The Jerome Fernando escapade, if rightly handled, will provide a golden opportunity to neutralise external threats to the prevailing peaceful religious coexistence in the Sinhalese Buddhist majority Sri Lanka. I hope that the fair minded reader will not immediately condemn me as a Sinhalese racist and a Buddhist extremist for stating a rational expectation in those terms based on facts. I am proud of my Sinhalese race, as an individual born to parents considered racially Sinhalese, but I never hold myself as superior or inferior to people of other races, but only as equal to them as humans. I outgrew religion at the young age of sixteen and now, in my sunset years, I still remain firm in those my early convictions. I have always tried to follow the secular moral principles intrinsic to Buddhism which inspires the ethical culture into which I was born.
Over the past many days, a maverick Christian pastor (rumoured to be of the Born Again sect) by the name of Jerome Fernando, a self-styled prophet, has been hogging the attention of the media, especially the social media, for insulting the Buddha and Buddhism, as well as Hindu and Islamic religions by making certain derogatory remarks about them during a sermon or service that he conducted. About the Buddha he asserted that Jesus was the Light that he sought. Unfortunately, hardly anyone among the vociferous critics seems to understand, like I do, that Jerome Fernando is bringing disgrace and disrepute to the noble religion he claims to profess, through what Buddhists are likely to consider his blatant lies, delusional beliefs, and deceptive stratagems. Kirthi Ratnayake (former air force officer turned investigative journalist) said, during an interview with YouTuber Chamuditha Samarawickrema, that Jerome Fernando once before uttered something worse in Sinhala: ‘budun ettha, namuth satyaya nowei/Buddha is true, but not the Truth’. If he is rash enough to judge the Buddha, one can guess how impervious he is to the sensitivities of ordinary Buddhists. Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgement you judge, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you (Matthew 7: Verses 1 and 2, NKJV). This is almost identical with Buddhism. Galatians 6: Verse 7 has this: …whatever a man sows, that he will also reap…, which, needless to say, like the above, agrees exactly with the kamma/karma concept of Buddhism.
For the information of Jerome Fernando and the people whom he was trying to mislead, (particularly for the benefit of the latter) I offer the following facts: Gautama Buddha used the metaphor of light for the Enlightenment he achieved: Declaring “aloko udapadi” “Light arose”, he rejoiced soon after his Enlightenment. He visited his five former closest colleagues and co-seekers to share with them what he had discovered: “There arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light”. That is, light came to him with his Enlightenment. (Incidentally, the traditional Vesak illuminations that you saw in Sri Lanka around May 5 and 6 were for commemorating the Buddha’s Enlightenment, the Arising of the Light.) The Buddha dedicated his life to teaching and guiding people towards seeing the Supreme Truth of Nibbana. Never did he force anyone to accept his teaching and follow it unless they saw for themselves its potential for enabling them to realise the ultimate truth through their own unaided individual efforts. If you are ill, you must take medicines. No one else can take medicines for your illness. You are your own saviour. In the last analysis, this is pretty much what all religions teach their followers (I don’t include Buddhism among religions). Each individual is responsible for their own emancipation (from the unsatisfactory state of earthly existence). ‘Atta deepo bhava/Be a light or lamp unto yourself’ is the essence of the Kalama Sutta to which I will refer later in this essay.
But let’s begin from the beginning. According to news reports published in online sources that I usually access, Vidura Wickremanayake, the minister for Buddhashasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs stated that he was going to take stern action against this person; and president Ranil Wickremasinghe instructed Sagala Ratnayake, presidential advisor and head of the Presidential Task Force to initiate an immediate investigation into pastor Jerome Fernando saying that his irresponsible statements could lead to conflicts that would be detrimental to religious reconciliation. Their assurances ring hollow, though, to say the least.
Knowledgeable critics such as Dr Wasantha Bandara, spokesperson for the Federation of National Organisations (FNO), says that Wickremasinghe (if he was really serious) should have assigned the task mentioned to the DIG who is equipped with the knowledge, competence and capacity, and has the necessary personnel to do it, instead of his close buddy greenhorn Sagala Ratnayake. As for Vidura Wickremanayake, when he visited the eastern province as minister a couple of years ago, he didn’t care to listen to the grievances of the well known Madakalapuwe Hamuduruwo. (This monk is still conducting his lone struggle against corrupt and inefficient government servants of his area who, under the influence of the local racist and casteist MPs, neglect to perform their duties properly to relieve the hardships of the innocent poverty-stricken rural residents of a couple of isolated villages there belonging to all three communities; but the minister, on that occasion, did not forget to exchange pleasantries with the very Tamil MPs or their stooges he was complaining against waiting not far from where he was standing to urge the visiting dignitary to look into his legitimate petitions on behalf of those suffering people. Obviously, political considerations prevented the minister from attending to the monk, who later showed the episode in one of his YouTube videos. I derived this information from that video.
