Reflecting on Walpola Sri Rahula Mahathera: A Quest for the Ideal Theravada Bhikkhu

Walpola Sri Rahula Mahathera

Walpola Sri Rahula Mahathera

Reflecting on Walpola Sri Rahula Mahathera: A Quest for the Ideal Theravada Bhikkhu

Asanga Tilakaratne, Asanga Tilakaratne, PhD
Professor of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Colombo

Each Theravada bhikkhu is a representative of the Theravada Sangha. Although, in this sense, all bhikkhus are bhikkhus with no difference among them, some naturally stand out. Walpola Sri Rahula Mahathera who passed away seventeen years ago in1997 is one such. He stood out in many respects, and made a long lasting impression on the Sangha organization. Rahula Thera’s life and work need to be studied deeply in order to understand the path of the Sri Lanka Sangha in the last century, and, thereby, historical continuities and discontinuities. One may agree with him or may not – but one cannot bypass him easily. The present paper is not meant to be a general study of this multi-faceted personality. Rather it will focus on his life as a Buddhist monk and its implications on the Sangha as a body and as individual members.

As a prelude to this discussion, I will study the life of Rahula Thera with special stress on his formative years and his early political activism. Subsequently I will discuss my main theme, a quest for the ideal Theravada bhikkhu, keeping WR as its basis. In concluding remarks, I will try to connect this discussion to the present context of Sri Lanka Buddhism.

Walpola Sri Rahula: Formative Years
Walpola Rahula Mahathera was born in 1907 at Walpola, a village in the southern province of Sri Lanka, as the youngest in a family of ten. At the age of thirteen he was admitted to the Sangha at the village monastery and was given the name: Walpola Dhammadassi, which he changed to Walpola Rahula after about eight years. The first decisive influence Rahula Thera’s life came when he was entrusted for further studies to Paragoda Sumanasara, a monk not only with vast learning, but also with a deep commitment to follow the monastic life to its fullest. In his seriousness to follow the Vinaya to reach the ideal he strived for, Paragoda Sumanasara Thera was very different from the larger majority of his contemporaries: He strove to follow all Vinaya rules without violating any and to practice, in addition, austere practices, which are known in the tradition as dhutanga. Realizing the difficulty in following the Vinaya to its fullest, Sumanasara made a very bold decision to relinquish his higher admission (upasampada) and revert to novice-hood (samanera), which meant coming down in his stature among the Sangha. Not stopping at that, he and his students including young Rahula left the life in the monastery with relative comforts to forest and assumed an ascetic life. Rejection of modern comfort and assuming a simple life with minimum needs was the hallmark of this way of life. Accordingly, the group existed on alms food, wore rag robes, used coconut shells for cups, and did not handle money. Consequently the group became known sarcastically as ‘coconut-shell nikaya’ (polkatu nikaya). Meanwhile, led by his perfectionism which earlier made him to give up higher admission, Sumanasara decided to become a ‘layman’. Having become a layman he still lived a celibate life guiding his monastic pupils. Sumanasara’s moral perfectionism and idealism seem have had a great influence on Rahula Thera in his formative years. The articles he wrote to Sinahla Jathiya, then a well known Sinhala news paper, were mainly on monastic vinaya issues, a clear influence of his mentor.

After several years of this ‘ascetic’ life Rahula Thera moved to Colombo, already with a name as a controversial writer. He wanted to pursue studies, and with financial support from his brother Victor Hettigoda, he went to India with the hope of entering a centre of higher learning. This effort proved to be unsuccessful due to various reasons including his ill health, and Rahula Thera returned to Sri Lanka and embarked on education almost on his own with guidance from some friends, noteworthy among whom were Mr. S. Thangaraja, a teacher at St. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia for mathematics and science, and Mr. D.S. Gunasekera, a warden of Nalanda College, for English. Apart from a few months of schooling at his village school, Rahula Thera had never had any formal education until he was admitted to Ceylon University College where Professor G.P. Malalasekera was his teacher and mentor. It is during this time that Rahula Thera came to associate with N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardhana and S.A. Wickramasinghe, future political leaders of the country, and also got opportunities to meet such eminent international figures as Mahatma Gandhi, who was visiting Sri Lanka, Rabindranath Tagore who came to lay the foundation stone for Sri Palee College, Horana, and J. Krishnamurti who arrived in Colombo to deliver a series of lectures.

