My mother Kalapuge Dona Dayawathie Dhalia Gunawardena died on March 31, 2013. She was taken away three days later from the house in Kithulgoda, Agalawatte, where she arrived 68 years ago as a young bride. She was born and educated in Kalutara. Her arrival in Kitulgoda, small village in the hinterland, must have been a culture shock but she adapted well. She outlived her husband, Gamage Don David, by 45 years but continued the public presence that he loved.

She was a Justice of Peace who took her responsibilities seriously. She surprised those who came get letters from her by intimate knowledge of them and their families. The house she maintained is spacious but sparse. You can see the back from the front and people entered and left from the front or the back all day. There were no assigned rooms or beds. Every space was communal space. Food from one meal was not cleared away until the next meal and the kettle was always ready for a boil. Her instructions for her funeral were to set up tents at the front and the back so that people entered from the front went past the coffin and had a good meal at the back before leaving.

During the funeral I was in that house observing the proceedings, almost like somebody from another planet. I am uncomfortable with our national obsession with funerals. When friends want to travel from far I worry about the carbon footprint and lost workdays. Still I could not help but enjoy meeting old relatives, listening to old stories, watching young people meeting their cousins as if it was some merry gathering while my mother’s body lay there as if approving.

Her funeral meant an end of era for the family and village and the surroundings. It was good while it lasted but I am glad it ended. She was loved by the people in the area but the relationships were still feudal. The circle of family, friends, temples and priests she left is a circle of privilege. True, I enjoy the benefits, but, I would not mind seeing an upheaval.

Yesterday, the chief justice was impeached through a process that was a sham. I say it is a sham not because I am a legal expert. It is a sham because the process looked petty and vengeful to any ordinary person who is not beholden to the ruling party. An event the day before, where I was verbally abused and physically threatened by government goons for wanting to attend an opposition rally for the purpose, personified to me in no small measure the pettiness and vengeance of the accusers.
There are two options open to the opposition – constitutional crisis or temporary set back. If we care about the rule of law, we should settle for a temporary setback, I think.

Remembering a balmy evening in the open air theater in the Peradeniya University when Henry Jayasena opened the world of Bertolt Brecht to us through the Caucasian Chalk Circle or ‘Hunu Wataye Kathave’, I would say, let us go for a temporary set back and let the child live. The child is the rule of law. Grusha is those who care about the rule of law. We all know who the ugly duchess is.

On that night in the seventies in Peradeniya, Asadak was funny, manly and full of down to earth wisdom but, Grusha personified by Manel Jayasena stole the hearts of the audience. The play ends with a contest to decide the ownership of the child. The two contenders, Grusha and the duchess the biological mother, had to go at it and grab the child who was placed in a chalk circle. Grusha could not bring herself to hurt the child, proving that she was truly the mother at heart.

People who know better than I have called for a boycott of the new order which is to be established, but, where will that lead us? Will the UNP, the only viable opposition, be able give the leadership? Will the trade unions come forward? Even if they do, is it the right moment? Or, in the process, will we kill or maim the child altogether?

For a moment, if I imagined myself to be Shiranee Bandaranayake, what I will do? I will sit up all night, drafting a message from the heart, remembering Grusha. It will say that her removal is unjust, but institutions are more important than individuals. I will implore all who were with her to conserve their strength to continue the pressure on the government to behave. Most of my statement will be dedicated to the incoming chief justice. The message has to be in parables.

A colleague of mine recently told me about this folklore of ‘Gal Pererthayas’. These are pathetic life forms that are forced to spend their afterlife under the surface, suffering each time the living walked above. They were monks, officials and others who were entrusted with the public welfare but they did not do their duty. They used their powers to benefit themselves. This is a parable that comes to my mind when I think of the ministers and officials who sell their souls to keep their perks and positions. For me, personally, after life is every moment of life that follows another moment. Those who do ill will suffer in this life, because their memories shall be with them into their old age and until they die. They shall suffer in their life after death too, if they believe in such.

