By Mahendra De Silva –
It was really interesting to read Jagath Asoka’s article on “From Siddhartha Gautama to God” and the response given by Shyamon Jayasinghe for the same. However I thought that few misleading views appearing in Jagath’s article should not go unchallenged.
I appreciate Jagath’s elegant writing and his genuine interest to understand what is happening in our country. It is really great that although Jagath has been educated abroad and not living in Sri Lanka for a long time, he has not forgotten his roots. However when he attempts to provide his expertise on Buddhism, it would have been better if he had studied it well before expressing any interpretations or views on this subject. The basic understanding of Buddhist philosophy does not equip someone to offer interpretations on main concepts of Buddhism. Jagath has done exactly that when he tries to define Nirvana. He claims that Nirvana is a state of mind where you are not compelled by desire, fear, or social obligation, and when he plays Tennis or spends time with his Son, he obtains this state of mind. In this way all of us can attend Nirvana by engaging in activities where we enjoy most and totally engaged. He has explained Nirvana in a short and sweet manner where as Prince Siddhartha struggled many years and made many sacrifices to achieve it. It is true that his mind may be free of any desires.at the time playing tennis, but it is in a fully active state with plenty of sensations- actively thinking of next move in his game. The moment after the game his excitement will be over and comes back to his normal activities In contrast I believe that Nirvana is a calm and peaceful state of mind one get by the destruction of all feelings and sensations. It is a thoughtless state. States similar to that are achieved by experienced meditation practitioners by meditating for long hours. It is unwise to speculate and compare Nirvana state of mind with worldly things or pleasure creating activities. We human beings always live unconsciously with the belief that there is a “Self” within us. Due to this belief we are constantly bombarded with insecurity, anxiety, fear of ageing, sickness, death, separating from loved ones, encounters with the people whom we dislike and many more worries. Until we discover that “Self” within us is an illusion and not a real entity it is unlikely someone would achieve Nirvan state of mind.
In his article Jagath describe proudly the advancement in Science and Technology and the impact it would have on mankind. There are many who believe that soon Scientists would discover a medicine even to live for ever or avoid ageing and sickness completely. Further they think most of the issues in the world would be solved by advancement in technology. Examine the suicide rates drug addiction, youth unrest, depression and mental illness – all are increasing rapidly in highly developed countries where they have the state of the art technology and scientific discoveries in the world. What about the huge uncertainty we have due to environmental damage, disasters associate with climate change, expansion of nuclear warheads, and constant threat of wars in the world? Can Scientists provide solution for people to live at peace for ever? With the advancement of technology, people are being provided with more and more methods to maximise the pleasure and live longer. The pleasure is available in open market and people are craving to have more and more. Scientists would never be able to fulfil the increasing craving for pleasure by human beings. While those who have will never be satisfied, those who do not have means will develop hatred and anger towards others. These are the evils of western societies spreading fast everywhere in the world.
I was dismayed with Jagath’s condemnation of parents who try to teach basic Buddhist principals to their children. Buddha said in several discourses that providing Dharma knowledge is the greatest gift one could give. Buddha followed it by action by ordaining his only Son Rahuala as a priest. This would be very difficult to understand for ordinary people who always think the worldly pleasure is the real happiness. The difference in Buddha’s preaching is that Buddha considered all the worldly pleasures only as an illusion and a temporally state of mind which eventually end up in suffering. It is sad that most of the people look Buddhism through the practices exists in our part of the world and gets a negative view on everything happening in the country. It is true that Buddhist children are taught the basics of Buddhism from their childhood. They are being taught the importance of keeping 5 precepts and many more fundamentals of Buddhism when they are kids. One could argue that despite all the Buddhist teachings given to our kids from the time of birth why our country has become such a corrupt and violent state. I believe the reason for that situation is that we confine teaching of Buddhism only to theory and not in practice to cultivate the Buddhist ideals deeply in minds. Majority of the Buddhist priests in Sri Lanka give prominence to rituals, Buddha Puja’s, Bodhi Puja’s Katina Pinkama’s etc. People are given the view that if someone participates in these Puja’s that is the greatest good Karma one can collect They fail to provide people the most important message of Buddha that is purification of mind should be the forefront of every action. People are not advised on how best to practice morality and loving kindness in the society. In this regard I admire how Christian Missionaries went to poor African and Asian countries and did their best to uplift the standard living of the people and also to spread the word of God. It is true their ultimate intention was to spread the message of the God, which they believed would do well to everyone. They sacrificed their lives to do good things such as building schools and civilizing people. Buddhists in Sri Lanka condemns such missionaries and their work, but do not do anything to help their own people in remote villages who live in very much below the poverty line. Buddhists could be missionaries themselves spreading the message of peace given by Buddha and do a great service in uplifting the living standards of poor in many remote areas in Sri Lanka If there were Tamil speaking Buddhist missionaries in Sri Lanka there would have been many Tamil Buddhists in our country today. The hatred and suspicion between communities would have been greatly reduced. Leading Buddhist schools should have sent their students to remote villages for volunteering and helping people similar to the way Sarvodaya worked in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately we do not have such an established network to allow people to practice loving kindness in Sri Lanka. Therefore for majority of people, Buddhism is nothing more than giving alms giving to priests once in a way or going to temple and offering Puja’s. However the positive aspect of teaching Buddhism for kids is that anyone who learnt basics of Buddhism in their childhood could become interested in studying it deeply at a later stage of life. It is always better to teach the basics of all religions to kids at early stage. It will not in any way harm the kids or diminish the enjoyment as a kid.
Shyamon Jaysinghe in his response correctly suggested that Buddhism failed to take root in India and disappeared due to the rational rejection of the concept of God. Therefore with all the criticism of rituals and average person’s perception of Buddha as a God, we have to appreciate that it is only due to this fact that Buddhism is still prospering in most of the Asian Countries today. Buddhism as a philosophy is the most difficult to understand compared to other religions. It is said that Buddha himself was reluctant to preach it when he attend enlightenment. Then he looked for the wiser people who could understand his teachings. Buddha prescribed a step by step process to improve one’s wisdom to understand it. They are Seela-Morality, Samadhi-Concentration- Pragna-Wisdom. Wisdom is the tool to purify the mind and for ultimate liberation.
I agree to some extent with the views of Sharmini Serasinghe, regarding the distorted versions of Buddhism consisting of many rituals introduced to Buddhism from Hinduism. However in my view if a person is not matured to understand the Buddhism at least doing something which gives peace happiness and relief cannot be condemned. Most of the rituals practiced by ordinary people can be ignored to the extent it is harmless to the society. Further believing in an all-powerful entity would definitely would provide a great psychological relief when a weak person has to encounter a disaster in life. But it is unfortunate if someone waste his whole life doing these rituals and not going any further towards understanding essence of Buddhism. They spend their entire life with blind faith on Buddhism, or devotion (Sardha) only. They fail to realize that true happiness prescribed in Buddhism can be only obtained by purification of mind through the meditation. I agree with other writers on this subject that some of the Buddhist Priests who have mixed up nationalist tendencies and Buddhism are partly responsible to the situation in our country.
Finally if anyone wants to know more about Buddhism we have plenty of resources in internet now with more and more western philosophers studying Buddhism and discussing it in the web. You can do a google search to listen to Dr. Bhante Madawela Punnaji, Ajan Brahm and also many other scholars who have contributed greatly to the benefit of those who have a thirst to understand real Buddhism. Dr.Rick Hanson a Neuropsychologist at Wisconsin University who has done research not Buddhist philosophy and Neuroscience, has written some excellent books starting with “Buddha’s brain “ and recently “Hardwiring of Happiness”