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DateLine Sunday, 23 September 2007

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Epistemological reflections of the Buddha

A sourcebook of Early Buddhist Philosophy
Author:- David J. Kalupahana
Published by Buddhist Cultural Centre, Nedimale
Reviewed by Padma Edirisinghe

Randomly going through a welter of essays on our British governors for use in a series of articles on them in a weekly newspaper, the reviewer came across an interesting speech made by Sir Robert Chalmers, Governor (1912 - 1916).

He focuses on the fact that this island is the most suitable for the advancement of Buddhist and Pali studies due to its long tradition of pre-eminence in such scholarly enterprise.

A Pali and Buddhist scholar himself (even before his advent to Sri Lanka in his role as governor), he exults before an audience comprising mostly students of Maligakande Pirivena.

"It was here in Ceylon that just 2000 years ago Sinhala scholars first committed to writing the text of the Canon and Commentary.... The rocky gorge of Aluvihara was the scene of fruitful labours of seven hundred bhikkus, labours that mark an epoch in the history of scholarship of the world".

The governor goes on to lament that Ceylon has neglected this role of late, and Siam (Thailand) has overtaken her and goes on to give details of their work done in this area.

By a strange quirk of Samsara this governor who was the most interested British governor in Buddhism and Pali studies was recalled for having persecuted Sinhala Buddhist leaders during the 1915 Martial Riots, a period that coincided with the Emergence of the Temperance Movement too.

Digging into those details will take us along a side track and we should get back to the main track aligned to the topic. That wish articulated by Chalmers is now getting fulfilled by various institutions that have cropped up in the island despite being besieged by many an unfortunate drama. Among such institutions the Nedimale Buddhist Cultural Centre sited by Anderson Road linking Nugegoda and Dehiwala looms large.

Its indefatigable director, Ven. Vimalajothi thera who hails from the picturesque seaside village of Kirama of the deep South today runs what can almost be called the largest repository of books on Theravada Buddhism.

The Centre acts as an agent of publications too among which we today focus attention on "A sourcebook of early Buddhist philosophy" by David J. Kalupahana, an eminent scholar working on the staff of the University of Hawaii.

It is a voluminous text of 583 pages (bound in hard cover) and dedicated to our Hon. Speaker, Mr. W.J.M. Lokubandara for the interest he has exhibited in its production. The author in his preface states that the idea of compiling a sourcebook on Buddhist philosophy occurred to him after joining the aforesaid University in 1972. But this is certainly not his maiden work on Buddhism.

Inspired and propelled by material collected earlier of his works as "A history of Buddhist philosophy", "Continuities and discontinuities", "Buddha's philosophy of language" he had gone ahead with the new text despite many setbacks. A major loss had been the death of professor Charles Moore, the co-author of "A source Book on Indian philosophy" who had encouraged him in the venture.

The author had then gone on to consult Miss. Horner then President of the Pali Society of London about the possibility of utilizing translations of the Society and that led to the birth of the first part of the source book.

However later Sanskrit works as Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamaka - Karika, Maitrya's Madhyantavibhaga and Vasubandhu's Vijnapatimatratasiddhi too have been utilized. The vast labour that has gone as background work for this gigantic enterprise thus transpires.

Going on to the content of this text, four of the longest discourses are here included ie. Brahmajala, Sammannaphala, Maha-Saccaka and Ariyapariyesana. They contain very important material relating to Buddha's epistemological and oral reflections along with the historical background leading to such reflections.

Brahmajala Sutta can be understood more by the general reader once the term, Discourse on Brahma's Net is used. It revolves around the criticism of the Buddha by a Brahmin named Suppiya and praise by Brahmadatta an Buddha's replies to the criticisms and reaction to praise. But this is simplifying facts too far. One not only gets and insight into Buddha's moral philosophy but it affords a re-examination of the entire Indian philosophical tradition in this Sutta.

