Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sharmini on Buddhism and Ritual

By- H.L. Seneviratne

H.L. Seneviratne

I started this as a comment on Sharmini Serasinghe’s “Open Letter”, but it turned it to be too long for a comment. So I am asking CT to publish this as a separate piece.

My view of Buddhism is broadly similar to that of Sharmini, and there obviously are many other non-ritualist Buddhists like Sharmini and me. But there is another side. While the monks can fairly be accused of making a ritualism of Buddhism, it is ritualism, and not the “philosophy” of the Buddha, that has enabled it to gain popularity and become a world religion. Even in the modern west, Buddhism is often culticized by individuals and groups, though free of the gross ritualism of the traditionally Buddhist societies.

Thus, though a necessary condition for the popularity of Buddhism, ritualism came at a price, that of tarnishing Buddhism by an excess of it. The invention of ritual was a large-scale project that spread over the centuries, and its nature varied from locality and time, with the effect that in some places and at certain times, it was disciplined and remained more or less compatible with the spirit of Buddhism, and in others, took bizarre forms.

Had it not been for the ritualism that catered to the emotional needs of the many, Buddhism may have remained a “philosophy”, as many intellectual Buddhists claim it is. And the Buddha may have been not the great teacher of world stature that he is, and has been for centuries, but a philosopher like Socrates, unknown except to philosophy students.

This does not absolve the ritualist monks from the blame of making Buddhism into a ritualism, because it is obvious that they have overdone their use of ritual to popularize Buddhism, ignoring in the process its ethical content. The failure of the monks is not that they ritualized but that they failed to achieve the right mixture of ritual and ethics that could have enabled Buddhism to remain true to its ethical core while it spread across continents. Any cultural concessions the monks made should have been made only after ensuring Buddhism’s ethical autonomy.

Why did the monks overdo ritualization? They did it out of their un-Buddhist craving for gaining more supporters among the laity. In order to gain supporters, monks came up with rituals that they thought were more appealing to the religiosity and needs of their clients. This is a process that goes on today in front of our eyes, although we often fail to notice it. Colored Pirit threads, monks leading a bride and bridegroom to the Poruva and in other ways officiating in weddings, monks writing songs urging soldiers to kill, Bodhi Pujas for gaining profit and power and destroying enemies, holding a highly publicized Buddhist substitute for Valentine’s Day, and television Buddhism, are all part of this.

The initial spread of Buddhism in India and along the trade routes was made possible not by a vulgar ritualism but by the needs of the emerging trading and other non-agricultural classes for a code of ethics for success in their business, and its legitimization. This tells us that degeneration into cultism is not necessary for the popularization of Buddhism.

The above observations also mean that we cannot paint all monks with the same brush stroke. There certainly were virtuous and intellectually schooled monks, who fashioned rituals that remained true to the core values and doctrines of Buddhism. Unfortunately the disciplined ritual of those monks did not prevail, and what has prevailed is the kind of ritualism that Sharmini righty criticizes.

The greatest historical failure of the Sangha is its failure to encourage and achieve that mix of rationality and ethical religiosity among the populations it ministered to. Such a mix would have infused the society with an urbanity that would have accommodated ethnic and religious difference, and a civility that would have minimized parochial thought, laying the foundations for a healthy, prosperous and happy society.  The reason for this failure on the part of the Sangha is its quite un-Buddhist greed for wealth, power and status, whether it’s at the level of the village, or at the level of the political centre. This is not confined to Lanka, but is common to all Buddhist societies.

In our bemoanings about the state of Buddhism today, we tend to explicitly or implicitly posit a golden age of Buddhism in the ancient period of our history. I doubt very much that there was any such.  The likelihood is that things were not very different from what they are today. Tyrants like Dutugamunu used religion for purposes of gaining and remaining in power, and as opium of the masses, and there were willing supporters among the Sangha, as there are plenty that support the tyranny of our own times.


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