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Professor P. D. Premasiri - Buddhist philosopher and teacher

KANDY: Senior Professor P. D. Premasiri of Peradeniya University retires from his university service at the end of this year after 42 years of long teaching career.

Amidst his numerous professional activities, he has been the President of Sri Lanka Association for Buddhist Studies (SLABS) from its inception. He will deliver the Presidential Address at the evening session of the 2nd International Conference of SLABS at Mahaweli Reach, Kandy tonight.

An anthology of his academic papers, Studies in Buddhist Philosophy and Religion, is scheduled to be released at this event. This discussion is meant to assess the impact of Professor Premasiri's philosophy and professional life to the field of Buddhist studies at this important juncture of his life.

It is impossible to discuss comprehensively within the limits of a newspaper article the impact of Professor P. D. Premasiri's practice of Buddhist philosophy and teaching which spans through 42 years.

Prof. Premasiri has been a man dedicated for teaching and developing a philosophy of life based on the principles of Buddhist philosophy.

He will undoubtedly continue to do both, and many more related things with a renewed sense of dedication once he is released from the bonds of being institutionally employed.

In the modern sense of the term, 'philosophy', like engineer or doctor, is one who has got a certificate from a professional body certifying that he can teach philosophy.

He completed this ritual in 1980 when he received his doctorate from University of Hawaii at Manoa, winning an East West Centre fellowship and studying from such eminent philosophers as David J. Kalupahana and Eliot Deutsch.

The theme of his dissertation was "Moral Evaluation in Early Buddhism: From the Perspective of Western Philosophical Analysis."

He started in 1959 at Peradeniya, studying Pali, Buddhist Civilization and Sinhala and choosing Pali as his specialized subject and he completed getting First Class pass and was invited to join the Peradeniya academic staff as early as 1964.

In 1965, he went to Cambridge, opted to study western ethics and the result was a second BA completing part one and two of Moral Sciences Tripose, the standard of studies in ethics, undisputed world over.

When he joined the Hawaii Philosophy Department, he already had substantial training as a teacher with recognised the qualifications in the field of Buddhism and studies in moral.

This background makes him eminently qualified to be called a 'philosopher' in its professional sense.

In this discussion, however, that is not exactly the sense, I mean to use this term to refer to him. In the traditional sense of the term, a philosopher, 'daarshanikaya' in Sinhala, means one who has a view of life and a set of attitudes fit to be emulated by the rest of the people.

Examining the development of his long professional career and social engagement, we see a philosopher based on the basic principles of Buddhism emerging.

Although his professional career could have a time limit his life as a philosopher cannot have a formal end or age-based limits. In this sense, he will continue to be a philosopher well far beyond his professional life.

He started as a member of the staff of Pali and Buddhist Civilization Departments. Subsequently when these Departments were uprooted in 1970 from Peradeniya under the ill-conceived and ill-fated 'university reorganisation', he joined the Department of Philosophy and taught ethics and psychology till he was appointed in 1966 to the Peradeniya Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies after the retirement of Professor Lily de Silva, where he still continues to serve.

During this period, he has also taught Buddhist philosophy outside Sri Lanka as time permitted. In 1988/89 academic year, he was the Visiting Professor on Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence Programme and taught at Colby College Waterville, Maine.

In 1999 he served as a Guest Researcher at Department of Philosophy of Burgen University, Norway, and in 2000, he taught at the Department of Religion of the same university. He has also taught from time to time at the Buddhist College in Singapore, Thanghsian Institution, Malaysia and Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society in Singapore.

This is in addition to numerous instances of lecturing on Buddhist philosophy at national and international academic gatherings.

His published research has been focused basically on ethics, epistemology and psychology in Buddhism. All these papers cover a broad area of what can be described as comparative religious and philosophical studies.

He represents a unique combination of best of both Buddhist and western philosophical studies first at Peradeniya and subsequently at Cambridge and Hawaii.

The University of Hawaii's Department of Philosophy is well known for its Comparative Philosophy and marks the logical conclusion of his academic orientation.

The late Professor K. N. Jayatilleke had already completed his monumental work in early Buddhist epistemology, giving for the rest time a definitive reading to the Buddhist theory of knowledge from the point of view of British analytical philosophy.

His other teachers among whom were Jotiya Dheerasekera (presently Venerable Professor Dhammavihari) and Kalupahana, had this broad outlook with their exposure to the British intellectual tradition, he is basically an outcome of this sophisticated academic outlook.

TBeing a life member of Sarvodaya, he has actively participated in shramadana camps along with Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne. UDANA is a relief organisation founded by him in the aftermath of tsunami catastrophe to help needy schoolchildren.

He serves as the Vice-President of Centre for Buddhism International, an organisation working for social welfare basing itself on the teaching of the Buddha.

He is a member of the Board of Management of Buddhist Publication Society (BPS), Kandy, an organisation known in many parts of the world for its quality publications in Buddhism.

He founded the society for the Integration of Science and Human Values (SISHVA), and the name says all about the organisation. Working for the qualitative improvement of the field of Buddhist studies has been a long cherished preoccupation of him. He continues to serve as the President of Sri Lanka Association for Buddhist Studies (SLABS) from its very inception.

With his newly acquired freedom, he will surely be better positioned to work for his own personal development as well as the uplift of the happiness and well-being of others.

Those of us who have still to keep going through the tread mill tend to feel envious of those who escape the net. I take this opportunity to wish Professor P. D. Premasiri good health, longevity and happiness for the years to come.

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