Sunday 10 June 2012

Sri Lanka is Different, Sri Lanka is the Same

Sri Lanka [斯裡蘭卡] has many of the same problems as the rest of Theravāda Asia, but the Sinhalese are more aware of the problems than the other cultures of the region --and they are more willing to address and debate such problems openly.  This is a significant difference.

The following quotation will soon reach its tenth anniversary.  Although the substance of what is being lamented here would also be true of Thailand, you would search in vain for a similar quotation from the upper levels of the Thai monastic hierarchy (least of all would any such lament be possible in the context of a formal, government-run colloquium, which is the origin of this quotation, as explained below).

     "The Conference being an occasion organized by the State of Sri Lanka […] it was felt that preservation, study and propagation of the Pali Canon is one of the most important tasks before the Theravada Buddhist world in particular. This is particularly because Theravada Buddhism cannot be separated from the Pali Canon and Pali has been the universal religious language throughout the Theravada countries. 
     The Conference noted that there are several very crucial issues to be addressed in this regard. 
     One is that the study of Pali language is gradually given less and less emphasis owing, mainly, to the overemphasis on job-oriented mode of education. It was noted that in many Buddhist countries, Pali was taught as a subject in normal school curriculum some time ago but it is no longer the case. More than a problem of resources such as teachers and textbooks this is a problem of attitudes. The conference recommends that Pali be a subject in the school curriculum, under the study of Buddhism.
     Pali has been an essential aspect in the monastic education. The traditional education of Pali has been such that it was internationally spoken and also used as the medium of instruction and communication. The ideal situation should be to reach this level. In some Buddhist countries, however, it is getting less and less attention as a result of Buddhist monks opting to study secular subjects. This has to be addressed by changing the fundamental characteristics of the monastic education. There must be ways and means for those who wish to do higher studies in Pali to have that education wherever the resources are available. The scholars in the Theravada countries, in particular, should be able to share their resources in this field in this connection some places should be reserved for Buddhist monks with necessary prerequisites to study Pali and Buddhist studies without payment of fees.
     The study of the Pali language has as its aim the study of the Pali Canon and the associated literature. The most fundamental step in the practice and the preservation of the Dhamma is to understand the Canon accurately. A pressing issue resulting from the unsatisfactory state of the Pali knowledge is that the Dhamma is not properly understood and hence, misinterpreted and distorted, knowingly or otherwise. The Conference notes that, as a result, not only the Dhamma itself is misunderstood but also the Buddhist point of view on issues of importance is not properly presented or wrongly presented, thereby doing tremendous harm to the Buddhasasana. In order to remedy this situation it is necessary that studies in Pali and the Canon should be developed both qualitatively and quantitatively. 
     Lack of accurate texts and translations is another issue needing to be addressed urgently. Most of the existing texts and translations have been done a long time ago, more than hundred years ago, in some cases. This is a need to be addressed both nationally and internationally. Misinterpretations and distortions within the Theravada tradition arise due to this. In an age when not the traditional Buddhist scholars alone are engaged in research in Buddhism it is of vital importance that editions and translations of texts in international languages are reliably done." [End of quotation.]

The passage above is quoted from the (collectively-written) conclusions to "the International Conference on Buddha Sasana in Theravada Countries", convened in Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 16–19th, of 2003.

These problems exist everywhere; the cultural capacity to admit that they exist (and to address them as problems) is extremely rare.

The ability to perceive the problem doesn't mean that you have the ability to solve it; however, I've lived and worked in many different contexts wherein people refuse to perceive these same issues and, as such, any possible solution will remain unthought-of inasmuch as the admission of the problem itself is unthinkable.  This quotation is an interesting contrast to my own experience in Cambodia, and I would say that the best I can wish for places like Cambodia, Laos and Thailand is that they can progress to the point that Sri Lanka has achieved --even if that achievement is simply a realistic assessment of how dire the situation now is.

As I alluded to in an earlier article (on this blog), I'm someone who actively seeks advice from his elders, and who is nevertheless providing advice to younger (or less advanced) scholars (who are aspiring to do various things in the intersecting fields of my past research).

In offering advice, I have routinely stated that Sri Lanka is the best of the (very bad) options available --if you can afford it.  Why, you may wonder, did I spend only a few months in Sri Lanka, of my eight years in Asia?

Sri Lanka, like Laos and Cambodia, is a post-war country, with a post-colonial culture.  However, Sri Lanka is over-populated, whereas Laos and Cambodia are somewhat under-populated.  Sri Lanka has a very high rate of university education (with many of the graduates being under-employed) and could be called "over-educated" in contrast to Laos and Cambodia (which are definitely under-educated).  The scarcity of skilled labor (in the latter) meant that someone like myself had a chance to survive (as a skilled laborer… of some kind); by contrast, the chances were slim in Sri Lanka, and the costs were much higher.

