1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lanka

By August 17, 2009

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In the current issue of  The Atlantic, Robert Kaplan writes that Buddhism is viewed in the West as being more peaceful, austere, and uncorrupted than other religions. But, Kaplan writes, this is mistaken.

Yet Buddhism, as Kandy demonstrates, is deeply materialistic and demands worship of solid objects, in a secure and sacred landscape that has required the protection of a military. There have been Buddhist military kingdoms—notably Kandy’s—just as there have been Christian and Islamic kingdoms of the sword. Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.

Although most of us would object to Kaplan's description of Buddhism, given recent events in Sri Lanka I can't say he's entirely wrong. We might argue that he's seeing a corrupted version of Buddhism, but most religions are corrupted versions of whatever their founders intended. I strongly suspect Jesus would be astonished by present-day Christianity, for example.

Kaplan writes that the history of Sri Lanka has made the Sinhalese "a demographic majority with a dangerous minority complex of persecution." For another perspective, please see "Choosing Our Imaginary Communities and Identities" by John Hughes. Hughes writes that a "racial-religious nationalism" has had a corrosive effect on Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

We humans seem to have a built-in, compelling urge to form tribal alliances. To me, what makes an alliance "tribal" is that the group identity is integrated into self-identity. A tribe can be ethnic, nationalistic, religious, ideological, or many other things. Ultimately the tribe becomes something one's ego-armor will defend by any means necessary, including self-deception. I think our tendency to form tribes and defend them to the death against perceived threats from other tribes amounts to most of the violence on the planet.

I think it's important for us to acknowledge that Buddhists and Buddhist institutions are not immune to the passions of nationalism and other tribal "isms." Only then can we compassionately respond to free ourselves and others from these very damaging deceptions.

Comments
August 17, 2009 at 11:35 am
(1) David says:

“I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that Buddhists and Buddhist institutions are not immune to the passions of nationalism and other tribal “isms.” Only then can we compassionately respond to free ourselves and others from these very damaging deceptions.”

Well said. Sometimes it is hard not to believe that tribalism is absolutely hard-wired into our brains and can never be overcome. But clearly Buddhist compassion–and the compassion inherent in all great religious traditions–is the only forward.

July 1, 2011 at 5:50 am
(2) eureka says:

http://transcurrents.com/tc/2011/02/what_our_country_consequently.html
Independence Day Message from the Rt. Rev. Duleep de Chickera, Metropolitan’s Commissary and Vicar General of the Diocese of Colombo, 2 February 2011:
‘’…. The end of the war provided an excellent opportunity for healing the wounds of the past.
…. We have failed to address the pressing crises of displacement and poverty, corruption and waste, good governance and national integration.
…. The old order is either incapable of, or reluctant to replace unjust systems and discriminatory trends with a more just order for the good of all our people.
What our country consequently needs is a new political will that will restore the sovereignty of the people and bring about true national integration. .…’’

August 18, 2009 at 1:16 pm
(3) Keerthi says:

Thank you very much for posting this Barbara.

As a Sri Lankan living in Sri Lanka and being born to the majority Sinhalese Buddhists I would like to say even I my self is a victim of Buddhist nationalism.

But when I say this the christian evangalists are there to take advantage of that.

The problem stems from the day Buddha Dhamma became Buddhism. The Buddha was the only teacher who asked the followers to never even believe what he(the teacher) said.

His method was to anybody from any religion to come and practice his noble eightfold path (or the training of using mind directly instead of five senses)and see for them selves what he taught.

The Buddha’s father was a king and he had so many kings of many countries as his followers and friends. The Buddha never asked any of those kings to make it national religion of any country.

Buddhist nationalism is due to mixing of the religion Buddhism with culture of various countries.

Since they lost the practical path or the practical noble eightfold path they devised new methods to attract people for the “fruitless” religion or the religion with wich nobody can attain Nirvana and become saints(Aryas).

Due to this fact they do everything possible to protect their religion rather than finding the truth.

What is practised in Kandy is completely “religious” and not Buddhist. The so-called Buddha’s tooth relic is of the size of a tiger! His hair relic is longer than the hair of a pony tail! Remember the Buddha statues also have long hair but his followers, the Buddhist monks are bold headed!

The Buddha never wrote Theravada or Mahayana books. But both sects believe their books are correct! When something out of the books is told or written they get angry and most of the time what we write never appear in the press.

If Buddha’s relics are so useful why did The Buddha asked to crimate his body after death? Instead he should have asked to mummify his body and taken to each country.

With original Buddhism or the correct practical noble eightfold path you can very easily see why Buddhism got filled with these rituals, praying, chanting etc. With that you can unite Theravada and Mahayana. You can see the two sects appeared as a result of losing the practical path.

But, being Mahayana or Therawada Buddhist nationalism never alows us to give this to the world.

Buddha Dhamma is the only teaching that will survive the environmental onslaught. It is the only teaching that can be refined to original qaulity! Practical noble eightfold path is the discovery of The Buddha or the greatest discovery of mankind. It is the only path to see the truth without belief, myths and miracles.

Keerthi

July 3, 2011 at 7:39 am
(4) Vino says:

Thank you, Keerthi.

We need to reverse this:

No war, no peace: the denial of minority rights and justice in Sri Lanka, Report by Minority Rights Group International, 19 January 2011:
”With the end of the conflict between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE or ‘Tamil Tigers’) in 2009, normality has returned for much of the population of Sri Lanka. But for members of the country’s two main minority groups – Tamils and Muslims – living in the north and east of the country, harsh material conditions, economic marginalisation, and militarism remain prevalent.”

August 20, 2009 at 5:23 pm
(5) TFitz says:

Great post above from Keerthi. Brings up lots of points that are open to discussion but I agree very much with the thrust of what was said. The Dahrma stripped of cultural references would still be the Dharma and we have it today because it is tested by each generation that came before us. My deepest sympathies on the on-going disasters in Sri Lanka and I wish your friends and family the best of luck.

It was a sad day when monks allowed patriotism to replace the precious viewpoint as their cause in life and I won’t forget the sight of saffron robed monks rioting against concessions made to the Sinhalese.
The monks were treated brutally by their Dutch colonizers. Maybe that poisoned their institutions. I don’t know. It should be investigated.

August 20, 2009 at 5:25 pm
(6) TFitz says:

I’ve been waiting for the fallout from all of this.

August 20, 2009 at 6:29 pm
(7) Wilfred says:

Well said Keerthi. While agreeing totally with Keerthi’s posting, I thought of commenting on the opposite view. It is true that the essence of Buddhism is to show the path for human beings to find nirvana within their own self. If it was not for the efforts of King Asoka and his messengers Buddhism would not have travelled to so many parts of Asia. We would not have had the good fortune to understand the core concepts of Buddhism if it was not available to us in somewhat unadulterated form. The preservation of the deeper concepts of Buddhism would not have occured if it was not protected from total annhilation by the ancient Moguls and warriors of other religions (1500 – 2000 years ago) who rampantly destroyed everything that was Bhuddhist. In fact the vestige of the corrupted version of Buddhism through cultural integration helped protect the somewhat uncorrupted form of Buddhism zealously guarded by the Sangha from other religious invaders. Buddhist history is well documented thanks to records kept by many Buddhist monks of different ethnicities (Chinese, Indonesian, Burmese, Tibetan, Thai and Sri Lankan) who lived and practised Bhuddhism at Ajantha Univesity in India established 700 years after Lord Buddha. The corrupt form of Buddhism that Robert Kaplan saw in Kandy is a vestige of strategic preservation of the somehwat uncorrupted form of Buddhism that Keerthi has been able to access.
With metta!
Wilfred

August 20, 2009 at 11:54 pm
(8) Wilfred says:

Correction:
It should be Nalanda University not Ajantha.

