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Buddhist spectrum

Post 1956 growth of Buddhism

A reflection on Dr. Ambedkar and Deeksha Bhoomi Stupa:

Deeksha Bhoomi

In the study of Buddhism in India, the history of Buddhist writings plagiarising the historians is not so relevant; the present situation of Buddhism in India, the native land of the Buddha and Buddhism is more relevant. The history of Buddhism is a well researched by those at the Archaeological Survey of India and Indian academics. This is an attempt to showcase the present situation of Buddhism in India.

You must have travelled widely in India many times and also should have an Indian mind. I am a descendant of Malava (Madhya Pradesh near Ujjain and Sanchi) of Vaisyasettis, (merchant class), whose surname Jayetilleke still exists in Malava, of bankers such as Jaitilak and Jaiswal. Thus this maternal and paternal Indian connection gives me the right insights into the mindset of Indians.

Buddha Jayanthi glamour

The Buddha Jayanthi year 1956 marked a milestone in the chequered history of Buddhism in India. The historic event of 2500 years, which started with the Maha Parinirvana of the Buddha in 544 BC at Kusinara (Kushonsgar or Kasi (in Uttar Pradesh of modern times), was celebrated throughout the world.

The Government of India and the state governments drew ambitious programs to celebrate this event. While laying the foundation stone of the Buddha Jayanthi Memorial Park on the New Delhi Ridge on 23 May 1956, India’s Prime Minister Shri Jawaharlal Nehru said, “The 2500th Buddha Jayanthi Celebrations signify the homecoming of the Buddha.”

The speechmaking event of 1956 Maha Buddha Jayanthi celebrations took place at Nagpur (Maharashtra State) on October 14, 1956, when Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (a lawyer as well as an outstanding professional economist with Doctorate from Columbia University USA and DSc from the London School of Economics, and the chairman of the independent India constitution Drafting Committee Chairman in 1947) embraced Buddhism along with half a million followers of his Mahar caste at an impressive and historic ceremony at Nagpur and giving a clarion call to his people to take permanent refuge in the Buddha Dhamma.

Though 83.6 percent of the total population of India are followers of Hinduism, Hindus consider Gautama Buddha of the 6th century BC as the ninth incarnation of God Vishnu and the tenth incarnation the future Maitriya Buddha. Hindus in India, therefore, joined in the celebrations most enthusiastically too.

Dr. Ambedkar addressing the gathering in an emotional voice: “I started the movement of renouncing the Hindu religion in 1935, and since then I have been continuing the struggle. This conversion has given me enormous satisfaction and pleasure unimaginable. I feel I have been liberated from hell.” This hell means caste marginalization of his people. At the Yeola Conference in 1935 in Nashim District of Maharashtra Dr. Ambedkar commented: “Though I was born a Hindu, I would not die a Hindu.” ‘Ambedkar Era of Indian Buddhism’ was thus born in India.

Demise of a great philosopher

Unfortunately, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar passed away just 52 days after the Great Buddha Jayanthi Celebrations at Nagpur, on October 14, 1956. This was an irreplaceable loss to his people and they felt orphaned. However they, as Buddhists, faced the tragedy with great courage and strength of mind. They not only marched forward without their revered leader, but they also thought of raising a fitting memorial at this site of this great ceremony of conversion.

On a request made by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Smarak Samiti, Nagpur, the Government of Maharashtra graciously gave the entire 14-acre land, where the Deeksha ceremony was held, free of charge. The land was formally handed over to the Smarak Samiti by Yashwantrao B. Chavan, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, on May 30, 1961.

The grand Memorial Stupa, which had been under construction for more than 30 years, is now completed. It is the greatest landmark in the architectural heritage of Nagpur. Unlike the ancient Stupas of Sanchi of the 2nd century BC (Madhya Pradesh of India) the Deeksha Bhoomi Stupa is a stupa-shaped auditorium for mass community gatherings. Its basement contains living space for the Bhikkhus and smaller meeting rooms. At the centre of the structure at basement level, a small stupa marks the place where Dr. Ambedkar stood at the time of embracing Buddhism.

The first floor of Memorial Stupa is a large hall which could accommodate more than five thousand people at a time. This is the largest hall of this type in entire India.

The frontal appearance of the Deeksha Bhoomi Stupa is like that of Sanchi Stupa with a diametre of 120 feet, and the height of the Dome is also 120 feet. The Deeksha Bhoomi also has a Buddha Vihara, Bhikkhu Niwas and a flourishing Bodhi Tree.

