Sneak attacks on hallowed symbols of Sri Lanka’s historic Buddhist cultural foundation

It is a self-evident fact that the island nation's Buddhist civilizational foundation and heritage are being deliberately and maliciously targeted by certain parties with vested interests in politics, business, and religion.

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Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi is a sacred fig tree in the Mahamewna Gardens, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka [Photo: Nipuna Gamage/Wikimedia]

A feature article under the title ‘Timely action must be taken to preserve Buddhism in Sri Lanka‘ by a virtually anonymous writer, signing as R.W.W., published in a Sri Lankan weekend newspaper last month (June 2023) provided the cue for the following. I sincerely thank him or her for expressing those factually unsupported ideas about the issue of preserving and protecting the Buddha Sasana because the articulation of those erroneous views opened this opportunity for me to correct them at least belatedly. Had s/he given her or his name instead of just initials, her or his writing would have acquired a better claim to the readers’ attention, notwithstanding the fact that a writer on shaky ground could still hide their identity behind a false name, if they so wished. 

I had a sneaking suspicion that the initials R.W.W. in bold were probably meant to be a sly reminder of my name (Rohana R. Wasala: R.R.W). A public proposal of mine to the Mahanayake Theras under the title ‘Please take charge of Poson celebrations……..’ published in the sister daily corresponding to the above-mentioned source as a feature article on May 31, 2023, had also touched on the subject of preserving and protecting the Buddha Sasana. I wanted to take responsibility for what I wrote. To leave no vagueness about my identity I even mentioned my email address under my name. I got a faint notion that, by trying to have the reader mistake him or her for me, R.W.W. could be mocking my concerns as well as making fun of me. But of course, a really responsible writer with something serious to communicate will not indulge in such lame jokes. Please bear with me, R.W.W., if I am mistaken or being paranoid about your gesture.

It is a self-evident fact that the island nation’s Buddhist civilizational foundation and heritage are being deliberately and maliciously targeted by certain parties with vested interests in politics, business, and religion. They seem to be holding the whole Buddhist cultural ambience responsible without any justification whatsoever, for the current political and economic crises that Sri Lanka is facing, The Buddha Sasana in Sri Lanka has an unbroken recorded history of well over twenty-three centuries (when we take 306 BCE as the date that Mahinda Thera arrived in the island to officially establish Buddhism as its state religion under the royal patronage of King Devanampiya Tissa in compliance with the imperial edict of  Emperor Ashoka of India).  

R.W.W. ‘s piece goes off at a tangent about the subject hinted at in the foregoing paragraph. The writer starts the short article with a reference to a news article penned by AFP correspondent Amal Jayasinghe contained in the aforementioned weekender a week before about government authorities having ‘taken timely action to safeguard the most venerated Bo tree in the world’. Before I say something that needs to be said about Amal Jayasinghe’s narrative about the alleged ‘timely action’ taken by the authorities concerning the  Sri Maha Bodhi appearing in that previous weekend source, let me point out some factual inaccuracies in R.W.W.’s piece of writing that was published a week later. 

The historic Bo tree (ficus religiosa) is usually known and reverentially mentioned among Buddhists by the name Sri Maha Bodhi or Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi or by various equivalents. Bo is the Sinhala derivative from the Pali Bodhi, meaning (theTree of) Enlightenment, so called because it is sacred to Buddhists as the tree under which ascetic Siddhartha Gautama attained Buddhahood or Enlightenment, at a spot known as Gaya in modern Bihar in India and hence famous as Buddhagaya or Bodh Gaya. (Incidentally, the name Bihar itself is a version of ‘Vihara’ {Sanskrit/Pali} meaning a Buddhist monastery.)

R.W.W. erroneously claims that the Sri Maha Bodhi (at Anuradhapura) is a ‘symbol of national sovereignty on the majority Buddhist island of 22 million people’. That assertion is a piece of deliberate misinformation. The custodianship of the Sacred Tooth Relic (at present enshrined in the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy) came to be held to give legitimacy to a monarch’s rule over the island. That concept evolved after the Sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Anuradhapura by the royal couple Dantha and Hemamala  from Kalinga in India in the 4th century CE during the reign of king Kithsiri Mewan (304-332 CE). 

It is true, going by the Mahavamsa account, that Sangamitta Theri, Mahinda Thera’s sister, inaugurated the Bhikkhuni Sasana in the island. We are told that she did so when she brought a sapling from the right side of the original Bodhi tree at Gaya which sheltered Siddhartha Gautama during Enlightenment; she had it planted at Anuradhapura during king Devanampiya Tissa’s rule (247-207 BCE) some time after her brother’s arrival there for the formal introduction of Buddhism to the island. But the Bhikkhuni order completely disappeared due to the devastating impact, particularly, of the European invasions of the last five hundred years. Even the (male) Bhikkhu order hung by a thread in the form of a Samanera (novice monk) system until the Upasampada karma (higher ordination ritual/ceremony) was restored in the 18th century with assistance from Siam (Thailand). The Bhikkhuni order has not been definitively revived yet as far as I know (but I might be wrong about this).

