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Buddhist Spectrum


Buddhism and education in contemporary Sri Lanka

The origin of all problems in contemporary Sri Lanka is due to the disorganized system of education. Some of the problems to be recalled here are unemployment, poverty, violence, underdevelopment and ethnic disharmony.

Even though sixty years have elapsed from our independence, these problems have taken an alarming position day by day without any hope for a solution in the near future.

The reason for this is the patching up of each problem in isolation instead of delving into the root cause of all ills. I believe that there is no way to solve the problems that Sri Lanka faces today, except by introducing an enormous change to the education system.

Therefore, the time has come to introduce a new vision to the teaching and learning process. Any further postponement of it is a gross disregard of the duty that history has imposed on us at this juncture.

Education is a well developed and complex process. It has become a universal trend spreading beyond the societal and national divisions. Our duty is to identify this process properly and apply it to suit our country.

The whole world is coming under a common curriculum of studies and a system of examinations. The problems of this country cannot be solved by going against this world trend. Our duty is to conform to the education system that has emerged worldwide.

We still follow the education system that the colonial rulers introduced to Sri Lanka. It is doubtful whether a structural or qualitative change has taken place in our country. Instead of following the endeavors that the United Kingdom implements to put the education on the correct track on the basis of the experience of the developed countries, we still continue with the old system with minimal change.

It is accepted by many that our educational system, carried out without any innovation in the curriculum, system of examinations and evaluation, has become a burden on this country.

I would like to mention here two nation States. One of them is South Korea and the other is Singapore. It is to be recalled that these two countries are located in Asia like Sri Lanka and their religious and cultural environment was very much akin to that of Sri Lanka.

It is also accepted by many that these two countries were not as developed as Sri Lanka when we regained our independence in the middle of the last century. However, both South Korea and Singapore have overtaken Sri Lanka to become two powerful and well developed nation States in the modern world.

The dream of most of the under developed countries now is to become either like South Korea or Singapore. Both South Korea and Singapore reached the present position due to their educational reforms.

The Korean leaders of the era of renaissance introduced a massive educational process with the understanding that it was the sole method of developing the country. It is known as the Korean System of Education.

The result thereof, was the instant forward march of the country. When Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was once questioned as to how he transformed Singapore as a topmost state of scientific and technological development, he answered that he achieved it by appropriate organization and management of education in the country.

Sri Lanka can be transformed into a developed country devoid of all ills only by massive educational reform as in South Korea and Singapore. It should be an urgent and accelerated programme.

It should also be a combination between modern knowledge as well as experience and traditional values. In this regard, Buddhism can be of immense help. I would like to devote this convocation address to highlight a segment of the contribution of Buddhism to streamline our educational system.

Buddhism as well as the modern world emphasizes that education is a collective effort. It is not a concern of a particular group of individuals or an institution. Unfortunately, the belief in the developing countries like Sri Lanka is that the state should take the sole responsibility of education.

As Buddhism teaches us, education builds up only when the parents, teachers, clergy and the state suitably carry out the duties assigned to each of them. Buddhism earmarks a special task to be adopted by all four parties collectively. It is solely the instilling of discipline into the relevant social stratum as parents into children, teachers into pupils, clergy into laity and the state into society.

I would like to say a few words about an important phenomenon that exists in education in Sri Lanka. It is competition that prevails in all spheres of education. The students in Sri Lanka compete with one another in three public examinations.

They are the Grade Five Scholarship Examination, General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level) and General Certificate of Education (Advanced Level). The sole or most important task of the parents is to prepare their children for these examinations. The children too have devoted their entire childhood to face these examinations. There is no life either for the parent or for the children except this.

The children who go to school early in the morning come back home late in the evening only after spending their time in the tuition classes. The parents to these children who have become victims of this vicious circle not only think but also declare that their children would become disciplined citizens, after learning at the suitable age.

The parents who are trapped by this wrong belief are not aware of the behaviour of their children. They are not bothered about the complaints they receive against their children. They wait till their children become good after learning. There is a dictum that they chant as a divine medicine for their psychological satisfaction. It is the age old statement: Learning gives discipline.

During my childhood, I had my primary education at the Buddhist Mixed School at Kuleegoda in the Galle District. I still remember that there were proverbs written on the wooden beams in big letters for the enhancement of knowledge of the parents as well as the pupils.

The Buddhist Theosophical Society which governed this school as well as others would have thought that the exhibition of these proverbs would generate enthusiasm not only among the parents but also among the children.

The most prominent among these proverbs was "Vidya Dadati Vinayam". I would like to declare that the historical role that this proverb played to instill in our parents' mind that their children would become virtuous and disciplined citizens as a result of learning has been a misfortune to our nation.

I understood this only after I obtained a good knowledge of Pali language and Buddhist Philosophy. Unfortunately, as you know, there are a few learned men and women who still have their faith in this proverb.

