The groundbreaking book by Vel. Walpola Rahula challenging the way Buddhists practise in Sri Lanka launched in English
On Friday, March 29, the Walpola Rahula Institute (WRI) launched the English Translation of the Ven. Walpola Rahula (Ven Rahula)’s famous treatise “Truth Awakening.” Originally published in Sinhalese in 1993 under the title “Sathyodaya”, the Chairman of the WRI, the Venerable Galkande Dhammananda Thero (VDT), student of Ven Rahula commissioned an English translation. This has opened up the wise monk’s teachings to a global audience seeking an authentic path to wisdom.
“A person will not become a Buddhist by merely taking refuge in the triple gem through a verbal utterance. Nor will the person be a Buddhist by simply wearing a robe.”
A Buddhist is not defined by name or practice, but by conduct. In other words, if you are a good person, treat others with compassion and respect, and are wise and insightful in your actions, that is what makes you a “Buddhist”. This fundamental wisdom is what Ven Rahula wanted to promote as the “Truth Awakening.” He believed in the capacity of each person to be fully awakened, to become a Buddha in their own right, enlightened and wise. A key tool that can help people on the path is the notion of critical thinking, reasoning.
The launch of Truth Awakening included an insightful panel discussion from academics specialising in Buddhist studies and critical inquiry. They analysed the importance of infusing critical thinking into modern Sri Lankan Buddhism, which has suffered from a lack of it.
“The fear of opposing traditional customs has contributed towards the decline in our social values. [But] these practices continue as a means of generating profit and gain.”
According to Ven Rahula Sri Lankan Buddhism, has, for the longest time, been characterised by a sheep-like adherence to tradition and authority, among lay people and Buddhist monks alike. People follow rites and rituals without really knowing why they are compelled to do them, except that it is “part of tradition” and “it is the way things have always been”. Such responses are common when not just traditions, but various injustices are still practiced. Why do we still do these things? Because it’s the way things are. And the attempt to be curious and question the status quo is discouraged and quelled.
“Buddhists should act with wisdom. Food is necessary for a person who can consume it. Items should be given to a person who can benefit from it. We know very well that a statue does not need food.”
The most notable example of blindly following tradition is the excess of rites and rituals that are practiced “in the name of Buddhism”. For example, as part of Sri Lankan Buddhist practice, people make massive offerings of food and medicine to stupas and statues. According to the Ven Rahula and the panel, this is tremendously wasteful, because these items could go to people who are sick, malnourished, and hungry. Where is the wisdom, asks VRW, asks the panel, in offering these items to stupas and statues, when there are living beings who could benefit so much more from it? When Siddhartha Gautama was alive, it was considered the highest honour to offer food to a living Buddha. But now that he is dead, what is the point of continuing to do so to a statue? The main reason for indulging in these rituals is an unthinking, uncritical emphasis on tradition.
Ven Rahula challenged this lethargic approach to Sri Lankan Buddhist practice. He questioned the status quo because he was an optimist who believed that people could do better. Could BE better. He believed in the potential for infinite wisdom that resides in every human being, regardless of caste, gender, race, ethnicity, and all such labels that have been created to sow inequality in society.
“Those who lag behind in their internal development tend to place heavy emphasis on external items.”
A consensus of the panel discussion and Ven Rahula is that these rituals likely would have had a practical application, but were then mandated into practice. For instance, the Ven Rahula mentions one instance in “Truth Awakening”, where a chief monk started holding his begging bowl up to the sun each morning. His students saw that and, without a thought, started copying him. Later, they found out that the chief monk’s begging bowl had a hole in it, and each morning, he was checking to see where it was so that he could cover it with a finger to prevent food from leaking out. The same thing has happened in Sri Lankan Buddhism, with the unquestioning imitation of rituals that have long ceased to be useful in any way. And this is symptomatic of culture.
