Proposed Tripitaka Conservation Bill, a Challenge Within

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM May 21 2021
Focus Proposed Tripitaka Conservation Bill, a Challenge Within

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

The proposed Tripitaka Conservation Bill – Cabinet Memorandum number MBRCA/01/07/2021/CP/07 – that purports to protect Theravada Buddhism, has earned the wrath of several Buddhist scholars, who told Ceylon Today the proposed Bill violates the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the freedom of speech, thought, conscience and religion which in other words, is a basic human right, and said they would file a petition in the Supreme Court if the need arises.

The proposed draft that was leaked to the Media is supposed to contain some serious concerns and challenges the strongly-held beliefs of the followers of Buddha Dhamma. According to Secretary to the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs, Prof. Kapila Gunawardena, the draft is with the legal draftsmen and will be later sent for observation before being presented to the Cabinet. However, the draft is subjected to some amendments but there will be no major shift from the outlook of the draft, many say.

Those who oppose the Bill say that according to the Buddha’s teachings in the Tripitaka, there are infinite ways of explaining and representing aspects of Buddhism and it is against the teaching that all Buddhists have to be confined to a narrow explanation defined by the Committee that is being proposed in the Bill.

The questions they table are: who is pushing for these draconian laws and how could a preacher communicate limitless meanings, indicated by the Buddha, of the Four Noble Truths, by strictly sticking to a limited number of books and limited meanings given in them? How can a Stream-Enterer (one who through the development of right understanding, has attained the path and the fruition of the first stage of enlightenment) explain his insights of the Four Noble Truths in a thousand different ways?

In the proposed Bill it states that: For this Act, there shall be a Higher Advisory Committee comprising the Mahanayaka Thera of the Malwatte Chapter of the Siam Nikaya; (b) the Mahanayaka Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter of the Siam Nikaya; (c) the Mahanayaka Thera holding the office for the time being as the President of the Sri Lanka Amarapura Maha Sanga Sabha; and (d) the Mahanayaka Thera of the Sri Lanka Ramanna Nikaya.

Some of those who have been behind the proposed Bill are: Ven. Mankadawala Sudassana Thera, Ven. Mankadawala Nandarathana Thera and Ven. Kotmale Kumarakashyapa Thera of Labunoruwa Aranya Senasana and Ven. Prof. Medagoda Abhayatissa Thera, Ven. Prof. Medagampitiye Vijithadhamma Thera, Ven. Anamaduwe Dhammadassi Thera of the Siam Nikaya, Asigiriya Chapter Anunayaka.

The Bill also suggests legal action against those who ‘distort’ the Tripitaka once it is passed as a law. The draft states, a person who alters, defaces, distorts, destroys, causes to be destroyed, humiliates, degrades, misuses, misinterprets the Theravada Tripitaka, Pali Atthakatha, Pali Teeka and their translations by submitting interpretations contrary to the approved version of such Theravada Tripitaka, Pali Atthakatha, Pali Teeka, commits an offence and shall, on conviction after trial by the High Court, be liable to a fine depending on the seriousness of the offence.

Gurugoda Siriwimala Thera says

The proposal in the Bill is nothing but a violation of practising the traditional Theravada Buddhism, says Ven. Gurugoda Siriwimala Thera.

Speaking to Ceylon Today, he said, “When I came to know about the proposed Bill being prepared to preserve the Tripitaka, I examined the proposed draft only to realise that the Tripitaka should be protected only from those who are eager to bring this Act.”

He further noted, to begin with, the aim of the said Bill generates more trouble than what they intend to resolve. There is no doubt that Tripitaka is the basis for Theravada doctrine for hundreds of years and is a heritage of our nation and the world. As a result of scholarly/intellectual discussions and debates over the years, a large volume of literary addendums describing the content of Tripitaka is currently available. Even today, many scholarly efforts are underway all over the world to interpret, explain, and understand the content of the Tripitaka and the companion volumes. It is sad to see a Government that has no knowledge or understanding of the Dhamma trying to make laws to restrict scholarly and intellectual discussions on Dhamma.

The Thera further noted that the said Bill outlines the aims as the preservation of grammatical (linguistic) interpretations, prevention of destruction of the content, misuse, and denigration of Dhamma outlined in Tripitaka and related text.

