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Some Thoughts on Kusinara

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by Bhante Dhammika of Australia

It is at Vesaka more than at other times that devoted Buddhists turn their attention to the Buddha and the three most important events in his life. The last of these, his attainment of final Nirvana, took place in a town called Kusinara, a name associated forever with this event as well as with sal flowers, and perhaps his final exhortation: “Now, I declare to you: all conditioned things are impermanent. Strive on with awareness.”

Something else that often comes to mind when thinking of Kusinara is why the Buddha would pass away in what we are always told was a rather obscure and miserable little town. At least that’s how the Tipitaka describes Kusinara, isn’t it? Perhaps! But maybe the Pali of this description of the town might be interpreted in another way.

A Wretched Place?

Ananda famously described Kusinara as kudda nagaraka, ujjangala nagaraka, sakha nagaraka, which Prof. Rhys Davids translated as “this little wattle-and-daub town, in this town in the midst of the jungle, this branch township”. Subsequent translators have followed the gist of this, giving the impression that Kusinara was a wretched and dismal place. Some of the variations include “this sorry little town” (Lord Chalmers); “this mean place, this uncivilized township in the midst of the jungle, a mere outpost of the province” (Sister Vajra and Francis Story); “this miserable little town…right in the jungle in the back of beyond” (Maurice Walsh); “this small town, this barren town, this branch town” (Bhikkhu Anandajoti); and “a little hamlet, a jungle hamlet, a branch hamlet” (Bhikkhu Sujato). These last two translations follow the wording of the Pali more closely than the others.

Nonetheless, there are problems with what branch (sakha), could mean in this context. In English it would mean off the main route, usually in reference to a path, road or railway line. But far from being off the main road, it is fairly certain that Kusinara was situated right on the main road running from Magadha and Vajji to Kosala’s capital at Savatthi and beyond – the northern equivalent of and roughly parallel to the Uttarapatha, what later came to be called the Grand Trunk Road.

Also, no town or village in the Tipitaka, or in any other Indian literature, to the best of my knowledge, is ever described as being sakha, a word which is always used in reference to bush or tree branches. Kudda is from the Sanskrit kuḍya, meaning ‘a wall’, and could be related to the Sanskrit ksunna, ‘to grind, and the Pali cunna, ‘powder’. Both meanings might be relevant to Kusinara and may refer to the defenses of the town—a wall or rampart—or to the lime plaster coating that was put over mud bricks to protect them from rain. Ujjangala can refer to hard or compact soil or mud.

Modern visitors to Kusinara will note that the soil around the town is not noticeably hard or barren (or no more so than anywhere else in northern Uttar Pradesh); in fact, it is fertile and productive. Thus, in relation to Kusinara, ujjangala may refer to the rammed earth or mud used in ramparts. Likewise, sakha could well refer to the branches of thorny bushes that were cut and used for defensive purposes or, alternatively, to a palisade running along the top of a rammed earth rampart.

If this interpretation is correct, Ananda’s comparison of Kusinara with the great cities of the time was that it was a small place with basic or antiquated defenses, the main cities having more impressive and substantial ones of stone and bricks. Ananda’s concern, as he clearly stated, was that there were not enough wealthy people in Kusinara who could arrange a fitting funeral for the Buddha, not that the town was a miserable backwater.

Why Kusinara?

After the Buddha passed into final Nirvana and preparations were being made for his funeral, a large group of monks led by Mahā Kassapa happened to be going along the main road to Kusinara when they met an Ajivaka ascetic who was coming from the town. Kassapa asked him if he knew his and his party’s teacher, the Buddha, to which the Ajivaka replied that he did know of him, and he had passed away in Kusinara only a week ago. This news caused dismay, confusion and grief amongst the monks

But the fact that Kassapa and the monks with him were on this road and heading in the direction they were is intriguing. A look at a map will show that the ancient road would have passed through Kusinara and continued all the way to Savatthi and that at some point beyond Kusinara, it would have branched off to Kapilavatthu. Where was Kassapa going and why was he with/did he have a group of monks with him? The gruff and ascetic Kassapa was known for his penchant for solitude, not mixing with other monks and keeping to his forest hermitage. I would like to offer a possible explanation.

It would not be unreasonable to conjecture that the Buddha planned to spend his final days in his hometown amongst his kin. The evidence shows that he had a special affection for the Sakyans. When the brahman Ambatta disparaged the Sakyans for not respecting him in the proper way, the Buddha defended his kinsmen, saying: “But even the quail, such a little bird, can talk as she likes in her own nest.” We also know that the Buddha always addresses the people he was talking with by their clan names except when he was talking with Sakyans when he would use their given name.

