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Vesak afterthoughts

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Ideally, the triple commemoration of the birth, enlightenment and Parinibbana of the Buddha ought to be a religious affair, but we have made Vesak the most colourful celebration, which eclipses the religious aspects of the event. On top of decorations and illuminations in every house and street, there are pandals depicting the life of the Buddha. Although we share these with many other Buddhist countries, our unique contribution is the ‘dansala’. Having missed Vesak celebrations for three consecutive years due to the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 and the pandemic, there was great anticipation for a proper celebration this year, but unfortunately all hopes were dashed due to the prevailing politico-economic crisis.

In spite of shortages, some ‘danselas’ were held and few small pandals erected but even the weather-gods were against us, and overturned the pandal in Pettah. However, what was striking was the scant attention given by the mediat to the Vesak events. Perhaps, they had more important things to report on.

Being stuck due to the pandemic in UK, we had our own share of the problems. Most Buddhist temples here are not purpose-built; our temple Nottingham Shanti Vihara being no exception. We need to hire a venue on occasions like Vesak celebration and Katina ceremony to accommodate large crowds. We never got the opportunity to celebrate Vesak on the actual Poya day; celebrations were held during the weekends before or after that day. Due to the pandemic we had to make do with joining the celebrations via Zoom in the last two years. However, this year our Loku Hamuduruwo, Venerable Teldeniyaye Amith, was able to find a venue to celebrate Vesak, which fell on Sunday, and we were waiting in anticipation. Unfortunately, two days before the Poya Day, it was found that the venue had closed without any intimation! We had to make do with a Zoom ceremony for yet another year.

Although one of the most important messages of the Buddha is impermanence, not having developed a significant degree of detachment, I can’t help being a worrier. Therefore, these failings added to the gloom already created by the events back home. However, my mood was lifted thanks to Kirthie, Karunaratne Abeysekera’s younger brother, who sent me the link to a music programme, broadcast shortly before Vesak, where Ishak Baig sang Buddhist songs originally sung by his renowned father Mohideen Beg, whose beautiful voice entertained us for decades (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXBX8YcX5Ro).

It is one of the best music programmes I have watched for a very long time. Sparsha, a music programme by Derana TV, recorded open-air in Kande Vihara displayed what a gifted singer Ishak is. He sings from his heart and displayed a wonderful understanding, especially for a non-Sinhala Buddhist, for the superb lyrics written by the great Karunaratne Abeysekera. Surprisingly, one of the songs which many assume to be written by Karunaratne, because of the style, was by his younger brother Gunaratne, who was overshadowed by Karuayya. Ishak’s conversation with the presenter Kokila Pawan was very informative. He revealed how Gunaratna had volunteered to compose a song on Buddha Gaya, which Mohideen Baig desperately needed. Beautiful music provided by Naada orchestra well rounded an uplifting programme.

“Buddham Saranam Gachchami”, which reverberates throughout Sri Lanka during Vesak was the first song in the programme. It is from the 1960 Hindi film “Angulimaal” starring Nimmi and Bharat Bhushan which was later dubbed in Sinhala. The original song is sung by Manna Dey, who, according to Ishak, was in the sound studio when Mohideen Baig sang the Sinhala version and congratulated Baig for singing better!

The second song Minisamai Lova Deviyan Vanne, Minisamai Lova Thirisan Vanne–– ‘It is man who becomes both God and animal in this world’––has a special significance to the present as it has the words, eka kusa ipadeela, vairen mathwela, thama sohoura marai, wasa visa deela” (… though born in the same womb, maddened with hatred, kills own brother, giving poison)!

The third song, Budunge ama dharme, nothere jana me (‘eternal truth of the Buddha, the ordinary not understanding it’) is yet another song where Karu Ayya makes a fine blend of musicality and Buddhism.

The next song, Amataka karalamu perani katha, ekvemu jathiye diyuna patha (‘Let bygones, be bygones, let’s get together for the progress of the nation’), surely, should be our theme song at this perilous hour!

Suvade, mata seethala sulanga pava, himi buduwuna Buddhagayawe

(‘Even the cold breeze which comes from where He attained Enlightenment, Buddha Gaya comforts me’) makes you feel as if you are in Buddha Gaya. It has been penned by Gunaratna. Ishak considers it a great privilege that he was able to sing this song and Buddhan saranam gachchami in Buddha Gaya. He says this unforgettable moment was capped by his receiving a small Buddha statue made of sandalwood, which he kept on his lap on the return flight. Interestingly, a Catholic friend of his father, borrowed the statue and kept it with him till his death and then Ishak got it back. Is this not Sri Lanka at its best?

