Videos on ‘Sri Lanka: a Buddhist cosmology in food’


A great collection of videos on Rita Langer’s website are devoted to the subject of ‘Sri Lanka: a Buddhist cosmology in food‘.

Rita is a senior lecturer in Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol and she explains the subject of the short documentaries in the following way:

In 2014 I made six documentaries on food offerings in Sri Lanka. The short videos show how Buddhists in Sri Lanka relate to the visible and invisible beings around them including gods, animals, hungry ghosts and monks by way of providing food. The result is a cosmology in food which emerges from the kitchens of Sri Lanka. Some of the offerings are made to avert misfortune, others are made in fulfilment of a vow. They range from very private feeding of crows to large scale public generosity stalls distributing free food to 3000 people. In Sri Lanka cooking is still largely, even though not exclusively, the domain of women and their voices are rarely heard. I decided against a narrator and let the food makers tell their stories in their own words. The videos are in Sinhala with English subtitles.



U Wirathu: ‘There is a jihad against Buddhist monks’


As reported by Al Jazeera the controversial Burmese Buddhist monk U Wirathu addressed 5000 monks and laymen in a packed sports stadium in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo on Sunday 28 September.

In his usual rhetoric he argued that Buddhists are being threatened by Muslims and he suggested a possible a union between the Sri Lankan Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), and the Burmese 969 movement:

To protect and defend the threatened Buddhist the world over, my 969 movement will join hands with the BBS…Buddhists are facing a serious threat today from jihadist groups…The patience of Buddhists is seen as a weakness. Buddhist temples have been destroyed. There is a jihad against Buddhist monks.

The wider issue being considered by the Sangha convention is the proposal to create a ‘Sinhala Buddhist State’ and Buddhist monks and Hindu representatives from several countries were due to take part.


wirathu 5

Ban Ki Moon Comments on Buddhist Extremism

Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has commented upon Buddhist extremism in Sri Lanka and Burma. He stated that Buddhist groups in these countries are:

Being swept up by a rising tide of extremist sentiment against other groups…This betrays the peaceful teachings of the founder, Lord Buddha.

In commenting on the situation in Burma and conflict between the Buddhist majority and Muslim communities he argued that it threatens the transition to democracy:

The country’s leaders must speak out against divisive incitement…They must promote interfaith harmony. And they must stand against impunity for provocations and violence.

These are some of the strongest statements by a world leader about the situation in the two Buddhist countries.

He was speaking at 6th United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) forum in Bali, Indonesia.

The speech in full is the following:

Thank you for your strong commitment and participation in this very important initiative of the United Nations.

I am honoured to address this Sixth Global Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations under the leadership of President Yudhoyono and I thank President and the Government and people of Indonesia for their hospitality warm, welcome and the excellent success of this meeting.

This country, Indonesia, is home to a quarter of a billion people representing a thousand separate ethnic groups living wisely, harmoniously, side-by-side resolving all differences of opinion through dialogue. Therefore it is most fitting that this Alliance of Civilizations is taking place in this country, Indonesia.

I am inspired by Indonesia’s motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” or “Unity in Diversity.” This is the main theme of the Alliance of Civilizations.

Our differences should not divide us – they should forge our collective prosperity and strength.

The United Nations was born from tragic experience and lessons we learned from the Second World War: that countries must join forces for peace. And we have learned that this is true not just for governments – but for all of our society.

Unity in diversity is more than a slogan – it is a way of life and it is the way to peace.

I see many disasters in today’s world.

The natural calamities are heart-breaking.

What is most saddening in many ways, these man-made tragedies are even worse.

Too many of our world’s worst crises are driven by those who exploit fear for power.

Too many societies are fracturing along cultural, religious or ethnic lines.

Wars begin in people’s minds – and the way to peace is also through people’s hearts.

The Alliance of Civilizations was created to reach the hearts and minds of people and build bridges to peace.

I applaud High Representative Ambassador Al-Nasser for working with many grassroots groups around the world.

Under his leadership, the Alliance is making a difference on the ground.

It is helping Pakistani university students take the lead in healing sectarian divisions.

It is supporting theatre by Kenyan citizens to prevent young people from joining terrorist movements.

It is encouraging Muslim-Christian volunteerism in Mindanao.

In Israel-Palestine, the Alliance works to join families from both sides who have lost loved ones in the conflict.  By having a dialogue with each other, they challenge their leaders to do the same.

We are all here to help the Alliance of Civilizations expand its valuable work of addressing the sources of conflict and planting new seeds of peace.  I welcome its commitment to promoting interreligious and intercultural dialogue. These are essential tools to preventing and resolving conflicts.  I count on your support for efforts by the Alliance and by the entire United Nations system.

We have much work ahead of us across a landscape of tension.  Far too often, identities define boundaries that lead to fighting.

Intercommunal violence in the Central African Republic has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Nearly half the country’s population – two and a half million people – need help to survive.

The newest member of the UN, South Sudan, gained independence with great hope. I myself participated in the independence ceremony. But a power struggle degenerated into ethnic violence that has killed thousands of civilians and [left] many millions of displaced people.

In Myanmar, polarization is threatening the democratic transition. The country’s leaders must speak out against divisive incitement. They must promote interfaith harmony. And they must stand against impunity for provocations and violence.

It is critical to resolve the issue of status and citizenship of the minority Muslim community in Rakhine State, commonly known as the Rohingyas.

I am alarmed by the rising level of attacks in Sri Lanka against religious minorities. The Government and faith leaders must respond and ensure the safety and security of all communities.

In both Myanmar and Sri Lanka, I am concerned that Buddhist communities are being swept up by a rising tide of extremist sentiment against other groups.

This betrays the peaceful teachings of the founder, Lord Buddha.

Calls to violence in the name of religions violate their true principles.

All major faiths value peace and tolerance.

The Quran clearly states that there should be no compulsion in the religion.

That is why I am especially outraged by the reports from Iraq of brutal killing of civilians by ISIL. Whole communities that had lived for generations in Northern Iraq are being forced to flee or face death just for their religious beliefs. We cannot allow communities to be threatened by atrocity crimes because of who they are, because of what they believe.

I welcome the recent open-ended ceasefire in the Middle East following 50 days of profound human suffering and widespread destruction. Any violations would be utterly irresponsible. Civilians on both sides – Palestinians and Israelis – need this chance to resume their lives without fear. A sustainable ceasefire is also essential to facilitate humanitarian relief and early recovery efforts for the suffering people in Gaza.

I remain hopeful that the extended ceasefire will open the way for a political process, which is the only way to achieve lasting peace. The parties must live up to their responsibilities to secure peace through mutual respect as well as an end to economic strangulation of Gaza and the nearly half century of occupation.  More suffering, siege conditions and military action will only hurt innocent civilians, empower extremists on all sides, and undermine the safety of our world.

In all cases and all regions, our response must aim at extremists as well as those who enable them with weapons and other forms of support.

Dangerous, divisive leaders are not only found in conflict zones.

In Europe, North America and elsewhere, we see cynical political exploitations of religious differences – and rising Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech.

In decades past, it might take weeks or months to get reports on atrocities. Today – because of the advancing state of professional media and citizen journalists – they are aired in real-time.

Our challenge is to act on the information we receive. My Rights Up Front initiative aims to mobilize the United Nations quickly in response to abuses.

The UN works around the clock and around the world to usher in a more peaceful future.

Our human rights experts document violations.

Our disarmament teams destroy deadly weapons.

Our peacekeepers patrol demilitarized zones.

I thank the United Nations staff for their dedication in dealing with the consequences of conflicts.

They know from experience that it is better to prevent problems than to fix them.

It is not enough to identify crimes, silence guns and separate warring parties. We must work to strengthen prevention and build the foundations of lasting peace.

Earlier this month at the United Nations, I had the opportunity of meeting a brave young girl, Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan. She was a very brave young teenager who survived a terrorist attack simply because she wanted to study. Now she has become a global champion of education.  

We met with some 500 young people at the United Nations in the General Assembly Hall together with the General Assembly President to mark 500 days until the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals. It was quite meaningful event marking the MDG deadline 500 days before.

Malala Yousafzai stressed that everyone is equal – and that everyone can be a peacemaker or human rights defender.

As she said: “We are all the same and everyone can make a difference.”

Let us make and renew our resolve to strengthen the Alliance of Civilization so it can do its job of resisting the forces of dehumanization and brutality – and strengthening the power of our common humanity. And let us work together on the basis of our principles of the United Nations Charter and the Alliance of Civilizations with this power. Let us work together to make this world better where everybody can live with human dignity.

Thank you very much.



