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Enhancing spiritual health through Dhamma School, Piriven and Buddhist University Education

Monday, 28th of September 2020

As explained by State
Minister Vijitha Berugoda

Religion has been an integral part of the Sri Lankan culture as long as history is documented. The earlier generations established a consensual social hierarchy governed by the “Pancha Maha Balawegaya” (5 Great Forces): Sangha (Clergy), Veda (Doctor), Guru (Teacher), Govi (Farmer), Kamkaru (Labourer). This explicitly shows that the Sangha has been revered and has remained in the top of the social hierarchy since ancient times. Spiritual connection plays an important part in the upbringing of an individual. As the years go by, many lose that connection. It is significantly difficult to convince and teach adults the importance of developing good values and attitudes through the study of what is taught in their respective religions. However, inculcating this knowledge whilst they are still impressionable; that is during their childhood leaves a lasting impression on their conscience as they grow older. Following are the excerpts of a friendly discussion carried on with State Minister for Dhamma Schools, Bhikku Education, Piriven and Buddhist Universities Vijitha Berugoda.

What was the expectation behind bringing Dhamma school education, Piriven and Buddhist university education under the Ministry of Education?

The President His Excellency Gotabaya Rajapakse was very attentive when he assigned individuals to run the respective Ministries. He decentralised the ministries and made them goal oriented. Decentralising made it easier to operate effectively and efficiently and results were achieved at a rapid pace. The Education Ministry prior to the new change comprised of higher education, competency education, technological, mechanical education etc. The aspects of Dhamma Schools, Bhikku Education, Piriven and Buddhist Universities were looked after by the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs. The President brought these 4 units under one umbrella and assigned 4 different State Ministers to oversee the development. This decision brought all of these aspects into a single subject of focus.

What is your stance on making Dhamma school education compulsory?

It is debatable if we have arrived as far as possible throughout the 72 years that have passed since independence. A significant allocation is made for the growth of Education from the Government’s annual budget. This is not considered as an expense. It is viewed as an investment for a better future. Around 43 lakhs of students receive school education. This does not include higher education. The investment put into educating these students is paramount. However, the society expects the system to mold virtuous, meritorious and wholesome individuals. The society would not have to tremble in fear if the school system passed out students of this caliber. The sad reality is that this does not happen as seamlessly as aspired.

The unfortunate incidents reported in the media are a testament to the inability to mold virtuous and meritorious individuals. Investing in education and merely passing out educated students is only part of the mission. Development should not be limited to materialistic development. It is a combination of both materialistic and spiritual development. A person should develop their attitudes and beliefs simultaneously. We are vested with the critical challenge of nurturing the student community with knowledge of Dhamma through Dhamma School Education. The success of the endeavor would be identified once a society which follows the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Pancha Seelaya) is born.

To answer the question of making Dhamma School Education compulsory to students is controversial. That is because it clashes with private tuition classes. It is impractical to prevent students from attending private tuition, since passing their examinations are just as important. However, I believe that a balance should be achieved. Discussions are currently being made to come to a proper solution. The clergy wishes to advice private tuition teachers to refrain from conducting their classes until 2pm at the least on Sunday mornings so as to permit students to attend Dhamma School.

What do you feel about giving students a reason to pursue Dhamma school education till the end?

Parents wish to teach their child good attitudes and beliefs, that much is evident. However, the urgency to make sure that the child passes their GCE examinations with flying colours overrules that initial expectation. It would not be feasible to legally make the attendance of Dhamma School compulsory. Private tuition teachers might stop conducting tuition classes completely as retaliation. The outcome cannot be clearly predicted. However, giving incentives for students to complete Dhamma School Education is an entirely different matter. Giving the child a reason to study Dhamma, and parents a reason to send their child to Dhamma School for a single day of the week could make a positive difference.

