A Buddhist Research Conference with a difference

A bronze figure of bodhisattva Maitreya

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

I took the advice offered to me from certain quarters to pay my attention to more sublime matters than busy myself with day to day community problems like the issue of garbage dumped on the road at the entrance to our lane and issues of public sanitation. So walking past the garbage mound without even looking at it last weekend

I found the 4th National Conference on Buddhist Studies which was held a few hundred metres away at the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress at Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7 from August 3oth to 31,2008, a welcome departure for my mind made weary with over- doses of detracting information on worldly matters like conflicts, claims of denial of human rights et al with which we are inundated these days.

I found the Buddhist Study Conference sessions this year an event to remember and reflect upon in organizing future events of that kind.

I myself read a paper at the 3rd Session of the Conference last year but this time I could participate only as an onlooker on account of my being pre-occupied with some family matters and community issues I referred to earlier. A few days back when Dr.Hema Goonetileke who coordinated the affairs of the Conference asked me to participate in the sessions at least as an observer, I was in bad shape, almost in a depressed state following an accident but she insisted that all my problems would vanish when I attend the Conference sessions. True to her words, I found myself actively involved in the discussions and my personal concerns disappeared by the end of the second day of the Conference. I thought I should put pen to paper to present a few observations on the proceedings for the benefit of readers of the newspaper.

The Conference this time which was sponsored by the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka in association with The Buddhist Times Trust and ‘Bodu Sahana Aramudala,’ was graced by the much respected Savant, Professor Emeritus, Dr.N.A.Jayawickrema, who was a leading light in Pali and Buddhist Studies our days at the University of Ceylon; and by Emeritus Professor, Dr. Y. Karunadasa, who is currently Visiting Professor in Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong, who came all the way for the occasion. Delivering the inaugural address on the theme "The Buddhist Philosophy of Ideologies" Prof.Karunadasa set the tone for the high standard that the entire Conference maintained this time.

What this learned scholar presented was some thing distinct from other studies on psychology, some thing unique and distinctively and characteristically Buddhist with no parallel in any other religion or philosophy either in the East or West. It was the diagnosis of the origin of ideological position by delving deep into their psychological mainsprings of Buddhism. It meant besides many other factors based on logic, epistemology and ontology, that Buddhism took into consideration, the psychological dispositions which serve as causative factors for the emergence of ideological positions –that one’s desires expectations have a direct impact on what one chooses to believe in. From a Buddhist perspective, in any critique of ideological positions logical and philosophical arguments should be supplemented with a psychological diagnosis of their causal genesis, he observed.

Other such topics of discussions which could be grouped under a single class were "Know Macrocosm to Microcosm: An Early Buddhist Perspective" presented by Prof. G.A.Somaratne; the "Concept of Compassion in Buddhist Philosophy and its Neurological Basis,"presented by Dr. S. V. Prabhu of the Department of Neurosurgery, Western India Institute of Neuroscience, Kolhapur, India; The "Conception between Ego (atta) Consciousness and Unsatisfactory Experience (Dukkha) presented by Bhikkuni Dhammananda,post graduate student of University of Kelaniya; "Samsaric Circuit and the Ethics that emerge from it" presented by Bhikkuni Waskaduwe Suvimalee; "Vipassana Meditation as a Technique of Psychotherapy: A case Study on the Use of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy in Sri Lanka presented by Dr. Piyanjali de Zoysa, of the Department of Psychological Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Colombo; "Effectiveness of Eight Fold Path in transforming Discriminate Consciousness to Pure Consciousness: A Qualitative Self Inquiry" by Dr.W.M.Gunathunga, and "Nutana Mano-roga sanvarddhanayata Budu dahamin gata heki Abyasa" a presentation in Sinhala by P.R.Vasantha Priyadarshana, of Buddhist and Pali University.

Of these, Dr.Prabhu’s paper attracted my attention most as providing a template for further research. His disclosure that highest evolved living beings on this planet were equipped with tools of compassion in their brains and that mirror neurons was a concept that was revolutionizing psychology and philosophy which he illustrated with diagrams was an eye-opener into the idea of ‘Compassion" which is a principal tenet in teachings in Buddhism. Taking concepts from Buddhist texts and establishing their correlates in neurosciences, the author proposed that answers to questions like why one feels better with practice of compassion and why it would be useful at an individual’s life could be obtained by exploring neuronal correlates of one’s conscious experience.

My thoughts were drawn to the Australian Professor, John Carew Eccles who was doing research at John Curtin School of Medical Research as its Foundation Professor, at the then recently established National University of Australia where I spent my leisure hours while I was attached to the Ceylon High Commission in Canberra. Professor Carew had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine (1963) sharing it with two others, who researched on in unlocking the mysteries of the Mind. One of his early associates and team-mate in studying the actions of chemical substances on the transmission of nerve impulses to muscles was Professor Bernard Krutz, a refugee from Nazi Germany.

Prof. Crew, as a good Roman Catholic, while rejecting other explanations of the functioning of the brain, included both the philosophical and the anatomical in the course of his research, which went further than anyone had previously gone into concerning whether, or how, both physical and mental states might exist or interact in the nervous system. Professor Crew took the scientific exploration of the mind and brain as far as anyone had been able to push at that time, but had to concede that perhaps the meaning of life might always be a mystery. Dr.Prabhu’s contribution now opens the field for further research.