A Controversial Period: Critique of Religion and Political Activism
An important milestone of this formative period of Rahula Thera was the series of tracts he wrote under the common title ‘satyodaya’ (the dawn of truth) on various issues related to Buddhist practice by ordinary people as well as that of the Buddhist monks, and distributing them free. These tracts were written during December 1933 and September 1934 (1 ). The ideas expressed in these tracts were the text book examples of critical thinking, particularly on matters of religion, in this case, Buddhism, which was the religion of the larger majority of the people of the country and consequently was very sensitive matter to touch. In these tracts Rahula Thera demonstrated with sharp critical acumen how some of the very popular Buddhist practices were in contradiction with the basic philosophy of the Buddha. Among the practices that came under Rahula Thera’s attack were offering food as Buddha-puja, the caste discrimination in the Sangha and offering what is erroneously called ‘dharma-puja’ to the preachers of the Dhamma which is tantamount to making a payment for the service they rendered. Rahula Thera argued vehemently against these practices and showed how such practices violated the philosophy of the Buddha. In addition, he questioned the practice inviting gods to listen to the Dhamma (devatha aradhanava), the concept of ‘poya’ day as a special day, popular perception and practice of offering ‘sanghika dana’, collecting money in the name of the Triple Gem, and doing meritorious deeds expecting future results.

Everything that Rahula Thera found unacceptable in the Buddhist practice still persists after eight decades. Some practices such as ‘reducing a preacher to service provider’ not only persists, but has gone beyond the imagination of even Rahula Thera! On some other practices, Rahula Thera’s critique comes from a very idealist position of taking only the straight path to nirvana as the only valid form of Buddhism. There is no doubt that what he says on these issues is logical and true from that perspective. But, as in the proverbial story of blind men and the elephant, it is to take a part to be the whole.

The next twelve years witnessed Rahula Thera getting gradually and increasingly involved in national and social activities. The culmination of these activities is marked by the Vidyalankara declaration on the Buddhist monks’ involvement in national politics, in which Rahula Thera played a key role, and the publication of Bhikshuvage Urumaya (BU), based on the historic speech made by Rahula Thera at Kandy Town Hall. BU was first published in 1946, and a revised edition came in 1948. It is said that the first edition was sold out within three weeks of its publication. The main thrust of the BU is that it is proper for the Sri Lanka Buddhist monks to get involved in political activities. Rahula Thera argues his case with reference to the history of Sri Lanka, in particular, the history of the country since the arrival of Buddhism to the early 20th century, with emphasis on Buddhist monks’ involvement in political activities. Rahula Thera’s is a justification of monastic political activism on the basis of historical practice. Not only Rahula Thera campaigned for monastic political activism but also he got actively engaged in political activities of the then emerging socialist leaders such as N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardhana, S.A.Wickramasinghe, mentioned above. He was even jailed for a few days in connection with some of these activities.

Milestones in Ganthadhura
Amidst his political activism Rahula Thera was academically very active. While teaching at Vidyalankara Pirivena and rewriting his BU, Rahula Thera had started working, under the guidance of Professor G.P. Malalasekera, for his doctorate on the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In 1950 Rahula Thera got his PhD for his work which was published in 1956 as History of Buddhism in Ceylon, covering the history of Buddhism during the Anuradhapura period. In 1950 Rahula Thera received a French Government post-doctoral research fellowship at the initiative of Professor Paul Demieville of the College of France. This was a beginning of unfolding of another phase in Rahula Thera’s life which lasted till 1974, the year he moved to England. During the period he spent in France, among other events in his life I identify four as very important not merely for his life, but for the field of Buddhist studies locally as well as globally. One is his translation into French, Abhidharmasamuccaya of Asanga, a major work he undertook under the guidance of Professor Paul Damieville (which was published in 1971 (2) ). In 1966 he was invited by Professor Edmund F. Perry, Chairman of the Department of Religions at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA. There he was to occupy the newly established Bishop Brashares Professor of History and Literature of Religions Chair. Not only Rahula Thera was the first to hold this Chair, but also he was the first bhikkhu to ever hold such a Chair in the Western academia(3) . An added significance was that this chair had been created in memory of a Christian academic leader. The relationship between Rahula Thera and Perry was a life-long affair which provided a living example of what is known today as ‘inter-religious dialogue’. On the nature of this relationship and its influence, Perry wrote:

The Venerable [Rahula Thera] has translated the Message of the Buddha so accurately into his own character that when a Christian receives Rahula as a friend the Christian has received a living personal statement of the Buddha’s teaching. Although Rahula’s presence among Christians has evoked their devotion to him as a person, has commanded their respect for the holiness of his life, and has confirmed to them his reputation of the peerless scholar, what really matters to him, and what signifies far more than all this respectful recognition of him is that his presence has commended to the consideration of the Christians the Buddha’s wisdom and love(4) .

An event with local significance is his assumption of duties in 1966 as the vice chancellor of then Vidyodaya University from which he resigned after about three years in 1969 over a disagreement with the minister of education, I.M.R.A. Eriyagolla.

