South Asia is poised on the crest of a huge wave of change. It’s been building up for a while, but I have a strong feeling it’s about to break. No matter how much people resist, exponential change is inevitable. Economic development and government schooling have already impacted traditional values, and this will only accelerate in the future.
If Sri Lankan Buddhism is to survive, it needs a strategy to deal with the increasing secularization of the culture. But no one I’ve talked to, from senior monks to well-educated laymen to the rickshaw-wallahs on the street, has any idea what’s happening or how to deal with it. They’re about to be swept off their feet by a wave of change, but their heads are inserted solidly into the sand. Nobody has a plan—except me.
I’ve seen this story before: in fact twice. I was born and raised in the United States in the mid-20th century, during a period of unprecedented economic growth. But rising standards of living made traditional,religious institutions redundant. Many churches closed and the occupation of clergyman lost much of its prestige. If you had a problem, you went to a psychologist instead of a minister.
I saw something very similar happen in India. When I first went there in 1974, religious culture was ubiquitous. Every shop was named after the family’s tutelary deity: Om Hardware stood across the street from Allah Akbar Halal Meats. Religious renunciants were treated with utmost respect and deference. Not anymore; western Hindu monks who were feted like rock stars in the ’70s scarcely raise an eyebrow today—in fact they might even provoke a cynical smirk from the newly minted middle classes.
This is going to happen in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, just as it already happened in India and Thailand. But as far as I can tell, the entire population is in denial. A soon as I bring up this topic in conversation, people become paranoid and defensive. They are in deep denial about the fact that exponential change is inevitable, and many of their oldest cultural traditions are going to disappear.
At the heart of this denial is the historical fact that the Theravada ‘tradition’ isn’t actually very traditional. Of course the root of Theravada is the Suttas, but they are obscured by several layers of commentary and sub-commentary, which is what both monks and lay people study. Every temple has a complete set of the Pāli Suttas that sit neglected in a locked, dusty cabinet. But most Buddhists can quote verbatim from Buddhaghosa and other ancillary authors. Monks chant the Suttas but cannot understand or explain them.
And no one can entertain even the concept of change. Since no one can understand the Buddha’s teaching or explain how it works, then of course no one can take any responsibility for changing anything, because it might be wrong. There is absolutely zero scope for even discussing new ideas.
In other words, they are committed to flying the sangha straight into the ground: ‘Controlled flight into terrain,’ as aircraft accident investigators succinctly term it.
I don’t share that ostrich-like suicidal impulse. I want to do something about it. And what I think should be done involves broad Internet-based education of the public in a functional, rather than religious, view of the Buddha’s teaching solidly based on the original Suttas rather than the commentaries. Interestingly, I am getting good traction and enthusiastic response from India. But no one in Sri Lanka wants to touch The Dharmasar Solution with a ten-foot pole.
Several times in the long history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the whole tradition has crashed and burned, and had to be restarted from the outside. It looks like that is about to happen again. The best thing we can do is to get out of the way.