Sri Lankan Buddhist monk denounces the Dalai Lama


As reported in Al Jazeera, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force)  has made some outspoken comments about the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama had recently urged Buddhists in Burma and Sri Lanka to end violence, particularly against Muslims.

‘Like Pope for Christians, he is considered as the leader for all Buddhists by the West. But we don’t accept him as the leader of the Buddhists…We see Dalai Lama is also a victim of the Muslim extremism…They (Muslim extremists) have fed misinformation and he has got wrong information.’

The Dalai Lama had recently said:

‘I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime […] Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.’






‘Fascists’ in saffron robes? The rise of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist ultra-nationalists


An article appears on CNN by Tim Hume called ‘Fascists’ in saffron robes? The rise of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist ultra-nationalists. Using the same footage of hate speech I used previously of Bodu Bala Sena general secretary Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara the article observes:

‘Then, his arm raised and his voice rising to a shriek, he issues an explicit threat to Muslims, using a derogatory term for the minority.

To roars of approval, he vows that if any Muslim, were to lay a hand on a Sinhalese – let alone a monk – that would “be the end” of all of them.

What is striking about the clip, aside from the viciousness of the rhetoric, is that the firebrand behind the microphone is dressed in the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk.

He is Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the Buddhist holy man who is the general secretary and public face of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, also known as Buddhist Power Force).

The ultra-nationalist Sinhalese Buddhist organization has emerged as a troubling presence on the Sri Lankan political landscape in recent years, and is blamed by many for inciting the deadly violence in Aluthgama.’


Buddhism in Burma and Sri Lanka: Ethnocentric Buddhism

Another short interview by Dr David Webster of the University of Gloucestershire with myself, this time about Buddhism in modern Burma. It appears on the University of Gloucestershire’s Video Resources for Philosophy and Religion Students.

I have previously written about the phenomenon of Ethnocentric Buddhism:

‘“Ethnocentric Buddhism” is a term I have begun to use to describe a particular phenomenon in the history of Buddhism, although I suspect it is not a recent one. The term points to the notion that Buddhist identity is intrinsically linked to national identity. It also denotes the idea that other factors will be apparent in creating Buddhist and national identity in different Buddhist cultures. For example, in Thailand there is the idea of “nation, religion and monarch” (chat-sasana-phramahakasat) and in Burma “nation, language and religion” (amyo-barthar-tharthanar). In both of these examples the idea of the Buddhist religion (sasana/tharthanar) is linked to other factors in the formation of national and cultural identity. Further, in both cases the defence of one’s religion is linked to these other themes of national identity — to defend one is to defend the other.’



Is the idea that Buddhism has a political message ‘wishful thinking’?


In the study of Buddhism it has often been noted that the teachings do not point to the changing of the world, but to changing our perception of it – there is nothing wrong with the world but the way we perceive the world. The problem of ‘suffering’ (dukkha) is not ultimately to do with the world, but with the fact that people tend to grasp and become attached to all sorts of things. The world is seen with greed, hatred and delusion. This aspect of Buddhist teachings suggests that Buddhist doctrines should not be used to change the world, but to change the way we view the world.They should be used to lessen greed, hatred and delusion and, in so doing, solve the problem of dukkha. What is needed is a way of seeing that reduces and eradicates craving. I would like to consider these ideas and conclude with some comments on how this might affect our understanding of socially engaged Buddhism.

Let me use the Abhidhamma to explore these ideas. Throughout book three of the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, an evaluation is given of certain ways of apprehending the world. In the following I would like to focus upon one aspect of what I think the text is describing. Put simply this is that the world can be apprehended with or without craving. This aspect of Buddhist thought has been noted by Steven Collins, who has suggested that this reflects something of a dichotomising tendency within early Buddhism:


‘Anything with conceptual or experiential content was to be assimilated to the impersonal, non-valued side of the dichotomy; since in this sphere everything was dominated by desire and grasping, anything with content became potentially graspable. Against this stood the empty unconditioned nibbāna, susceptible neither to conceptualising nor grasping.’[1]


Buddhism is, at it were, concerened with different orders of seeing, between the graspable, and the ungraspable, between concepts and emptiness, beteen attachment and non-attachment, between craving and calmness. I would like to look at the Dhammasaṅgaṇi to see how it considers this apparent dichotomy. Book three of the Dhammasaṅgaṇi,the Nikkhepa-kaṇḍaṃ, begins with the following question:


‘Which ‘things’ (dhammas. I leave the term untranslated in the following) are wholesome?
The three roots of the wholesome:Absence of greed, hatred and delusion;The four ‘aggregates’ (khandhas)[2] of feeling, apperception, volitional formations and consciousness when they are associated with these roots;Actions of body, speech and mind when they come from these three roots.These are wholesome dhammas’.[3]


With reference to the khandhas, I take this to imply that, when they are seen in their true nature, i.e. as not-self, they are wholesome (this is sammā-diṭṭhi).