Sinahaven ho kathawen be manninata miniha, sithe athide, sithe athide kauda danne, kiyannata wimasa

(‘You cannot judge a person by his smile or words’) is about those who eat together, drink together yet harbour hostile feelings.

The programme ends with the well-loved song, Giri hel mudune, mahanel nopipe, hiru nonage, avara girehe (On top of a hill, water lilies do not bloom, and the sun does not rise from the West). This song concludes with Dinu jathiya vatina Sinhale, abhimnawu deya me Sinhale, ee niga sirithe geli, ha noga edinu deli, parasiritheni oba hela meni eida soketa heluwe (‘Born to great Sinhale, proud land this Sinhale, indulging in shameless behaviour … why did you bring sorrow to Mother Lanka with misbehaviour?’).

I watched the entire programme with tears welling up in my eyes, especially as Ishak’s powerful voice rang out, echoing in the plains below the Kande Vihara––Oba Hela Meni, Eida Soketa Heluwe–– ‘Why did you bring sorrow to Mother Lanka?’



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Opinion

Ohe Innava ; ban on Russian tennis players; greed leads via deceptive satisfaction to disaster

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Sins of the leaders suffered by innocents

This beautiful island seems to be at a standstill and its people rather dazed, confined to homes or queues for days on end (no longer hours). Maybe, Jaffna and its southern neighbouring Vanni are better equipped mentally and stoically to withstand these vagaries of fortune and carry on their lives as they know well, through experience (1983 to 2009 and even thereafter), with inbuilt mental and physical resistance. The government that should be so very occupied looking after its people, and MPs and their bosses mandated to do so, only continue emanating hot air and cruise around in their gas guzzlers, of course, in protected areas. They feel the anger of the people: righteous, justified and ready to burst forth in flames of anarchy at the first ignition. One VIP speaks to the public of imminent arrival of ships laden full with fuel and cooking gas; and another VVIP on further necessity to tighten belts and suffer. All of us are near suffocation because of the mistakes, corruption, extravagance and bl… idiocy of those who ruled us.

The biggest man, almost daily, gathers sundry officers to his vast meeting hall and while they gaze at him, some mindlessly but none interrupting, pontificates mostly on how they should be alleviating the hardships of the population. He singlehandedly caused farmers and now us immense deprivation. He thought his mea culpa would exonerate him. The ex-PM and doing-just-as-they bid ex-Gov of CB sit out in comfort on the look out to escape. The dethroned VIP heir is creeping back to meetings where he is not justified being in. Dreams of a glorious return? Shatter them to bits, you people are NOT coming back ever to power. 20 million people, including kids, know you all too well now and the bung screwed on tight on criticism popped off, released mostly by the peaceful protesters of Mynagama and GotaGoGama. Thank goodness for them!

Cass listened to the articulation of peaceful protesters in Havelock Town carrying succinct boards and good sense and intelligence in their heads as relayed by 8.30 pm Newsline of MTV TV One on Tuesday 28 late evening. What emerged was most forceful censure of the powers that were and are. ‘Go home Gota’ they said in unison and decently. What sort of a skin does one need to enable one to stay on when disliked so intensely and shown the exit explicitly by millions here and overseas. The protective skin of the armed forces is not available, one presumes. As is said, the soldiers’ old mothers can barely make ends meet with soaring prices and fathers are in queues, so how expect them to turn against their own suffering people even though commanded to do so?

Wimbledon

The cricket matches between the Aussie team and a revived, zestful Sri Lankan team have been giving solace to a major section of our people. That is fine, since one needs to divert one’s mind and also grab whatever respite one can from the ongoing disaster that is our beloved country.

Cassandra is a tennis buff deriving not only sporty enthusiasm but also aesthetic satisfaction by watching good players on court. How so the latter, one may query. Just watch a good player and witness his/her playing is ballet like in postures and grace; a fine synchronization of muscle and limb. And for Cassandra the best is to watch the Wimbledon matches, the players and linesman and ball pickers all in white. Maybe Cass is conservative, a throw back on her upbringing, but discipline even in what the players wear is pleasing to her. Wimbledon times are not so inconvenient to us as matches start there at 3.30 (it was said) and so by 8.00 pm one can watch them over sports channels. It’s when the US Open is on that one has to watch into all hours of our night.

