‘Salli Saranang Gatchchami’: Vinaya Code Violated by Monks in Sacred Saffron Robes

‘Salli Saranang Gatchchami’: Vinaya Code Violated by Monks in Sacred Saffron Robes who are Being Exploited by Vile Politicians

By Don Manu

Perhaps, it signalled the beginning of the end for the ingrained respect the people of Lanka have long held sacrosanct in their hearts for the sacred saffron robe.

Last week, as monks took to the streets to ask the public their money to tinkle and jingle in monks’ begging bowls as alms, what the nation witnessed was a radical departure from the Vinaya Code as laid down by the Buddha for monks to follow in their speech, conduct and behaviour; and the emergence of a breakaway sect that seemed prepared to flout all religious norms and traditional practices in the interest of corrupt partisan politics.

But first a little bit of history.

The Buddha Sasana, the community of monks, was first established in Lanka by Arahant Mahinda, son of India’s Emperor Asoka during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa who reigned over Lanka from the capital of Anuradhapura in 250BC. Unlike Winston Churchill announcing to the British Parliament at Westminster in 1940 after the Dunkirk debacle “that if the British Empire and the Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour” — it didn’t survive the decade — and unlike Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler proclaiming that the Third Reich would last for a thousand years — it didn’t last for a decade either — Devanampiyatissa Anuradhapura lasted for more than thousand three hundred years. And whilst it flourished as the nation’s capital, so did the Buddha Sasana thrive without sag.

But with repeated Chola invasions, the Sinhala kingdom was forced to abandon the historic capital and to seek new lodgings at Polonnaruwa where hope of resurrection of the glory of Anuradhapura bloomed for 150 years. But alas, the promise was not to last. With the Chola onslaughts, the Sinhala kings were forced to pack their bags and go further and further down south and set up their royal camps in Yapahuwa; then forced to move the caravan to Dambadeniya, to Kurunegala, to Gampola and then to Kotte and Kandy. With this migration and with the people dislocated, the Buddha Sasana was rendered virtually extinct.

As the Sunday Punch stated on July 9th this year, “From the 13th century onwards even the Buddhist Order of Monks became extinct not once but thrice. The Order of Monks was re-established in the reigns of Vimala Dharma Suriya I (1591–1604) and Vimala Dharma Suriya II (1687–1707) as well. But these resurrections were short lived and soon, once more, the Sasana ceased to exist in Lanka.”

“It was not until the 18th century that it was once again established on more solid ground. The Ven. Weliwita Saranankara (1698–1778) took the initiative to reestablish the Sasana in Lanka and invited a Thai monk named Upali who visited Kandy in 1753 during the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747–1782) was invited by the Tamil king to do the needful and reestablish the Order. The venerable monk performed upasampada, higher ordination to a group of Kandyan monks.”

“Thus was the Siam Nikaya born on the 19th of July 1753 , named after Siam, now Thailand, having a mere 264 year history to date compared to the over thousand year history that ancient Lanka’s Bhikku Order had enjoyed till it ceased to exist. Given the Govigama caste exclusivity held by the Siam Nikaya which refused to ordain monks of lower castes, a revolt broke resulting in the establishment of two other Nikayas the Amarapura Nikaya in 1803 at Velitota, Balapitiya and the Ramannya Nikaya in 1864 by Ambagahawatte Saranankara, when he returned after being ordained in Burma.”

The Govigama only Siam Nikaya and ‘all castes welcome’ Amarapura and Ramannya Nikayas have for the last 200 odd years and more been successful in not only reviving the Sasana but keeping it evergreen in the nation’s heart and soul. And the monks of all three Nikayas have striven to keep true to their calling and behaved in the noble manner the Buddha’s Vinaya Code dictated.

But now there’s a new sect in town, their membership drawn from renegades of these three Nikayas, who take their cues not from the Buddha’s code of discipline but from the shifty handbook manual of political expediency; and display a ready willingness to conceal the sins of the politically corrupt under the saffron shroud.

Meet the Moneypura Nikaya, which has dared to add a new and fourth refuge: “Salli saranang gatchchami” or take refuge in money. Especially as a way of atoning the sins of public servants found guilty by Lanka’s courts of misusing public money to the tune of Rs. 600 million; and sentenced to 3 years rigorous imprisonment and ordered to pay Rs 4 million fines for their crimes and Rs. 104 million as compensation to the plundered public.

