UN Vesak Day Mahanuwara Declaration 2017: Three commitments
by Janaka Perera on 25 May 2017 7 Comments

The nine-point Mahanuwara Declaration on the United Nations Day of Vesak 2017 may have ended up as an empty vacuous and vague document not worth a second look but for three distinctive commitments which have saved this document from being cast into oblivion. These are:


1. “In realizing the long felt need to have an aligned organisation among Buddhist communities underpinned by solidarity, solemn initiatives shall be taken to form such an organisation with minimum delay in furtherance of our objectives and aspirations based on values and principles of the teachings of the Buddha.


2. In consideration of the challenges faced by Buddhist communities all over the world plausible methodology shall be evolved to address and encounter them as one community.


3. (Point numbered 8). In view of the alarming decline of morals and spirituality, steps shall be taken to set-up a media network to disseminate the message of Dhamma leading towards a virtuous life based on Buddhist principles”.


The rest of the six points are so commonplace and hackneyed that no one could be blamed for thinking that so much of money was spent unnecessarily for this UNDV event to reach these wayside insignificant conclusions. The saving grace of the Mahanuwara Declaration was the points numbered 1, 2 and 8. Who are the Godfathers of these ideas?


Mahanuwara Declaration


1) Formation of an International Buddhist Organisation underpinned by solidarity: Two leading Buddhist activists based in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh can be given credit for this positive outcome. They have unceasingly lobbied in various international Buddhist conferences and publications in the mass media calling for the establishment of a strong proactive International Buddhist Organisation that would adopt a trouble-shooting approach rather than a showboat approach with a tea party flavour, which has virtually paralyzed and made international Buddhist organisations functionally and politically ineffective in the world arena.


Senaka Weeraratna (Sri Lanka) has been actively canvassing over the last seven years for the establishment of a League of Buddhist Nations on lines similar to the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) or World Council of Churches, with a view to functioning in areas where other international Buddhist organisations, for example, the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) are inactive, weak or silent. He has pointed out that the Buddhist world lacked an effective mechanism to help save a Buddhist nation or Buddhist community in danger.


Weeraratna proposed a remedy:

“Buddhism is part of the national psyche of many Asian countries and such an organisation can serve as a platform to cooperate 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 complaints with a view to taking up such complaints at an inter-governmental level. The OIC and European Union (EU) perform this role currently on behalf of Muslim and Christian communities respectively”.


Regarding Buddhist solidarity, Weeraratna said:

 “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.


“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 civilisations, 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.”


Dr. Bikiran Prasad Barua (Bangladesh) is another advocate of the formation of an international Buddhist body which he has named ‘Organisation of Buddhist Countries’ (OBC), that would function on a footing similar to that of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). Barua in fact carried a petition and gathered signatures in support of the OBC on the day of the International Buddhist Symposium of the UNDV ( May 13, 2017) and during the plenary session Barua read out a resolution proposing the formation of such a body. Unfortunately, the moderator failed to call for a seconder to this motion and the matter was allowed to lapse immediately without a discussion of this vital proposal.


2) Methodology shall be evolved to address the challenges faced by Buddhist communities all over the world and encounter them as one community.


Senaka Weeraratna considered the rising challenges to Buddhism and observed:

“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.


“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 acts as a reference point to summon or render assistance even between Buddhist peoples in neighbouring countries at times of need”.


Several speakers supported the idea of developing mechanisms to face challenges confronting Buddhism. Ven. Shartse Khensur Jangchup Choeden (Himachal Pradesh, India), currently Executive Director, Geluk International Foundation, Gaden Monastic University, Karnataka, India, expressed optimism in seeing growth of the international Buddhist community and the very fact that 72 countries were represented  by Buddhists at this Conference was a cause for satisfaction. When compared to the time when the WFB was inaugurated in 1950, there is a larger world Buddhist community now, and as time passes by mechanisms would evolve to meet the challenges ahead, he reassured.


Sati Pasela


One of the panels proposed that the Sati Pasela (School for Mindfulness) conceived and promoted by its Architect, Ven. Uda Eriyagama Dhammajive Thera, Head and Chief  Kammatthanacariya (Meditation teacher) of the Mitirigala Nissarana Vanaya (founded by Asoka Weeraratna), be included in the final Declaration. It was approved in the plenary session. But unfortunately it was not specifically included as a commitment to be pursued in the Mahanuwara Declaration.


Azan at Bodh Gaya


Senaka Weeraratna observed:

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared the inauguration of a direct flight from Colombo to Varanasi commencing in August 2017 to enable Buddhist pilgrims from Sri Lanka to visit Bodh Gaya (site of the Buddha’s enlightenment) with greater ease. While this is much welcomed, the reality is that the same pilgrims become a captive audience the moment they reach the Maha Bodhi Temple at Buddha Gaya and are forced to listen to the azan (call to prayer) being amplified by newly installed loudspeakers in a recently established mosque adjacent to the Maha Bodhi Temple, five times a day, much against their will. These amplified sounds disrupt the proceedings of the Maha Bodhi Temple, humiliate the Buddhists in the centre of Buddhism, disturb their meditation and indirectly contribute to the widening of the communal gap between the two religious communities”.