R.W.W. regrets that at present the Bhikkhuni Sasana is not given the recognition it deserves. But is there for sure a duly established Bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka to be recognized? Actually, I have no knowledge of a proper bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka today, except an order of Dasa Sil Matas, ordained as ‘Mothers’ who have taken a vow of the ‘Ten Precepts’. I stand to be corrected if I am wrong here. 

Be that as it may, it is a misrepresentation to assert that the ‘Buddha sasana comprises of Bhikku, Bhikkuni, upasaka and upasika’. (For the information of readers who are not familiar with these terms: the pairs of words Bhikkhu Bhikkhuni and Upasaka Upasika mean respectively male and female bhikkhus/monks, and male and female lay Buddhists, who together constitute what is called in Sinhala the ‘sivvanak pirisa’ or the ‘fourfold mass of Buddhists’. Buddha Sasana in the present context practically means the whole Sri Lankan Buddhist dispensation including  Buddhism and its practical religious manifestation, ritualistic observances, places of worship both ancient and modern, Buddhist archaeological sites, lands and other properties donated by ancient kings and later rulers for the maintenance of those places and for the upkeep of the Sangha. The fourfold mass of Buddhists live under the umbrella of that dispensation.  

R.W.W. is perplexed ‘why the government authorities are not issuing Bhikkuni Identity cards, while the Bhikkus even though some break the vinaya rules in public from time to time are allowed to continue with their Bhikku identity cards’. Is he raising an issue of gender bias in this respect on the part of government authorities? I don’t know whether such an issue can arise, since the existence of a Bhikkhuni order at present is in doubt. I was under the impression that Buddhist monks are given registration cards issued by their respective Nikaya hierarchies to officially identify them as such, while they also carry normal NICs (issued by the Department for Registration of Persons) where the bhikkhu identity information is also entered. I don’t know whether this is the real situation. If it is, there is nothing wrong with that. In any case, the issuance of identity cards to Bhikkhus does not depend on whether they faithfully observe vinaya rules. 

My problem is why the Ven. Mahanayakes are doing precious little or nothing to control monks who misbehave in public, often featured in live videos in the media, by tracking them to their monasteries after identifying them through their identity details obtained from the aforementioned government department with the help of the police. It is a well known fact that certain non-Buddhist mischief makers disguise themselves as Buddhist monks and engage in activities that are prejudicial to the reputation of the Sangha order. This happened during the recent Aragalaya as became clear with video evidence. (I just read, at this moment of writing, in an online publication dated June 18, 2023, that a Buddhist monk, an alleged Viharadhipathi/chief incumbent of a Buddhist Vihara in the Pannala area, was arrested by the police with heroin in his possession. Isn’t it the responsibility of the Nayake monks to do something tangible about such cases? ) 

Let’s come back to R.W.W. ‘s apparently mocking çoncerns. It is absurd to argue that ‘If timely action is not taken to rectify the situation to protect the Bhikkuni Sasana, it will face the same fate as the Dhamma Chakraya …’. Why are you so worried about bhikkhunis, R.W.W., unless you wanted to make it a laughing matter? But let that pass. What are you suggesting has happened to the Dharma Chakra? You will find nothing to suggest that the Dharma Chakraya has suffered an untoward fate, except perhaps cases of attempted misinterpretation of its symbolic meaning through disinformation (which you are obviously doing yourself)?  

There is no connection between how the Sri Lankan Bhikkhuni order gets along (if there is one) and how the Dharma Chakraya fares in the world as the foremost symbol of Buddhism. Nothing has happened to the Dharma Chakra. Don’t worry about that. You wrongly say that the Dharma Chakra represents the Noble Eightfold Path. Its meaning is not limited to the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the last of the Four Noble Truths, Magga/the Path, the other three being Dukkha/Suffering or  Unsatisfactoriness, Samudaya/Cause of Suffering, and Nirodha/Cessation of Suffering. The Four Noble Truths form the vital essence of the Buddha’s teaching.

The Dharma Chakra symbol actually comes from the first ever sermon that the Buddha preached after attaining Enlightenment. Before the Buddha preached to anyone else, he visited his five former longtime colleagues/co-seekers and told them about what he had found. Going to see his friends, the first thing he did after Enlightenment, to communicate the new knowledge he had acquired by himself, was a very moving gesture on the part of the Buddha as the humble unassuming human being he was throughout his ministry (though Buddhist literature, as typical of religious narratives, tends to often depict him as superhuman and supramundane). This comes in Buddhist scriptures as the formalised ‘Dhamma Chakka Pavattana Sutta (Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma/Truth discourse)’. Emperor Ashoka adopted the Dharma Chakra as a symbol of righteousness based on the Buddha’s teaching that he wanted to prevail in his vast empire in the 3rd century BCE). It is found carved in the numerous Ashokan pillars, and also in the famous Lion Capital of Ashoka at Sarnath near Benares in India, where the Buddha preached his first sermon. (However, it should not be forgotten that the word dharma originated in Hinduism, as in sanatana dharma or Eternal Truth. It is shared by other Dharmic religions like Jainism. But the Buddha dharma is unique.)