Last week’s television news showed live footage of that nauseating and humiliating spectacle of a few band of monks take to the streets with begging bowl in hand to beg not for their mid day meal to nourish their bodies in the pursuit of their spiritual quest but to ask for money from the people. Escorted by a bevy of T shirt clad women — cheerleaders shouting slogans ‘give monks money’, give monks money” — they paraded the nation’s streets and made a mockery of the Buddha’s noble robe. Millions of Lankans would have been aghast to see this blatant demand for hard cash to fall into an alms bowl which had only known food before.

But these mercenary monks who have acted so and had violated the ordination oaths to abide by the Buddha’s Vinaya Code which forbids monks to handle or accept money, let alone beg the masses for it, cannot be blamed alone; for, in their ignorance, their willingness to be turned into a cat’s-paw has been made use of in the most unscrupulous manner. And if you listen with your heart to the temple bell, you’ll hear it knell the message of how Lanka’s corrupt politics have succeeded in even staining the saffron robe with their own indelible blotching splash of corruption’s taint.

These dark forces, when their people have burgled your home and kitty and have been found guilty by a Lankan court and have been fined and ordered to compensate your loss, have the nerve, the audacity, the impunity – in short, the down right cheek – to use a band of misguided monks and make them take to the streets and ask you the money to pay the fine and compensation. And have now stooped to use the saffron robe to do it without the slightest qualm and without an iota of concern as to how such exploitation will serve to despoil the Sasana robe and will inevitably lead to its ultimate demise.

Following Joint Opposition MP Bandula Gunawardena’s publicly announced plan to collect money with the help of Buddhist monks to pay Weeratunge’s and Pelpita, Rs 104 million which the Colombo High Court Judge Gihan Kulatunga had ordered as compensation, the Ven. Medagoda Abayatissa Thera took it upon himself to blow the conch and trumpet the news of the advent of the new Nikaya in town: the money begging monk brigade

At a press conference held last week, the monk first declared in the manner of a court judge that Mahinda Rajapaksa was president at the time he issued the order to his permanent secretary Lalith Weeratunga to transfer from the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission the sum of Rs. 600 million and use the funds to distribute sil redi to upasikavans in December 2014 whilst a presidential campaign was in full swing with Rajapaksa as a candidate.

The opinion must be presented here that the presidential order had no legal basis since the president had no constitutional or any other legal right to order the transfer of public money belonging to one government entity to another for whatever purpose without prior cabinet approval and treasury sanction.

But the monk Medagoda Abayatissa’s argument was that since the president enjoyed immunity for his acts, his permanent secretary Weeratunga was also covered and enjoyed the same immunity when he acted on a presidential order and transferred from the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission the sum of Rs. 600 million and used the funds to distribute sil reddhi to upasikavans in December 2014.

But with all respects to the Medagoda Abayatissa Thera, that does not seem to be the legal thinking, as evidenced by the Colombo High Court Judge Gihan Kulatunga’s judgment when he sentenced Weeratunga to three years jail. True, the constitution shields the president in armour of immunity. But it does not protect any civil servant, or any henchmen if he or she carries out an illegal order.

If constitutional immunity bestowed upon any president for any wrongful act, in turn grants immunity to his subordinates, too, who follows his illegal order, then the president can order even mass scale financial fraud to be carried out by his henchmen who when charged can lay claim to immunity springing from the presidential source. One does not have to be a constitutional lawyer to fathom that. Common sense will do.

But when the Ven. Medagoda Abayatissa Thera talks of the Vinaya Code in Buddhism, it is quite another matter. For he is no mere novice monk unversed in the three baskets of the Tripitaka, Buddhism’s guiding scriptures, namely, the basket of expected discipline from monks: the Vinaya Piṭaka, the sheet anchor of the Noble Order of Monks; the basket of discourse: Sūtta Piṭaka, the discourses the Buddha engaged with the lay and his preaching; and the basket of special doctrine: the Abhidharma Piṭaka, the quintessence of his philosophy.