Having said that, in my humble opinion as a genuinely concerned, but not unduly worried, ordinary Sri Lankan, the president’s or the minister’s involvement in this case is not necessary (which, I am sure, is their attitude as well) beyond the point where they leave the law enforcement authorities to deal with the matter without any improper interference from any quarter in or with the due legal processes.
Father Cyril Gamini of the Catholic Church has told the media that Jerome Fernando has no connection with his church. Some prominent Buddhist monks, Hindu kurukkals, and Muslim maulvis have also roundly condemned the man, while pointing at the existing inter-religious amity in the Buddhist-majority country. However, Jerome Fernando’s proselytising utterances and activities as a born again Christian pastor have different implications for the adherents of the four main religious faiths of Sri Lanka, Christians and Muslims on the one hand, and Buddhists and Hindus on the other. Therefore, they are bound to create distrust and disharmony between the diverse communities. To preserve the unity in diversity that we have enjoyed for many centuries and still cherish, Jerome Fernando must be exposed for what he is, and the poison he has begun spreading must be immediately counteracted.
Although there is no one single definition of religion universally accepted by scholars of religious systems around the world, the most commonly accepted one (particularly, in the West) is what the Oxford Dictionary defines as ‘the belief in and/or a superhuman controlling power, especially a god or gods’. Hinduism and Buddhism cannot be classified as religions according to this definition, though they also have certain specific spiritual concepts and practices considered sacred that inform long established cultural traditions involving ritual observances, shrines, and objects of worship. Emeritus professor of Princeton Theological Seminary Max Lynn Stackhouse provides a definition of religion that I think might roughly accommodate Buddhism and Hinduism: (a religion is) “a comprehensive worldview or ‘metaphysical moral vision’ that is accepted as binding because it is held to be in itself basically true and just even if all dimensions of it cannot be either fully confirmed or refuted.”
Now the problem is that in less enlightened times believers in religions covered by the Oxford Dictionary definition given above were required to dismiss other religious belief systems that didn’t come within that identification, as ‘heresies’. That term used to be applied to the Dharmic religions of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. But Abrahamic religions (Christianity and Islam, not to mention Judaism) have moderated that extremist attitude since. Only a few extremists today would hold on to mediaeval ideas which usually led to violence against people of other spiritual traditions whom they considered ‘infidels’. Jerome Fernando may be harking back to that outdated mentality, which was behind zealous, self-righteous conversion movements targeting unbelievers or non-believers who were deemed to be in need of being saved in so-called pagan lands; such proselytising attempts were not always nonviolent.
In Sri Lanka, freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed to all the citizens. A citizen can profess any religion, practise it, teach it, and disseminate its message among others, but through legitimate means. The sort of blatant abuse of Sri Lanka’s most liberal institution of freedom of religious belief and practice that Jerome Fernando is being accused of cannot be expected of a pastor who claims to have been inspired by Jesus’ answer to a question by Nicodemus the Pharisee (a prominent Jew of the time credited with thorough knowledge of the scriptures and great saintliness): “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” in the Gospel according to John 3:3 (NKJV), where this means ‘born again in spirit, not in flesh’. For the Christian believer this is deeply meaningful. A believer who has ‘seen the kingdom of God’ cannot be thought to be guilty of such outrageous conduct as Jerome Fernando is displaying. By the way, this ‘born again’ idea is akin to the ‘twice born’ (Sanskrit: dvija) sacrament of initiation of a young Brahman’s spiritual journey in terms of Hinduism. Buddhism and the more ancient Hinduism have much in common, and are almost identical in their Dharmic aspect, except that Buddhism has no belief in the existence of an eternal soul (Atman) unlike Hinduism.
