by Kyodo News
COLOMBO -- A campaign by Sri Lanka's prime minister to recruit 2,000 children into Buddhist monastic orders to cope with a shortage of monks has met criticism from a scholar who says child ordination is against Buddhist doctrine.
Gananath Obeyesekere, an anthropology professor at Princeton University, says the campaign targets children as young as 5 years even though Theravada Buddhism doctrine states that a boy must be at least 15 years of age to become a monk.
The Buddha himself ordained at just 5 years his only son Rahula, but this was regarded an exception rather than a rule, Obeyesekere said.
After being rebuked for the act by his own father, the Buddha specified that one must not only have parental consent to ordain a child, but that the child must be 15 years of age. If not, the youth must have the ''physical maturity'' of a 15-year-old.
Sri Lanka's project to mass-recruit children into Buddhist orders disregards these considerations, says Obeyesekere, himself a Sri Lankan Buddhist.
Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, who is also minister for Buddhist affairs, is the father of the campaign and is encouraging public donations for the endeavor.
The project includes sponsors for each novice monk and a monthly allowance drawn from a fund of contributions.
Reportedly, more than 1,000 people have already applied, although the final figure was not immediately known, nor was the breakdown of their ages.
The prime minister told reporters recently that he conceived the plan after receiving thousands of letters from senior Buddhist monks complaining, among other things, that fewer people were joining the clergy. This, he said, had even led to the closure of many temples around the country.
''I found there was a problem and this is the solution,'' he asserted.
He believes his plan will strengthen Buddhism in the country and bolster the ranks of a clergy that was in danger of dying out.
But Obeyesekere, in his remarks published in the Colombo newspapers Sunday Island and the Daily News, says if more monks are needed for the orders, older people should be recruited as they are increasingly given to meditation and usually have a good knowledge of the Buddha teachings.
Most have meager pensions, so free monastic board and lodging would be added incentives, the scholar, who has written extensively on Buddhism, suggested.
But one major reason Obeyesekere opposes child recruitment is that the very young are vulnerable to sexual abuse, which he says is ''notoriously associated'' will all forms of institutionalized monasticism.
The possibility of child abuse in Buddhist monasteries ''must be faced honestly and squarely,'' he stressed.
Unlike adult monks, children have little chance of resisting sexual advances, the professor added.
''Even the presence of guardians, or sponsors is not protection. How does the guardian inquire into such possibilities when the mere talk of homoerotic practices is taboo?,'' Obeyesekere asked.
He also asked why those promoting the campaign have not set an example by being ordained themselves or having their own children or grandchildren ordained.
The prime minister's office, however, reacted hotly to the criticism.
One of Wickramanayake's personal assistants said any opposition to the project ''was affiliated to a conspiracy to wipe Buddhism from the country.''
The prime minister has only the best of intentions, he said, on condition of anonymity, noting ordinations take place only with the consent of parents and high priests of the temples concerned and the scheme provides children with food, lodging and education that poverty may otherwise have denied them.