COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Jan. 17 (RNS) -- Opposition to the latest international efforts to end Sri Lanka's 18 years of crippling civil war is coming from what would seem like an unlikely source, the island nation's leading Buddhist monks.

"Normally Buddhism is a very peaceful religion, but here some monks have a very different interpretation," said Indika Perera, a program officer with the nongovernmental National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. "Aside from the Buddhist leaders, other religious leaders are almost all in favor of the peace process."

One year ago, Norwegian diplomats initiated peace talks after winning agreement from the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Elam (LTTE) to participate. Since 1983, the LTTE has been fighting for a homeland in the north of this teardrop-shaped country of 19 million people off the southern tip of India.

The war pits the majority Sinhalese people, who are predominantly Buddhists, against ethnic Tamil militants, who are Hindus. But it is not a religious conflict. Buddhists and Hindus across the island share common holy sites and shrines.

All the same, influential Buddhist leaders consistently and loudly oppose current government talk of granting the LTTE significant political autonomy in the north.

"The government must fight with them until they surrender. And then reach a political settlement regarding their demands," said the Venerable Bellanwila Wimalaratana, a Buddhist monk who is deeply suspicious of the initiative from Norway, which has a Tamil minority.

"Norwegian leaders have in the past supported the LTTE. So how can Norway play a role in finding peace now?"

Although Sri Lanka's populace is weary of a war that has claimed at least 60,000 lives and scared off the hundreds of thousands of European vacationers who once drove a thriving tourist industry, Perera said many voters take their cues from the conservative Buddhist prelates.

Speaking of the leaders of Sri Lanka's four main Buddhist groups and their opposition to a negotiated peace with the LTTE, Perera said: "They don't clearly say, but the common people understand that they are against it."

In the run-up to Sri Lankan parliamentary elections in October, top Buddhist clergy flexed their muscle over the issue of peace talks as they have done previously at hints that Buddhism might lose its position in the Sri Lankan constitution as the faith with the "foremost position."

"The Buddhist leaders who are against it have played a very big role," Perera said. "They held hunger strikes and rallies."

The Buddhists' argument for fighting the LTTE until surrender is not based on a religious rationale but on cultural and historical grounds.

As Wimalaratana explained, because Sri Lanka is the "most prominent" country in the world for "orthodox" Buddhism--it offers free Buddhist education and dispatches hundreds of teaching monks abroad--the country's territorial integrity is of vital importance to Buddhists the world over.

"If Buddhism had not survived here, the entire Theravada movement of Sri Lanka would be lost.... We must continue this long-standing tradition," Wimalaratana, the author of 10 books in English and Sinhalese on Buddhism, said during a recent interview in his Colombo monastery.

According to the tradition as taught in Sri Lanka, Lord Buddha visited Sri Lanka three times in his lifetime, traveling south from the Indian mainland.

In some variants of Theravada Buddhism, for example, the Buddha is not thought of primarily as a preacher of world renouncement but as the one who turns the Wheel of Dharma, or as the World Sovereign.

Sri Lanka's estimated 25,000 Buddhist monks take great pride in working to preserve the purity of the Theravada strain of Buddhism that emerged in Sri Lanka some 2,300 years ago. Adherents to Theravada Buddhism live mostly in Southeast Asia while those who practice Mahayana, Buddhism's other main branch, are found in Tibet, China and Japan.

Buddhists worldwide recognize "ahimsa"--not harming sentient creatures through deed or thought--as the first of five precepts of Buddhist life.

However, with the very survival of Theravada Buddhism at stake, Wimalaratana said Buddhist leaders must not stand in the way of young Buddhist men and women who want to join the country's paid armed forces.

"If everyone thought, 'I am a Buddhist, so I cannot enter the army,' there would not be anyone in the army," he said. "When you join the military, it doesn't mean that you are going to destroy your enemy, but protect your country."

Citing fishermen who kill fish for a living and doctors who dissect animals for training, Wimalaratana said Buddhist fighters should not let their consciences trouble them.

Although Wimalaratana's viewpoint is shared by Sri Lanka's Buddhist establishment, there is a growing peace movement among Buddhist monks. At a mid-December peace demonstration organized in central Colombo by the Interreligious Alliance for National Unity, about 500 Buddhist monks attended, far outnumbering a handful of religious leaders from the Hindu, Muslim and Roman Catholic faiths.

Founded in 1998 with 10 members, the Alliance has grown to include nearly 400 Buddhist clergy alone, said the Venerable Kalupahana Piyaratana, a monk from Southern Sri Lanka who helped start up the group.

Although Piyaratana said the Alliance is growing, he was pessimistic about Buddhist leaders changing their opposition to the peace process.

"The hierarchy has always thought traditionally--for hundreds of years. If war continues, it will strengthen their fears, strengthen their resolve," said Piyaratana, 34, during a recent visit to Colombo from his monastery in southern Sri Lanka, where he became a monk at the age of 12 and is now the director of a small seminary.

In terms of Buddhist teachings, the war has not proven a divisive issue, Piyaratana said, because "Buddhist monks don't argue for war through Buddhism but through cultural, historical issues."

Aside from Buddhist clergy actively involved in the public debate on the war, clerics representing Sri Lanka's 1.5 million Roman Catholics are playing an increasingly prominent role.

In an interview before setting off for the peace demonstration, Bishop Malcolm Ranjith, secretary-general of the Sri Lankan Bishops' Conference, said, "Behind the scenes on many occasions, the church has done its best to bring about contact between the government and the militants."

The Catholic Church, whose members include both Sinhalese and Tamils, spans rebel- and government-controlled territory. One of the biggest tasks facing the church, Ranjith said, is to overcome the ethnic tensions among Catholic clergy and laity that mirror those in the war-torn country itself.

"Very often the clergy are divided along racial lines. This is a serious problem we have," said Ranjith, himself a member of Sri Lanka's dominant Sinhalese people. "We can be misunderstood by our own people when we reach out to the other side."

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