Neville de Silva
Monks, like others, are not all learned men. While all of them may know the dhamma (though not all of them practise the Buddha’s teaching), their knowledge of history and world affairs, among others, needs to be refreshed. That, of course, is if they had learnt and imbibed such worldly knowledge in their reading and discourse.
To err, said Pope (Alexander that is), is human, to forgive divine. Not being divine and not seeking divine intervention those who sought to condemn the conduct of some recalcitrant members of the sangha or their questionable notions on politics and society had perforce to rely on their own resources — at some risk to self and kith and kin.
In recent years, the aggressive public conduct of some bhikkhus has come in for condemnation. For instance, the behaviour of Galagodaatthe Gnanasara Thera who was recently released on bail shortly after receiving a six-month prison sentence, some monks who attacked a safe house for Rohingya refugees in Mount Lavinia and other acts of ethnic and religious hate have raised concerns, if not the anger, of other monks and the laity at the desecration of the Buddha’s teaching by those who have vowed to uphold and spread them.
While such unBuddhist-like public conduct was widely condemned even they were overshadowed in the more thinking and articulate circles by recent remarks made in the course of an anusasana at a dana offered to monks by Gotabaya Rajapaksa on his 69th birthday.
Why the monk’s remarks drew such flak from detractors but were defended (rather weakly I might add) by some was because his anusasana not only focused attention needlessly on one of the most hated and despised figures in modern history but it was also made by the Ven Venduruwe Upali Thera, the Anunayake of the Asgiriya chapter, one of the most important Buddhist chapters located in Kandy, the heart of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
While media including news websites have reported slightly different English translations of the Thera’s words those who listened to the recording of the anusasana would understand what Ven. Upali said. Basically it was this. “Some people have described you as Hitler. Be a Hitler. Go with the military and take the leadership of this country.”
The next day Upali Thera issued a statement blaming politicians for misinterpreting his remarks and those who extracted a “couple of words” from his lengthy anusasana. He compared them to those who tried to determine the shape of an elephant by touching only his tail. Thereby hangs a curious tale besides the fact that it is an irrelevant analogy. If in the course of a lengthy exhortation one says “kill them”, are the listeners expected to ignore that remark because it constitutes just two words? Seems rather curious reasoning.
If the venerable monk could interpret and convey the sacred teachings of the Buddha he should know what is important and significant is not how long a speech is but thoughts and ideas conveyed by it, even if it happens to be in just two words.
Upali thera’s statement explaining his remarks is even more revealing than his original reference to Hitler that drew the ire of the German Ambassador Jorn Rohde who called them “outrageous remarks”. Even worse, he said that wearing a robe does not absolve individuals from making “irresponsible and plain stupid statements”.
The thera said that he did not refer to Hitler in a “harmful sense” whatever that means. Could it then possibly mean that he referred to Hitler in an adulatory sense for, after all, this despicable despot who is responsible for the deaths of 30 million or more people in a devastating war seems to be admired for taking firm decisions and developing Germany. Upali thera says that “In a nutshell I only said some people compared you (that is Gotabaya) to Hitler. I only asked him to develop the country. In governing the country firm policies are required. I never wanted to equal (sic) the barbaric administration of Hitler that annihilated people to the work done by him (meaning Gotabaya presumably).
This is a hard nut to crack. If in his explanation Upali thera finds Hitler barbaric why is it that in his anusasana he did not decry those who describe Gotabaya as a Hitler? He should have strangled that description at the beginning rather than try to give credence to Hitler’s “firm policies” that proved a disaster not just for Germany but Europe and possibly the western world and parts of Asia and Africa.
In fact why mention Hitler at all if Upali thera’s intention was to ask Gotabaya Rajapaksa to take the leadership of the country as he is ready to take firm decisions.
Why drag into such a religious occasion the name of the universally despised man and the military if the learned monk was not surreptitiously trying to inculcate in the minds of potential leaders and their uniformed followers thoughts of installing a military junta.
Upali thera’s thinking process leads one to conclude that he is trying to slip Hitler’s oppressive yoke on the people of Sri Lanka while clad in the hallowed, sacred robes of a Buddhist monk.
By calling for strong decision-making, the thera is propagating a dangerous philosophy that will enslave the people through despotic and military means. He does not seem to mind if such jingoistic babble is taken seriously and the rights of the people are snatched away by uniformed types hungry for power.
It does not hurt the monkhood. It will continue to enjoy the rights and privileges afforded the monkhood and earn the respect of the Buddhist people while jackboots trample the citizenry.
The learned Anunayake said in his statement that he “did not advocate a Hitler-like military.” Then pray what was he doing? Why did he bring the military into his words of wisdom except to imply that only the uniformed-kind can take strong decisions and develop the country? If that was not his advice to Gotabhaya, what was? Perhaps this advocate of strong rule should take a look at recent history. He need not look too far. South Asia and South-east Asia provide enough examples of the mess military leaders made as ordinary people were crushed underfoot and social order destroyed.
Did Myanmar’s military junta that imposed strong rule for years over their people depriving them of the benefits of their democratic victory give the country enlightened leadership?
Consider Pakistan that for years suffered under military rule with one despot overthrowing another as did Bangladesh after the assassination of Mujibur Rahman in those early post-independence years.
Meanwhile Singapore though under autocratic rule developed because it took firm decisions but without the help of the men in uniform. So in a way did Malaysia. Defending the call for firm decision-making one is told that the Buddha himself had stressed the need for making strong decisions at the right time. Then would it not have been more appropriate on a religious occasion such as a Sanghika dana for the Anunayake making an anusasana to have cited the words of the Buddha rather than drag in Hitler.
And where did the strong decisions taken by Hitler that Upali thera alludes to take Germany and the world except to the brink of disaster? To cite one example it was Hitler who decided to invade Russia breaking the treaty with Stalin. If Hitler had the sense to learn from history he would have thought twice.
Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia should have come to mind. As it happened Hitler’s wrong decision cost Germany immeasurably. The lesson to be drawn is that strong decisions are not enough. They should also be correct, well considered decisions.
Maybe what seems like Upali thera’s below- the-surface liking for Hitler’s firm decision-making is because he has got the swastikas all mixed up. The swastika which was an ancient religious symbol in Asia and Africa dating back 12,000 years or more and said to represent good luck, success and balance could also be found in Indo-European culture. It was appropriated by Hitler and turned into a symbol of the Nazi party.
But the Nazis physically reversed the ancient Swastika and turning it into a symbol of evil. Learning from the history of the 1930s one should surely realise that bad and vicious men are an existential threat.
Now that Hitler, Germany and the promotion of a new leadership have all been mentioned in one anusasana which many people and the media are supposed to have misinterpreted we might as well respect the learned monk and say “Gota über alles.”