Buddhism was the medium that carried the message of peace and civilizations to both lands
I am indeed privileged to partake in the 2021 Buddha Purnima Ceremony of Bangladesh at the International Buddhist Monastery in Dhaka, an event blessed by the Most Venerable Bhikkhu Sunandapriya, and in the distinguished presence of the honourable Minister of Cultural Affairs and Mr Bipalab Barua, advisor to HE the prime minister, with the participation of Buddhist devotees of Bangladesh.
I am pleased to learn that this sacred space is also the land donated by Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, to the International Buddhist Monastery. This country indeed is blessed by a leader known for her wisdom and stature, who believes in inclusivity as the most valued contribution to human culture.
Our two lands enjoy a shared history dating back to the 6th Century BCE. Legend has it that a prince from Vangadesha arrived in Tambapanni, married a princess and settled down there. The intense convergence of trade in the Bay of Bengal witnessed religio-cultural interactions between our two lands.
Buddhism was the medium that carried the message of peace and civilizations to both lands. It endowed a rich doctrinal and cultural ethos of Theravada and Mahayana traditions enriched by a sober perception of life and civilization in our lands. The historic material culture and the living traditions of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh reflect the pristine sentiments embedded in the culture of these lands.
My introduction to Bangladesh had a trajectory. First, my deep respect for Gurudev Tagore, a shared icon of our lands, and his sublime vision of humanism. Secondly, my archeo-historical studies on the history of early Buddhism, its doctrinal aspects, and the higher material culture in the Northern curve of South Asia. Thirdly, prior to my arrival, the blessings I received from resident Bangladesh Buddhist bhikkus in Sri Lanka.
It was indeed a convergence of history and blessings welcoming me to this land and its people in the most auspicious manner.
I was born to a culture nurtured by Buddha’s sublime thoughts on compassion, tolerance, equality, inclusiveness, and the development of an intellectual personality. His thoughts also unfolded a dynamic culture and the intellectual ethos that moved from subcontinental to transcontinental spaces.
We are gathered here today not only to revere the memory of a compassionate and intellectual sage but also look at ourselves in the light of peace, harmony, and co-existence as a universal truth juxtaposed to injustice, conflict, discrimination, and discord.
I wish to take this opportunity to share some thoughts on Buddhism and humanism, which is a universal message that is valued by the people of our two lands.
The success story of historical Buddhism was its flexibility to intervene and engage itself, both compassionately and intellectually at all levels in society. Its functional value is found not purely in its doctrinal aspects per se but also in the realm of inclusiveness embracing all living beings and the universe with loving-kindness, understanding without discrimination.
The Buddha equated knowledge or wisdom with the truth. Buddhism itself was recognized as the “doctrine of analysis” or vibajja-vada. Knowledge leading to the truth that could not be imposed from above but to be realized through an uninhibited spirit of critical inquiry as pronounced in the Kalama sutta.
Those who seek knowledge were instructed to break away from the four extremes or fetters: Bias (chanda), prejudice (dosha), fear (bhaya), and delusion (moha). This is freedom of thought and action and at its best.
Buddhism also introduced the earliest conscious effort at people-to-people connectivity. The message of knowledge and peace was disseminated in society by the order of monks (bhikkhu) and nuns (bhikknin). The clergy constituted themselves as a democratic and egalitarian collective.
Individual lay members (upasaka and upasika) who joined the order had to renounce their social identity and status. No one was discriminated against based on preexisting social or rank status in the order as water from different rivers taste of salt in one ocean. Buddha explicitly denounced social discrimination and pronounced the value of equality where a person’s social status was gauged not by birth and material wealth, but on ethical conduct and moral behaviour (Vasala sutta).
The transcontinental movement of the Buddha’s word spread as a peaceful movement of absorption, adoption, adaption, and accommodation. It not only conveyed the spirit of the doctrine but also a higher culture represented in social norms of co-existence, ethical behaviour, language and script, art forms, and architecture. Buddhist monasteries were not only places of worship and social convergence but were expressive centers of excellence for intellectual and cultural activity.
By the first millennium ACE, such centers were found and flourished at Taxila, Nalanda, Anuradhapura, Odantapuri, and Vikaramashila, including Paharpur Mainamati and Jagaddala in Bangladesh. Buddhism indeed was a doctrine of the intellect and higher culture that went beyond borders and transcended language, cultural, and even religious barriers. The Buddhist culture was truly international in character.
Today, we constantly face questions of the social and environmental cost of aggressive political encroachments, material development, and globalization and its “imagined development” resulting in untold damage to lives, enforced discrimination dismantling the social and moral fabric of the world.
Conversely, humanizing social, economic, and cultural interactions within a sustainable environment is seen as an alternative to development imposed from above on unequal partners in the global world. The Buddha’s message for peace and co-existence is based on reaching out to all living beings with loving-kindness, accommodation, and understanding, thus underlining its importance to society as a timeless universal message.
May all living beings be blessed with metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha.
Professor Sudharshan Seneviratne is High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Bangladesh.