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Monks cling to a whole Sri Lanka

The government vows to pursue peace after Mar. 10 attack, but not everyone wants the country divided.

With crimson robe, knobby bare feet, shaved head, and a disciplined impassivity, Dammananda meditates every day at 4 a.m. at the gilded Temple of the Tooth, the most sacred shrine in Sri Lanka for the Buddhist majority population. Like thousands of monks in these lush central highlands of coffee and tea plantations, Dammananda blesses the government troops who are in the north fighting the Tamil Tiger separatists.

For most monks in Kandy, a stronghold of Buddhist culture and learning, the ongoing fight is no ordinary war: Keeping the island of Sri Lanka undivided is nothing less than a sacred mission. To give a homeland to the mostly Hindu Tamils would, in their view, violate a trust given by Buddha to keep Buddhism pure and whole.

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"We are a tiny country with a giant Hindu neighbor," says Dammananda, referring to India. Dammananda helped rebuild this temple, said to hold Buddha's tooth fragment, after the front was ripped off last year by a Tiger truck full of explosives. "Sri Lanka must never allow another faith to dominate," he says.

For 20 agonizing years, some 25,000 committed Tiger guerrillas have worn down a 200,000 strong Sri Lankan Army. An estimated 60,000 have died. It is not a place President Clinton is visiting on his three-nation trip to South Asia that begins in New Delhi March 19.

Renewed attempts at talks

Tired of war, and backed by recent Norwegian diplomacy, President Chandrika Kumaratunga offered this month to talk with the Tigers. Norway is on hand after Kumaratunga's government agreed to this third attempt at outside mediation. But the response came last Friday: A suicide bomb and an ensuing gun battle near Parliament in Colombo killed 28 people and stoked worries about renewed attacks on the capital.

The short attention span usually given Sri Lanka in international quarters mostly focuses on the grisly actions of Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. His suicide bombers, female warriors, child soldiers, and troops who wear cyanide tablets around their necks in case of capture are an ongoing story that back up a hard-line Tiger position: Give us a Tamil homeland, or expect war.

Still, what will play out as an equally powerful dynamic in any future settlement is the deeply held view by Buddhist monks, who are the grass-roots moral authorities in towns and villages. For many of them, a Tamil homeland is at complete odds with the meaning of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Even if President Kumaratunga is able to get Mr. Prabhakaran to the table, would the monks allow a de facto separation?

Pressures are building for a resolution to war. New interest groups are on the rise. The tiny Muslim population wants more power. The business community is tired of war. Moderate Tamils want a say. The military is demoralized by enormous setbacks last fall and not eager for a new offensive.

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These pressures are matched by a rising ethnic Sinhalese nationalism promoted by the clergy. For the orange- and-crimson-robed monks, visible on any street and in any crowd, the geographic unity of Sri Lanka is one with a Buddhist view of the cosmos. Hence, the island must remain whole.

"For centuries, monks have fought to keep Sri Lanka unified," says A. Seelawanissa, vice-rector at the Saripuutha Educational College in Nittembura, a teacher-training college for monks. "For centuries, nationalism and Buddhism have come together in this way. Today, 95 percent of the monks believe in that unity. It is their position on the war."

These Buddhist roots go deep. Like American children learning about George Washington and the cherry tree, Sri Lankan youths learn "The Great Chronicle."

Written in AD 5, at a time when Hindu influences were rising, the story goes that the day Buddha passed to nirvana, he lay beneath two trees and called the monks to him. "Go to Lanka," the Buddha said, "Protect prince Vijaya. He will create a new race of people that will reign for more than 5,000 years."

In a college dormitory at Vihalaya University in Kandy, where the monks' washed orange robes on the balconies give the building a "wrapped by Christo" look, an illustrated poster reads: "Buddhism is brought to Sri Lanka for the protection of Buddhism."

Keepers of the faith

Moreover, Sri Lankan Buddhists widely believe themselves more serious, more pure, and willing to make greater sacrifices than any other Buddhists on the planet. Sri Lanka is the heart of one of the two schools of worldwide Buddhism, Tibet being the other. Sri Lanka spread teachings to the Southeast Asian nations of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia. But the clergy here privately make jokes about the loose and undisciplined practice in the monasteries of those nations.

"Buddhism is not a religion, it is a doctrine, and it is the same for all countries," says one clergyman, who then jokes, "But unlike [certain countries] you can't be a Sri Lankan monk for a few months or years. Here, you are a monk for life."

Even among modern Buddhist clergy, there is a view that Sri Lankan Buddhism is a repository of spirituality that will one day light the entire world. Shanto, the chief monk at the university who asks a reporter for his e-mail address, says, "We have a special responsibility as Sri Lankan monks. Christian[s], Muslims, Jews, all peoples, will benefit from the enlightenment we bring."

Indeed, while the monks are devoutly apolitical, they are also the keepers of Sri Lankan identity. They don't back political parties, but do set social norms, run many of the schools, and watch over the cultural life of villages and towns. To see an important village member, the best way is to first see the chief monk. Dammananda, for example, sits on a civic panel in Kandy that mediates disputes, and he spends most of his time in outreach.

"The monks don't participate in politics, but they do dictate politics," says a senior official who requested anonymity. "It is highly unusual. We are a democratic, secular state that relies for its ballast and stability on the clergy."

Yet increasingly, Buddhist monks have, for example, been going on TV to support nationalist parties, and are seen at rallies supporting hard-line positions on the war. Tensions are reportedly high among the secretive three sects of Buddhists here. Charges of a new worldly wealth among some monks, poor Buddhist practice, and corruption are heard. The National Sangha Council of the Buddhist clergy advised the majority Sinhalese to opt for a military solution to the war, and to boycott elections last December.

Some leading Sri Lankans, reluctant to go on the record, blame the clergy for delays that could have brought an end to the war. Monks were behind a rising Sinhalese nationalism after independence in 1948, characterized by the "Sinhala Only Act" of 1956 that rendered Tamils officially language-less. Prime Minister W.R.D. Bandaranaike, father of President Kumaratunga, was assassinated in 1959 by a Buddhist monk, not for opposing Sinhalese nationalism, but because he didn't act fast enough on it.

A new constitution in the 1970s legally made Buddhism the preeminent faith. The old name Ceylon was changed to the Sinhalese "Sri Lanka." Language and schooling laws favored Sinhalese. The flag was altered to include the Sinhalese lion, one reason Tamils fight under the "tiger" logo.

Partly, the Sinhala push was due to the favored positions held by the Tamil minority under the ruling British, says Sri Lankan historian K.M. de Silva in Kandy's International Center for Ethnic Studies. Yet so completely were Tamil rights and interests ignored, that by the early 1980s, a war for separation was started and has yet to end.

For many years, both the Tigers and the Buddhist clergy benefited from a government in the capital, Colombo, that has been severely split by personal animosity and rancor. The Tigers and the clergy would often maintain their hard-line positions by playing the two main political parties off each other. One bright spot, say peace activists, is that for the first time in several years, Kumaratunga met last week with opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to seek support for constitutional changes that would give more autonomy to some provinces.

Outside the Temple of the Tooth, a group of four young monks-in-training hurry to their duties. One of them, M. Inderatana, says his older brother, a soldier, was killed by Tigers last year. "But I don't feel any hatred toward the Tigers," he says. "I just want the war to end."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society