Voices of threatened Buddhists must be heard
by Senaka Weeraratna on 06 May 2017 21 Comments

Of all international Buddhist Conferences held in Sri Lanka, the one that stands out clearly above the rest is the Conference held in 1950, particularly because it led to the formation of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB). There was a huge need then for unity of all Buddhist schools and Dr. G.P. Malalasekera’s vision ensured that disparate groups were brought together under the banner of fellowship via the WFB.


The world of 2017 is significantly different to that of 1950. If the UN Day of Vesak Conference to be held in Colombo in the month of May 2017 wishes to have a lasting impact, it must address the shortcomings of regular International Buddhist Conferences taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of International Buddhist organisations that organise such gatherings. Most importantly, the time has come for the formation of a new international Buddhist organisation say, for example, League of Buddhist Nations, that will function in areas where the pre-existing Buddhist organisations are inactive, weak or silent.


To hold international Buddhist Conferences more or less based on the premise of fellowship and goodwill and nothing else is tantamount to an unpardonable folly and dereliction of duty. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s warning given on the occasion of the inauguration of WFB in 1950, that if Buddhist conferences were to be a success and have an impact on the rest of the world, it must go beyond fellowship, still rings true.


Buddhist Solidarity


Protection of Buddhism nationally and internationally and the crisis facing the Buddhist world must rank high in any credible agenda of an International Buddhist Conference. Unfortunately, this is one area that no one wants to touch and consequently the cries of threatened Buddhists fighting for national survival and protection from religious persecution and discrimination in various parts of the world go unheeded.


There is no International Buddhist forum to listen to the grievances of Buddhists and act on their behalf in world councils. Buddhists vis-à-vis other religions are largely unrepresented or under-represented in UN bodies. As a lobby group, Buddhists are weak internationally. In such context, the world Buddhists must unhesitatingly come together on the basis of solidarity rather than fellowship, and project strength and assertiveness on the international stage, to combat the rising challenges to the very existence of Buddhism in several parts of Asia.


The lack of an effective institutional mechanism that can lend support when a Buddhist institution, Buddhist community or even a predominant Buddhist nation is in danger is a glaring lacuna. We see the lack of substantial networks of support driving threatened Buddhist nations or Buddhist communities into a sense of despair and hopelessness at times of an emergency.


Traditional Theravada Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos are now under severe pressure in many areas. One such area under pressure is to distance the governing polity from extending state patronage to Buddhism and erase the Buddhist national identity which had held these countries together for over two millennia and embrace a secular identity that has no roots either to their heritage or culture. No such similar pressure is being applied to countries in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East or the Catholic belt of Europe.


Despite a 2500 year old history that makes Buddhism one of the oldest religions in the world, a worldwide presence that makes it a global religion, and a way of life grounded in wisdom and compassion that attracts the envy of other civilizations, Buddhism still retains its biggest constraint – lack of effective protections. It is a historical and sad fact that Buddhism has lost more territory and space in Asia, its traditional homeland, in the last one thousand years than any other religion. It is also a hard fact that this process continues with no sign of abatement and no effective measures being developed to counter it.


Rising challenges to Buddhism


The issue of rising challenges to Buddhism to the extent of undermining its very existence as the pre-dominant religion of traditional Buddhist nations, has hardly attracted much attention in discussions of International Buddhist Organisations, International Buddhist Conferences, or among National Governments in countries with predominant Buddhist populations and corresponding state and constitutional obligations to protect and foster Buddhism.


Traditional Buddhist countries find themselves force-fed with ideas on governance and conflict resolution using inquisitorial methods that are unsolicited and foreign to Asian countries, that had been given birth primarily in a Western setting and related to the interplay of dynamics of European societies, but are nevertheless required to be uncritically accepted and transplanted in Asian societies without due consideration being given to the social tensions that would be generated in transplanting such ideas.


To de-link state patronage to Buddhism is one such pressure brought on by various religious interests that during the heyday of western colonialism enjoyed exclusive patronage from colonial rulers. Though it may appear somewhat anachronistic and archaic to modern European societies, where plurality, secularism and multiculturalism were seen as normal [now being questioned in some quarters – Ed], it is worthwhile to remember that throughout Asian history, Buddhism was only able to grow and survive wherever it received patronage and support of Buddhist Monarchs, commencing with Indian Emperor Asoka in 300 B.C. In Sri Lanka in the pre-colonial era, the foremost duty of a King was to serve and protect the Buddha Sasana.


