The changing role of the Buddhist laity in Sri Lanka
A.R.M.T.B. Ratnayake, Kandy
The Buddhist laymen are beginning to believe that there is more meaning in the pursuit of the Dhamma that the Buddha taught, than in traditional ritualistic practices in the hope of gaining privilege, material gain and personal protection. It is true that we have a vast collection of traditional stories, which focus on public worship, celebration and discourse and the ordinary Buddhist is more accustomed to adapt a behaviour as exemplified in them.
The Buddhist layman in Sri Lanka is gradually withdrawing from the ceremonies and rituals commonly practised by Buddhists and turning to gain wisdom otherwise.
They are beginning to believe that the Buddha’s teaching is not meant only for monks in monasteries, but also for the ordinary men and women living at home with their families. For man is his own master and there is no higher being or power that sits in judgement over his destiny. It indeed is the spirit of the teachings of the Buddha.
At his last moment, addressing his closest monk Venerable Ananda, the Buddha explained to him, “Ananda dwell making yourself your island, making yourself, not anyone else, your refuge; making the Dhamma your island (support), the Dhamma your refuge, nothing else your refuge”. So, the man today is trying to make the Dhamma his refuge.
In Buddhism, there is no initiation ceremony like ‘baptism’ which one has to undergo as in the case of many other religions. If one understands the Buddha’s teaching and believes that it is the right path and if one truly follows it, then he is a Buddhist. In short, if one truly observes the Five Precepts (Panca-sila) it is enough for a layman to call himself a Buddhist.
In this context, we must not mistakenly think that the Dhamma exists in our hearts already without the teachings and the teacher. If that were so, we would all be enlightened already. On the contrary, we believe that, not only the teaching exists for us but that there are also teachers who are able to expound it to us.
It is true that traditional religions have been experiencing drawbacks due to technological and industrial advancement and the rise of materialistic cultures. However, it is not equally true of Buddhists who have demonstrated otherwise. Although some of the Buddhists also have entered into competitive commerce, into fishing industry or poultry farming, or are making attempts to increase profits in some of the activities which may not be consistent with the teaching of the Buddha, yet they participate in these activities, while taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and the Sangha.
A noteworthy recent development is that more and more lay Buddhists are beginning to withdraw from these industries and also the traditional noise of various festival celebrations, ancient rites, rituals, myths and symbols. They are gradually seeking the quiet atmosphere of meditation. There are more and more meditation centres run by the laymen, one taking the lead in instruction and training. Of course some of them may be questionable or camouflaged ones but there are many truly dedicated centres and teachers.
They are beginning to believe that there is more meaning in the pious life and in the pursuit of wisdom rather than performing rituals in the hope of gaining privilege, material gain and protection. For them the Buddhist belief in the concept of Anatta, (no-soul) seems contradicted by merit-making ceremonies, sometime for the benefit of the soul of the deceased.
Celebrations and rituals are characteristic of Theravada Buddhist practice and they, of course, tend to bring people together in pursuit of a common goal. But for the man who seriously takes the Buddhist path, they tend to drown certain fundamentals of Buddhism, just as the consumption of alcohol by some laymen at a domestic religious ceremony, or even a proud father at the ordination of his son into monkhood, which is both inconsistent with the holy occasion and the Buddhist concept not to consume intoxicating beverages.
The Buddhist laymen are beginning to believe that there is more meaning in the pursuit of the Dhamma that the Buddha taught, than in traditional ritualistic practices in the hope of gaining privilege, material gain and personal protection. It is true that we have a vast collection of traditional stories, which focus on public worship, celebration and discourse and the ordinary Buddhist is more accustomed to adapt a behaviour as exemplified in them. But today increasing numbers of educated lay persons are drifting away from these practices and are paying more attention to the essence of the teaching of the Buddha.
Another important development in the changing role of the Buddhist laity in Sri Lanka is the emergence of lay associations to promote and protect Buddhism. They have taken over, in part, some of the responsibilities of the Sangha. In general these organisations have helped Buddhist education and welfare.
Some of our early leaders in the movement for the revival of Buddhism formed bodies such as the Young Men’s Buddhist Association which have conducted Dhamma schools and examinations aimed at providing the youth with some standard of religious instructions as is imparted by the Sangha in temple schools.
The need arose for emergence of organisations to protect Buddhist interest nationally and internationally, when the Colonial rulers ignored Buddhism. The societies formed by laymen like the Paranavinnartha Bauddha Sangamaya, All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, Mahabodhi Society founded by the famous lay Buddhist, Anagarika Dharmapala, all took over some aspect of Buddhist education and propagation, establishment of Buddhist Schools, running orphanages, homes for the deaf and blind, and centres for the aged and delinquents.
These organisations stood in defence of the Buddhist traditions and institutions when they were largely undermined and challenged during the colonial period. In addition to these lay bodies, numerous lay writers and publishers of Buddhist books also took over some of the responsibilities of Buddhist education that was solely handled by the Sangha.
Today the society is unbelievable violent. Mothers throw away their own new-born infants to be picked up by an animal or well-wishers or to be naturally decomposed. The son kills father or father kill son. A whole family is erased forever by one gunman. A legislator kills a fellow legislator. Today killing is as common as smiling. It is against the urgency of this background that the teachings of Buddhism about violence must be studied and interpreted.
The Buddhist attitude to killing is summed up in the Dhammapada thus:
All tremble at violence,
All fear death;
Comparing oneself with others,
One should neither kill nor cause others to kill. so, the Buddhist Sangha as well as the Buddhist laity has an urgent duty of taking a lead in arresting this dangerous social menace.