Giving a value for the final Dhamma School certificate is the first step that needs to be considered. Many might question the necessity of attending Dhamma School if it does not pay any visible long term dividends. However, if these Dhamma Schools gave a certificate for the completion of different stages (Grade 5, Final 1, Final 2 and Dharmaacharya), and if these certificates acted as an ornament which gives them a better chance in university admission, or a boost within their career progression in the future would give students the incentive to voluntarily complete Dhamma school education even if it is up to a certain stage.

Are there any plans to improve the quality of life for the students who attend Dhamma School?

It is noted that it is difficult to attend Dhamma schools due to the lack of access to proper sanitary facilities and infrastructure. Certain students have to study in the ‘Bo Maluwa’, between rocks, under the shade of a tree whilst sitting on mats since the available buildings can only accommodate a few classes. The government annually allocates a significant fund to develop these aspects. The other aspect that needs to be considered is the availability of teachers. Teaching in a Dhamma School is traditionally a voluntary service. They provide the service for a few years, and then leaves to pursue better lucrative options. Giving these teachers incentives to convince them to actively retain in the profession is important.

These teachers need to be offered certain benefits for their efforts. Plans are being implemented to ensure as such, and overall the government expects to achieve quantitative as well as qualitative development within the subject of focus. There are around 11,000 Dhamma Schools in operation throughout Sri Lanka. It is important to note that there are disparities when it comes to resource allocation. Certain Dhamma Schools have better facilities and resources compared to others. It is important to establish a procedure to ensure equal treatment for each of these Dhamma Schools. The Government hopes to create a national fund for the development of these less fortunate Dhamma Schools. This fund would be open for donations. It implies that the support from the society is highly appreciated.

What is the support that you need from the veteran and experienced bhikkus to improve the education of the younger generation of the clergy?

Before the advent of foreign invasions, Sri Lanka followed an education system which was centered around the temple. The Bhikku community voluntarily took the lead to teach the future generations. The Piriven Education system has drastically improved since independence. Sri Lanka currently has 820 pirivens in operation. The Kruthyadikari/Parivenadhipathi Bhikkus contribute immensely for the betterment of these piriven. This development was achieved due to their unfaltering commitment and dedication. However, it is best the note that each district doesn’t have pirivens. The Monaragala District has a total of 27 pirivens (2 Vidyayathana Piriven and 5 Maha Piriven, and 5 base pireven).

Maintaining these piriven is no easy feat, and the clergy who fulfills their duties to the point deserves all the praise and appreciation. Students of piriven need the knowledge and expertise if they are to step into the boots of their elders. Workshops and leadership skills development programmes need to be conducted to ensure that these young students receive the necessary aptitude to face unpredictable challenges in their respective temples. The veteran bhikkus should share the experience that they have accumulated throughout the years so as to make sure that the younger generation is better prepared for the responsibilities that they are to take up in the future.

What are the social problems that you expect to face? How will you address and face these problems?

In the past, a family unit was philoprogenitive. These families usually voluntarily permitted their children to enter into Buddha Sasana. As the years passed, this tradition changed. Currently, families comprise of one or two children. This means that the chance of a parent voluntarily giving up a child for the Sasana even if the child is willing to embrace the new change is bare minimum. There are times where it is difficult to find a chief monk in certain monasteries. The Sasana needs more bhikku and bhikkunis. Children who start off their journey as Samaneras are a rare sight. Therefore it is important to induct more individuals who wish to follow on the path of Lord Buddha into the Sasana.

How would you convince parents of the importance of Dhamma School Education on the upbringing? The society is run with individuals who thrive in a competitive setting. Being individualistic and devoid from sentiments lead to the birth of elder’s homes. These are elements that the country can actually do without. If parents teach the child the appropriate values, attitudes and beliefs from their childhood itself, these ideologies will retain as they grow older. Getting them on the path towards spiritual understanding ultimately leads to the creation of a better society. Therefore make sure that the child is engaged in activities that inculcates these values, attitudes and beliefs. Dhamma School education is the ideal start to achieving that spiritual state.

Randheer Mallawaarachchi

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