The solidarity that countries in Buddhist Asia showed towards each other in the distant past (pre-colonial era) has greatly diminished or become non-existent. The sense of kinship of being fellow travellers in the sansaric journey overarched by Buddhist precepts and bonded by common religious beliefs and foundations no longer act as a reference point to summon or render assistance even between Buddhist peoples in neighbouring countries at times of need.


Tension at Buddha Gaya and Sacred Cities of Buddhism


Reciprocity is the hallmark of any relationship. No peaceful co-existence can be sustained if incursions are taking place affecting the sensitivities of the majority populace of a country. The magnanimity of wanting peaceful coexistence has attendant obligations in removing that which are stumbling blocks to peace.


Buddhists in Sri Lanka welcome peaceful co-existence between adherents of different religions. However, as indigenous Sinhala Buddhists we must state that co-existence cannot be one-sided. While preaching peaceful co-existence adherents of other religions that entered Sri Lanka much later in time after Buddhism had become firmly established in Sri Lanka as the national religion, cannot expect to transplant their religions by building their churches and mosques in the vicinity of sacred citadels of Buddhists and expect Buddhists to keep silent. Obligations under peaceful coexistence are mutual and not a one-way street for one religious group only. The growing media campaign to design historical Buddhist sites as multicultural sites to deny Buddhist exclusivity over a place of worship is grossly unfair and carries the seed of future conflict.


There are increasing number of examples of mosques being built close to hallowed Buddhist shrines in highly venerated citadels: Anuradhapura, Dambulla, Kandy, Mihintale, Mahiyangana, Polonnaruwa (former Royal capital), Kelaniya and even in Buddhagaya, Lumbini and Kusinara. There is a new mosque built within a stone’s throw (60 metres) away from the Maha Bodhi Temple premises in Buddhagaya where the Bodhisatwa (Prince Siddhartha) attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree to become the Buddha, 2600 years ago.


To establish a mosque so close to the most venerated site of the Buddhists and then use loudspeakers for the daily azaan knowing very well that these high pitched sounds would disturb the tranquility and peaceful environment conducive to meditation of the Buddhist monks and worshippers, must be considered as a direct affront to peaceful co-existence. The failure of the Government of India to take steps to remove or re-locate this mosque or take steps to withdraw the loudspeakers is tantamount to a dereliction of duty and guarantees given to the Buddhist world by the Government of India to provide a peaceful and noise-free environment surrounding the Maha Bodhi Temple. It diminishes the claim of the Indian Government to protect Buddhism in its birthplace. The silence of the International Buddhist organisations on this critical issue is deafening and a huge letdown of the hopes of the world Buddhist community for effective institutional leadership to take up Buddhist grievances.


It is highly unlikely that other contenders for leadership of the Buddhist world such as China or even Nepal (where Lumbini, the birthplace of Prince Siddhartha is located, and now being projected as the Fountainhead of Buddhism) would allow a mosque or any other enterprise using amplified sounds to interfere with the proceedings of a hallowed Buddhist shrine.


It is also a lesson for Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka to ensure that mosques and even churches are not allowed to be constructed anywhere near an important Buddhist Temple because once permission is given it would be near impossible to prevent the Trustees of the mosque from using loudspeakers out of spite and lack of sensitivity to disrupt the peaceful atmosphere of a Buddhist Temple. If it can happen in Buddha Gaya, it can happen anywhere else, including disturbing the proceedings of the Dalada Maligava in Kandy, in the future.


Reciprocity and not Reconciliation – the way forward


The situation can be reduced to a simple axiom. One can demand only up to what one can and is prepared to concede to the other party. Every religion with their main bases lying in foreign countries and having a minority religion status in Sri Lanka must sincerely ask this basic straightforward question. Buddhists have been very magnanimous, but unfortunately Buddhism enjoys step-motherly treatment in countries with Abrahamic religious majorities, with only Russia and Austria conceding official recognition to Buddhism, in Europe. Most countries in the Middle East do not even recognize Buddhism as a valid religion, despite its global status as a major world religion.


Some tragic situations affecting Buddhists, are set out below as examples:

1)      In Bangladesh, in 2012, a 25,000-strong mob set fire to at least five Buddhist temples and dozens of homes throughout the town and surrounding villages

2)    The killing of Buddhists (monks and laymen) have been reported, from Bangladesh, in addition to the persecution of indigenous tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts such as the Chakma, Marma, Tripura and others who are mainly Buddhists,

3)     The crisis generated by Bengali Muslims of Rakhine (Arakan) state of Myanmar classifying themselves as Rohingyas,

4)    The threats to Buddhists of Ladakh, India, to change their religion and convert to another religion, as recorded by the Ladakh Buddhist Association,

5)     The plight of Buddhists in South Korea whose numbers have dropped from 90% in 1945 to 22% in 2016, and attacks on Buddhist temples continue, and

6)    The insurgency in South Thailand where Buddhists including monks are attacked, should be of great concern to all right thinking Buddhists and planners of International Buddhist Conferences.


The loss of numbers in the Buddhist communities can have a domino effect in other countries in Asia, as well. Therefore the voices of the threatened Buddhist communities must be given an opportunity to be heard at this Conference. It is recommended that the Agenda of the UN Day of Vesak 2017 Conference include the following subjects for discussion and any resolution flowing from such discussion be placed in the final Declaration:


1)      Official Recognition of Buddhism in non-Buddhist countries, including Europe and the Middle East, and Declaration of Vesak as a Holiday at the UN


2)    Establish a noise free zone in the environment surrounding the Maha Bodhi Temple at Buddha Gaya, with a strict prohibition on use of loudspeakers and amplified sounds,


3)     Use of the Internet as a medium for spread of Buddhism,


4)    Formation of a Panel of Buddhist Scholars to review Wikipedia entries and correct theological and factual errors on the Internet,


5)     Establishment of a League of Buddhist Nations on lines similar to the Organisation of Islamic Conference and World Council of Churches, with a view to functioning in areas where other international Buddhist organisations are inactive, weak or silent. Buddhism is part of the national psyche of many Asian countries and such an organisation can serve as a platform to co-operate and promote Buddhism among themselves and others, a mediator in conflicts between Buddhist nations (Thailand/Cambodia), and a pressure or lobby group in respect to countries where Buddhist minorities are oppressed. It would entertain Buddhist grievances and complains with a view to taking up such complains at an inter-governmental level. The OIC and EU perform this role currently on behalf of Muslim and Christian communities respectively,


6)    Focus on both Human and Animal Rights, the Buddhist First Precept, and enactment of legislation providing both protection and modern day standards of treatment to animals, e.g. Animal Welfare Bill of Sri Lanka, and issue of a call that in predominantly Buddhist countries, Buddhist values such as non-violence towards all living beings including animals must be allowed to prevail over values that cause destruction to innocent lives of harmless animals (animal sacrifice) which the Buddha condemned without qualification and considered as an hideous and foul practice by Buddhists and other right thinking people all over the world,


7)     Moratorium on the building of non-Buddhist places of worship in areas declared as ‘sacred areas of Buddhism’. This is a common practice in Muslim majority countries and must be adopted in Sri Lanka. It has been recommended in the Buddhist Commission Report,


8)    Special Historical bonds that exist between Buddhists and Buddhist nations to be further strengthened with appropriate steps including production of films e.g. “Fascinating Journey from Sri Lanka to Siam” based on the narration of Wilbagedera who wrote the original account of his journey to the Thai capital of Ajudhya and the magnificent welcome accorded to the Sinhalese delegation by the Thai King and the Thai people. Such a film will strengthen the religious and cultural bonds between the Thai and Sri Lankan people.


9)    Finally it would be most appropriate and fitting taking into consideration the MahaKaruna of the Buddha that only vegetarian and vegan foods be served to all delegates at this Buddhist Conference, thereby sparing the lives of innocent animals and providing a strong message to the world that we are in step with the UN Goal of reducing the consumption of meat in the best interests of protection of the natural environment.

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