Writer anchored to Buddhistic vision and wisdom

by Mallika Wanigasundara
Avarodaya (obstacle) a book of short stories by Kathleen Jayawardene. Avarodaya was launched at the Library Service Board auditorium recently. At the launching Parakrama Kodithuwakku, one of Sri Lanka’s best known Sinhala poets made a very thought provoking speech on the current state of literature and literary criticism in this country.

The following is a summary of some of the issues he raised. Kodithuwakku is a state award winner for several of his poetic works such as "Lovi kahata’ and ‘Rashi’. He has also won the Vidyodaya award for ‘Divaman Gajaman’. He is a teacher and a contributor to the newspapers on politics, literature and other subjects.

I do not see any objection to classifying Kathleen Jayawardene’s short stories as Buddhistic in vision and wisdom. Whatever anyone might say the roots of our culture lie in Buddhism, said Parakrama Kodithuwakku. A writer does not like to label his/her work as this or that. However, when we look at the literary climate in Sri Lanka today something rather peculiar is evident. We are at a landmark. Let me present this scenario in the words of contemporary writers.

Sirimal Wijesinghe writing in the ‘Ravaya’ on 17.11.2002 has said, ‘In this society producing a work of art is useless. Art cannot change society. People are interested in politics and love. Only those activities change society.’

Here’s another, said Kodithuwakku, from our good friend Divulgane, who wrote in ‘Mivitha’ on 22.12.2002. ‘My artistic techniques are different. Society’s behaviour is different, and the two are not one. You cannot create revolutions through art. Art is for art’s sake and not for changing society. Through art what I am doing is creating love of life in the reader. I tell them how to embrace life’.

He is contradicting himself and breaking up his own argument. Can you see that asks Kodithuwakku.

Now, I must refer to Asoka Handagama who wrote in the ‘Sunday Divaina’ of 22.12.2002. ‘The aim of my cinematic productions is for the cinema itself. The aim or purpose of an artistic production should be for itself alone. I am giving society a work of art and it should be complete. I have not explored whether it serves society, Handagama says. ‘Is there any point in asking a pilot why he flies a plane? I make films because I am a film maker and a pilot,’ flies a plane because he is a pilot, he adds.

Kodithuwakku comments: See, these writers and film makers contradict themselves. The importance of a work of art depends not only on its technique but on its content as well. How can it be complete without a valuable purpose?

These kinds of ideas can be expressed in a nakedly open commercialised business environment. Such ideas do not arise in our culture. In India writers anchor themselves to the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. The debate in India today is around the search for an essential value system or moral law in literature. This is what I would like to remind these post modernist writers, said Kodithuwakku.

They say that there is no aim or purpose in literature. To me they are like ‘gandabbhas’-in-between people, neither quite dead or born again.

Let us look at Kathleen’s book of short stories. We know the Dhamma, righteousness. The Dharma can change anything, but like the sun it stays still while it changes. Dhamma never sinks or goes under. We are not talking about Marx’s little economic man but the mighty human being that the Buddha saw, said Kodituwakku. He referred at length to two or three of Kathleen’s short stories - ‘Sigiri Madura’. The death of a rat etc. Kathleen is projecting a Buddhist vision through these stories. She is holding up a lense particular to the wisdom of the Dhammapadaya. It is an insight into life through a Buddhistic lense, where the core is the Dhammapadaya. And she asks that eternal question. Does anyone have the right to take a life, even of a rat? Did he die in pain, did he die quickly. Pain or no pain was it right?

And Siriyawathie with her irrational attachment to the house she built for her daughter, now dead, and the uncontrollable hate for the new bride finds eventual sublimation in the realisation of the uselessness of "tanha", ‘eershyawa’ and ‘dvesha’ (greed, jealousy and hate) at the sight of the young woman’s swollen belly with a child stirring within.

What does Norman Mailer say? ‘The extreme purpose of literature is the portrayal of violence. There is no meaning in debates about truth. It does not change the path of power. Sashi Despandya, one of India’s leading novelists says that he is astounded by this statement. This is hihilism, not the norm, he says.

Today, our media has turned the already confused writer into a commodity, says Kodithuwakku. They think less and less about good and bad. Moral principles are being changed by a kind of genetic and psychological engineering, he says. These ideas are synthetic, rootless.

I can see that the information flowing through computers, globalisation and post modernism is blocking the lenses or our spiritual binoculars. The prime truth, as I see it, is that the people I refer to have no moral consciousness. They see sinthetic dreams. These post modernists see a strange, hugely distorted, freakish human being, comments Mr. K.

Now, what I want to know is whether this destorted human being lives amongst us. Are these characters really us? We know that it is not so. That man, that character, is a figure of the west. After the Second World War, there was a massive upheaval in the west. A whole culture was shattered and it disappeared and in this uproar man was turned upside down. Both the ordinary man and the artist were caught up in this stressful distortion. Look at the lives of Virginia Woolf, Dosetovsky, Kafka, Camus etc. They were churned by the horrors and they were affected one way or the other.

After 1971 and 1989 some such things happened to us, but not in the time of Martin Wickremasinghe for instance. But there is a difference. There is a Dhamma which helped us to face and cope with these upheavals. We have a collective conscicusness which helps us to live normal lives even in the midst of war.

That ability to cope comes from a firm and steadfast Buddha vision which was not shattered by events.

So, I cannot see how our writers, film makers, artists have to impart into our art and literature the twisted, capricious lives of these people in the west, said Mr. K.

We have the good fortune to anchor ourselves in the vision of the Buddha Dhamma. We can draw our inspiration from its joyful utterances, the Dhammapada, the Jataka stories, the Theri gathas, the Saddharmaratanavaliya, etc.

This indeed is what Kathleen Jayawardene is trying to do.