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Buddha’s ambivalence?

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

We, Buddhists, are very fortunate in that we are able question even the actions of the Buddha. After all, the Buddha encouraged questioning as exemplified in Kalama Sutta, dubbed ‘The Buddha’s charter for free inquiry’. Buddha was not an intermediary conveying the messages of a Supreme Being, His teachings being based entirely on what was discovered by the exploration of His mind and hence becomes unique among religious leaders. One can say that the Buddha did just the opposite of what scientists do; they turn the searchlight outwards whereas the Buddha turned the searchlight inwards. He completely changed our way of thinking by placing conviction over blind belief or faith and could therefore be credited for having laid the foundation for scientific thinking.

In the Satmag article titled “More than a doctrinal problem: The Buddha and his stepmother” (The Island, 25 June), Uditha Devapriya questions whether the Buddha was ambivalent on some issues like ordination of women, consent for ordination and caste system. What he explores extensively is ordination of women and concludes his piece with the following:

“For the first and probably only time in his life, the Buddha is admitting to a theoretical lapse without really admitting to it. Perhaps to make up for his shortfall, the Buddha justifies his earlier position by attributing the decline of Buddhism – from a millennium to half a millennium – to the very gender he admits to the order. Even if that is not, according Narada Thera, a “wholesale condemnation of women”, we must admit that between the Buddha’s rejection of Gotami’s request, his acceptance after Ananda’s intervention, and his sober prognosis following his acceptance, there was an intellectual leap. I believe this issue needs to be investigated, more deeply”.

I am in total agreement that a deep investigation is fully warranted but wish to point out that in investigating this issue, as well as other instances of probable ambivalence, we need to take into consideration three main factors. The first, of course, is the accuracy of the descriptions. Though some consider the written word to be superior to the ‘oral-tradition’, we are well aware of the problem of writers’ bias. It is not that writers distort purposely but human nature dictates that it is nigh impossible for a writer to be non-judgemental. We convey ‘facts’ according to our perceptions. In fact, the best example is the analysis of this issue by the much-respected Buddhist scholar, Venerable Narada whose comment, which follows, would be considered very sexist indeed from today’s perspective:

“In making these comments, which may not generally be very palatable to womankind, the Buddha was not in any way making a wholesale condemnation of women but was only reckoning with the weaknesses of their sex.” (Venerable Narada Thera, “The Buddha and His Teachings”, Fourth Edition, 1988, Chapter 9, Page 156).

The second factor is that instead of putting into perspective the prevailing conditions when the problems arose, we make judgements based on our present standards. The powerful tool ‘Retrospectscope’ is useless without context. Perhaps, had he been alive today, Ven. Narada would have rephrased his comments, as he would have realised that ‘weakness of women’ is an outmoded concept in our world of equality!

The third, and the most important, consideration is our concept of who the Buddha was, which seems to vary a lot depending on one’s faith and beliefs. Unfortunately, based on many stories built around the Buddha we have ‘falsely elevated’ an extraordinary human being to that of a superhuman. The birth of Prince Siddhartha itself is an unbelievable story. There is no recorded human being who walked at birth even though many animals do so. Most biographies of the Buddha repeat the hardly believable, traditional embellishments which make most of us imagine a Buddha far removed from reality.

My concept of the Buddha is an exceptionally intelligent and compassionate human being who, noticing the all-pervasive sense of dissatisfaction around (Dukkha), pondered over to find the root causes as well as a solution to this problem. After a prolonged journey of experimentation and thought, the Buddha found the way for ultimate detachment (Nibbana). As He worked this out all this by himself, the Buddha was deemed to be Sarvajna; all-knowing or omniscient. Rather than considering this to mean that the Buddha knew all that needed to be known, we tend to go on the literal meaning, which implies that the Buddha should have the final word in everything. He lived a relatively simple life and walked, very likely barefoot, around large parts of India passing on his message.

