear in the light shed by
the phenomena themselves, not in a borrowed light: not even a light borrowed from the
Buddha. These physical and mental phenomena, in their “self luminosity,” will then convey a
growing sense of urgency to the meditator. Then if all other conditions of inner maturity are
fulfilled, the first direct vision of final liberation will dawn with the stream winner’s indubitable
knowledge: “Whatever has the nature of arising, has the nature of vanishing.”

As Carlo Gragnani23 put it:

To say that existence is characterised by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and absence of


self is to express ideas, concepts, meanings, to put words into use. This is not necessarily
tantamount to live accordingly. But for him who lives in accordance with them, those words,
concepts, ideas emerge from reality as he experiences it.

What is the advice that a monk who experiences reality as mentioned above
can give to a layman? In the first place, advice given by such a monk is
rendered relevant, meaningful and effective by virtue of his personal example
of a life lived in accordance with the teachings, the dhamma. Secondly their
interaction and communication will be enhanced by the four brahma vihara’s
or sublime qualities of the heart which can be summoned by a practising
monk. These are

Metta – selfless love


Karuna – compassion for the suffering of others
Muditha – rejoicing in the happiness of others
Upekkha – equanimity which balances the first three sublime emotions

Knowledge of the transient, stressful and void nature of all phenomena


(anicca, dukkha, anatta) provides a realistic, balanced and moderate
perspective on life and death. It provides a solid, holistic and earthy
foundation for avoiding the two extremes threatening to destroy the world

22
The power of Mindfulness, p 115.
23
Gragnani, Carlo (1977) the Search for Meaning, in Concept and Meaning Two Essays by
Charles F. Knight and Carlo Gragnani, BPS Kandy, Wheel Publication No. 250 p24.

12
today – egoistic materialism (in the form of greed for wealth and power) and
egoistic idealism (in the form of terrorism, by state as well as non state
entities.)

Positive implications for a society with an autonomous Sangha


Steering a human society on the middle path eschewing such dangers is the
peculiar function of what may be termed its ‘spiritual backbone.’ Different
societies have different organizations that have traditionally performed this
vital function. In Sri Lanka it was the Sangha which naturally assumed the
responsibility for the maintenance of the agrarian ethic of care. This was a
paradigm in which cooperation and holistic self help were the organizing
economic principles. This ensured a reasonable congruence and
interdependence between human spiritual development, social well being and
economic security. The agrarian ethic of care provided a strong moral
foundation for this island society for over two thousand years. A sense of
unity and oneness between man and the natural environment; man and work
and man and man characterised this way of life.

Significantly this philosophical orientation came to be shared in the course of


time by the tamil cultivator in the dry zone and the sinhala cultivator in the
wet zone. This is testified by the relative positions of superiority occupied by
the Brahmin priest and vellala farmer on the one hand and the Buddhist monk
and the Govi kula farmer on the other.

The challenge faced by Sri Lanka today in particular and by the Third World in
general relates to the colonial super-imposition of a trade ethic of justice. This
ethic which stressed and elevated rights at the expense of relationships was
responsible for alienating man from nature; man from his work and man from
man.

This is a paradigm in which individualism and specialised service provision


became the organizing economic principles. The traditional sinhala and tamil
social systems were undermined in the process of inducting Ceylon into the
globalized economy. The erroneous pattern of sacrificing human spiritual
development and social well being for an externally defined goal of economic
development, first committed in 1833 was also repeated in 1977. We have
now learned in ample measure that rights without relationships are as useless
as relationships without rights.

Striking the correct balance requires a clear understanding of the fundamental


nature of the human being and human society. The post – renaissance
transition in Europe was a movement from faith to reason. This was a
pendulum swing from one extreme to another. As a result it is the head that
has come to dominate the heart in modern society.

