People in Sri Lanka told me I should meet the “Russian monk.” When I finally located him, I called and asked if I could interview him. He agreed. Ven. Rathanasara is not really Russian, he’s Sinhalese, but he was educated in Moscow and speaks both Russian and English fluently
On the day of the interview, I took a series of buses out to a temple north of Colombo. It didn’t look like much: a small temple with a partially-finished residence. Inside, a novice monk greeted me and led me upstairs to meet Ven. Rathanasara, the head of the temple. If there were other monks living there, I didn’t see them.
Rathanasara told me a moving story, beginning with his education:
“In the seminary, [1968-70] we were taught that love of Buddhism, love of country means only a Sinhalese country,” Rathanasara told me. “In 1970, the Left Movement started. I didn’t pay much attention—but my ideas began to change.” Later, Rathanasara got a scholarship to study in Moscow, where his affinity for left-wing politics grew. He also had the opportunity to participate in international peace movements, including the Asian Buddhist Congress for Peace. He returned to Sri Lanka in 1980, where, he said, “There was a movement against the Tamil people [supported by] many Buddhist monks, but I refused to join with them.”
Rathanasara had gone to Colombo and was shopping in the Pettah market district when the 1983 riots broke out. “[That] was a very bad day for Sri Lanka,” he said. “That day changed my life.” Witnessing Tamils being burned alive by Sinhalese mobs, Rathanasara confronted one mob and asked, “Why are you doing this?” “Go home,” the leader of the group shouted at him. “Go back to your temple. This is no time for a sermon.”
Rathanasara suddenly found himself working against his own people. He hid 21 wounded Tamils in his temple. Later, a Sinhalese mob that came to his gate and demanded that he release the Tamils into their “custody.” He refused. Eventually, he was able to hide his charges in rice bags and smuggle them to safety.
“From that day on,” he told me, “I began my peace work.” During the second JVP rebellion of 1987-89, he began a peace movement supported by 10,000 young monks, but the Premadasa government spread the word that the organization was a JVP front. “All of the other monks went and hid, but some of us had to face the government.”
A family member warned him in 1989 that the government intended to assassinate him, and he fled the country. Later, after the death of the JVP’s leader, Quaker Peace & Service smuggled Rathanasara back to Sri Lanka under their protection. He was able to convince many local JVP leaders to lay down their arms.
In the early 1990s he joined with Fr. Oswald Firth to found the Inter-Religious Peace Foundation, and in 1995 he helped form the National Peace Foundation with Dr. Jehan Perera. When I met him, he spoke of his recent work organizing the Buddhist monks to support peace. He claimed the support of about 20,000 monks, less than half the total number, and mostly young, less powerful, and less organized than the extremists who supported the war.
Rathanasara felt strongly about reconciliation with the Tamils. “They are living in this country, too. What’s the difference? They eat the same food. If they practice their religion, they are good people. If they are not nationalist, they are no threat to us. We must always fight for human rights, and not for nationalism.”
He also refused to identify himself as a Sinhalese Buddhist monk: “I am only a Buddhist monk.” Because of his anti-nationalist positions, the Sinhalese community stopped supporting his temple; when I spoke with him, he worked as a tour guide to feed the monks in his charge, operate a pre-school, and pay for his peace work. Buddhist monks were traditionally supported by donations from their congregation; for a Buddhist monk to work at a job was virtually unheard of in Sri Lanka.
Rathanasara saw language as one of the major obstacles to peace. “Only two or three Buddhist monks speak Tamil,” he says. “It is important not just to speak, but to read. There are ancient Tamil Buddhist texts, but most monks don’t know about them.” He had a Tamil translation of the Dhammapada which he read over a loudspeaker on holidays. The Tamil people, he said, like to hear it. “The Sinhalese people don’t like to hear it. They say it is the LTTE language.”
Rathanasara’s commitment to peace changed his perspective on Buddhism, as well.
“Our Sinhalese Buddhist monks can bless the soldiers who go to kill people,” he told me. “I can’t. I can’t bless anyone who plans to kill people.”