Perhaps the most important of the four events is his publication of What the Buddha Taught (WBT) in 1959. Obviously the value of the book is not that it is a result of a deep research into the teaching of the Buddha. Its value lies mainly in what was presented as what the Buddha taught and how it was presented. In Paul Damieville’s words it is “an exposition of Buddhism conceived in a resolutely modern spirit by one of the most qualified and enlightened representatives of that religion.(5) ” WBT provided a definitive statement on what the Buddha taught, namely, the fundamental teachings of the Buddha as they occur in the Pali canon, also found in the Agama literature preserved in Chinese, which are the earliest extant versions closest to what the Buddha would have originally taught. Today there is, among Buddhist scholars, skepticism as to what exactly is what the Buddha taught. The skepticism is partly due to the discovery of many inter-nikaya versions of the Buddhist canon in various languages other than Pali and the classical Chinese. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that the Pali canon remains the only complete one with a history of about two and half millennia of unbroken practice behind it. It is the fundamentals of this tradition that Rahula Thera gave to the world as what the Buddha taught. In Edmund Perry’s words, it is “the most widely read introduction to Buddhism in any language.(6) ” It will not be an overestimate to say that WBT is the most lucid, methodical and straightforward introductory book on Buddhism the world has so far seen. By today although there are many primary text books for introducing Buddhism, the scholarly attraction of WBT remains undiminished. Even after five decades, it is almost impossible to imagine a Buddhist studies program without WR’s book as an essential reading(7).

Gantha-dhura, Vipassana-dhura and the Ideal Theravada Bhikkhu
Reflecting on WR’s many-sided life, one cannot forget the two most prominent books he authored, Bhikshuvage Urumaya (BU) in 1948, later translated into English as The Heritage of the Bhikkhu (Grove Press inc. New York, 1974), and What the Buddha Taught (WBT) in 1959. The first, which is considered to be the manifesto of the monastic political activism of the Sri Lanka Bhikkhus, is one that exercised a very strong influence on the formation of the modern bhikkhu in Sri Lanka. H.L. Seneviratne, a contemporary critic of Rahula Thera, describes the book as “a work that has influenced the monkhood more than any other in the recent history of Sri Lanka Theravada Buddhism” (Seneviratne 1999 p.135). The importance of WBT in defining what the Buddha taught, which has a global significance, was referred to above. These two books in particular capture Rahula Thera’s role as a practitioner of what has come down in the tradition as ‘gantha-dhura’, yoke of books.

It was customary in the Sri Lanka Buddhist tradition to perceive the life of a bhikkhu as holding or carrying either of two yokes (dhura), namely, those of books (gantha-dhura) or the yoke of insight (meditation) (vipassana-dhura). Although commentators want us to believe that the division goes as far back as the time of the Buddha, it is imaginable that it evolved in the post-parinirvana Buddhism. The act of learning, represented by books, assumed a more important role right after the parinirvana of the Buddha. This was mainly as a result of the situation in which the Buddha did not name a successor to him after his parinirvana, and, instead, said that it would be the Dhamma he taught and the Vinaya he prescribed that should be treated as the teacher in his absence. Once the Dhamma and the Vinaya assume the position of the teacher, it makes it very crucial that those two are there in organized form to be referred to consulted at any time an issue arose requiring to determine what would have been the Buddha’s view. The Vinaya account of the first sangayana tells us how the Sutta and Vinaya were distributed among the key disciples in order to master and protect. Although it may be imagined that there were experts of the Dhamma and the Vinaya even during the time of the Buddha, the first sangayana may be taken as the official beginning point of this trend in the Theravada tradition. We know that from this tradition gradually evolved the bhanaka lineages with experts in different sections of the discourses, the Vinaya and the Abhidhamma.

It appears that the word ‘dhura’ (yoke) was used to refer to the two practices first in the commentaries. In the commentary to the Dhammapada, Dhammapadatthakatha, Buddhaghosa uses this term in this later sense to denote the practice of studying the word of the Buddha and the practice of engaging in insight meditation. In the story of Cakkhupala, who entered the Sangha rather late in his life, we find him saying to the Buddha that he, who is old, is not competent to practice the yoke of books which is for those who are clever and competent, and hence he will rather practice yoke of vipassana, which is for the weak, implied although not said directly. The very word ‘dhura’ (yoke) in this connection is somewhat problematic because the yoke, as in the case of a bullock tied to the cart, implies a state to which one is inescapably bound, and hence burdensome and not very pleasant. The subsequent history of Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka suggests that this division had gone deep into the body of the tradition from a very early stage of its history.

