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President Obama’s new publication

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The first of a proposed two volume series of President Barack Obama’s political memoirs was published on November 17, 2020, and is available in hardback, paperback, digital and audio format with the author doing the reading. This first volume – 768 pages – is titled ‘A Promised Land’ and has already been translated to 24 languages. Prophesied to be the year’s top seller, it has received rave notices. (Interestingly, a phone call to Vijita Yapa Bookshop on Thurston Road, had the manager telling me they had had two runs of the book – all sold out at Rs 9,000 and 6,000 plus and further orders are expected. Good; we seem to keep up with the times!!)

Obama has authored ‘Dreams from my Father’ 1995, his early autobiography, which I possess and read voraciously; ‘The Audacity of Hope’ 2006; ‘In his own words’ 2007 (speeches etc); ‘Change we can believe in’ 2008; and ‘Of thee I sing: a letter to my daughters’ 2008. Thus he is a writer and extremely readable. While other Presidents of the US who leave office usually embark on speech making with Jimmy Carter inaugurating his human rights Carter Centre in Atlanta, Georgia, and travelling worldwide on charity house-building with Habitat, Obama, and Michelle Obama too, are into publishing their writing. He definitely has a flair with words and wrote his speeches, some outstandingly memorable, himself.

I’ve read a considerable number of articles and reviews of Obama’s latest publication but I mean to quote Michiko Kakutani’s Dec. 8, 2020, review. Kakutani is to me the greatest literary critic of contemporary books and was chief book critic for the New York Times. I remember pouncing on her articles; excellent as they were, in the International Herald Tribune. She writes:

“Barack Obama’s new memoir ‘A Promised Land’ is unlike any other presidential autobiography from the past – or, likely, future. Yes, it provides a historical account of his time in office and explicates the policy objectives of his administration, from health care to economic recovery to climate change. But the volume is also an introspective self-portrait, set down in the same fluent, fleet-footed prose that made his 1995 book ‘Dreams From My Father’ such a haunting family memoir. And much like the way that earlier book turned the story of its author’s coming-of-age into an expansive meditation on race and identity, so ‘A Promised Land’ uses his improbable journey – from outsider to the White House and the first two years of his presidency – as a prism by which to explore some of the dynamics of change and renewal that have informed two and a half centuries of American history. It attests to Mr. Obama’s own storytelling powers and to his belief that, in these divided times, ‘storytelling and literature are more important than ever,’ adding that ‘we need to explain to each other who we are and where we’re going.’

 

The reader and writer

In a phone call with Kakutani, Obama had discussed authors he’s admired and learned from in the process of finding his own voice as a writer, and the role that storytelling can play as a tool of radical empathy to remind people of what they have in common – the shared dreams, frustrations and losses of daily life that exist beneath political divisions. While in Chicago as a community organizer, Mr. Obama had begun writing short stories – melancholy, reflective tales inspired by some of the people he met. Those stories and the journals he sporadically kept would nurture the literary qualities of ‘A Promised Land’. He says he tried to prove himself worthy to the father who abandoned him and his mother, who had starry-eyed expectations of her son of a black father. The reading Mr. Obama did in his 20s and 30s, combined with his love of Shakespeare and the Bible and his ardent study of Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr, would shape his long view of history. By looking back at history – at the great sin of slavery and its continuing effect, he could learn much.

Obama seems to have been a great reader –fiction, politics, autobiographies and biographies. When in Columbia University he gave up the attempts he made to be a Black Man in America, fraught as he was with identity problems inherited from a Kenyan father and white American mother. However the greater influence was his maternal grandparents. He gave up his desultory habits of youth – sports, parties and hanging out. He tried to become a serious person and turned rather reclusive and introspective. He read most of the American authors, more specially the coloured like Malcolm X. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and others. He says Baldwin influenced him most with style of writing and also nature that emerged: humane, generous in spirit.

“Like Lincoln’s, Mr. Obama’s voice – in person and on the page – is an elastic one, by turns colloquial and eloquent, humorous and pensive, and accommodating both common-sense arguments and melancholy meditations (Niagara Falls made Lincoln think of the transience of all life; a drawing in an Egyptian pyramid makes Obama think how time eventually turns all human endeavors to dust).

