28th November 1999
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Ashraff 'talks' with Lord Buddha

By Nilika de Silva and Faraza Farook
"Lord Buddha and the Poet", a poem by Minister M.H.M. Ashraff has created a furore among Buddhist groups.

The poem in Tamil in the Minister's book "Naan Enum Nee" launched recently has perturbed Buddhist organisations, which feel that the poet has desecrated the image of the Buddha.

Minister AshraffIn this lengthy poem the poet has a dialogue with Lord Buddha. While Buddhists argued that Minister Ashraff had ridiculed the Buddha, the Minister pleaded poetic licence as his defence.

Following are excerpts of the interview with Minister Ashraff.

Q: Don't you think you're trying to ridicule the Buddha through this poem ?

A: Where have I ridiculed ?

Q: One place where you say he is stammering, saying 'but, but' and that he's at a loss for words ?

A: No, you see the language of a poet is not the language of an ordinary man. In this poem I'm only submitting a national problem before Lord Buddha.

Q: Would you not have a problem if I wrote a poem saying I was having an interview with Prophet Mohamed? and speaking to him as just another person ?

A: No.

Q: If I command him to speak and I command him to do certain other things ?

A: Nothing wrong. Why can't you communicate through your imagination in poetry? This is an imaginative communication with Lord Buddha.

The fact that I have chosen Lord Buddha to submit this problem itself shows the respect I have for Lord Buddha. It is out of the respect I have for Lord Buddha, that I wrote this, not because I disrespect him.

Q: You say he would be learning Tamil to communicate with the people ?

A: Yes.

Q: You say he would be reborn and speak to the people in Tamil. There are two points there I would like to discuss. One is that you say he will be reborn. In Buddhism that is totally unacceptable. The idea that a Buddha, who has attained Nirvana, be reborn.

A: I think I have made a mistake. I must admit that it is a mistake. So I have stated that he will be born. What is meant in the poetical context, is the birth of a future Buddha.

Q: You are saying he will talk in Tamil?

A: Yes.

Q: You are limiting it to one set of people without it being a universal religion ?

A: Universal religion is alright. The question is in Sri Lanka, Buddhism has been confined to the Sinhala language. All I'm trying to show through this poetry is that the Sinhala language has no connection to the philosophy of the Buddha. 

Q: But you get Buddhist priests preaching in Tamil as well in Sri Lanka?

A: You may have one or two people preaching, but ...

Q: And plenty of books in English.

A: The problem in Sri Lanka, all the problems, such as the war, came about not because we don't want English. Everybody wants English. If English had continued as the official language of this country there would not have been a war in this country. 

Q: People from Japan, come to Sri Lanka to study the religion though you say it is limited to the Sinhalese language.

A: A few people may come. But have you taken the message of Lord Buddha to the Tamil speaking areas of Sri Lanka? In the Tamil speaking areas no Buddhist activity is being done. The message of Lord Buddha has not reached in the Tamil language. That is my point. 

There is another reason why I brought this complaint to Lord Buddha. Most of what I see happening in this country is against the teachings of Lord Buddha. Nobody can deny that. That means either the people have not understood the teachings or they are purposely insulting the teachings of Lord Buddha.

Q: And you have also pointed your finger at the Government, of which you are a part, for the taverns which are flowering...?

A: Not at this government. Any government that is continuing to do these things. All I'm saying is if a government wants to have taverns and issue liquor licences, it is free to do that. But let it not say it is also its duty to foster Buddhism. 

The aim of the poet is to bring out a contradiction. So instead of seeing the contradiction and taking remedial steps, taking me to task does not help anybody.

Q: But you say it is the duty of the poet to bring out the contradiction that is prevailing what is the duty of the politician in power at this point ? 

A: If they realise it...

Q: You as the politician.

A: I have done my duty.

Q: Aren't you going to bring some influence on the government to change things?

A: I have now started sowing the seed. One day the seed will grow. Today I may be the only person who is talking about it. Tomorrow it will be two, three or four, persons and one day the true Buddhists of this country will cry out to close down all these taverns, and to stop everything anti-Buddhist in this country.

Q: You don't consider this true Buddhist to be the present President.?

A: Why do you need to bring the President into this. There are problems in our country. 

On the one hand we have the war, on the other hand is our hypocrisy. We say it is a Buddhist country and it is the duty of the state to foster and promote Buddhism. What is the fostering they are doing?

Look at the question of the war from a Buddhist point of view. Lord Buddha has said do not even hurt an ant. But what are we doing in the name of war.?

Q: But he has said to fight in self defence, if someone is killing you.

A: It's a different matter if somebody is killing you. Are you justifying the war ? It is not self defence.

In this country in the name of war everyday people are being killed. But nobody is looking at it from a Buddhist point of view. Everybody is looking at it from a political point of view. If you can look at it from a Buddhist point of view, I think the solution is much nearer than we think.

Q: What would you consider to be the Buddhist point of view. How would you define it ?

A: The Buddhist point of view is detachment. You don't cling on to power. Lord Buddha taught detachment. Lord Buddha said attachment is the cause of all your sufferings. The ethnic problem in this country from 1956 onwards was about sharing power and the centre was not willing to part with power. The centre was not willing to detach itself from power.

The minorities want to share power. So you must have the broad mindedness to share power. That broad mindedness will be there in a Buddhist atmosphere. If you are not a Buddhist then you will want to cling to power. 

Let us all become religious. If the followers of every religion can become true to their own faith, most of the problems will not be there.

