Buddha's teachings and realities of modern life
Findings of Gautama Buddha on the Fundamental Realities of Existence by Dr. Earnest Abeyaratna. Reviewed
by Prof. M.H.F. Jayasuriya

The author of this little book or ' essay' as he himself calls it was at one time the Director of Agriculture. As such, he was essentially a man of science, but unlike the usual scientist, he appears to have had a receptive and discerning mind, not only in his scientific pursuits but also in his outlook on the meaning of life in general.

Though he was born and brought up in a god-fearing Anglican family, he appears to have become disillusioned early in his life with the faith of his ancestors and drawn towards a critical study of the Buddha Dhamma,.

Here he soon found the answers to the questions which had been vexing him all along. This little book of 54 pages which was written by Dr. Abeyaratna in the evening of his life, bears testimony to his firm belief and conviction in the validity of the Dhamma as a healing balm for the ills of the modern world.

The book consists of two parts. Part I is a general survey of the familiar, yet core concepts of the Dhamma - the four noble Truths, the three singnata (anicca, dukkha and anatta), kamma (the Law of moral causation & rebirth), paticca samutpada (Dependent Origination, which is the 'piece de resistance' of Buddhist Thought), all these and many more are explained from the point of view of a trained scientist.

From here, he goes on to describe the Noble Eightfold Path, following its traditional threefold division into sila (moral practice) samadhi (mind culture), culminating in panna (the liberating knowledge of things as they really are).

The truth of anatta, the Buddha's unique teaching that, in reality, all compounded things, man included are lacking in a self or abiding substance (atta) is discussed in depth.

The practice of meditation which results in the purification of mind, morality and right view (sammaditthi), has rightly been emphasised as the pivotal factor in the whole process of liberation.

Part II of this book discusses the implications of the Buddha's findings for modern life.

The Dhamma and its relation to other religions is examined with an open mind. The scientific and empirical nature of the Buddha's discoveries being such as to ensure the universal validity of the Dhamma for as long as life exists.

For readers, both young and old, especially those who like the author are looking beyond their traditional and ancestral beliefs for a more reasoned and rational explanation of life's realities and complexities, this little book should serve as a stepping-stone for further serious study of the Buddha Dhamma.

Tragedy of Lanka in the light of political ideologies
Book reivew
Antima Satana (The Final Struggle)-by Dr. Sarath Amunugama. Reviewed
by Dhammike Amarasinghe

In a public lecture delivered at the Peradeniya University in the '60s, the late Prof. W.S. Karunaratna said that the biggest lacuna in contemporary Sinhala literature is the paucity of books which stimulate thinking.

Dr. Sarath Amunugama's recent book Antima Satana stimulates thinking, whether one agrees with all his conclusions or not. Indeed some of the detail of his analysis is likely to be controversial although one might go along with his basic theses.

The test of a work of social criticism is whether the writer raises relevant issues and whether they are subjected to critical analysis. By this criterion Dr. Amunugama's book deserves a discriminating reader's attention. It is one of the best books published in Sinhala in recent times.

The sub title of this book is "an examination of political ideologies". However, one must not form the impression that it is purely an academic text on political theory. The rather extended first chapter which takes its title from the book itself deals exhaustively with current and past political ideologies. The treatment is more thematic than sequential.

The other four chapters are devoted to a critical examination of the present state of affairs in Sri Lanka in the light of the theoretical exposition in the opening chapter.

It would be natural for any reader to expect that in an examination of current problems a writer who is actively engaged in politics would take a partisan stand. However, and not surprisingly at that.

Dr. Amunugama has not permitted the politician in him to get the better of the social scientist. Indeed if in the course of this book the author shows any nostalgic affection it is towards the LSSP which he at the same time subjects to a withering criticism.

The title of this book also is perhaps inspired by the well-known LSSP anthem. (However, the final battle he proposes for the LSSP in a separate chapter is different in strategy if not in ultimate objective from the original scenario.) Far from being partisan, Dr. Amunugama in fact indicts his whole tribe - the politician as a species. At one point he says, "It will therefore be seen that it is the politicians of both sides who have made the economy a disaster.

In the name of state intervention they have sent public funds down the drain." (p.32 my translation.)

The main theme of the first chapter which deals with political ideologies is the ability of capitalism to overcome its contradictions as not foreseen by Marx.