A variety of other subjects were discussed including a petition sent by the people of Raigam,Salpiti and Hewagam Korales in 1826 to Governor Edward Barnes presenting the problems the Buddhists faced in observing their religion despite the legal provision made for the enjoyment of that freedom because of the activities of Missionaries under British rule who desecrated Buddhist objects of worship including trampling upon Buddha images in the presence of devotees, and by organising thugs to enter Buddhist temples on religious days to harass and frighten them and forcibly distributing Christian literature. In retrospect, it would be evident that given the state of discrimination and denial of human rights especially after the rebellions of 1818 and 1848 after and again in 1914, the Buddhist majority did not respond to that situation after Independence but bore the situation with the Buddhist sense of equanimity. Attempts have been made to portray the political development in the year 1956 as a watershed in that attitude but it is important to understand the ignominies suffered by the Buddhists under colonial rule to explain that some sort of reaction was inevitable given the nature of human behavior in any part of the world. It is a wonder that the people here did not respond with a revolution as they did in America, China or in Iran given the nature of the suffering of and denials of liberty including the freedom of worship which Sri Lankan Buddhist majority had to go through. .

An extension to this study of the pacific way the Buddhists reacted under colonial rule, was a paper entitled "Changing Faces of Religious Colonialism" presented by Ramani Samarasinghe. She pointed out that the so called "Conflict Resolution" or the "taming of locals" has become an adujunct to changing peoples’ belief systems.

In a paper entitled " The beginning of Buddhism in Manchester and Challenges to its Development," Mahes Wijesiri outlined how the start was made in the city of Manchester, in the home of Professor Rhys Davids and his wife at Preswitch. Buddhist knowledge developed its core at University of Manchester, a city liberal and innovative in politics, with Professor Rhys Davids holding the Chair of Comparative Religion in 1905. The studies developed under Professor Trevor Ling and Lance Cousins. In 1993, Ven.Anada Maittriya, Lance Cousins and a Cambodian monk Chandawanna agreed on a format of meditation suited to English temperament and the University ethos calling it ‘Samatha’ meditation based on Pali traditions in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka. In the larger background lay the landscape of spiritual wasteland of the West with high intellectual endeavour. The growth and expansion of Buddhism had its intellectual challenge through institutional hostility. The followers of religions of the Abrahamic tradition and later Hindus joined together against the Buddhists, as a "faith" versus " non-faith" and denied Buddhism the status of a religion; the libraries had all Buddhist books removed and refused to order any Buddhist books. After nearly a century, the Department of Comparative Religions at Manchester University begun by Rhys Davids was changed to the "Department of Theology " forcing Lane Cousins to early retirement. Religious freedom eh? The situation then was no second to what I saw in Chinese Universities soon after the Communist revolution when books on and relating to Buddhism were thrown out of the Universities and I myself picked up a few of them including printed manuscripts in the open bazaar of Beijing.

Dr.Hema Goonetilake’s presentation on the contribution of Paul Carus to the East-West Budhist discourse was also a paper which treated early contributions by foreigners to to the study and poplarisation of Buddhism in the West. Little known facts were placed before the audience. Dr.Susantha Goonatilake presented a critique of the idea of Anuradhapura as a "Theocracy" presented by Conningham and Lankan colleagues. He drew attention to the fallacy of equating the irrigation system of Sri Lanka with those of Indonesia, Cambodia and Pre Columbian states. He observed that Conningham’s works was Janus-faced, one consisting of good physical archaeology and the second consisting of an extreme lack of a multidisciplinary contextual knowledge in interpreting physical data.

Several presentations were made by the younger generation of researchers on subjects like ‘Bodhi Puja’ as a therapatic belief,’ ‘ancient ‘Ariyawansa ‘ceremony’, ‘ Feminine Beauty in Buddhist Art’, ‘Buddhism and Women in Anuradhapura period,’ "Date of Parinabbana of the Buddha-a comparison of Mahayana and Theravada traditions," and several other topics..

Prof.Nimal de Silva presented a study on "Bodhisattva Avaliokitesvara and Maitriya in Sinhalese Buddhism." During the discussion of the subject it was pointed out that the Avalokitesvara worship which had been popular in Sri Lanka had emphasized on the compassionate side of the Bodhisattva rather than on his other qualities recommended in Mahayana texts for meditation on him, and that the pantheon in which he was represented in Mahayana Buddhism as a Bodhisattva in attendance on Dyani Buddha Amitabha was absent in Sri Lanka. No sculptures of Amitabha have been yet found here. The evidence pointed to the Avaloiktesvara cult here as one introduced under the influence of maritime trade as in South East Asia and that ports like Trincomalee, Weligama and Totagamuva had shrines dedicated this Bodhisattva. The temples in Trincomalee, as stated by Fernao de Queyroz, were, in fact, Buddhist shrines under the supervision of Mahaterunnanse ( Sangha-raja) of Arakan administered by a local Terunnanse and Ganinanses at the time the Portuguese destroyed the place. The Avalokitesvara statue at Weligama had miraculously escaped destruction by the Portuguese. At Totagamuva Avalokitesvara was worshiped during the Kotte period under the name ‘Natha’ (‘Nathindu’ in Sandesa poems) while at Weligama, he was worshipped as ‘Kushtaraja" which was another under the appellation of Avalokitesvara.

All 31papers presented cannot be commented upon due to space constraints.

While the Conference sessions this year were well attended in consideration of the selective nature of research, it would have been appreciated if there was a greater participation by the scholarly community and if even non- Buddhists too had been invited to participate as there was much knowledge disseminated on interpretations of Buddhist teachings which it would be useful even for non-Buddhists t learn about.

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