He is, to his credit, a doctor of Buddhism, having gained his doctorate in Buddhism and Jainism from the University of Delhi. . And, to boot, a professor of Buddhism, no less, of the Sri Jayewardene Open University. But he did not see anything wrong, in the prospect of monks taking to the streets begging for money. He did not see that is as being contrary to the rules laid down by the Buddha in the Vinaya code, the code of discipline by which all monks belonging to the Order must live by or face expulsion.

Announcing that an island-wide programme would be launched from September 15 till the 18th to collect money for this purpose, he declared: “As a nation we must save these two public servants. That is why we have come forward to launch the “Sil Reddhi prisoners Salvation Fund” to save them”

Funny, isn’t it, that the learned monk Medagoda should find nothing wrong in monks going a begging for money? Especially when he is aware, as he surely must be, with his Delhi doctorate in Buddhism that the Buddha’s Vinaya Code forbids monks to accept money. If the the Buddha’s Code of Discipline for monks bans monks from accepting money, how worse it is to take to the streets asking for hard cash? For whatever reason? And who’s counting?

But according to this erudite monk, Medagoda Abayatissa, this was not against the code at all. But though he maybe a professor of Buddhism, do you think he has the right to arrogate to himself the Buddha’s Vinaya Rules and interpret it according to his own fashion to suit the politics of his time when at the first Buddhist convention, held shortly after the Buddha’s passing away, the Arahant Maha Kassapa held the view, and the council of Arahants accepted without murmur, that the rules laid down by the Master, should remain untouched?

Does a doctorate in Buddhism give any monk today the right, to advocate the transgression of the Buddha’s code for monks, which a council of enlightened monks who had lived in the Buddha’s midst and imbibed the Dhamma from his lips, decided to hold as inviolate. As the Buddha said: “Oh monks! So long as you will not enact new rules and will not abolish existing ones the Sangha may be expected to prosper and not decline”. And since then, throughout the recorded history of Theravada Buddhism, which this nation’s Sinhala people have long boasted to be the guardians of Buddhism in its pristine for form, none has dared to change it or add a spin to it.

Ven Medagoda Abayatissa Thera also stated that the tour was organised to ensure that the service provided by public servants does not go unrecognised. He also stated that the organisers of the tour aimed to enlighten the public on the injustice that was committed against two long standing public servants. Perhaps, if he meditates upon it long enough, he will discover who was responsible for the injustice done unto them.

But it is true; the Vinaya Code is not the eternal universal Dhamma the Buddha preached. Even as the Buddha stated when he began formulating stage by stage when the occasions arose to make new rules, the Vinaya is not Ultimate Truths but subject to change. It is bound to be changed and modified in different places at different times. The Buddha himself amended some of the rules. The rule of communal eating was changed seven times by the Buddha himself to suit the needs of circumstances. Some were altered to suit geographical circumstances. Examples: the rule that an assembly of ten monks were necessary for granting higher ordination, footwear with more than one layer of layer not be used; the rules of bathing , to name a few, were modified.

When application of these rules needed to be changed to meet the needs of circumstances, the Buddha did not arbitrarily change the rules he had declared. He called the monks to a congregation and changed the original rules and then declared that that the new rules would be valid.
The Buddha’s approach to the Vinaya Code revealed the democratic spirit in him. Just before his demise, he summoned his favourite disciple Ananda and told him that if the members of the noble order of the Sangha wished, they were free to abolish or alter ‘minor’ rules after his passing away.

But, alas, he did not say, what rules were minor, and what rules were major’ and when the First Buddhist Council met a few months after the Buddha’s death, the members admonished the Arahat Ananda for not clarifying from the Buddha what the Buddha meant by minor rules. In the absence of that, the Sangha gathered thereat unanimously decided not to lay down new rules and not to annul any existing rule but to follow rules that had already been laid down by the Buddha.

From that day forth not a single vinaya rule has been officially changed. Neither has any new rule been added. But of course, it does not mean that all monks strictly adhere to all the rules especially when force of circumstances compels them to make a compromise and adapt to changing times. For instance, the rule that monks should not handle money cannot be adhered to in today’s commercial world though monks could have easily followed it as monks who have taken to forests hermitages or atop rocks like Kudumbigala off Arugam Bay easily do. But what are the circumstances that force monks take to the streets demanding money be dropped in their begging bowl, if not the dictates of Lanka’s corrupt politics, promoted by monks with a political bent?

