When Gunadasa Amarasekara let go of his flirtation with literary modernism and became the intellectual ballast of the Jathika Chinthanaya with Nalin de Silva, the Soviet Union was breaking apart. We were promised a more inclusive world, or as Francis Fukuyama envisaged it, the end of history.
History of course doesn’t end, however, not that easily anyway, and so the end of Communism didn’t spell out anything new or different: rather, the left and the right became no more than political constructs, both of which were part of the Western modernist discourse on development, knowledge, economics, what-not.
Between Amarasekara and de Silva, the latter was more political (Amarasekara once described him in an interview as our first real postmodernist). He and to a considerable extent the ideology his movement disseminated believed in the objectives conceived almost a century earlier by Anagarika Dharmapala.
I believe it was Malinda Seneviratne who claimed (I don’t remember when or where) that the likes of de Silva were critiqued by even those who liked to consider themselves as nationalists. This is true. De Silva himself noted that such nationalists would think twice about considering him as one of them. It is from that premise that he and Amarasekara drew a distinction between two kinds of Buddhism: Sinhala and Olcott. The first was followed by the extremists, the second by the gradualists. Such a distinction is vital when evaluating the history of Buddhism in the country.
Nationalism has always been up for grabs. It has created, bifurcated, splintered, and often killed off political movements. It has also become so fluid that it resists categorisation. For me, the primary issue of the 21st century has been the conflict between individuality and nationhood, a variant of the conflict between nationalism and internationalism. The distinction pointed out above, therefore, can be rooted in the dichotomy between experiencing a faith as an individual (Olcott Buddhism) and experiencing it as a collective (Sinhala Buddhism).
That is why Olcott Buddhism is considered by the likes of Nalin as an extension of Lutheranism and Calvinism: it substituted individual salvation for collective repentance. However, it was also an internationalised variation of an anti-internationalist creed, the kind which subsisted on both rationality and mysticism. What it did was to divide Sinhala from Buddhism, history from faith, and faith from the social and the political. This division explains the debate between those who profess a separation of temple and state and those who do not.
And there the comparison between Lutheranism/Catholicism and Olcott Buddhism/Sinhala Buddhism ends. Lutheranism was by large an extension of the creeds contained in Catholicism. Olcott Buddhism, on the other hand, was never an extension of Sinhala Buddhism. The latter two viewed religion in manifestly different ways: for the Sinhala Buddhist, engagement with culture could condone even members of the clergy who joined the Army, whereas for the Olcott Buddhist, what mattered was the individual’s engagement with his or her faith.
George D. Bond’s account of the Buddhist movement in Sri Lanka (“The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka”), from the revival to the setting up of lay Buddhist organisations after independence, echoes this distinction between the collective and the individual. He points at two eminent Western scholars, William Ames and Heinz Bechert, both of whom differentiated between two kinds of Buddhists: the former between those who wished to retain privileges in the upcountry and those who were emerging as local capitalists in the low country, and the latter between the traditionalists and the modernists. Agreeing with both, Bond brings up another mode of distinction: between the reformists and the neo-traditionalists. From what I have read so far, this distinction is the closest to an equivalent from a Western scholar we have of the Jathika Chinthanaya’s classification of Sinhala and Olcott Buddhists.
According to Bond, the reformists were the militant nationalists, who followed Dharmapala in his attempt to resuscitate both religion and collective. The neo-traditionalists, by contrast, repudiated the methods set by Dharmapala in achieving his ideals while affirming the substance of those ideals. This concomitant rejection and acceptance of a man considered as a chauvinist by the “other side” explains the at times schizophrenic outlook on Buddhism propagated by the neo-traditionalists.
That schizophrenic outlook found its pivot in the distinction between the religious and the secular. For these Buddhists, the ultimate goal of this life was threefold: observe sil, support one’s family by right livelihood, and “do good” in the world [Bond, p 65]. Of these, Bond points out, the second was influenced by the Protestant ethic of closer familial bonds, the same bonds that Buddhism sought to do away with.
It speaks volumes about how detached this was from the people that no less a figure than D. B. Jayatilaka contrasted in an article titled “Practical Buddhism” between two modes of living: the household and the clergy. These Buddhists advocated, not the “this-world” asceticism preached by Dharmapala, but an “other-world” asceticism in which the primary goal of one’s present life was to wallow in a materialistic variant of one’s faith through the “pansakulaya, malwatti, and upparawatti” (as de Silva once memorably observed). The clergy had no relevance for the household, in other words.
So much for the neo-traditionalists. Of their intellectual descendants, the Olcott Buddhists, I believe Nalin de Silva said it best: “They have separated Buddhism from culture and profession.” What de Silva meant was the Olcott Buddhist secularised a faith that was at the outset against secularism. In other words, it was as culturally castrated as the colonialism it tried to combat, a point that de Silva and Amarasekara gleaned only too well when they contended that the motive of Colonel Olcott and the theosophists was to equal, if not better, the missionary school.
That fixation with bettering the missionary school and those other colonialist institutions appealed, not to the rural simpleton, but to the urban layman, who continues to make the waves as a refined wielder of the faith. Such wielders were at best cut off from the sensibilities of the Sinhala people, for whom Buddhism remained more than just a religion (and was actually a way of life and of seeing). It is these same wielders, incidentally, who prefer to be known as nationalists and yet find it uncomfortable to be ranked alongside the likes of de Silva and Amarasekara.
Inasmuch as Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara made it their life’s work to disprove Western modernism, their efforts become more relevant today because of the distinction they made between those two kinds of Buddhists. I say this not because I wish to belittle their work on Western philosophy and science – being hardly conversant in either, I can only conjecture as to what they accomplished there – but rather because much of the responsibility for that ill-defined variant of Buddhism, with its artificial division between the temple and the home, can be laid down by the feet of those adherents who paid obeisance to the gods while proclaiming, “Siddhartha Gautama did not encourage us to fight wars against terrorists!” That Amarasekara and de Silva helped us discern this fatal contradiction, I believe, speaks a lot about who the rooted adherents of the faith are and who are not.
Written for: Daily Mirror, May 19 2017