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Buddhism, Sex Scandals & Lessons Learned

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The year 2023 has been a turbulent year for Sri Lanka as far as religious affairs are concerned. On January 5th the Social Media Activist Sepal Amarasinghe was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department over defaming the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and slandering Buddhism. On May 15th the president ordered the CID to investigate Jerome Fernando the Senior Pastor of the Glorious Church on the grounds of statements that disturb the religious harmony. On May 28th the CID arrested Natasha Edirisooriya, a Sri Lankan stand-up comedienne, and Saddharathana Thero of Rajanganaya for allegedly defaming Buddhism. On May 31st Bruno Divakara the owner of the YouTube channel ‘SL-Vlogs’ was arrested in connection to promoting Natasha’s allegedly defamatory statements regarding Buddhism.

While some of the Buddhists applauded and celebrated these arrests on social media it didn’t take very long before the tables turned on the Buddhist community of the island nation. Magalkande Sudaththa Thera, known for his leadership role in the ultra-nationalist organization ‘Sihala Rawaya,’ found himself embroiled in a scandal following the circulation of a video depicting an alleged sexual offense. Shortly afterward another video also began circulating in social media in July exposing Pallegama Sumana Thero who was caught in the act with two women. That same month another clergyman was arrested for sexually molesting his mistress’ daughter.

In today’s blog post, I would like to pay close attention to all of these three sex scandals, in reverse chronological order, not to sling mud at Buddhism or brawl religious disharmony but to share three valuable lessons they present to every Buddhist. There are some important lessons the Buddhist devotees and other minorities of this island nation can draw from these sex scandals regardless of the disturbing nature of the incidents. At the end of this post, I will also present three resolutions that the authorities could adopt to prevent the history from repeating.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely my own and do not reflect the views of my employer.

Find devotion beyond the Saffron Robe

The latest incident, which unfolded in Japan, involved the Magalkande Sudaththa being attacked by his supporters after they discovered him sharing a room with a young male individual. In the video that has since gone viral, a group of supporters stormed into the clergyman’s abode and confronted him, alleging that he had committed a sexual offense. The relatives of the young male person, visibly agitated, can be seen participating in the confrontation and physically attacking the clergyman. The incident has sparked widespread outrage and raised concerns within the community. Here’s the thought that crossed my mind when I saw the video.

Buddhists often expect their clergymen to abide by a high standard of moral code because, from a very early age in life, they’re taught to treat those who wear the saffron robe with the utmost respect for they are believed to be impeccable of moral failure. Hence Buddhist devotees become overwhelmed with frustration when their highly esteemed clergymen fail to live up to the standard set before them. I don’t endorse casual sex or homosexuality but nobody can expect clergymen to be immune to their sex drive because, after all, they are not gods but humans. It’s the reality and finding devotion beyond the saffron robe is the only way you can reconcile reality with devotion.

Shield the weaker gender at any Cost

It’s the incident in Bomiriya on July 6th that convinced me to write this blog post. The video footage released to social media depicts several men assaulting a clergyman namely Pallegama Sumana Thero and attempting to strip the two young women said to have engaged in sexual intercourse with him. The first thing that came to my mind was whether those men would decline if the women had offered themselves. Their rage wasn’t stemming from a passion for safeguarding Buddhism. It seems that the individuals expressing their anger likely did so because the women declined their advances for sex. The actions of those men bring to mind a quote:

If you wished to know how civilized a culture is, look at how they treat it’s women.

Bacha Khan

I am not seeking to justify the clergyman or the women involved. The clergyman breached the moral code he was supposed to uphold and the two women committed an offense by consenting to have illicit sex with him. However, those men had an obligation to protect the identity of those women. Instead, they filmed the incident and released the uncensored footage to social media revealing the identity of those women to the entire society to see if not the entire world. Buddhism is a philosophy known for championing the weaker gender with unwavering determination, regardless of the sacrifices required. Therefore, shielding that defenseless gender should be the sacred duty of every Buddhist.

Reconcile Buddhism and Sex Education

This incident was much more than a sex scandal. Like I said in the beginning it involved a child who was molested sexually by a clergyman. Sadly, she had told her mother the mistress of the accused clergyman but the mother instructed her to keep it under wraps. Fortunately, she told her grandmother what happened to her at the hands of her mother’s lover who in turn informed the child’s father, and the clergyman was arrested followed by a complaint lodged by the father. Had the girl kept quiet she could have been subject to molestation over and over again. The majority of victims, however, unlike this girl fail to communicate when they are molested.

Systematic sex education is crucial for preventing sexual abuse and molestation of children as well as to help children that were victims of pedophilic predators. In the first 60 days of the year 2020 itself, the National Child Protection Authority received 5,242 complaints. Unfortunately, the majority of Buddhists are becoming part of the problem, but not the solution. For example, “ape hathe potha” met with so much resistance from the Buddhist clergymen to the effect of Mr. Akila Viraj Kariywasam the former minister of education issued a directive to stop the distribution of the book. It indicates Sri Lanka has a grave need for reconciling Buddhism with sex education.

Wrap Up

I am reminded of a very candid conversation I had with a Buddhist clergyman I met more than 20 years ago while traveling from Colombo to Kurunegala. Since I was clothed in my priestly clothes I had the privilege of sitting next to him on the seat reserved for the clergy. He briefly confessed his lost status between his oath as a clergyman and struggling to keep his sexual urges under control. To quote his own words he said, “මගේ ලිංගික ආසාවන් පාලනය කරගන්න හරිම අමාරුයි තමයි, ඒත් ඉතින් මොනවා කරන්නද මම දන්නෙ නැහැ?” (Keeping my sexual urges under control can be extremely challenging, but I’m unsure of what steps I can take to address this issue.)

There are three avenues the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious, and Cultural Affairs could use to help the Buddhist clergymen to deal with sexual urges and keep scandals to a minimum. The first avenue is to discourage parents from dedicating their children to the saffron robe until they come to an age they understand the gravity of the commitment. Secondly, the clergymen should be provided with a safe vent through which they can openly talk about their struggles and seek help. Finally, in the event, all else fails the clergymen should have the privilege of disrobing without having to deal with the social stigma of disrobing.

If you found this content helpful, I kindly ask you to leave your feedback in the comments section below. Sharing it on social media would also be greatly appreciated. In order to promote meaningful and respectful dialogue, I request that you use your full name when commenting. Please note that any comments containing profanity, name-calling, or a disrespectful tone will be deleted. Thank you for your understanding and participation.

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