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Monks’ titles are honorific

by Jettha Khoo, The Star, Malaysia, Jan 29, 2014

I HAVE often read in the media, The Star included, press statements or comments made by Buddhist monks with their titles such as Chief High Priest of Malaysia and Singapore, Chief Sangha Nayaka of Malaysia and Singapore, and Buddhist Chief Monk of Malaysia and Singapore.

All these titles are purely honorific and carry no hierarchical, administrative or authoritative weight.

This is similar to the conferment of datukship by the sultans.

These titles are often bestowed by the various Buddhist monastic authorities of Sri Lanka upon overseas Sinhalese monks in order to honour their role in propagating Buddhism in foreign countries like Malaysia and Singapore.

Many individuals may be conferred the same title.

It must also be clarified that these titles are communal by nature and are not universally recognised by other non-Sinhalese Buddhist monks and Buddhists in general.

In Malaysia, we do not have any national organisation comprising all local Buddhist monks. Therefore, there has never been any consensus for a monk to be appointed or elected as the “Head of the Monastic Community in Malaysia and Singapore”. Presently, such an office does not exist in Malaysia.

Thus, for the uninformed public, press statements made by one Chief High Priest of Malaysia/Singapore or another Chief Sangha Nayaka of Malaysia/Singapore are dangerously misleading. Such press statements connote that the so-called chief has the power and authority to speak on behalf of all Buddhists in Malaysia when in fact, he does not. At best, it is his personal views on the matter in hand. The press and the public should therefore be informed accordingly.

By right, any public announcement related to Buddhist interests on a national level should be made by duly registered national Buddhist organisations such as the Buddhist Missionary Society Malaysia, Theravada Buddhist Council of Malaysia (which represents over 30 Theravada Buddhist organisations throughout Malaysia) and Malaysian Buddhist Consultative Council (which represents the three main Buddhist schools comprising Mahayana, Vajrayana and Theravada, and is in the process of registration).

Note: This letter is written from a Theravada Buddhist’s point of view, part of which is adapted with permission from an announcement in http://www.tbcm.org.my/on-sri-lankan-monastictitles/.

For more details on this subject, please visit http://www.tbcm.org.my/will-the-real-chiefplease

DATUK JETTHA KHOO is a committee member of Theravada Buddhist Council of Malaysia

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