Monks, protests and changing times
The week before last, on the sizzling streets of Colombo, we were
witness to the depressing scene of protesting Buddhist monks running
hither and thither. They were attempting to escape the effect of
tear-gas used by the Police in a bid to disperse them.
The monks were apparently members of the Inter-University Bhikku
Federation and had gathered in the heart of the City to articulate
several demands including hostel facilities and a Buddhist education
They were insisting on an audience with the President himself and
chose for the protest a time when our crowded streets are at peak use.
It is obvious that no Government can meet all the demands put to
them. Particularly in a poor country the administration has to allocate
its meagre resources in a
Monks protesting Pic.Rukmal Gamage
manner consistent with its development policies.
There are many relatively disadvantaged segments in this country
whose situation must be taken in to consideration when resources are
allocated. However deserving oneís cause, there will always be other
groups, which objectively would be more deserving.
Loud demands made by politically active groups should not necessarily
be given priority. In cultures where faith is strong and religion an
integral part of Government, protests by the clergy can be potentially
In his ĎAmong the Believersí, an insightful analysis of the effects
of faith based politics on modern day societies, VS Naipaul the Nobel
Prize winning writer takes us to the believerís unreal landscape of
distant misty mountains and the reality of a life full of tortuous
The believer has his eyes set on a far-away peak, for ever
unreachable, while he is destined for the pitfalls, which are all around
him. He is awkwardly suspended between the lofty ideals of his belief
and the shoddy realities of his existence.
Buddhism, during its long evolution, unlike many other religions has
escaped the tag of being a component of a State structure. The
religionís profound philosophy sits ill with the coarse worldliness of
While a State is naturally occupied with matters such as the marching
of armies, minting of money and marshalling of resources, Buddhism
challenges the reality of these ephemeral events and declares them
No armies have marched in the name of Buddhism, no pogroms urged by
its inner imperatives and no burning of witches sanctioned by its
On reaching the shores of this island more than 2,000 years ago,
Buddhism found an abiding and devoted following.
The small, relatively untroubled kingdom with an established
agricultural economy provided the ideal base for the contemplative
philosophy, which synthesised and then developed some of the most
ancient spiritual concepts of India.
To this day the quietude of a village temple sitting at the edge of a
verdant paddy field will unfailingly evoke a deep sense of spiritual
longing in a Sri Lankan.
But between the tranquil then and the turbulent now much has
happened. In the interim other, more recent civilisations have taken a
tremendous march over in technological and even intellectual
capabilities of the older societies.
Most countries in the world have now adopted models and methods
developed by new thinking originating there.
Today we cannot conceive of a world without regular elections,
parliaments, legal and medical systems, electricity, telephones,
computers and a million other things, all conceptualised in these new
civilisations surging forward relentlessly.
The stresses and demands of this reality on older civilisations and
their institutions are manifested in various ways. Our time hallowed
spiritual orders are also subject to these stresses.
The ideals of the priesthood envisage an order of ascetics
surrendering the comforts of the material world for a spiritual quest.
From time immemorial the denials undertaken by the Monks and their
devotion to a higher way of life has earned an abiding respect from the
It maybe that in the days gone-by the material comforts available in
any event were Spartan by our standards. In the modern day it seems we
cannot even conceive of an existence without comforts like electricity,
pipe borne water, fast comfortable transport and even a mobile phone.
Consequently our concept of a spiritual life is bound to change with the
Education is perhaps the greatest agent of change. In the olden days
temples were the centres of learning. Literacy was a very rare commodity
and that too was predominantly occupied with matters religious.
Today we have near universal education classified into an incredible
range of subjects including many sciences. Now there is much more
learning in the lay society than can ever be matched by clerical orders.
In this background there is a sad undertone of irrelevance if not
egoism when the clergy take to public protests. Like all other
institutions facing the challenges of the modern world, it maybe time
for those concerned about the continuity of clerical orders to rethink
their role and guide its progress accordingly.