By Sajeeva Samaranayake –
Theravada Man is an exploration of the way a human being subordinates his life to a religious ideal as understood by him. The ideal however remains distant and unattainable.
Manuka Wijesinghe narrates an interesting story about the lives of a staunch self-proclaimed Theravada Buddhist ‘Iskolemahattaya’ – a school principal and an equally devout ‘Iskolehamine’ – his wife and a school teacher. They are landed gentry and beneficiaries and upholders of the British colonial education system and also natural leaders of their native community.
A central theme of the book is an absorbing conflict between reason and emotions – a conflict that (apparently) cannot be resolved through the pure reason of Theravada Buddhism. This has the main characters resorting to the wise and worldly village astrologer at critical stages to fill in the gaps. But the attempts of the astrologer to introduce a broader spiritual dimension are firmly resisted by both Iskolemahattaya and Iskolehamine when this seems to challenge and undermine the rational edifice of Theravada as understood by them.
This tussle to broaden Theravada has been enacted and re-enacted many times throughout our long history. King Mahasen once destroyed Maha Vihara, the home of Theravada orthodoxy in his attempt to liberalize the Sasana. But no king or man has succeeded where he failed. The resilience of the Maha Vihara (represented by the Asgiri and Malwatte Chapters) continues to this day – at the political, social and personal levels. The pure doctrine taught by our great Master the Buddha and written down in the First Century BC and the ancient practices continue in form. The need for fresh interpretations and actions to give life to the dharma is firmly rejected. This is probably why the author – having pointed out the deficiency in the rigid, dry and impersonal way the doctrine is understood apparently concedes defeat at the end. Iskolehamine refuses to pray to the Hindu God Shiva and re-embraces the doctrine that Iskolemahattaya used as a crutch to desert her and her eight children in a wilful re-enactment of the great renunciation of Prince Siddhartha.
The chief dilemma faced by the Iskolemahattaya is of a sexual and intensely personal nature:He was a Theravada man. Rational and piously thoughtful beyond urge and instinct. Beyond all desire. Excluding the primordial desires of eating sleeping and defecating, he was dharma abiding and venerable. But the rational function of the Theravada man seemed to have now gone haywire… Ah! But this wretched desire…
Within his doctrine was there space for desire? No most certainly not. Ah but … this prickling scintillating vibrating desire for a woman. Did it fit into his Theravada self? No most certainly not. Then what other self did he possess?
This ‘other self’ is systematically shut out – and we do not see the Iskolemahattaya as a full human being who can feel and give spontaneous expression to these feelings. His sexual lust is satisfied through marriage and procreation. But a desire that is studiously reserved for a mechanical act in the night and never discussed in the open with his wife can hardly be known or understood – much less overcome.
What is clearly missing from the Iskolemahattaya’s understanding of the path is its gradual, experiential and emotional nature. Sensual desire is a shared human predicament and it is usual for human beings to experiment with different positions between the extremes of shameful repression and shameless indulgence before finding balance and a middle way. Human learning is a messy and awkward affair where trial and error and a whole host of mistakes and humiliations precede the dawn of true realization. But Theravada Buddhism as understood by the main characters in this book does not seem to recognize the need for such a broad, humane and realistic framework.
Although this couple pledges allegiance to a common religious identity their personalities and the consequent level of engagement with their children and family life is strikingly different. The Iskolemahattaya remains distant and aloof from the children but Iskolehamine though employed is devoted and attached to her children. Her relationship to them is as selfless as much as her husband remains self – centred.
This distinction between people who are self – focused and other – focused goes to the root of a three fold division of the noble eightfold path as described mainly by Tibetan Meditation Masters. This division normally relates to our description of the respective traditions that prevail in South and South East Asia (Theravada), in China, Japan and Korea (Mahayana) and in Tibet (Vajrayana). However the Tibetans point out that while certain countries may exhibit the predominant characteristics of a particular tradition a disciple on the path will actually move through each one in a gradual process of personal development. They note that each tradition defines a personal style and approach to life that Buddha took into account when teaching different people. This evolutionary approach to the three Yana’s seems to fit personal spiritual practice the best.
Theravada is the fundamental vehicle – the foundation of the noble eightfold path and the journey. This is so for practitioners everywhere. Mahayana is simply described as the good heart; and the final stage of the journey – Vajrayana as the freedom of pure perception. In the Theravada vehicle of discipline, restraint and simplicity we help ourselves – and of course this may look somewhat selfish. Then we enter the great vehicle (Mahayana) – the path broadens and we help others. Finally we transcend this whole notion of self and others – there is no difference and no personal projects anymore.
Let us take a simple illustration.
We are at a dinner table and the water comes. The Theravada man simply proceeds to help himself. He is thirsty and has no time to be bothered with others. His need is greater. Normally someone turns to the path when he realizes that he has to fall back on himself – there are no other solutions. This situation is quite dire and there is a sense of urgency like going in for emergency surgery. This is the Theravada mentality.
The Mahayana practitioner is self sufficient and he/she is very helpful serving everyone else before pouring his own water.
The Vajrayana practitioner does not see a separate self and ‘others’; simply the sense of thirst and the presence of water. He relates very precisely and directly to situations without any kind of trappings whatsoever. So there is no knowing what he may do except that he seems to know without effort what must be done. He/she may act either like a Theravada or a Mahayana person where the situation requires it. So here there is maximum freedom and flexibility.