Weeraratna proposed that an appeal be made to the Government of India to establish a noise free zone in the environment surrounding the Maha Bodhi Temple, with strict prohibition on use of loudspeakers and amplified sounds, and that such appeal be included in the final Mahanuwara Declaration.


3) Setting up of a Buddhist media network


It was heartening to note that an entire panel discussion was devoted to this important topic. Mr. Prasantha Lal de Alwis, PC, one of the coordinators of this UNDV 2017 event, must be commended for this initiative. He has been raising this issue even internationally. We have to note that the Buddhist voice is relatively speaking largely unheard in the international arena.


Buddhist nations which are embattled or threatened by more powerful vested interests have to rely on International news agencies or foreign television channels such as BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera which have different policy objectives and are largely unsympathetic or sometimes even prejudiced towards the Buddhist cause, to air their position. This is an unsatisfactory situation. The time has come for the Buddhist world to seriously consider the inauguration of a Buddhist television channel at par with the aforesaid major TV Channels. In addition, a panel comprising Buddhist scholars must be established to review Wikipedia entries and correct theological and factual errors therein.


Next UNDV 


An Indian Buddhist lady proposed at the plenary session that the next UNDV be held in India to enable Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare India as a Buddhist country.


Plenary Session


The plenary session, moderated by Ven. Dr. T. Dhammaratana (France), commenced with an address by Hon. Dr. Wijayadasa Rajapakse, Minister of Justice and Buddha Sasana. He distinguished the approaches of western civilisation and eastern civilisation. The former placed heavy emphasis on Law and Justice while the latter emphasised the Dharma.


European Buddhists such as Egil Lothe (Norway) and Carlo Luyckz (Belgium) also addressed the session. Carlo Luyckz expressed concern at the dissemination of information in Europe showing Buddhism in bad light due to the troubles in Myanmar. Buddhism is generally reputed as a peaceful religion, but seeing the violence in Myanmar on television, people have begun to raise questions. There must be a Buddhist organisation to clarify matters and restore the good image of Buddhism, he said.


Ven. Illukpitiye Pannasekera, a Sinhalese monk now resident in Tanzania and propagating Buddhism in Africa, received a standing ovation when he introduced an African monk from Tanzania, whom he has ordained. African Buddhists from Nigeria also spoke at the symposium. Dr. Sunil Kariyakarawana (Buddhist chaplain to British Armed Forces) shared his experience with inmates in prison and how Buddhism has been helpful in their rehabilitation.


Buddhist teachings for Social Justice and Sustainable World Peace


This was the theme of the Conference. Social Justice was discussed for almost two days without reference to non-human sentient beings, until Senaka Weeraratna raised this matter, saying that animals too were entitled to justice. He said animals were the real victims of planet earth. They do not conduct wars against humans, they do not carry weapons, have no intention to liquidate humans, or impose their religion or beliefs. They want to live side by side with humans in harmony. But they are imprisoned in zoos and deprived of their freedom. Their ‘crime’ is that they exist and they are destroyed in their millions daily because of the totally false and erroneous view that they have been planted on earth to serve the interests of human beings exclusively.


The Buddha never subscribed to these wrong views. His moral community comprised all living beings ‘Siyalu Sathwayo’ and the first precept is a moral injunction to prevent harm being any done to any living being. Ahimsa, Metta and Karuna were conceived by the Buddha to protect animals, but now when we discuss these enlightened concepts we leave out animals. It was a national shame for Sri Lanka that we have still as the governing legislation a statute enacted during the British era, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, No. 13 of 1907, where the maximum punishment for a heinous crime committed on an animal is Rs. 100 (Lankan rupee). Even a beggar can pay that amount. There is no deterrent effect in such penalty. The Animal Welfare Bill must be enacted without any further delay.


Buddhist principles must not be perverted, jettisoned or overlooked to reach the goals of the UN, Senaka Weeraratna concluded.


In fairness it must be said that the Government of Sri Lanka, in particular the Ministry of the Buddha Sasana, went to extraordinary lengths to provide hospitality of a rare kind to the foreign guests. In that respect, Sri Lanka earned the friendship and gratitude of the foreign visitors immeasurably.


To the delight of animal lovers, only vegetarian food was served to the participants throughout the conference, thus taking into consideration the Maha Karuna of the Buddha and providing a strong message to the world that the most effective way of sparing the lives of innocent animals was by reducing the consumption of meat and in turn protecting the environment.


The audience included distinguished personalities including Most Ven. Phra Brahmapandit, Rector of Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University and President of the International Council for the Day of Vesak (ICDV), Professor Lewis Lancaster (UK), Professor K.T.S. Sarao (Centre for the Advanced Study of Buddhism, University of Delhi), Dr. Anand Singh (Dean, School of Buddhist Studies, Gautam Buddha University, Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India), Ven. Dr. Ding Hong (Ling Feng Buddhist Education and Propagation Ltd., China), Ven. Dhammasami (Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies), Mr. Padma Jyoti and Mr. Ratna Man Sakya (Nepal), Mr. Goh Seng Chai, Mr. Ang Choo Hong and Ms. Loh Pai Ling (Malaysia) and Dr. Lee Chi-Ran (South Korea).



-        Voices of threatened Buddhists must be heard at the UNDV 2017 Conference


-        The Crisis facing the Buddhist World


-        League of Buddhist Nations – An idea whose time has come


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