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Govt. used Sinhala-Buddhist shield to its maximum benefit Ven. Galkande Dhammananda Thera


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  • This Govt. nurtured thug-like monks promoted them and deployed them in various  places
  • Certain monks have severe psychological wounds
  • If  society isn’t healed cases of domestic violence, harassment and child  abuse will be on the rise
  • Reconciliation  was about having workshops, providing a report and earning dollars
  • Accountability  has not been included in the Constitution or the Judicial system
  • Terrorism  sprouts in a country that has no justice

Ven. Galkande Dhammananda Thera who currently heads the Walpola Rahula Institute for Buddhist Studies has been addressing issues related to social justice and harmony while promoting an inclusive and plural society. Having gathered a wealth of experience during the height of war for instance and having encountered various incidents during his lifetime, Ven. Dhammananda Thera has been preaching on the practice of social healing for quite some time. He has also been quite vocal about conventional Buddhist approaches that most people tend to follow and the damage done to society as a result of diverting from Buddha’s teachings.  “We are a wounded society. A society that doesn’t have its wounds healed would only know to seek solutions through wounds,” he said in an interview with the Daily Mirror.

Excerpts :

Q The incumbent Government used the Sinhala-Buddhist ideology as a shield to win votes. What are your observations?

The incumbent regime and successive regimes have harped on the Sinhala-Buddhist ideology. But this time it was used dangerously and it was used against the Muslim community. They portrayed Muslims as a threat and tried to group Sinhala-Buddhists as one lot and the rest of the ethnicities as enemies. This government used the Sinhala-Buddhist shield to its maximum benefit.

Q We saw how the President took oaths at the Ruwanweli Seya, the day before May 9 the former Prime Minister visited Anuradhapura, they put pirith to distract slogans chanted by protesters in front of Temple Trees. Don’t you think the Rajapaksas used Buddhism as a weapon?

How I see it is that they used religion without any respect or ethical consideration. In order to spread wrong information about the Muslim community, they held workshops for monks. At these workshops, they showed videos of Boko Haram and videos based on Islam extremism. Thereafter they would advise monks to allocate around 10-15 minutes from their bana sermons to talk about Islam extremism. This was done several months before the election. Many monks in various outstation areas have complained to me about this and they confessed that they allocated some time from their sermons to talk about extremism. The sermon was never misused in this manner. A lay person invites a monk to his home to find some peace, but this Government spread hatred among people by compelling monks to talk about religious extremism. I have never seen Buddhism being used in such a violent manner ever before. They also nurtured thug-like monks, promoted them and deployed them in various places.

Q Many prominent Buddhist monks also supported the incumbent government…

Many Buddhist monks instilled fear among the people. Then the Easter Sunday attacks happened and what they were preaching became a reality. It happened at an unexpected moment. So there was fear and people needed security and someone to protect them.

Q Do you think that by entering politics, Buddhist monks have distorted Buddha’s teachings or the philosophy itself?

Buddhist monks started doing politics way back in 1946. But here the situation was different. During the colonial era, Buddhists were an oppressed segment of people. Therefore, several monks representing the oppressed segments of society entered politics through the Vidyalankara Pirivena. They brought a theoretical approach to it and said that it is the responsibility of the monks to give a voice to oppressed people, despite it being called politics or anything else. Their responsibility was to voice for the oppressed irrespective of taking positions or power or contest at an election. During the Free Education struggle, it was the monks who played a pivotal role in pushing the then Government to discuss the Free Education Act which was halted for three years. These monks had a newspaper called ‘Kaalaya’ (Time) and one of the resolutions passed during a meeting was that monks who did not engage in politics can continue to thrive from alms offered by the wealthy and that they are not eligible to receive alms offered by the poor. Therefore politics for them was about voicing for the oppressed. However, this idea was later distorted to a point where it had no direction and monks started going after power and money. Today’s monks don’t have any idea about why monks joined politics back in 1946.

Q We are witnessing a people’s struggle and a public uprising. How can monks contribute to politics from now onwards?

Monks should go beyond religiosity and extremism. Buddhism talks about an ecosystem that goes beyond the human species. If they cannot address the ecosystem they should concentrate on humans and keep in mind that nobody is superior to one another. That they cannot be differentiated based on race, religion, gender etc.

Q Let’s talk about the war and its aftermath. You have always said that we are a wounded society. We suffer from trauma. But we don’t see victims and survivors being remembered during so-called victory parades. The war has been glorified and most memories have been erased. What sort of impact do these kinds of events have on society like ours?

As I have said before, we are a society that has been wounded. These wounds can either be direct or inter-generationally transmitted wounds. My ancestors were displaced during the 1818 Uva-Wellassa rebellion and they moved towards forest areas in the Eastern Province. These would have been women and survivors of the rebellion and I always try to imagine how difficult it would have been to leave their ancestral homes behind. Since I haven’t experienced this I don’t know how their wounds were healed. But this society continues to live with sore wounds. A society that doesn’t have its wounds healed would only know to seek solutions through wounds. If they come across a problem, they will resort to using their power to suppress another and resolve the matter. This was witnessed during 1971, ‘88/’89 insurrections and the 30-year ethnic conflict and after destroying everything with weapons, they are ready to pack and leave.

The funny part is that those war victors are now ruling this country and the country is now in dire straits, worse than Bangladesh. According to them, the problem was the war and they said this country will be developed once it is over. Everybody talks about constructing highways but we need to look at the progress of people first. It has to start with education but this education system worsens the wounds further. Teachers should be healed first but this change doesn’t come in the form of a document. It should be a continuous process that should span for around 10 years. We have a new Prime Minister, but bringing dollars alone won’t resolve this problem. Healing is a must. If not cases of domestic violence, harassment, workplace harassment and child abuse will be on the rise. With all these, there’s no point in bringing dollars to the country.

Q Don’t you think that the word ‘reconciliation’ has been misused?

Yes. During this process, we didn’t have words in our vocabulary. They used English/foreign terms and concepts. The English term was translated to Sinhala but they didn’t even know the concept. As a result, they introduced foreign concepts and it was something completely new.

There were issues in the mechanism but many NGO groups earned dollars through these projects. They would hold workshops, provide a report and get their dollars. This was what they called reconciliation. But our institute also got involved in this healing process but we were of the stance that money is not important during the reconciliation process.

The programme we conducted was called the Rahula-Thangarajah Twin School programme. When Walpola Rahula Thera was selected to University as the first Buddhist monk back in 1930 he was sidelined by the Buddhist community. It was a Tamil gentleman named Saravanamuttu Thangarajah who helped Ven. Rahula to continue his studies.

They were good friends and we named this programme in honour of their friendship. For this programme, we merged two schools, namely the Therankandal Tamil School, Thunukkai and Halmillawetiya Vidyalaya in Kebithigollawa.

We worked in both schools for around six months and merged the schools. We travelled in buses, ate what they gave us and slept where we could. So, we were similar to them. We initially donated a water filter to the Therankandal School through the support of well-wishers. We subsequently brought these children to Horana for a workshop and we had collected around Rs. 375,000. The total budget was around Rs. 1.3 million. We had to bring them in five buses, provide accommodation, and meals and we had to pay for translators.

I wanted to do something practical and somebody suggested that we invite the owner of the Wasana Bakers. He was abducted during the height of the war and was taken away by the Army. Upon hearing his story the soldier had released him. After running for dear life, he later returned to his village during Chandrika Bandaranaike’s tenure. He has subsequently started working at a bakery and had learned everything from scratch. Having commenced his journey by providing sponge cake to latex cultivators, Wasana Bakers today is a flourishing business in the bakery industry.

Since I was impressed by this story I visited him and invited him to speak to the children. He was quite surprised because all that while he had had visitors coming to ask for money. Subsequently, he provided us with his wedding hall which was established to host functions of their staff. The programme was a success. Likewise, everybody who contributed had been affected by the war in many ways than one. One of the translators was a Muslim lady and she was a single mother too. She provided her support on a voluntary basis and therefore we were able to travel via Kandy as per the request of the children at Therankandal School. This was our reconciliation model. We have to solve an issue even if we are hungry. But we can’t solve an issue just by taking money from a neighbour. Therefore, the reconciliation model in Sri Lanka is a money-making business and therefore it’s a failure.

Q When we talk about reconciliation we only talk about the North and East. Similar incidents happened in the South as well. But today, the Offices on Missing Persons etc., don’t function efficiently. What are your thoughts?

Abductions and killings have been the order of the day. Three monks whom I knew were abducted this way. One of them was abducted in Dehiwela. An eyewitness told me that ‘Podi Hamuduruwo’ was abducted while on the bus. To date, I don’t know his whereabouts. Two other monks by the names Denagama Pangnaloka, Koradikumbure Gnanaloka had also been abducted and are missing to date. Nobody talks about them. If we can give a colour to the breath of people whose loved ones have gone missing, we’ll be able to see how dark this atmosphere is. 
This is like a mass grave but we continue to light incense sticks and move forward. We are trying to forget these memories. Anybody can forget the incident but they cannot forget the memories that resulted from the incident. We meet these wounded individuals as drivers, passengers etc. These wounds result in aggression and violence.

Q Are we too late to introduce proper healing techniques to these individuals?

Since we are facing a socio-economic crisis at present, we should look at incorporating healing practices within a probable system change.

Q Even though religious places could give some kind of healing, we see people going to temples to post pictures of their offerings, mostly as a trend. Where have we gone wrong?

I believe that there are wounded individuals at religious institutions as well. Certain monks have  severe psychological wounds. During the Imperial era, they lived in fear thinking that they would be extinct. During colonial invasions they become oppressed. Thereafter they have this oppressed mindset. Monks got involved during the insurrections and monks were targeted during the ethnic conflict as well. Therefore they fear whether they would be extinct. Even in Mahavamsa monks have been attributed to protecting the country and the Sāsana. Whenever some monks establish an Organisation, they have several keywords; either it’s something to do with protecting the Sāsana or the motherland.