A very important example is available from the reign of Wattagamini Abhaya in the first century BCE. The hard conditions of a long lasting famine and foreign invasions due to which a good number of people including bhikkhus and bhikkhunis died and another set of bhikkhus went to the neighboring country, India, are well known. It is said that at the end of the difficult period when those who left for India returned, there arose a question as to which is more important, learning (pariyatti) or practice (patipatti). It is clearly stated that this debate arose between the preachers of the Dhamma (dhamma-kathika) and those who wore rag robes (pamsukulika). As could be expected, those who were well versed in the Dhamma won the debate, leaving pamsukulikas away from the limelight( 8) . Another similar division found among the Sri Lanka Theravada Sangha was between village-dwellers (gama-vasi) and forest-dwellers (aranna-vasi). Even though these categories seem to go as far back as the time of the Buddha, the division among the bhikkhus into sharp categories in these lines could be considered as a new development in Sri Lanka.

The debate between the two groups, no doubt, may have had justifying historical conditions. With monks who kept what the Buddha taught in their memory gradually succumbing themselves to harsh living conditions, the physical integrity of the Dhamma was at a serious threat, and one can understand how and why the practice of pariyatti became so crucial. Nevertheless, looking from a point of view of the teaching of the Buddha, we can see that the very question, which is more important, was a misguided one. In a system where all three, pariyatti, patipatti and pativedha (learning, practice and realization) are inter-connected with and inseparable from one another, it is hard to see how any one aspect occupying a loftier position than the rest. But the debate itself and the conclusion drawn highlights a historical self understanding of a tradition, which is open to debate by the posterity.

Such a debate or a difference of opinion over this historical debate is found between Rahula Thera and Adikaram who wrote prior to the former on the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Commenting on this debate and its aftermath, Adikaram says:

Practice was relegated to the background and preaching gained supremacy. The Sutta defeated the Vinaya. How different this was from the older attitude! “Vinayo nama sasanassa ayu” (Vinaya is the very life of the religion of the Buddha) cried out in bold terms by the theras of old. This change in attitude, though no attention has been paid to it in the Commentaries, is of the utmost importance in the history of the Theravada Buddhism. This school of Buddhism claims its descent from Upali, the greatest Vinayadhara among the disciples of the Buddha. Mahinda, too, the founder of this school in Ceylon, insisted on the reciting of the Vinaya by a Ceylonese bhikkhu as it was only then, he maintained, that the sasana would take root in Ceylon. Mahinda’s Buddhism was a religion predominantly of practice, and the victory mentioned above of Suttanta over Vinaya would not have been after the heart of that great missionary(9).

Rahula Thera subsequently writing on the same subject for his doctoral dissertation described Adikaram’s work as devotee’s lament “over the “degeneration” and “corruption” of the faith”.(10) Rahula Thera’s encounter with Adikaram crystallizes the on-going debate over the definition of the ideal Theravada bhikkhu. It is interesting to note, in his own metamorphosis, Rahula Thera holding a position similar that of Adikaram with regard to the nature of a bhikkhu. Rahula Thera from his Walpola Dhammadassi days of ‘tapasa nikaya’ using coconut shells to Satyodaya tracts and BU is a person undergone a dramatic change in his outlook of the nature and the role of a bhikkhu. As a follower of Paragoda Sumanasara Thera, Rahula Thera was a bhikkhu who dedicated his life for the realization of the ultimate goal by following the most straightforward path meant for it. It was vipassana-dhura at its extreme for some of the practices Rahula Thera followed under the guidance of Sumanasara Thera, namely, dhutanga, that were of very special type to be practiced under severe conditions. Considering the extreme character of the practice he followed, Rahula Thera’s transfer into gantha-dhura at a later stage of his life, is truly phenomenal. In a sense, Rahula Thera can be described as one who has reversed the traditional sequence of doing gantha-dhura while young, and reverting to vipassana-dhura in the old-age. In his prime youth Rahula Thera practiced vipassana to discover gantha-dhura only later.

As we saw in our earlier discussion, as a learned bhikkhu Rahula Thera reached great heights in the academic world, heights that a bhikkhu of any tradition had not reached before. From his own nikaya he was honoured as tripitakavagishvaracharya / supreme master of the Tripitaka. Although the reign in the academic world does not necessarily mean that he discontinued his practice of meditation, it is clear that Rahula thera assumed a different form of life in which academic engagement featured more prominent than any other engagement. The question is: how should we understand from a historical point of view these two poles in one Theravada bhikkhu. Is there, between these two, one way of life more legitimate than the other, or who should be the ideal bhikkhu in the Theravada understanding – it is to inquire into these questions that we turn next. We propose to do this inquiry by way of analyzing two of the greatest elders of the Theravada tradition, Maha Kassapa Thera and Ananda Thera, whose ways of life have exercised vital influence on the formation and evolution of the Theravada bhikkhu.