My message to the new chief justice would be: “the executive has the power to appoint you but once appointed you have the power to do the right thing. Every time your arms are twisted remember the legal profession and the public in this country will lose their patience at some point and you will be out with the rest. Even if that day is far away, remember the destiny of public officials who do not do their duty. Their sins will follow them like the wheels of the cart surely follow the ox tied to the cart (from Verse 1, Dhamma Pada, Yamaka Wagga).

My Ideal Temple

May 5, 2012

Today is Vesak. As a child studying as a boarder at Kalutara Balika and then Musaeus, observing Sil for Poya was mandatory. Sil seemed like  a chore then, except on Vesak. Vesak was special. There was always milk toffee or something special with lunch. At Kalutara Balika we did a 24 hour Sil observation for Vesak. (Other days we broke Sil or did Sil pavarana at 5pm). There was no dinner on a 24-hour Sil day but we managed. It felt like camping. I remember putting a candle on  a turtle’s back and watching it crawl away into the darkness (did not seem cruel. forest fires did not seem like a possibility). And I remember waking up early in the morning to pick up Sepalika flowers for morning Puja. (Don’t see those flowers much these days). If I remember right, the full moon would still there at 5 AM on some days.

Today too I feel the need to do something special to celebrate the birthday of the one very special,  but don’t know how. From the time I returned to Sri Lanka in 2002, I have been looking around for a temple. I tried the Pagoda Meditation Center but the interest of the dayakas there seemed to be too much into esoteric Dhamma discussions. Vipassana Bhavana Center on Wijerama Road  and the Kuppiawate Temple were the centers of our devotion in my days at school at Musaeus. Vipassana Center was uninspiring. Kuppiawatte did not seem like a promising prospect after my experience with a priest there.

My ideal temple is a traditional Buddhist one with some Christian elements. Like in the Ganegodalle Purana Vihara in Kitulgoda of the old days, the neighborhood temple of my family then, there will be lots of white sand. There will be a large Bo tree. There may or not be a small Chaithya. (I think a Chaithyas for small temples is a waste). The Budu Medura will be small but the Salawa or the hall would be large to accommodate any event, a Bhavana, a Dharma Deshana or a Salpila – a fund-raising event for the temple. Nobody will bring flowers in sili-sili bags. Everybody or every family will have a special basket they use and re-use for flowers. The Budu Madura will have a beautiful Pan-Kendiya for filtered water and the ritual of offering flowers will feel special.   The Priests quarters and Dana Salawa will be in a corner, discreetly.

The Christian elements I’d like to borrow concern financing and community service. Every Sunday there will be a ‘service’  (I prefer the cool of the evenings). The service may include a puja, a sermon and a Bhavana session. Every week, after the service, everyone  will make a contribution to the temple. Each will put whatever they can into an envelope and put in the donation box. Two from the Dayaka Sabha will help the priest collect the money and maintain accounts. (The envelopes, of course, will be reused). The dayaka sabha will make sure that the priest does not have to be hitting on you for money or goodies every time you walk into the temple. The dayakas will also keep the temple clean and nice through a structured Sramadana calendar.

There will be a special committee to handle community services. The temple will take responsibility for helping those in the neighborhood to help themselves. They will raise additional funds to take care of the needs of those in need. Our animal friends too will not be forgotten. Stray cats and dogs in the neighborhood too will be the responsibility of the temple. The committee will carry out programs to educate people about sterilizing their pets if necessary, and that it is cruel to use street dogs as their informal guard dogs and not look after the needs of those dogs. Overall, the community will be able to channel most of their community service efforts and rupees through their temple.

Anybody knows a temple that will fit the bill or has the potential?

Wish you all a day of dana-seela-bhavana, and a night of happy dan-sal hopping.

Claudia. That’s her name, I think – the name of the woman who was with Senasinghe when he was allegedly beaten up by Malaka Silva and his men. According to news reports, Claudia had told to the police that she did not see a beating up or a pistol in Malaka’s hand.

How did Senasinghe got beat up so bad? Come on Claudia, surely you must have seen something. Please tell the police what you saw, so that there can be a fair trial, fair by the public who want to live peacefully.

You can go back to wherever you came from but we have to live with this shit. Please do your duty. Give a full account of what you saw.

