What makes a monk enlightened

Sri Lanka: The Republic of the Monks

They sit in the power centers of their country or in the quiet of the woods. You intervene vigorously in politics or devote yourself solely to the long wait for enlightenment. Nowhere are the monastic ways of life as different as in Sri Lanka, the island state in which the 30,000 members of a Buddhist order shape the everyday life of 20 million people

Preparation for monasticism

As of today, the eight young men are no longer flesh and blood. Of course, all of them are rather skinny and not particularly tall guys who look much younger than they are, namely around 20 years old, will continue to breathe. They will eat, sleep, occasionally torment themselves with toothache, and occasionally laugh out laughing at some joke.

Nevertheless, at the end of this solemn morning, after a long ceremony to which a large number of festively dressed people came to the famous Malwatta temple in the old royal city of Kandy in the highlands of Sri Lanka, everything will be different: the people will never again be the eight young men consider them to be their own.

Preparation for monasticism

The boys said goodbye to normal life and everyday life when they were nine or ten years old. At that time, her parents took her to the monastery. There their hair was shaved off, they were wrapped in yellow, orange, oxblood or rust-red cloths, and they were told not to make a noise any more and to run around. They became novices and, although not even in puberty, had to maintain a certain religious dignity.

But the way from the parental home to the monastery was only the first step - out of everyday life and into the world of the spirit. The second, the decisive, the final one follows today: this morning the novices will be consecrated as monks.

Three ways

From today on, the young men can fill the most diverse roles in the social fabric of the country. You can make a career in the city and, as "political monks", have a great influence on the development of the republic. You can retreat forever into the jungle to await the redemption meditating as "forest monks".

Or they can settle down as "village monks" in a small temple in the country and look after the spiritual and social well-being of their neighbors there. This is how the monks will fit into the life of the island. However, they will always be fundamentally different from the flesh and blood people. Because monks are symbols. Ideal appearances. Philosophical metaphors.

Everything about the monks is significant

The bare skull that shows equanimity and modesty. The yellow, the orange, the red of their robes: the deceptively glowing, quickly ephemeral colors of autumn, the leaves on the verge of dying. The right shoulder, which remains uncovered by the robe, as a modest hint of the drama of original human nakedness and defenselessness.

Of course, the monks have different shapes - there are young, old, fat, thin, upright, stooped, the whole gamut of human physiognomies and faces. But there are always the same cloths, the same skulls, the same shoulders: the same image in mass repetition. And with it the ideal image of renouncing individuality, the worldly people with all their pride and most sacred good.

And some monks even rehearse saying goodbye to their own face, removing their browbones after their beard and scalp hair, so that the eyes sit like in the contourless sockets of a skull and the monks look even less like themselves. Because who should that be: yourself? Nothing but an illusion.

Strict social separation

The idea of ​​the two-class society, which strictly separates monks and non-monks from one another in status and which has survived in Sri Lanka to our present day, goes back to the early days of Buddhism. With this she came about 2300 years ago from the country of origin India to the island off its southern tip. Sri Lanka was the first country that the new religion reached on its long triumphal march through Asia - and in a way the Buddhist Middle Ages still prevail here today.

Two directions: Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Because the teachings of the Buddha came over the sea in the most conservative form at that time - and in the most elitist: as "Theravada" Buddhism, which gives the monks their outstanding position. The main features of those two major directions, which are now differentiated as traditional Theravada and reformist "Mahayana" Buddhism, had developed soon after the death of the historical Buddha 2500 years ago. Today Theravada Buddhism is prevalent not only in Sri Lanka, but also in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. In all the rest of those Asian countries that are predominantly Buddhist, people follow different forms of Mahayana Buddhism.

With the "big vehicle" to enlightenment

Almost everything is okay with the Mahayana, the "Great Vehicle" across the ocean of suffering, if only as many people as possible, regardless of whether they are monks or lay people, are promoted to happiness and enlightenment as quickly as possible.

Theravada, the "doctrine of the elders" and the earliest surviving form of Buddhism, on the other hand, adheres strictly to the original understanding of every single word handed down from the mouth of the Buddha and insists on maintaining the way of life prescribed by him down to the smallest detail. Since this is only possible for members of the strict monastic elite, only they can get into nirvana with the "Hinayana", the "little vehicle" - then, now, forever, even if the other Buddhist schools lack compassion in this teaching like to see.

A political monk: Elle Gunawansa Thera

The Honorable Elle Gunawansa Thera resides in a bungalow in one of the best neighborhoods of the capital Colombo. From afar you can see that an important man lives here. There aren't many front gardens adorned with a stately concrete copy of the famous monumental rock Buddha of Aukana. And also very few that soldiers patrol with automatic weapons.

Nevertheless, says its owner, this house is of course a place of peace. The Honorable Elle Gunawansa Thera is a monk - and for that reason alone, he explains, the heavily armed men are deceived: They are necessary to protect the place of peace.

Tamils, terrorists and non-Buddhists

Because the evil and the violent, there is no doubt about that according to Sinhalese logic, are on the other side. With the Tamils, the terrorists, the non-Buddhists - and also on the part of the foreign powers that support these opponents.

Many Sinhalese Buddhists believe that everyone is to blame for the fact that the realization of a republic of the spirit in Sri Lanka did not automatically create paradise on earth. But the struggle is not yet over. Many political monks still use all their religious authority to propagate their nationalist ideas.

A Buddhist monks' party

Some have now even come together in their own Buddhist monks' party, which immediately won six percent of the vote and nine seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2004. Others try either to get individual politicians on the right track. Or as popular speakers with sometimes more, sometimes less demagogic impact, they ensure that voters know what the Buddhist spirit demands of them in everyday political life.

Masculinity in a monk's robe

And so the Honorable Elle Gunawansa Thera works day and night to ensure that everything turns out for the best in Sri Lanka. Of course, he says, with extra-parliamentary means. Because he is of the opinion that monks, as persons of respect from higher spheres, should not put themselves on the same level with ordinary representatives and argue with them. He is a man full of energy: fleshy lips, sharp facial features, athletic body - anything but an ideal of renouncing individuality, rather a model of masculinity in monk's robe.

And someone who repeatedly mobilizes the masses with his speeches. After all, the monks in Sri Lanka have been advisers to the rulers for millennia, and he takes this age-old duty very seriously.

Patriot and dignitary

Because the Honorable Elle Gunawansa Thera is not only one of the most prominent dignitaries in the country. Above all, he is one of his greatest patriots: the founder and head of the National Patriotic Movement, a protest movement with allegedly over 100,000 predominantly secular supporters. Among them, as the monk proudly points out, the top of society: artists, professors, actors, cricket stars. He calls himself a "patriotic revolutionary".

Violence is allowed - if it is necessary

It's hard to tell whether there are more Buddha images or national flags in his house. The desk in the reception room is adorned with an army calendar, in the corner of the room there is an electric piano - the Honorable Elle Gunawansa Thera, not least a successful creator of extremely popular patriotic songs, regularly makes music with soldiers disabled in the war against the Tamils.

Some of them were once monks themselves and then, like thousands of their brothers, exchanged their robes for combat suits. Non-violence, the popular belief among the Buddhist clergy, is a beautiful thing - but should we just sit and meditate when we are attacked?

The ascetics in the woods

Forest monks are role models for everyone: look, they left everything behind, the villages, the cities and their families anyway. Now they only dedicate themselves to the spirit and lead a life that could not be more sparse and that is reduced to the elementary. They live in caves or under overhanging rocks. Stay alone or have joined small monastic communities - forest monks have found retreats all over the country, which they call monasteries, even if nature itself was the builder and there are usually no permanent buildings.

2000 years of tradition

In the jungle near the village of Ritigala, almost exactly at the center of the island, there are currently eight of them. Already 2000 years ago, monks meditated in some of the countless caves inside the densely forested mountain slopes, which is why, it is said, the area is still full of energy today. Now a couple of young men, a couple of older ones and two boys live here, whose wish is to give themselves up lost in the unsheathedness of the wilderness and the rocky landscape in order to say goodbye to the course of the world in the forest monastery.

Visit to the elder

The eldest of the monks of Ritigala came down from his cave further up the slope; for a moment to see that the only brick-built house on the site, a tiny kitchen and farm building, where other pilgrim families prepare food for the monks every day, is all that is right.

25 years of solitude

There he is now, just two or three meters away from the secular business of everyday monastic life, and yet in a distant distance.

Everything sparse, everything full of shadow. The space. The monk's face. His body, wrapped in sheets of the reddish brown of dying leaves. The whole figure, after all these years of seclusion, already fading into an all-encompassing semi-darkness.

The monk's voice can also be heard as if from a distant, closed room. A voice, soft and sluggish, that does not speak to anyone. And anyway, she says, in the end there may be nothing to say.

What is life anyway?

Then a few more words: about the 25 years that he spent here in the forest, this quarter of a century alone with himself and his body. It is important, he says, to look closely and to look closely at yourself and especially your own body. And the monk looked into him. Because what is life? The physique, nothing more. Their becoming, their passing. Cells that grow, cells that die.

A body full of "smelly juices and substances"

And the monk has realized how frail this is, his own body, has found that it is full of stinking juices and substances. These wretched liquids, he says, as they drip out of your eyes, out of your ears, out of your nose when you wake up in the morning! And the hair, our beautiful hair - but we don't see the lice that nest in it and shit our heads. The forest monk knows that too, and that's why his voice becomes quieter and quieter, because all of this is sad, very, very sad, he says, the decay and the lice as much as our ignorance.

Concentration on bare existence

Yes, says the monk, our body doesn't need us and it doesn't belong to us, that much is clear, because he gained this certainty as well while sitting in his cave in the forest and meditating year after year. This is how the monk speaks from his semi-darkness, and that is the penultimate truth and our situation, the situation of people, when all externalities disappear and life is reduced to bare existence. Then humans no longer differ significantly from the plants and animals of the jungle.

Longing for nirvana

Alone, even if the body doesn't need us, we still need it. Still. So that we can develop. So that we can stop vegetating. To sit down and breathe in and breathe out - so to concentrate. To let our unsteady mind come to itself. To develop awareness and compassion. To gather wisdom and wholesome karma. Only in this way will we be able to escape from life and death, from the endless repetitions of biology and finally also become aware of the ultimate truth: the emptiness in nirvana.

Then it will not be dark and neither will it be light. No suffering. No life. No dying. Nothing.