“The two presidents, both trained lawyers with poetic sensibilities, forged their identities and their careers in what Mr. Kaplan calls ‘the crucible of language.’ When Mr. Obama was growing up, he remembers, ‘the very strangeness’ of his heritage and the worlds he straddled could make him feel like ‘a platypus or some imaginary beast,’ unsure of where he belonged. But the process of writing, he says, helped him to ‘integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole’ and eventually gave him a pretty good sense of who he was – a self-awareness that projected an air of calmness and composure, and would enable him to emerge from the pressure cooker of the White House very much the same nuanced, self-critical writer he was when he wrote ‘Dreams From My Father’ in his early 30s.”Further parallels between Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Obama, are that they both shared a mastery of language and a first class temperament for a president: “stoic, flexible, willing to listen to different points of view.”

As with his speeches, his first draft even of books is handwritten on a notepad using a particular ball point pen which he is fastidious about. Then he computer processes what he has handwritten while editing. His best time for writing is between 10.00 pm and 2.00 am. When writing seriously, he shuns too much reading as he fears it may distract him from the writing at hand. He did not keep a regular diary while at the White House; memory and notes and documented facts have helped him. He advices: “You just have to get started. You just put something down. Because nothing is more terrifying than the blank page.”

 

Hope – Obama’s wish for youth

Obama is first and last a humanist; I firmly believe this. Added to which is his intellect and wideness and clarity of thinking. I heard him on a recent BBC programme where he is intent on guiding the youth of today, starting with American, to have hope in the future. “To try to live your life, it’s useful to be able to seek out that joy where you can find it and operate on the basis of hope rather than despair. We all have different ways of coping, but I think that the sense of optimism that I have relied on is generally the result of appreciating other people, first and foremost, my own children and my family and my friends. But also the voices that I hear through books and that you hear through song and that tell you you’re not alone.”

I strongly feel those are superb ideas to keep in mind and pass on, specially to our younger generation as they seem rather rootless and lost. Read and read; appreciate others’ imagination and creativity; listen to stories and build up your own. And of course as Obama insists, have hope, optimism and appreciation of others.

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Olga Sirimanne (1923 – 2021)

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In memoriam

My darling beautiful angelic wife Olga (First batch of Air Ceylon stewardesses) and I commenced a partnership of love in Holy Matrimony on 17th June 1954. We loved each other deeply, enjoyed a blissful relationship for over 66 happy years with each other. We devoted our lives to give love and happiness not only to each other but also to all those who came to know us during our delightful almost 100 years. Beautiful incidents and memories are portrayed in several photo albums. Our friends and family loved listening to Olga’s exciting experiences and stories laced with humour and laughter as she was an excellent story teller.

Olga was blessed with three loveable children, Sunil, Laksen and a beautiful daughter Minoli; adorable grandchildren, Shelana and Sanjev, Rahel and Sariah, Kaitlyn and Taylor; great grandson, Sevan and darling niece, Ashie whose mother (Olga’s only sister) passed away some years ago. Ashie considered Olga, her ’Loku Ammie’ as her surrogate mother. Her son-in-law and daughters-in-law too loved her deeply with great respect and love. She held them fondly close to her heart with pride.

Her lifelong heart-throb was me. She always called me ‘darling’ but never addressed me as ‘Siri’ though all her friends did. Since I was ‘Thathie’ to our loving children, she too affectionately called me ‘Thathie’ even when she was on the verge of passing away. I too enduringly called her ‘Ammie’ as I loved her as much as our children.

Her gentle protective care and devotion helped me to maintain youthful looks and excellent health to celebrate my 100th birthday on 31st January 2020. She and our daughter had arranged a Holy Mass at home followed with a surprise birthday party attended by a few close friends and relations. She too received Holy Communion with blessings for the peaceful and happy years of coexistence with me. I too responded to her caring ways and helped her maintain her health and beautiful charming looks to the end.

Her 98th birthday was on 12 January 2021. She was greeted by me first thing in the morning, with loving kisses, hugs and prayers to God for giving us another year of peace and happiness. She received with warm wishes lots of beautiful bouquets and baskets of flowers, birthday cards and a countless number of telephone calls from children, grandchildren, relations, friends and loved ones here and scattered around the globe. It thrilled her to know that so many remembered and loved her.

Deep within our hearts, there was this chilling fear of the unbearable sorrow if one of us was left without the other. As age was creeping into our lives, every night we started reciting together a prayer to God before going to sleep, kissing each other and whispering, “I love you darling, God Bless you.”

