Tag Archives: Burma

Rice Bags and Singhalese Celibates: Part One

This article was first published in Values Magazine, way back in the 1970s, and written by Shri Shri 108 Mahendranathji Avadhoot. It gives an interesting perspective on Buddhism. From personal experience, I can say that when I’ve been in Candy, Sri Lanka, Pali is comprehensible to anyone who, like me, has a mere smattering of Sanskrit.  Around the famous “tooth of the Buddha” are many Hindu shrines, including ones to Gorakhnath,

For an experience of sheer ecstatic amusement and perspicuous joyful humour, a visit to Ceylon is unequalled. There we find the Singhalese or the Lion Race, the most superior race of people on the whole of the earth. This is seriously explained to you and to many facetious people it may be the first laugh. Colombo may be your first port of call. Hurry through the swarms of beggars and ulcerous products of the Lion people into the more refined areas as soon as possible. It is here you will find the swarms of Theravada bhikkus popping in and out of ships to spend the money which their rules forbid them to touch, and not among the beggars. The word bhikku means a beggar but they are beggars of a superior stratum and wear fine tailored yellow robes. They do not have the lean hungry look of the beggars at the port. There was a time when even bhikkus made the robes from cast-off rags but that old-fashioned time has long disappeared.

A bhikku is supposed to be one who has renounced the worldly life to seek a life of meditation and attain realization. The visitor, however, should refrain from asking the bhikkus why they became bhikkus as the question can be embarrassing. One might tell you he is in the racket to get a free education, but most will confess they came from poor parents and were pushed into the Buddhist monk life when about ten years old, and being a monk was superior to working as a labourer. What about enlightenment, arahantship, liberation, you may ask?  That, you will be told, is impossible these days and monks have more important duties to fulfil. It is an odd world and has similar counterparts in Burma and Thailand. It soon becomes obvious that the big problem in these Theravada countries today is not against their religion or a reasonable sized community of sincere bhikkus, but rather how to get rid of the vast, enormous army of yellow-robed droneswho do nothing but suck the substance from poor people. It is not unusual even to meet a young bhikku who will admit he is the bastard son of a celibate high priest of a Buddhist temple or monastery and he has to become a bhikku to inherit the temple property from his illegitimate father. An amusing crowd. Nobody says anything, for how could any Singhalese say anything to debase another of the Lion Race and destroy the superior image?

Indian people find it hard to understand why Protestants and Catholics, both claiming to be Christian, are fighting each other in North Ireland. Uet the perfumed Orient of the Buddhist world is also not without its internal antagonisms.  The hatred of the Theravadins for all and every other aspect of Buddhism is something one has to see to believe.  It is not written about in Buddhist literature, published in the Western world. Fortunately, it is one sided and has nothing comparable among the many schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Theravadins may shoot the Prime Minister or push their way into politics but they have not yet gone so far as to destroy other Buddhist opponents. Abuse and insult has (sic) been regarded as sufficient. Western nosy-pokers into Theravada are generally appalled at this open hatred and most get over Theravada very quickly and gratuate to Mahayana Buddhism. The tiny majority of Westerners who remain in Theravada are mostly the backward types. If they had stayed in Christianity they would have ended up as Church or Monastery sweepers. Few of these would have the depth of understanding required by Mahayana anyway.

In many ways it is a divine blessing that Zen or Tantric Buddhism have never gone to Ceylon*. In its rules of conduct, Theravada is very close to Christianity and Zen could never be understood even remotely by the proud pride of lions. The ordinary people would love to turn Kwan-yin or Pu-tai into a money goddess or god. They pray to the Buddha for money, of course, but he has not proved to be so very generous. A good Zen Master with a heavy stick might perform wonders among the Theravada rice-bags/

One of the oldest and loveable characters among all the monks of Ceylon was Nyanatiloka Thera.  He first went to Ceylon in 1911 and took ordination. He was a German by birth and not a Singhalese. He passed away only a few years ago, and the latter part of his most innocent life had been made miserable by slanders, intrigues and jealousies.  Today, in Ceylon, the Theravadins, conditioned by works of European and American scholars, have no come to accept the Pali word Anatta as meaning no soul. But this is a comparatively new idea and not found in Burma or Thailand, where nobody dares to express an opinion. However Sri Nyanatiloka revealed that when he came to Ceylon in 1911 the current and generally accepted idea of Anatta meant No Ego and only implied that the personality was not a permanent thing. He believed that foreign scholars had made the error of comparing Anatta with the Sanaskirt Anatman, which could mean no soul. Buddhism, he explained, originally did not deny a soulr self. Apart from his information, Ceylon does present an amusing picture where so many monks are going to so much trouble to disprove something which they claim does not exist. Surely, it would be better to remain silent and let the matter find its own level. Like Christians, they worry too much about what other people should or should not believe, instead of developing proper understanding and wisdom within themselves.