August 21, 2009 at 9:36 am
(9) JoeBuddha says:

Buddhism is fundamentally a personal practice. When it becomes an “institution” or a “cultural” thing, it runs the risk of losing what makes it unique. It becomes any other institution with professionals espousing the teachings, regulations, commandments, but no heart. Under these circumstances, yes, you can have Buddhist Nationalism. But, it’s Buddhism in name only.

August 24, 2009 at 12:49 am
(10) Cham says:

I read Kaplan’s article in full, and regrettably, it is full of mistakes and biased towards to Tamil separatists of whom the most prominent hand was LTTE terrorists (although he had tried to show that he is against the LTTE as well). I had a feeling that this was intentional as a person of his calibre cannot be so ignorant of the historical facts.

If I were to comment on only the parts you have mentioned in this blog;

Buddhism does not demand anything. It only shows a path, and it is up to the individual persons to follow it or not. Sometimes people would like to respect their great teacher the Lord Buddha and has developed various symbols for that. The monuments in Kandy are a historical and archeological heritage of the people, and it only required protection by the military simply because it was subjected to attacks by the Tamil terrorists (there were no military protection before). There never had been “Buddhist military kingdoms” in Sri Lanka. I challenged my Kaplan to show a single evidence to support his arguments and he never accepted.

It is a pity that the ant-Buddhists believe that (because the Buddhism is conceived at compassion and kindness) the Buddhists must allow themselves to be subjected to discrimination, torture, and total annihilation and extinction without any protest or fighting back. I simply cannot understand how the so called senior fellows and academics are so naive. The Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka has never gone to war except in order to protect their very lives from the invading enemies and that too when all other peaceful measures have failed.

I haven’t yet read Hughes, but sent a detailed reply to Kaplan, to which he is yet to respond. I had the suspicion that he was not talking all by himself. The Tamil separatists, after all, are extremely rich, and few million dollars are peanuts for them.

July 1, 2011 at 6:15 am
(11) eureka says:

I respect all religions and don’t practice any particular one.
I don’t know about the anti-Buddhists referred to here.
I don’t know what Kaplan has written.
But I’m a Sri Lankan Tamil.

There was a series of pogroms unleashed on Tamils in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981, 1983,… aided by Sinhalese parliamentarians. Mid-70s saw the emrgence of armed struggle.

A large number of Sinhalese went up to Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission last year and told that successive governments have been oppressing the ethnic minorities from the time of independence:
http://transcurrents.com/tc/2010/08/outline_of_submission_made_to.html
Jayantha Dhanapala’s written submission to Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation
Commission(LLRC), 30 August 2010: ‘’Each and every Government which held office from 1948 till the present bear culpability for the failure to achieve good governance, national unity and a framework of peace, stability and economic development in which all ethnic, religious and other groups could live in security and equality.
http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/docs/August2010/LLRC-JD-Transcript.pdf
Oral submission, Jayantha Dhanapala to LLRC: Our inability to manage our own internal affairs has led to foreign intervention but more seriously has led to the taking of arms by a desperate group of our citizens.’’
(Dhanapala was formerly UN Under-Secretary General for Disarmament and a candidate for UNSG in 2006)

July 2, 2011 at 2:39 am
(12) eureka says:

Conscientious Sinhalese speak:
1. http://transcurrents.com/tc/2010/08/outline_of_submission_made_to.html
Jayantha Dhanapala’s written submission to Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation
Commission(LLRC), 30 August 2010: ‘’Each and every Government which held office from 1948 till the present bear culpability for the failure to achieve good governance, national unity and a framework of peace, stability and economic development in which all ethnic, religious and other groups could live in security and equality.
http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/docs/August2010/LLRC-JD-Transcript.pdf
Oral submission, Jayantha Dhanapala to LLRC: Our inability to manage our own internal affairs has led to foreign intervention but more seriously has led to the taking of arms by a desperate group of our citizens.’’
(Dhanapala was formerly UN Under-Secretary General for Disarmament and a candidate for UNSG in 2006)