Wimbledon has banned Russian players and so men’s world number 1 Daniil Medvedev is out – banned; so also number 8 Andrey Rublev and women’s numbers 6 and 13 – never mind names, difficult to even spell. Great pity, especially regards Medvedev – almost humble on court – but again proof that sins of the leaders fall on ordinary heads. The organisers of Wimbledon decided in April to ban players from Russia and Belarus in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So, ex KGB Putin’s fear of European Union’s expansion of influence and protection, or greed for expansion of Russian controlled territory or even a desire to re-establish a sort of USSR have impacted on innocent sportsmen and women.

Greed may be satisfied temporarily but degraded shame is permanent result

‘Bollywood actress of Sri Lankan origin’ as Jacqueline Fernandez is named by S Venkat Narayan and other media persons, has again been questioned by the Indian Enforcement Directorate (ED) on the gifts of dollars and expensive items given her and her family members by billionaire conmen Sukesh Chandrashekhar. Cass is not flogging a dead horse (or much alive, lovely mare here) but quoting this tidbit from Tuesday June 28 press, wishing to impress on herself and her readers that avarice and boundless greed lead to retribution and perhaps heart searing regret. It is obvious Jackie entertained the conman, and very intimately we suppose, to be worth all those millions gifted to her. It surely cannot be love. That explanation for the close liaison is good for the fairies to narrate. She was motivated by desire for quick immense wealth. And she has landed flat on her face: passport impounded, reputation gone, and with it admirers and Salman Khan too perhaps, and sure shot no offers of further stardom. She was catapulted to be top of the beauts on par with now exclusive Aishwaria Rai Bachchan. And what has avarice brought her to?

Cass in her age earned wisdom warns young beauties not to gamble on good looks. Many are the girls who did so and surely are cast aside and also fearful now since tables have been turned on their benefactors mostly by the sensible young ones of GotaGoGama. Where’s that beauty queen whose crown was snatched as placed on her by political influence, who accompanied Lohan R to Welikada prison in short shorts to view the gallows? We heard many a chick was given jobs, sometimes double at Sri Lankan, with no English ability, etc. No wonder our airline nose-dived and is still on that perilous down swing but sustained by government monetary life lines. Many were the discards given employment in Sri Lankan.

Another point: definitely a too flogged horse: are those who plundered government money and assets by the millions, nay billions happy and leading fine lives. Nay, No and Nein! They may be safe and their stolen wealth intact and in no danger of being confiscated, but their minds? Wellbeing? They cannot have such thick hides that satisfying the five senses brings them peace of mind? Again, a thundering NO. Reputations ground to dust; friends disappeared; and the door to a return to political power shut bang. Jolly good for those damned thieves who sent our country down to the depths. We will rise, that’s for sure. We have good people in the majority.

On that rousing note of determination to rise from the depths, Cassandra wishes you bye, for now. May its enforced curtailment of normal routines; immense difficulties and future bleakness not depress you too much. We as a country can only now go upwards, hit rock bottom as we are.

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Opinion

Buddha’s ambivalence?

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

We, Buddhists, are very fortunate in that we are able question even the actions of the Buddha. After all, the Buddha encouraged questioning as exemplified in Kalama Sutta, dubbed ‘The Buddha’s charter for free inquiry’. Buddha was not an intermediary conveying the messages of a Supreme Being, His teachings being based entirely on what was discovered by the exploration of His mind and hence becomes unique among religious leaders. One can say that the Buddha did just the opposite of what scientists do; they turn the searchlight outwards whereas the Buddha turned the searchlight inwards. He completely changed our way of thinking by placing conviction over blind belief or faith and could therefore be credited for having laid the foundation for scientific thinking.

In the Satmag article titled “More than a doctrinal problem: The Buddha and his stepmother” (The Island, 25 June), Uditha Devapriya questions whether the Buddha was ambivalent on some issues like ordination of women, consent for ordination and caste system. What he explores extensively is ordination of women and concludes his piece with the following:

“For the first and probably only time in his life, the Buddha is admitting to a theoretical lapse without really admitting to it. Perhaps to make up for his shortfall, the Buddha justifies his earlier position by attributing the decline of Buddhism – from a millennium to half a millennium – to the very gender he admits to the order. Even if that is not, according Narada Thera, a “wholesale condemnation of women”, we must admit that between the Buddha’s rejection of Gotami’s request, his acceptance after Ananda’s intervention, and his sober prognosis following his acceptance, there was an intellectual leap. I believe this issue needs to be investigated, more deeply”.

I am in total agreement that a deep investigation is fully warranted but wish to point out that in investigating this issue, as well as other instances of probable ambivalence, we need to take into consideration three main factors. The first, of course, is the accuracy of the descriptions. Though some consider the written word to be superior to the ‘oral-tradition’, we are well aware of the problem of writers’ bias. It is not that writers distort purposely but human nature dictates that it is nigh impossible for a writer to be non-judgemental. We convey ‘facts’ according to our perceptions. In fact, the best example is the analysis of this issue by the much-respected Buddhist scholar, Venerable Narada whose comment, which follows, would be considered very sexist indeed from today’s perspective:

“In making these comments, which may not generally be very palatable to womankind, the Buddha was not in any way making a wholesale condemnation of women but was only reckoning with the weaknesses of their sex.” (Venerable Narada Thera, “The Buddha and His Teachings”, Fourth Edition, 1988, Chapter 9, Page 156).

The second factor is that instead of putting into perspective the prevailing conditions when the problems arose, we make judgements based on our present standards. The powerful tool ‘Retrospectscope’ is useless without context. Perhaps, had he been alive today, Ven. Narada would have rephrased his comments, as he would have realised that ‘weakness of women’ is an outmoded concept in our world of equality!

The third, and the most important, consideration is our concept of who the Buddha was, which seems to vary a lot depending on one’s faith and beliefs. Unfortunately, based on many stories built around the Buddha we have ‘falsely elevated’ an extraordinary human being to that of a superhuman. The birth of Prince Siddhartha itself is an unbelievable story. There is no recorded human being who walked at birth even though many animals do so. Most biographies of the Buddha repeat the hardly believable, traditional embellishments which make most of us imagine a Buddha far removed from reality.

My concept of the Buddha is an exceptionally intelligent and compassionate human being who, noticing the all-pervasive sense of dissatisfaction around (Dukkha), pondered over to find the root causes as well as a solution to this problem. After a prolonged journey of experimentation and thought, the Buddha found the way for ultimate detachment (Nibbana). As He worked this out all this by himself, the Buddha was deemed to be Sarvajna; all-knowing or omniscient. Rather than considering this to mean that the Buddha knew all that needed to be known, we tend to go on the literal meaning, which implies that the Buddha should have the final word in everything. He lived a relatively simple life and walked, very likely barefoot, around large parts of India passing on his message.

Rather than acting as an all-knowing dictator, the Buddha was a problem solver who made decisions and found solutions as problems arose, often taking other’s views too into consideration. Among the many examples, one that stands out is what happened after the ordination of Rahula, His son who came behind seeking inheritance at the behest of the mother. When King Suddhodana pointed out that the ordination took place without informing the mother, the Buddha did not say “Oh! King, you may be my father but I am the Sarvajna Buddha and know what is right”. Instead, He agreed and laid down the rules for parental consent for ordination. The entire Vinaya Pitaka is based on rules formulated following incidents of inappropriate behaviour by Bhikkhus; they were applied henceforth, the Buddha demonstrating that rules should not be applied retrospectively, long before lawyers adopted the concept of retro-active legislation.

The Buddha’s world was a male-dominated one where discrimination on the basis of caste was the norm. I cannot find any ambivalence in Buddha’s attitude to caste as he categorically stated that it is not birth but actions that determine whether one is a Brahmin or an untouchable. His Sasana was open to all though, regrettably and paradoxically, Sri Lanka which claims to be the protector of Theravada Buddhism still has a caste-based Nikaya system! Therefore, I find the following statement by Uditha Devapriya puzzling:

“Even on the thorny issue of caste, he didn’t adopt a straightforward position: while he did condemn Brahmin caste structures, he also added that “by deed is one born a Brahmin”, thereby distancing himself from the kind of political critique of caste pioneered by, inter alia, Ambedkar.” He seems to have misinterpreted ‘Kammana hoti Brahmano’ which means “by deed one becomes a Brahmin”.

I have grave doubts regarding the accuracy of what is written about the ordination of women. Considering that a monk of this era like Venerable Narada was sexist in his comments, it is no surprise if male chroniclers of yesteryear wrote their own interpretations of the story with their ‘women are inferior’ attitude! However, it is very likely that the Buddha may have initially had some reluctance considering the social milieu of the day. In any case, ordination of women by the Buddha has to be considered a revolutionary act, considering that the Catholic Church still does not ordinate women as priests and the Anglican Church allowed only two millennia later! It was a great surprise that some prominent women too objected to the Church of England ordaining women and when this happened in 1994, a prominent lady politician and a duchess, married to a cousin of Queen Elizabeth, left the Church of England to become Catholic!