The next question asked is:


‘Which dhammas are unwholesome?
The three roots of the unwholesome:Greed, hatred and delusion;The defilements (kilesā) united with them;The four khandhas of feeling, apperception, volitional formations and consciousness when they are associated with these roots;Actions of body, speech and mind when they come from these three roots.These are unwholesome dhammas.’[4]


The Dhammasaṅgaṇi is clearly stating that the four mental khandhas are unwholesome when they are associated with ‘greed’, ‘hatred’ and ‘delusion’ (lobha, dosa, moha). [5] In this analysis it must be remembered that in the Nikāya and Abhidhamma analysis the term khandha is a neutral term, but the khandhas can become associated with (are indeed prone to), corruption. Primarily they are prone to give rise to the corruption of ‘wrong-view’ (micchā-diṭṭhi) which distorts the way things really are. Rupert Gethin has commented on the nature of the khandhas in the Nikāyas and Abhidhamma:


‘The term upādānakkhandha signifies the general way in which the khandhas are bound up with upādāna; the simple khandha, universally applicable, is used in the nikāyas and especially the Abhidhamma texts as a neutral term, allowing the specific aspects of, for example, upādāna’s relationship to the khandhas to be elaborated.’[6]


The Dhammasaṅgaṇi is using the khandhas in its explanation of two ways of apprehending the world, one ‘wholesome’ (kusala), and one ‘unwholesome’ (akusala). These ideas suggest that the text is attempting to explain two attitudes to the world found in the dichotomy suggested by Collins. The same reality is seen, but the one based on non-attachment is wholesome, and the other, based on attachment, giving rise to corruptions, is unwholesome.


One could state that in this particular understanding of the Buddha’s teachings the entire engaged Buddhism agenda appears fundamentally flawed. Socially engaged Buddhism begins with the premise that suffering is not only caused by mental reactions to external events, but that external events – social, political and economic, for example – can be the cause of suffering. For the engaged Buddhist suffering is not only psychological, to be overcome by such techniques as meditation, but finds its causes in a wide variety of factors. Political struggle, among other things, can then be used as a technique to overcome suffering. I’m not suggesting that either interpretation is correct. They appear to me to both be valid and to have support from different parts of the tradition. I would suggest that the teachings I am considering here offer a criticism, and one that perhaps needs to be addressed, of socially engaged Buddhism. As I have heard it suggested – to think that Buddhism has a political message is ‘wishful thinking’.



[1] Steven Collins, Selfless Persons, p. 113.

[2] I shall return to the use of four khandhas below.

[3] katame dhammā kusalā? tīṇi kusalamūlāni: alobho adoso amoho taṃsampayutto vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, taṃ samuṭṭhānaṃ kāyakammaṃ vacīkammaṃ manokammaṃ, ime dhammā kusalā, Dhs 180, :981. All references to the Dhs are given by page then paragraph numbers.

[4] katame dhammā akusalā? tīṇi akusalamūlāni: lobho doso moho, tadekaṭṭhā ca kilesā taṃsampayutto vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, taṃsamuṭṭhānaṃ kāyakammaṃ vacīkammaṃ manokammaṃ, ime dhammā akusalā, Dhs 180, :982.

[5] The text finally defines those dhammas that are indeterminate (avyākatā), which is not essential for the present discussion: katame dhammā avyākatā kusalākusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ vipākā kāmāvacarā rūpāvacarā arūpāvacarā apariyāpannā, vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, ye ca dhammā kiriyā n’ eva kusalā nākusalā na ca kammavipākā, sabbaṃ ca rūpaṃ, asaṃkhatā ca dhātu. ime dhammā avyākatā, Dhs 180, :983.

[6] Rupert Gethin, ‘The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment in the Nikāyas and Early Abhidhamma’, Journal of Indian Philosophy, 14 (1986), 35-53 (p. 39).