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The professional focus on the human being which ignored his or her
relationships is highlighted by Howe et al24 in the following passage:

The quality and character of children’s close relationships is proving to be the central concept
linking the myriad of factors that have a bearing on development. Relationships provide the
key experience that connects children’s personal and social worlds. It is within the dynamic
interplay between these two worlds that minds form and personalities grow, behaviour
evolves and social competence begins. All the more remarkable then that, until 30 years ago,
only clinicians appeared to be interested in relationships. ‘By an extraordinary omission,’
admits Hinde (1995:1) ‘the psychological sciences simply by passed what is the most
important issue in most people’s lives – the nature of interpersonal relationships.25

Meditative practice on the other hand nurtures a holistic and wholesome


conception of the human being. As Soma Thera noted, writing in 1941:

Analysis of the parts lays bare the constituent components. Analysis of the relations gives a
sense of the totality. All the differences that make for uniqueness of the personality,
individuality, and entirety of a living being depends on the countless number of everchanging
relations, their infinite variety, subtle nuances, and endless possibilities in each separate life
flux.26

Given this breadth and depth of the meditative focus on the human being the
Sangha of today is entrusted a natural function which does not contradict or
deviate from the basic path outlined by the Buddha. This is to achieve a
balanced engagement with society that eschews the extremes of monastic
isolation (under – engagement) and active involvement in politics (over –
engagement) so that it is able first of all to gain a clear insight into the state
of human society in the 21st century. Such a balanced engagement would
necessarily respect pluralism and exhibit positive respect and regard for all
expressions of universal truths found in other religions.

The case for engagement is well stated by Bhikku Bodhi.27

One of the primary tasks facing Buddhism in the global world of the future is to develop a
comprehensive vision of solutions to the social, economic and political problems that look so
large today. This is not a matter of blending religion and politics,28 but of making an accurate
diagnosis of the destructive fixations of consciousness from which these problems spring. The
diagnosis must lay bare how human defilements – the same greed, hatred and ignorance
responsible for private suffering – take on a collective dimension embedded in social
structures. What is necessary is not only to expose the oppressive nature of such structures,
but to envisage and strive for fresh alternatives: fresh perspectives on social organization and

24
Howe, David., Brandon, Marion., Hinings, Diana., Schofield, Gillian., (1999) Attachment
Theory, Child Maltreatment and Family Support: A Practice and Assessment Model,
Houndmills: Palgrave.
25
The reference to Hinde is Hinde, R (1995) A suggested structure for a science of
relationships. Personal relationships, 1:1-15.
26
Soma Thera, (1941) The way of mindfulness, the Satipattana Sutta and Commentary.
27
Bikkhu Bodhi (2000) The changing face of Buddhism, in Facing the future: Four Essays on
the social relevance of Buddhism, BPS Kandy, Wheel 438/440, p 53.
28
Jawaharlal Nehru once reformulated this negative sounding phrase as ‘spirituality and
science’.

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human relatedness that can ensure political, economic, and social justice, the preservation of
the natural environment, and the actualisation of our spiritual potential.

Although such a project, on so vast a scale, will be a new challenge to Buddhism, it is a


challenge that can be partly met with the Buddha’s insights into the origination suffering and
the means to its resolution. But only partly for creative thought is needed to apply these
insights to today’s unique problems. This means in effect expanding the liberative dimension
of the Dhamma by giving it a collective or even global application. In this enterprise
Buddhists must join hands with leaders of other religions committed to the same goal.
Beneath their inevitable differences, the great religions concur in seeing our grave social and
communal problems as stemming from a primordial blindness rooted in the delusion of self,
either personal or blown up into ethnic and nationalistic identities.

Having gained a clear insight into the nature of society with the aid of the
dhamma it should once again be placed at the disposal of Sri Lankans in any
appropriate form to be used as an ethical and scientific foundation for re-
creating a benevolent and compassionate human society on this island again.
In particular the message of the Buddha retains a continuing relevance for
securing and strengthening the human being and human relationships – an
indispensable foundation for any civilised social order.

Human rights and human relationships; autonomy and interdependence, are


therefore not opposed but equally important aspects of the wholesome and
holistic human personality. This is a clear message of the foundation article,
article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with
reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Reference to the duty of brotherhood here indicates that human rights must
be based on a compassionate foundation of human relationships. This duty
includes 3 connected duties of

ƒ communication
ƒ understanding and
ƒ positive action based on accurate empathy29

This is a holistic approach of deconstruction and engagement with human


problems without taking temporary refuge and shielding ourselves behind
egoistic, self-serving concepts and generalisations. Such an empirical and
dispassionate view is precisely the view advocated by the Buddha among
several other great teachers that humankind has been blessed with.

***************

29
We have already referred to the four brahma vihara’s or sublime qualities of the heart as a
fully developed system of training that guides the true disciple in all his or her relations and
interactions with others. They provide the necessary tools for overcoming the present
domination of head over heart.

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