“There are vague, broad statements in the draft act without any definition of what is correct or not. There had been continuous debates and discussions on the Pali language, Pali grammar, and the Magadhi language, the Lord Buddha used to teach the Dhamma. Even today, there are many opinions and debates on the very definition of Theravada and Theravada Tripitaka. There are scholarly opinions on the introgression of some Mahayana concepts into the Theravada Tripitaka and vice versa. The wise approach to sorting out what is Buddha Dhamma is to use Lord Buddha’s advice: Inquire, analyse, and accept only what conforms to the natural laws of the Four Noble Truths and Dhamma. This proposed Act disregards, disbands and challenges Lord Buddha’s own words. How can anyone preserve Dhamma by disregarding and discrediting the teachings of Lord Buddha?” he questioned.

In addition, current or future Governments could revise the Act to force everyone to accept their version as true teachings of the Lord Buddha. There is no need for the Government to shed crocodile tears on the status of the Tripitaka or take actions to preserve the Dhamma that had survived more than 2500 years on its own.

Analysing the proposed draft:

Research Scientist Dr. O.P. Perera, based in the United States, talking about the Proposed Tripitaka Conservation Act, said the draft Sinhala version of legislation that could be roughly translated to English as “Tripitaka Preservation Act” to be presented to Cabinet in near future has been leaked to the public.

He added the public is probably not aware of the content or the intent of this proposed Act. Although the name of the Act indicates the noble cause of preservation of the teachings of Lord Buddha (Dhamma), hidden in the body of the proposed Act (in the leaked version) goes leaps and bounds beyond its declared purpose to suppress basic human rights.

He further explained the draft thus: The proposed act restricts the distribution of Theravada Tripitaka, interpretation of Lord Buddha’s teachings, Dhamma discussions or any related topic through any medium (broadcast, internet, digital, or print) without obtaining prior permission from the Committee. In addition, this act provides broad powers to the Committee to restrict the interpretation of Dhamma to what is provided in the Pali Canon and its Sinhala translation provided in the 58 volumes of the Buddha Jayanthi Tripitaka. While the Pali Canon is mostly free of errors, except for some typographic mistakes, the Sinhala interpretations of Dhamma in Buddha Jayanthi Tripitaka have many errors and conflicting definitions of key Pali terms.

For example, the key term Anichcha (අනිච්ච) has been interpreted in Buddha Jayanthi Tripitaka as impermanence (අනිත්ය) as well as inappropriate or improper (අනිස), sometimes in the same paragraph of some sutra (e.g. Adiththapariyaya Suthra, Samyuktha Nikaya 4, pages 332-335).

Therefore, if the Committee is asking the Buddhist teachers and followers to adhere to one definition, the question of which one of the conflicting interpretations would they recommend arises. If the Committee forces the Buddhists to use the Sanskrit term Anithya (impermanence) as the correct interpretation of Anichcha, then we will have to disregard all sutras that interpret Anichcha as Anisa or improper/inappropriate. Irrespective of which one of the two different interpretations the Committee determines to be correct, the fact that the Sinhala version of Buddha Jayanthi Tripitaka has translation errors that cannot be reconciled without understanding the context of Dhamma described in each Suthra is obvious.

Above is only one, albeit a significant, translation error that cannot be resolved by forcing an opinion of a committee that may or may not consist of members who have achieved one of the four stages of the path to enlightenment. In many Sutras, Lord Buddha has clearly stated that the concepts will not be comprehended by lay people who have not achieved Arya status (i.e. sovan (stream-enterer), sakadagami (one-returner), Anagami (non-returner), and Arihath (fully enlightened)). Therefore, the validity of the interpretation of Dhamma remains questionable unless the subject minister and appropriate leaders find at least 33 enlightened members. Furthermore, Lord Buddha’s teaching of inquisitiveness (Vimansa) and analysis (Dhammavichaya) in 37 doors to enlightenment (37 Bodhi Pakshika Dhamma) is suppressed under the authority given to the Committee to interpret Dhamma. Therefore, we must assume that the said Committee members will have a higher authority than Lord Buddha in interpreting Dhamma!

