Out of Touch

Outside the small rural town of Matale in Sri Lanka is the site of Aloka Vihara where the Pali Tipitaka was first committed to writing in the 1st century BCE. In 1954 the abbot of this monastery decided to build an international Buddhist research library. Huge amounts of money were collected, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia laid the foundation stone and eventually the main complex was completed. It stands there today without a single book in it. Neither the abbot or any of the monks under him knew anything about librarianship, the monastery is miles from the nearest town and there were no people in the district who could use such a library anyway. The temple’s library was built for no other reason than that there was believed to have been one there 2100 years earlier. Doing things because they were supposedly done in the romanticized past, rather than to fulfill an actual need in the present, is quite typical of Sri Lankan Buddhists. I was once approached by a senior Burmese monk who asked me to help him go to the USA. He wanted to raise money to finance an expedition to the moon to prove that there really was a rabbit there, as Buddhist mythology says. While I suspect that part of his motive was desire for an all-expenses paid trip to the West, I have no doubt that he sincerely believed that his space expedition would prove successful and would help promote Buddhism. When you first move to Asia and start hearing monks say things like this it is a little disconcerting, but gradually you get used to it.

In the 1960s a well-known Sri Lankan monk conceived the idea of erecting a gigantic stupa at the entrance of the port of Colombo. According to the monk the justification for this stupa was that ‘ships passing Ceylon will see the light on top and know that this is a Buddhist land.’ Millions of rupees were spent building the stupa and until just recently it was the highest man-made structure in the country. Today it stands there, its once white form now dirty and unpainted, the light on the top long ago broken and never replaced and the metal fittings slowly rusting in the salt air. For an entrance fee of a few rupees the visitor can climb up and look around the vast empty interior of the stupa’s dome. Apart from this and providing a convenient roosting place for Colombo’s numerous crows, it serves no other purpose. [1]

On top of Frazer Hill in Singapore there used to be a huge, unspeakably ugly Buddha statue which had been built by a Thai monk. When you put a coin in a slot its long cement tongue would move in and out and its eyes would light up and flicker, creating such a weird effect that it took a lot of effort not to laugh. Perhaps the monk who built this monstrosity had intended to provide some comic relief for bored Singaporeans, but I don’t think so. Mercifully, the government acquired this site the 1980s and demolished the Buddha. On the left of the main north bound road out of Rangoon is one of the strangest Buddhist monasteries to be seen anywhere. It looks like a cross between St Peter’s in Rome, Lunar Park and a LSD trip in cement. It is so bazaar and in such hideous taste that it is actually worth driving all the way out to see it. Certainly the Burmese people who took me there were deeply impressed by the whole thing and held the rotund cigar-smoking abbot in particular awe. I don’t know why this eyesore was built but judging by its size it must have cost a fortune to and taken years to complete.

Similar unrealistic, wasteful, ill-conceived or never completed religious monuments or projects are so common in Theravadin lands that they call for an explanation. Why do monks so often involve themselves in such useless undertakings? The ordinary lay Theravadin is unlikely to ever think of building a 200 foot high cement Buddha with an escalator going up into its lap and with a flashing bright red neon halo behind its head. He or she is usually too busy just trying to make a living and feed their families. And besides, they could never get the money needed to do such things. Many monks on the other hand have little else to do than indulge in any whim or fancy that happens to drift through their minds. Further, they can be assured of financial support from the devote and they will never be called upon to justify their proposal, no matter how cockeyed or unnecessary it might be. No one would ever think to question a monk’s judgment or obstruct his wishes. The Theravadin concept that monks have no responsibilities but to themselves is a further encouragement to translate the feckless dream into a reality. If his grandiose scheme falls through, goes bankrupt or is never finished he can just walk and leave others to deal with the mess. But why, it might be asked, don’t they use the unstinting support and encouragement they receive for more socially useful things? A few do of course and their numbers are slowly growing, but the average monk’s education and lifestyle usually means that he knows and cares nothing of the realities of ordinary life. From the time he enters his monastery everything is provided for him on a silver platter, in some cases quite literally. Even if monastic education touches on real life issues they will be presented in the most rarified and theoretical way. And of course disciplines like sociology, anthropology, social work, counseling etc., which could give a more solid grounding in reality are considered too ‘worldly’ for monks to learn. Combine this ignorance and lack of social concern with boredom and we have yet another gigantic cement Buddha.

