Colombo, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka holds a unique place in the world, with the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any nation. Buddhism has been the major religion in the island since its official introduction in the 3rd century BC by Arahant Mahinda, the son of the Emperor Ashoka of India, and over 70% of the population is Buddhist.
The sangha (Order of Monks) has existed in a largely unbroken lineage since its introduction in the 3rd century, and Sri Lankan monks and lay people have played a prominent role in spreading Theravada Buddhism to Asia, the West and even Africa.
Buddhism is so integral to the national identity that it is explicitly included in the Sri Lankan Constitution. Article 9 states:
“The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e).”
In October, 2010, an important piece of legislation known as the Animal Welfare Bill was introduced in Parliament as a Private Member’s Bill, the first of its kind since 1907. The Bill, which applies to all animals, provides extensive protections to ensure that practices in Sri Lanka are in keeping with the central tenet of non-harm to all animals enshrined in the First Precept. Among its provisions are:
A duty of care on the part of those in charge of animals to treat them humanely
Prevention of cruelty to animals
The establishment of a 16-member National Animal Welfare Authority to administer the legislation, develop policies, and strengthen and expand the existing enforcement mechanisms
The appointment of Animal Welfare Inspectors with police powers
Oversight of slaughtered animals
Oversight of animal experimentation with an emphasis on alternatives
Standards for transporting animals
The right of any person to bring a lawsuit on behalf of an animal
Increased penalties for violation of animal protection laws
Despite the urgency of the need for an Animal Welfare Law and its critical function of ensuring that Sri Lanka remains true to its Buddhist principles, thereby retaining its role as the pre-eminent Buddhist nation in the world, over two years have lapsed since the introduction of the Animal Welfare Bill in Parliament in October, 2010, with no sign of steps being taken toward its enactment.
Dharma Voices for Animals (DVA) believes that this legislation falls squarely within our mission of addressing animal suffering within the Buddhist community, and to help in this cause we will be presenting a petition to the President of Sri Lanka, His Excellency Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, and to other Government officials urging them, on behalf of animals, to help make this law a reality. As supporters of DVA, we ask you to join in this effort by adding your name to this important petition.
Dharma Voices for Animals is a non-profit organization based in the United States of America whose mission is to increase awareness of the suffering of animals within the Buddhist Dharma community. Among our worldwide membership are many well-known western Dharma teachers, Tibetan monk Geshe Thupten Phelgye, who served ten years in the Tibetan Parliament in Exile and considers his Holiness the Dalai Lama as his teacher, Lama Shri Sadhu Dharmavira, and the Venerable Thich Phuoc Tan, Vice President of the World Fellowship of Buddhists.
Sri Lanka is the home of Theravada Buddhism, with a rich Buddhist civilization that began more than two millennia ago. The cultural heritage of Sri Lanka is a shining example of the power and influence of the Buddha’s teachings. In keeping with these teachings, Sri Lanka is also heir to a rich and unique history with respect to animal rights and welfare, with historical rock inscriptions and ancient chronicles, e.g. Mahawamsa, providing evidence of the extensive state protection that has been historically granted to animals. The ethic of Ahimsa (non-violence towards other sentient beings), a cardinal tenet in Buddhism as well as Hinduism, has been a paradigm of public administration and justice throughout the country’s history, with the social and legal history of Sri Lanka providing numerous examples of the Buddhist attitude of compassion towards animals. These include a series of royal decrees completely banning the killing of animals throughout their kingdoms, the establishment of animal hospitals as early as 341 AD, and a widely followed historical taboo against the eating of animals. In short, it is fair to say that Sri Lanka has been the model of a country that puts into practice the central tenet of the First Precept – non-harm to all animals.
Despite this exemplary history, however, it has been over 100 years since Sri Lanka has enacted an animal rights and welfare law as a primary piece of legislation. The governing statute, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, dates back to 1907, the British colonial period. This law is antiquated, and it completely fails to address the welfare of animals in modern society. Its limitations are particularly apparent when compared to animal welfare legislation of neighboring countries such as India and Bhutan or western countries such as England or Australia. For example, the maximum punishment it provides for the heinous crime of cruelty perpetrated on an animal in violation of its provisions is a fine of 100 Rupees – barely $1 U.S.
The inadequacy of existing legislation to safeguard the welfare of animals is strikingly inconsistent with Sri Lanka’s role as the pre-eminent Buddhist nation in the world. Moreover, it neglects a core principle codified in Article 9 of the Constitution, which states that “it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana.” Without a fundamental revision of its laws, Sri Lanka risks abandoning the legacy of an animal-friendly cultural heritage that dates back almost to the time of the Buddha and neglecting its responsibility explicitly mandated by the Constitution.
In an effort to rectify this situation and bring Sri Lanka’s laws regarding animals up to modern standards, in 2010 a Private Member’s Bill – based on the Animal Welfare Bill prepared by Sri Lanka’s Law Commission in 2006 – was presented to Parliament. Unfortunately, it has not been acted upon. Its passage in Parliament is critical for Sri Lanka to maintain its status as the leading Buddhist country in the world.
Mahatma Gandhi’s famous statement is as valid today as it was when he said:
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
The signers of this petition are people from all over the world who are proud of Sri Lanka’s role in safeguarding the Dharma and hopeful that Sri Lanka will continue this tradition in all its aspects, including the fundamental teaching of non-harm to animals. Accordingly, we urge His Excellency Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa and other Government officials of Sri Lanka to enact the Animal Welfare Bill without any further delay. Courtesy the Buddhist Channel
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ក្រុងសាវត្ថី Sāvatthī or Śrāvastī
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