Extracts from an interview with the Most Ven Labugama Sri Lankananda Mahanayake Thera, head of the Maha Sangha Sabha of the Sri Jayawardenepura, Kotte, and a scholar of the Tripitaka and a Royal Pundit who passed away in 1997. He was at Prayachanodaya Pirivena, Molligoda,Wadduwa.
Q. What was your early life like?
A. I was born in 1901 on July 10th in Labugama in Horana, and had my early education at the Haltota school. I attended the Daham Pasala in Wavulagala Dharmarakshitharamaya, where I had the idea of becoming a monk. My parents did not like it, save a sister who helped me to fulfil the ambition. I remember reciting the Dorakadaasna at a sathi pirith ceremony there. The Nayake monk of Raigama asked me if I liked to don the saffron robe. I was 14 then. The monk got my horoscope from parents and they had to give their consent. My friend in the same class too became a monk which encouraged me. He is now dead. I was ordained on 2nd June 1917, under the name of Labugama Lankananda. I had my upasampada ceremony on 11th July 1924 at Kotte’s Raja Maha Viharaya.
Q. Can you comment on your initial studies after donning the robe.
A. I did not stay over 3 months in the temple for my ordination. I did a lot of studies then. I could memorize well those days. I had my basic studies at Molligoda’s Pirivana. I memorized books like Sidath Sangarawa and the other famous works. I got through the Pracheena exam in 1928 and became qualified to do the Panditha exam in 1933. One qualification for it was to author a book, and I wrote one titled ‘Gamini Charithaya in Pali. It had 1000 stanzas. No one has done that type of a work this century.
Q. Why did the practice of authoring a book as a qualification cease?
A. I think it was the work of those who cannot author books. Had they maintained that qualification, men would at least, make the attempt.
Q. How did you acquire knowledge in Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit?
A. I never ceased studies, I still study. Most monks stop once they obtain a degree but one must study and read without ceasing. I read the Thripitaka and its interpretations many times. I still do. I taught monks and laymen alike daily, getting up at 4 am. I engage myself in classical works. This is how I got all the knowledge.
Q. It is accepted that you have served the cause of Buddhist, Pali and Sanskrit literature and the Dharma vinaya. Can you comment on that?
A. I became involved with classical work first, by teaching students a work titled ‘Chutthodaya’, which was difficult to learn. So I wrote an interpretation and taught them that. This was in 1935. The students asked me to print the work and when I said I lacked money, they raised funds and had it printed. This made a difficult job easy. Later Rev. Weliwitiya Soratha told me that he too tried an interpretation of Chutthodaya text, but gave up once I started doing it. He praised me for my efforts in that direction. I wanted to translate all the Pali texts. In 1936, I translated the Majjima nikaya as Prapancha Dipika. In 1937, I did the Subodhalankara Lankananda Vyakyawa. Besides these I have sent 17 works for printing. Buthsarana needs to be mentioned as a special work out of these. I have almost finished the Anguththara Nikaya, and others. Besides there are hundreds, I have sent to magazines and tabloids. I never will cease to engage myself on classical works. I am at it even today. Besides my own work, I am also engaged in encyclopaedia work. I am now the chief editor of the ‘Tripitaka translations’. I was persuaded to do this by Rev. Parawahera Vajiragnana thero. He had great respect for the Tripitaka translation work’s former editor, Rev. Kodagoda Nayaka thero and now expects much from me.
Q. Why are translations so difficult?
A. Translations are always deep running jobs. But they tend to improve our Sinhala language. The translation board accepts this idea. We have to protect this language tradition and I will try to do just that.
Q. What would you comment on your roles as Mahanayake of the Shyamapali Nikaya and the Kotte Mahanayake Thero?
A. I like to tell you about our Sangha Sabhawa. I was selected to the Judicial Committee of the Sri Kalyani Dharma Sabha in 1947 where I was Secretary for 22 years. I remember how the Lankan govt. decided to send a Buddhist delegation to Russia from the Siyam Nikaya. The Asgiri Chapter Nayaka thero who was one of the six nominees, decided not to go. I don’t know the reason but then the Malwatte Chapter wanted one of our monks to join the trip. I was nominated for this, but the Cultural Dept. people wanted to know if I was a Nayaka thero. I said I was only the Secretary of the Sangha Sabha, which they said was a better title for my selection. So I went there.
