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Wednesday 25 May 2011

Interpreting Buddha Dhamma to the masters

It is generally believed that the nineteenth century saw a revival of Buddhist studies in Sri Lanka, and perhaps also in the rest of Buddhist countries. Buddha Dhamma was studied by various European scholars and naturally they had their own interpretations of Dhamma as they often read Dhamma within a European or western cultural background. It was their own creation of Dhamma relative to their culture and chinthanaya. I am not subscribing to the so called Orientalism of Edward Said, which created an Orient according to the attitudes of the westerners towards the east. When the westerners came to the Orient they formed their attitudes of course on the assumption that the westerners are superior to the easterners. In the eyes of the westerners they were civilized unlike the easterners and the orient the westerners created was influenced by this. The west has also tried to romanticize the East and in general what the westerners have done is to create an Orient that could be ruled according to the political theories developed in the west.

The so called postmodernists are not happy with general terms such as Orient, the Occident, the East, the West claiming that there are differences within the countries in Asia or even within a single country. However, this is an extreme position that the western intellectuals have taken over after realizing that general abstract concepts sometimes do not enable to create a consistent world. However, the generalizations are useful and with all the differences among the Asian cultures there is still something that could be identified as Asian though not what is described by the westerners by that particular word. The Asiannes so to speak of is the highest common denominator of Asian cultures as seen by the Asians themselves. If there is no highest common denominator then obviously there cannot be an Asiannes.

In this article I am concentrating on some other aspect. It is absorption of ideas of other cultures into one’s own culture. I will quote an example from History. The Portuguese historians who did not know anything about the Eksesath Rajya saw four or five independent states in Sri Lanka with an emperor in Kotte. Now we did not have emperors in this country and it so happened that the king of Kotte was the King of the Sinhale Eksesath Rajya. The other so called kings were either mapas and epas or those who used the title of king after obtaining permission from the Sinhale King, as in the case of the Arya Chakravartins of Jaffna. The Portuguese historians or simply those who had an interest in describing events had no choice but to create a Sri Lankan state relative to their culture and they described (created a picture of) Sri Lanka using concepts found in Europe. There is nothing wrong in that except that our own historians who like most of the other educated people in Sri Lanka are notorious imitators following the Portuguese and shouting about an independent state in Jaffna, instead of trying to reinterpret the so called Portuguese historians relative to our culture.

In Buddha Dhamma the response of our scholars take two forms. They either oppose completely as in the case of sociology as expressed by Max Weber himself or attempt to reinterpret Dhamma to suit the western scholars who have studied Buddha Dhamma. Very often our scholars do not come with their own interpretations and sub interpretations (or atuvas and teekas and tippanis) as probably their spines have been broken by the hegemony of the western Christian modernity.

How many Buddhist scholars have tried to claim that Buddha Dhamma is empiricist when western empiricism attempts to think of an objective world existing independent of the observer grasped through a series of observations involving the five sense organs? The world of western empiricism is sensory perceptible and it is very clear that one cannot say the same thing with Buddha Dhamma with Abhinna and Bhavana. If acquiring knowledge begins with sensory perceptions in empiricism, then Buddha Dhamma has no place in such a scheme. In Buddha Dhamma perceptions are not independent of conceptions and there is no so called Bluishness independent of the mind.

The prathyaksha is another experience that is often misinterpreted with an eye on the western scholars. The Chullahaththipadopama Sutta speaks only against deductions and inferences however much analytical they may be. One has to see the elephant in order to convince oneself that it was an elephant that had passed through a certain area in the jungle without jumping into conclusions. What the scholars do not understand is that most of the Suttas themselves are only relative and it is in order to speak against deductions and inferences that Buddha has come out with this story of an elephant. However, it does not mean that an elephant exits as such as an object that can be observed objectively by all the observers in a particular area at a particular instant. When people see an elephant it is something that they have created on their own, of course with instructions from the grandparents, parents and others living with them. The rupaskandas are interpreted as an elephant, however it does not imply that the skandas are an objective reality. Do the western empiricists, scientists experimentalists have any ideas resembling Dhamma on this aspect? The prathyaksha in Buddha Dhamma cannot be compared with sensory perceptions or any ism in western knowledge system but our scholars are too enthusiastic to explain to their masters in the west that Buddha Dhamma is empiricist.

Then there are scholars who want to show to the west that there is nothing mystic about Dhamma. They claim that Nibbana can be expressed in words in order to satisfy their masters in the west. If Nibbana is expressible in words why did not Buddha who attained Buddhathva two thousand six hundred years ago say that in words? Is there any place in the Suttas where the Dhamma indicates at least indirectly that Nibbana can be expressed in words? Buddha Dhamma is clear to anybody who is prepared to examine it according to the way the Buddha has shown and not in the tradition of western empiricism, logical positivism, or any other western ism. Ehi passiko does not mean that one has to carry a microscope or atomic absorption spectrometer or even Aristotelian logic to “test” Buddha Dhamma and if Dhamma remains mystic to the westerners let it be so if they want to stick to their so called scientific and other methods if there are any. We do not have to prove that Buddha Dhamma is not mystic to those who think that they are enlightened after the so called European enlightenment.

Then there are those who want to compare deconstruction (visanyojana) of Derrida with Visankara. What these people do not understand is that any deconstruction is another sankara. One may following Derrida deconstruct a concept going to the roots and fundamentals. However, the roots and so called fundamentals are also sankaras arising out of avijja, and deconstruction does not lead to Nibbana. Sankara paccaya Vinnana and Vinna paccaya Nama Rupa and then Nama rupa (Please refer Katukurunde Nnanananda Thero) and Salayatane etc., does not mean that deconstruction paccaya no Vinnana no Nama Rupa no Salayatane etc., and finally Nibbana. If people want to please their masters in the west they should resort to some other method rather than interpreting Buddha Dhamma the way want.

As an example of the reverse process I would just cite Webber and others who claim that Buddha Dhamma stands in way of development. The development meant here is western Christian development based on satisfying the sense organs and surely that type of development is not in accordance with Buddha Dhamma. However, our scholars again in order to please the westerners in general are prepared to contradict Weber and claim that Dhamma is not an obstacle to development according to western Christian modernity.

Let us at least in this 2600 Sambuddhathva Jayanthi year stop all these attempts to satisfy the masters in the west (in spite of Foucault and others there is a west, though not in an absolute sense) and be followers of Buddha Dhamma. (The Island - 2011/05/18)

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva