Sri Lankan Monks in Parliament

Apr 04

One of the touchiest problems in all faith communities is the proper role of religion in politics. This issue is currently a lively one in Buddhism, in regard to the recent Sri Lankan elections. In that country, which has a Theravada Buddhist majority, a new party contested the election, all the candidates of which were ordained Buddhist monks. The party polled 6% of the popular vote, taking nine seats and the balance of power in a hung parliament.

The National Heritage Party (Jathika Hela Urumaya) might fairly be characterized as a Buddhist form of political fundamentalism. A prominent issue of the National Heritage is a pledge to clean up corruption, certainly a worthy goal in any country. Other proposals are more questionable. For example there is the demand for a law against so-called unethical conversions. This is in response to the invasion of a new breed of aggressive evangelical missionaries.

There is no doubt at all that some of these people have been engaging in ethically dubious practices. One example among many may give the flavour of their missionary work; it is reported that children in poor villages have been offered the choice of a gift box with the picture of Jesus or of the Buddha. Those who choose Jesus open a box full of candies and toys, whereas the Buddha's box is empty. The children are then told that "Jesus gives you all good things, and Buddha gives you nothing."

Such cheap trickery is morally indefensible, but a legislative ban is also problematic. How could an unethical conversion be defined with legal precision? And how could such a ban be enforced without prejudice to freedom of conscience? This latter may not be a high value with some in the National Heritage Party who have went so far as to propose closing all mosques and churches in what they see as the Sacred City of Kandy. Surely it would be better to put their energy into making Buddhism more understandable and relevant. The Sri Lankans should remember their own history, and the ninteenth century debates which showed that Buddhism can more than hold it's own in free intellectual discourse.

Also troubling is the National Heritage's insistence on a "unitary state." This is political shorthand for no compromise with the Tamil insurgency. It is more than disappointing to see Buddhist clergy advocating what amounts to a heavy-handed military solution. The Buddha's own teaching was very radical in it's pacifism, putting the ethical virtue of non-harming ahead of all others. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in Sri Lankan history to identify Buddhism with Sinhala nationalism. It is perhaps understandable when the religion has so often been under threat from foreign invasion, both by the Hindu Tamils and by European colonialism, but it is nevertheless a serious distortion of the Buddha's teaching.

The idea of monks running for elected office has been very controversial in Sri Lanka, and among Buddhists elsewhere. The supporters of the idea point out that the Buddha counseled kings and their ministers and sometimes gave teachings with a political content. But it is also true that neither the Buddha nor any of his immediate disciples accepted any office or political responsibility. Nor does this seem to have been the case during the high period of Buddhism in India.

Buddhist monks, like the clergy of other religions, have a responsibility to speak for a spiritually sound approach to both private and public morality. But it seems a doubtful proposition that they should put themselves forward to be actual lawmakers. There is a real danger that this practise could corrupt the Sangha while it tries to reform society.

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