Sri Lanka -- There can be little doubt that in Sri Lanka today
Buddhism finds itself at crossroads, its future increasingly in question.
The challenge it faces is not one of numbers and power,
but of relevance. Not that the Dhamma itself, the Buddha's teaching, has
lost its relevance; for neither the shifting drama of history nor the
undulating waves of culture can muffle the timeless message embedded in
the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
The problem lies not with the teaching itself, but with
those responsible for bringing the teaching to life. What is lacking above
all is a combination of skills that can be summed up in three simple
words: comprehension, commitment, and translation.
Comprehension: a clear understanding of how the
teaching applies to the hard realities of human life today, to a society
and world in which the old certainties of the past are being scattered
like leaves before a storm.
Commitment: the willingness to apply the teachings in
the way they were intended, even when this means defying the encrustations
of established tradition.
Translation: not stereotyped "sermons," not sweet
consolation, not religious lullabies, but solid, sober explanations of how
the timeless principles of the Dhamma can resolve the distinctive problems
and quandaries of our age.
As we stand at this crossroads looking towards the
future, three choices offer themselves to us. One is simply to resign
ourselves to the decay of the Sasana, accepting it as a back- ward swing
of the pendulum of history -sad but inevitable. A second is to wring our
hands and complain, shifting the responsibility to others -the government,
the monks, or the minorities. A third is to ask ourselves what we can do
to stem the rising tide. If we adopt the third route we might begin by
noting that the Sasana does not exist in an ideal realm of its own, but
only as embodied in the millions of people who call themselves Buddhists
and look for refuge in the Triple Gem.
This statement might sound obvious, even trite.
However, if we reflect for a few moments we will see that, though obvious,
it has enormous implications, for it means that we ourselves are
ultimately responsible for the prosperity and decline of the Sasana: our
own views, attitudes, and conduct decide whether the Sasana is to thrive
or wither. To recognize this is to see that the welfare of the Sasana
ultimately rests on our own shoulders, not on some state ministry or
ecclesiastical council. Just as the health of the body depends on the
vitality of its cells, so the strength of the Sasana ultimately devolves
on ourselves, the cells in the living organism of Buddhism.
In this article I want to focus on one particular
constituency of Buddhists in present day Sri Lanka, the Bhikkhu Sangha,
the order of Monks. I intend to examine, though briefly, the problems it
faces and its prospects for the future. This task is especially critical
because of the central role the Sangha plays in guiding the destiny of the
Sasana, and it is clear that if the Sangha does not learn to deal with the
momentous forces in inundating present-day society, the future will see it
increasingly relegated to the sidelines.
Buddhist tradition meticulously defines the mutual
duties of Sangha and laity and these roles form the warp and woof of the
Sasana. The monks are to uphold the teaching by study, practice,
preaching, and moral example; the lay people, to support the monks by
offering them the four requisites of robes, food, lodging, and medicines.
This intimate relationship between the two communities has provided a
stable basis for the persistence of the Sasana through the centuries.
Despite the fluctuations of Buddhist history in Sri
Lanka, which at times had sunk so low that even a proper Sangha could not
be found, whenever Buddhism thrived the relationship between the monastic
order and the laity has been its lifeblood. This relationship of mutual
assistance, however, found its supporting matrix in a stable agrarian
society with clearly defined social roles and a lifestyle governed by
common religious and ethical norms.
That is precisely what has altered so radically today.
A global culture, driven by exponential technological
innovation and a relentless free-market economy, has made its presence
felt in every corner of this land, challenging every obstacle to its
dominance. In consequence, the entire social order has been shaken by
upheavals that reach from the halls of economic and political power right
through to the most remote villages and temples.
This modernistic onslaught does not limit itself to
mere external triumphs but reaches through to the most private places in
our lives: our values, worldviews, and even our sense of personal
The result, for the ordinary Buddhist, has been a
profound disorientation, a feeling of being stranded in a strange
landscape where the old familiar reference points no longer hold. Looking
back, we see a past of comfortable certainties that we can never
recapture; looking ahead, a future that looks increasingly unpredictable.
But amidst the confusion of the present, the Dhamma still appears as a
stable reference point that can provide clear answers to our pressing
questions and relief from existential stress.
This brings us right to the crux of our problem: the
problem of relevance, of conveying the timeless message of the teaching in
a language that can address the difficult, unique, complex problems we
face navigating our way through the post-modern world.
The most critical challenge facing the sasana today is
that of surviving in this "new world order," and not merely of surviving
institutionally, in name and form, but of contributing to the recovery of
universal human values, of helping countless men and women find a way
beyond the intellectual and moral abyss.
It is precisely here that the role of the sangha
becomes so vitally important, for it is the monks and, I dare say, the
nuns as well who should be capable of offering a convincing refuge to "a
world gone mad" -a vision of basic sanity, selfless goodness, and serenity
amidst the storms of greed, conflict, and violence. Yet it is just on this
point that we face a gaping chasm: namely, that the sangha today seems
hardly equipped to respond to such a challenge.
What is needed most urgently, in my view, is not a
reinforcement of Buddhist religious identity or a governmental policy that
gives "pride of place to Buddhism." Nor will the construction of more
Buddha images and the daily broadcasting of pirith chanting over the
loudspeakers give the sasana the infusion of fresh blood it so badly
What is required are monks and nuns of intelligence,
insight, and sensitivity who can demonstrate, by their lives and
characters, the spiritually ennobling and elevating power of the Dhamma.
