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Matters of Life and Death

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by S. N. Arseculeratne

Humans have only two certainties to worry about: income tax and death. I do not have to worry about tax as I have nothing to be taxed. Death is worth a thought. Of course, that it is inevitable, is a painful axiom. But a thinking person will want to know why we are born and suffer if we are to die. Richard Dawkins has pronounced that it is all because of The Selfish Genes that tricked us here for their ulterior purpose of getting themselves propagated. I’d think that his book is important to the extent that it provokes us to consider the ultimate questions.

But humans have another dilemma – to live or to die, or as Hamlet had it “To be or not to be“?, that dilemma was well portrayed in the beautiful film of the 1950s, A Matter of Life and Death by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was about an airman who crashed and was hovering between life and death; his friends in the Celestial Court in Heaven wanted him up there but his earth-bound friends wanted him back alive on earth. The advocates on both sides gave utterly memorable speeches in pleading their causes. If I have a choice, I’d rather be Nobel Laureate Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Unknown Guest, a Discarnate Entity who from up there, helps his hapless erstwhile colleagues on this troubled earth, as convincingly portrayed by John G. Fuller in his factual accounts of The airmen who would not die and The ghost of flight 401.

My daily walks in our garden bring me to our beautiful flowers. I wondered, they are born, they become so beautiful and they wither and die. Biologists call this process Apoptosis, programmed cell death. And that sight gives me scope for daily meditation and a little philosophizing – on impermanence. Such instances keep prodding me to reconsider the perennial question of what life means and what is Man’s role in this sorry scheme of things that embroils him and his family in a world sodden with tragedies of all sorts. I have thought about these matters, in an essay titled The Phenomenon of Man, in which I considered Man to be just an epiphenomenon in Nature with no importance except as the unwitting carrier of Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Genes, through the fatal attraction for the bribe of a female. That essay merely used Teilhard de Chardin’s catchy title of one of his books but I certainly did not partake of his far-fetched and fanciful views which Nobel Prize winning biologist Peter Medawar shredded. My other essay The Final Testament and A Reconsideration of Rene Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum”) I think therefore I am) through a synthesis of the ideas of Buddhism, Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson and Andrew Newberg, in my book that was recently released “I think, therefore I am – Rene Descartes” referred to Man’s obsession with himself as the centre of the universe. Man’s “self” is of no other significance than as an impetus for rebirth and the perpetuation of genes, a matter discussed in my essay on Rene Descartes. Yet Man keeps wallowing in his selfish fantasy, in the fragile cocoon that he has built for himself with his self-centered pursuits. Authoress of crime stories P. D. James wrote in her Introduction to her book Death in Holy Orders (in which she came upon the body of a dead youth who had fallen off a cliff): “All our lives are as insignificant as a single grain of sand. My mind felt emptied, even of sadness. Instead, gazing out to sea, accepting that in the end nothing really matters, and all that we have is the present moment to endure or enjoy, I felt at peace”.

The ultimate cause of this crazy world with its hapless inhabitants may now be considered as I often do and as I see it, despite the inevitable scorn and ridicule that agnostics, incorrigible skeptics,

and self-acclaimed ‘rationalists’ in their confusion, will heap on me. Some would tentatively blame, the controlling effect, the compulsions of and motivations from the planets on this world and its living things; after all they have some cause as ancient wisdom did, the Sun gives life to things on earth and the moon causes tides in waters. The convincing point in their view that compels credibility, is that their statements including predictions have sometimes proved to be convincingly right. I’d refer readers to the books (1) The case for Astrology, by John West and Jan Gerhard Toonder (1970) and (2) Explaining the Unexplained by H. J. Eysenck and Carl Sargent, my short essay A test for the validity of astrology, and to the comments of Nobel Laureate in Physics Prof. Brian Josephson in his interview with BBC on why he turned from physics to parapsychology– “I started to feel that there was more to reality than conventional science allowed for….”, Lord Dowding “I confidently predict that all these ideas will be commonly accepted in a hundred year’s time when those who reject them will be classed with those who now believe that the earth is flat”, science philosopher Paul Feyerabend “When a representative of the BBC wanted to interview these eminent scientists (on their view that astrology is non-valid) they declined with the remark that they never studied astrology and had no idea of its details”, and the views of London’s engineer Professor Arthur J. Ellison that Britain’s Society for Psychical Research had at one time many Fellows of the Royal Society of London, and 12 Nobel prize winners.