So it is quite possible that when the Buddha set off from Rajagaha on his final journey, his destination was Kapilavatthu, where he hoped to spend his last days. If so, before departing he would have asked some monks to spread word to senior disciples that they should meet him in Kapilavatthu for final instructions and goodbyes, but as it happened, he died in Kusinara before reaching his planned destination.

This conjecture would also explain why Maha Kassapa, one of the Buddha foremost disciples and one who preferred to live alone in the forest, was where he was when he heard of the Buddha’s passing—he had been on his way to Kapilavatthu for a final meeting with the Buddha.



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Responding to our energy addiction

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by Ranil Senanayake

Sri Lanka today is in the throes of addiction withdrawal. Reliant on fossil fuels to maintain the economy and basic living comforts, the sudden withdrawal of oil, coal and gas deliveries has exposed the weakness and the danger of this path of ‘development’ driven by fossil energy. This was a result of some poorly educated aspirants to political power who became dazzled by the advancement of western industrial technology and equated it with ‘Development’. They continue with this blind faith even today.

Thus, on December 20th 1979, an official communiqué was issued by the Government and displayed in the nation’s newspapers stating, “No oil means no development, and less oil, less development. It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving”. This defined with clarity what was to be considered development by the policy-makers of that time. This fateful decision cast a deadly policy framework for the nation. The energy source that was to drive the national economy would be fossil-based. Even today, that same policy framework and its adherents continue. Everything, from electricity to cooking fuel, was based on fossil energy.

The economics of development, allows externalizing all the negative effects of ‘development’ into the environment, this being justified because, “industrialisation alleviates poverty”. The argument, is that economies need to industrialise in order to reduce poverty; but industrialisation leads to ‘unavoidable emissions. Statements like, ‘reduction in poverty leads to an increase in emissions’ is often trotted out as dogma. Tragically, these views preclude a vision of development based on high tech, non-fossil fuel driven, low consumptive lifestyles. Indeed, one indicator of current ‘development’ is the per capita consumption of power, without addressing the source of that power.

A nation dependent on fossil fuel is very much like an addict dependent on drugs. The demand is small, at first, but grows swiftly, until all available resources are given. In the end, when there is nothing else left to pawn, even the future of their children will be pawned and finally the children themselves! Today, with power cuts and fuel shortages, the pain of addiction begins to manifest.

The creation of desire

This perspective of ‘development’, the extension of so-called ‘civilised living’ is not new to us in Sri Lanka, Farrer, writing in 1920, had this to say when visiting Colombo:

“Modern, indeed, is all this, civilised and refined to a notable degree. All the resources of modern culture are thick about you, and you feel that the world was only born yesterday, so far as right-thinking people are concerned.

And, up and down in the shade of glare, runs furiously the unresting tide of life. The main street is walled in by high, barrack like structures, fiercely western in the heart of the holy East, and the big hotels upon its frontage extend their uncompromising European facades. Within them there is a perpetual twilight, and meek puss-faced Sinhalese take perpetually the drink orders of prosperous planters and white-whiskered old fat gentlemen in sun hats lined with green. At night these places are visible realisation of earthly pleasure to the poor toiling souls from the farthest lonely heights of the mountains and the jungle.” The process goes on still …

Develop we must, but cautiously – with the full awareness of the long-term consequences of each process. Development must be determined by empowering the fundamental rights of the people and of the future generations. Clean air, clean water, access to food and freedom from intoxication, are some of these fundamental rights. Any process that claims to be part of a development process must address these, among other social and legal fundamental rights.

One problem has been that, the movement of a country with traditional non-consumptive values, into a consumerist society based on fossil energy tends to erode these values rapidly. Often, we are told that this is a necessary prerequisite to become a ‘developed country’, but this need not be so. We need to address that fundamental flaw stated in 1979. We need to wean ourselves away from the hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy. Which means moving from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy-based economy.

Fossil Fuels or fossil hydrocarbons are the repository of excess carbon dioxide that is constantly being injected into the atmosphere by volcanic action for over the last 200 million years. Hydrocarbons are substances that were created to lock up that excess Carbon Dioxide, sustaining the stable, Oxygen rich atmosphere we enjoy today. Burning this fossil stock of hydrocarbons is the principal driver of modern society as well as climate change. It is now very clear that the stability of planetary climate cycles is in jeopardy and a very large contributory factor to this crisis are the profligate activities of modern human society.

As a response to the growing public concern that fossil fuels are destroying our future, the fossil industry developed a ‘placating’ strategy. Plant a tree, they say, the tree will absorb the carbon we emit and take it out of the atmosphere, through this action we become Carbon neutral. When one considers that the Carbon which lay dormant for 200 million years was put into the atmosphere today, can never be locked up for an equal amount of time by planting a tree. A tree can hold the Carbon for 500 years at best and when it dies its Carbon will be released into the atmosphere again as Carbon Dioxide.

