Incidents of violence against Buddhist monks: When commercialism clouds the meditative mind

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Late Ven. Matara Kitalagama Sri Seelalankara Thera in conversation with military officials

Buddhist scripture condemns violence in every form. But exactly a month after Ven. Olande Jinarathana Thera’s body was found floating in the Rathgama Lagoon, the charred remains of another monk were found at the Nawana Cemetery in Kotadeniyawa earlier this month. While investigations are underway to determine the cause of events that led to the two incidents one may also wonder how ‘Ahimsa’ the primary virtue of Buddhism has been violated.
Given the current context, people, unfortunately, have instead of the middle path found their own paths, which they believe are shortcuts to make money and succeed in life. Despite religious discourses on detachment, people are getting more attached to material gains that eventually result in violence. However, sociologists draw several conclusions when studying these incidents, one of them being a possible trickledown effect of the ethnic conflict.

” Given the current context, people, unfortunately, have instead of the middle path found their own paths, which they believe are shortcuts to make money and succeed in life”

Personal grudge or blackmail?

Official records state that Ven. Uduwila Dhammasiri Thera of the Kodikanda Forest Monastery in Hanwella was killed by a group of people who wanted to collect ransom. Eight suspects have been remanded in connection with this incident including the mother of a novice monk at the Monastery and the spouse of a woman police officer. Postmortem examination reports have revealed that the monk died of suffocation though his charred remains were found at the Nawana cemetery in Kotadeniyawa a day after the tragic incident.  Several media reports also claimed that blackmailing had taken place when the novice monk is reported to have complained of the harassment he experienced at the Monastery. But the Hanwella Police confirmed that there had been no complaints made in this regard. In addition to the arrest of the suspects, vehicles including a van, three-wheeler and a scooter were taken into custody. The next court hearing has been fixed for February 2 at the Avissawella Magistrate’s Court.

“It is because of these forest monasteries that these sensitive ecosystems are being protected. Some monks have also protested against the clearing of land and the felling of trees in protected areas and have even gone to courts.”

“Forest-dwelling monks are the unofficial guardians of forests but people have already placed a commercial value to our environment,” said Ven. (Dr.) Omalpe Sobitha Thera. “It is because of these forest monasteries that these sensitive ecosystems are being protected. Some monks have also protested against the clearing of land and the felling of trees in protected areas and have even gone to courts. So in that sense, there is a resistance against forest-dwelling monks and the government has to intervene and direct the relevant authorities to protect and safeguard and care for the wellbeing of these monks.

“The Aranthalawa massacre goes down in history as another bloody event that highlighted the resistance towards Buddhist ideologies. Nearly 33 Buddhist monks died during this incident”

Sociological reasons

From a sociological point of view, several explanations could be drawn in relation to these incidents. One explanation is that people are feeling less secure especially after the custodial killings that have taken place. “People have an issue about their own security,” said Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva, a professor of sociology at the Peradeniya University. “Besides, monks are not being treated the same way as before. Reputation and attitude towards monks is on the decline.”

“Monks face institutional level issues and these issues are not exposed in the public domain. But if we take the Dutch monk’s case, there is still no justification for the incident” – Prof. K Karunatilaka

When asked whether these incidents of violence were a trickledown effect of the war, Prof. Silva responded in the affirmative. “The war was the only source of employment for the youth. Those who deserted had the training and access to arms. A proper study has not been done on Army deserters and what they did after they left the army. Although there is no direct link to these incidents, they could be indirect outcomes,” he said.
However, senior professor of sociology at the Kelaniya University, K. Karunathilake, who has researched on forest-dwelling monks in Sri Lanka, has a different opinion. “Monks face institutional level issues and these issues are not exposed in the public domain. But if we take the Dutch monk’s case, there is still no justification for the incident. It is the government’s responsibility to reveal the details. The Hanwella incident is a different scenario. Reports claim that several people asked for ransom. But in reality, forest-dwelling monks do not keep money with them. Therefore it has to be investigated further,” he said.

“Resistance towards Buddhist monks have emerged from time to time. Their role in safeguarding the nation and its Buddhism-centric ideologies have, in the past, been frowned upon by various entities, some foreign and some local”

Having collected facts and figures in relation to the way of life of monks since 1992, Prof. Karunathilake said certain monks have now realised the commercial aspect of popular Buddhism. “There are some who lead luxury lifestyles. On the other hand, certain temples own acres and acres of land under the Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance. Thereafter they rent out their lands to commercial businesses and collect hefty amounts. In some temples the chief incumbent has claimed individual ownership of the land. This needs to be controlled by a centralized body. As such, monks should not be greedy for money,” he said.

“Besides, monks are not being treated the same way as before. Reputation and attitude towards monks is on the decline” – Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva

Policy level interventions

When asked about policy level interventions to arrest criminals in relation to these incidents, Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs Ministry Secretary Prof. Kapila Gunawardena said necessary action will be taken once they receive the final reports on both incidents. “We have given instructions to the relevant authorities to expedite the process. But we will come to a conclusion depending on the reports,” he said “Trial-at-Bar needs to be expedited soon and more deterrent punishment should be given to murderers irrespective of the person who has been murdered,” Public Security Minister Rear Admiral (Retd) Sarath Weerasekara said. “We have discussed this matter with the Minister of Justice.”

Forest dwelling monks are also known as the guardians of protected forest areas

When saffron robes turned red

Resistance towards Buddhist monks have emerged from time to time. Their role in safeguarding the nation and its Buddhism-centric ideologies have, in the past, been frowned upon by various entities, some foreign and some local. The earliest evidence of attacks on Buddhist monks is reported during the times of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe. Thereafter, resistance against Buddhist monks was evident during the JVP uprisings. It has been recorded that at least 50 monks had been killed during the 1971 insurrection. This has continued during the 1988/1989 insurgencies as well. At least 680 monks have been killed between 1998 and 1990. The Aranthalawa massacre goes down in history as another bloody event that highlighted the resistance towards Buddhist ideologies. Nearly 33 Buddhist monks died during this incident. Few other isolated incidents include the killing of Ven. Thambugala Anandasiri Thera who resided at the Kutumbigala Forest Monastery and the killing of Ven. Matara Kithalagama Sri Seelalankara Nayake Thera popularly known as ‘Dimbulagala hamuduruwo’ who was killed by the LTTE.  In June last year, Chief Incumbent of Galkanda Vijayadhamma Pirivena, Ven. Yatiyana Buddhananda thera was murdered. One suspect has been arrested in relation to this incident and the Kosgoda Police Crimes Division is carrying out further investigations.

(Additional reporting by Pushpakumara Mallawarachchi)

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