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Sri Lanka Buddhists Divided over Bill To Control Monks

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By  Kalinga Seneviratne*

This article is the second in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Feature and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.


SINGAPORE (IDN | Lotus News Features) - A bill tabled in the Sri Lankan parliament in January to create a legal framework to control the behavior and conduct of Buddhist monks has created deep divisions within the majority Buddhist community in the country.

Known as the ‘Theravadi Bhikku Kathikawath (Registration) Bill’, the draft legislation to control the behavior of some wayward monks who have tarnished the image of Buddhism in the country in recent years has been discussed in political and legal circles for sometime. And it has elicited wide support in the Buddhist community.

But it has created disharmony in the community, because a government that is deeply distrusted by the Buddhists tabled it. The main constituent party of the governing coalition, the United National Party, in recent years, has been closely identified with powerful Christian minority interests, especially those of a growing band of evangelical Christians.

The bill seeks to set up a code of conduct and discipline which would enable Mahanayake Theras (high priests) to punish Bhikkus (monks) who engage in or carry out occult practices or similar activities, pursue trade or business activities, obtain driving licenses, engage in any employment in the public or private sector other than in the fields of education, social services and religious affairs, and engage in public activities that are unbecoming of a Bhikku and defy Bhikku Vinaya, the monks’ code of ethics.

The monks who breach these provisions of the bill will be penalized by way of being divested of monkhood and expelled from the temple where they reside.

The Bill expects of the Karaka Sangha Sabha (Senior Monks Assembly) of each Theravadi monks’ Sect (Nikaya) or one of the three recognized Chapters to formulate and adopt Kathikawath (internal rules of conduct for monks) to relevant for a Sect or Chapter.

The bill is supported by the Mahanakake Theras of the 3 Nikayas and many other senior monks but opposed by many activist Buddhist monks who suspect that the government is trying to silence those monks who are opposing it on social justice and nationalist issues.

Chief Prelate of the Malwathu Chapter of the Siam Nikaya, Venerable Thibbatuwawe Sri Sumangala argues that legal authority is being secured through the Bill, to ensure restoration and purity of Buddhism in the country. Furthermore, he points out that the current government has initiated an important undertaking, which was disregarded by the previous government.

“Parliament cannot change the Vinaya rules of the Theravada monks,” argues Venerable Bengamuwe Nalaka, of Patriotic Monks Front. “If this Bill goes through, the Buddhist law will be overridden by the government law.”

“If the government continues to harass the people, monks have a duty to speak up. We will continue to do so,” he warned, addressing a media conference after those opposing the bill won a legal battle in the Supreme Court.

They challenged the Bill on the grounds of violating the Theravada Buddhist monks’ human rights, whereas monks of other orders such as Mahayana, and clergy of the Christian, Catholic, Muslim and Hindu religions were not subjected to any such state laws.

The Supreme Court agreed that empowering a government minister with regard to matters hitherto exercised by the Sangha (order of monks), implies a violation of the freedom of religion.

Parliament was informed on February 10 that certain clauses in the Bill, which led to controversies, were inconsistent with some provisions in the Constitution, and it would need a two-thirds majority in parliament to be passed and then approved in a referendum.

Respected senior monk Venerable Bellanwila Wimalaratana, Chancellor of Sri Jayawardenapura University, says that for years Mahanayake Theras have been asking the government to confer legal authority on the Kathikawat of the 3 Nikayas.

“Even in cases where serious offences had been committed by monks, there was no way to expel them from the monkhood which is why the venerable Mahanayake Theros of all Nikayas had in one voice requested the government to set up a legal mechanism to give effect to the Kathikawath of the various Nikayas and Chapters,” he explained in an interview with the Island newspaper.

But, he opposed the government trying to impose punishments on monks in the proposed legislation because that is clearly stipulated in the Kathikawat of the 3 Sects.

There has been much concern among Buddhists – who constitute about 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population – in recent years at the behavior of some monks both in the political as well as in the social arena. The thuggish behavior of monks of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and other fringe groups, who seemed to have the protection of powerful elements of the previous government, has given Sri Lankan Buddhism a bad image overseas.

Another issue that has upset many Buddhists is that of monks who are involved in various ‘black magic’ rituals claiming to be Buddhist practices, while many other monks have worn various robes claiming to have special “arahant” powers or give diverse interpretations of the Dhamma (Buddhist teachings). All of them tend to treat Buddhism as a money-making venture.

Thus, there is large public support within the Buddhist community to control these wayward monks. But, a lack of proper definition of what are called “occult” practices and its focus on only Theravada monks and not on other religious practitioners, are making Buddhists feel uneasy sensing a conspiracy to disempower Buddhists.

As Physics Professor Chandre Dharmawardana argues, this is a bill to curb the human rights of one section of the Sri Lankan community – the Buddhist monks – with vague definitions of what constitutes an offence. Without a definition of what constitutes a “occult” practice may open the floodgates to persecute monks for conducting pujas (religious ceremonies) invoking blessings at the bo-tree or of devas (Hindu gods) or even involving in astrology and palmistry (two popular practices in Sri Lanka).

He also points out that Pope Francis has recently called upon Catholics to essentially go back to medieval traditions like “casting out devils” and “evil spirits”, while Pentecostal Christians are well known to practice various “healing” rituals that could be defined as occult practices.

“Does it mean that priests of other religions can practice their version of the occult sciences while the Buddhist monks cannot?” he asks, adding, “if the minister wants to protect the public from frauds and quacks, the law has to be applied irrespective of a person’s religion or belief system.”

There have been cases in Sri Lanka in recent years, where children have died because the Pentecostal Churches subjected the child to “prayer sessions” to heal the sick rather than allowing the parents to take the child to a hospital.

Buddhist Affairs Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse denies that the government is trying to impose its will on the Buddhist clergy. “The Bill only legitimizes rules adopted by Mahanayake Theras of the three Nikayas,” he says.

But, former Editor of the Nation weekly, Malinda Seneviratne argues that what has created the controversy is the targeting of Theravada monks only, when many other religious orders including non-Buddhists, have been misbehaving or creating social chaos in the country in recent years.

“Since the issue is discipline and applies only (therefore selectively and illegally) to the clergy of a single religion, Buddhism, there are legal as well as political and doctrinal objections,” he argues. “The movers of this Act are assuming to have knowledge superior to the Buddha on matters pertaining to Bhikku Vinaya.”

*The author is a Sri Lanka born journalist and academic, teaching regional communication issues at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Please click here for the writer’s articles on IDN. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 February 2016]

Previous Lotus News Feature can be accessed here.

Photo: A group of monks. | Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne

2016 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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