‘When ordinary people praise the Buddha, they do so only on the trivial and petty grounds of mere behavior.’
The Buddha, Brahmajala Sutta, Digha Nikaya 1
In recent days there’s been considerable discussion among Buddhists, especially in Singapore and Malaysia, over the conferring of the respected title ‘Datuk’ to the senior monk Venerable Dhammaratana, abbot of the Brickfields Temple in KL. The controversy is not over the honor, but over the fact that the Venerable received it wearing a suit!
A bit strange, I think. I’ve lived in Malaysia for over a year, and i can’t imagine anyone, including the Malaysian royalty, expecting a monk to wear anything other than his traditional robes. After all, the officials at the ceremony were wearing traditional Malaysian garb, not suits. I’ve met three Prime Ministers and the Queen of England, and it never occurred to me to wear anything other than the same robe I wear every day.
But what’s stranger to me is the emotional reaction of some Malaysian Buddhists. The Young Buddhists Association of Malaysia (YBAM), one of the most important central organizations, said, ‘We were deeply saddened by the failure of Ven. Dhammaratana to set a good example in upholding the dignity of Buddhism.’ The Buddhist Channel published an article where the author Siriminda said: ‘I am disturbed and horrified to know that the venerable donned a complete lay suit to in the investiture ceremony.’
These articles, and others, were careful to acknowledge their pride as Buddhists and respect for the fact that the Venerable had received such an award. But there is no mistaking their very serious concern for the idea of such a senior monk not wearing robes. This is seen as an affront to one of the core symbols of Buddhism.
According to Vinaya, wearing lay clothes is a minor offence, although what this exactly means is not entirely clear. After all, the robes that monastics wore in those days wear, in point of fact, the same as lay clothes, except for the distinctive color and the patchwork pattern.
As with so many other things, the Vinaya issue is a distraction here. Monks break far more rules than this every day and no-one bats an eyelid. The real issue is the robe as a symbols of the Sangha, part of the Triple Gem.
The Venerable is by no means the first bhikkhu to don lay clothes. The respected German monk Ven. Nyanaponika would, so I am told, wear a brown suit when he returned to Germany, as the robs were unknown in his country. It is quite common in the west for Tibetan monastics to wear lay clothes to go to work, then put the robes on when they return to the temple. This is an unfortunate consequence of the lack of support for Tibetan monastics in the west.
In the Brahmajala Sutta I quoted from above, the Buddha makes a strong point about how people will tend to blame or criticize based on trivial details of external behaviour, ignoring that which is of true value. The Buddha was very clear on this, and always kept a sense of ethical perspective. Sadly, we Buddhists have become so attached to the externals of our religion that we tend to judge and condemn someone who has spent a life in service to the Dhamma based on such a trivial thing.
We forget: there is nothing immoral about wearing a suit. It doesn’t harm anyone. There are real, genuine moral issues facing us every day, and we as Buddhists get used to simply living as if they passed us by. But a suit! Now, that’s something to get ‘horrified’ by.
When I see Ven. Dhammaratana wearing a suit I don’t get horrified or saddened. I think, well that’s unusual. I wonder what the circumstances were that caused him to make that choice? And that’s about all it deserves.
The real take-home message of this little kerfluffle is something quite different. What we are seeing is a Muslim raja presenting an award for public service to a Buddhist monk. Just think: in how many countries in the world could something like this happen? The Malaysian people have built a society where interfaith relations are so good that this can happen, and no-one even bothers to notice.
We hear a constant narrative about Muslim ‘extremists’, about Islamic intolerance for other faiths. This honoring of a Buddhist by a Muslim should be an occasion to celebrate. Malaysians should be proudly saying to the world, ‘Look, this can happen!’ Instead, we show the world that all we care about is a suit.
And why has it happened? It is because of decades of work by leaders such as Ven Dhammaratana and his mentor K Sri Dhammananda, who have built a solid foundation for faith relations in Malaysia. I myself witnessed Ven K Sri Dhammananda’s efforts in this regard, and it was one of the things that inspired me to take an interest in interfaith in Australia.
One of the most salient aspects of the late K Sri Dhammananda’s approach to Buddhism was that he kept it real. He told a story once of how a woman in an airport dropped her handbag off a balcony. He was below, he picked it up and brought it to her. She said, ‘I didn’t think monks could touch a woman’s possessions!’ And he said, ‘I didn’t do it as a monk, I did it as a human being.’ When the Chief Rev told that story in KL, there was a spontaneous applause.
Another story. When the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed, he commented on the fact that Buddhists around the world had responded very calmly, without getting upset at the destruction of such a magnificent symbol of Buddhism. And he said, again to applause, ‘And that’s real Buddhism.’
Another time he spoke of when he was a young monk in KL, how he would get just so hungry sometimes in the afternoon – but the Buddhists wouldn’t give him anything to eat, because monks shouldn’t eat in the afternoon. Only the Muslims, responding to him as a human being, not as a symbol, would give him a snack.
It is this attitude, this insistence on humanity as the core of Buddhism, not external behaviors and symbols, that inspired K Sri Dhammananda’s mission, which as all Malaysians know, is the foundation of modern Malaysian Buddhism.
His approach is not the strictest. But it has a flexibility and a sincerity that has allowed Buddhist to flourish in a majority Muslim country, during a time when so many other countries have been overtaken by the spectre of fundamentalism. Perhaps it is this very flexibility, this concern for the other, that lay behind Ven Dhammaratana’s decision.
I can only imagine that wearing lay clothes would feel very strange and uncomfortable. Stepping out, knowing the judgments that others will make. I can’t imagine that he did this for himself. I can only assume he was thinking of what was best for the occasion, to be as gracious and considerate as possible for his host.
As a monk, and even more so, as a human being, Ven. Dhammaratana deserves the benefit of the doubt, not harsh judgments. Let us not forget his role in making Malaysian Buddhism what it is: a diverse, vibrant, relevant community that has helped build and sustain Malaysia as a successful multi-faith nation.