Firstly, I should mention here that the statement "Vidya Dadati Vinayama" is written not in Pali, but in Sanskrit. Therefore, it has no connection with Buddhism, as we think. Secondly, it was not the Buddha who stated that learning gives discipline, but the brahmins who maintained their authority through the means of education.


Ruins of Nalanda University, India. Founded in 5th century it is one of the first universities in the world.

What Buddhism reiterates is exactly the opposite of this. What is repeatedly stated in the Pali Canon is that discipline should be achieved before learning. The motto of Buddhism is "first discipline, second learning". If those parents who are of the opinion that their children would be good after learning are Buddhists, to them I say that they see a dream due to the absence of proper understanding of Buddhism.

The Buddha wants the parents to restrain their children from vice and exhort them in good (papa nivarenti kalyane nivesenti) before they make arrangements for their children to learn (sikkham sikkhapenti). The teachers are also requested to train the students well (suvinitam vinenti) before they make them master that which they themselves have learned (suggahitam gahapenti).

The members of the clergy should restrain the laity and exhort them in good (papa nivarenti, kalyane nivesenti) before they teach the laity what they have not learned earlier and correct what they have already learned (assutam saventi. sutam pariyodapenti).

This shows that the sole responsibility, according to Buddhism, of these three social strata of parents, teachers and clergy is to establish discipline. Accordingly, Buddhism has pointed out three institutions of ethical significance as family, school and temple.

In my opinion, the disaster of Sri Lanka today is that these three institutions have taken education into their hands after ignoring their direct responsibility of discipline. What is to be understood here is that the child who is not disciplined at home cannot be transformed to a virtuous, tolerant and good citizen with any amount of learning.

It is in relation to this context that a well-known English author Bernard Shaw has said that the child should be given to him till the age of five. He has further said that he does not mind even if the child is given to the devil after that.

It should be elucidated here what the Buddha means when He points out that the responsibility of parents and the members of the clergy is to restrain the children and the members of the laity from vice and exhort them in good.

The attention of the listeners/readers is drawn in this connection to three discourses in the Pali Canon. They are the discourses of Bahitika and Ambalatthika Rahulovada of the Majjhimanikaya and the discourse of Kalama in the Anguttaranikaya.

In the first two discourses, the Buddha states that the things that are not conducive to one's own well- being or the well-being of others or the well-being of both are unwholesome. The things that are conducive to the benefit of oneself, others and both are good and wholesome.

Accordingly, any action in thought, word or deed that harms oneself, others or both should on no account be performed. On the other hand, the actions that are not harmful and conducive to the welfare of oneself, others or both should be performed.

This is what is called discipline of life. This is what is to be told by the parents to the children, by the teachers to the pupils and by the clergy to the members of the laity before they embark on the pursuits of learning.

We have already experienced in Sri Lanka that learning without discipline is neither beneficial to the country nor to its citizens.

My personal opinion is that the mass scale problem that pervades all social institutions in Sri Lanka is indiscipline. The fact of common knowledge is that indiscipline reigns in all State Institutions, Corporations, Schools and Universities as well as on the streets.

The number of rapes, looting, robberies and killings increases day by day. Violence has reached the stage of killing opponents in Courts. The authority of the underworld gangs holds sway in the society.

The mutual respect and affection has disappeared from the society. I see all this is as a result of the behaviour of the parents, teachers and clergy as well as the state under principle: learning first, discipline second. To liberate Sri Lanka from this menace, we should march towards a new educational policy where parents in children, teachers in students, clergy in the laity and the state in the society establish discipline as the Buddha has taught us in obvious terms.

Education is a process that operates under the interactions between the givers and the receivers. So far, we discussed about the parents, teachers, clergy and the state, the stakeholders of giving. The pupils represent the receivers. There is no education in their absence.

The pupils are sometimes young and at other times old. They are sometimes the seekers of employment and at other times the employed. All of them run after learning. The demand for learning is such that institutions of national and international calibre prop up like mushrooms.

The students do not have any notion whatsoever of their standards. The unlimited demand for learning has made it a means of exploitation.

The Buddha too requests the students to study well. However, it is no secret that the field of education is filled with students, whether they study well or not, whose sole aim is learning. We have completely ignored the Buddha's advice on the mutual relationship that should be established between the teachers and the students before the beginning of the learning process. The irony is that we go further either to have a sarcastic view or to level multiple and colourful criticisms against the Buddha's advice.

The students' reactions such as rising from their seats (utthana), personal service (upatthana), attentive listening (sussusa) and waiting upon the teacher (paricariya) indicate, as the Buddha points out, the essential relationship that has to be maintained between the disciplined students and the teachers.

The terms Acariya, Upajjhaya, Guru and Antevasika indicate the close association inherently existing between the teachers and the students. However, the stimulation that the students receive at various educational institutions today is that they should not maintain any closeness with the teachers.

The students at present do not pay attention to the benefits that they can accrue from the association with teachers. They are concerned only with the opportunity that they can earn to misbehave by avoiding teachers.

The education is not complete without the mutual relationship between the students and the teachers even if everything else is accomplished. Accordingly, Sri Lanka today has an incomplete system of education.