Some well meaning, erudite, but very naive and innocent, young bhikkhus are challenging the pastor to a debate over his deprecatory remarks about Buddhism, which I think is ridiculously ingenuous and unnecessary, because that is giving this mocker of the sacred a measure of dignity that he doesn’t deserve, and also because he cannot be credited with a decent understanding even of Christianity, let alone anything additional outside that domain. These young monks are being eclipsed in their calm but determined attempt to react to Jerome’s disinformation and deception without any ill will. By whom? They are getting overshadowed by a few yellow-robed imposters who are themselves Buddhist versions of pastor Jerome Fernando. Actually, those few false monks and the fake prophet are birds of a feather probably fed by the same hands, as some say.
It has also been observed that certain discredited politicians are exploiting the opportunity that came their way through this obviously well rehearsed Jerome Fernando episode to take a dig at each other for the heck of it, without utilising it to repair the damage it is causing to reconciliation. Last but not least, where are the Ven Mahanayake theras? Their silence in crisis situations has often aggravated issues affecting the Buddha Sasana. The online media I normally consult have nothing in this regard. However, one can’t blame the Ven Mahanayakes because they avoid politics, as they have done down the centuries. They used to advise the monarch only in spiritual matters, and the monarch took responsibility for looking after the Shashanaya. The most senior monk or monks, close to the royalty, offered their opinion in succession matters on rare occasions, and also when the ruler failed in his duties or when there were foreign threats to the nation. The Sangha never took part in ruling, but remained above the ruler. The Buddhist Sangha is a very democratic community, where one monk has no control over another. Times have changed. It is urgent that the Mahanayakes do more to save the Buddha Shasanaya including the Fourfold Assembly of Followers (Sivvanak Pirisa) of male and female lay Buddhists and bhikkhus and bhikshunis. .
Back to the topic. Meanwhile, a complaint was lodged with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) by the propaganda secretary of the political party, Pivituru Hela Urumaya (PHU), Iranga Vidvath Mendis, in connection with the relevant offensive statements made by Jerome Fernando who calls himself a prophet, which are derogatory to the Buddha, Buddhism, and other religions. This is the only meaningful reaction I have seen so far to Jerome Fernando’s outrage (up to the time of writing). The complainant demands that the law be applied to the (suspect) offender in this case in terms of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No. 56 of 2007.
The aforementioned petition to the CID was published in a news report in the online lanka c news. It quoted the following fromJerome Fernando’s importunate harangue:
“This is what separates Christianity from Buddhism. Because for a Buddhist in their mind, it’s like, okay, අනුන්ට කලදේ තමන්ට පලදේ in a sense, it’s true, especially if you do something to a prophet. Anyways. Now, but in the Buddhist mind, they never hear the love of Buddha. Are you hearing this? Their focus is enlightenment. But to be enlightened, you need light. The Buddha himself, the name Buddha means enlightened one. Ladies and gentlemen, what is greater, light or enlightened? Jesus said, I’m the light of the world. so i tell you now, jesus didn’t said i’am the enlightened one, No, no, no, no. Jesus came from a different wavelength. Jesus said I’m the light. So I submit to you, the Buddha was looking for light. He was actually looking for Jesus. This is why every Buddhist needs Jesus.”
I came across a YouTube video clip of the relevant part of Jerome Fernando’s coercive religious rant against the Buddha, Buddhism and Buddhists that contained more. There was a singing part to it too, that ridicules such traditional curative and protective magical remedies as tying charmed threads, anointing charmed oil, etc usually found among rural folk, as superstitious practices based on Buddhist teachings. Those are cultural things and should not be confused with Buddhism. Buddha did not advocate such things. He himself visited a physician called Jeevaka when he fell ill, according to the known life of the Buddha. He preached no religion, and never prescribed blind-faith based devotional practices or mindless rituals. Even the most ignorant Buddhists know that magical cures like charmed threads, oils, and chants are not part of the doctrine they actually follow. Instead, those ritual performances are part and parcel of the established holistic native healing culture which maintains the vital balance between the physical and mental aspects of the patients’ health. These ancient healing arts have survived, particularly among villagers, into modern times. Jerome also staged some faith healing episodes, not different from them. Such magical fake cures are daily performed in many hundreds of devales dedicated to local deities found across the country which are patronised not only by gullible villagers, but by superstitious city dwellers including politicians and businessmen among others of the same ilk seeking divine assistance with their often nefarious projects. Why should a prophet demean his god by descending to the level of a village kapurala unless he was a genuine fake?