Rather than acting as an all-knowing dictator, the Buddha was a problem solver who made decisions and found solutions as problems arose, often taking other’s views too into consideration. Among the many examples, one that stands out is what happened after the ordination of Rahula, His son who came behind seeking inheritance at the behest of the mother. When King Suddhodana pointed out that the ordination took place without informing the mother, the Buddha did not say “Oh! King, you may be my father but I am the Sarvajna Buddha and know what is right”. Instead, He agreed and laid down the rules for parental consent for ordination. The entire Vinaya Pitaka is based on rules formulated following incidents of inappropriate behaviour by Bhikkhus; they were applied henceforth, the Buddha demonstrating that rules should not be applied retrospectively, long before lawyers adopted the concept of retro-active legislation.

The Buddha’s world was a male-dominated one where discrimination on the basis of caste was the norm. I cannot find any ambivalence in Buddha’s attitude to caste as he categorically stated that it is not birth but actions that determine whether one is a Brahmin or an untouchable. His Sasana was open to all though, regrettably and paradoxically, Sri Lanka which claims to be the protector of Theravada Buddhism still has a caste-based Nikaya system! Therefore, I find the following statement by Uditha Devapriya puzzling:

“Even on the thorny issue of caste, he didn’t adopt a straightforward position: while he did condemn Brahmin caste structures, he also added that “by deed is one born a Brahmin”, thereby distancing himself from the kind of political critique of caste pioneered by, inter alia, Ambedkar.” He seems to have misinterpreted ‘Kammana hoti Brahmano’ which means “by deed one becomes a Brahmin”.

I have grave doubts regarding the accuracy of what is written about the ordination of women. Considering that a monk of this era like Venerable Narada was sexist in his comments, it is no surprise if male chroniclers of yesteryear wrote their own interpretations of the story with their ‘women are inferior’ attitude! However, it is very likely that the Buddha may have initially had some reluctance considering the social milieu of the day. In any case, ordination of women by the Buddha has to be considered a revolutionary act, considering that the Catholic Church still does not ordinate women as priests and the Anglican Church allowed only two millennia later! It was a great surprise that some prominent women too objected to the Church of England ordaining women and when this happened in 1994, a prominent lady politician and a duchess, married to a cousin of Queen Elizabeth, left the Church of England to become Catholic!

However, to state that Venerable Ananda had to remind the Buddha that Mahaprajapati Gothami suckled Him is a great insult to the Buddha. What happened to the Buddha being Sarvajna? It is said that the Buddha stipulated eight conditions, the first being that a Bhikkhuni with even hundred years of higher ordination should worship and serve a Bhikkhu who had just got higher ordination. Does this not reflect male chauvinism? It is very likely the Buddha stipulated conditions, as protection needed to be afforded to women, but it is more likely that the conditions mentioned are what the Bhikkhus chroniclers wished than what the Buddha stipulated.

The most absurd is the supposed to be declaration by the Buddha that by this action the duration of His Sasana would be halved; from a thousand to five hundred years. As the Sasana has lasted over two thousand five hundred years already, in spite of distortions by many well-meaning followers, one has to ask the question ‘Why did the Buddha get it so wrong?’

Poor Venerable Ananda! After having served his cousin, neglecting his own spiritual advancement, all he was got was blame during the first Sangayana. He was blamed for not requesting the Buddha to live much longer when the opportunity arose which, again, seems to be an attempt to make the Buddha superhuman. Though Venerable Ananda was accused of shortening the lifespan of the Sasana by facilitating the ordination of women, perhaps, it worked the other way as the Sasana has lasted far beyond the Buddha’s expectations! That is, if these stories are believed to be rue. Anyway, looking at the attendances in Viharas, meditation sessions and other religious activities, it is pretty obvious that Upsikas contribute far more to the continuation of Buddha Sasana.

It is very likely that the apparent ambivalence of the Buddha on some issues is more apparent, than real, due to the many factors outlined.



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Opinion

A change of economic policies for Sri Lanka

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Millions of Sri Lankans are anxiously waiting to see what actions will be taken to make life bearable again.If we follow the example of successful countries we see them exploit their opportunities, and use the wealth created, not to import cars and go on luxury trips abroad, but to re-invest the money proceeds in further projects to bring in even more money. They proceed in this way until their citizens have good standard of living. Probably, the best example of that compounding of wealth is Singapore.