And thus it came to pass last Friday that groups of misguided monks took their positions at selected locations in the city to go from street to street, from office to office with their begging bowls demanding to be filled not with food to nourish and sustain their physical self to pursue their spiritual goal but crying instead to be stacked with money, ostensibly to pay the fine a court had ordered two public servants to pay for misappropriating public funds on the orders of their political master to advance his own political fortunes. If the sight of monks begging for money was bad enough what made it uglier was that the retinue was accompanied by t- shirt clad women – cheerleaders of the new fraternity, of the new Moneypura Nikaya – shouting in the most unseemly way for the public to put their money in the monks’ ‘pin kata’ that had gone mobile. To say that it was unbecoming of a Buddhist monk wearing the saffron robe to put himself in that position is an understatement.

Like beggar mudalalies collect poor from the slums and drop them each morning at selected locations to beg on the streets and pick them up in vans extracting a commission on their daily takings, these monks, members of the Noble Order of the Sangha were walking city streets and suburbs to beg for money – like common beggars on the street – last week in a three day marathon to raise from the public with no receipts issued for money received.

But unlike most of the common beggars who are carefully chosen for their disabilities or wounds which may elicit sympathy and move a soul to drop a dime into their bowl, these men were carefully targeted by their political controllers not for any disability but for the distinct advantage of being draped in the sacred saffron shroud which serve to evoke ready reverence and move the heart and impel the hand to reach for the purse and fill the mobile temple till on the street in return for intangible merit and a better birth in the afterlife.

The saffron robe has been the designer wear of the mendicant. It predates the Buddha. Prince Siddhartha followed the fashion of his times when he renounced his palace pleasures and material wealth and used the white shroud that wrapped a corpse as his lifelong attire – of course, after disinfecting it with saffron, the antiseptic herb of India which gave the robe its name. It was symbol of the truth seeker, one who had renounced all to gain all that was worth gaining: enlightenment.,

But sad to say that in recent times in Lanka, the unscrupulous have found many uses for this robe for all reasons. Like wolves in sheep’s clothing, every mascot of every street protest is draped in one. And demands to be respected, to be treated with deference and considers it to be a shield of immunity. Like a catholic priest holding a cross to ward of the devil, street protesters believe that the mere adorning the robe of the Sasana will keep the law enforcing authorities at bay and that to mess around with it, even to lay a finger upon it tantamount to sacrilege. What is not realised is that every time the robe is used in this way and cheapened in this fashion, it loses the respect it possesses. And last week, the robe hit the nadir when it was squeezed to the extreme to wring, even from it, a few coppers to fill their coffers.

And the robe for all reasons has been found to be used for many foul reasons except for one: to be the symbolic garb of the truth seeker which automatically demands and receives the public’s reverence, worship and alms.

Stark silence of Nikaya Chiefs;Siam, Amarapura, Rammannya strangely stay mum

A shroud of silence has descended upon the three Buddhist Nikayas of the land over the issue of monks going on ‘pindapathey’ asking the public to fill their alms bowl with money and not grub. And made many wonder why the high priests have chosen to turn askance and remain mute when a tenet contained in the Buddha’s declared Vinaya Code, described as the sheet anchor of the Noble Order of the Sasana, is being openly violated on public streets.

Beggared beyond belief Buddhists watched aghast as the Moneypura Nikaya – where anything goes – took their pin kataya to the road and made a mockery of the respect the public hold to the sacred saffron robe of the Buddha.

All these Mahanayakes consider themselves as advisors to the rulers. They claim that the community of monks has been so historically, though without producing great proof of their claim. They meet the country’s top leaders and are seen on television, accepting their pirikara, hearing their confessions and blessing them in return by tying the traditional pirith noola on their wrist. They are quick to advice, even quicker –as the Asgiriya Chapter of the Siam Nikaya is – to criticize the political actions of the present government. All that is fair and well.

But when a new schism is seemingly being formed that follows not the Vinaya Code but the dictates of politicians to be used at their whim as a rent a monk mob, it is perhaps better if the venerable Nikaya chiefs looked inward and started advising the truant members of their individual Nikayas first and admonishing the laity later.

Courtesy:Sunday Times


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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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