A few years ago I half-wrote this (some of it escaped as twitter-thread radiation at the time, so if some of this sounds familiar, that’s why) in reaction to, among other things, a Sri Lanka politician—it was Mangala Samaraweera, in fact, whose recent death and subsequent hagiographies are what reminded me of this half-written essay again, before today’s headlines—saying that he was not a Buddhist but “a person who follows the Buddhist philosophy,” which has long been a Sri Lankan middlebrow commonplace for people who want to distance themselves from the tacky or ugly parts of Buddhism. The objectionable, depending on the objectors, might be the old-fashioned ritual trappings, the pogroms, the philosophical or salvific failures, or the politicized establishment. Common in all of these is the rescue of Buddhism from itself. Each is a search for some pure and uncorrupted heart, a philosophy, a way of life, some higher teaching separate from the muddy and the goday and the bloody. But at least for those whose objection to actually existing Buddhism in Sri Lanka is its cost in lives and to life, this search merely recreates the problem on slightly higher ground. Looking for the pure and uncorrupted heart is how hell was made.
Since this is a context where religion is racialized, it is also commonplace to say that you were born a Buddhist. I was born a Buddhist, in this sense, which means that I went to temple on the full moon, learned the Pali prayers by heart, cut bamboo to make Vesak lanterns in May, and as the members of my family died one by one, invited seven monks from the local temples to come sing the prayer for the dead. All that sort of thing. I did these things not out of considered and intentional choice but simply because this was the world I knew, and those were the things one did in it. Eventually, as with most things lacking a heart, my practice of the rituals faded away. I have not made a Vesak lantern in decades. I don’t miss it, but I remember the feeling of that childish religiosity like fresh-cut bamboo on my fingertips—too smooth, too easily broken, and too sharp at the edges.
I don’t call myself Buddhist any more. There was a long time when I still automatically used it as an identifier in forms and affidavits, but even that has passed many years ago. But because Buddhism is racialized in Sri Lanka, it’s also impossible to entirely escape it: regardless of what you believe or don’t believe, practice or don’t, Buddhist privilege is inescapable if you have a Sinhala name or had a Buddhist childhood. For example, I know the ඉතිපිසෝ, which is a short prayer of praise for the Buddha, now most notable for its use as a shibboleth to distinguish Tamil speakers from Sinhala speakers during the 1983 pogrom. Once you know things like that, I feel, this prayer—and all the other Pali prayers—become unspeakable. They stop meaning what they say; they stop meaning what they might have once meant. Now they mean something else.
That article, itself a hagiography to yet another asshole politician, includes anecdotes spanning the period between the 1977 election and the 1983 pogrom—I was born in 1979, of an age with the Prevention of Terrorism Act, so when I say this was the world I knew, I mean that I have never known a Sinhala Buddhism that was free of this violence. And its pedigree goes back decades, arguably centuries: it is safe to say, at minimum, that no-one now alive has ever known a different Sinhala Buddhism. And yet people constantly appeal to the spectre of one, something clean and untainted whose abstract purity in a higher realm justifies the violence in its defense in this one. This appeal is the heart of Buddhist fascism, and as a rhetorical move it is not restricted to the Sinhalese.
However, if the situation was such that there was only one learned lama or genuine practitioner alive, a person whose death would cause the whole of Tibet to lose all hope of keeping its Buddhist way of life, then it is conceivable that in order to protect that one person it might be justified for one or 10 enemies to be eliminated — if there was no other way. I could justify violence only in this extreme case, to save the last living knowledge of Buddhism itself.The Dalai Lama, 1997 interview
Is it necessary to explain that this is wrong and deeply foolish? Is it not self-evident? Clearly, it is not self-evident. Myanmar’s 969 movement adapts this fatuous comment with ease into a justification for more generalized violence in Buddhism’s “defense,” and you will find the same language and same reasoning anywhere you care to look in Sinhala Buddhist rhetoric. It is the standard rhetorical manoeuvre by which Buddhists declare themselves above normative Buddhist ethics. Buddhist ethics is valuable, they say, because, e.g., it forbids killing, therefore killing is justified to preserve those ethics, which are certainly too valuable for everyday use. Buddhist ethics are like the good china, the fancy heirloom teapot you have in the glass cabinet for visitors to admire, but you are definitely not going to serve tea out of it.
To the Sinhala Buddhist proponent of violence, what they are doing is not hypocrisy, but sacrifice. Their belief is that they are selflessly ruining their own karma in order to save Buddhism for future generations. The violence, you see, is altruistic. The well-known fascist monk Gnanasara, for instance, made a production of this rhetorical move in 2019, by first declaring first that he would abandon his political activism to meditate and focus on religious pursuits, and then “changing his mind” because nirvana can always wait, but fascism is urgent. And “nirvana can always wait” has been standard-issue since before Independence, and the work of Walpola Rahula. In contemporary Sri Lankan Theravada, Buddhism is what is most useless to Buddhism, and exists only to be put aside.