The next Sutta, Sammannaphala sutta places Buddha's epistemological reflections in the background of the teachings of six members who belonged to the non-Brahmanical reclusive tradition. This discourse is said to be one of the earliest to reveal these teachings which include those of the skeptic Sanjaya and Jaina Mahavira.

Next comes the Maha Saccaka Sutta that reveals the extreme form of ascetism tantamount to self-mortification followed by some Indian ascetics. Buddha too before His enlightenment experiments with some of these, only to give them up.

The Ariyapariyesana Sutta or the Discourse on the Noble Quest that comes last is the most significant where Buddha explains the purpose of His renunciation and goes on to outline His own discovery.

The diverse aspects concentrated on in the presentation of these can be gauged by the titles of the chapters ie. Background (8-110), Knowledge (111-180), Metaphysics (181-251), Karma and morals (252-335), Society and politics (336-385), language and freedom (386-430). These are followed by Translation of technical terms, select bibliography, Index of discourses and Index (559-575).

The discourses are listed in the order presented in the text. The English translation is followed by its Pali form that is presented in parenthesis along with specific reference in the Pali Nikayas.

The language used is lucid and clear while the content in many instances remains abstruse in keeping with the metaphysical teachings of Buddha.

Anyway the book is a MUST for every student of Buddhism and all those interested in this great faith. It should adorn the shelves of all major libraries.


Rendezvous

He sliced out a piece of himself and slapped it down on the desk in front of me...:

There is very little space between the two walls and the heavy fibre glass door. He holds the door open with one hand while clutching a pile of books with the other and says "Creep under my arm while I keep it open".


Dr. Tissa Abeysekera

I do just that, barely brushing against him as I step into an office room at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies at four in the evening on a Monday, not so long ago. We are assured we would be left in peace for at least one hour. This is the closest I get to Dr. Tissa Abeysekera, visibly...but spiritually...that's a different story altogether.

As we face each other across a desk on which I place his latest book "Roots, Reflections and Reminiscences, Dr. Abeysekara gives me his trademark smile - bound to generate an equally wide grin from whoever happens to be its recipient ahm... depending on the situation. I dare not smile back.

The situation is too serious. I must get him to talk about things he has not already revealed in "Roots, Reflections and Reminiscences".

The past. Could he elaborate on the "split-social background" of his childhood. "I was born into an affluent family and taught to read and write in English" begins Dr. Abeysekara.

English was spoken predominantly at home, and in his early childhood he grew up among the kind of people who dressed for dinner, and were filled with a lot of etiquette. His father had wanted to turn him into a pukka sahib , when, in an almost Charles Dickensian like twist of fate, his life changes from one of "cocooned comfort" to a "world of deprivation".

"The servants went, the cars went, the house became smaller" and as it got smaller his world grew bigger. But, he found himself an outsider in this "bigger" world where speaking in English was an embarrassment.

This was a world where you drank tea by pouring it onto a saucer, where you walked around barefooted and where everyone spoke in 100 per cent Sinhala. He had to "disown the English language. Keep it under wraps , sometimes even mispronouncing English words in order to survive. "I became a schizophrenic by the age of ten".

When he was eleven he was sent to the Windsor College, his first school, where he was made to sit with the girls because the teachers felt, as he was only eleven years old, the girls were safe around him.

By the time he reached thirteen he could gain admittance to a proper school and having missed being in the primary classes, had found himself a stranger once more in another strange world. Wanting to prove to himself and the class bullies that he "could do it" he had passed his GSC exams with flying colours.

Then, failed the University entrance exam "gloriously". By this time he had lost total interest in text books and begun to make excursions into taboo land; begun to read Kafka and do everything a boy of his age was not supposed to do. He pauses and grins at me.

It's up to me and you to guess what he means by this last statement. He had sat for the exam a second time and this time too, "failed wilfully". "I am a high-school drop out"! He says with a tinge of justifiable pride in his voice.

Having dropped everything and run away to Kandy, breaking his father's heart and making his mother wait for him to come home, he believes it was Dr. Lester James Peiris who finally brought him back into focus. "Almost exactly on the day I met him my vagrant life came to a stop".

He was twenty years old and still lived with his parents in a two bedroom house in Egodawatte. "Even though my parents gave me food and lodging I was not a burden on them. I earned the money for the things I needed".

He remembers how he read late into the night, in his little room at Egodawatte, and how he had made friends with other vagrants like G.W Surendra and Sugathapala de Silva, whom he calls "vagrants of a higher level".

Together they had got drunk, watched films, talked and argued till dawn, and shifted "gears to a higher level". This had been a wonderful time to be alive with "no war", the issues of ethnicity unknown, you could roam the streets at any time of the night with no hindrance.

Today, looking back, Dr. Abeysekara says "the narrative of my life is clear to me now". Having braced many a stormy sea, he has finally reached calm waters.

Our time together is up. He must leave now to conduct a lecture on Ingmar Bergman. His final words make me wish I had another hour with him, or two or three or till eternity. He says "Even when I write in English I write like a Sinhalese".

Could he elaborate please? But he is gone before I can phrase the question. Perhaps there should be a sequel to this interview, but then again, sequels are never equals. So, like Viragaya, let this rendezvous with one of the most eminent self-taught scholars of our time, stand alone because anybody searching for the answer will find it in "Roots, Reflections and Reminiscences" especially if they read the final paragraph on page 67.

Here it is. He sliced out a piece of himself and slapped it down on the desk in front of me. I tried to put it on paper, tried to describe it in a way that you would see and touch and feel I hope I have succeeded.

aditha@sundayobserver.lk


Men do not shape destiny"

When Fidel Castro said "Men do not shape destiny. Destiny produces the man for the hour" he might well have been talking about himself.

The fact becomes evident to anyone going though the pages of Jayatilleke de Silva's biography of the leader who has ruled Cuba for over forty years and who remains one of the world's most complex rulers.

The book describes Castro's life and career including his childhood, family, education and political endeavours. The opening pages provide an intriguing account of his early years where he spent his time playing with Haitian children.

His father Angel Castro, worked as a day labourer on a sugar plantation, but later became a property owner and a successful planter, who despite his wealth remained frugal. Castro's leadership of the revolution in 1959 leads him to political power.

Though critics have predicted his fall for decades he has remained the uncontested leader, outlasting no fewer than nine American presidents all of whom had tried to get rid of him.

Written in an engagingly simple style the slim volume includes photos of Castro during different stages of his life. Ideal for student research assignments, Senpathi Fidel is bound to fill the gap in reference collections for well written biographies that serve both as enjoyable reading and as authoritative research tools.


Opening closed doors

Brandon Ingram exposes the horrors of child prostitution through The Fairy Dance:



Brandon

A sensitive issue often swept under the carpet is the theme of young twenty two year old Brandon Ingram's debut novel titled The Fairy Dance.

The book launched last Friday at the Barefoot Gallery is the story of two children, a boy and a girl caught in the midst of the harsh, cruel game of survival, in which their parents sell them to the highest bidder.

Trapped and with no escape from the ugly claws of child prostitution they could only cry to the heavens for help. Brandon Ingram explores the lives of the children with the objective of exposing a shocking reality that is often conveniently forgotten. Through a story based on real facts the writer courageously opens doors that normally would have been shut in society.

A well-known singer, actor, poet and creative writer working in an advertising agency, Ingram informs us that he started on his novel last year after having gathered extensive information on the subject whilst working on a social responsibility campaign on child sex tourism in 2005.

"The problem is concentrated in the coastal area and 80 per cent of the boys are affected. It's a vicious cycle of how children get involved. I haven't sugar coated my style of writing.

It's raw and real and I hope it reaches out to parents who need a jolt into knowing the sad truth of the fates of these children who are deprived of a normal happy life," comments Brandon Ingram. The book containing 200 pages has been published by the Perera Hussein Publishing House.

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