“Buddhism is win or lose”


Emperor Ashoka, of India’s Maurya Dynasty from 268 to 232 B.C. is remembered as one of early history’s most brutally violent rulers of the region, later turned to a life of Buddhist nonviolence after witnessing the devastation of his attack against the Kalinga region. The story appear in ancient Sanskrit literature, including the “Mahvamsa”; the brutal war was considered by the westerners to be mere legend. 2500 years later at the southern tip of Indian continent in the Indian Ocean was a multi-ethnic island nation Sri Lanka, where without trust in the Sinhala Buddhist rulers, the deprived multi-religious and multi-cultural Tamil minorities rebelled against the state for over a period of three decades; as the hostile activities intensified led the country to a bloody civil war. In 2009, the same westerners together with India assisted the shrewdest Buddhist ruler of Sri Lanka to end the brutal civil war at Mullivaikal in the Northern Province of the country. As the guns of citizens turned enemy were silenced, caused the worst ever devastation seen in the history of the tiny island nation, where thousands perished, many more maimed and much more displaced from their homes that were burnt or destroyed; almost a decade later the life of the affected families has not returned to normalcy. True the nation was relieved with the end to the war, but had to meet the cost of many dubious deeds of the shrewdest leader and his ministers during the negative peace years. It further alienated the war affected families from the main stream of events and ruined the economy of the country making life miserable for the whole population; that resulted in the regime getting voted out of power in 2015 by the people. 

 “Buddhism is win or lose” may sound like an invitation to stir up conflict between the Buddhists and the antagonised other religious communities in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural Sri Lanka; but in reality it is about the ceaseless internal spiritual struggle between hatred and compassion, the destructive and constructive aspects of life in the country. In Buddhist teachings that originated some 2,500 years ago, courage or fearlessness, is highly valued and in Sri Lanka, a country where the vast majority are Buddhist, there was no need to give any state push to take it to fame. Yet, the rulers used it as a means to give prominence to the followers of Buddhism over other religious followers; this act was in contradiction of Buddhism, which teaches that every single person has infinite potential, and that, through sincere practice, each person can bring forth that potential, allowing their abundant creativity to blossom and enabling them to contribute to the enrichment of society. It is this contradiction in trust that caused the civil war in the country, for Buddhism does not exist in the realm of theory and it is said the purpose of the appearance in this world of Lord Buddha, lies in his behavior as a human being. Ideally there is no separation between daily life and the teachings of the many religions that are practiced in the country, a fact not acknowledged by the previous Buddhist rulers and another truth is that all religions practiced here stress that it is victory as a human being including both tangible achievements and moral or spiritual victories that matters, rather than recognition in the form of promotion or reward in society. In the days of the kings be the Sinhala Buddhist King of the South or the Tamil Hindu King of the North, people were utterly dependent on the decisions of their kings or local lords, so to set one’s own internal standards for success required great courage; confirmed in an old saying in Tamil that says “People reflect the character of their King.”

Buddhist teachings tells us that every single person has infinite potential, and that, through sincere practice, each person can bring forth that potential, allowing their abundant creativity to blossom and enabling them to contribute to the enrichment of society. Developing the quality of courage is essential to achieving anything in human lives. Courage is required before taking action in any endeavor, and it is courageous people in every field who tend to achieve their goals and realize their dreams. But courage, however, is not always heroic action in a time of danger, for it can consist of the persistent, unglamorous effort to do what we feel is right and this quality is visible in President, Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Speaker of the House, including the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, though not all are Buddhists, they all know well of the teachings of Buddha.

Buddhist teachings place great emphasis on wisdom, and it is easy to see how a simple lack of wisdom is the cause of many of the problems that beset human society, globally as well as locally. Often, though, it is a more fundamental lack of courage that prevents people, notably leaders, from acting on what they know to be right; thus it is a lack of courage that is at the root of much of the suffering that confronts us individually and as societies. Closely linked to the exercise of courage is conviction, in the right and possibility of oneself and others to be happy, free and fulfilled. Such conviction is the basis of social justice and is the core vision on which Buddhism is founded. It is a fierce, unyielding commitment to such a vision that endows the Buddha with the quality of fearlessness. Buddhism thus views courage as a vital element of compassionate action to help others, as well as key to our ability to change our own lives.

All events in the past happened because the Sri Lankan rulers lacked simple wisdom to which great emphasis is placed in Buddhist teachings. Sri Lanka, a country with Buddhist majority had many of the problems that has beset the society and all were caused more fundamental it was the lack of courage that prevented, True Buddhism views courage as a vital element of compassionate action to help others as well as key to their ability to change their lives; the last regime, from acting on what they know to be right; that was at the root of much of the suffering that confronted the people affected directly by the devastation that occurred at the end of the civil war at Mullivaikal in 2009 and during the negative peace years that followed to 2015 individually and as societies in particular the people of northern and eastern regions of the country.

Earlier, in multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural Sri Lanka, Buddhism was given the foremost place by the provisions in the 1972 Constitution to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring the rights to all other religions. Unfortunately, this helped to drive further the wedge that had divided the little island nation with the language policy of 1958. Unlike King Asoka of India, who turned Buddhist after battle victory; sadly after 2009 war victory the rulers miss understood the “Buddhism is win or lose” concept, that resulted in nine negative peace years. During the same period corruption and misrule spread to all corners of the country and on this there were no barriers visible. That impacted directly on the Sri Lankan economy that has not been performing well in spite of ending the bloody civil war in 2009; the economy got worse and a change of government was brought about in 2015. The two largest political parties agreed for the first time to work together with few other minor parties joining in formed the new coalition government and promised to bring about many changes including a new constitution to settle many outstanding issues including completing the devolution of power to the provinces and much needed electoral reforms. New government reduced the executive powers of the president and began investigating the corruptions and misuse of power said to have taken place during the last regime.

Sri Lanka to make a comeback, need a change to people’s culture shaped by the economic crisis that produced negative reactions to budget-cutting and less tolerance shown to even honest mistakes of increasing the value added tax by the new government. Because people had become less courageous under the shrewdest leader of the past previous regime; needed to be guided back to courageous behaviour across all sectors; for they had become reactive rather than proactive, and the administrators at the center and in the peripheries had difficulty in making timely decisions without consulting the new leadership. After the 2015, senior administrators responsible for the state sectors stopped checking, where their organisation was headed, and most important, they had stopped challenging the people in their organisation to be innovate and take the initiative, or focus on their responsibilities. This enabled many of the ‘yes sir, no sir’ men to continue supporting the earlier regime legislators now in opposition, a major contributory factor for failure of any investigations on any wrong doing by their earlier masters.

The new leadership themselves were adjusting to the newly formed coalition partnership and understandably took a while to work as a team. Lack of complete information about people and resources did prevent the new rulers to increase courageous behaviour in the state organisations by ensuring that the administrators took smart risks and made bold decisions. While the new ministers were looking for what caused the loss of courage, and how to breed courageous leadership and culture, alarms rang as some old hands both within the government and in opposition continued with their ponderous devious activities that had taken root during the past regime associating with big timers for their own personnel gain. The people who had voted the previous regime out of power considered is as foul and unethical and began asking questions in public; while many ministers feared in silence, for they would be the one to go out first, if things came to light that they had no control over people in their ministries, who may be party to these wrong doings; needless to say the silence was uncomfortable to the people who had supported the change.

This delay to alter the government machinery prevented the rulers to overcome the inertia associated with the loss of courage of various state sector heads and at many levels in various state organisations that was crucial to turn the economy round. Bitter truth was apart from the respective leaders of the two major political parties, there was no evidence others in government co-existed well among them nor with members of others parties in coalition; as trust was not part of their culture. For without trust, courageous action is rare, especially in a forced partnership for the first time between the two large political parties that had for centuries opposed each other and it was the same with the minor parties in the government. These legislators in the government need to develop a trust in the leadership and in the team, their leaders have put together and demonstrate the same loyalty and commitment to the people that have provided them power to rule for the prescribed period of years.

As trust is the foundation for courage, the two Leaders must build people’s trust in the government by following through on commitments made, and by providing a clear understanding of the purpose and direction of the government. They should demonstrate trust in their ministers and administrators by empowering and developing them for more responsibility and most importantly they must provide transparency in decision-making, especially decisions on matters related to the people affected by the civil-war or man-made as well as natural disasters. These decisions cannot and should not be allowed to be interfered by those opposing the government in the parliament and outside in all corners of the country. Irrespective of where the resistance is coming it must be dealt with courageously by the two leaders.

With two years of the new coalition government almost completed and there are still no signs of the country recovering from the economic downturn that began before the previous government was voted out in 2015. Due to interferences caused by the people of all shades and colour in all government and private sectors the investigations did not produce desired results; more and more new problems some man-made and others by nature also made governance difficult for the new rulers. The struggles people face today in the country might range from the mundane daily act of summoning the energy to talk to the neighbour about keeping his trash filled compound tidy, to prevent dengue mosquitos breeding to the vast campaigning on the streets to demonstrate against damages caused to homes and loss of water resources due to the improper construction of Uma Oya Multi-Purpose Development Project; but challenge faced by the new rulers is to continue striving to create maximum value and to never be defeated or give up, regardless of the obstacles people may encounter. Now as the government is about to get the draft of the new constitution ready for review by the legislators; opposition to it has come from the Maha Sangha and gladly the wise Leader of Opposition, a practicing Hindu and yet having understood and accepted the basic Buddhist wisdom – that close link to the exercise of courage is conviction in the right and possibility of oneself and others to be happy, free and fulfilled; has taken the courageous decision at the appropriate time to meet with the Maha Sangha to clear their concerns as he has no objection to continue with the prominence given to Buddhism in the constitution; because of his awareness that such conviction is the basis of social justice and is the core vision on which Buddhism is founded; a fierce, unyielding commitment to such a vision that endows the Buddha with the quality of fearlessness.  It would be beneficial if other political parties too will meet Maha Sangha to clarify the contents in the new constitution for the country to make the constitution making endeavour a success.