Singapore exploited its geographic advantages. It provided cruise ships with bunkering services and repair, later they provided airlines with refueling and expanded that to one night free stop- overs for passengers to buy luxury goods at their glamorous, tax-free shopping malls. The Japanese were making wonderful new gadgets: cameras, music players, portable radio cassette players, binoculars, all available in the malls and sold tax free!! Lee Kuan Yu forbade the ladies to wear denim jeans, and to wear dresses with hem lines coming down two inches below the knee! He even instructed the ladies to smile! No man could have long hair for fear of arrest. Littering was prohibited, so was chewing gum and smoking butts on the roads and pavements. The place was kept clean!

They used the proceeds arising from all this commercial activity to build housing blocks, develop new roads and other beneficial projects. (Individuals were not allowed to walk away with the profits, just to fritter them away.) Sentosa Island had installed a communications dish antenna connecting it with New York and the financial markets. This was an example of intelligent seizing of opportunities. I account for this intelligent development as due to the high educational and knowledge of Singapore’s progressive management. The result is a firm currency, holding its value.

Something similar has happened to Russia. Russia is rich. It is under progressive intelligent management. Stalin had developed the railway network across the full eleven time zones. But many areas remained to be connected. Putin found the finances to develop coal mines, develop oil and gas deposits and build railway bridges and tunnels for better access to markets and their demand for Russian products. Even as you read this, trains of 70 plus trucks, each with 70 tons of coal are grinding their way to China, day and night. Gas is flowing through an extensive network of pipelines, both east to China and west to friendly countries in Southern Europe. Mr. Putin and his men have succeeded in getting Russia fully functional. And the more Russians there are to spend money, so the more demand for goods and services: shops, etc., providing multiplying employment in Russia.

Mr. Putin wants to build a road and rail link south through Iran to India. A design plan is in the works. It is being discussed with Iran and India. Putin is displaying initiative for the benefit of Russia and its citizens. Putin cares for the citizens of Russia and is creating both wealth and jobs too. Architects are designing attractive living spaces and buildings which provide a better environment for Russians and contractors are building it. Education of Russian citizens is playing a big part in Mr. Putin’s thinking, too. Russia needs a talented workforce.

The result is that the currency, the Ruble is strong and does not devalue. It keeps its value.Belarus, Russia’s neighbour, can also be praised for outstanding development. The population in the big towns is cossetted with amenities and facilities which provides a luxurious way of life for townspeople especially those with industrial jobs. However, it must be admitted, the standard of life for the minority 30% population living in the countryside has yet to catch up. The administration is strict and everyone is law abiding. For example, you can leave your hand phone at your seat while you visit the toilet conveniences and it will remain undisturbed until you return.

Belarus, being a mostly agricultural country has a big tractor manufacturing plant, it has a fertiliser mining and producing plant, it has a commercial vehicle plant, DK MAZ which produces industrial trucks such as fire extinguishing trucks and also produces the most comfortable, bright, low step buses and so on, and of course, Belarus makes its own industrial vehicle tyres. The towns are prosperous and clean and Minsk, the capital is a beautifully laid out city. Town apartment blocks are multi-storied living spaces, but are so well designed and fitted as to provide pleasant living spaces for its people. These reduce urban sprawl across the wooded countryside.

What are Sri Lanka’s strengths? It is a small island thus making communications short and sweet. Its location in the Indian Ocean is a plus, its scenic beauty is a plus allowing a thriving tourist trade for people from colder climates, and its soil and climate allows almost anything to be grown. Therefore its agriculture is a great strength. Its long coastline can provide fish if the fisherised. It has deposits of graphite and phosphates which can be exploited to produce profits for further investment in development projects. It has its illiminite sands which are an extremely valuable asset but need to be controlled and exploitation expanded. It has a whole gem mining industry which need to be managed in way beneficial to the government. It has several government owned businesses which need to be overhauled and modernized to convert losses to profits. The rupee in 1948 was equal to the English pound, now it is around 450 rupees to the Pound. That gives a good description of Sri Lankan past governance.

