15 June, 2024


A Buddhist Requiem For Stanley Tambiah

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Final answers are never possible in post conflict societies. What is possible is to dig in to the past and to dig in to the truth. These truths when unearthed, reveal different perspectives. At the end, if we are lucky, we find common ground that produces reconciliation and harmony. That is precisely what Social Anthropologist Sarath Amunugama did when he offered a Buddhist requiem for his teacher, fellow researcher and friend Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah.

In 1992 Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah authored a tome ‘Buddhism betrayed?’ It was immediately banned in Sri Lanka. Overnight, he was the most reviled academic in Buddhist Sinhala society. It was not the substance of the book that created the outcry. The cover showed Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha thero, then in his vibrant forties gesturing with a clenched fist. It did convey the persona of the militant monk – the anti-thesis of the ascetic recluse – the orthodox perception of the Buddhist clergy. But that was neither the purpose nor the intent.

Professor Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah

Professor Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah

Sixteen years earlier he wrote ‘World Conqueror and World Renouncer; A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand. It was essentially a study of the institutions of Church and State of the Indian subcontinent and south East Asia – a primer on the functioning of Buddhist and Hindu societies.

Three years after the convulsion of 1983 he wrote “Sri Lanka – Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy.”

The 1992 book with its controversial cover was an earnest effort to understand and explain the behavior of a people who claim to have cherished and nurtured the essentially pacifist doctrine of Theravada Buddhism for 2500 years and more.

On Monday 30th November, at the ICES auditorium two of his colleagues Gananath Obeyesekere and Sarath Amunugama together with John D Rogers Historian and Director of the American Institute of Sri Lankan studies celebrated his life and work. Tissa Jayatilaka Executive Director US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission moderated.

I attended the event not with the intention of either commenting on or reporting of its proceedings. Hence I have no notes to guide me in this missive. The delightfully erudite reminiscences of Gananath Obeyesekere was followed by an eloquently evocative tribute by Sarath Amunugama. This is not about what they said. This is about the ameliorating sense that I felt so intensely when listening to the two colleagues of Stanley Tambiah. Despite their academic aloofness they were defending a knight, unjustly wounded.

‘Buddhism betrayed? – was an interrogative title. Stanley Tambiah had deep insights in to Theravada Buddhism and its practices. His discourse was not on Buddhism. It was an effort to understand the kinetics of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and the role of the sangha. What Sarath Amunugama implied, I later discovered in archives. Would you believe it? A Sri Lankan newspaper editorial was captioned Buddhism betrayed. It was seven months before Stanley Tambiah passed away.

Sarth Tissa GananathOn 11th May 2014 the Sunday Times carried an editorial captioned ‘Buddhism betrayed by extreme monks’. The editor was justifiably condemning the mob violence unleashed on Muslims of Dharga Town and Beruwala. Expanding on the theme the editorial observed “It is the supreme irony of our time that, in claiming to defend Buddhism, a handful of monks with their hate speech and instigation to violence have managed to do quite the opposite.”

Gananath Obeyesekere made a passing reference to another preeminent Sri Lankan intellectual E F C Ludowyk. I digress. Professor Ludowyk authored a book ‘Foot print of the Buddha’. The preface explains that the book brought before the common reader “the Buddhist monuments of old Ceylon-a distinctive and valuable portion of the ancient and medieval world.”

The Ceylon Daily News of 29th November 1958 reports “The Mistry of Education has committed another monumental piece of folly by buying copies of Dr. E. F.C Ludowyk’s ‘Footprint of the Buddha’ at Rs.25 per copy, issuing them to government school libraries and then hastily withdrawing them. The book is a panegyric of Buddhist civilization of Ceylon. But, what the Ministry has found fault with belatedly is a single sentence in which the author says “A number of legends which belong to the history of Ceylon correspond to no actual fact; for instance the Buddha, as far as is known, never visited Ceylon.”

Evolving Buddhist Sinhalese Nationalist ideology presented a conundrum that Stanley Tambiah attempted to unravel by the rhetorical quiz ‘Buddhism betrayed’ with a question mark.
At the height of the controversy sixty one academics issued a statement in support of the beleaguered Scholar – a plea for tolerance. Prof. H. L. Seneviratne wrote an article “Tambiah Betrayed: Glimpses into a Forbidden Text”.

Sarath Amunugama put the matter to rest at the celebration of the life and work of Stanley Tambiah with a surprisingly touching gesture of striving for the sublime. He recited four stanzas. I recall only two.