The inevitable happened on 3rd February 2021 when my darling (Olga) passed away in my arms to the Kingdom of Heaven to be with Jesus. Thus, ended our happy and peaceful partnership, me afflicted with sorrow and yearning for her presence. I love you darling, my love. Rest in Peace.

Our children, Sunil, Laksen, Minoli and I wish to thank all those who attended the private funeral, sent floral tributes and messages of condolences and regret our inability to thank you individually . Please accept our heartfelt gratitude.

 

D.L.Sirimanne

leosirimanne@gmail.com

 

 

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Divided people in a distorted democracy

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The Geneva Calamity comes more from the thinking of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, than that of the former Chilean politician who is now the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It is such thinking of disaster advancement that made our Foreign Minister tell the Geneva meeting in his virtual address that Sri Lanka acted in ‘self-defence” in the fight against the LTTE’s terrorism. Was it self-defence that led to the actions of the armed forces or the fundamental right to safeguard the unitary state, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Sri Lanka – whether Democratic Socialist or not?

The debate will go on in Geneva about our actions for self-defence, that defeated the LTTE, and what has taken place after that assurance of self-defence, that relates to wider reaching issues of Human Rights, with emphasis on responsibility and accountability.  Now that Yahapalana is no more, it is the task of the Powers of Fortune, or Saubhagya, to make its own case on how Sri Lanka relates to the international community.  This is certainly no easy task as we see the unfolding of the politics and crooked governance in Sri Lanka.

As the echoes of Geneva goes on, we are much more involved in the Easter Sunday carnage and the Presidential Commission report on it. The people are certainly puzzled as to why the planners and directors of this hugely bloody act of Islamic terrorism have not been revealed. We have the unique situation where the person who appointed this Commission of Inquiry, none other than former President Maithripala Sirisena, is to be legally punished for this carnage. 

Are we to have special satisfaction on the possibility that future Heads of State, who appoint such commissions of inquiry, will be the first accused, even in the much-delayed reports of such commissions?  There is not much hope for such satisfaction. The Head of State is the emblem of supremacy, with all the powers of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. 

The families of the victims of that terrorist attack at the Katuwapitiya -Negombo, Kochchikade – Colombo, and Batticaloa churches, will certainly remain in search for the exposure and punishment of those who planned and carried out these situations of carnage. What we are shown is the true purpose and meaning of a Presidential Commision of Inquiry – PCoI.

We have certainly gone back to the origins of such inquiries, and the powers of Saubhagya at Rajavasala, have shown their honour to J. R Jayewardene, who brought the Presidential Commission as the show of the five-sixth majority Jayewardene Power.  Mr. Sirisena may remember how the first PCoI of the Jayewardene era, ensured the removal of civic rights to Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the defeated Prime Minister and Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike, former Minister of Justice.  

Punishment of one’s political opponents is the stuff and substance of Presidential Commissions of Inquiry, and Sri Lanka is now showing the whole world how much this is a part of a Distorted Democracy. A show of power that was enabled by 69 lakhs of voters in the presidential election, followed  by the parliamentary two-thirds gained through those who bowed their so-called critical heads on ‘Dual Citizens” coming to Parliament, and the huge Muslim MP cross-over – for the benefits they must have gained – as all such cross-over politicians always obtain.

The Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who certainly prevented the Easter Sunday carnage leading to even more bloodshed, by a few timely words of caution and Christian thinking that tragic day, must be now wanting to know why he was so keen to get the report of this Commission.  Who were the planners, the funders, the trainers and leaders of this carnage? What will the people know in the weeks and months to follow, and how much can the feelings of the families that were the bloody victims of this massacre of the innocents, be brought to some relief?

This PCoI is the answer to the political prayers of those manipulating power today. It is the answer to the continually rising Cost of  Living, the protection to those who keep destroying our forests and jungles, the safeguard for all those who keep reducing the Alimankada pathways of our elephants, it is the whistle blow of  go ahead to the forces of urban destruction, and the show-piece managers of Presidential visits to the rural people. 

The rising voices of sections of the Maha Sangha against this PCoI, the call from Christian voices to expose and deal with the planners and movers of this carnage, and the louder voices for the protection of nature and the environment, will be the cause of joy to the powers of a Deadly Dominant Democracy. It is the message of power to those who take pride in killings of the past – be it the Tigers of the LTTE, or the cases of killed, injured and missing journalists, and the abduction of children.

