Midweek Review
Sinhala Buddhism - Part I

theras.jpg (17600 bytes)by Nalin de Silva
Sinhala Buddhism like other such entities has undergone change over the years. When I say years with respect to Sinhala Buddhism it is much more than a few hundreds of years. Sinhala Buddhism has a history of more than two thousand three hundred years and fortunately we do not have to confine ourselves to the century after Anagarika Dharmapala. I have not gone through all the literature by

Anagarika Dharmapala and I do not believe in index reading and literature surveys in important topics such as these. I believe in understanding. In any event I am not worried if it was Anagarika Dharmapala who coined the word Sinhala Buddhism as coining a word to identify a phenomenon does not mean that the phenomenon came into existence with the coining of the word.

Even if it was Anagarika Dharmapala who coined the words Sinhala Buddhism and Sinhala Buddhist, the concepts have been there for ages. It is not necessary to have a word or a set of words to describe a concept . The babies identify various objects without knowing the names given to them by the society. They must be having some concept in the form of an image (citta rupaya-details in "Mage Lokaya"). The babies and small children, contrary to what some post modernists say do not live in a space created by the language(s). Buddhists have no problem in grasping what is going on as they know as Paticcasamuppavadins that sanskaras are constructed due to ignorance (avidya) of anicca, dukka and anatta.

Babies like the others are ignorant of anicca, dukka and anatta and construct concepts such as "mother", "milk", "food", "hunger" though these concepts may not have the same meanings as given by the words. Recently Dr. Gananatha Obeysekera attempted to find out who used the words "dhamma deepa" first to describe this island. Though there are at least two meanings to the word deepa (words have meaning only in a context and in a particular culture. The word chair is not used to describe those objects in the busses and trains on which we sit. However a child may refer to them as chairs to be "corrected" by the elders who would insist that the word chair is not used to describe those objects in busses and trains.) it may be that it was Anagarika Dharmapala who pioneered the use of the words ‘dhamma deepa" in the sense of land or island of dhamma.

If it is so then what has any "applied" sociologist or "applied" social anthropologist got to say about that. As a Sinhala Buddhist I would be very proud of Anagarika Dharmapala for being creative unlike the so called intellectuals who have no creative ability at all. Most of the "intellectuals" produced by our seats of learning (are they seats of learning or seats of leaning, where students are taught how to lean on western concepts and theories - these seats, unlike other seats have chairs very often attached to departments of studies, but that is a different matter altogether.) at Peradeniya and other places are only barren Newtonian "paradigmers" who know how to "apply" theories of westerners to local situations.

Let us assume that it was Anagarika Dharmapala who coined the concepts of Sinhala Buddhist and Sinhala Buddhism. Does it mean that the concept was not there prior to Anagarika Dharmapala? If that was the case what was there before that? Did our ancestors called themselves just Buddhists without the adjective Sinhala. I know that a person like my friend and "old" comrade Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne who cannot see beyond his Marxist -Trotskyite nose would say that nations are products of capitalism and as such there would not have been any Sinhala nation before the British introduced capitalism to this country in the nineteenth century and that the Sinhala nation itself was created by Anagarika Dharmapala.

Even if we accept that argument then the question arises as to what that tribe living in this country who became Sinhala after the British introduced capitalism, called themselves during the Dutch or the Portuguese period, not to mention the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Gampola periods. On the otherhand how did the Portuguese and the Dutch refer to the inhabitants of the country?

Whether it was a tribe, a nation they would have had some name and however much some historians, anthropologists and sociologists may try to erase the word Sinhala or Sihala from history it has survived thousands of years of history. (One does not have to lean on the Marxist definition to identify a nation and we have argued on many occasions that the Sinhala nation came into existence at the time of king Pandukabhaya.)

Buddhism unlike the other "world religions" does not admit a creator God. Some go to the extent of saying that Buddhism is not a religion as a religion talks of a God who created the world. To them Buddhism is a way of life and they refer to it as Dahamma. However, these people go by (lean on) some definition of religion created in the west whose intellectuals at one time probably wanted to show that some of us did not have a religion. Some Indians have also fallen into this trap and claim that Hinduism is a way of life. All religions talk of death and what happens after death. For some, after death there is eternal life, for some others it is eternal life in heaven or hell after the final judgement. Some would argue that if there is life, eternal or otherwise, then it is rebirth or punabbava or some such thing.

