Sri Lanka’s Corrupted Monks

Buddhists should fight hatred, not foment it

Buddhism is good. It is a blessing that Sri Lanka preserved Theravada Buddhism for thousands of years.

It is a blessing that I, a miserable young person, was able to receive these teachings through my mother, a monk, and the thousands of monks and mothers that made up the Sangha over time. I am not ungrateful. On the contrary, I take refuge in the Sangha. I also take refuge in the Buddha and in his teachings, the Dhamma.

If you read the Dhammapada, it is clear that Buddhism is not a faith to blindly shut up and accept. You do need to shut up and meditate, but doing that is a critical practice that examines all of your ideas, your experiences, your very self. The Buddha lets you crib his notes, but you ultimately have to do the homework by yourself.

Being a Buddhist is not a thing you are. It is a practice. For me it is a practice I’m continually failing at, but it helps.

I have a great admiration and respect for monks that give up so much to dedicate their lives to this practice. The longest I’ve gone on a meditation retreat is 10 days and that was really, really hard.

However, the Buddha was very clear that robes do not make a monk. I think Sri Lankans have forgotten this, to the corruption of our monks and of our form Buddhism itself. As the Dhammapada says:

Who, not free from stains, wears the stained cloth, is devoid of restraint and truth, he deserves not the stained cloth.

(The Pairs, 9, EW Adikaram translation of The Dhammapada)

I think of this verse when I see monks at the front of violent mobs. When I hear monks speaking in filth and calling for other human beings to be driven out and killed. I think of this because it breaks my heart as a Buddhist, and because so many Sri Lankans seem to think that whatever they do is OK, because they are wearing the cloth.

It is not OK. These monks are corrupt. They are devoid of restraint and truth, and they deserve not the stained cloth. If you are so attached to Sinhala Buddhist identity that you can’t see that, then you are completely missing the point.

Buddhism As Practice

The term Sinhala Buddhist is an oxymoron. You can be Buddhist and abandon your sense of self, or Sinhalese and cling to it. Of course, most of us do a bit of both, but when it comes down to burning or killing over identity I think the Buddhist part should win out. If you’re really trying to practice the faith.

A point repeated often in the Dhammapada, is that being a Buddhist is a practice, it is NOT an identity. Indeed, a core tenet of Buddhism is dissolving your identity through meditation, discovering the true nature of ‘not self’.

Buddhism As Practiced

Buddhism here is like any organized religion. It has politics, it owns land, it deals with money, it shields its own corruption and it resists oversight. It is associated with race, with political parties, and with the state.

Organized religion is weird because it preserves faith across thousands of years but can be quite cruel or ignorant in any given year. If you’re a human trying to practice a faith you can draw on organized religion, but you can’t follow it blindly because it is a human institution full of human abuses and flaws.

That is how Buddhism is in Sri Lanka. Monks are ordained as children, which leads to child abuse that we don’t talk about. Monks are human and some accumulate wealth and property and drink and have sex and there is no real way to defrock them. At the top power is concentrated in a few powerful sects and monks, which creates tension from the monks at the bottom trying to rise, which they often do by going directly to the public with whatever message works (often racism).

The whole institution has no accountability and mobs will violently attack anyone who criticizes or attempts to change this.

In Sri Lanka’s recent organized attacks on Muslims, monks instigated and participated in violence, but they are politically and socially impossible to arrest. They can’t even be disciplined within the clergy, nevermind the courts. This is a problem. It’s a problem for the people who are bullied, burnt out of their homes and killed, it’s a problem for Buddhism and it’s a problem for Sri Lanka.

Monks Should Be Accountable

In 2016 the government tried to change this by passing a Theravadi Bhikku Kathikawath bill to enable Nikayas (chapters) to try monks for practicing occult practices or being involved in business or general behavior unsuitable for monks. Then monks could be temporarily or permanently defrocked, and if they ignored the Nikaya, they would be tried in court.

This bill didn’t pass, which was a shame.

Sri Lanka should pass this bill or something like it to preserve and improve the beautiful form of Buddhism we practice rather than preserving corrupt monks that hurt the country and the image of Buddhism around the world.

Attempts to even talk about monks invites so much hatred online and violence in the streets that people avoid it entirely. I have. As a Buddhist, however, now I feel that I must say someting.

Buddhism is not a religion you can cite selectively to justify hatred or violence. I’ve read The Dhammapada back and forth and it just isn’t there. The Buddha’s message is quite simple and clear and it is completely opposed to what these corrupted monks are doing. Lay people defend monks because they’re monks, but they Buddha quite explicitly says not to do this.

Monks should not be at the frontlines of race riots, they should be connecting communities and practicing mindfulness and peace. Indeed, many Sri Lankan monks and lay Buddhists are and were. We need more of that, and less of the corrupt.

To do that, however, we need to courage to stand up to the idea that monks cannot be questioned, and to stay standing in the face of overwhelming and seemingly popular hatred, disguised in the colors of a beautiful and peaceful religion. Coming as family and friends.

The Buddha started a practice of questioning everything until love, truth and enlightement was all that remained. Sri Lanka preserved this practice in a pure and elegant form for thousands of years. We should use this practice now, to heal our country, expel the corrupt and be a beacon of true Buddhism to the world. It is hard, but Buddhism is hard. We should practice and try.

Written by

A writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He/him. Videos: and podcast:

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