Capitalism has become the dominant economic system in the modern world, together with the advent of social democracy as the high water mark of the democratic tradition.

The next chapter is devoted to a criticism of the vision and the performance of the LSSP. It is the author's thesis that if not for its doctrinaire adherence to Trotskyism, and Marxism in general, the LSSP could have served the country better.

In spite of his harsh criticism the blinkered vision of the hard core Trotskyite ideologues of the LSSP, the author has generous praise for the LSSP's contribution to the upliftment of the down trodden and for its principled espousal of the cause of the minorities.

He singles out the late Dr. N.M. Perera as a stalwart whose competence the country could not benefit from adequately due to the LSSP's dogmatic world view.

In this chapter the author suggests the need for the LSSP to make a realistic reassessment of world trends and turn to social democracy so that it may refurbish its political heritage in the service of those at the bottom of the pile.

To my mind the most important chapter in this book is the third, the title of which may be most aptly and idiomatically translated as "The mess we have got into" (The original takes from the title of a novel by Piyadasa Sirisena, the early 20th century writer who bemoaned the then decadence of Sinhala society as he saw it).

As can be expected "the mess" is the present tragedy of Sri Lanka in all its aspects. As mentioned earlier the story would have been complete with a more detailed and searching inquiry into the lack of foresight, recurring breaches of faith and down right chicanery which brought us into this sorry pass. Anyway the author who as a practising politician has to be circumspect in sensitive areas goes as far as he dares. In other areas he is more open and does not spare even his kind as seen in the quotation given earlier.

The faulty education and language media policy pursued for long years comes in for deserved condemnation. Till as late as the 1950s we had rural children from ordinary homes learning English and competing on equal terms with those from English speaking homes. (In fact by the late '50s we had a bi-lingual generation: of which the author himself - though not from a rural school himself - is a distinguished member.)

When the need of the hour was to give the tool of an international language to more and more rural children (while fostering our own languages and culture) and thus give them access to the world of ever advancing scientific knowledge we shut ourselves up from the world. We threw away even what we had. The author's iconoclasm in relation to this and some other relevant subjects is refreshing.

However, there are many more icons to blast if we are ever to progress as a nation. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore titles his memories. "From Third World to First".

If any of our leaders took it into his head to write his memoirs (God forbid) the most apt title would be "From the Third World to the Underworld".

The fourth chapter deals with media freedom and media responsibility. In the last chapter the author reverts to the subject of education and elaborates on the educational issues raised earlier on.

Much of the text is interspersed with anecdotal references. The author draws heavily on his varied experiences as an academic researcher, civil servant, international civil servant and politician.

This adds to the readability of the book. He has adopted a post-modern style of interspersing philosophical analysis with a first person narrative. This enables him to bring an immediacy to the subjects under discussion which we rarely see in Sinhala writing.

He employs a simple and lucid style which helps in introducing modern political concepts to a wide readership, including political activists. At least a few discerning readers would have benefited if the titles of the works of the large numbers of writers referred to had been indicated in footnotes or a bibliography.

Unfortunately only a few in our country seem to have yet realised the gravity of the all pervading crisis we are facing today as a nation. We still continue to bask in ancient glory and we still continue to foist the blame for all our ills on the 'foreign imperialist'.

If Dr. Amunugama's book helps to shake the faith in some of these myths and to exorcise some of these bogeys it would have served a very useful and urgent purpose.

As the author quite rightly points out, civil society must share the blame with the politician for the mess that we are in.

(The reviewer was formerly of the SLAS and ex-Chairman, Insurance Corporation)

The concise guide to the Anglo- Sri Lankan lexicon part X by Richard Boyle
When the polonga bites
Another large category of the fauna of Sri Lanka recorded in the second editions of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2) and Hobson-Jobson (H-J2) concerns reptiles. Snakes will be examined initially. Four names are included, the first of which is anaconda, the most idiosyncratic and puzzling word in the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon. While 19th century writers used it as a synonym for the Ceylon python, it is now used universally for the largest snake in the world, a South American Boa. Boyuna, a name for another South American Boa with as mysterious an origin as anaconda, would appear to have made a journey of transfer in the opposite direction. In addition, there is the more familiar and distinctly local tic-polonga, and rock snake, which is a synonym for python. It is probable that the generic term polonga will be included in the OED3. Date of first use is provided in brackets.

