By Laksiri Fernando –
I was delighted to know Professor Carlo Fonseka’s popular writings are now published in one volume under the title “Essays of a Lifetime” (Godage, 2016). I came to know it through Kumar David’s succinct and witty review in the ‘Sunday Island’ and ‘Colombo Telegraph.’ Although I have not seen the book yet, I believe I am familiar with many of the articles as they were published individually before. My purpose however is not exactly to review them but to reminisce my recollections and encounters with him for whatever they are worth.
It is true that Carlo didn’t walk on fire, except perhaps once or twice, but he had many volunteers to do so in refutation of the supernatural power behind ‘fire-walking.’ Many of us of the ‘generation of 1960s’ used to admire Carlo along with Dr Abraham T. Kovoor for their rationalist views on many matters, most popular being on religious superstitions. These were the influences, apart from my own ‘Mahappa,’ who became a Buddhist in 1955, that drew me away from the Church for good. Therefore, Carlo was one culprit for my deviations.
I vividly recollect the picture of a young man hanging on hooks with a microphone in hand flanked by Carlo and Kovoor. Carlo being young, handsome and charismatic looking at that time, caught our attention most. This must have been late 1960s or early ‘70s. They were proving there was nothing supernatural about ritualistic hanging from hooks or fire-walking in religious festivals, Hindu or quasi Buddhist.
Those days, I believe, he was not yet drawn to left politics or Sama Samaja Party. Otherwise I could have met him as a ‘comrade,’ yet on the opposite or ‘revolutionary’ side.
I first met Carlo ‘man to man’ a long time after, when he came for a public lecture on ‘the mind,’ at the University of Peradeniya, somewhere in late 1970s. It was held at the Science Faculty auditorium. He brought a person, Sarlis, if I remember correct, a school teacher, who had exceptional brain capacity, as a demonstration tool. His argument was that the ‘mind’ is nothing but a product or functioning of the brain.
Towards the end of his lecture, Carlo introduced Sarlis and showed that as soon as you give a date (month and year), he could reveal the day of the week, after a quick mental calculation. There were calendars available to verify. Sarlis was spot on. After several rounds of testing by the audience, Professor Maheswaran from Mathematics, who was my neighbour at Upper Hantana at that time gave the current date as the question. It was a Friday. But Sarlis was doing his mental calculation, and the audience started giggling. He gave a wrong answer and the audience was overwhelmed by the giggle. He failed again and again without even a probability luck.
Carlo quickly came to Sarlis’ rescue. Carlo also took the opportunity to deliver another discourse on the brain. Sometime thereafter, Carlo also came to our Faculty of Arts and delivered some useful lectures to the students on Science.
I next met a devastated Carlo when he came for a conference in Oslo somewhere in 1989 during his self-exile in Helsinki. That time I was working for the World University Service in Geneva. Some may not know, or have forgotten, that Carlo had to flee the country immediately after the assassination of his treasured nephew, Vijaya Kumaranatunga, in February 1988, because of death threats to him as well. I understand that Carlo delivered an emotional speech at Kumaranatunga’s funeral.
Those were some dark days in Sri Lanka not dissimilar to the mayhem that the LTTE created in the country until 2009. Therefore, Carlo’s consistent averse to any kind of violence, including perhaps a ‘violent revolution’ is also experiential. He has always been a kind, peaceful and a thoughtful person.
During this period, even before, and after, Carlo was quite involved in political matters. He can be considered an unrepentant Socialist, mostly associated with the LSSP. I believe I am not wrong in recollecting ‘his story’ about how he came in contact with NM (Perera) who was ‘standing on his head’ (as a physical exercise!) next door, and became attracted to the policies of the LSSP through his conversations with NM.
Perhaps Carlo’s orientation towards socialism was ingrained in his personality, and the scientific methodology that he expounded. He has also noted his disagreements with socialism or Marxism constructively. This may be the same attraction drew him towards ‘Scientific Buddhism,’ and not ‘Sinhala Buddhism.’ He has written much on these subjects.
I came to know him closer during my brief stint as the director of the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI), where he was a board member, and a regular speaker at many seminars and workshops. By this time, he had regained his energy and enthusiasm. He had never lost his reasoning and rationality, I believe.
There were new aspects that I came to know about Carlo during this period. When there was a felicitation for W. D. Ameradeva at SLFI in 1995, I had the happy occasion to sing with him and others, Ameradeva songs. Apart from his flavour for music, song and art, Carlo also had a penchant for the media, TV and radio. I had occasion to participate at a particular radio program he conducted on ‘philosophy and science’ in Sinhala at the SLBC. We were discussing political philosophy, liberalism to socialism, useful for the listeners.
It was during this period that I came to know clearly about his respect and knowledge about Buddhism and its scientific relevance. His expositions on ‘Kalama Sutta’ (among others) were quite revealing in this respect. During the last several decades, there had been numerous studies abroad emphasising the scientific relevance of Buddhism or some of the Buddhist teachings.
If there is anyone in Sri Lanka who could be considered pioneered this venture, amongst the Scientists, that is undoubtedly Professor Carlo Fonseka.
His recent essay on “Buddhism and Empiricism” is another landmark in this venture giving due recognition to the studies of Professors K. N. Jayatilleke, D. J. Kalupahana and Asanga Tilakaratne from other fields. I must add that Dr Upul Wijayawardhana also has contributed much to our knowledge in recent times on this subject highlighting some failures of ‘nominal’ or ‘popular’ Buddhism.
My closest encounters with Carlo was at the National Centre for Advanced Studies for Humanities and Social Sciences (NCAS), at Sukhastan Gardens, sitting next to each other almost every month at board meetings for around two years (2007-2009), he as the Chairperson and me as the Director.
After few opening remarks, he used to allow me to ‘run the show’ while attentively (or sleepily) listening to sometimes boring discussions. So much so I tempted to oust him, quite politely though, during a necessary overhauling of the NCAS Ordinance. Then I became both the Director and the Chairperson! I hope he didn’t have any grumble on this matter.
Carlo didn’t come to NCAS only for the board meetings. As also a member of the University Grants Commission (UGC), he used to shuttle between the UGC and the NCAS. There were many other institutions he was involved in. When he came, he always had a new book in hand. He always had a new point to discuss, most of the time with amusement. Sometimes we could have a good laugh at quite ‘higher-ups’ in politics and authority.
Reflecting back on his first public lecture I heard on ‘the mind’ at Peradeniya in late 1970s, and also his later writings directly and indirectly on the subject, I am not sure whether he considers the ‘mind’ merely as “brain-matter in action” as Professor Kumar David has phrased it (Sunday Island and Colombo Telegraph, 20 March 2016).
It could be, and nothing wrong in that to ‘my knowledge or experience,’ however given that this intense brain action when accumulated produces our ‘consciousness,’ ‘conscience’ and ‘ideas’ which are themselves forces in life and then in society. If he were my ‘chairperson,’ I could have asked him directly, but from a distance of nearly 9,000 km now it is not possible.
It is better Carlo clarifies this matter sooner than later.