It would be wrong to suggest that Theravada finds no support in the West, but all too often it attracts on the basis of its “respectability”. One would imagine that his contact with Christian respectability would make them suspect new traps and dogmas, but this is not also so. Generally speaking, Australians are not a spirital people and are rarely capable of deep understanding, but around 1950 a tiny group began to take an interest in Theravada. The Australian Buddhists explained that Theravada was the true pure teachings of the Buddha and all other forms of Buddhism were perversions. They were all amateurs and none had the authority to really make this claim. In fact, none of the tiny minority even knew the first thing about Mahayana Buddhism except they had heard their priests sometimes married and they lacked strict rules about sex.  An amusing approach as rules for priest or bhikku relating to sex could hardly concern students living thousands of miles away in Australia.  They never realized anything for themselves, but it was only their minds reverting to the Chrsitian brain-washing of their own earlier days.  Outwardly, they were interested in Buddhism but inwardly the ghost of Christianity was still sitting undisturbed on their shoulders. One gallant old knight of the bar-room completely rejected Zen because he heard some priests in charge of temples were married men with families. In his own odd crusty way he rejected the bloom of real wisdom because he did not like the colour of the leaves. It would never occur to these people that the internal organization of Buddhism was the affair of the Zen people themselves and not of the Australians.

In what was East Pakistan, especially in the Chittagong hill-tracts, the minority Theravadins worked hard to maintain a superior status. They utilized a little cunning and designated all saddhus and sannyasins as Mahayana Buddhists. This was done to impress the hill people that Buddhism was the early religion in these parts, but always giving to themselves the superior status.  Eventually the Muslims chased them out to imprint their own religion in the area. Needless to say when Muslim aggression began, the Theravada monks were the first to desert the people they claimed they were trying to save.

There can never be a true orthodox school of Buddhism claiming its authority from the Buddha or any sect which claims it has the real authentic teachings as they dropped from Gautama’s mouth. He never wrote anything himself and nothing he taught was taken down in writing. Nobody today can truly stand up and proclaim they know the teaching of the Buddha. All we have today is the teachings of Buddhism and that is  a very different matter.

When Buddhism was exported, it tended to flourish in some foreign countries but failed in others. In the land of it sbirth it died a natural death. In India it had constantly to find an unending battle with the established beliefs and patterns of Hinduism but in foreign lands it was free to take on new patterns and even fulfilled a need and desire among the people. Much depended on the vigour and personality of the early missionaries, but mostly on acceptance by foreign rulers. Where they did not get the patronage of royalty, it did not take root. Political factors might have played a part in the same way as the acceptance of Christianity by Constantine to unite his people by means of a new religious fervour. In China and Ceylon this was undoubtedly an important factor. In Tibet it was quickly absorbed and swallowed into the national Lamaism. In Sumatra it tok some root, but only because the Buddha was accepted as being a form of the Lord Shiva. Here too it died and was deluged by Islam.

India always presented some difficulty to Buddhism when it tried to establish itself as a completely separate religion. Since all its ideas and concepts were ancient by Hindu standards, its separate position was difficult to establish. Unlike the Jains, it never enjoyed the support of large or separate communities. The Indians would respect Gautama as a guru figure and always freely gave support to all saddhus, irrespective of their sect.  Kings and wealthy people supported all religions and drew no line of distinction. Gautama, as a guru, probably stressed Dukka, frustration. Gurus did not differ so much, but there was always the tendency for each guru to stress certain aspects.  Dukka was well known, understood and experienced by everyone. One did not have to reach the stage of enlightment to see or understand it.

Foreign scholars have too often fallen into the pitfalls and traps which the Theravadins have presented. Too often, Theravada lengs have been accepted as untarnishedhistory. They accepted without question or investigation the Theravada claim of the Pali canon being the earliest and “pristine pure” teachings of Gautama, not to mention the spurious history of King Asoka being a Buddhist.

The Pali canon owes its origin to the translation of Buddhist writings into a language known as Pali. This was done by a Brahmin straggler who called himself Buddhaghosa, the Voice of the Buddha.  Probably he thought he was. This event took place towards the time of the final collapse of Buddhism in India. Since he had to go to Ceylon to find and obtain the bulk of the literature which became the Pali Canon, it is not unreasonable to suppose that much if it originated in Ceylon.  This is unquestionably true for most of the Vinaya Pitaka, a compilation of the many rules which a monk is supposed to observe.

Pali means “text” and is used to mean the “language of the texts”. It gave Ceylon Buddhism a sacred language of its own. It was never a spoken language at any time but was a language compiled by substituting sounds and spellings from Sanskrit. This was Buddhagosa’s big curtain-raising act, though in practice much simpler than it sounds. Pali has no alphabet of its own. In Ceylon they use the Singhalese alphabet and Burma, Thailand also both use their own alphabets.  A Buddhist monk cannot read the Pali of another Theravada country unless he first learns their alphabet. There is no evidence to show that Pali ever existed in India at any time in the past. If written in Devanagari it would automatically become Sanskrit and who in India would know the Singhalese alphabet?  Theravadins admit the role of Buddhagosa although it contradicts many of their own claims. Sometimes we can find a sutra in the Pali Canon which is also contained among the scriptures of the Jains. Who is cheating whom?

Buddhaghosa’s sincerity as a Buddhist may be quite above dispute but this in itself would not make him the final authority he has actually become. He may not always have been aware that a sutra belonged to another religion or had the depth of understanding to detect errors. If the Theravadins claim that he converted into Pali every word and sentence of the Pali Canon, it means that that the entire compilation of Theravada scripture passed through the censorship of only one man before it emerged as the Pali Canon. How then can they know what changes might have taken place at his hand? Let us take the case of the Te-Vijja sutra. It proclaims clearly and beyond dispute, time and time again, the ultimate goal is to attain union with Brahman. This is true as an Upanishad concept but the Theravada school would hardly agree with this teaching which is found in their own Pali Canon. All very pristine and the pure word of the Buddha.