Profits from projects need to be ploughed back into further projects to bring about a higher standard of living for all its inhabitants. Then the Lankan reputation of being a paradise island with happy people will be restored.

Priyantha Hettige

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Sapugaskanda: A huge challenge for RW

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It will be interesting to see if anything fruitful will come of the so-called “investigation” announced by the Minister-in-charge, about what seemed like an outrageous overtime payment to the petroleum refinery workers.While waiting for the outcome of that investigation, I thought of highlighting again the real and central issue that cuts across all loss-making government undertakings in Sri Lanka, such as the CPC, CEB, SriLankan Airlines, etc. that have been mercilessly sucking off tax-payer’s money into them like “blackholes”.

These organisations have been typically sustaining a mutual understanding with corrupt or inept politicians. “Sahana milata sewaya” (service at a concessionary price) was the catchphrase used by them to cover up all their numerous irregularities, wanton wastage, gravy trains, jobs for the boys and massive corruption, mostly with direct and indirect blessings of the politicians.

Here, I’d like to bring out just one example to help readers to get an idea of the enormity of this crisis built up over the past few decades. You’ll only have to look at what seemed like gross over-staffing levels of the CPC’s Sapugaskanda refinery, compared to international standards as shown below:

* Sapugaskanda Refinery – 50,000 Barrels Per Day (BPD); 1,100 employees Superior Refinery, Wisconsin, USA – 40,000 BPD; 180 employees

* Louisiana Refinery (including a fairly complex petrochemicals section), USA – 180,000 BPD; 600 employees

* Hovensa Refinery (now closed) – US Virgin Islands; 500,000 BPD; 2,100 employees.

These are hard facts available on the Internet for anyone to see, but I’m open to being corrected. I doubt if any sensible private investor would even dream of allowing such a level of gross over-staffing in their businesses.

As everyone knows, this is the position in all government business undertakings, as well as in most other government agencies in Sri Lanka. One can say that Sri Lankans have been willingly maintaining a crop of GOWUs (Govt Owned Welfare Undertakings), primarily for the benefit of the “hard-working” employees of these organisations, but at an unconscionably enormous cost to the rest. Obviously, this “party” couldn’t have gone forever!

Will Ranil be up to this challenge? I doubt very much.

UPULl P Auckland

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Opinion

Edward Gunawardena: ‘The IGP the country never had’

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On a seemingly fine Friday afternoon, day two of the England v India second Test of the LV Insurance Series (that turned out to be a day five thriller), oblivious to how his day would tragically pan out, our dad, retired Senior Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Edward Gunawardena, was glued to his television enjoying the contest between the two cricket giants. As time passed by that afternoon, he felt uncomfortable, weak and had minor discomfort in breathing. Our family doctor, Dr Lakshan Fernando, swiftly visited home and on strict instructions to bed rest, our dad enjoyed his chicken soup for dinner that was prepared by his beloved wife, our mum.

Later that night tragically he took the last breath of his life, and he completed the last heartbeat of his life in the presence of two of his most trusted people, our mum and our family doctor.

This day was that dreaded “Friday the Thirteenth” – in the month of August last year. Our tragedy was upon us.A year has passed, by but the loss is still deep rooted, although it was comforting that his passing was peaceful knowing that he had the assurance of having Dr Lakshan beside him, who in fact rushed him from our home to Central Hospital in Colombo that night in his own vehicle in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, ever so determined to save our dad’s life. It was a blessing to know that our dad had our mum and Dr Lakshan beside him as much as it was possible.

Edward Gunawardena had a successful journey starting his early years through St Joseph’s College, Colombo, Peradeniya University, Michigan State University, USA through sheer determination to succeed, despite him and his three brothers losing their mum when he was at a tender age of just four years. He served our country for nearly three decades in the Police Service in various capacities, including as the Director of Intelligence, Director of Presidential Security, DIG Metropolitan and Senior DIG Administration; and continued his services as the Special Advisor to the Chancellor at the University Grants Commission, Chairman of the National Lotteries Board and in the Board of Directors at the Lake House Newspapers Corporation.