Q: Do you think a Buddhist, the man in the street, will feel you are bringing down his religion in anyway ?

A: Well, I can't help what the man in the street thinks about it. A poem is not written for the man in the street. Poetry has a limited audience and only a few people can understand poetry. The language of a poet is totally different. The poet is in a different world when he writes something. So it should not be taken literally, out of context.

This is a communication between Lord Buddha and the Poet. The very fact that I am addressing Buddha as Lord, is not mentioned by anyone. Even God is addressed as Lord. 

Q: But if you question him as being a bit forgetful? 'Have you forgotten your visits to Sri Lanka'.

A: I speak to him in Sinhala, because I thought he understands Sinhala. But he did not understand. So I (the poet) am surprised as to why Lord Buddha is unable to understand Sinhala. Then I ask him, 'you came to Sri Lanka several times, don't you know Sinhala.?' 

The confusion is on my part, not on the part of Lord Buddha.

I'm an ordinary man. How else can I ask him 'Have you forgotten the fact that you came to Sri Lanka'? I'm just reminding him of an event. So I'll communicate with somebody in my own style. 

You should look at the poem in an overall context. Overall have I insulted him?

'It ridicules Buddhism'

Major General Ananda Weerasekera of the Sinhala Weera Widhanaya has raised many questions regarding Minister Ashraff's poem "Lord Buddha and the Poet", and says it is an attempt to degrade the Buddha.

"True to his understanding of himself he is indeed a lunatic," he said. His view was that Minister Ashraff has taken cover under the phrase 'O Sir I am mad, please forgive me, to get over his objective of insulting the Buddha.

"The fact that Minister Ashraff is still alive inspite of his attitude against the Sinhala Buddhists is the clearest evidence that the Dhamma is very much alive in this land, for in any other land he would have been stoned to death," he said.

The poem has ridiculed the Buddha, the Sasana and the Sinhalese.

Sri Lanka Muslim Katchi Leader Abdul Rasool who made reference to particular lines said the poem had brought out the real man below the surface, and that the poet, a Muslim, has brought a bad name to the whole of his community.

"The line 'Oh Sir I am mad, please forgive me' tells us that the poet is insane and that he admits it through the poem," says Abdul Rasool.

The poet goes on to talk about the injustices taking place within his political realm when he talks about robbery and theft. "He has come out with these facts because of his guilty conscience," Mr. Rasool said. 

The poet's reference to Lord Buddha having learnt Tamil 'after the injustices of 1956' is an obvious reference to Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike's Government. "He is indirectly accusing the leaders who ruled in 1956," Mr. Rasool said.

Mahanayake calls for action

By Shane Seneviratne
The Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter has called on the government to take action against Minister M. H. M. Ashraff for what the prelate sees as an insult to Buddhism through an imaginary dialogue with the Buddha.

"It takes an immense amount of merit to see a Buddha or any other founder of a religion with one's own eyes, and especially to meet a Buddha, a Buddhist must strive for thousands and thousands of lives," the Ven Rambukwelle Sri Vipassi Mahanayake said.

The poem

Lord Buddha and the Poet

One day I met Lord Buddha
He greeted me "How are you, Poet"
I replied in Sinhala
Assuming he would be pleased
Lord Buddha was puzzled
"I do not understand," he said
It was in Sinhala I spoke," I said
He smiled and said that
He does not know Sinhala
"Didn't you come to Sri Lanka long years ago? 
Have you forgotten the history of having taught us
your Dhamma?"
"Yes all that is true but... but". 
"But... What do you mean by but? 
Tell me the truth quickly," I said
Sinhala is a beautiful language
However I conveyed my Dhamma
In a different language, he said
"If that be so, when did you learn Tamil," I asked
"After the injustice of 1956," he said
"Even my message and values are dying" 
With sadness, He began....
Do you say this even after witnessing the flowering of Your statues all over Sri Lanka
Lord Buddha replied me
"Because the truth has gone to deep slumber
And jealousy is flying all over
There is no place untouched
By robbery and theft, 
The government displaying
The taverns as its sign of commitment to the Sasana
The souls have plunged
As a result of being surrounded
By gambling centres
And dances
Of the naked damsels
Competition and destruction of human life
Have increased
In the name of war and struggle, 
The frustrations of the poor
Became a bonfire
For the inflamed economy,
And the peace I gained under the Bodhi tree
Gets more and more distant everyday
The art I discovered to conquer
Sadness appears to be dying
Lord Buddha declared. 
"Sir, you are the Great Lord Buddha, 
It's not correct for you to be worried," I said
Lord Buddha thereupon gave me a smile
"Are you now okay, 
You may now smile," I said
Lord Buddha looked at me once again
"Saints neither smile nor laugh, 
Nor do they worry" 
When their followers flout their rules
I began to understand the language of his eyes
"Oh Sir, I am mad, please forgive me," I said
Buddha looked at me once more
Again did he give me a flowery smile, 
"Oh Lord, Why not you pray for our dying nation?" 
I asked
He said, "I can see a way out of this problem" 
"I want to teach the Dhamma once again
In a language they understand" 
"But you don't know Sinhala
How will you do that," I asked
"I want to know whether these people will learn Tamil
At least in order to communicate with me".
"I will be reborn in Sri Lanka very soon
I shall abide by a new rule to teach my Dhamma in
Tamil soon," said he, 
Having heard him, the Red Lotus flowers
At his feet began to sing in happiness, 
The skies too were pleased to hear them. 
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