The Blue Moon

The President, Elections and the Politics of the Tripitaka

President Maithripala Sirisena seen here with Hanaa Singer, UN Resident Coordinator to Sri Lanka. The president wants the UN to declare the Tripitaka a world heritage.

Out of the blues, President Maithripala Sirisena has decided, apparently all by himself, that the Tripitaka, the sacred scriptures of Theravada Buddhists must be declared a ‘national heritage.’  To his credit, he has already done this in January this year.  After all, what was needed was a presidential decree and tax-payers’ money to make this declaration somewhat celebratory in a visual sense at the ‘national’ level. Hence, the recent Tripitaka Week enforced on all government entities.  Along with the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, the President is already in the process of initiating the legal procedures to get the UN to declare the Tripitka a ‘global heritage’ as well.  By themselves, these efforts seem very sensible. After all, the Tripitaka, if anyone pauses to read at least a fragment of it, is an incredible text in more ways than one.  So no one should have any reservations about these twin declarations if they are made in a context of either piety or intellectual interest.

But the entire cluster of politics and the thinking that has gone into these efforts seem beyond both piety and intellect.  The crucial question is, why now? For instance, during his rather long political career initially as an MP, later as Deputy Minister and Minister, and even as President since 2015, this specific thought seems to have never entered the President’s mind. In 2019 however, the idea suddenly pops up like a divine revelation. If we are to be realistic, we have to assume that the 2019 presidential election must be a factor in this decision.  Though Mr. Sirisena had openly declared he will not seek re-election at the time he was elected in 2015, the news for some time has been that he is desperately seeking to get nominations to contest another term.

In this specific political context, the discourse of the Tripitaka as a ‘national’ and ‘world’ heritage being presented as the brain child of the president becomes a seemingly pious means to a clearly-defined political end.  Instead of a matter of piety or intellect, a decision like this in the present circumstances merely becomes a political consideration of crude proportions.  Here is the contradiction in ethical terms:  the Tripitaka as a collection of ideas and ethics, which Mr.Sirisena has now declared a national heritage, has among its core values, the importance of seeking the truth, being honest and having integrity over one’s actions.  In fact, Buddhist commonsense would inform this set of values to anyone who might pause to think.  In this context, it is the height of hypocrisy for a man who had vocally promised an era of clean politics in the country and in that same sense never to seek re-election, to now use the Tripitaka as one of the slogans for his hoped-for campaign.  In 2015, he had ‘My3.’  Now, it appears to be ‘TRIPITAKA.’ Whatever his choice of slogan, much of his 2015 vote-share would have considerably diminished by now simply going by the negative political track record he has created for himself.

Besides the rather unethical political meanings of the president’s actions, what actually do these declarations mean?

National Heritage

As a young man, I can well recall my parents, elders of the time and teachers trying to instill in me and my friends that the Tripitaka and in general the words of the Buddha were matters of national religio-cultural heritage.  Of course, they never used the words ‘national heritage.’  Instead, what they meant in their advice was that these discourses were worthy of reflection and emulation.  They further suggested that all beliefs and cultural artifacts in the country are also matters of national heritage in the sense, they are ‘ours.’  Again, the words, ‘national heritage’ were not used, but this was the crux of the implication. This was our commonsense.   Everything to do with faith, belief and culture were components of national heritage by default. But it is quite possible that the president is not an inheritor of this commonsense, which until now, I assumed perhaps erroneously, was somehow ‘national.’ Taken in this sense, the presidential decree making the Tripitka a national heritage is nothing new.  It is merely a symbolic legal process enacted by the State with considerable political spin and placed on an idea that has been an entrenched part of our commonsense for a long time. Moreover, all this is in favor of a sitting president desperately seeking nomination for re-election.

The narrowness of what ‘national heritage’ means in this specific context is amply illustrated in the brochure that has been co-published by the Presidential Secretariat, Ministry of Buddha Sasana and the Ministry of Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs.  In one place, the brochure says (in Sinhala), “when various private entities publish the Tripitaka, it is impossible to stop different kinds of misinterpretations and falsehoods from seeping into it.  But when the Tripitaka has been declared a national heritage, its copyrights in its entirety will be vested in the Ministry of Buddha Sasana.” How on earth would a Sri Lankan government entity claim copyrights over a set of ideas that has been in circulation for nearly 3000 years? How can it claim rights over a public asset that was initially written down in Sri Lanka as early as the First Century BCE? How can a government ministry in Colombo make claims for a set of texts that are also revered by Theravada Buddhists all over the world, but specifically in Myanmar, Thailand and India in addition to Sri Lanka itself? What becomes apparent is the lack of clear thinking in this declaration beyond mere electoral rhetoric in favor of the President.  This becomes even clearer when one takes into account his photo-shopped smiling face accompanied by a rhetorical statement that are centrally presented in design and spatial terms in the brochure.