Even when Theravadins set out with the intention of doing something meaningful it all too often falls foul of the same unrealistic thinking, poor planning and ineptitude. A few years ago I visited Wat Tamprabhat, the famous drug rehabilitation monastery out of Bangkok. It was really moving to see the abbot’s genuine concern for the young men who come to him for help and there is no doubt that he has saved the lives of many of them. On the far side of the monastery there are several huge cement Buddhas towering above the trees and nearby is a large conference hall. If you wipe the dirt of one of the windows of this hall and peer in you will see that it is empty except for dust, stacks of chairs and the torn curtain that must have once hung above the stage. It couldn’t have been used for years and like the big Buddhas nearby it is slowly falling into decay. It seems that when the abbot won the Magsaysay Prize for Social Service in 1974 he spent all the money on the Buddhas and the conference hall. I know of a Buddhist organization in Colombo that once published 50,000 copies of a fairly well-written book on Buddhism. When I went to get a few copies of this book in the 1970s I saw packages of them stacked up in a large room in the organization’s premises. I happened to be visiting this place again just recently and sure enough most of the books were still there only now they were completely covered in dust, mold and odd bits of junk that had been deposited in the room over the years. The motive behind this publishing project was no doubt a good one but very obviously no thought had ever been given to how many books were likely to be purchased or how they might be distributed.

Arthur Kostler wrote that when he was traveling through the Soviet Union in the 1930s the contrast between the glowing reports about bumper harvests and joyful workers that he read in the newspapers, and the squalor and starvation he saw everywhere, left him with a distinctly dreamlike sense of reality. Reading Theravadin journals and other literature sometimes gives one this same feeling. I know of a Sri Lankan temple in the West which went through a schism which was bitter and acrimonious even by the usual Sri Lankan standards. When the temple’s next newsletter came out there was not even a hint that there had been a disagreement within the committee, let alone a court case, violent name-calling and a punch-up in the shrine room. Sometime ago I read a well-written article which convincingly argued that capital punishment would be against Theravadin Buddhist teachings. However, the article neglected to mention that all Theravadin countries have the death penalty, have had so for many centuries and that in none of them is there pressure either from the legal profession, the general public and certainly not from the Sangha, to abolish it. I don’t think the author’s failure to mention these relevant facts was due to dishonesty on his part. For many Theravadins the real is only incidental to the theory and it is not necessary to connect the two or explain any contradictions between them. Thus it is possible for Sri Lankan monks to give the five Precepts to soldiers before they go into battle and genuinely see nothing contradictory in this. Thai monks happily do blessings at the opening of Bangkok massage parlors and will merely smile indulgently at the Westerner who comments that this could be against the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings. I used to have a picture from a Thai newspaper showing the country’s then Sangharaja flicking holy water over bombers at the huge US Air Force base at Ubon before they took off to drop their deadly loads on Laos and Vietnam. I doubt whether more than a few of the millions who must have seen this picture noticed the contradiction it embodied. Obviously the Sangharaja did not either.

For about 30 years a journal called World Buddhism was published in Sri Lanka which contained articles on Buddhist doctrine and news of various Buddhist activities around the world. Many of the articles in this journal are well-written and informative, but many others leave you wondering if they were ever meant to be taken seriously. For example, we read that it was actually a Buddhist monk who discovered America, Ven Narada writes that Germany is well on the way to becoming a ‘Buddhist Fortress of Europe’ (this was in the early 1960s) and of course there are the usual articles about Jesus really being a Buddhist. But it is when reading the reports of the resolutions passed at various Theravadin conferences or the pronouncements by different Theravadin prelates that one really rubs one’s eyes with disbelief. Some of the news reports include the campaign to make Sarnath the capital of India, a proposal to build ‘Buddhist Peace Universities’ in all European capitals, another suggestion to form a ‘Commonwealth of Buddhist Nations,’ and the campaign to establish a ‘World Buddhist Army’ to help settle international disputes.

Notes

  1. I am told that this monument has recently been renovated. [back]