 The powers that be will continue to sing loud about how we acted in self-defence against the LTTE terror. The echoes of Geneva will keep ringing in the ears of manipulative politics and power. But this and other PCoI reports that are seen as the substance of crooked power, will soon lead our people and country to an Age of Disaster – an age of new confrontations and calamities. How much worse can we become than the JRJ manipulation of anti-democratic power?

 How much can we allow our people to be divided, and thus supportive of a Distorted Democracy?

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HOW REBIRTH  TAKES PLACE

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The passing away of the consciousness of the past birth is the occasion for the arising of the new consciousness in the subsequent birth. However, nothing unchangeable or permanent is transmitted from the past to the present.

(From THE BUDDHA AND HIS TEACHINGS by Venerable Narada Mahathera)

“The pile of bones of (all the bodies of) one man
Who has alone one aeon lived
Would make a mountain’s height —
So said the mighty seer.”

— ITIVUT’TAKA

To the dying man at this critical stage, according to Abhidhamma philosophy, is presented a Kamma, Kamma Nimitta, or Gati Nimitta.

By Kamma is here meant some good or bad act done during his lifetime or immediately before his dying moment. It is a good or bad thought. If the dying person had committed one of the five heinous crimes (Garuka Kamma) such as parricide etc. or developed the Jhānas (Ecstasies), he would experience such a Kamma before his death. These are so powerful that they totally eclipse all other actions and appear very vividly before the mind’s eye. If he had done no such weighty action, he may take for his object of the dying thought-process a Kamma done immediately before death (Āsanna Kamma); which may be called a “Death Proximate Kamma.”

In the absence of a “Death-Proximate Kamma” a habitual good or bad act (Ācinna Kamma) is presented, such as the healing of the sick in the case of a good physician, or the teaching of the Dhamma in the case of a pious Bhikkhu, or stealing in the case of a thief. Failing all these, some casual trivial good or bad act (Katattā Kamma) becomes the object of the dying thought-process.

Kamma Nimitta

or “symbol,” means a mental reproduction of any sight, sound, smell, taste, touch or idea which was predominant at the time of some important activity, good or bad, such as a vision of knives or dying animals in the case of a butcher, of patients in the case of a physician, and of the object of worship in the case of a devotee, etc…

By Gati Nimitta, or “symbol of destiny” is meant some symbol of the place of future birth. This frequently presents itself to dying persons and stamps its gladness or gloom upon their features. When these indications of the future birth occur, if they are bad, they can at times be remedied. This is done by influencing the thoughts of the dying man. Such premonitory visions of destiny may be fire, forests, mountainous regions, a mother’s womb, celestial mansions, and the like.

Taking for the object a Kamma, or a Kamma symbol, or a symbol of destiny, a thought-process runs its course even if the death be an instantaneous one.

For the sake of convenience let us imagine that the dying person is to be reborn in the human kingdom and that the object is some good Kamma.

His Bhavanga consciousness is interrupted, vibrates for a thought-moment and passes away; after which the mind-door consciousness (manodvāravajjana) arises and passes away. Then comes the psychologically important stage –Javana process — which here runs only for five thought moments by reason of its weakness, instead of the normal seven. It lacks all reproductive power, its main function being the mere regulation of the new existence (abhinavakarana).

The object here being desirable, the consciousness he experiences is a moral one. The Tadālambana-consciousness which has for its function a registering or identifying for two moments of the object so perceived, may or may not follow. After this occurs the death-consciousness (cuticitta), the last thought moment to be experienced in this present life.

There is a misconception amongst some that the subsequent birth is conditioned by this last death-consciousness (cuticitta) which in itself has no special function to perform. What actually conditions rebirth is that which is experienced during the Javana process.

With the cessation of the decease-consciousness death actually occurs. Then no material qualities born of mind and food (cittaja and āhāraja) are produced. Only a series of material qualities born of heat (utuja) goes on till the corpse is reduced to dust.

Simultaneous with the arising of the rebirth consciousness there spring up the ‘body-decad,’ ‘sex-decad,’ and ‘base-decad’ (Kāya-bhāva-vatthu-dasaka).

According to Buddhism, therefore, sex is determined at the moment of conception and is conditioned by Kamma not by any fortuitous combination of sperm and ovum-cells.

The passing away of the consciousness of the past birth is the occasion for the arising of the new consciousness in the subsequent birth. However, nothing unchangeable or permanent is transmitted from the past to the present.