The Indian national flag also has the same Dharma Chakra. At Independence, the Indian leaders who were designing the national flag first wanted to have in it as the emblem of the whole sovereign state the Spinning Wheel of the leading   agitator for freedom from the British, Mahatma Gandhi. But Dr B.R. Ambedkar (the chief drafter of the Constitution of the Republic of India), Jawaharlal Nehru (the main lieutenant of Mahatma Gandhi) who was to become the first prime minister of independent India), and others who had been galvanised by the revival of Buddhism in the country of its origin proposed the Dharma Chakra instead. The Buddhist revival movement that inspired all of them was spearheaded by Anagarika Dharmapala of Sri Lanka/then Ceylon, with the support of the likes of poet, author, and journalist Sir Edwin Arnold and sympathetic White imperial civil functionaries. It was not for nothing that the Indian government issued a postage stamp in commemoration of Anagarika Dharmapala on October 30, 2014, the 150th anniversary of his birth. 

It is due to abysmal ignorance that some people mistake the helm or the rudder of a ship or boat for the Dharma Chakra. It was hilarious when once a couple of years ago, some young Buddhist monks made a big issue out of a rudder wheel embossed on a shoe as a brand mark by a footwear manufacturer somewhere.

Before I wind up, let me say something about the first page news article written by AFP’s Amal Jayasinghe referred to above under the title: ‘Phoney claims swirl around Lanka’s holiest tree’.  Jayasinghe explains that ‘timely action to safeguard the most venerated Bo tree in the world’ was taken by the authorities under the prompt direction of the president. Allegedly, after necessary investigations, they revealed that the Sri Maha Bodhi was not exposed to any harmful effects of 5G signal transmission in its environs (contrary to what some social media activists claimed) because, in the first place, there were no 5G signals being transmitted around the place, Jayasinghe explained.

According to Jayasighe, the ‘episode highlighted the speed with which fake news travels in Sri Lanka — but even more so, it illustrated the reverence in which the country holds the Sri Maha Bodhi.’ A lot of social media news  vendors deal in fake news (usually fabricated to the detriment of the Buddha Sasana) to support themselves financially. There are enough gullibles to patronise them. So, the first part of Jayasinghe’s statement is mostly true, except for the fact that the concerns previously raised by some professionals about such a danger to the Sri Maha Bodhi were perhaps genuine and had to be seriously investigated. The second part reflects the supercilious scepticism of a foreign correspondent who has no empathy with the local Buddhist culture. The deep veneration in which the Sri Maha Bodhi is held in the Buddhist-majority country seems to have struck Jayasinghe as a strange phenomenon, which shows Jayasinghe’s anti-Buddhist bias, although his name is a native Sinhala one, not one of foreign origin. 

R.W.W. has borrowed his piece of misinformation about which Buddhist relic is associated with sovereign claims over Sri Lanka (which I clarified above) from Jayasinghe: ‘It (i.e. The Sri Maha Bodhi) is both an object of worship and a symbol of national sovereignty on the majority Buddhist island of 22 million people’.

Jayasinghe may be right about the numerous messages shared among FB and WhatsApp groups about a non-existent threat to this object of worship. But it must be admitted that these groups are not all fake news vendors. I remember some visiting Australian telecom engineers of Sri Lankan origin raising this issue in a YouTube video a couple of months ago. However, Jayasinghe quotes the chief monk who is the custodian of the Sacred Tree:

“I am not a scientist, nor a botanist, so I raised the issue with the president in February,” monk Pallegama Hemarathana, 68, told AFP. “He immediately appointed a panel of experts. … The government and the Buddhists will do whatever it takes to protect the Sri Maha Bodhi.” 

Though Jayasinghe doesn’t mention it, there is a tendency on the part of politicians of all parties (in the government and the opposition) to abuse religious centres, sacred objects, and often the credulousness of gullible monks and devotees who readily believe in fictions; those politicians may be out to promote their own schemes. Whether the monk’s words give a hint of this reality is worth a thought.

It is also very important to be alert to the constant onslaught of misinformation that has been directed against the country’s age-old Buddhist religious establishment for many years now. A popular Sinhala saying is that it is fruit-laden trees that people throw stones at. But that compliment is cold comfort for those who tend such a tree.

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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