The panel acknowledged that rituals are not solely tied to religion, but culture. It is a way of relating to other people; the common ground that can unite individuals under a common identity. In other words, it is the desire for inclusion in a social group that is a part of human behaviour. Unfortunately, this majority-group dynamic can result in mass ignorance, which is the kind of ignorance that Ven Rahula is warning against. This ignorance leads to massive social inequalities, where one privileged group discriminates against others on the basis of race, caste, gender, religion, and so on. Compassion, respect, humanity is lost, and oppression-based hatred prevails. And when a group continues to do something because it has always done so, no one wants to question it because they might be expelled from the group.
“When an unfamiliar opinion is being expressed on an issue, please listen with patience and compassion. Contribute to the discussion calmly within the limits of decency.”
This is why Ven Rahula urges critical thinking. Questioning the “why” and the “how” behind the “what.” Is it practical to deposit truckloads of food on and around statues and stupas? Is it wise? Is it humane, when there are living people who could benefit? Posing these questions lead to insight. And insight will lead to better social harmony, because people will wise up about how to treat each other with more compassion, kindness, and empathy.
“Each individual needs to make their own decision to offer or not offer food.”
So does this mean that all rituals and rites are “bad”? Of course not. The Ven Rahula believed that people are free to do what they choose. That’s the blessing of having free will. And, as the panel observed, there is something profound and meaningful in preparing a humble meal at home and choosing to first offer a small portion to the legacy of Siddhartha Gautama. This is personal devotion to a higher ideal, symbolized by that offering; that surrender to something greater.
However, there is a big difference between that personal gesture, vs the truckloads of perfectly good food that are blindly offered to buildings and statues, and then later thrown away. This has devolved into a competitive pinkama, if you like, in a frantic pursuit of accumulating merit points to earn a better reincarnation. Meanwhile, there are people going hungry, begging for food at the temple gates and the surrounding community. True Buddhist practice would be to offer it to them. If you are a person who cares about how your actions affect other people, if you have social consciousness, it would serve both you and society better if you applied critical thinking to your actions. And if you take better actions to serve society as opposed to clocking up solo merit points in the alleged karmic scoreboard, everyone wins.
“The Buddhist name tag will not help you to reach Nirvana but the Buddhist conduct will assist you to get there.”
Ven Rahula was considered a “radical” Buddhist monk by the mainstream Buddhist establishment during his time and even today. What exactly was “radical” about him? He eschewed the comfortable surrounds of the temple, renounced worldly comforts, and retreated into the forest to seek answers by going within his own mind and body. This is a very difficult path to follow, and not many monks are able to do it. But the Ven Rahula followed Siddhartha Gautama’s path exactly. If following the original Buddhist teachings is deemed “radical”, what does that say about modern Buddhism? What “Buddhism” are they, the clergy and laity, practicing?
“There are many with false views who are parading as Buddhists.”
How can one become a Buddhist? In the spirit of the Ven Rahula’s teachings, it comes from “developing internal virtues such as courage, determination, integrity, tranquillity, loving-kindness, and wisdom.” But a Buddhist will also never go gently into that good night either. As one of the panellists observed, “He starts with courage and ends with wisdom. That should teach us a thing or two about how to confront the highly institutionalized, highly oppressive, highly racist institution that the Buddhist clergy and Buddhism in general in Sri Lanka has become.”
“A person who acts wisely is a Buddhist.”
Ultimately, as one of the panellists states, Ven Rahula ’s teachings urge the reader to see things as they are. In other words, acknowledge humanity’s interconnected nature. Are people able to recognise another’s humanity? Can people see other people as people, and not as separate from them? Can they disregard labels such as race, gender, ethnicity, and other labels that give one group power over others, to treat humans with the fundamental dignity and respect that they are owed? If your answer is yes, my friend, then a Buddhist you may be.
“There could be true Buddhists among those who wear the cross and others going under another religious label.”
Simply put, a Buddhist = a good, wise person. A Buddhist is someone radical, like the Ven Rahula, someone who questions the status quo, especially if it is unfair or unjust. A Buddhist is a social justice warrior. A Buddhist applies critical thinking to racial inequalities, gender inequalities, and all such oppression by one group over another. A Buddhist is empathetic, kind, and relates to the suffering of their fellow humans. A Buddhist conducts themselves like a Buddha would, and aligns their actions with the highest good of humankind.