Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

Vajra Chandrasekera: A Sinhala Unbuddhist

A (somewhat more personal) thread on unbuddhism: since I speak about Buddhism and monks and whatnot quite a lot lately, I wanted to contextualize that by talking my own relationship with Buddhism.

Also brought on by (laughably, I know) considering seriously the things Mangala Samaraweera has been saying lately, such as asserting that he doesn’t consider himself a Buddhist but “a person who follows the Buddhist philosophy.”

On the surface of things, that sounds like a good thing. I would say something almost similar, or at least begin by saying something almost similar. I’m thinking aloud here, so apologies if this runs long.

In my view, the way in which I am not a Buddhist is that I am specifically an unbuddhist. Apostate? We don’t quite have a word for this. People do say “atheist” sometimes but that makes no sense at all in this context.

“Non-religious”, as in නිරාගමික, is awkward at best. It evokes a kind of airless space of nothingness which doesn’t really fit, at least in my case.

Religion here (and presumably everywhere) is treated as a racial characteristic in that you can apparently be “born a Buddhist”—which I was. Grew up in a “normal” Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist family, which is how I “was” a Buddhist in any sense in the first place.

(By which I mean, went to temple on poya days, had monks come do their song-and-dance routine at almsgivings, learned the prayers, made vesak lanterns, all that sort of thing.

There would definitely not be “fourteen million” Buddhists in this country if you only count the ones who had intentionally considered life alternatives and deliberately chose Buddhism as a religion and practice. Some do, but far more are just born into it.)

I became disillusioned with Buddhism as a young adult. For a while I went along with rituals to keep family happy, but that tapered off too. I haven’t identified as a Buddhist since then. Arguably I never did: I was enculturated as and identified as one by others.

But of course I still have and have always had Buddhist privilege: I am still routinely identified as a Buddhist by others on the basis of my name and my familiarity with Buddhist culture.

For example, I know the ඉතිපිසෝ as well as anybody else, so it can’t be used as a shibboleth against me during a pogrom, like in this particularly ridiculous example divaina.com/2014/04/21/man…

But (because I like words and worry at their specific meanings) I think of myself as not නිරාගමික but අබෞද්ධ, literally unbuddhist. A word that denotes distance from and opposition to, but still defined in the terms of the thing it attempts to (and fails to) separate itself from.

Because much of my thought—my fiction included—is still of course inflected by my understanding of Buddhisms. And like Henpitagedera Gnanavasa, I believe in the material utility of (some) Buddhist thought to both the present and the future.

As sad and pathetic as that thought is, in 2019.

But that wouldn’t look anything remotely like orthodox Sri Lankan Buddhism. There is no overlap at all. My unbuddhism is without monks, political or otherwise, assuming an “otherwise” even exists; certainly without any respect for the actual sangha, for whom I have only contempt—

—without temples, relics, prayers, or rituals; without race or nation, specifically opposed “Sinhala-ness” in Buddhism, or that a “Buddhism” even exists that should or could be “protected” or put in a constitutionally “foremost” place, all of which is an abomination—

—without the cruft of centuries of cheesy fanfic, like the Thirty-Two Characteristics of Great Men and really vast amounts of pedantic nonsense, much of it numbered; without orthodox understandings of karma, samsara, rebirth, sin/merit, meditation, iddhi, nirvana—

—with little interest in the alleged life of Siddartha Gautama and none whatsoever in jatakas, buddhas, pacceka-buddhas, arahats, bodhisattvas, heavens, hells, or the video game levels of enlightenment; definitely without a flag or vesak or poya days—

—and without ascribing much significance to the middle way, the four truths, the five precepts, the eightfold path and, no doubt, a great many other things that I can’t even remember off the top of my head.

But what’s left after you take all that away? It might seem like so much has been removed, but it hasn’t really. The major part of Buddhist theory, the important part, is still there. Sunyata; the trilaksana; the paticcasamuppada.

None of which have relevance in orthodox Sri Lankan Theravada as it is actually practised, of course, which would be ironic if it were not by design.

My unbuddhism, my අබෞද්ධකම, is still interested in this constellation of ideas, among others. They still provide a framework for the way I think, which is recognizably Buddhist in some sense, clearly, since these are hardly esoteric doctrines.