anaconda (1768). Sinhala henakandaya. "[Occurs in Ray, in a List of Indian Serpents from the Leyden Museum, as 'anacondaia of the Ceylonese, i.e. he that crushes the limbs of buffaloes and yoke beasts,' but not now a native name in Ceylon, and not satisfactorily explained either in Cingalese or Tamil.] A name (a) originally applied by English writers to a 'very large and terrible snake of Ceylon' (? Python Reticulatus, or Python molurus); but (b) made by Daudin (? through erroneous identification, or mistake as to the source of the specimen) the specific name of a large South American Boa (Boa murina Linnaeus, Boa anaconda Daudin, Eunectes murinus Wagler, Gray) called in Brazil sucuriu, or sucuriuba, to which it is now attached in the British Museum Catalogue, and London Zoological Gardens. (c) loosely applied to any large snake which crushes its prey."

There is no mention of Donald Ferguson's late 19th century theory that the word was derived from the Sinhala henakandaya, or "lightning-stem," the colloquial name given to the Brown Speckled Whipsnake. However, the revised New Shorter Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary does give such a derivation: "Unexplained alteration of Latin anacondaia python, from Sinhalese henakandaya whipsnake." The entry in the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED3) will be revised accordingly.

The list of snakes by (John) Ray mentioned in the dictionary, dated 1693, is in Latin. The earliest reference in the English language is dated 1768 and comes from "Description of the Anaconda," a letter that appeared in the Scots Magazine (1768:673). This purports to be an account of a giant anaconda near Colombo, in which it is written: "The Ceylonese seemed to know the creature well; they call it ANACONDA, and talked of eating its flesh when they caught it."

The earliest reference in English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka, which is not included in the entry, is by J. W. Bennett from Ceylon and its Capabilities (1843:115). Bennett is the first to equate the Ceylon Python or Rock Snake (Sinhala pimbura) with the anaconda: "The Pimbera, or rock snake, is said to be the Anaconda or Anacondia of ancient writers."

The first reference from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka included in the entry is by Charles Pridham from A Historical, Political and Statistical Account of Ceylon (1849:II.750): "Pimbera or Anaconda is of the genus Python, and is known in English as the Rock Snake."

Henry Charles Sirr writes in Ceylon and the Cingalese (1850:I.206): "The largest of the serpent tribe in Ceylon is the anaconda, (belonging to the genus Python), and is far from being uncommon in the island."

A second reference from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka included in the entry is by James Emerson Tennent from Ceylon (1859:I.196): "The great Python (P. Reticulatus Gray) the 'boa' as it is commonly designated by Europeans, the anaconda of Eastern story, which is supposed to crush the bones of an elephant, and to swallow the tiger, is found . . . in the cinnamon gardens."

Harry Williams, writing in Ceylon, Pearl of the East (1950 [1963]:234) provides a postdating reference: "Pythons were known, formerly, as anacondas."

There is a corresponding entry in H-J2 that begins with a caution for users: "This word for a great python or boa, is of very obscure origin." Nearly a century and a quarter after this was written, the derivation of anaconda remains uncertain to many, despite Ferguson's henakandaya theory.

boyuna (1774). Sinhala ? "[Tupi bui-una, 'serpens obscurus' (Martins). Carried by the Portuguese from Brazil to Ceylon.] a. A large water-snake of Brazil of dark colour (? Boa aquatica). b. A harmless snake of Ceylon."

The sole reference comes from Goldsmith's Natural History (1774[1862]:II.429): "The Boyuna of Ceylon is equally a favourite among the natives." The species to which this name was applied has yet to be ascertained. The derivation, claiming that the word was carried by the Portuguese from Brazil to Ceylon, lends some credence to the theory that anaconda is not of Sinhala origin but a South American name similarly transported by the Portuguese.

polonga (1681). This word, the Sinhala generic for a number of viper species, is likely to be included in the OED3. At present the earliest reference given in the related entry, tic-polonga, is by Knox (1681:29). However, Knox uses polonga (although he describes the pala-polonga and the tic-polonga): "There is another venomous Snake called Polongo, the most venomous of all, that kills Cattel. Two sorts of them I have seen, the one green, the other of a reddish gray, full of white rings along the sides, and about five or six feet long."

