The cowl does not make the monk

Rohana R. Wasala, in the Island, 13 January 2011

Rumours about alleged legislation being proposed prohibiting what would be considered immodest dresses in public places have aroused some concern as well as amusement among the public. A cartoon that appeared recently in The Island (6th Thursday) showed a policeman measuring the length of a miniskirt on a nubile young woman. Some apt editorial comments on the subject in The Island (8th Saturday) referred to an AFP news agency report about the Secretary to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs N. Rubasinghe revealing, in answer to its query, that a proposal from an unnamed group in the government to impose a ban on skimpy dresses in public places was being considered. Responding to news about the hitherto apparently hush-hush project, an irate Minister of Culture, T.B. Ekanayake, on TV, vehemently denied the existence of any such plan to introduce Taliban-like restrictions here. I prefer to believe that the Minister was telling the truth. But there is no smoke without fire. A particular group in the ruling alliance may have just floated the alleged dress code idea to sound out the opinion of the others in that regard, or even gone a little further in promoting it.This particular unnamed group, I assume to be the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). (If I am mistaken, my sincere apologies to them.) Whoever it was that floated the idea must be concerned with the preservation of what they consider to be native Buddhist cultural standards and values in respect of dress. In my opinion, the general public will not attach much importance to this dress matter, but there’s no harm in trying to arrive at a consensual decision in parliament about it.

However, we know that the protection of our unique Buddhist cultural heritage forms the main plank of the JHU policy. That is why I feel tempted to accept the Minister’s disclaimer. Let me make myself clear: I think that, in pursuing its broad policy, the party would not have concerned itself too much with the trivial subject of how modestly young people should be turned out in public places, instead of focusing on the much more significant problem of the fast deteriorating public image of the average Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka today due to the unbhikkhu-like behaviour of a few.

To begin with the hypothetical proposal about a modest dress code for the laity, ours is a society in which four major religious cultural traditions coexist peacefully. Since, in terms of cultural relativity, these traditions subscribe to different norms it is difficult to impose common standards of conduct on our pluralist society except as exclusively applicable to members of each religious denomination or sect. True, in the case of dress, I think, there is a degree of compatibility among the different communities. But, for the majority of Sri Lankans dress is not connected with religion except on religious occasions and in places of worship. Individuals’ choice of modes of dress is determined by such usual factors as immediate utility, ideas of decency, social acceptance, fashion, and affordability.

As in many male-dominated societies, so in Sri Lanka, greater responsibility for looking after the community’s morals and standards of ethical conduct, whether in the more sensitive matters like sexual relations, or in the more insignificant ones like the modes of dress, is delegated to women, and women are more likely to be censured for perceived transgressions. Thus, any legislation regarding dress is likely to affect women more than it would affect men. Won’t this amount to active discrimination against women, who are after all our own mothers, sisters, wives and daughters? A Buddhist project that threatens such discrimination is unthinkable, as even a cursory student of Buddhism will know that its doctrine of universal loving-kindness will not accept unfair treatment of persons on any basis.

I think restrictions like these are an unwarranted infringement of personal freedom, especially of the young. Decisions about what are proper modes of dress in normal circumstances should be left to individual choice. Let fear of social censure act as a curb on what would be considered indecent or socially unacceptable attire. If the majority of the population don’t mind young people sporting fashions that may make them more attractive to the opposite sex, let it be no concern of a minority of moral policemen (or less likely, moral policewomen); if silly old men and women adopt the same fashions, and become the laughing stock of the world, the choice is theirs. This is the attitude that now seems to prevail, and I, for one, would not think that there’s anything wrong with that, for I have seen many little upasaka ammas and upasaka mahatthayas, who normally walk the streets in their minis, three quarters, and whatnot, worshipping at the Dalada Maligawa suitably dressed in white; and their demeanour shows that they are more religious than I am at my quite mature age, to be frank. I am sure that young men and women who profess other faiths conduct themselves in the same disciplined way. So, if our average young sons and daughters know how to dress and behave properly in different situations, why bother to introduce legislation to enforce the same?

In case the sort of legislation that we are talking about is ever introduced by the alleged group, it will be deemed a Buddhist initiative, and will be responded to as such by the public. But the idea of enforcing modesty through legislation is, I think, alien to the spirit of the Buddhist teaching.

This is not meant to be an attack on the political party I have named. I am just commenting on a hypothetical situation. However, the issue suggested, i.e. the question of introducing legislation against modes of dress that could be offensive to the general public’s sense of modesty, gives me an opportunity to broach an infinitely more important subject, a subject that is likely to land me in an invidious position, though: the issue of the decadent way in which some Buddhist monks conduct themselves. If those who are determined to uplift the morals of the laity turned their attention to the urgent necessity of reforming these custodians of morality instead, it would be really meaningful.

The vast majority of the bhikkhu order lead exemplary lives, devoting their time and energy for their spiritual purposes, while serving as best they could the lay society upon which they depend for alms (Buddhist monks being mendicants). However, public opinions are formed on the basis of what people see of the few monks who are most visible on account of their being more involved in the secular affairs of the community. Even among these there are those who properly maintain their special image as persons dedicated to a religious life of service.

Some mavericks among the Buddhist monks, taking refuge of the veneration accorded to the order, engage in unholy activities. There are monks who practice professions that are not suitable for them, such as witchcraft. They advertise themselves over all the media. Some run businesses. (Of course, some do that to help the society, which is a different matter.) Why do they earn money, if they have taken a vow to live as mendicants? Recently it was publicly alleged that certain undergraduate monks drink liquor, and force fresh bhikkhu students to do the same, and that they sing and dance in the night in their dormitory. Then there are those who take part in violent demonstrations, and sometimes get manhandled by the police, or get remanded. There are reports of certain monks misbehaving in other ways too. Some even engage in criminal activities such as ‘treasure hunting’ and burglary.

Getting rid of such criminal elements and reforming the misguided ones is easier said than done. It will involve a monumental effort on the part of all concerned – the Buddhist clergy and the laity – to turn things around. Errant monks may be small in number, but the damage they do to the reputation of a predominantly Buddhist country is not small. Of much greater enormity is the deleterious effect that the bad examples they set by their behaviour can have on the morals of the young. The highest monks in the land may already be taking note.

In respect of any proposals or schemes mooted for the moral uplift of the people, we could say the following, without prejudice to the high esteem and reverence in which the many true bhikkhus among the yellow-robed are held in this country: just as a ‘decent’ dress alone does not make a decent person, a yellow robe alone will not make a Buddhist monk.

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