Carbon Dioxide is extracted from the atmosphere by plants and converted into a solid form through the action of photosynthesis. Photosynthetic biomass performs the act of primary production, the initial step in the manifestation of life. This material has the ability to increase in mass by the absorption of solar or other electromagnetic radiation, while releasing oxygen and water vapor into the atmosphere. It is only photosynthetic biomass that powers carbon sequestration, carbohydrate production, oxygen generation and water transformation, i.e., all actions essential for the sustainability of the life support system of the planet.

Yet currently, it is only one product of this photosynthetic biomass, sequestered carbon, usually represented by wood/timber, that is recognized as having commercial value in the market for mitigating climate change. The ephemeral part, the leaves, are generally ignored, yet the photosynthetic biomass in terrestrial ecosystems are largely composed of leaves, this component needs a value placed on it for its critical ‘environmental services’

With growth in photosynthetic biomass, we will see more Oxygen, Carbon sequestering and water cleansing, throughout the planet. As much of the biomass to be gained is in degraded ecosystems around the planet and as these areas are also home to the world’s rural poor, these degraded ecosystems have great growth potential for generating photosynthetic biomass of high value. If the restoration of these degraded ecosystems to achieve optimal photosynthetic biomass cover becomes a global goal, the amazing magic of photosynthesis could indeed help change our current dire course, create a new paradigm of growth and make the planet more benign for our children.

Instead of flogging the dead horse of fossil energy-based growth as ‘Economic Development’, instead of getting the population addicted to fossil energy, will we have the commonsense to appreciate the value of photosynthetic biomass and encourage businesses that obtain value for the nations Primary Ecosystem Services (PES)? The realization of which, will enrich not only our rural population but rural people the world over!

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Australia-Sri Lanka project in the news…Down Under

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The McNaMarr Project is the collaboration between Australian vocalist and blues guitarist, John McNamara, and Andrea Marr, who is a Sri Lankan-born blues and soul singer, songwriter and vocal coach.

Her family migrated to Australia when she was 14 and, today, Andrea is big news, Down Under.

For the record, Andrea has represented Australia, at the International Blues Challenge, in Memphis, Tennessee, three times, while John McNamara has also been there twice, representing Australia.

Between them, they have 10 albums and multiple Australian Blues awards.

Their second album, ‘Run With Me,’ as The McNaMarr Project, now available on all platforms, worldwide, has gone to No. 1 on the Australian Blues and Roots Sirplay charts, and No. 12 on the UK Blues charts.

Their debut album, ‘Holla And Moan,’ released in 2019, charted in Australia and the US Blues and Soul charts and received rave reviews from around the world.

Many referred to their style as “the true sound of soulful blues.”

= The Rocker (UK): “They’ve made a glorious album of blues-based soul. And when I say glorious, I really mean it. I’ve tried to pick out highlights, but as it’s one of the records of this year – 2019 – (or any other for that matter) it’s tricky. You have to own this.”

= Reflections in Blue (USA): “Ten original tunes that absolutely nail the sound and spirit of Memphis soul. Marr has been compared to Betty Lavette and Tina Turner and with good reason. She delivers vocals with power and soul and has a compelling stage presence. McNamara’s vocals are reminiscent of the likes of Sam & Dave or even Otis Redding. This is quality work that would be every bit as well received, in the late 1950s, as it is today. It is truly timeless.”

= La Hora Del Blues (Spain): “Andrea Marr’s voice gives us the same feeling as artistes, like Betty Lavette, Tina Turner or Sharon Jones, perfectly supported by John McNamara’s work, on vocals and guitar…in short words, GREAT!”

Yes, John McNamara has been described as an exceptional vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, whose voice has been compared to the late great Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, while Andrea Marr often gets compared to the likes of Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and Sharon Jones.

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Manju Robinson’s scene…

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Entertainer and frontline singer, Manju Robinson, is back, after performing at a leading tourist resort, in the Maldives, entertaining guests from many parts of the world, especially from Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany, Poland…and Maldivians, as well.

His playlist is made up of the golden oldies and the modern sounds, but done in different styles and versions.

While preparing for his next foreign assignment…in the Maldives again, and also Dubai, Manju says he has plans to do his thing in Colombo.

Manju has performed with several local bands, including 3Sixty, Shiksha (Derena Dreamstar band), Naaada, Eminents, Yaathra, Robinson Brothers, Odyssey, Hard Black and Mark.

He was the winner – Best Vocalist and the Best Duo performer – at the Battle of the Bands competition, in 2014, held at the Galadari Hotel.

In 2012, he won the LION’s International Best Vocalist 2012 award.

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