Those who do not want to accept rebirth could claim that the soul does not die and it is only the body that "dies" and that the soul is eternal. The soul theorists of this form could get away from death by this definition but they cannot get away from birth and they are only theorising a semi eternity. This eternity has a beginning on one side but no end on the other side. It is not endless on both sides. It is like one form of the big bang universe which has a beginning but goes on expanding without an end, and not like the steady state universe that has no beginning, in the sense that it has existed for an infinite time and will exist for an infinite time. The western mind (the culture) has a problem with two way eternity and it is that mentality that admits big bang universe and not the steady state universe, more than the so-called agreements with observations. Needles to say that oscillating universes are not to the liking of the westerners.

The Buddhists, Hindus and Jains believe in rebirth, punabbava. I have a feeling that these punabbava theorists represent the other side of the coin of the eternal (one way) soul theorists. They do not want to claim that a person (sathva) is reborn as there is no soul. Hence they theorise about punabbhava without soul. I just cannot understand how these people talk of a sathva when there is no such sathva. They do not seem to understand that we cannot communicate or "know" without these "half baked" concepts and theories which are really the result of our ignorance (avidya) of anicca, dukka and anatta.

These concepts and theories are only "sammuthi sacca" and just as much we use the concept of sathva when there is no such sathva, it is not wrong to say of a rebirth of a sathva. There is a somewhat similar problem in Quantum Physics. There concepts in Newtonian Physics such as position and momentum are used to describe "particles" that are not perceptible to senses. But as Dr. Neils Bohr has said there is nothing that the western Physicists could do about it and will have to go on using those Newtonian concepts in Quantum Physics as well. We in South Asia could go further and say that the western Physicists will have to be satisfied with these Newtonian concepts until and unless they engage in yogic exercises or "bhavana" and develop their (mental) faculties to "experience" these "Quantum particles" directly.

Coming back to rebirth, sathva is reborn until he or she is liberated from the sansaric cycle. The Hindus are liberated when they unite with Brahman or rather when they "see" that they are united with Brahman (like Avidya for the Buddhists there is moha for the Hindus preventing them to "see" the unity with Brahaman. Once they are united with Brahman they do not die and live "eternally". (This eternity is not the same as the western eternity and is symmetric with respect to past and future though there appears to be some discontinuity). In any event all these religions think of non death as the ultimate objective. Whether eternal life in heaven or unity with Brahaman it is some sort of life, non death (or immortality say) that they are after, whereas in Theravada Buddhism the opposite is the case. The Sinhala Buddhists, for example, would not want to be reborn, either in the heaven or united with Brahman being conscious of it.

It is not death that has to be "defeated" but birth. The Buddha after attaining enlightenment (these phrases are not conceptually correct) said it was his last birth and he would not be born again. One might ask me what is Nibbana. Though there are people who claim that Nibbana could be expressed in words it is not within Theravada Buddhism to define Nibbana. If Nibbana could be defined or expressed in terms of other concepts then Nibbana itself becomes a concept. Only concepts are expressed in terms of other concepts and if Nibbana is another concept then Nibbana like all the other concepts should be a creation of the minds of the people. Moreover we should be able to know Nibbana the way we know the other concepts and there is no need for an eight fold path to attain Nibbana.

These people only claim that Nibbana could be expressed in words but never cite a Sutta where Buddha has either expressed Nibbana in terms of other concepts or said that it is possible to do so. These people are Olcott Buddhists and I will come to them later. The whole problem of rebirth could be explained in terms of "I" and "mine" and avidya. It is due to the recognition of a mind when there is no mind and I would say that Nibbana is attained when it is "realised" through the non mind (nethi manasa) that the non mind is a non mind.

This is not a definition of Nibbana but an attempt to create a theory (non theory) that is consistent within Sinhala Theravada Buddhism.(Please refer the preface to the third edition of "Mage Lokaya").

As far as I am concerned it is the beauty of the theory or the non theory of Theravada Buddhism that attracts me towards it though as a Theravada Buddhist I "know" that I should not be attracted to these theories (or non theories).
(To be continued)