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Demystifying Buddhism: Need of the hour?



by Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Mystification is undoubtedly one of the most effective techniques adopted by all religions to ensure that their followers toe the line. After all, who wants to go against religion and face eternal damnation? However, the world has moved on since the inception of all religions and now even scientists agree that there is nothing permanent; not even the universe! By the way, impermanence as a key concept was introduced by the Buddha more than two and half millennia ago. At the moment there is global concern over yet another creation of the human mind: Artificial Intelligence!

Some industry leaders are warning that AI would wipe out humanity, joining nuclear war and pandemics which are the leading contenders to do the same. Geoffrey Hinton, so-called ‘Godfather of AI’ resigned from his job at Google stating that the tools he helped create may be used to end civilisation. AI language tools such as ChatGPT are already being used by students to cheat but would someone go a step further and use similar tools to weaponise ‘fake news’ or develop deadly chemical weapons? One can argue that religion can play an important moderating role in preventing such things happening but, on the other hand, it could be questioned whether they can do so if religions are removed from reality by mysticism?

Perhaps, all religions need demystification but I shall confine myself to Buddhism as it is the only religion I know a bit about. Further, I fear any criticism of other religions may earn me the reputation of someone attempting to promote religious discord. We live in a world, which is becoming increasingly intolerant of free speech whilst clamouring for the same! Oxford Union, once the bastion of free speech, nearly stopped Philosophy professor Kathleen Stock from expressing her view that trans women were not women.

Having failed to cancel the event, transgender activists attempted to sabotage her presentation. Interestingly, they did not attempt to challenge her views instead, perhaps because they are bereft of facts! Though we Buddhists do not do so often, the Buddha gave us the freedom of thought and promulgated the Dhamma by means of discussion. The Buddha was in search of the nature of reality and it perplexes me why and how the religion built around those teachings is full of mysticism. Though it may have served some purpose in the past, my contention is that the time is ripe for demystification.

The month of Poson is of special significance to us, Sri Lankan Buddhists, as according to ancient chronicles Buddhism was formally introduced, on the full moon day of this month 2270 years ago by Arahant Mahinda who was the son and emissary of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. Though it is very likely that Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka from India much earlier, Arahant Mahinda’s visit resulted in the embracing of Buddhism by King Devanampiyatissa and Sri Lanka becoming a Buddhist country, officially. Arahant Mahinda established Bhikkhu Sasana and as there was a clamour to establish Bhikkhuni Sasana, his sister Sanghamitta followed six months later, carrying with her a sapling of the Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The famous writer H G Wells in the chapter, “The Rise and Spread of Buddhism” in his 1920 book “The Outline of History” refers to this as follows:

“In Ceylon there grows to this day a tree, the oldest historical tree in the world, which we know certainly to have been planted as a cutting from the Bodhi-Tree in the year 245 BC. From that time to this it has been carefully tended and watered.”

Whilst Sanghamitta story tells us that she travelled by land and sea, landing in Jaffna, Arhant Mahinda, who came to Sri Lanka with seven others, including two close relatives; Sumana Samanera, the son of Sanghamitta and Bhanduka Upasaka, the son of his maternal aunt’s daughter, is supposed to have arrived by supernatural means. Is this another instance of mystification! Even if one assumes that Arahants had developed the supernatural power of teleportation, it does not explain how a samanera and upasaka travelled, as an Arahant is not likely to have the ability tag along another person in teleportation.

In fact, Arahant Mahinda’s visit was a much-planned visit and was postponed till the death of King Mutasiva as it was felt that the aging king would not be able to grasp the complex concepts of Buddhism. This makes it very likely that the dramatic meeting described in ancient texts is nothing but a mystification. Anyway, how Arahant Mahinda arrived with others does not matter. What is important is that there is plenty of archaeological evidence to prove that both Arahants Mahinda and Sanghamitta lived in Sri Lanka till their deaths, serving our ancestors. Therefore, they deserved to be remembered on Poson and Unduvap Poya Days, respectively.

The Buddha showed us the way to overcome the sense of dissatisfaction that pervades all aspects of life and also the power of the mind. He showed us the way we could develop our mind and introduced the concept of mindfulness. He showed the path for ultimate detachment. What happened subsequently was converting this Dhamma to a religion by enveloping it in rituals and mysticisms; very practices denounced by the Buddha.

Instead of accepting the Buddha as a normal human being but with an exceptional intellect, he was made supernatural by mystifying his life. He walked immediately after his birth and said it was his last birth. This is mysticism mixed with predetermination but what follows is the truth. In spite of all the luxuries, with increasing dissatisfaction with life, Prince Siddhartha leaves lay life in search of the underlying cause of dissatisfaction. He experiments with extreme torture to the body, a method very popular among sages at the time, which he finds of no use and discovers the Middle Path, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha walked the length and breadth of India barefoot, washing his feet himself, when he entered a house. This message of simple living dedicated to the service of others is distorted and some of the Sangha today live in the lap of luxury and indulge in every activity the Buddha advised them against.

The Buddha’s Dhamma explains a path to tread on, and studying how he explored the mind to arrive at this itself gives so much academic satisfaction. Teaching this would ennoble our youth but what is often heard in Bana preachings or lectures are mystical stories or gross distortions, the best example being Dana: giving is a means to getting rid of attachment but is portrayed as a means of guaranteed returns thus increasing greed. I can go on and on.

If Buddhism is to survive, we need to understand and practise what the Buddha taught. The first step in this process is demystifying it so that we may understand the true nature of things.

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Speculations about origin of placename, ‘Negombo’ (Meegamuwa)



By Chandre Dharmawardana,

A writer using the pseudonym GADS, replying to a previous article regarding Negombo, states (The Island 17 Sept. 2023), “It is also historically recorded that the name Negombo is the Portuguese corruption of its Tamil name Neerakolombu and the Sinhala name Meegamuwa which means and comes from old Tamil Naval terminology Meegamam Pattnam. Meegamam denotes a naval captain”.

Unfortunately, the author does not give the reference to this “historical record” or elaborate on the details available from any early sources, Portuguese and Dutch maps etc. Furthermore, he asserts that “Meegamam” denotes a naval captain. Here again, this is certainly not so in any of the Dravidian languages, or Indic languages. No such usage exists even in Arabic and other languages of the Hebrew family, as far as we can ascertain.

A “naval captain” in Arabic would be Kabtin Bahriun, while the Tamil usage would be Katarpatai Kaptain in modern usage. In old Tamil words like Nakutawere used [1]. However, “gama, gamuwa, gammam, kamam, etc., are all refer “village”.

I have collected what is known about the place name Negombo in the website listed at the end of this note [2]. I quote from it below:

The name Meegamuva is believed to refer to a village (gamuwa) which was reputed for its honey (mee). Thus, the Mahavamsa-based tradition has it that honey was procured from this region for Queen Vihara Maha Devi, (2 century BCE)[3], initially from a honeycomb found in a boat turned upside down. It could also refer to a forest of Mee trees, Madhuca Longifolia (Koenig). It is well known that placenames have been based on vegetation and prominent land marks; in our view, this is the most likely source of the name.

Another interesting legend is that the name is related to “Nihumbala, the nephew of the Yakka king Raavana. The Tamil form, Neerkozimpu may mean water, and ‘kozimpu’ is sometimes claimed to mean ‘village’, but such a meaning is not recognised in standard Tamil Lexicons. Also, the Tamil name originally applied only to the lagoon-like area and not to the whole of Meegamuwa. Given the ancient histoofthe village, kozimpu may have comefrom the sinhala kalapuva adorned with the Tamil “nir”.

Maya Oya flows north of Negombo and falls into the ocean near Kochchikade. This was an early center of the cinnamon trade, set up by the Moors in medieval times. The Portuguese ousted them in the 16th century and built a fort, and established a strong Catholic religious centre here. The Dutch ousted the Portuguese in the 1644 CE. The ruins of the fort, with its fine archway marked ‘1672’ can still be seen. In 1796 the British took over Negombo, by which time the cinnamon trade had declined. The town has remained strongly Roman catholic to this day.

Frivolous folk-lore etymology attriutes the name ‘Negambo’ to nikam biruva. That is, a dog ‘just barked’ is said to be the response given by a non-comprehending bystander to a colonial who asked ‘what is the name of this town? While GADS recognizes such frivolities for what they are, the claim that Meegamuwa or Neer-kozimpu comes from the Tamil words for “sea captain” can be very intriguing if anyone takes it seriously; one cannot find a source for substantiating such a claim in any reputed Tamil lexicon or Tamil literary source.

[1]Madras Tamil Lexicon.

[2] index.html

[3] Mahawamsa, XXII, verse 48.

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How to conserve electricity at home and workplace



Going through my old paper clippings, I came across the following news item which is more applicable today when the country is facing a severe energy crisis on how to conserve or restrict the use of electricity at Offices and other working places.

There are several ways of conserving electricity at home, offices and other workplaces. It is absolutely necessary to do so because electricity is harmful for our environment and the planet we live in.

Here is how

(a)  Unplug all electrical appliances in the kitchen when not in use, except the refrigerator. This includes coffee pots, sandwich toasters, blenders and ovens. These appliances use small amounts of electricity when they are left in standby mode.