There are many references to polonga in English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka. These I have passed on to the OED as historical evidence to enable the editors to determine whether the word merits a separate entry. The likelihood is that the Knox reference will be transferred to a new entry to head these later references, the first of which is by Jacob Haafner from Travels on Foot through the Island of Ceylon (trans.1821:65): "The boys all called out together - Polanga! Polanga! - and at the same time drawing me back by my clothes, they saved me from almost certain death."

William Dalton provides a reference from fiction in Lost in Ceylon (1861:142): "I rested upon the lowest branch, about five feet from the ground, and there saw two serpents: one, a polonga, of reddish grey, about five feet long; the other, noya, or cobra, about four feet in length; but both engaged in deadly contest with each other."

R. L. Spittel, writing in Wild White Boy (1957[1998]:30), provides a later reference from fiction: "The Veddas would not touch the flesh. They told Hans that the killer was a polonga, a species which liked to sun themselves on grazing grounds and bit any animal that disturbed them."

rock snake (1859). Sinhala pimbura. "A python, especially Python reticulatus or molurus."

The sole reference given is by Tennent (1859:II.127): "A rock snake, Python reticulatus . . . a beautiful specimen at least ten feet long." However, there is an earlier or antedating reference, for Robert Percival writes in An Account of the Island of Ceylon (1803:302): "The rock-snake is an immense animal, extending to 30 feet in length. I have myself seen one 22 feet long, and about the thickness of a man's thigh: and I was told that much larger ones were to be found in the island. I had a transient glimpse of another as he glided past me through the bushes in the neighbourhood of Columbo; in size he seemed to exceed the one I had formerly seen. The rock-snake inhabits chiefly the rocky banks of rivers. His colour is grayish with broad white streaks."

tic-polonga (1681). "Zoological. (According to Madras Manual of Administration III.154, adaptation of Sinhalese tit-polonga, formed on tita in combination with tit-, speck freckle, spot, mark + polonga viper. The form with tic- is apparently due to substituting tik 'spot, freckle, mark, spot on tiger-deer,' for tit.) A venomous snake of India and Sri Lanka: the chain viper or necklace snake, Daboia Russellii."

The earliest reference given is by Knox (1681:29), but this is to the generic polonga. Although not recognized by the dictionary, it is John Davy who provides the earliest reference in An Account of the Interior of Ceylon (1821:85): "The snake, called by the natives the Tic-Polonga, is difficult to procure. It is considered, and I believe justly, the most dangerous snake in the island. When full grown, it is from four to five feet long; and, in proportion to its length, it is very thick. Its head is small, and nearly triangular; its tail is tapering, round and short. The colour of its upper surface is a dark, dull, brownish grey; of its under surface, light yellow."

Being the most dreaded venomous snake on the island, there are a host of references to the tic-polonga and its bite in English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka. For instance, Major Forbes writes in Eleven Years in Ceylon (1840:I.343): "I have known a native to recover from the bite of a tic-polonga; he was a wederall (native medical practitioner), and, being near his own house when the accident happened, was carried there in a state of insensibility: on rallying, he helped himself to their usual remedies, and eventually recovered; but for months after he felt great numbness, not only in the leg where he was bitten, but in the whole of that side. One part of his treatment was having a thin earthenware vessel filled with live charcoal placed on his head."

Then there is Thomas Skinner, who writes in Fifty Years in Ceylon (1891:89): "A cry was heard that a pioneer had been bitten by a tic-polonga, the most venomous snake known in Ceylon, said to be much more so than the cobra de capello . . . In half an hour, at the most, we all supposed he would succumb to the poison; but listlessly to resign ourselves to inaction seemed too hard-hearted. My powder-flask contained the whole extent of my field materia medica. How was it to be applied? I laid the man down, and with my pen-knife deeply scored the bitten arm. I then emptied a charge of gunpowder over the wound, and applied a match to it. I repeated this several - it may have been five or six - times, and sent the man away to the camp, never expecting to see him alive again."

I have a penchant for the following enigmatic reference by Williams (1950[1963] :235): "The bite of the ticpolonga is almost certainly fatal if one waits to be bitten."

There is a corresponding entry in H-J2 that has as its headword both polonga and tic-polonga. The OED, however, adheres to the strict policy that a headword has to be a single word or compound.

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