2.http://groundviews.org/2010/09/23/submissions-before-lessons-learnt-reconciliation-committee-llrc-by-chandra-jayaratne/
Submission before Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) by Chandra Jayaratne, 23 September 2010: ‘’…… Years of inequitable allocation of national resources and consequential disparities in regional economic development, infrastructure development and public service delivery have sown the seeds of discontent and disillusionment leading to conflict, insurrections of the South and the North and even the armed struggle towards a separate administration ….’’
(Jayaratne is a member of the Board of Directors of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies and a former President of Ceylon Chamber of Commerce)

July 2, 2011 at 2:43 am
(13) eureka says:

http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/docs/Sep2010/K%20Godage.pdf
K.Godage(former Sri Lankan diplomat) addresses LLRC, 15 September 2010:
‘’….The Tamils have undergone, and are undergoing immense hardship. We need to reach out to them…. We have persistently discriminated against the Tamil people from 1956….There is no reason for any one to be insecure, as a result of giving into the reasonable demands of the Tamil people. …. Now I must tell you of a very, very sad situation, particularly bad and dangerous situation. We have in our prisons over 2000 young Tamil men. Some of them have been taken on suspicion. Just picked up and taken. In detention without charges for years, Sir, for years …. ”

http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/docs/Sep2010/10.11.2010-Mr._Elmore_Perera-evidence.pdf
Elmore Perera(Founder, Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance(CIMOGG) to LLRC, 10 November 2010: Beginning with the “Sinhala Only” policy of 1956, which disregarded the multi-cultural and pluralistic nature of society, the removal of the constitutional provision guaranteeing minority rights ……. The 1983 racial riots were a disaster. Tamils were treated as being sub-human. …. Many Tamils were driven to feel that it was “better to fight and die rather than live like slaves”, in the hope that, “at least they would get a free state where Tamils can live a life of dignity”….’’
(an eminent lawyer and past President of the Organisation of Professional Associations)

July 2, 2011 at 9:17 am
(14) luxmy says:

Conscientious Sinhalese tell the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission:

http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/docs/Asoka%20Gunawardana.pdf
Asoka Goonawardana to LLRC, 25 August 2010: ‘’Reconciliation must be envisioned within an institutional framework for democratic governance”
http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/Fr._Shelton_Fernando.pdf
Rev. Fr. Reid Shelton Fernando to LLRC, 19 November 2010:
‘’The way the minority groups are treated in the country is far from the nationally or internationally accepted standards and principles.”
http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/docs/August2010/Manel%20Abeysekera.pdf
Manel Abeysekera to LLRC, 23 August 2010:
‘’ … the main underlying cause was our neglect of the human rights of the Tamil people which caused the aggravation of the conflict ….”

http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/docs/Prof.%20Priyan%20Dias.pdf
Prof Priyan Dias addresses LLRC, 07 October 2011:
‘’No one is asking now whether it is “we” who are responsible for the LTTE uprising. I think as a society we need to have that sense of guilt, have that sense of blame that we are responsible for this happening and it is only out of that sense of guilt that we can move forward.’’

July 2, 2011 at 4:56 pm
(15) rita says:

Ethnic Conflict and Economic Development- A POLICY ORIENTED ANALYSIS, John Richardson(1996) “Democracy alone cannot ensure ethnic harmony. Instead, it may allow freer expression of ethnic antagonisms and legalised persecution of minorities. In Sri Lanka, both S.W.R.D. and Sirimavo Bandaranaike won democratic elections by appealing to Buddhist-Sinhalese nationalist sentiments and denigrating the ethnic Tamils. When out of office, many of their principal political opponents did the same. Slobodan Milosevic, the former Communist Party Chief of Serbia and General Franjo Tudjman of Croatia won their presidencies by appealing to the most divisive aspects of Serbian and Croatian nationalism”.

July 26, 2010 at 10:36 am
(16) jae says:

THe fact of the matter is that Buddhism has much nationalist/violent/even racist flavor outside the Western understanding/interpretation of it. We/Westerners can interpret all we want, and most of the time our interpretations will be individualistically-flavored, perhaps since our culture supports such a worldview.

