1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Buddhist Chauvinism in Sri Lanka

By April 30, 2012

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For the past several days there have been news stories from Sri Lanka about Buddhist monks attempting to tear down a 50-year-old mosque. This morning I read that the government of Sri Lanka plans to relocate the mosque. Muslims are saying they will not relocate.

I've been trying to sort out exactly what is happening, and why it is happening. I'm still not sure I've got the story straight, but here's my best guess:

Although the mosque, in Dambulla, has been where it is for 50 years, recent building expansion seems to have inflamed the more fanatical elements among the local Buddhists, because it is a "sacred site." Dambulla is the site of some very old Buddhist temples and artifacts, according to some tourism information. A Hindu temple in the same area also is being criticized for being where it is. Some news articles also say the local Buddhist monastic sangha owns the property.

According to the BBC, on Friday before last about 2,000 Buddhists, including monks, marched to the mosque and demanded its demolition. The demonstrations put a halt to Friday prayers.

Protests continued last week, although rumors that the mosque actually was demolished by a mob of frenzied monks appear to have been wrong. But this past Friday a fire bomb damaged the mosque, and afterward another estimated 2,000 Buddhists attempted to storm the building. How much damage this group might have done I do not know.

On Sunday the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka said the mosque would be relocated. But now Muslims in Sri Lanka are on strike, which has shut down public services in many areas.

From here, this episode appears to be completely ridiculous. It appears that way to some people in Sri Lanka, also. Tisaranee Gunasekara wrote in Sri Lanka's Sunday Leader, "The mob-like demonstrators and the monks who were leading and inciting them represented the ugliest face of Sinhala supremacism - intolerant of other races and contemptuous of other religions."  (This opinion piece is interesting, btw; recommended reading.)

However, if any of you are closer to this situation than I am and can offer another perspective, do speak up.

I've been researching Sri Lanka a bit lately. This week's feature article is on Henry Steel Olcott, a man whose life took many unexpected turns. In the latter part of the 19th century Olcott went to Asia to study the wisdom of the East. He found Buddhism in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in a moribund state after centuries of European colonizers and armies of Christian missionaries had done their best to wipe it out.

Olcott joined a monk of Ceylon named Mohottivatte Gunananda who had already begun what might be called a Buddhist resistance movement. Another Buddhist of Ceylon named Anagarika Dharmapala was also instrumental in restoring Buddhism as the dominant religion of the island nation. Dharmapala was a remarkable fellow who played a critical role in introducing Buddhism to the West, and I plan to profile him sometime in the future.

Here's a brief history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka from its introduction in the third century BCE through the Buddhist revival of the 19th century. Learning some of this helped me see where some of this Buddhist fanaticism came from. I'm not condoning it, mind you, but I think I kind of understand it.

April 30, 2012 at 11:34 am
(1) David says:

Perhaps this also sheds a little light on why the Buddhist leadership in Japan during the early twentieth century went along completely with the militarist aims of the government. Japan also felt surrounded by European expansionism and convinced itself that it was acting on behalf of Asia (despite the fact that, in order to do so, it murdered thousands in Nanjing and elsewhere). The Zen leadership invented “Imperial Zen” and somehow twisted dharma to such ends. It just goes to show that human beings can distort anything, particularly when they perceive themselves as being victimized.

May 3, 2012 at 7:47 pm
(2) Fred says:

Also fascinating is the life of Emperor Ashoka himself, who not only sponsored the surge of Buddhism in India and Ceylon, but whose reign after the war against the Kalingas was marked by, among other qualities, tolerance for all religions. The flag of India today carries a wheel with 24 spokes in the center, called, I believe, the “Wheel of Ashoka”.. He also may have sent representatives as far west as present day Lebanon…

May 3, 2012 at 7:57 pm
(3) Ranjith says:

Tks,Barbra for discussing this issue. Some of the areas not covered in yr
article are as follows.
1 The Govt announced officially Dambulla as a sacred area of Buddhism in 1982 in keeping with the importance of the area for Buddhists and also due the fact that lands around the temple had been gifted by Sri Lankan Sinhala kings to the temple many a times.
2 In the sacred area plan put out in 1982 there are no Mosques or any other religious buildings marked in the area in question.
3 The Buddhists along with Buddhist Prelates in Dambulla have donated
large extent of land belonging to the temple to the Govt for welfare
and commercial projects.
4 The ‘mosque’ in question was a private paryer room of a person who ran a small shop and was never a public religious institution.
5 The interested parties have tried to establish a public mosque
flouting the laws and by laws and the incident referred to was as a result of this situation.
6 Extremist religious groups now operating in Sri Lanka spending funds received from foreign lands are indeed creating a difficulot
situation to the Buddhist in Sri Lanka and while critics of Sri Lanka has begun to use it to bash Sri Lanka including pro-LTTE groups
ignoring that the LTTE killed Muslims, Buddhist and drove away
nearly 150,000 Muslims from the North of Sri Lanka.
6 It is indeed simplistic to describe the incident as an act of chauvinism as all major religious groups in the world have acted
to defend their territories in the history of mankind as the religions are
followed by men and women tend to resort to protect their ‘religion’, culture, land etc when pushed to corners.
Can I also mention that Sri Lanka where the majority follows Buddhism still remains as a model for many countries where all
major religions prosper without prejudices. Hence, to typecast Sri Lankan majority Buddhists is like throwing the baby with the bath water.It is in very few countries we experience the religious tolerance
in this day.

May 3, 2012 at 9:24 pm
(4) Channa says:

Hi Barbara & all,
I’ve been a subscriber for many years… Great work.
I live in London but studied in the pioneering buddhist school (Ananda College) established by Henry Steel Olcott in Sri Lanka.

Regarding the Dambulla affair.. Thisaranee is an anti-buddhist sinhala campaigner in sri lanka, who spurts a lot of hate and venom.. not many take her seriously. Advice you don’t too.

Historically the Sinhala Buddhist monk (of Sri Lanka) had a special role to play (that is part from seeking his own salvation).
They took on board the arduous task of preserving Buddhism (Theravada tradition) in its pristine form for the sake of all humanity. Considering that Buddhism itself got wiped out of India – the birth place of Buddhism, their emphatic determination for protecting the Buddhist Doctrine for future humanity cannot be taken lightly.

The history of Sri Lanka is such that at least 6 former kings of this island have bestowed the whole of their kingdom to Buddhism at the feet of the monks… but monks have returned it to the kings for governance as their role is not that of a ruler, but a protector of Buddhism.
After a period of 500 years when Sri Lanka lost its independence to western colonialism it had to embrace the democratic politics of western ideals. Although each government there after attempted to embrace concepts of “DhammaDeepa” that of the pious kings… the enmity inherent in party politics ensured that it never happened. The kind generosity of a Buddhist metamorphosed in to a weakness.

to be continued..

May 3, 2012 at 9:28 pm
(5) channa says:

continued from previous..

Sri Lanka had emerged out of a thirty year war against Tamil separatist terrorism. This was considered an unwinnable conflict but sheer determination of its people and perhaps some divine intervention favoured the unitary status of the country 3 years ago. During this period the Muslim population helped dispel the myth of any Sinhala supremacy against Tamils.
The failing economies of the West were keen on having a stake on the emerging markets of Asia and took a keen interest towards Sri Lanka. They took upon the call for Human Right issues claimed by the Tamil expatriate to abide UN intervention on Sri Lanka. Having come out of 500 years of forcible colonisation just 50 years ago the Sri Lankan government is yet cautious as to any intervention of force from the west.

Meanwhile the Muslim population who have so far had an amicable relationship with the general populous of Sri Lanka are now taking advantage to gross their presence in many traditional Buddhist villages..Kuragala, Damabulla, Pothuvil, Aluvihara etc.

to be continued..

May 3, 2012 at 9:29 pm
(6) channa says:

continued from 2..
Specifically in Dambulla, the temple land had been dispensed to the villagers out of generosity to tide their living. These lands are not dispensed only to Buddhists but to Muslim, Tamil, Catholic, Christian alike. The land in question had been given to a Muslim man to tide a Tea boutique. Never for a place of worship. But as always they build a small place of personal worship. Then they invite a few friends for worship. Then it expands to be a temporary place of regular worship. It is at this juncture that the Chief monk of Dambulla Temple had warned the District Council of this progressing on to becoming a Permanent entity. The DC had assured there are no permission granted but the prayers had got louder and more relevant with the backing of a local politician.
Satellite imagery conclusively shows that the said mosque structure had not been in existence before 2003. It is a shame that the Politicians nor the District council could not stop this encroachment and the monks were forced on to the road to protect the sacred land.
Sri Lanka had fought a lone battle against LTTE terrorism and it cannot afford to plunge back in to chaos. It will need to appease the Muslims despite flagrant encroachments in to Buddhist land for its survival.

May you be well and happy

May 4, 2012 at 10:39 am
(7) Barbara O'Brien says:

Thank you, Ranjith and Channa, for providing more background. I appreciate that this is a complex and sensitive situation, and it’s hard for any of us to see from a distance what’s really going on.