To produce monastics of such calibre is not easy, yet
such a task cannot be left to chance. It will require, above all,
deep-rooted changes in the entire system of monastic recruitment and
education, and thus will call for serious thought and careful planning on
the part of the sangha elders. The task is not one to be taken at all
lightly; for one can say, in all truth, that nothing less is at stake than
the future of Buddhism in this country.
Just as the Sri Lankan government has recently reviewed
the whole system of secular education in this country with the aim of
reforming educational policy, a similar reformation will have to be
introduced right at the heart of the Sangha. If one compares the system of
instruction in the Buddhist monasteries with the curriculum of the
Christian seminaries, the disparity is striking. In the seminaries the
future priests and nuns are trained, not only in Latin, theology, and
scripture, but in all the fields of modern knowledge they will need to
play a leading role in today's world, including the critical and
comparative study of religion.
In the pirivenas or Buddhist monastic schools, so far
as I can see, the young monks (never nuns!) are trained to become village
priests capable of preserving a religious culture not very different from
that of the sixteenth century.
One can see the bizarre result when a monk educated in
the pirivena system has to give a sermon to an audience that might include
an astrophysicist, a psychiatrist, several computer analysts, and even
some lay Buddhist scholars trained in the methods of critical scholarship.
Is it any wonder that the listeners pass the time glancing idly at the
ceiling or casting weary smiles at each other?
In what follows I will merely throw out a few random
suggestions. A systematic programme would have to be worked out by those
more directly involved in Sangha administration and the training of monks
and nuns. I will speak about monks rather than nuns, since I am more
familiar with their lifestyles and training. But corresponding changes
should also be considered for the nuns, whose status, education, and
functions require drastic upgrading if Buddhism is to present a respect-
able face to a world moving rapidly towards complete gender equality.
For the monks, radical change might be needed at the
very beginning, in the system of recruitment. The method of recruitment
that currently prevails in the Sangha is the induction of young boys who
are far from mature enough to make their own decisions. Often they are
"offered" to the Sangha by their parents, as a way for the parents to earn
merit. If the parents would sacrifice a youth who seems temperamentally
inclined to the religious life, the ultimate effect such a system has on
the Sasana might be a positive one.
Indeed, in the past it was usually "the best and the
brightest" who would be given to ' the monastery. Today, however, the
child selected is too often the one who appears unlikely to succeed in
worldly life: the mischief maker, the maverick, the dullard.
I am aware that this system of childhood ordination is
deeply entrenched in Sri Lankan Buddhist culture, and I would not propose
abolishing it. Despite its faults, the system does have its positive
For one thing, it enables the youngster to enter the
path of renunciation before he has been exposed to the temptations of
worldly life; thus from an early age it helps promote the inner purity and
detachment needed to withstand the rigours of the monastic training.
Another advantage is that it gives the young monk the opportunity to study
the Dhamma and the textual languages (Pali and Sanskrit) while the mind is
as yet fresh, open, receptive, and retentive. Thereby, it conduces to the
wide erudition which is one of the traditional hallmarks of the cultured
However, while I would not go so far as to suggest
abolishing adolescent recruitment, I do think the Sangha could vastly
improve its ranks by imposing more stringent criteria for admission. One
measure that might be adopted at once is a longer probationary period
before granting the novice ordination.
For example, it might be made mandatory for boys intent
on being ordained to live at training centres as lay postulants for a
minimum of two or three years before they are considered eligible for
novice ordination. This would give the Sangha elders an opportunity to
observe them more closely, in a wide variety of situations, and to screen
out those who seem unsuitable for the monk's life.
If this is not practicable, then some other selective
procedure might be applied. Whatever method is chosen, the standards of
selection should be fairly rigorous - though not inhumane -and the elders
should not hesitate to turn away unfit applicants. For one thing has
become too painfully obvious to all concerned Buddhists alike, and also to
non- Buddhists (both residents of Sri Lanka and foreigners) who judge the
Dhamma by the conduct of its followers: far too many youngsters are being
draped in saffron robes who do not deserve to wear them. Such misfits only
sully the good name of the Sangha and of Buddhism itself.
More rigorous screening of candidates for ordination
is, however, only a preliminary measure aimed at sealing off the Sangha
from those unsuited for the monkhood. What is equally essential is to
offer those who do get ordained training programmes that will promote
their wholesome, balanced development. This is truly a critical step, for
if youngsters with the potential for the monk's life fail to receive
proper training they won't find fulfilment in the monastery, and if they
don't find fulfilment their future as monks will be in jeopardy. They will
either become disillusioned with the Sangha and return to lay life; or
else, from fear of the social stigma attached to disrobing, they may
continue as monks in a perpetual state of frustration and discontent. This
may explain why we see so many younger monks today involved in politics,
business, and other activities unworthy of their calling.
What is necessary above all is for the young monk to
find meaning and happiness in his chosen path of life, a path that does
not offer the immediate satisfactions available to his comrades who remain
behind in the world.
If so few monks today seem to show a real joy in the
Dhamma, I suspect this is because the Dhamma is not being presented to
them in a way that inspires joy.
For the Dhamma to exercise a magnetic power that will
draw the young monk ever deeper towards the heart of the holy life, it
must address their needs and aspirations at a deep interior level.
This means it has to be offered to them in a way that
arouses an immediate, sincere, and spontaneous response.