A farmer protects his paddy field from wild beasts. By saying that they are protecting the Sāsana itself shows that the Sāsana will end and that it has enemies. Then there are wounds when monks are ordained at a younger age, they have wounds since they don’t have a chance to enjoy their youth. The temple is the place that has all these wounds. Someone with a wound goes to another person with a wound to tell their sorrows. I’m not blaming anyone. But I feel that monks should accept the fact that they have been wounded and heal themselves first. I feel that instead of healing a wounded society, they have transformed this society into a marketplace. Therefore we can sell various things to this wounded society such as pirith nool,nisaka dathu wandana etc. Religion includes teachings that bring about spiritual healing but we can bring about healing only if monks accept that they too have been wounded.

Q Doesn’t ordaining novice monks fall under harassment against children?

We have to understand that children are not in a position to make decisions about their life. On the other hand, children are safest when they are with their parents. If children are not safe with their parents, then they belong to the State. If a child is being taken from a safe environment to another guardian, there has to be a mechanism in place. It should happen via the National Child Protection Authority. If I want to take a child under my custody then I should appeal to the NCPA and the NCPA should monitor whether I have sound mental health and whether a child would be safe around me and the environment in which he has to live in.

They should observe the visitors who come here, they should check if I have the time to attend to the child etc. If all these eligibility criteria have been ticked then I’m eligible to have a child under my guardianship. Thereafter if two parents like to hand over a child this should happen in the presence of NCPA officials. Subsequently, these officers should visit every three months to see if he is in a secure environment until the child turns 18. Ordaining as a life decision. If the child wants to reverse his decision, he should be allowed to do so. If he has only studied Pali verses then he cannot face life afterwards. In the end, he should be able to make a healthy decision.

Q Do you think religious places are safe for children?

This depends from place to place. There’s no place that can be a safer place for children than with their parents. When it comes to a religious place, religious leaders have less time to allocate to children. A child needs love, affection and care. But I know some places that look after novice monks and children very well. On the other hand, the family unit in a wounded society has been shattered in most instances. Children are at the receiving end in situations like this and as a result, the child is insecure. Therefore we cannot generalize based on whether a child ends up in a good place or a bad place. We need to put secure mechanisms in place so that children are brought up in safer environments.

Q Let’s talk about the ongoing people’s protests. This is perhaps the first non-violent, peaceful protest that happened in history. But things took a violent turn during the Vesak week. What are your thoughts?

The unprecedented socio-economic crisis brought people towards a common ground. People were inconvenienced due to a shortage of essential items, medicine, fuel etc. It is in this backdrop that people commenced this struggle. People started chanting slogans and it was a non-violent protest. But like during every other instance, the rulers used violence to disrupt the protest. This happened during the 1950s when people requested to include Tamil as an official language. The difference is that this time due to advancements in technology, the whole of the citizenry witnessed the violence, thanks to social media. People knew that the peaceful protesters were voicing everyone’s rights. Everybody felt like they were being attacked.

Q There are many discussions taking place at the Galle Face protest site. Is it a starting point to usher in a new era of governance?

Accountability has not been included in the Constitution or the Judicial system. No politician has been imprisoned for corruption. In that case, everybody should be corrupt. The Constitution should give power to the people. People are in fact like slaves and we have rulers. But we should be citizens and we send a representative to voice on behalf of citizens’ rights. I think this started from GotaGoGama. I don’t know where it is heading. Initially, there were people with various political mindsets and later on, people with extremist ideas too found their ground at the protest site. Therefore I cannot say whether there is one common idea being resonated from the protest site. But I appreciate its positive approaches.

Q We have always witnessed a political culture based on promises. Do you think these people’s protests would bring about a shift in people’s mindsets?

Nothing has been done to bring about a shift in people’s mindsets. The incumbent regime doesn’t care much about the Galle Face protest because their mandate is being decided by people who can be bought over a lunch packet or other short term incentive. The only progressive aspect is that this time people are more knowledgeable about politics thanks to social media. There could be certain changes in this regard in Colombo and suburbs, but in rural areas, people will still be faithful to those who rule their electorates.

Q Justice has become a buzzword. With all that is going on, can we heal ourselves in time to come?

Terrorism sprouts in a country that has no justice. This is what happened on May 9. When the mobsters attacked Galle Face protesters, violence emerged in other parts of the country. This is what happened throughout history. Nobody apologized for the 30-year ethnic conflict. Easter Sunday attacks were a terrible disaster that wounded the Christian and Catholic communities. They feel that they are accountable for the lives that have been lost. Without justice, we can’t move forward. Even though we say this repeatedly we don’t learn this lesson. We should accept that we have been wounded and that we need to heal together.


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