These were all established by Punjabi monk Bhadant Anand Kausalyayan, who stayed at Deeksha Bhoomi from 1969-1982, making Deeksha Bhoomi a living Buddhist shrine.


Deity-concept in Buddhism

No one can challenge deities. Certain Pirith chanting in Buddhism are also centred round deities. Ratana Sutta is one such example. When the city of Visala suffered from a famine, the Buddha visited the place and chanted the Ratana Sutta! He then offered a bowl of Pirith Pan to Ven. Ananda Thera and asked him to sprinkle the water throughout the city to ward off the danger. Deity Maha Brahma then expressed his elation by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Dedimunda Devalaya

Buddhism and its relationship with the concept of deities has been a topic of discussion and debate since antiquity. Many newspaper articles have been written on the subject. But no one can rule out the concept of deities. It is truly a living thing.

Buddha Dhamma refers to deities and the relationship among deities in many instances.

An example is the Maha Sammata Sutta, delivered to deities. The Buddha, in this Sutta, refers to a deity named Subbramanya. The deity Subbramanya had visited the Buddha many times in his life. The Buddha once suggested that Subbramanya should visit a village called Kacharan, which was then a part of Jambuddeepa.

Kacharan is the present-day Kataragama. The late Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Mahanayake Thera once told me that life could be exchanged. He said “Meetiyagoda! Now I am 94 years old. If I want I can live for another 94 years. But I have to toil for two years to do that”.

Encounter with a great monk

Once I attended a Sanghika dana at the residence of the late Deputy Defence Minister Gen. Ranjan Wijeratne with the late Ven. Ananda Maitreya Mahanayake Thera.

On our way back, the Mahanayke Thera suggested they should visit Ven. Wathuregama Somalankara Nayaka Thera, then popularly known as Kolonnawe Hamuduruwo. Seeing the Mahanayake Thera, Ven. Somalankara offered him a seat and asked him: “Aren’t you suffering from a knee ailment?” The Mahanayake Thera answered in the affirmative.

Ven. Ananda Maitreya Mahanayake Thera then said “I know two veteran astrologers. One of them is Kolonnawe Hamuduruwo and the other Kasthuriratna of Bandarawela.

I know personally that both Ven. Ananda Maitreya Mahanayake Thera and Ven. Wathuregama Somalankara Thera had the blessings of deities.

No one can challenge deities. Certain Pirith chanting in Buddhism are also centred round deities. Ratana Sutta is one such example. When the city of Visala suffered from a famine, the Buddha visited the place and chanted the Ratana Sutta! He then offered a bowl of Pirith Pan to Ven. Ananda Thera and asked him to sprinkle the water throughout the city to ward off the danger. Deity Maha Brahma then expressed his elation by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

A blessed country

Our country has the blessings of deities. They protect our country, nation and religion. We also have special places which receive the blessings of deities. Kelaniya and Kithsiri Mevan Kelaniya are the foremost.

Maha Mangala Sutta was first chanted at the request of deities. A powerful deity had arrived at the Jethavanaramaya spreading a strong beam when the Buddha was up at midnight.

Many religions are centred round deities. Buddhism and Hinduism have special references to deities. Buddhists talk of ‘Nibbana’. Christians talk of ‘heaven’. Both these, I think, are the same.

Divine support

Recently I met a Sri Lankan domiciled in England at a certain Devalaya. He had come to conduct a thanksgiving pooja to deities for helping him obtain a visa to visit Sri Lanka to attend his daughter’s wedding.

When he first went to the Immigration and Emigration office in London, to obtain permission to visit Sri Lanka, his application was turned down on grounds of lacking proper documents. He then spoke to his daughter in Sri Lanka and asked her to visit this devalaya and offer a pooja on his behalf seeking the intervention of deities to gain the necessary permission to visit Sri Lanka. The very next time he visited the Immigration office he miraculously found all the necessary documents there and received clearance to visit Sri Lanka. I even saw Christians and people of other faiths conducting poojas at Devalayas.

Belief in deities and seeking their blessings in time of difficulties have been a tradition among our people for generations.

We have also heard of powerful deities such as Minneri, Senkada, Galebandara and Suniyam. Apart from this, people believe that there are Gambhara deities in charge of each and every village. Villagers conduct poojas for the ‘Gambhara’ deity before starting cultivation activities.

Therefore no one can easily dismiss people’s belief in deities. May the blessings of the Triple Gem and deities be with all.


Swarnatilaka’s attire

Swarnatilaka was late anyway. She did not want to miss Ven. Nanaponika’s Dhamma talk either. Nanaponika became a monk at 27, so he was well familiar with practical lay life. Both adults and young thronged around him for advice.