Anicca vata sankhara,uppadavayadhammino.

Uppajjitva nirujjhanti tesam vupasamo sukho.

Impermanent alas are formations, subject to rise and fall.
Having arisen, they cease; their subsiding is bliss.

Unname udakam vattam yatha ninnam pavattati

evameva ito dinnam petanam upakappati.

Yatha varivaha pura paripurenti sagaram

evameva ito dinnam petanam upakappati.

Just as the water fallen on high ground flows to a lower level. 
Even so what is given from here accrues to the departed.
 Just as the full flowing rivers fill the ocean. Even so what is given from here accrues to the departed.

It made a difference. It was surprising. It was not the erudite sociologist. What surfaced therein was the distilled decency of the Sinhala Kandyan Buddhist ethos – which accentuated the cosmopolitan Kandyan society from the time of its last kings. Sarath Amunugama made the point that Gananatha Obeyesekere was a hard act to follow.

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Latest comments

  • 7

    Must admit than when you stop writing hate rants, you write very readable stuff !

    Kandy is the last bastion of true Buddhism but it is going fast with pretenders taking over the Maligawa.

    Above all else Buddhism is about rationality and good sense…it is not about radicalism or taking anything to the extreme.

    • 10

      Don Quixote

      “Above all else Buddhism is about rationality and good sense…it is not about radicalism or taking anything to the extreme.”

      Isn’t it another reason as to why we should liberate Buddhism from Sinhala/Buddhism?

  • 7

    The best of what Peradeniya was and what is yet lingering from its hey days. The heroes of my undergraduate days, at the Faculty of Veterinary a science, nestled near the railway station, surrounded on three sides by great men of the sciences and arts.

    O’ what we have lost, probably forever! Sarath Amunugama, the academic and scholar turned politician, what can you do to at least recapture Peradeniya’ dreams and halcyon days, in at least one university among the multitude we have now?

    Sarath Alwis, thanks for beautifully capturing the import of the moment, the greatness gone by and the damage done to the academic world by obnoxious politics.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 8

    “Buddhism Betrayed?” also alluded to the report of the Buddhism Commission that consisted of Sinhala Buddhist advocates. By calling their report The Betrayal of Buddhism, these authors accused the the British rulers of betraying Buddhism. In his interrogative title Professor Tambiah was asking, among other questions, who in fact betrayed Buddhism, the British rulers or rather the Sinhala Buddhists themselves.

  • 6

    Thanks for this fine piece Mr.Sarath De Alwis.

    Whether it be the beleaguered SriLankan Airlines or once beleaguered Prof:Stanley Tambiah you are on Terra Firma. I have also noticed your quotes from that Humorist G.K.Chesterton.
    With no offence or malice to Dr.Sarath Amunugama,I used to often wonder how he could have broken bread with MaRa.Would he have chanted raja bavatu dhammiko.
    Let the Rulers be Just!

  • 5

    Mr Sarath de Alwis
    Thank you for bringing this event to the attention of CT readers. Srilankans saw both evilness as well as benevolence between ethnic groups.

    However, we need to admit that our elite society failed to protect both communities from this destruction. I think leadership is important not only in political arena but also in religion.

    We are in a position to do the introspection while there is growing anarchy in the western world.

  • 3

    Possibly, the scars of 1983 were still too raw on the Sinhala-dominated government’s psyche, which made them hypersensitive to Prof. Tambiah’s book, and especially its cover pic, with the resultant banning of a book that could and would have evoked a very useful and critical self-examination by especially the Sinhala Buddhist intelligentsia?

  • 5

    Prof. Tambiah was not only a scholar but an excellent teacher.
    I recall and cite one instance.

    One day, my closest friend on Campus, Hemachandra Wijesooriya, reading Sociology Honours, said that a visiting American professor was going to address them: why didn’t I also sit in?

    Being free, I went along but didn’t understand anything that the man said. I first thought this was because my subject wasn’t sociology but, when I looked round the room, I noticed that none of the students was taking down notes.

    Tambiah realized that the lecture had been a waste of time for the students and, at the end of it, said something on the lines of: “I thank Prof XYZ for a very interesting and informative lecture. He first outlined his argument which was… Then he went on to” and so on.

    In that way, Tambiah gave the students a gist of the lecture in clear, well-structured, terms. The pens came out, and the students eagerly took down notes. Something of the hour had been saved. Tambiah’s aim was not to impress but to communicate.

    Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

  • 5

    Mr Sarath de Alwis

    Just to deviate a little from what you have written.

    Pardon me for being blunt, there is a section of academia that falls in love with pure academic conceptual esoterica which has no basis in practical reality.

    Shouldn’t the Sri Lankan intelligentsia be weaning the country away from religions?

    Shouldn’t we be heading towards a set of rules/ethics devoid of any religious/ideological connotations? A la John Rawls et al.

    Religions, in the main, have become refuges for people to avoid a honest day’s work.

    A set of rules without religious connotations will confine any conflicts/arguments to the set of rules/ethics themselves and not offer nooks and crannies for people to hide their other devious intentions.

    Thank you for answering my questions about the national airline. All kudos to you for not betraying your Marxist beliefs. Most of the rabid Marxists I used to know as a child ended up not in the Soviet Union or Cuba but of all places the good old US of A. Some in Las Vegas; the purest evolved end point of Marxism, I suppose! Such is life Mr Alwis, such is life.

  • 0

    It is fitting to remember SJT one the most intellectually eminent academics and an accomplished all rounder produced in Sri Lanka. Bensen

  • 1

    I happen to read this article today, 4th Dec. This day is significant as this morning we had a Buddhist religious function at Peradeniya to coincide with the Hindu religious function held in Jaffna for 31st day after demise of another Tamil associated with Peradeniya- late Professor Selvadurai Mahalingam. Perhaps less known are the contributions that he made to the Engineering Education in Sri Lanka in his simple way.

    I also happen to read the following article a few minutes ago.[Edited out]

  • 3

    I have the privilege to be in touch with a few who either belong to Prof S.J. Tambiah’s generation or who knew him. That the dying generous generation, which enjoyed the harmony of human feelings love, desire and fraternity, I would say, was forced to be away from their soil, is recent tragedy. My generation lost, sad to say, the values and worth taught by our culture and nature. My generation became victimized within a short of period of time by the poison of an excluding and exclusive identity, a narrow racist mindset.

    A friend of mine mentioned that Prof. Tambiah is one of those who personify the ideal of “the Jaffna man” that Tamils were supposed to aim at: plain (that is, simple) living and high thinking.It is pity that the interpretation of “the Jaffna man” as like as lots of other words and phrases in Sri Lanka (no need to mention them) is completely reversed.

    Hope shall die at last! My respect and thanks to Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere, Dr Sarath Amunugama and Mr. Tissa Jayatilak for this commomeration.

  • 0

    One must thank Mr Sarath de Alwis for giving this summary of the comments made at the commemoration Tambiah’s life and work.It is of particular value to those of us who couldn’t be there to participate.
    Perhaps,for the sake of completion, he could have mentioned the names of the charlatans who carried on a campaign against Tambiah and his work without even having read the book!

  • 0

    “The Jaffna man” (plain living and high thinking) was an ideal to be aimed at; approximated to; not realzed by many.

    But, nevertheless, it was there as a target – and a reproach to those who failed to live up to it.

    I wonder does the ideal still exist in Jaffna? – a Jaffna devastated by war and, ever since, under massive military (and para-military) occupation – and all the fear and corruption that that brings with it.


    • 1

      Not even the memory of it seems to remain in the place SJT came from. It would sound irrelevant to their minds. A critical mass of such people is needed to live and pass an ideal on- I have come to learn with sadness having volunteered to teach in Jaffna. Day-to-day survival supersedes the transmitting of a culture. Worst, those who knew it, in whose hands the ideal was placed for posterity left/or were forced to leave their vaterland. It takes years to make such ideals grow and stick in a society as I learn from the Educational Records of Jaffna Schools before SJT’s time.

      That idealism is now replaced by an unbaked. empty and non universal ideology put together by the war time’s self professed ‘Tamil Pundits’ who created a philosophy of their own via “their” media to suck up to their “god”.The young minds have imbibed it and have become less than quarter baked now.

      A strong person must be again placed at the head of Jaffna’s educational culture before its last vestiges are buried with the last of the witnessed-to generations.

  • 0

    Sarath Seneviratne.

    I just read your comment.I hope Prof:Mahas journey in Samsara will be short.

    Anyway,Prof:Mahalingam and Prof:Tambiah were two great pillars of Peradeniya.

    Will those old days ever return?
    Nostalgia is the word for that feeling!

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