Writing in Sinhala used to be practically impossible but I had no intention of learning the Wijesekera keyboard, a relic of type writer era. Then I discovered University of Colombo’s Unicode converter on the Web.

දැන් මම වතුරේ දාපු මාලුවා වගෙ. මහප්පරාන නැති නිසා අකුරුවල පෙනුමෙ පොඩි ප්රස්න තියෙනව, ඒත් කල්පනා කරලා බැලුවම මතක් වුනා මාර්ටින් වික්රමසින්හ මැතිදුන්ගේ ලිපියක්, ජන වහර සන්ස්කුරුත කරපු නාගරික උගතුන්ට බැට දීලා ලියපු. හොයාගන්න ටිකක් වෙලා ගියා ඒත් මෙන්න උපුටනයක් ඉන්ගිරිසියෙන්.

Martin Wickramasinghe (1975) in Sinhala language and Culture, 1997 edition. Chapter 15, Science and Dead Languages, page.98.

“The majority of the words of the spoken language of the Sinhalese people are derived form three dead languages: Prakrit, Sanskrit and Pali, which is a literary Prakrit. The words derived from Sanskrit and Pali, which is a literary Prakrit. The words derived from Sanskrit and Pali have been instinctively modified by the common people to accord with the genius of their mother tongue, which is now an independent living form of Prakrit developed over a period of two thousand years. The common Sinhalese people, naturally disciplines by the phonetics of their mother tongue, adapted the Sanskrit word [vidya with the yansaya] to විද්දියා. The scholars and educated people of the cities who sheepishly imitate Sanskrit treat විද්දියා as a crudely vulgar word.”

Wickramasinghe goes onto develop his argument further but I like take this blog to reminisce about another person from whom I should have learned long ago.

Back in my school days I used to be slightly uncomfortable when my father said පුරස්නය හෝ චාරිත්තරේ in front of my school principal. Little did know I was sheepishly imitating Sanskrit and looking down on a living language. Forgive me, dear Thaththa.

relative rights

July 11, 2007

An email I received under the title “Should our heritage be used to buy minority votes” implied that minorities in Sri Lanka can not have full rights as citizens. The email referred to the news item on Colombo, 04 July on about Sri Lanka Government donating land from Colombo 12, for “All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama” the Council of Muslim Theologians and the apex Islamic religious body in Sri Lanka.

I wrote the following in response. The title was added later.

Citizens and their rights: minorities in Colombo v. sinhala buddhist expats in Australia

Open letter To those of you who are alarmed by the gift of a land to a Muslim religious organization:

I find the email sounding the alarm and two responses to that email more alarming than the original story. I am a Sinhala Buddhist who wants live in this country in peace. It is sad to read the sentiments expressed in those email because knee-jerk reaction such as those expressed by seemingly educated people will do great harm to the cause of Sinhala Buddhist culture in the long run.

According to the initiating email and the discussion that follows, the crown land in Colombo 12 is seen as a Sinhala Buddhist heritage. How can a country’s crown land belong to only one race? Does that mean that other religious groups or races have no rights as citizens, say, to have crown land given to them for a legitimate public purpose? Look at Israel and the perpetual chaos in that part of the world. The only way to live in a world with diverse races, religions and cultures is to live together. There is absolutely no other way out.

In the Colombo municipal area, the Sinhalese Buddhists are a minority. It is a fact. Hindus and Muslims have congregated into clusters where they feel safe. In many cities you would notice this trend. The presence of the well-to-do minorities gives a wrong picture of Muslim and Hindu population in Colombo. Many of the minorities are poor people who live in tenement gardens under very difficult conditions. They are not foreigners. These are people whose parents and their parents have lived in this country for generations. They are Sri Lankan. They are us.

The sensible response is to further develop these enclaves and treat them as assets not threats. The commercial vibrancy of these place is good for our economy. If the minorities are sending money outside of the country illegally that is a legal matter, not an ethnic issue. Wellawatte or Colombo 12 can be places we all visit to enjoy the diversity offered by another culture. If the Muslim religious practices are a disturbance let us deal with that and bring about new municipal ordinances. I live in the heart of Colombo. In fact, I find the chanting of Pirith at busy intersections at inopportune times as a disgrace to Buddhism and more of a disruption. The call to prayer by Muslims has so far not been a disturbance but a chance to take a few minutes to close my own eyes, meditate and re-energize. The reaction of Buddhists has been to compete with others to put up their own religious structures and try to make louder noise than them. This has hurt Buddhism not helped.

