Looking beyond Vesak

Blaming arbitrarily all the economic and political ills of the past on Buddhism and Buddhists has led to an unacceptable denial of justice

5 mins read
Young Buddhist monks working together in a temple in Sri Lanka. [ Photo: thesrilankatravelblog.com]

It seems that persistent attacks directed in different forms at the historic Buddhist cultural establishment of Sri Lanka are based on the deliberate misconception or the distorted perception  that the Buddhist worldview is entirely pessimistic, life denying, backward, divisive, xenophobic, and that the demoralising defeatist attitudes supposedly adopted by the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community have  blighted the onward march of the island nation’s economic and human development over the past seventy-six years of independence allegedly leading to the  recent sudden economic collapse and bankruptcy of the country. However, the actual causes of the prevailing economic despair and political instability are not far to seek as is plainly known to any unbiased observer: these are pressures from competing global powers in the arena of regional geopolitics due to Sri Lanka’s strategic geographical location, the after effects of the catastrophic pandemic visitation and other natural and artificial disasters, internal power politics, subversive NGO activities, corruption among politicians, bureaucrats and business interests, and so on, to name some of the obvious reasons behind the almost sudden economic and political decline. Ill informed Buddhism bashers don’t talk about any of these real causes, except the last, that too, only to highlight the corruption of  the SLPP politicians who, with a handful of exceptions, it is now clear,  are rogues in nationalist garb, and have betrayed the cause that enabled them to get to parliament, for  narrow antisocial personal ends, thereby rendering the power of the popular mandate given them with a two-thirds majority at the 2019 and 2020 elections null and void. But, at the same time, there is an unwarranted coupling of corrupt politicians with their hapless victims, the 6.9 million, who returned them to power out of their excusable ignorance and innocence. 

Blaming arbitrarily all the economic and political ills of the past on Buddhism and Buddhists has led to an unacceptable denial of justice and democracy to the multiethnic  Sri Lankan population including the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, who overwhelmingly voted for a system change based on the One Country One Law principle at the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary elections. 

In this short piece, I will focus only on the charge that Buddhist teachings are so otherworldly and regressive that they hinder economic production by blunting the Buddhist adherents’ desire for wealth earning and comfortable living. 

Desiring material or economic prosperity (implied in ‘atthi sukhaya’, the first of the four types of happiness that lay householders should seek) at the level of the individual and the society is not frowned upon in Buddhism, but rather encouraged. Working for, and achieving the right kind of economic security and stability for enjoying a fulfilling, virtuous worldly life by the lay householder and the society in general is something that the Buddha repeatedly advocated. In Buddhist literature, we come across the following story: Once, Sakka, the king of gods, was asked by Matali, his charioteer: “My Lord, when all the world worships you, who are you worshipping?” Sakka answered: “I pay homage to those householders who lead righteous lives, and nourish their wives and children according to (the tenets of) the Dhamma”. Desire for a happy contented lay life enjoying sensual pleasures in the right way (which aspiration is a reasonable motive for acquiring material wealth) should not be confused with the profound Buddhist concept of tanha (or thirst, craving, greed that causes the unsatisfactoriness/suffering or ‘dukkha’ covered in the first of the Four Noble Truths, which express the essence of Buddhism). 

The Buddha delineates four types of happiness that can be experienced by lay householders in the Anana sutta or Discourse on freedom from financial indebtedness: 1) atthi sukha: the happiness of earning wealth by just and righteous means, 2) bhoga sukha: the happiness of spending the wealth thus earned liberally on one’s family, friends and for doing meritorious deeds for general welfare, 3) anana sukha: the happiness of being free from debts, and 4) anavajja sukha: the happiness of living a blameless life without committing evil in mind, body, and speech. 

So, the Buddha did not dismiss gihi saepa or normal sensual pleasures indulged in by ordinary people living a lay/worldly life as something to be avoided as a hindrance to one’s progress towards emancipation from endless samsaric wandering through the realization of nibbana. But a Buddhist is not expected to sacrifice everything and everyone in their life for that end. Nibbana/Nirvana is the summum bonum of Buddhism, the highest good or the ultimate spiritual goal that is  attainable through perfected ethical conduct by following the Noble Eightfold Path.  To do this an individual need not entirely give up a householder’s life. Nibbana is to be achieved while a person is still living, either in this life itself or in a subsequent one. 

A happy peaceful society supported by material prosperity is a primary target of Buddhism. The symbolic formula that used to be often quoted not long ago by supporters of the long entrenched goal of turning our country into an economically stable independent nation exploiting its natural and human resources to the optimum level based on the typically secular-friendly Buddhist principles was the quartet “gamai pansalai wewai dagabai” “the village, the pansala/vihara, the waewa/tank, and the dagaba/chaitya (place of worship)”. This, of course, does not mean that Sri Lanka’s economy should be an exclusively agrarian one, or a rigid Buddhist religious state run system.

According to the most recent census statistics (2022), in terms of religious affiliation, Sinhalese Buddhists constitute 70.2% (or roughly 15 million) of  the 22.18 million total  Sri Lankan population. The Sinhalese ethnic community of about 16 million including non-Buddhist Sinhalese account for three fourths of the total population; so the remaining one quarter of the population comprises other ethnic groups. I take ‘Sri Lankan population’ to mean all the people who inhabit the island of Sri Lanka as their home forming a single ‘Sri Lankan nation’. Out of this  the Sinhalese Buddhist religious majority is today facing the worst existential threat ever in their unbroken Buddhist civilizational history of twenty-three centuries purely for complex internal and external political and economic reasons that arise from its geopolitically, commercially and strategically vital geographical location in the new designated Indo-Pacific region. 

 Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils respectively form 70.2% and 12.6% of the total population; Christian/Catholics account for 7.4% and Muslims 9.7%. The different communities have coexisted in Sri Lanka in peace and harmony for centuries absorbing the benign influence of Buddhist culture. When free from deliberately divisive religion based politics, and externally imposed constraints, this sound state of affairs will go on undisturbed and help Sri Lanka forge ahead as a modern nation. The much touted ‘reconciliation’ concept seems to be a fake construction whose ultimate aim is the total disintegration of the unitary Sri Lankan state along ethnic and religious fault lines. 

Of vital importance for the peaceful survival of our Sri Lankan nation is the fact that the solidarity and cooperation between the two larger communities of Buddhists and Hindus who together constitute 82.8% (70.2% + 12.6%) of the total Sri Lankan population and who in common espouse similar, intrinsically accommodating, and non-proselytising, non-totalitarian, basically secular religious cultural values, emerge as the key to the restoration of permanent national unity that has been gravely undermined by meddling global and regional players pursuing rival geopolitical agendas driven by their own separate national interests in the Indo-Pacific region with the assistance of a handful of their self-seeking local agents and allies. Such unity between Tamil Hindu and Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lankans will be a communal lodestone for attracting fellow Christian/Catholic and Muslim minorities towards stronger social integration with them. The Vesak period provides an excellent opportunity for all of us patriotic Sri Lankans to focus on this all important theme in the name of the future of our children.    

Rohana R. Wasala

Rohana R. Wasala is a freelance journalist and regular columnist for Sri Lanka Guardian, with a background in academia.

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