In the letter to the CID referred to above, Mendis has left out (probably, as irrelevant to the point of his plaint) Fernando’s disparaging references to Hinduism and Islam and relevant sacred figures, which are equally outrageous, such as that Hindus venerate animals. A common allegation he raised against the leaders of all three non-Christian religions did not preach Love! But this fake prophet’s real target is the Buddha, his teaching and the Buddhists, his followers, whom he demeans, by implication, as a spiritually misguided lot. Though it is evident that Jerome is proficient enough in Sinhala for preaching to them, he speaks only in English and has himself interpreted in Sinhala. That, I think, is just an act he puts on to further impress his apparently mesmerised audience, whose awed gazes were fixed on his constantly beaming beatific smile.
What is Jerome Fernando saying in the snatch of speech quoted above? Simply, nonsense. He appears to be ignorant of his own religion of Christianity and its truly great founder Jesus Christ. Christianity came five or six hundred years after Buddhism. The latter is definitely beyond pastor Fernando’s power of understanding. What did Buddhists do to him (if he means himself by ‘prophet’) for him to say “anunta kala de tamanta pala de” (which would be equivalent to the English proverb ‘Curses come home to roost’)? (When he said this, though, he seemed to be mocking his own ‘prophet’ act!) This idea of ‘retaliatory justice’ is not part of the Buddhist concept of karmic causation. People from different cultural backgrounds accept the idea that bad deeds earn you bad results and that good deeds bring you good results, as a self-evident truth. The Karma concept taught in Buddhism is much more profound and complex than ‘Curses come home to roost’.
A word about the idea of love that Jerome finds missing in Buddhism. Buddhism is nothing if it is not about wisdom and compassion. Buddha does uphold love as a positive emotion, but says that it is ultimately based on selfishness/the illusion of ‘self’. Buddha’s teaching recognizes a difference between love (that you feel for a person) and unconditional universal compassion or loving-kindness (maitri, friendliness) towards all sentient beings, something that is completely selfless. I think Christian love is also very close to or identical with the Buddhist concept of loving-kindness. To me it looks like the highly intelligent Jerome Fernando has not so far cared to grasp at least a faint idea of the Buddha’s profound dhamma. He has no sense of history, for he doesn’t know that the Buddha lived five to six centuries before Jesus was born. Otherwise, if he is in his right senses at least temporarily, how can he say that the Buddha was looking for Jesus? What do you know about the Enlightenment concept taught in Buddhism, Jerome? Obviously, NOTHING! You equate enlightenment to lighting up or illuminating something. That is stupid. An Australian YouTuber of Sri Lankan origin says that he had some slight acquaintance with Jerome as a young Burgher with a different name doing modelling work for commercial firms about twenty years back. It’s plausible information. He uses both Sinhala and English equally fluently. Oops! I almost forgot. At the end or thereabouts of his Buddha bashing, in brazen contradiction to what he has been doing all along, he admonishes his congregation: “Never persecute anybody, never shame another person’s faith”.
I will wind up with a reference to the Buddha’s famous Kalama Sutta discourse. The Buddha advised his disciples to question and examine even the Tathagata (Buddha) himself to find the trustworthiness, the authenticity, of the teacher they chose to follow. A group of young men called the Kalamas came to the Buddha with a question. They wanted to learn from him how they could separate truths from falsehoods uttered by the various venerable recluses and brahmanas who visited their village of Kesaputta from time to time and preached their different doctrines that disagreed with each other. Obviously, the young men had heard of the fame of the Buddha who himself had studied under the most famous teachers of the time and exhaustively analysed their teachings, and dissatisfied, had embarked on his own long and assiduous search for the Truth and eventually attained Enlightenment. The Buddha’s advice to them was: “Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic and inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher’. But…when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (akusala), and wrong, and bad, then give them up… and when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them”. (I am quoting here from Ven Walpola Rahula thera’s classic dhamma compendium ‘What the Buddha Taught’ first published in London in 1959, and reprinted many times since, which Jerome Fernando may profitably read and still remain, or learn to become, a pious and virtuous Christian (which, I am afraid, he is not at present.)
I can easily answer your criticisms of Hinduism and Islam, but it is better for you to learn by yourself their moral essence that is as noble and as ennobling as that of Christianity.