Emeritus Prof. Asanga Tilakaratne: An outstanding luminary | Sunday Observer

Emeritus Prof. Asanga Tilakaratne: An outstanding luminary

6 September, 2020

As a senior colleague in the field of Buddhist Studies I have observed with much appreciation the progress of Prof. Asanga Tilakaratne’s career for the past forty years.  Two years after his graduation he obtained the East-West Centre Fellowship awarded by the East-West Centre Honolulu Hawaii to outstanding graduate students from Asia and the Pacific for studies at the University of Hawaii.   

Throughout his academic career he has been a recipient of numerous awards and distinctions.

Tillakaratne belongs to the contemporary line of Sri Lankan academics whose excellence in the area of Buddhist Studies was a consequence of a systematic combination and integration of expertise in Oriental and Occidental learning traditions.  

Although Tilakaratne began his academic career acquiring foundational knowledge in Oriental languages such as Pali and Sanskrit through his Tripitakavedi studies at the Buddhasravaka Bhikhsu University, Anuradhapura, he later focused attention beyond mere language learning to the wider and intellectually more stimulating area of philosophy. There is no doubt that his roots for future engagement in more profound academic research, was strengthened by the Prācīna Pandita examination he completed as early as 1975 with Pali, Sanskrit and Sinhala as the principal subjects.

He completed his Master of Arts Degree in Western Philosophy at the University of Hawaii in 1986. This was followed by a period of rigourous engagement in research in the area of Comparative Philosophy for six years at the University of Hawaii which enabled him to earn the Doctor of Philosophy Degree in 1992.  His thesis topic for the Doctoral degree was Transcendence, Ineffability and Nirvana: An Analysis of the Relation between Religious Experience and Language According to Early Buddhism. 

    In his thesis he challenged a widespread mistaken assumption about the concept of Buddhist Nirvana.  Most scholars, particularly of the Western world have attempted to interpret Buddhist Nirvana as conceptually indistinguishable from the ultimate goal of the Judeo Christian traditions or the theistic, mystical, idealistic, or monistic traditions of Indian Philosophy.   Tilakaratne has to his credit a considerable number of published books authored solely by him or in conjunction with other scholars both in Sinhala and English, of which his own work Nirvana and Ineffability: A Study of the Buddhist Theory of Reality and Language which was based on his Doctoral thesis, published in 1993 is outstanding.

Much earlier, in 1979 he won the State Literary Award for the best Sinhala publication under the category of Buddhism for his Minis Getalu Pilibanda Bauddha Vigrahaya (An Analysis of Human Problems from a Buddhist Perspective). His 2001 publication in Sinhala, Sunyatavadayehi Darsanaya ha caranaya (Theory and Practice of Emptiness) won the State literary award for the best publication in the category of philosophy for 2001.

He has either been the editor or co-editor of nearly sixteen other scholarly publications.  He has also made valuable contributions by way of translation of works of other distinguished scholars from English to Sinhala and vice versa. The research papers he has published in English in reputed journals run into nearly ninety. 

Despite the fact that he derives his inspiration for all his writing from his deep commitment to fundamental principles of Buddhist thought, he has not failed to exhibit his spirit of tolerance and understanding concerning other ideological standpoints. He has taken precaution to avoid being open to sectarian bias and dogmatism. The contributions that Tilakaratne has made to disseminate knowledge in the sphere of Buddhist studies is tremendous. In October 2019, being the keynote speaker  at an international research conference organised by the Faculty of Finance and Management of the University of Colombo he delivered a lecture on ‘Need for Paradigm Shift: A Metta-Based Approach to Business Management’.  

Tilakaratne has had an illustrious career as a University teacher.  He  taught undergraduates of the University of Hawaii subjects such as Buddhist Philosophy, Western Philosophy, and Logic and Critical Thinking while he was enrolled there as a Doctoral student in 1986.  From 1989 to July 1992 Asanga had taught undergraduate courses in the Philosophy and Religion Departments of the University of Hawaii and the Chaminade University of Hawaii.  He joined the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies as a Senior Lecturer and served continuously from July 1992 except the period from September 1999 to September 2000.He had also served intermittently as visiting lecturer at the University of Ruhuna, the University of Peradeniya, and the University of Colombo.  He finally joined the University of Colombo as Professor of Pali and Buddhist Studies.

There is much to say about Asanga’s social contributions.  He has proved himself to be an efficient administrator, participant member in various Committees and academic and administrative bodies in the university systems of Sri Lanka and abroad.

I sincerely wish that he will be blessed with long life and unfailing energy to continue his academic and other services to the community.

The writer is Emeritus Prof. of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Peradeniya.