I had to earn my own money to survive during all of my years in Asia (and no, I've never been paid for anything related to Pali, aside from those two lectures that I delivered in the U.K.).  In all of the advice that I give to others, this has to be discussed openly (i.e., "will you be paying your own way, or attempting to earn your way as you go along, or… what?").

For a scholar of a language that nobody has heard of, survival is marginal at the best of times, and the times do change; the margins for my own survival often declined as other economic indicators improved (wherever it was that I was living).  The cost of living in Phnom Penh (Cambodia's capital city) increased by 32% in six years (2001–2007); by another measure, it increased by 35% in less than four years (2006–2010).  Both of these statistics are based on Cambodian consumer price index data (calculated directly from the N.I.S. numbers).  The salaries being offered in the city have not increased to reflect these rising costs --certainly not in any of the forms of employment that would have been open to me.  On the contrary, I met many embittered expatriates who explained that salaries had actually decreased in their respective fields (partly because "peace and prosperity" means that there are more foreigners around competing for scarce opportunities, and there are also more specialists crossing borders to work within Asia).

In Laos, I had periods of earning as little as US$300 per month, at another time as much as US$600 per month, and so on, but it was possible (just barely) to scrape by if you kept your cost of living low (and never traveled by airplane, only sought medical care at the same hospitals as locals do, and so on).  As with Cambodia, that window of opportunity (to earn little and spend less) is now closing: it will become more and more difficult for anyone to do what I did (if they are not born rich) simply as the cost of living escalates, and as the rewards for being a "foreign expert" decline.  I did actually have an I.D. booklet issued to me by the Lao Government that stated I was a "foreign expert", by the way; the paperwork had taken such a long time that I received the booklet on the same day that I was told they had convened a Communist Party meeting to denounce me, and that I was going to be exiled from the country.

I didn't have money.  I didn't have luck, either.

I do tell other (would-be) students of Pali that Sri Lanka is a better option if they have the money in the bank (and if they are willing to "burn through" that money: as they will spend it rapidly with a very low quality of life in return, if they choose to live on the island).

When I was suddenly exiled from Laos (with death threats from a government official, etc.) Sri Lanka was not an option for me to escape to: I would have rapidly been reduced from poverty to destitution.  At that time, I did consider fleeing Laos for Burma, but made the fateful decision to flee to Yunnan instead (with just one backpack and a bicycle at the time).

No matter where I could have chosen to go to, I would have been playing a dangerous game: trying to live on my (extremely modest) savings, until I could find some kind of employment to sustain me.

If you're not already fluent in the language that you're trying to learn, employment is extremely difficult to find in any of these countries; and, conversely, if you're already fluent in the language, you don't have a reason to be there (or to keep the job that you're likely to get, i.e., one that is unrewarding aside from the engagement with the language and culture).  I had gone to Asia looking for a combination of humanitarian work and the pursuit of my own research interests, but in the short term I was looking for a work environment in which I would be able to learn, but won't be faulted for not already knowing what I would be in the process of learning.  That's rare.  Conversely, I managed to learn more than most PhD students do without ever paying a teacher, and while working a succession of (modest) jobs in which I was (modestly) paid; working in this way, I had the opportunity to see the contradictions of the culture around me from the perspective of a working stiff.  There's a great deal to know that tourists never see, and the workplace (i.e., almost any workplace) provides a type of cultural immersion that you won't find elsewhere (certainly not in a classroom).

This brings me back to my basic premise in a peculiar way: I never knew Sri Lanka the way that I knew Laos and Cambodia --partly because I never joined the workplace there.  It was impossible for me to do, and, as a result, I never learned vernacular Sinhalese (though I took the textbooks out of the library several times, and researched all the options thoroughly, at several different stages of my life).

Although the purpose of this short article is to praise the Sinhalese for the more practical perspective that I've quoted from that conference in 2003, the necessary counterpart to such praise is to say that the same "conclusions and recommendations" of the conference could probably be published again in 2013. The bullet-point lists of new initiatives, new policies and proposed solutions have probably not advanced an inch since they were set down on paper nine years ago.

That's okay.  We've all got to start somewhere --and it's genuinely encouraging that Sri Lanka has an intellectual discourse surrounding what's wrong with the current situation, and what can be done about it.  In the context of the post-war, post-colonial cultures of Theravāda Southeast Asia, this is about as much of a basis for hope and optimism as you're likely to get.