(b)  When it comes to washing, soap them first and then open the tap halfway to wash them.

(c)   Use the washing machine once a week. Try washing some of your lighter clothes by hand and save jeans and other heavy clothing for the washing machine

(d)  When drying your clothes, do not use the dryer unless very necessary. Hang wet clothes on a line in the backyard which is an easy way of drying them and clothes dry so easily during the day in this intensely hot weather.

(e)  Change the traditional light bulbs for energy saving bulbs. The garden lights can be replaced with solar powered lights. In the kitchen, the refrigerator is out of direct sunlight and not next to the oven. Avoid putting hot dishes in the refrigerator as it will have to work harder to cool the dish, therefore wait for a while for the dish to cool and then put it in the refrigerator.

(f)    Unplug any phone or laptop chargers when they are not in use.

(g)  Unplug the computer when it is not in use. This is very important because it can get very badly damaged if it is plugged in during a thunderstorm. You may not even be at home during the storm, so it is advisable to unplug the computer when it is not being used. Do not leave the computer switched on for long hours.

(h)  Unplug the television set and gaming consoles too, as they can get damaged if they are on standby mode during a thunderstorm.

(i)    Keep DVD players, TVs and other audio and stereo equipment plugged into a multi-port which can be turned off with one switch. This saves electricity.

(j)    Turn off the lights, fans and air-conditioner when you leave the room. Remember that you do not need the lights switched on during the day.

(k)  Do not use electric appliances such as vacuum cleaners and use the broom instead.


Via e-mail

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Some lesser known historical facts



The Greek women in ancient Greece realised to their utter dismay that their husbands were always fighting wars overseas. One brave Greek woman, Lysistrata, organised a women’s front with the sole purpose of denying their husbands the marital pleasures unless they remained at home to fulfill their marital duties

Socrates, known for his wisdom, was invited by the King of Sparta, which had waged war against Greece, to be an honorary citizen of Sparta. He gracefully turned down the offer as he valued the democratic way of life in Athens. As he was always arguing with fellow Athenians neglecting household work his wife used abusive language on him in the presence of his companions. Socrates continued with his arguments when his wife in utter exasperation treated him with a plate full of dish water. Socrates merely said to his companions that after thunder comes the rain.

In the Olympic games held during the peaceful times the athletes ran the races naked. Women were not permitted to attend them. The penalty was death if a woman was discovered breaking the law. On one occasion a middle-aged woman was caught breaking the law. As she happened to be the mother of a celebrated athlete she was forgiven.

Julius Caesar was caught dressed as a woman in a women only club in Rome. He was not punished since he had gone there only to meet his lover who saved him. On another occasion he had to offer a bribe to the ship’s captain, a pirate, who threatened to throw him overboard into the Mediterranean Sea.

Isaac Newton was accused by Robert Hooke for plagiarizing when the former introduced the gravitational constant in his book Principia Mathematica. Hooke was the Secretary of the Royal Society of which Newton was the President. Hooke was the person who encouraged Robert Knox to write the book “Historical Relations…” Newton was accused by the German philosopher Leibniz of plagiarism as the latter had published the calculations of infinitesimal calculus before Newton. There was a rule in the Universities that dons should take holy orders. The king exempted Newton from this obligation. Newton’s denial of the divinity of Jesus and the trinity did not earn any punishment from the ecclesiastical authorities. The complementary part of calculus, integral calculus, had been discovered by Archimedes in the second century BC. After the conquest of Greece by Rome the intellectual supremacy and the culture of Greece saw a gradual decline. It was known that the burial place of Archimedes was a much-venerated place visited by Greeks. The Romans did not show such veneration and the burial place got neglected. However, when Cicero, a Roman intellectual, lawyer and writer became the governor of Athens in the second half of the first century BC, he visited the burial site and had the monument restored to its former state. He noticed the epitaph wherein the symbol of a sphere within a cylinder had been inscribed.

A century later Rome conquered England, killing the English queen Boudica. There stands the figure of this queen on a horse (close to the underground tube station Westminster) with words emblazoned on the flanks in poetic language indicating that while England was colonised by Rome, England had conquered half of the world.

Guy Fawkes was the man who made an attempt to set fire to the Parliament building. This incident is known as the “Gunpowder plot”. He failed in his attempt and was executed. This incident may be compared to the attempt by a JVP member who threw a hand grenade when a Cabinet meeting was taking place in the Parliament building with the President JRJ presiding. The culprit got away.

When a German prince from Hanover became George the First of England, he found life in England very dull as he could not speak English. So, he invited his old German friend Handel, the musician, to be his companion. It was during this time that Handel composed his famous “Water music” and many operas.

Dr. Leo Fernando

Talahena, Negombo

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