Maha Kassapa Thera and Ananda Thera: two Leaders of the Earliest Sangha (11)

Usually in the Theravada tradition all arahants are understood as homogenous in their character and behavior. Although arahants could differ in their specific abilities such as exercise of psychic powers and mastery of the Dhamma, all of them are described as similar in their final attainment. In this analysis, Ananda Thera, the attendant to the Buddha and treasurer of his Dhamma, was only a stream winner and remained so till the Buddha attained parinirvana, whereas Maha Kassapa Thera was an arahant. Nevertheless, both occupied very high positions in the Sangha, the latter for his seniority and the near equal status he enjoyed with the Buddha, and the former for being the chief attendant to the Buddha who liaised between the Master and the disciples and for fulfilling the arduous task of mastering the Dhamma taught by the Buddha. The two elders, owing to the differences they had in their outlook and behavior, become crucial in understanding the nature of the early Sangha.

There is substantial evidence in the canon to establish that Maha Kassapa Thera was treated by the Buddha almost as an equal. The fact that the Buddha exchanged his robe with Maha Kassapa Thera is a clear indication to this. Commenting on this unusual and unprecedented event the commentary says:

The Buddha exchanged the robe with the elder saying: This robe worn out by wearing by the Tathagata cannot be worn by one who has only a little virtue. This must be worn by one who is strong, capable of completing practice of virtues and a born-wearer of rag-robes(12) .

This commentarial account testifies to the great sense of respect with which the tradition held Maha Kassapa Thera.

A key characteristic of Maha Kassapa Thera’s behavior was his observance of austere practices known in the tradition as dhutanga referred to above. These practices included, among others, wearing rag-robes, accepting only alms food, living in the forest, which Maha Kassapa Thera observed. At one instance the Buddha suggested to Maha kassapa Thera, on the ground of his advanced age, to give up these practices and stay with him accepting robes offered by house holders and meals given on invitation. At this Maha Kassapa Thera reminds the Buddha that he has been observing these practices for a long time in his life and that he has been doing so not only for his own happiness but also out of kindness to the later generations. The Buddha withdraws his request and allows Maha Kassapa Thera to continue(13).

The last of the characteristics Maha Kassapa Thera that I wish to highlight in this discussion is his apparent indifference to bhikkhunis in particular and to women in general. According to one episode occurring in the discourses, Maha Kassapa Thera was not very keen at all to teach bhikkhunis(14) . Ananda Thera had to plead with him three times before the former was persuaded to do so. Finally Maha Kassapa Thera went to the bhikkhuni monastery accompanied by Ananda Thera and admonished bhikkhunis. However, when Maha Kassapa Thera got up and started leaving after his admonition, a bhikkhuni called Thullananda made the following remark:

How can Master Maha Kassapa think of speaking on the Dhamma in the presence of Master Ananda, the Videhan sage? For Master Maha Kassapa to think of speaking on the Dhamma in the presence of Master Ananda, the Videhan sage – this is just as if a needle-peddler would think he could sell a needle to a needle-maker! (15)

In another incident, a bhikkhuni named Thullatissa accused Maha Kassapa referring to him as a “former member of another sect”. The context is, again, connected to Ananda Thera. Maha Kassapa Thera calls Ananda Thera a youngster for the latter wondered in a tour with a group of some undisciplined newly admitted bhikkhus whose public behaviour caused damage to the good reputation of the Sangha. These incidents show the dislike some bhikkhunis had toward Maha Kassapa Thera and their high regard to Ananda Thera. In this context, it is relevant to note that, at the first sangayana which was held under the leadership of Maha Kassapa Thera, Ananda Thera was charged with a series of offences among which was that he persuaded the Buddha to give higher admission to women. Although there are no records of Maha Kassapa Thera’s disapproval of the establishment of bhikkhuni sasana, what happened at the first sangayana strongly hints at Maha Kassapa Thera’s possible negative attitude to bhikkhunis in particular.

Ananda Thea, on the contrary, was the total opposite of Maha Kassapa Thera in many respects. If Maha Kassapa Thera was the embodiment of austerity, solitude and aloofness from social life, Ananda Thera, with his busy city life, immersed in public relations and social engagements, represented the total contrast. As the attendant of the Buddha Ananda Thera was busy with looking after the needs of the Buddha, accompanying him on tours, accepting invitations on behalf of the Buddha, making appointments and functioning as the intermediary between the Buddha and those who came to see him. In addition, Ananda Thera was the treasurer of the Dhamma (dhamma-bhandagarika) who kept in his memory everything he heard from the Buddha. Ananda Thera was praised by the Buddha as the highest among those who were learned (bahussuta), mindful (satimanta), with good behavior (gatimanta), resolute (dhitimanta) and attending on the Buddha (upatthaka) (16) . Furthermore he was praised on several occasions by the Buddha for his wisdom. Satisfied with the answer Ananda Thera gave to a question he asked, the Buddha praised him saying: Bhikkhus, Ananda is a trainee, but it is not easy to find one equal to him in wisdom (17) . Addressing a group of bhikkhus who were not satisfied with the answer they got for their question from Ananda Thera, the Buddha praised Ananda Thera’s wisdom and said that they would get the same answer even if they were to ask that question from him (18) . At another instance the Buddha elaborated on four ‘astounding and amazing things’ about Ananda Thera, namely, that any assembly of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, male lay followers or female lay followers would be elated to see him, even more elated to listen to him and that they would be still unsated when Ananda Thera falls silent (19) . All these accounts suggest strongly that Ananda Thera was one of the most gifted of all disciples of the Buddha.