Q. Do you have religious freedom ijn Russia?
A. There are about 6 lakhs of Buddhists in a place called Buraith in Russia. Mr. Subasinghe was the Ambassador then. We visited Mongolia and Siberia. We did not feel that there was no freedom in Russia. We felt that everyone had freedom to perform his religious duties like Muslims to quote one group, whose service once we watched.
There are Mahayana Buddhists in Russia. The Russian Govt. had to spend about Rs. 50,000/- on us during the trip.
Q. Did you not subscribe to the Sangadhikarana Act? Why was it not implemented?
A. Some expressed their fears over its implementation. I think it is because once it became law, useless monks would be disrobed. So some feared it. I am still for it. Some sections of the govt. too are nursing fears over it. It is a pity that it is not implemented, as it could instil discipline in monks. I can cite one incident where an attempt was made legally to negate a motion challenging a financial flaw in a temple coming under the Sangha Sabha. We need to implement it, to offset frauds etc., perpetrated by monks. I want the govt. to implement it soon. I think all Mahanayakas are agreed that this should see light of day. We have a clean vinaya record, which even the Englishmen have copied for their code of conduct, which shows its usefullness. A monk involved in a criminal case must be disrobed. But now we cannot do that. Today’s decline in the Sasana can be arrested by implementing it. Even Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike said that, had this been in use, what happened in 1971 may not have happened. She mentioned the case of some thieves who robbed the Slave Island Bank, attired in trousers, only later to don the saffron identifying themselves as monks. This is why we had a plan to issue IDs to monks. We need to make the Sangadhikarana Act law to settle all our woes.
Q. What about today’s decline in Bikkhu morals?
A. I blame it on education, which as it is today, is deplorable. In Bikkhu education, there is not a single vinaya book prescribed. So there is a decline in all pirivenas. It is a far cry from the earlier pirivena education. Today’s monks have not heard of some of the books prescribed then. All claim that monks are not disciplined. How can they in the absence of discipline in education?
Q. Is this decline due to Varsity education?
A. Yes. There is no teacher-pupil relationship. Today’s education in universities misleads students. So now wonder vinaya has hit a poor stage. Monks cannot do what the rest do. They must understand their responsibilities. They should not follow professional courses. They must study whatever benefits laymen. Education of monks should be society oriented to help people. So the necessary texts must be included in the syllabus. It is wrong for Bikkhus to join hands with lay people when studying.
Q. Monks come under ciriticism often. Isn’t this unfair?
A. If the education at its elementary stages improves this will change and will tend to beget better bikkhus. There must be a uniform system by which all bhikkhus will benefit from the educational policy. As things are, it is not good to criticise them. We must blame those not making efforts to educate the young bikkhus.
Q. What can the monks do to defuse the tension now associated with the ethnic problem?
A. The main task of monks is to educate men with this country’s history. It is the monk who has saved this nation very many times. Rev. Theripuththabhaya was a monk who disrobed and joined the army. Those willing to do that, can do so even now. The king asked for the monk’s blessing before combat. All monks need to agree on a consensus to settle our ethnic problem.
Q. You do not agree to the idea of rearing fish. Why is that?
A. Once the Enlightened One asked whether the children of fishermen do well in life, and other similar questions. That is why I gave my disagreed on this issue. Even if the State sponsors this type of venture, I do not know whether there will be anything called Buddhist culture. When these things continue to happen the Gods become angry, society is angered too, and hence the droughts and diseases, for even the wind that blows is poisonous. Our Buddhists of yesteryear cultivated vegetation, while today they take to fishing. Hence our downfall in morals.
This is an extract from Sunday Times 18th May 1997