This is also the approach to dealing with desire. In Theravada practice desire is to be avoided by turning inward to experience the thoughts and feelings associated with desire. There is a withdrawal from engagement with members of the opposite sex. But this approach alone may not be sufficient to overcome desire. Once the mind is sufficiently strong and steady the policy of avoidance must be discontinued to test it in real life situations. A practitioner cannot afford to be too attached to his/her detachment. There is a well known story mentioned in the texts where two monks had to carry a beautiful woman on their shoulders across a stream as she was ill. After they deposited her on the other shore the junior monk questioned his senior about the propriety of their action and the senior observed that he no longer carried her in his mind.
In the book the two main personalities – one withdrawn and the other engaged negotiate their lives differently. Their approaches are based on their personalities and social skills rather than their formal allegiance to a particular Buddhist tradition. But this is a fact of life that is not conceded in any of the lengthy ideological discussions in the book.
The realm of reason is symbolized by the rigidly rational version of Theravada Buddhism whilst the realm of emotions is played out through the actual lives that people lead. The tension between the two is never explicitly reconciled. Yet in the unfolding of the characters of the Theravada Man and his wife we find that a broader, compassionate and undeniably religious spirit has mingled in their family life, unobtrusively and without acknowledgement.
This point is highlighted when the fatal eighth child born to Iskolehamine is disabled but she resolves to devote the rest of her life to care for this new being. Her self sacrifice and selflessness stands in sharp contrast to the self absorption of the pious Iskolemahattaya. As we look upon the middle path in the way the Tibetans envision it this woman who stands in the background, serving and supporting, seems to be on a higher spiritual plane. We can refer to her as the Mahayana Woman – not in order to merely proclaim triumphantly that the Theravada Man has been upstaged but also to emphasize how insufficient these labels are to define and imprison human lives within their water-tight compartments.
Theravada Buddhism may be an insufficient spiritual foundation when it is conceived as a ‘collective solution’ for all Sinhala Buddhists who by the mere fact of their birth in this bastion of Theravada Orthodoxy count themselves blessed and special. As Iskolemahattaya discovered – this is merely the beginning of an arduous path, a ‘personal solution’ which must be tried and tested by submitting the self to the fullest experience of life. Faced with strong feelings and emotions we must find the counter veiling emotional strength within our own selves and this is blocked so long as this Theravada self is enthroned in our consciousness to be defended and promoted to achieve a selfish spiritual victory. On the other hand when this cherished self is set aside in compassion for others an important transition is made from reason to emotions – from head to heart, where separation and alienation is joyously surrendered towards a deeper spiritual identity.
Manuka has achieved a synthesis of a range of spiritual voices within this work and one that is indelible in my mind is that of the unlettered carter who takes the astrologer and Iskolemahattaya on their journeys to see the intended bride. In singing to keep awake he touched on a fundamental point that we all need to grasp to awaken from a long national slumber of spiritual complacency.
Bane kohoma kiwwat pavu paladenava
Pine aruma no sitha apa pasu venava…
(However the sermon says it, un- meritorious actions will bear fruit
We waste time without realizing the wonder of meritorious actions)
We still refer to “pavu” and “pin” out of habit. But do we really know what they mean in their broadest sense the Buddha taught? Are we as self – proclaimed Buddhists, more confused about what is right and wrong than we were 50 years ago? This is the ultimate challenge that Theravada Man lays before us in the delightful lines of a simple carter.
[First published in the Sunday Island December 5, 2010]
POSTSCRIPT BY REVIEWER
This is a book review written in December 2010 but we have now reached a turning point in our Buddhist history where some contemplation about who we are as Sinhala Buddhists may not be out of place. Theravada man is your husband, your father and grandfather and all his paternal ancestors and if you are a male Sinhala Buddhist then it is improbable that you have escaped the pervasive influence of this Theravada character and personality. Indeed the Theravada Man lives within me and within you. There we will find the root causes of the present confusion which has now assumed ugly racial and political overtones. Having become emotionally disconnected from ourselves and our families the next step towards racial and religious disharmony was not difficult. The essential challenge for the Theravada Man is how to respond to pain and frustration with humour, gentleness and a deep resolve to address causes without reverting to the beaten track of majority, authority and violence. Occasionally we come across candid and beautiful reflections on the limitations of the Theravada character in songs like Amma Sandaki written by Malani Jayaratne and sung by T.M. Jayaratne. But on the whole we are faced with a blank wall erected by the Theravada Man steeped in scholarship, scriptural orthodoxy, ritual, a fossilized identity and the heavy baggage of an ancient culture and civilization that breathed its last with the Colebrooke Reforms of 1833. A cardinal error of the Theravada Man is that he takes himself far too seriously.
As D.C. Vijayawardhana wrote in Revolt in the Temple (1953): At last man has emerged from the desert into a smiling land where he can truly say: ‘I am the master of my destiny’; but in the long night he has forgotten how to smile. We cannot believe in the brightness of the morning. We think it trivial and deceptive; we cling to old myths that allow us to go on living with fear and hate – above all hate of ourselves, victims of karma, miserable sinners.
As Sinhala Buddhists we have been addicted for too long to singing melancholy songs when we gather in community. We are particularly fond of Ven. Rambukkane Siddhartha’s lines – ‘nivan dakinnata pin madi wennathi; ekai thawamath samsare…’ (despite seeing the Buddha – we had little merit to attain nirvana; which is why we are still in this suffering world).
It is time we put all this negativity and the past behind us to join hands with the rest of the world in meeting the true challenges of mankind – here and now.