The Tripitka ( courtesy
The Tripitka ( courtesy

World Heritage

And what does it mean in real terms when the President says that he wants to get the UN to declare the Tripitaka a ‘world heritage’? If the UN wants to declare the Tripitaka a ‘world heritage’ at the request of the President, so much the better.  Such a process is a simple matter of established protocol in the same way many other components of intangible and tangible culture from different parts of the world have been considered this way by the UN.  But why would a Sri Lankan president take such a request to a dysfunctional global body like the UN a few months before an election in a seemingly carelessly planned effort, when the Tripitaka for all practical purposes, is already a world heritage? After all, the English translation of the Tripitaka began in the latter part of the 19th century due to the efforts of scholars such as T.W. Rhys Davids. And some editions were available as early as 1900 if not earlier. In fact, it was due to the tireless efforts of translators such as T.W. Rhys Davids, C.A.F. Rhys Davids, I.B. Horner, F.L. Woodward, Peter Masefield, E.M. Hare, B.C. Law and Reverend U. Narada that the actual text of the Tripitaka became globally available for the first time.  This was much before a Sinhala translation of the entire corpus was available.  Since that time, a number of other English translations have also emerged such as those done by the Bukkyo Dando Kyokai.

And as any scholar of Buddhism would know, all this has become possible along with the rather vast output of scholarship on Buddhism in English alone because of Buddhism’s global reach as a set of ideas and as an object of research and reflection. Its global appeal becomes even more apparent if one also takes into consideration the written output on Buddhism in non-English languages such as Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French and German among others. This global image of Buddhism becomes more complex and acquires more historical depth when one looks at the long routes of Buddhist pilgrimage crisscrossing international borders that have evolved over hundreds of years.

Seen in this sense, the Tripitaka along with many other formal texts and analyses on Buddhism as well as practices of faith are already centraly located within multiple global discourses.  Therefore, these ideas, texts and debates constitute a significant part of an existing and evolving ‘world heritage.’ So what would the President and his wise men actually achieve by a possible UN declaration of the Tripitaka as a ‘world heritage’ that scholars such as Rhys Davids, Rev. Walpola Rahula and many others as well as globally renowned spiritual leaders from the Theravada world have not achieved?  In real terms, the president’s hurried declaration cannot be understood in way other than as average political rhetoric.

Campaigning already?
Campaigning already?

What Now?

But now that the Tripitaka has, in fact, been declared a ‘national heritage’, the government can undertake some actions that would make local sense. Though Sinhala translations of the Tripitaka are available, they are not easy texts to read. This is particularly so in the global reality of abbreviated langue use initiated by SMS that have been widely embraced by the younger generations the world over. Given this lapse, it would actually be useful to render selected components of the Tripitaka not only to contemporary Sinhala but to Tamil as well in the immediate local context.  This is a much more sensible thing to focus on if we are to consider the Tripitika a national heritage rather than the state insisting on its copyrights.

This is also an approach that can be expanded into other languages, and through these into the world. On the other hand, there are many important works on Buddhist philosophy and thinking that needs to be taken out of the depositories in which they are mostly forgotten and remain unpublished, and be made part of globally circulating ideas.  Older published texts such as those of Prof K.N. Jayatilleke, Rev Walpola Rahula or Prof David Kalupahana are also no longer widely available unless they have become a part of an online digital library. Or, their copyrights might be held by a publisher at whose prices it would not be possible to easily access these works in Sri Lanka in particular or in South Asia more generally.  If the President and the Sri Lankan government were to think of the Tripitaka in global terms as a set of ideas that are to be explored, it would be useful to work out how to make this kind of difficult to access forms of knowledge more accessible.  This would be much more sensible rather than taking a petition with considerable local fanfare to the UN over which Sri Lanka has no control.

But there is no harm in being hopeful that the President and his wise/vice men might somehow have the capacity to turn an ill-defined political slogan into something sensible in the long term.  After all, who are we to believe that miracles don’t happen?