Ananda Thera contrasts sharply with Maha Kassapa Thera in his support of the bhikkhuni order. The Vinaya account of how Ananda Thera was instrumental in persuading the Buddha to give admission to women is well known(20) . It appears that the Buddha, who turned down thrice Maha Pajapati Gotami’s request to establish the bhikkhuni order, could not reject Ananda Thera’s argument in favour of giving admission to women, based on the ability of women to realize the ultimate goal in religious life, namely:

If a women were to go forth from the household life into homelessness in the Dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Tathagata, would it be possible for her to realize the fruit of stream-entry, the fruit of once –returning, the fruit of non-returning, and the fruit of arahanship (21)?

With the Buddha’s affirmative answer to this question it was understood that the bhikkhuni Sasana was in order. Under these circumstances, and as also revealed in the episodes referred to above, it is understandable that bhikkhunis developed a great sense of respect and appreciation of Ananda Thera.

It should be more than clear from this analysis of the two great elders of the Theravada tradition that both were highly regarded by the Buddha himself and also by the members of the sangha. Both were praised by the Buddha and by the fellow Sangha for their unique qualities, although Maha Kassapa Thera was not praised at least by some bhikkhunis. On the other hand, it is equally clear that the two elders were poles apart in their modes of life and in certain attitudes.

The long history of the Theravada tradition reveals that the two elders were its defining figures. The traditional classifications such as gantha-dhura and vipassana-dhura, dhammakathika and pamsukulika and gama-vasi and aranna-vasi, have respectively Ananda Thera and Maha Kassapa Thera as their founder fathers. Although there are preferences for one or the other, neither has been totally rejected in favour of the other. As some scholars have shown, the boundaries of these traditional classifications have been elastic(22) . It is difficult to define the Theravada bhikkhu with reference to only one of these great elders.

At some point of his life Rahula Thera was very much closer to Maha Kassapa Thera’s example of austere ascetic ways of life, and subsequently he drifted toward Ananda Thera in his erudition and social service. In either position, he did not dissociate himself from the fundamental virtues of monastic life which is the core of the Theravada bhikkhu.

Discussion and Concluding Remarks
Rahula Thera’s justification of political involvement of the bhikkhus derives basically from his reference to the history of the Sangha in the country. In BU, Rahula Thera produces a summary of the main political and social involvements of the Sangha, and, in the body of the work, he goes on to elaborate on these involvements. Historical tradition is one way to view the problem, and it surely provides justification of some sort for the phenomenon. But there are other ways to view the same. One such way is to view the phenomenon from a point of view of the Dhamma and the Vinaya. An effort of this nature was made by the Venerable Palane Vajiranana, the then Mahanayaka Thera of Amarpura Sri Dharmarakshitavamsa Nikaya and founder of Vajiraramaya, Bambalapitiya. In a long article titled “deshapalanaya saha bhikshun vahanse” (Politics and the Bhikkhu), dated 17th March 1946, written to ‘Lak Budu Sasuna’, a newspaper which claimed that its purpose was to arrest the rapid decline of Buddhism in [Sri] Lanka, Palane Mahanayaka Thera argued, on the basis of the Dhamma and the Vinaya, why getting involved in political activities is not in accordance with the goal of renounced life. At the very outset of this article he says that the question whether or not bhikkhus should get involved in politics has to be examined not on the basis of history, but on the basis of the Dhamma. Like mathematical propositions, Palane Nayka Thera further argued, the Dhamma does not change according to time or space. In another essay Palane Nayaka Thera takes up the issue again. Although he did not mention Rahula Thera by name, it is clear that he was responding to the program outlined in BU when he said:

One must not exert to prove on the basis of history how the bhikkhus of the past were involved in public activities related to the development of the country. History is not religion. Whether it is in the past or in the present, it is a misunderstanding to substitute the religion with the behaviour of an ordinary worldling [prthagjana], however high a position he were to occupy. One must keep constantly in one’s mind that the life of a bhikkhu, which depends on alms-food, is simple and free without any particular attachment to one’s country, village or race, and that it is dissociated from the world, and allows only instructing people on the Dhamma with a kind attitude to all without any discrimination (23).

In this analysis, Palane Nayaka Thera does not reject altogether the view that bhikkhus should engage in activities concerning the world. But such activity should be confined only instructing people in the Dhamma with a kind heart. Even that has to be done without any discrimination on nationality, caste, religion and the like.

In the second edition of BU (1948), responding to these criticisms, WR refers to two instances when Rev. Narada and Rev. Kassapa, pupils of Palane Nayaka Thera, were sent to Singapore by the D.S. Senanayake government in order to pacify some unrest among the Ceylonese troops. On this development WR observes:

It will be clear to anyone that these activities are not nonpolitical. It also appears that those chief monks (nayaka theras) who were once opposed to bhikkhus taking part in politics now gave their blessings. We are happy to see that these worthy people are now awakening to the truth, though late (24).

This exchange of ideas between Palane Nayaka Thera and Rahula thera, will make more sense when viewed against portrayal of Maha Kassapa Thera and Ananda Thera. Although Rahula is right here in identifying the missions of the two Vajirarama monks as ‘political’, they are political in a broader sense, not in the narrow sense of getting involved in party politics and related activities perceived as not in conformity with the traditional image of a bhikkhu as a person withdrawn from society. Pelene Nayaka Thera may have approved the missions mentioned above, for the involvement required in this connection was qualitatively different from the political engagements of the bhikkhus during this period.

Rahula Thera’s political program has come under severe criticism in H.L. Seneviratne (HLS) (1999). In this context I am not going to make an extensive analysis of Seneviratne’s critique. I refer to one of my earlier works for those who wish to know details (25) . For the present purpose I will give the gist of his argument. HLS starts with Anagarika Dharmapala whose criticism of Buddhist monks of the early last century was an important part of his Buddhist modernism. He criticized monks for being lazy, being prone to luxury living and being idle. He advocated that monks should come out from this unfortunate state and be actively involved in social upliftment. Dharmapala identified economy and culture as two areas in which the Buddhist monks should get involved. Of the two main centres of Buddhist monastic education, Vidyodaya monks undertook work related to ‘village development’ (grama sanvardhanaya) and moral regeneration whereas Vidyalankara monks undertook the cultural development. WR’s BU is relevant in this context. It is, in HLS’s words,

“lucidly written, … at once naïve and sophisticated, rhetorical and scholarly, and simplistic and brilliant. It is a manifesto ostensibly based on historical and sociological analysis. It is a justification of and a charter for monks to involve themselves in social activism (politics robed in social service). It is an attempt to restore to the monk his alleged precolonial status by telling him to rearm himself for a society that has progressed while he has languished. It bears the imprint of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of Anagarika Dharmapala (26).

According to HLS Vidyodaya monks who undertook village regeneration did their work while paying due heed to their monkhood whereas the Vidyalankara monks were lacking in this respect. The former, although they ultimately were not successful in their efforts, ‘had their hearts in the right place’(p.128). The latter gradually degenerated into ‘Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism’ paving ultimately to the disastrous ethnic conflict. This latter group failed, in HLS’s analysis, because they could not live up to the standards that Dharmapala expected from such monks. “What they meant by social service was a license for them to have greater involvement with secular society beginning with politics. That license was given to them by The Heritage” ( p.338). This analysis suggests and blames Rahula Thera that his BU provided the theoretical justification for everything that HLS sees as degeneration of the Sangha. Whether or not in fact this degeneration happened, if it did, then was it due to BU is a larger question, an inquiry into which goes beyond limits of the present engagement. What, however, Rahula meant by the new vocation he supported in BU comes clear in the following words of him:

“Bhikkhu politics” as much as the gantha-dhura (“scholarship,” literally “occupation of texts”) may become a Buddhist tradition. Moreover, the “sons of the Buddha” (i.e. bhikkhus) who keep away from crooked and dishonest practices, who have a pure character, who have received a higher education in keeping with the needs of the times, who will not bow down before wealth or power, and will work for the benefit of the common man; altruistic, bold, upright, and honest monks will be regarded as political bhikkhus (27) (emphasis added).

If we take HLS’s examination of social engagement of some of the recent monks as valid, then we have to admit that Rahula Thera’s expectations not only failed to materialize but were also wrongly interpreted and misused. As the above-quoted words of Rahula Thera make very clear what he meant by a ‘political bhikkhu’ is not one who merely helps his friend to come to political power for one’s own personal gain, as it turned out to be in more recent times, but a bhikkhu who is morally upright and serious in his purpose.

Our quest for the ideal Theravada bhikkhu has brought us back to Rahula Thera who, obviously following his own life experience, both as an ascetic with severe and difficult practices and a full-fledged academic scholar, tried to strike a compromise between Maha Kassapa Thera and Ananda Thera. In the classical Theravada tradition, although the two elders had adopted two different ways of life, there was no question about their moral integrity. If the more recent practitioners were failing in this respect, it is not clear how Rahula Thera should be held responsible for it.

