The Buddhist Virtues We Need Today — Via “Sathyodaya”

Upul Wijayawardhana,  in The Island, 7  October 2016, where the title is The Dawn of Truth

We live in an era when exaggerated ritual gets the pride of place. Not a day passes without the image, on television, of a politico offering pujas in temples, kovils and churches etc. to invoke blessings either on themselves, their party or the country. Some are even more foolish, instead of feeding the poor, they smash perfectly edible coconuts to cast evil spells on their opponents! Even worse, some idiotic politicos, not being content with the offerings at home, rush abroad to make offerings to the more powerful foreign gods! On top of that we see elaborate Bodhi Pujas, Pahan Pujas, Atavisi Buddha Pujas and over-the-top Buddha Pujas.


“So, what is your problem?” some may ask. My problem, as a convinced follower of the Buddha Dhamma, is the real dangertheserituals pose submerging the Dhamma; burying the spiritual in ritual. More and more are seeking ‘liberation’ with rituals and bribes than treading the noble path shown by the Enlightened One. It is out of this concern that I have written many pieces of late but I did not realize I would find a most unexpected supporter for my views. I must thank Mr G A D Sirimal and my brother Jagath for this amazing discovery. Mr Sirimal sent me a paper cutting but it was Jagath who recommended the gem of a booklet “Sathyodaya”.


“Sathyodaya” which translates as “The Dawn of Truth” is an 88 page booklet, written by Ven. Prof Walpola Rahula, one of the greatest Buddhist scholars of our time. He is known the world over for his seminal work “What the Buddha Taught”, which was published in 1959 and since used as a handbook on Buddhism in many American universities. His scholarship was rewarded when he was appointed, in 1964, the Professor of History and Religions at Northwestern University in Illinois, USA, the first Buddhist Monk to hold a professorial chair in the Western world. He had been instrumental in establishing the first Theravada Buddhist Temple in USA, in Washington DC. Thanks to the seed he sowed, it is estimated that there are around 500 Theravada Buddhist temples in USA today.

I did not realize he was a revolutionary and a social reformer too, till I read “Satyodaya”, which I did in less than two hours; a record for a lazy reader! It is so absorbing you cannot put it down and should be compulsory reading for any Buddhist. It is a collection of seven leaflets which he distributed between, wait for it, December 1933 and September 1934, but the relevance is increased, not diminished. The subtitle explains it all: ‘a series of letters to teach Buddhists how to think freely’. Is it not sad that the followers of the Buddha, who extolled free thinking not only in the well-known Kalama sutta but also in Culaviyuhasutta (Getting rid of dogma), need to be reminded about free thinking?

In his forward, dated 5 November 1992, Ven. Rahula states: “Though written over 60 years ago, the views and criticisms in these leaflets is even more relevant and timely. There was no Ministry of Buddhist Affairs then; people practised their religion freely. Ladies who observed the Ten Precepts, dressed in white, walked free on the roads but today they, dressed in yellow robes, are escorted by police for Bodhi Pujas!.” He also mentions that the famous Sinhala poet, P BAlwisPerera commented, after reading the leaflets “RahulaHamuduruwoapatasithannaegannuwa” _ “RahualHamuduruwo, taught us how to think”

Most of the leaflets are in question and answer format and the topics are:

  1. Proper Buddha Puja
  1. Inviting gods and Dharmapuja
  1. Insults to Triple Gem
  1. Bhikku’s caste system
  1. Meritorius acts and aspirations
  1. Dogmatism
  2. Sangha and offerings

To my knowledge there is no English translation. Therefore, for the benefit of those who find it difficult to read the original in Sinhala, I will try to sum up the important points in a few articles, adding some comments of my own to support and honour this revolutionary scholar.
Proper Buddha Puja
It had been rumoured that Ven. Rahula was against Buddha Puja which he denies but clarifies that what he is againstis futile rituals in the name of puja. In spite of Ven. Rahula’s protestations things are no better, definitely worse today.

He accepts that no one deserves more respect and pujas than the Buddha, who can be honoured by action (Pratipatti puja) or ritual (Amisa puja)and points out that what we do is having the label of ‘Buddha puja’ outside but perform a carnival inside. Is this real Puja? Why are we not using our intelligence, he quite rightly questions. We offer food and drinks to the Buddha statue and what purpose does it serve? Food should be given to someone who can appease his hunger with it, gain nourishment from it; not waste it in front of an inanimate statue that has no need for it. We should give food for consumption and honour the Buddha by appeasing the hunger of the starving. By that action, kindness and compassion is generated whereas offering food to a statue breeds greed, to acquire merit for a better life in the next birth.

I have been committed to hell by my friends and relations for eating Buddha puja after an alms giving. English birds and animals have not yet developed a taste for rice and curry and what is left after the alms giving, including the Buddha puja should be thrown away, they say. When millions, may be billions, are starving the world over, is it not a crime to throw away perfectly edible food? Even if you wish to blindly follow ritual and offer food to the Buddha, throwing it away is blinder still. Was it not the very Buddha to whom we offer food and drinks, which he cannot consume though our intentions are pious, who said that what matters is the intention. I eat the food offered to Him, not out of disrespect but with great respect. I may be accused of being stingy, being a miser. Is waste a sign of detachment? Clinging to the false belief that food and drinks should be offered to the Buddha is bad enough but it should be thrown after the ceremony and should not be eaten is a misjudgement of the highest order. Anyway, I am doing the second best but, perhaps, it is time to listen to Ven. Rahula’s voice from the past and stop offering food and drinks to the Buddha even though this may irk some friends and family, may even the Bhikkhus who attend.

Buddha puja ritual has gone mad of late. There are widely publicized pujas where over one thousand curries are offered. Imagine this happening in Buddha’s time. If, just to please those who took great pains to prepare these delicacies, the Buddha had to eat one small spoonful of each, what would have happened to him? Even if He did not choke to death, His life span would have been drastically reduced, preventing Him from going round preaching the Dhamma. What misguided Buddhists are we?

Pahan puja

While accepting that Viharas should be adequately lit, Ven. Rahula questions the logic of burning thousands of oil lamps in the name of the Buddha. He poses the very apt question “Is it not better to give a lamp to a poor student to read his books instead of going to bed early, neglecting his studies, simply because his parents are too poor to afford a light or even burn an oil lamp?” I could not help laughing when he created the scenario of lighting 84,000 oil lamps, as some do: Imagine the discomfort the Buddha would have felt, standing in the middle, surrounded by 84,000 burning oil lamps, which in addition to light produce heat and smoke.
If we had our way and if Buddha were alive today, we would have fed him rice & roti with over 1000 curries during the day and lighted 84.000 lamps around him at night!

 Mal pooja

Ven. Rahula has no objections to the practice of offering flowers and his reason is that it had been the traditional way of showing respect, even to a person not visible. It is an external expression of a pure thought but, again, if done with greed defeats the purpose. If we offer a few flowers, not decimating all the flowering trees around, and contemplate on the impermanence, that these flowers will wither even faster now that we have plucked them, something spiritual is generated out of a ritual.
Ven. Rahula explains how the Sangha has exploited these pujas to their advantage and points out that the best Amisa puja for the Buddha is tending the sick; feeding, clothing and sheltering the poor, of which there are many even in this 21st century. Not, exaggerated Buddha pujas.
It is more than 80 years since Ven. Rahula dropped these pearls before us, which we have disregarded so far. The best way of honouring this great Buddhist Scholar is gradually reducing these illogical, unproductive, more than anything else un-Buddhist, rituals.

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