This is superficially similar to Mangala’s argument. And I do have some sympathy for that position: Buddhism as ideas, not as religion. I’ve heard it from many people over the years. But there’s a reason I frame mine as explicitly an unbuddhist position.

Because you can’t actually just remove the parts of Buddhism you don’t like. Buddhism was never just ideas. It was always a social practice with an organic history, a culture inextricable from the ideas.

Always complicated at the border between monk and layperson, always comfortable with power and patronage, always accommodating of local gods and monsters.

All the things that I can’t stand about Buddhism are an inextricable part of it and it’s history. The Mahavamsa, for example, is itself a staggering indictment of proto-Sinhala-Buddhist thought, showcasing one of history’s earliest genocide denials.

To me a monk is just some guy in deeply unoriginal cosplay and a staggering sense of entitlement. But I understand that I, as an obvious unbuddhist, don’t get to say *he* isn’t a Buddhist. That is indeed what Buddhism is, and why I’m not one.

(If you grew up enculturated into Buddhism as I was, try to imagine these berobed demagogues in civvies when you’re listening to them talk: it might help you see them for the grifters, thugs, careerists, and shitty PR consultants that they actually are.)

It’s not just that I object to what I see as the “superfluous” parts of Buddhist theory or practice. If that was all there was to it, this would just be the same thing that Mangala Samaraweera is currently, and disingenuously, asserting.

But for many decades now the functioning engine of Sri Lankan Buddhism has been about danger to others. In a classically Buddhist style, I will pedantically number the components of that engine and call them the Three Aspects of Buddhist Violence.

First Aspect: the constant brimming potential for and regular outbursts of direct violence. Specifically, Sinhala Buddhist monks and laypeople attacking minorities, their homes, their places of worship, their places of business.

Second Aspect: open or tacit support for that violence by Sinhala Buddhist monks and laypeople expressing the belief that this is a “Sinhala Buddhist country”, that minorities must be subordinate, that anti-minority violence is justified because of “provocations” of some sort.

Even if that provocation is actually merely existing and occupying public life as someone visibly Other.

Third Aspect: indirect legitimization of the perpetrators and their ideologies, even when formal disapproval of the violence is expressed. This is the most widespread of the three.

The Third Aspect happens (e.g.) when the Mahanayakas demand that Gnanasara be addressed with respect because of his status as a monk, and disagree with his actions but condone his message, as I noted in this thread.

Or when anybody unironically says එහෙයි හාමුදුරුවනේ to some monk saying some fucked-up shit. By which I mean, when these men are given respect and authority at a level that (rightfully) no person in secular life would ever receive.

Monks are the prime vector of dangerous, racist ideology, propaganda, and fake news. Even as investigative reporting and common sense continues to debunk wild claims about the doctor in Kurunegala, Omalpe Sobitha is in the papers calling for a boycott of *all* Muslim doctors.

And the most insidious form of the Third Aspect: when any monk performs undeniable verbal/physical violence and their culpability is safely siloed and contained. If it *must* be someone’s fault, it seems, it’s just that one person’s fault and Buddhism has no responsibility—

—to which end, that person is quickly declared “not a real monk”, as if those monks don’t have temples, nikayas, teachers, dayakayas. As if they are not acting with impunity from both state and sangha specifically because of their protected status as a monk.

The political and social reality of the Three Aspects completely eclipse questions of philosophy or soteriology. “Buddhism is a philosophy actually” in Sri Lanka in 2019 is merely performing the Third Aspect of Buddhist Violence.


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3 comments on “Vajra Chandrasekera: A Sinhala Unbuddhist

  1. Memy's Meandering

    Religion tells us what we can’t do, what we mustn’t think and what we must do, how we must think. Spirituality lets us explore our own limitation, our own connection to the universe and our own personal diversity. Everything else- a place, an altar, a building, a robe, a bell, a smell, a sound, a title -it’s all just trappings. In the words of one well imagined Brother Cadfael of Shrewsbury: We are none of us holy because we say we are holy.
    I strive to not let what is wrong in my world get int he way of what is right in it.

    Bright Blessings,

  2. Pingback: Buddhism and its critics | Equanimous Passion

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This entry was posted on 2019/06/27 by .


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