There is no need to state the obvious like controlling and dictating what a Buddhist can believe, practice, teach, and disseminate by a committee is a violation of basic human rights. What’s more? If this act becomes law, it could be easily used to hunt down dissidents or anyone opposed to the agendas of those who are in power, as the subject minister has the authority to appoint members of his or her choice to exceed the required quorum of 15. If anyone thinks that only the Buddhist may suffer from this law, they are dead wrong because the Act will set the precedence to suppress practitioners of other religions and cultures.

‘Bill will be like a Nivan Magata Certificate’ – Shashi Dhanatunge

Buddhism is a philosophy based on Cause and Effect (‘Hēthu saha Pala’). It is something that you can understand and apply according to your strengths, likes, and objectives. It is not possible and there is no provision for someone to be forced into Buddhism or converted to a Buddhist. This philosophy can be applied and practised by anyone just like how we apply scientific and mathematical formulas to various situations in life.

Lord Buddha never made an effort to force his teachings on anyone. All he did was preaching several thousands of Sūthras to explain this Science of Life (‘Samsara’) and the ways to Stop-it-for-Good (‘Nirvana’). Why so many Sūthras is because one Sūthra is good enough to make someone with the right mindset (eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch and mind) to understand and realise the path to Nirvana. Thereby, those thousands of Sūthras came out as a result of preaching that Buddha has made for several thousand men, women and children who have become his disciples. It is just like how two devices in remote locations synchronise with each other via Bluetooth technology. This understanding comes instantly from each person’s either intelligence or self-learning or experiences in the present and past births or in a combination of those.

Considering these, do you believe that the above qualities, conditions, and situations in an individual can be observed by another person or test, measure, and proved or disproved? Is it possible to be judged by a group of people no matter how educated, intelligent, and experienced in the subject?

The human mindset is like those Bluetooth devices. Their mindsets are running all over the place and always keep looking for something. So, when those mindsets find something that makes them feel good, happy, and interesting it clicks and sticks. Else, it will start running all over again searching for another. This is why we have several thousands of Sūthras (A large choice of Bluetooth frequencies) from Lord Buddha for us to get connected and find the appropriate path to attain Sovahan, Sakudagami, Anagami, and Arahath status.

Here is a situation where a Government-appointed Committee is going to decide whether someone’s mindset should synchronise with only Group A's frequencies or Group B's frequencies. How a Committee is going to make that judgment will be interesting to watch.

It is said that one particular night Lord Buddha decided to spend time at the house of the potter, in Rajagaha. An individual by the name of Pukkusāti was already occupying the guest room of the house, and the Buddha asked to be allowed to share it, to which Pukkusāti readily agreed. They sat together for some time in silence, and then the Buddha preached the Dhātuvibhanga Sūthraya. Pukkusāti recognised the Buddha at the end of the sermon and begged his forgiveness for not having paid him due honour; he then begged to have the Upasampadā conferred on him. The Buddha consented and sent him to procure a begging bowl and a robe. On the way, Pukkusāti was gored to death by a mad cow. When this was reported to the Buddha, he said that Pukkusāti was an Anāgāmin and had been born in the realms above, never more to return.

Pukkusāti never saw the Buddha before but he had only heard of him. This story proves that even Pukkusāti who spent a night discussing Dhamma never recognised at once that it was the Buddha (the Enlightened One) by the looks of him or through the discussions.

This explains the complexity and challenges that this proposed Bill and the nominated Committee is going to face, unless those Members of the Committee have attained a much higher status, which we do not know.

The Committee would not end up commercializing this great philosophy by offering a ‘Nivan Magata Certificate’ similar to the SLS Certificate to those followers who demonstrate more of White Aura, in the future! Siyalu Lōka Siyalu Sathvayo Nibbāna Parama Sukayen Sukitha Tharawethwā.

Irked by the draft 

A Naturalist Tour Guide and a Dhamma Blogger Amila Salgado is also irked by the draft. He says the Buddha Sasana comprises four aggregates (Bikkhu, Bikkhuni, Upasaka, Upasika) and if the Government is serious about carrying out its inevitable duty of protecting and fostering Buddha Sasana, all four aggregates should be consulted, not just a coterie of the Sangha."

What is recognised as the Theravada Tripitaka is an intellectual property of the Buddha’s Kingdom. When asked, who your Master is, the Buddha replied that the Dhamma was his Master. Therefore, sanity should prevail that no person, ministry, nation or a Board can claim ownership or be overlords of it, the Dhamma Blogger added. – [email protected]

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM May 21 2021

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