Just as the wheel rests on the ground only at one point, so, strictly speaking, we live only for one thought-moment. We are always in the present, and that present is ever slipping into the irrevocable past. Each momentary consciousness of this ever-changing life-process, on passing away, transmits its whole energy, all the indelibly recorded impressions on it, to its successor. Every fresh consciousness, therefore, consists of the potentialities of its predecessors together with something more. At death, the consciousness perishes, as in truth it perishes every moment, only to give birth to another in a rebirth. This renewed consciousness inherits all past experiences. As all impressions are indelibly recorded in the ever-changing palimpsest-like mind, and all potentialities are transmitted from life to life, irrespective of temporary disintegration, thus there may be reminiscence of past births or past incidents. Whereas if memory depended solely on brain cells, such reminiscence would be impossible.

“This new being which is the present manifestation of the stream of Kamma-energy is not the same as, and has no identity with, the previous one in its line — the aggregates that make up its composition being different from, having no identity with, those that make up the being of its predecessor. And yet it is not an entirely different being since it has the same stream of Kamma-energy, though modified perchance just by having shown itself in that manifestation, which is now making its presence known in the sense-perceptible world as the new being.

Death, according to Buddhism, is the cessation of the psycho-physical life of any one individual existence. It is the passing away of vitality (āyu), i.e., psychic and physical life (jīvitindriya), heat (usma) and consciousness (vijnana).

Death is not the complete annihilation of a being, for though a particular life-span ends, the force which hitherto actuated it is not destroyed.

Just as an electric light is the outward visible manifestation of invisible electric energy, so we are the outward manifestations of invisible Kammic energy. The bulb may break, and the light may be extinguished, but the current remains and the light may be reproduced in another bulb. In the same way, the Kammic force remains undisturbed by the disintegration of the physical body, and the passing away of the present consciousness leads to the arising of a fresh one in another birth. But nothing unchangeable or permanent “passes” from the present to the future.

In the foregoing case, the thought experienced before death being a moral one, the resultant rebirth-consciousness takes for its material an appropriate sperm and ovum cell of human parents. The rebirth-consciousness (patisandhi vijnana) then lapses into the Bhavanga state.

The continuity of the flux, at death, is unbroken in point of time, and there is no breach in the stream of consciousness.

Rebirth takes place immediately, irrespective of the place of birth, just as an electromagnetic wave, projected into space, is immediately reproduced in a receiving radio set. Rebirth of the mental flux is also instantaneous and leaves no room whatever for any intermediate state (antarabhava). Pure Buddhism does not support the belief that a spirit of the deceased person takes lodgement in some temporary state until it finds a suitable place for its “reincarnation.”

This question of instantaneous rebirth is well expressed in the Milinda Panha

The King Milinda questions:

“Venerable Nagasena, if somebody dies here and is reborn in the world of Brahma, and another dies here and is reborn in Kashmir, which of them would arrive first?

“They would arrive at the same time. O King.

“In which town were you born, O King?

“In a village called Kalasi, Venerable Sir.

“How far is Kalasi from here, O King?

“About two hundred miles, Venerable Sir.

“And how far is Kashmir from here, O King?

“About twelve miles, Venerable Sir.

“Now think of the village of Kalasi, O King.

“I have done so, Venerable Sir.

“And now think of Kashmir, O King.

“It is done, Venerable Sir.

“Which of these two, O King, did you think the more slowly and which the more quickly?

“Both equally quickly, Venerable Sir.

“Just so, O King, he who dies here and is reborn in the world of Brahma, is not reborn later than he who dies here and is reborn in Kashmir.”

“Give me one more simile, Venerable Sir.”

“What do you think, O King? Suppose two birds were flying in the air and they should settle at the same time, one upon a high and the other upon a low tree, which bird’s shade would first fall upon the earth, and which bird’s later?”

“Both shadows would appear at the same time, not one of them earlier and the other later.

The question might arise: Are the sperm and ovum cells always ready, waiting to take up the rebirth-thought?

According to Buddhism, living beings are infinite in number, and so are world systems. Nor is the impregnated ovum the only route to rebirth. Earth, an almost insignificant speck in the universe, is not the only habitable plane, and humans are not the only living beings. As such it is not impossible to believe that there will always be an appropriate place to receive the last thought vibrations. A point is always ready to receive the falling stone.

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