However, to state that Venerable Ananda had to remind the Buddha that Mahaprajapati Gothami suckled Him is a great insult to the Buddha. What happened to the Buddha being Sarvajna? It is said that the Buddha stipulated eight conditions, the first being that a Bhikkhuni with even hundred years of higher ordination should worship and serve a Bhikkhu who had just got higher ordination. Does this not reflect male chauvinism? It is very likely the Buddha stipulated conditions, as protection needed to be afforded to women, but it is more likely that the conditions mentioned are what the Bhikkhus chroniclers wished than what the Buddha stipulated.

The most absurd is the supposed to be declaration by the Buddha that by this action the duration of His Sasana would be halved; from a thousand to five hundred years. As the Sasana has lasted over two thousand five hundred years already, in spite of distortions by many well-meaning followers, one has to ask the question ‘Why did the Buddha get it so wrong?’

Poor Venerable Ananda! After having served his cousin, neglecting his own spiritual advancement, all he was got was blame during the first Sangayana. He was blamed for not requesting the Buddha to live much longer when the opportunity arose which, again, seems to be an attempt to make the Buddha superhuman. Though Venerable Ananda was accused of shortening the lifespan of the Sasana by facilitating the ordination of women, perhaps, it worked the other way as the Sasana has lasted far beyond the Buddha’s expectations! That is, if these stories are believed to be rue. Anyway, looking at the attendances in Viharas, meditation sessions and other religious activities, it is pretty obvious that Upsikas contribute far more to the continuation of Buddha Sasana.

It is very likely that the apparent ambivalence of the Buddha on some issues is more apparent, than real, due to the many factors outlined.

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Opinion

‘Democratic’ impasse and the need for secular action

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Today, our democracy is showing its feeblest self from the point of view of the masses. The whole society writhes under the jackboot of oppression, but our democracy, which has been twisted beyond recognition by the rulers to further their own interests, has no easy way out; at least, it doesn’t seem to have any, which is why a whole nation is made to tolerate appalling grief.

It is clear that our democracy is a system that has been manipulated to favour the corrupt and the vulgar, not to favour the masses that need it most. Or, is it that democracy has nothing to do with maintaining social justice and that it is just a concept to be discussed by students of politics? Incidentally, how about religion? What’s its role? To moralise or help get rid of colossal injustice in society? If it is for moralizing, it has pathetically failed in that it hasn’t and will never moralise those who need it most: the power-hungry few, who have brought misery to the entire nation misusing the power vested in them by an ingenuous and devout people.

What moralising do the battered majority need? Perhaps, they don’t need any, because they are not the ones who have been greedy and unscrupulous beyond belief; they are not the ones who have robbed the country for wallowing in unearned luxury, which is not recommended by any religion. They are not the ones who have denied the due share of the country’s assets to its people. It’s the uncouth few at the top – to borrow a line from Joseph Stiglitz, written about political czars of another territory in 1970s – who, “snapped up expensive property and went on grand shopping sprees provide one of the more ostentatious examples of what not to do with one’s newfound wealth”, that need religious tuition urgently.

This is perhaps why, today, the clerics of every conviction, who used to vainly lecture politicians on good governance and shower blessings on them, have now decided to stand with people to help oust them to rid the country of prolonged injustice. We don’t know whether the good priests are still engaged in their respective rituals in the hope of salvaging the country from ruin, but some of them are certainly relying on secular action and joining the crowds to save those who are deprived, humiliated and insulted. Today, there is a noticeable absence of religious rituals publicly organised at times of distress. The Corona epidemic has sufficiently shown that natural or manufactured disasters do not respect supernatural powers, no matter how long people have believed in them. The present calamity has removed all sorts of ‘spiritual’ scales from the eyes of the masses and the priests seem to be willing to join them in their march.

By the way, this is not to say that commoners are lily-white angels descended from heaven. The masses are not all that innocent and sinless, but their wrongs don’t have the potential of bringing down the entire edifice of society. In fact, the common people, and also, the so-called leaders, are trapped in a sinister system that has for long brought about the worst in people. And, there are no prizes for guessing whose ‘sins’ have been more destructive and more easily swept under the carpet. Yet, it is the ‘criminals’ among the hoi polloi that are regularly branded and disparaged by society and punished by the law every so often. The sharks are quite versatile in manipulation and know how to escape the net and even drape themselves in religious flags and earn encomiums from the leading priests.

Today, the slow strangulation of life has made it clear to everybody the grand ride our leaders have taken us for. We see them bearing their teeth behind their religious covers. It is heartening that at least some of our priests have come out of their customary role of moralising and showing carrots in afterlife; instead they are helping the people to wield the remaining democratic sticks to win their rights and dignity in ‘this’ life we all have to live and cannot get away till the end.

Susantha Hewa

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