However, I do think it is vitally important for the sangha in Dambulla to stop aggressive action. Some negotiation and perhaps mediation by a disinterested third party might find a resolution that is satisfactory to everyone. What nobody needs is for the rest of the world to be reading headlines about Buddhist monks attacking a mosque.

May 4, 2012 at 10:14 am
(8) Gajaya says:

Thanks Ranjith and Channa for put a light on the reality on the ground. Anybody who has keen interest on saving & preserving “Theravada Buddhist Tradition” for the benefit of future generations of the world please this is the time for you to extend your helping hand to Sinhala Buddhist nation in Sri Lanka. Thanks Barbara for bringing the matter to the world forum.

May 4, 2012 at 11:04 am
(9) Janaka Perera says:

Hi, Barbara,

I must first thank you for evincing an interest in knowing the real situation relating to the recent events at Dambulla, Sri Lanka.

We do not condone the behavior of some Buddhist monks at the site of the historic rock temple. It was undoubtedly conduct unbecoming of monks. But the media seems to have paid hardly any attention to the root causes. Instead the actions of the monks have been taken out of context and blown out of proportion.

Sri Lanka has been the home for many mosques since the first Arab traders arrived in Sri Lanka around the 8th Century AD. Sinhala Buddhists have never demolished or tried to demolish any these mosques.

The real culprits behind the present crisis are not ordinary Buddhists or Muslims but successive governments that have ruled the country since 1948. None of them have done a proper survey of all the ancient Buddhist archaeological sites in Sri Lanka and mark their boundaries. Many are the pre-colonial heritage sites been properly registered and demarcated.

Buddhism’s role in Sri Lanka should be understood in the context of religion Eastern Europe where religion (Orthodox Christianity) inextricably linked to culture and national heritage. This is very different from the Western Protestant concept of a gathered congregation of individual believers. The West should understand this before trying to judge events in Asian Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Tibet.

May 9, 2012 at 10:26 am
(10) cenac says:

I do not come here. I thought, however, the bits on Sri Lanka interesting since there is a Canadian monk online, who resides there, who never mentions the politics on the ground, and who declares politics and monks do not go, and described the Burmese events, ‘as a bunch of monks getting killed’.
A female monk/nun also declares: there are no perfect Buddhist societies. But there can be perfect Buddhist communities. And the distinction-practical, wise, skilful- seems to focus on the possible rather than the impossible; and, in the end, answers the questions of ‘Sri Lankan’ Chauvinism as well as ‘Zen At War’ types of perceptions.

I am sorry, Barbara, for the Gate-Crash.

May 10, 2012 at 10:48 am
(11) George Deane says:

It seems that some Buddhists, like their religious counterparts elsewhere, are not able to separate politics from religion. When the two collide it seems that the mind of politics triumphs over the mind of religion. Perhaps the real distinction should be religion and spirituality. In the latter category non-distinction will triumph over distinction and relegate politics to the level where it really belongs.

May 11, 2012 at 5:08 am
(12) James Chance says:

Barbara: You are getting into very tricky terrain here – be careful. I speak as a Buddhist who has lived and worked in Sri Lanka for much of the past decade. The organised Sangha is highly politicised, often in dangerous ways and has for years been put into the service of an ethnic war that saw the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in just a few months in 2009. The viciousness of the govt’s military campaign in part a response to the viciousness of the Tamil Tigers’s separatist terrorism: both sides were brutal and caused suffering to people in all communities. What’s clear, however, is that organised Buddhism is not, except in very small ways here and there, being used as a force for healing ethnic divisions or finding justice, but for further domination and hatred. And the government has been encouraging the most nationalist and vicious version of militan Buddhism over the years – as embodied by monks like the leader of the mobs in Dambulla, and by lay people like government minister Champika Ranawaka. For an excellent analysis of political Buddhism in SrI Lanka, see this, from a Sinhala analyst who was quite sympathetic to the governments’s war efforts see http://groundviews.org/2012/05/05/mobs-monks-and-the-problems-of-political-buddhism/. For a brilliant photo-essay of the Dambulla “mosque” and Hindu “temple” in question, see here: http://groundviews.org/2012/04/30/photo-essay-freedom-religion-and-dambulla/ Both pieces, from the excellent groundviews website, will explode some of the myths of many Sinhala and western Buddhists.

May 11, 2012 at 6:40 am
(13) James Chance says:

PS: if you want to see the very un-Buddhist behaviour of the monks who led the violent protests at the Dambulla mosque, see here for TV footage:

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