But even that little zinger risks replicating the same manoeuvre I’m trying to argue against: the implication that there is a cleaner Buddhism, somewhere, even if in a purely hypothetical realm.
Why do I say “unbuddhist” instead of “non-religious”? Why අබෞද්ධ instead of නිරාගමික? Mostly, it’s that the latter tastes like cardboard to me. An airless word, a nothing word of studied neutrality: that isn’t what I’m getting at. People also say “atheist” here sometimes, by analogy with the popular Christian version, but that is entirely meaningless in this context, since the (non)existence of gods is not at issue. I like “unbuddhist” because it’s a pejorative to reclaim, perhaps, but also because it signals both opposition and proximity, in the same way that an atheist is someone who exists in a theistic framework and opposes it. Much of my thought, my fiction included, is inflected by buddhisms of various types. Nor is it particularly unusual for people to customize their buddhisms in this way, by dropping the parts they find objectionable and streamlining others—in fact, this was how the 20th century reform movement worked in the first place, stripping out what they considered empty ritual and ramping up the activist politicization.
But if you disavow the monks, political or otherwise, assuming an otherwise is even coherent; if you take away temples, relics, prayers, and rituals; if you take away poyas and the flag; if you ignore all the endlessly pedantic numbered lists of nonsense like the Thirty-Two Characteristics of Great Men; if you put aside orthodox understandings of karma and rebirth, samsara/nirvana, and meditation; if you have little interest in the alleged life of Siddhartha Gautama and less still in jatakas, buddhas, pacceka-buddhas, arahats, bodhisattvas, heavens, hells, or gamified enlightenment bonus points; if you ascribe little significance to the middle way, the four truths, the five precepts, the eightfold path, and so on, in that the important parts of those are derivable from ethical first principles and the rest are historical oddities and stray leftover bits; if you are specifically opposed to the linking of buddhism to race and nation and history, to “Sinhala-ness” in Buddhism, to the idea that a “Buddhism” even exists that could or should be “protected” or put in a constitutionally “foremost” place, all of which I do—then even if you continue to find, for instance, the paticcasamuppada, the trilaksana, and the idea of sunyata valuable and emotionally and intellectually significant, as I also do, you are definitely not a buddhist. You are merely a picky asshole, as I am. What I’m talking about here is not reformatory. This is not a stripping down to essentials, because I also don’t care about a lot of the essentials. This is merely an accommodation: my accommodation to the religious world I grew up in. This is what’s left of that world, after some consideration. It is possible, I think, and desirable, to disavow without appeal to purity.
But let’s talk about a real Buddhist instead.
Earlier today (and this is what prompted me to dust off this half-written essay yet again—truly this is an extremely cold take despite its hot-takeish timing) Gnanasara was appointed chairman of a “One Country One Law” presidential task force, signaling not a mainstreaming, exactly, since he was already thoroughly mainstream, but perhaps an upshift in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s willingness to publicly and directly associate himself with the likes of Gnanasara, something the Rajapaksas used to be a little shyer about. More precisely, it’s a signal that the administration believes that the mainstreaming of Buddhist fascism has been successful enough that a figure who was once somewhat controversial even for their own base might now be more broadly acceptable. Perhaps they are wrong about this, but in a way the appointment is a self-fulfilling prophecy: even if it gets reversed, it means that the next ratchet on the overton window will be that much easier.
I’m mixing the personal and the political here in a messy way. I’ve been trying to write about my own experience of navigating a buddhistic worldview, but it would be hard to explain why all that flensing was necessary without pointing at what was and is in the world. Buddhism is not about the ideas. It’s not even mostly about the ideas. It is a social practice with an organic history. In Sri Lanka, that history has been violent for a long time even before the tremendous violence of the last few generations, from the caste restrictions of the nikayas to the genocidal justifications of the Mahavamsa.
But I bring up Gnanasara here because he’s exactly the kind of monk a great many Sinhala Buddhists would say (or used to say—I would guess that he is more acceptable to them today than he used to be ten or even five years ago) was not a “real” monk. And yet his real-monk-ness was formally endorsed and insisted upon by the highest Buddhist authority in Sri Lanka. If you wanted to call the Dalai Lama and ask him for a second opinion, it is fully consistent with Gnanasara’s perspective. This is the real Buddhism: if you think it isn’t, the error and the apostasy are yours.