Many Asians visit Buddhist temples to get a “warm” feeling of like-ness with other Asians, who come from the same culture – a type of communal feeling. Many do not visit the temples to strictly “purify one’s individual self”.

If you visit “ethnic” Buddhist temples in Western countries, you’ll notice that, many times, the “ethnic Buddhists” do not interact much with Westerners – this is largely due to the fact that, they’re visiting these temples for that “warm feeling” of like-ness. I have many Asian friends, and a lot of them tell me that this is a main reason they visit temples.

“Buddhism is fundamentally a personal practice. When it becomes an “institution” or a “cultural” thing, it runs the risk of losing what makes it unique.”

Buddhism – as a religion – is/was an institution, and the “individualistic’ flavor of it, perhaps, is what Westerners find attractive.

July 3, 2011 at 12:27 am
(17) rite says:

http://groundviews.org/2011/06/22/thoughts-on-a-documentary-we-are-complicit-in-sri-lankas-killing-fields/#comment-33535
Thoughts on a documentary: We are complicit in Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, Anupama Ranawana, 22 June 2011:
‘’….. It is necessary to ask the Sinhalese – and their middle classes in particular- what will you do? The evidence is mounting; will you remain silent and inactive yet again? It is time that head shaking and the bearing of witness was translated into real action. Free yourselves from the bounds of that modern instinct that asks you to preserve yourself and your society; and look to a struggle that can truly initiate a just and free society.’’

July 26, 2010 at 10:46 am
(18) jae says:

“We humans seem to have a built-in, compelling urge to form tribal alliances. To me, what makes an alliance “tribal” is that the group identity is integrated into self-identity. A tribe can be ethnic, nationalistic, religious, ideological, or many other things. Ultimately the tribe becomes something one’s ego-armor will defend by any means necessary, including self-deception. I think our tendency to form tribes and defend them to the death against perceived threats from other tribes amounts to most of the violence on the planet.”

Yes, completely agree Barbara!

July 1, 2011 at 5:44 am
(19) eureka says:

Mhhh. …
Barbara, Keerthi, …. thank you.

I am a Sri Lankan Tamil – respect all religions – no hatred for Buddhism for being a victim of Buddhist nationalism:

just let you know:

CEYLON : A DIVIDED NATION, B H Farmer(1963):”The truth, though unpalatable may be to some, is simply that nobody unacceptable to the present Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has any chance of constitutional power in contemporary Ceylon.”

still suffering:

Power Sharing as Peace Structure: The Case of Sri Lanka, IICP Working Paper, No. 2, 2005, Johan Galtung, Professor of Peace Studies: ‘’External Colonialism: Democracy :: Internal Colonialism: Human Rights’’

Sri Lanka: Indian Delegates go Home Empty Handed, Kumar David, 15 June 2011: ‘’… for once in a lifetime he(the President) spoke the truth. “If I make any devolutionary concessions to the Tamils, it will be curtains for me.” – http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers46/paper4558.html

conflict resolution not in sight only more oppression:

http://www.minorityrights.org/10458/reports/no-war-no-peace-the-denial-of-minority-rights-and-justice-in-sri-lanka.html
No war, no peace: the denial of minority rights and justice in Sri Lanka, Report by Minority Rights Group International, 19 January 2011:
With the end of the conflict between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE or ‘Tamil Tigers’) in 2009, normality has returned for much of the population of Sri Lanka. But for members of the country’s two main minority groups – Tamils and Muslims – living in the north and east of the country, harsh material conditions, economic marginalisation, and militarism remain prevalent. Drawing on interviews with activists, religious and political leaders, and ordinary people living in these areas of the country, MRG found a picture very much at odds with the official image of peace and prosperity following the end of armed conflict.

July 1, 2011 at 5:46 am
(20) eureka says:

No conflict resolution in sight:

THE DUAL REALITY OF THE PRESENT TIME, National Peace Council, 11 April 2011:
‘’….. Another example of the problem of dissent in civil society comes from Jaffna. A high powered inter-religious delegation from Colombo recently visited the north where they met with the war-affected people. Although there is no more a problem of terrorism, the delegation was given military escort when they traveled into the interior. This would have dissuaded the war displaced people of those parts from being too open in their expression of dissatisfaction for fear of displeasing the military officers who wield great control over their lives. However, when the delegation met with their religious counterparts in Jaffna, they were able to hear a frank and critical expression of views. Specific issues raised included the militarization of governance in the north.
The following night some men had gone to the residence of one of the outspoken clergymen, called him out and flung cow dung and other excreta at him. They had also thrown chillie powder at the face of one of his assistants and assaulted him when he had gone to find out what was happening. The assailants had dropped a mobile telephone with phone numbers on it that would assist in finding out their identity. Although this valuable piece of evidence had been given to the police, no action appears to have been taken so far. The message that freedom of expression has its limits in the north was very clearly made. …’’

July 3, 2011 at 4:37 am
(21) sr says:

An appeal to Buddhists all around the world: please appeal to Sri Lankan Buddhists to be reasonable towards the ‘other’:

http://groundviews.org/2011/06/20/spirtuality-religion-and-human-conflict/

Please please please help end 63-yr internal colonialism in an island.

July 3, 2011 at 7:36 am
(22) Davidson says:

Sri Lanka: need to transform education for war into education for peace:

1.A compulsory programme for university entrants has been recently introduced and it has alarmed the public and the teachers because it promotes intolerance of the ‘other’ -
http://transcurrents.com/news-views/archives/1190

2. http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/Home/5680782-182/story.csp
Why education matters for global security, UNESCO, March 2011: ‘’ The use of education systems to foster hatred has contributed to the underlying causes of conflicts, from Rwanda to Sri Lanka, but also in Guatemala and Sudan.’’

3. A school honouring ex-soldiers in Vesak(the most important Buddhist festival in Sri Lanka) with student dancers in combat dress depicting guns and Vesak cards with roses on guns:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGhMIgnwZuA

4.The Two Faces of Education in Ethnic Conflict: Towards a Peacebuilding Education for Children – Kenneth D Bush and Diana Saltarelli(2000), Innocenti Research Centre, UNICEF: ”…. these textbooks tended to portray Sinhalese Buddhists as the only true Sri Lankans,….”

5. Reggie Siriwardene, a well-respected Sinhalese writer:
“Millions of school children are taught the myths which will help to divide the Sinhalese and Tamils for more generations to come…”

6. In the 1950s and 1960s Tamil and Sinhalese scholars vehemently protested this but the Education Department that produces the textbooks dismissed their concern.

July 3, 2011 at 7:37 am
(23) davidson says:

Education for Peace is suggested by eminent Sinhalese but ignored by the government:

i. http://transcurrents.com/tc/2009/01/why_sirimavo_refused_to_visit.html
Why Sirimavo refused to visit Jaffna after 1964 cycloneBy Neville Jayaweera, 18 January 2009:

”…. Building a consciousness of nationhood is not a responsibility that can be left to politicians and constitutional lawyers. …. It is pre-eminently an educational task, to be initiated at the level of our schools. ….”

ii.http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/Justice__C_G_Weeramantry_-_29.11.2010.pdf
Justice C. G. Weeramantry tells LLRC, 29 November 2010:
” Peace education is an imperative at this stage of our national history ….”

February 21, 2013 at 5:01 pm
(24) Eric Moore says:

It’s only natural a person would be proud of their culture and bloodline. Buddhism has been with Sri Lanka for quite awhile.
Just out of curiosity, how do you view Muhammad? You said that Jesus would be shocked if he saw modern Christianity. How do you think Muhammad would react to modern Islam?

February 21, 2013 at 5:10 pm
(25) Barbara O'Brien says:

How do you think Muhammad would react to modern Islam?

I have no idea. I have some affinity for Christianity since I was raised one, and studied Christian theology at the life of Jesus at one time, but I really haven’t focused much on the life of Muhammad.

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