I am sure many of you live in other countries or have kith and kin living there. How would you feel if the majority in those countries were to treat you or your descendents the same way? Even if they did treat you badly, your humiliation should not be a reason to humiliate minorities here who have lived among us forever. If you truly subscribe to this notion that a country’s heritage should belong to the majority, apply that to yourself. Don’t make overly demonstrations of your religion or express your culture if you are a minority. Better still bring yourselves, your grand children and great grand children back here. Why try to live a life that you want to deny for minorities in Sri Lanka. Some of you may even have to move the whole brood back all the way to Kerala or Andra Pradesh or wherever because there apparently has been a lot of migration from those parts in our near history.

Open your eyes and look among yourselves. Do the features of Sri Lankans suggest any racial purity. In some regions in India you can see distinct physical features among people living there. Not so in Sri Lanka. The recent population in Sri Lanka must be a mix of Vedda and other aborigines who lived here and many others who landed on this island in more recent times. The population in the Anuradhapura period may not have looked anything like the mix we have today. If there was North Indian blood in us Sri Lankans it must always have been minuscule. We need to do a lot more scientific research about our heritage, not base ourselves solely on a book written by monks for their own purposes. For a start look among yourselves and then go to North India see how you compare with the locals there.

Your previous email was about somebody’s call to end multiculturalism based policies in Britain. The more pertinent matter, I believe, is the separation of the state from religion. Mixing religion with government is a disaster for both government and religion. For a start, in Britain they may remove the special privileges given to the Anglican church by the state before they take away recognition given Islamic schools. Let religion be where it belongs–in our hearts or in communities of practice

Finally, please don’t use Buddhism to divide people. This call is especially those of you who live outside of the country. Buddhist fundamentalism is as bad as any other religious fundamentalism. I am a Sinhala Buddhist who wants live in this country in peace with others. We don’t want to further push our minorities into fundamentalist positions. The first step is to stay away from fundamentalism ourselves.


a deadly sermon

November 10, 2006

This Vap poya day of Novermber 05, 2006, I attended the ‘Seela Vyapara’ at my old school with great expectations, but I had to cut short my day and return home in deep distress after hearing a mean monk’s mean sermon, which later turned out to be more than mean.

‘Mavalare Bhaddiya’ Thero, a priest from the Kuppiawatte Temple, Colombo, took undue advantage of the respect given to a Buddhist monk in the sermon seat, to come out with some strange material. He repeatedly said that those who do not think that Sri Lanka’s heritage is a Buddhist heritage should go to the land of the dead (paralowa yanna ooni). He continued on with words of hate invoking the Vaddhaki-Sukara Jataka in the grossest manner to glorify the killing and eating the flesh of your enemy.

I sat there in disbelief. It was difficult to judge reaction of others. I came home intending to write a letter to the Old Girls Association but was too depressed to anything the whole day.

Then this morning we hear Mr. Vignarajah is assassinated. It was only last night he spoke against the disappearance of Tamils in Colombo and the suffering of Tamils in Jaffna.  Was he was sent to the ‘land of the dead’ because he did not subscribe to the idea of a Sinhala Buddhist supremacy? It sends shivers up my spine to think I heard exhortations for similar actions at a sermon in my old school.

I did finally write that letter – my puny reaction to an act of violence that is just mind-boggling.

In my letter to OGA I was able to say some good words too. That day, after the bomb shell of a sermon, I was too shocked to move even and just sat there. Another sermon followed and I did not have much hope, but Venerable Athkandure Sumanasara Thero’s words were like balm. He gently chided us to think of what ‘ata sil’ means. He said that some may say man’s ultimate duty is to serve others. He said, no, the Buddha teachings tell us that our prime responsibility is to save ourselves from the cycle of clinging and suffering. On Poya day we give ourselves room to practice. Other days we are too busy living.


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