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Most Venerable Ajahn Brahmavamso turns 70

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I write this Poya Sunday on an outstanding personality in Buddhist robes – Most Ven Ajahn Brahmavamso. There have been celebrations on his birthday, mostly in Australia. I need not justify my choice of subject but feel compelled to do so since at least half my readers are non-Buddhist.

The Sangha

The Theravada Sangha has come down direct from the lineage started by the Buddha two months after attaining Buddhahood. The first ordained was Kondanna – one of the five ascetics Siddhartha Gautama meditated with, until he left them; eased torturing and starving; and realized the truth of samsaric existence. He journeyed to Benaris from Gaya and ‘set the wheel of Buddhism turning’ with his first sermon to the five ascetics when Kondanna attained arahantship. Thus Ajahn Brahmavamso is of that lineage observing 227 vinaya rules and also preaching the Dhamma. Arahants are indentified by the Buddha in the Rathana Sutta as:

“Those well engaged with a firm heart

Freed from passion, in the dispensation of Gotama,

They have reached the goals having plunged into immortality,

Having received free they enjoy peace.”

Significance of Nikini Poya

Nikini Poya is remembered for three important events: the first being the holding of the First Council three months after the Parinibbana of the Buddha when 500 Arahants gathered at the Sattapanni caves in Rajagaha under the Chairmanship of Arahant Kassapa Maha Thera. The teachings of the Buddha over a period of 45 years were codified at this seven month Council.

The second and connected commemoration on this poya is that of Ven Ananda gaining Arahantship on the night before the Council, making his participation in the Council eligible. His delayed arahantship was due to spending his days as friend and attendant to the Buddha. He had best memorized the Dhamma being always present when the Buddha preached. However, he was to be debarred from the Council though recognized as the repository of the Dhamma, but becoming an arahant the night before, he gained attendance.

The third significance of Nikini is the decision taken by the Buddha that Bhikkhus observe the Rains Retreat; i.e. three months of not sojourning forth but taking time to renew vows and progress on the Path. According to the rules of the Vinaya the observance could commence in the month of Esala (July) and if for some reason a bhikkhu fails to do so, he has to observe from the Nikini full moon day (August). In Sinhala we call the two: Pera and Pasu Vas.

Thus it is seen that the three significances of today’s poya centre on the Sangha; of which Ven Brahmavamso is a leading light. We have others like Bhikkhu Bodhi and so very many Sri Lankan monks, both of the forest lineage and residing in temples preaching and practicing true Theravada Dhamma. Ven Talalle Chandakitti in a recent bana preaching on Pragna TV channel (112 on PEO TV) mentioned that one of the four conditions to be fulfilled to reach the first stage of the Path to Arahantship is association with ‘Kalyana Mittha’ or those who will lead one to the Path. The highest is the Buddha and he being dead, his Dhamma substitutes. Those who interpret the Dhamma and lead people on the correct path are also Kalyana Mittha. In this context too it is worth spending time thinking of, remembering and appreciating Most Ven Brahmavamso, whose 70th birthday is just passed.

Bio in brief

Peter Betts was born in London on August 7, 1951, to a working class family. He was in high school in Devon and then won a scholarship to study theoretical physics at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. After graduation he taught in a high school, but for just one year. He set off to Thailand and his lay life ended with his ordination in the Forest Tradition under Ajahn Cha. He meditated, trained and yes, suffered privations like eating any food offered him by the poor of the area – frogs and grasshoppers included – for nine years. Then Ajahn Cha observing his potential, sent him to Perth, Australia, in 1983 to help the few monks in a country awakening to Buddha’s Teaching.

The Bodhinyana Monastery was constructed in Serpentine, Western Australia, in the name of Ajahn Cha Bodhinyana, and Ven Brahm assumed responsibility as Abbot. This is just a fraction of Ven Brahm’s service to Buddhism. (The venerable monk abbreviates his name thus and points out it contains the first letters of all major religions). He is Spiritual Advisor to the Buddhist Societies of South and Western Australia; Buddhist Fellowship in Singapore; a Bhikkhuni Project in the UK and of course the Ajahn Brahm Society of Sri Lanka – guided by Ven Mettavihari of the Narada Dharmayathana, Colombo 7.

Controversial bold step taken by Ven Brahm

The fact of the ordination of women ten preceptors as bhikkhunis observing the 230 plus vows was opposed by tradition observing South and South Eastern Asian countries – Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand being foremost. The fact of a bhikkhuni of the continued lineage from the time of the Buddha not being available is the reason. But the more liberal minded and practical monks and laymen considered that the fourth foundation of Buddhism, namely bhikkhunis to complement bhikkhus, laymen and laywomen, was necessary. Ordination of women was carried out in California and Taiwan. Hence, after a thorough study of the Tipitaka and consulting Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi, Ven Brahm decided to ordain ten preceptors, as a fully ordained monk could perform the ordination assisted by another. The first was of Ajahn Vayama with three others in Perth. Ajahn Vayama lived many years in Sri Lanka, first with Ayya Khema and then with a Sinhala ten preceptor. She went to Amaravati in England but on a visit to Australia she was requested by Ajahn Brahm to build and head the Dhammasara Nuns’ Monastery in Gidgegannup. (I keep in close touch with Bhikkhuni Vayama).

Ven Brahm did have doubts about his stepping on controversial ground. He wrote:

“I thought too when I was a young monk in Thailand that the problem was a legal problem; that the Bhikkhuni order could not be revived. But having investigated and studied, I’ve found out that many of the obstacles weren’t there at all. Bhikku Bodhi – a respected Theravada scholar monk researched the Pali Vinaya …” and the result was Bhikkhuni ordination was made possible! However, he met strong censure from the monks of Thailand. But all women are indebted to him for the bold step he took to give women ten preceptors what they needed, and deserved: highest ordained status and the world, the Bhikkhuni Order.

Association with Sri Lanka

Ven Ajahn Brahm has visited, held meditation sessions, preached and guided retreats for monks several times in Sri Lanka, mostly under the auspices of the Ajahn Brahm Society and on invitation from it and Ven Mettavihari. I vividly recall July 15 of about eight years ago, where more than 6,000 gathered at the BMICH main and banquet halls, even verandahs, to be guided by Ven Brahm from 7.00 am to 5.30 pm. The Society catered with food, drinks and kindness. I wrote then in this column about the wonderful experience. Here is an excerpt:

“All halls were interconnected electronically so we saw and heard the Ven Monk walking around, smiling always, being mobbed for his autograph and being whisked away for tea and the noonday meal in a monkmobile! It was disconcerting seeing the misguided zeal that prompted people to push to the front to fall in obeisance before Ven Brahm, thus blocking his way, and I was told, once almost making him miss his step.” But never mind I said to myself, calmed. We were asked repeatedly to be happy, very happy and stay in joy. Yes, like Ven Brahm, who is always smiling because he is so happy and calm within himself.

Blessed are we to have such to listen to; maybe again after the pandemic is over. Blessed are we in this Island with so many of our own pious monks offering ‘Kalyana Mittha sevana’.



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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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