Most would consider retirement in the ripe old age of sixties, but our dad was blessed to have joined JF&I Printing and Packaging Company, an international company with the head office close to our home. This enterprise was owned and led by renowned late Dr Neville Fernando and his son Neomal Fernando. Edward Gunawardena found his renewed passion and purpose of working with such a talented and committed group of colleagues, where he thrived in making a significant difference to a spectrum of many individuals with a common goal. There was a family atmosphere with abundance of gratitude whilst professionalism was being maintained. The feelings were mutual, and this was evident at a time when our dad was unwell and required a blood transfusion – seven of the junior colleagues at JF&I showed their willingness and donated their blood with heartfelt love and gratitude towards him. Knowing that such generosity and love existed in a working environment was a sincerely humble attitude. This is a true reflection of our dad’s character and personality of giving where reciprocation was demonstrated.

Patriotism and loyalty were two of his strengths. His dedication and professionalism in the Police Service were commendable. This was once clearly expressed by the late Professor Carlo Fonseka at the launch of our dad’s second novel “.. Edward was the IGP (Inspector General of Police) that the country never had”. A truly inspiring and a remarkable Officer and a Gentleman.

His generosity and care extended way beyond his professional arena. One of his many philanthropic contributions was the resurrection of the village Buddhist temple’s school ‘Daham Pasala’ with the support from the late Deshamanya H K Dharmadasa well known as ‘Nawaloka Mudalali’, the founder of the Nawaloka Group. Our extended family and many thousands of youth in the Battaramulla area have benefited and continue to imbibe the doctrine of Buddhism, thanks to the dedicated committee led by it’s Chief Monk, Jinarathana Himi.

As an enthusiastic writer and a passionate citizen, he wrote many thought provoking and fearless articles to the newspapers, which were very well received by the readers. He was not afraid to speak the truth and to stand up for those who did not have a voice, and he became a respected contributor maintaining honesty and integrity. One of his most poignant articles we recall was days after the tragic Easter Sunday bombings, titled “The Unpardonable Blunder” bravely challenging the chain of command and with deep sorrow on the devastating destruction, loss of lives and many innocent people maimed and scarred for their entire lives.

Today, we are relieved that he didn’t have to witness the dismal state of affairs our country is going through as a consequence of decades of poor leadership, mismanagement, and most of all, unprecedented levels of corruption in the recent era of respective governments.

As our dad, we are immensely proud of who he was, his achievements and most of all for how he has bettered many lives throughout his life, with his generosity, professionalism and willingness to help, advise, guide, nurture and mentor all with a selfless attitude. We believe that his legacy has been passed on through many who he has had close connections with. We are thankful that his writing legacy would also continue through his creations of the two novels “Blood and Cyanide” and “Memorable Tidbits…”.

Even until his last days and hours he was sharing his experience and wisdom with everyone around him, that was the calibre of the gentleman. His humble stories of meeting President Nixon at the Fulbright Scholar Dinner at the White House, meeting the 124th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Hirohito at the Akasaka Palace, and his conversations with the great Arthur C Clarke, will always be fondly remembered by us. One of the famous quotes that our dad hilariously shared was the quote from Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom about his political nemesis, the former and the predecessor Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. “The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this: if Gladstone fell into the Thames it would be a misfortune, but if someone dragged him out again that would be a calamity.”

Our dad was and will continue to be our hero and mentor. Today, we wish to extend our utmost appreciation to each and every one of you who had a close bond with him and made his life purposeful, joyful and complete. We thank them sincerely.

His last day of life was instrumental to the creation of the Edward Gunawardena Memorial Trust that is being organically grown, currently sponsoring medical students at the Rajarata University who are striving to become medical professionals, and as with Dr Lakshan, who was taking care of our dad, these students will have the opportunity to potentially treat and care for many deserving people and make their lives better, and also save many lives.

Whilst we take this opportunity to once again thank all those who were in his life,we would love to hear and treasure all the memories they shared with him. We welcome your recollections, your thoughts and your appreciations of Edward Gunawardena and please do send them via the email

My sister and I would value and appreciate the stories that you have had the pleasure of experiencing with him and of him.

With gratitude,
ERANGA

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