15 July, 2020

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Words Of Gratitude For A Teacher I have Never Met

By Charles Hallisey

Prof. Charles Hallisey

Prof. Charles Hallisey

In the Mahāvaṃsa’s account of King Devānaṃpiyatissa there is a lovely detail about his friendship with the Emperor Asoka in India. We are told that Devānaṃpiyatissa and Dhammāsoka were friends for a long time, even though they had never met. Their friendship had been sealed by their exchange of gifts, including, of course, the sending of Mahinda with the gift of the Buddhasāsana to Sri Lanka, a gift for which there could be no reciprocation.

In some analogous way, I feel the same is true of me with Professor Siri Gunasinghe. Not as a friend, however. He has been a teacher to me for many, many years, even though we have never met. He has sent many gifts to me over the years in his writings, all gratefully received by, although I am sure he has no idea that I even exist. Such generosity is part of the character of great teachers. And all of his gifts could not be adequately reciprocated by me.

This small note sent at the time of Professor Gunasinghe’s ninetieth birthday joins the felicitations of so many, but as a long-overdue note of gratitude.

Siri Gunasinghe Colombo Telegraph 4Over the years, I have learnt much from Professor Gunasinghe from his learned and varied writings, but what stands out for me now is a review essay that Professor Gunasinghe wrote about Martin Wickramasinghe’s Teri gī a half-century ago. Professor Gunasinghe opened that essay by saying that Teri Gī is a book that did not attract the attention of too many people but all the same it is not a book to be ignored. The same must be said about Professor Gunasinghe’s essay on Teri Gī. I don’t think it is known to many people, much less read, but all the same, it is not to be ignored. We see Professor Gunasinghe’s creative spirit everywhere in it, creativity that is well-known from his poetry and fiction, but we also see his great erudition, in both Pali and in Sanskrit, and his critical acumen in direct and condensed ways.   The essay, and the critical spirit so evident in it, has been unforgettable for me.

I came to Professor Gunasinghe’s essay through my own interests in the Therigāthā. I had an idea of trying to try to translate them in English and I had first turned to Wickramasinghe’s own translation of some of the poems from that collection of poetry of the first Buddhist women to educate my imagination. I was moved and motivated by what Wickaramasinghe had done, and Teri Gī suggested new possibilities for what an English translation of the Therigāthā might aim for. What Professor Gunasinghe said about Sinhala fifty years ago is today even more true, in my opinion, for English: he made me reflect upon the fact that it has been only very rarely that Pali and Sanskrit books have been translated into Sinhala and English as works of art. Scholars who were concerned with Pali and Sanskrit books did not consider them works of art but rather they saw them as riddles, even historical and linguistic riddles, that required only commentaries and glossaries to be written on them.

Teri Gī is Martin Wickramasinghe’s only translation, and in his translation he used free verse in striking and beautiful ways. Wickramasinghe’s critical and beautiful introduction to Teri Gī continues in the same vein that he had begun in Guttila Gītaya and Rāsavādaya hā Bauddha Kāvyaya . In my enthusiasm, I found my way to Professor Gunasinghe’s essay on Teri Gī. There I found, however, sharp and direct criticism that tempered my naïve excitement with insights and explorations that helped me to ground my enthusiasms better but only, in the end, still to concur with Professor Gunasinghe that Martin Wickramasinghe’s Teri Gī should receive the attention of people with literary taste.

There is no way for me to do justice to all of the issues that Professor Gunasinghe takes up so gracefully in his essay in a note as short as this, but each one topic taken up was surprisingly fundamental, each issue turned over and offered back with new perspectives to consider. Professor Gunasinghe first considers the question of what is poetry, what makes some uses of language poetry, guiding his explorations with the category of “the body of poetry,” a line of inquiry well known in Sinhala tradition from at least Siyabaslakara, and centrally-visible in the Sanskrit alaṃkāraśāstra heritage. Professor Gunasinghe also turns his attention to translation, especially to the creativity and literary nature necessary for a translation to be successful, with the success of a translation marked by a reader being able to have a real literary experience (āsvādaya). Finally, what is striking is Professor Gunasinghe’s appreciation of what Martin Wickaramasinghe achieved in Sinhala by using free verse in his translation, going so far as to say that Wickramasinghe was able to preserve whatever aesthetic pleasure there was in the original Therigāthā because he used free verse. And even more significantly, Professor Gunasinghe’ praises Teri Gī as an illustration of the fact that the conventional poetic tradition is not the only tradition of poetry. We see here not only a defense of the appropriateness of free-verse for Sinhala, not surprising for the author of Mas le näti äta, but also the anticipation of traditions of poetry yet to come.