According to Buddhism, learning is two fold as Suta and Sippa. The term Suta indicates the subjects like language, religion, philosophy, history, economics and geography. The term Sippa takes the areas of skills such as agriculture, carpentry, masonry, archery and swordsmanship into consideration.

Accordingly, Suta means academic education while Sippa means vocational education leading to skill oriented employment. As the Jataka stories inform us, the students went to Takkasila to study these two aspects of education.

However, at present in Sri Lanka, we basically focus and deliberate on academic education. Enough attention is not paid to the vocational education that leads us to skill oriented employment.

We endeavour to make our children the doctors, engineers and accountants, but not the carpenters, masons and soldiers. The reason for unemployment in Sri Lanka is this attitude of the people. The unemployment problem of this country cannot ever be solved by paying attention only to the academic education.

The respect of the school leavers after the General certificate of Ordinary and Advanced Level Examinations can be maintained only with the due recognition of a system of education aiming at skill oriented employment. In other words, the respectful position bestowed on academic education should equally be extended to vocational education too.

The scrutiny of the discourses of the Pali Cannon would reveal that the carpenters, masons and the soldiers have participated in the philosophical discussions with the Buddha with equal competence as the Kings, Ministers and the learned people. The emergence of a social group with the mentality of seeking employment only in offices after academic education would show that the essence of education has not yet crept into the hearts and minds of our people.

Let us pay our attention only to the unemployment problem of the graduates. All graduates aspire to become government employees. However, the objective of obtaining a degree should be to acquire the competency to do whatever livelihood that comes our way more effectively in an organised way in comparison with the non-degree holders.

I have met graduates who successfully maintain the corner shops on streets in England. Similarly, I have met graduates who lead comfortable lives as farmers, animal breeders and plant sellers in America. The time has come to convince our people that a degree is an instrument, not a white elephant, which exhibits the ability and competency over others in doing the task assigned or selected.

Without explaining in attractive terms, the unlimited avenues and opportunities for self employment in the agricultural sector to those who have faith in academic education, the problem of unemployment in Sri Lanka cannot be solved in a beneficial way to the country and society.

The State and the society at the same time should pay more attention than today to the sorrowful deterioration of academic eduction in our country.

The process of learning and teaching from the schools to the universities is confined only to the exchange of notes today. As a result, the creative skills of our nation have faded away to the extent of disappearance. Our neighbouring countries like India, Pakistan, Thailand and Malaysia have overtaken Sri Lanka in the competition of providing authoritative scholars in all fields.

In my opinion, a project to inject the memory power that our old generations practised as the Buddha taught them into our system of education should be reintroduced. Today, everything is either in the note or in the computer.

There is nothing in the mind. How could we produce scholars with creative ability under these circumstances? The attention of all of us should be paid here to what the Buddha has reiterated: What is most essential to understand the Dhamma is to remember what is heard or read.

Then follows the examination of the meanings of what is remembered (sutva dhareti. Dhatanam dhammanam attham upaparikkhati. Attham upaparikkhato dhamma nijjhanakkhamanti). Similarly the process of learning the Dhamma goes through the stages of listening, remembering, constant reciting, mental observation and ideological understanding (Dhamma bahussuta, dhata, vacasa paricita, manasanupekkhita, ditthiya suppatividdha).

This shows that it is impossible to examine and understand what is in the note or in the computer. In isolation and at rest, the meanings can be examined only of things that we remember. The contemporary education completely ignores the memory tool.

Therefore, there is no possibility for a generation of students who examine the meanings in this way to emerge in present Sri Lanka. In my opinion this is a gross weakness of present day academic eduction.

I conclude this convocation address with the summary of the Silavimansa Jataka which is the three hundred and sixty second story of the Jataka Book (It is to be noted here that there are four more stories in the Jataka Commentary under the same name).

When the King Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born into a Brahmin family. When he came of age, he acquired every liberal art at Takkasila, and on his return to Benares he became the family priest for the king.

The Bodhisatta was respected and honoured by the king constantly. The suspicion arose in the Bodhisatta whether the king regarded him with respect due to his discipline or to his acquisition of learning.

To test the king the Bodhisatta robbed gold coins from the royal treasury. He was caught as a robber and brought before the king. The king ordered him to be punished.

Then the Bodhisatta informed the king that he robbed the gold coins to check whether the king respected him due to his virtue or learning. Being exonerated with due respect, the Bodhisatta uttered some stanzas, two of which are quoted below.

Silam seyyo sutam seyyo iti me samsayo ahu
Silameva suta seyyo iti me natthi samsayo
Mogha jati ca vanno ca silameva kiruttamam
Silena anupetassa sutenattho na vijjati.

A doubt had arisen in me as to which of the two, learning or discipline, is superior. I have no doubt that discipline itself is better than learning (after the testing I have carried out).

Both birth and social status are empty. What is best is discipline. There is no value of leaning without being nourished by discipline.

The convocation address made at BMICH on Dec. 31, 2007.

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