Colombo Telegraph

Words Of Gratitude For A Teacher I have Never Met

By 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.

Over 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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