The Dhamma discussion was supposed to start at seven, but Swarnatilaka was off duty only by six. She worked mighty hard when her mates just lazed around. Her pay was pretty peanuts - compared with her workload - but she was more concerned about her own conscience. She would owe nothing to the workplace when she packs her bags one day either because of walking papers or on her own.

A Dhamma desana

She was still in the work attire - it was in colour, white background with a mixed touch of red, green and purple.

She knew she had to wear white - the symbol of purity - to temple. But it takes an hour to get home. She would for sure miss the talk, if she is to head home and get into white robes.

Swarnatilaka had to choose. She did so. She chose the straight route to the temple, and thought the priest would understand her.

She got to the temple just in time: it was five past seven. She took a vacant seat in the middle row.

Her lively wardrobe caused unease among her neighbours: Mrs. Samaraweera and Kodituwakku in particular. Swarnatilaka’s mind was fixed on the Dhamma talk serenely unaware of what comes off around her.

“This courtier lived during the Buddha’s time. He had a very luxurious dress code, because he liked to wear good and proper. But anyone hardly knew this man had attained Sotapanna stage.

No one noticed that because he was just like another courtier living a luxurious life.”

Mrs. Samaraweera’s voice inched along.

“Look at this girl. How indecent she is. Wonder what her school has taught her. What do you think she doesn’t know she should wear white to temple?”

Swarnatilaka could not just sponge off Mrs. Kodituwakku’s response that moved across her mind.

“Her parents are so mean. She is working for a bank, no, that’s why. Bet she has a crush on the monk, otherwise do you think this chit of a girl is ever in for Dhamma talks?” One or two pious ladies butted in:

“Hm... I think she should be having a crush. ... may be to tempt the monk. But don’t I know of our monk? ... he doesn’t care for this saucy miss red...”

“Exactly. Know what, red is for lust. ... heard it tempts men. Whatever you say, this monk is still young. Who in the world knows what’s going on? We never know.”

“See, she looks at the monk like she is going to wolf down him. Should tell my son to stay away from this slut. She is really up to something...”

Whispers reached her in fragments, yet it was so hard on her. She wanted to drift her mind back to the talk, though she knew it was the toughest thing to do. Ven. Nanaponika went ahead, probably unaware of what is going on.

“Strange enough this courtier was so composed. Buddha took this opportunity to explain that the garment alone cannot decide a man. Everybody was surprised when Buddha said the courtier had attained Sotapanna. The courtier wore luxuriously because he was a professional and above all, still a layman.”

Mrs Kodituwakku and company didn’t even know when the talk switched to Q&A session. These two devotees usually steal the show in the session; they snigger at others by showing off their ‘unmatched’ intellect.

Swarnatilaka wanted to ask a question.

“Venerable, are you trying to say that the garment is not that important?”

“No Swarnatilaka. Absolutely not. Dress is important, but ‘less’. There are limits.

You cannot wear knee-length robes to the temple, it’s indecent. You should avoid them. Take your case for example. You have come from work. I know yours is colourful, not so good for the temple. But if you go home, change and come back, you miss a good part of today’s Dhamma talk.”

“Why do you have a dress code for the temple then?”

“You should wear white out of respect to the temple. Temple is a revered place. We should not wear any kind of dress we come by. But on the other hand, there are people who wear white, but their minds are elsewhere.

While you listened to me, many white-outfit ladies had their own things to sort out.”

Devotees sensed something had gone wrong. Mrs Samaraweera rose to object.

“How can you say that Venerable? We were talking about what you had been preaching.”

“Did I say it’s you, Mrs. Samaraweera? But you admitted it yourself. Ok, tell me what’s the point of this Q&A session, if you have personal talks among yourselves? You should share Dhamma with everyone.”

Then the monk wanted to wind up the session:

“You all are learned people. But most of you did not want to listen to me, because Swarnatilaka’s dress bothered you. Don’t think I didn’t observe you, most of you were glaring at this child. Listen, she did not wear anything indecent.

She came here in what she wore to office. She listened to me all throughout while you were busy gibbering nonsense of her outfit. You adults should be happy that a young child like Swarnatilaka came here on her own for this Dhamma talk. That’s what counts more than your attire.”

The audience then rose to reach home. Individual talks with the monk did not follow as usual.

Swarnatilaka could see the pious ladies on the run, but she did not stay in for another question or two; she feared more pointblank wrath from the intellectual audience.

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