In more recent years, the political involvement of the monks has taken a new turn with JHU monks being elected as members of the parliament. This may be a situation that Rahula Thera did not anticipate, but we cannot be sure about it. But if a bhikkhu with the qualities mentioned by Rahula Thera were to become a member of the highest legislative body of a country that country would certainly be a very fortunate one. What, however, Rahula would not have even dreamt of would be monks who gate-crash into public buildings, take people hostages, run after their own members with clubs in public, and get caught in drunken driving. It will be futile at this juncture to debate whether or not these are the legitimate offspring of The Heritage/BU. But what is fruitful surely is to embark on a reforming movement of the type which Walpola Rahula Mahathera pioneered during the first half of the last century.


1. Later the tracts were published in book form under the title Satyodaya by S. Godage Brothers, Maradana in 1992.
2. Le Compendium de la Super-Doctrine (Philosophie) (Abhidharmasamuccaya) d’Asanga, Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, Paris, 1971.
3. Balasooriya et al. (1980) p.ix.
4. Balasooriya et al (1980) pp.201-202.
5. Forward to What the Buddha Taught.
6. Liyanage (1995) p.ix.
7. The book has undergone several editions and has been translated into Burmese, Chinese, French, German, Sinhalese, and Spanish. See Mallawarachchi (1980) for publication history.
8. This, however, was not the case always. In Sri Lanka history, there were times when pamsukulikas became more powerful over the rest.
9. Adikaram (1946/2009) p.78.
10. Rahula (1956/1993) p.xi.
11. In this part of the discussion I will make use of some materials I discussed in an earlier paper. Please refer to: Tilakaratne (2005) pp.229-257.
12. Paramatthadipani: Theragatha Atthakatha Vol. III p. 135 (Pali Text Society edition).
13. Samyutta-nikaya II p.202.
14. Samyutta-nikaya II pp.214-217.
15. Bodhi (2000) p.675.
16. Anguttara-nikaya I pp. 24-25.
17. Bodhi (2012) p.311. Anguttara-nikaya I.
18. Ibid. 1494-1497. Anguttara-nikaya V
19. Ibid. p.513. Anguttara-nikaya II.
20. Vinaya II pp. 253-256. And also Anguttara-nikaya IV pp.274-279.
21. Bodhi (2012) p.1189.
22. Gombrich (1988)
23. Pannasiha (1981) p.67. Chapter Six.
24. Rahula (1948) p.xx.
25. Tilakaratne (2006)
26. Seneviratne (1999) pp. 136-137.
27. Rahula (1974/2003) p.xix.

Balasooriya, Somaratna et al. (1980) Buddhist Studies in Honour of Walpola Rahula (London: Gordon Fraser; Sri Lanka: Vimamsa).
Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2000) The Connected Discourses of the Buddha ( Sommerville: wisdom Publications).
Bodhi, Bhikhu (2012) The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha ( Sommerville: Wisdom Publications).
Gombrich, Richard (1988) Theravada Buddhism: A social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).
Liyanage, Gunadasa (1995) On the Path (Nedimala: Buddhist Cultural Centre)
Malawarachchi, Udaya (1980) “Walpola Rahula: A brief Biographical Sketch” in Balsooriya et al. pp.vii-x.
Pannasiha, Madihe Thera (1981) Sri Vajrajnana Sahithyaya Vol.II (Maharagama: Sasana Sevaka Samithiya).
Perry, Edmund “Can Buddhists and Christians Live Together as Kalyana-mitta?” in Balasooriya et al. pp.201-212.
Rahula, Walpola (1946/1992) Bhikshuvage Urumaya (Colombo: S. Godage Brothers). Revised edition 1948.
Rahula, Walpola (1956) History of Buddhism in Ceylon: Anuradhapura Period (Colombo).
Rahula, Walpola (1959) What the Buddha Taught (London: Gordon Fraser gallery Ltd).
Rahula, Walpola (1974/2003) The Heritage of the Bhikkhu (New York: Grove Press).
Tilakaratne, Asanga (1998) Madihe Nahimi: Carithaya ha Chinthanaya (Maharagama: Sasana Sevaka Samithiya).
Tilakaratne, Asanga (2005) “Personality Differences of Arahants and the Origins of Theravada: A Study of Two Great Elders of the Theravada Tradition: Maha Kassapa and Ananda” in Dhamma-Vinaya: Essays in Honour of Venerable Professor Dhammavihari (Jotiya Dhirasekera), ed. Asanga Tilakaratne et al. Sri Lanka Association of Buddhist Studies (SLABS), Colombo.
Tilakaratne, Asanga (2006) “The Role of Buddhist monks in Resolving the Conflict” in Buddhism, Conflict and Violence in Modern Sri Lanka, ed. Mahinda Deegalle (London: Routledge).

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