Like all good teachers that I have been blessed to have over the years, Professor Gunasinghe not only taught me particular ideas and specific facts or theories. He modeled for me ways of thinking about and ways of engaging important subjects. He gave me these gifts freely from afar, even though we have never had a chance to meet, but the miles between us have not diminished my gratitude to him.   I know I am not alone in this. My felicitations to him on this birthday, my gratitude too.

*Charles Hallisey is Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures at Harvard University

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Latest comments

  • 2
    4

    All this emotional haemorrhage at the 90th birthday of Professor Siri Gunasinghe and unbridled praise for his poetry, ruminations and other writings is somewhat ok with me.

    However I take umbrage at the surreptitious introduction of the Mahavamsa into the equation. There is nothing wrong in musing about or engaging in philosophical deliberations about the Mahavamsa if such pursuits do not percolate to the vulnerable masses as nothing but the truth. The fact is that is exactly what has happened.

    I hold Mahavamsa myths to be the main culprit in fomenting racism in countries such as Sri Lanka and Burma. Even worse giving rise to militant forms of Buddhism in many Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and so on. To me, Mahavamsa was written either by utterly ignorant monks (difficult to believe) or self serving monks deliberately misrepresenting history to ensure continued free loading from the hands of the gullible.

    • 7
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      The root cause of racism in SL is not Mahavamsa but GG Ponnambalam and Suntheralingam

    • 4
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      what an idiotic remark by the commentor – if u don’t read the article don’t comment! no wonder the name is BBS rep – well chosen

  • 3
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    A white person talking about the Mahāvaṃsa, in a positive way at that?
    This guys is Rajapakse stooge and or supporter of genocide against Tamils as he is not just quoting, but praising the Sinhala genocide manual.
    How much were you paid to hate on Tamils by even reading such a vile thing as Mahāvaṃsa which is how Sinhalese justify cruel treatment to Tamils?

    • 1
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      White Flags, you people only learned to blame others and praise yourselves. You never learn to appreciate others while you appreciate yourselves. You never learn to see inside yourselves of what is wrong while you blame others. People like you are so low in every way that you only talk like a frog in the well, not knowing the work, at least a bit. Your comment also shows that you have not read the article completely. You put your comment just going through a few lines.

      Prof. Charles Hellisay is a great scholar of Buddhism, and a good person. He has contributed in many ways to the society locally in US and also internally.

  • 4
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    Oh! another sinhala buddhist chauvinist suffering from mahavamsa mentality! why does a distinguished site like CT publish this cr@p?

    just kidding….please continue your work sir…this article is a thorn for many a eye!

  • 5
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    The article has nothing to do with absolving genocide. It’s a personal tribute to an artist who deserves much more. It’s genuine, from the heart, and free from any “chauvinistic” tendencies you seem to attribute to it.

  • 2
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    How did ‘friendship’ develop between an emperor of north India and a king in Sri Lanka when both had no common language and means of communication?
    In what language did Mahinda deliver his famous sermon which converted a king and all his subjects overnight from their ancestral religion to Buddhism – the largest and quickest mass religious conversion in history?
    All kings in Mahawamsa ascended the throne by killing their predecessors – there are no reports of retirements, filial successions, deaths by natural causes, and deaths in battle.
    There was a single Queen Anula, a nymphomaniac.

    Hallisey must be the most gullible ‘historian’ of modern times.

    • 1
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      learn some world history all kings died like that. I know eelam history is non existent so you don’t have to learn these…

      The friendship between Devanampiyathissa and Asoka and constant sending gifts shows common language. There is a reason both Asoka and Thissa belonged to Mourya wansha…..when real history is known…….eelam history disappears like frost in the morning sun.

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