The final word in liberating ourselves from this messy world is perhaps from Buddhist philosophy which dwells on the theme of Impermanence, as the inevitable root of suffering. Need we cogitate on these ultimate questions? or follow the Buddha’s splendid advice and relieve ourselves of these burdens, without bothering about unanswerable questions; a person shot with an arrow should first take the arrow out, without bothering about who shot the arrow and why. Yet, the questions are relentless and inexorable; how do we take the arrow out? Is it through meditation to reach the higher states or Jhanas, of self-awareness and self-realization? Thus, as I wrote in a short essay “My short-cut to heaven“, I think I have the clue, which is to ablate my ‘self’ denying it the option of re-birth.

The prescription for this ablation is to be found in the Buddhist Abhidhamma as referring to the last thoughts at the death off a person, cuti citta [pronounced chuthi chitta], as determining the thoughts at the conception of the next birth (Uppada citta). I would also earnestly recommend to those interested in this means for ‘taking the arrow out’, the article by Sharon Begley, Science and Technology section, Newsweek, May 14, 2001 on the experiences of the American neurologist Dr James Austin who was heading to the Zen Buddhist Retreat in London. “Austin suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around him, evaporated like a morning mist in a bright dawn. … His sense of ‘I’, ‘mine’, disappeared “.

Yet, personally I feel compelled to ask myself the ultimate questions, who are we and why are we here? On the one hand philosophers have endlessly argued on why we continue to be re-born as discussed in my essay “A reconsideration of Rene Descartes’ Cogito, ergo sum….”, and on the other hand, is the fruitless consideration of what death means. The topic of Karma enters this discussion. All these questions invoke Albert Einstein’s trenchant comment: “To ponder interminably over the reasons for one’s own existence or the meaning of life, in general seems to me, from the objective point of view, to be sheer folly”.

My final thoughts on all this are that we face overwhelming insoluble problems in life – wanton destruction, crime, drugs, Hitler and his monstrous Nazis, Pol Pot, Prabhakaran and their intolerance, racism and absolutism, Corona Virus, HIV and other diseases of all sorts, environmental degradation, and of course spicing this incendiary mix are the determinants of ‘Belief’ that subsume nearly all of humans’ horrific activities. It is even more tragic that people waste their (and others’) time and energy on trivial and petty squabbles that are of absolutely no consequence to anybody.

A further thought is that this mayhem characterizes human societies and not animal ones; animals do not display these evils which only Humans do; if animals squabble it is for understandable and fundamental reasons of survival, hunger and sex for propagation of their kind, which would seem an irreducible mix even for humans but with the added expression of their talents and creativity. But Man has paid a heavy price for his alleged cerebral superiority over animals. It has spawned telling commentaries such as Charles Duff’s This Human Nature.

And that consideration brings me finally to the title of another book by Chardin, without any acceptance at all of its content – The Future of Man, which, in my opinion, is totally bleak; and, Heavens, to think of the ultimate human arrogance as depicted in my essay in my Rene Descartes book, Lets go colonise the planets, prompted by Stephen Hawking’s, perhaps tongue-in-cheek comment: “….. the long term survival of the human race is at risk so long as it is confined to a single planet…..“. Of course the unstated stark fact is that Man has himself created the threat to his own survival on earth. For the moment I will stick my tongue out at Life while exclaiming, as John Gunther did on the untimely death of his son from a brain tumour, Death be not proud.

(The writer is an emeritus professor of the University of Peradeniya)



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Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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