This valuable, and elegantly produced, Buddhist Annual has an interesting history. It was founded in 1935 by Ven. Keselwatte Jinananda Nayaka Thera, and published by the Sri Saddhamadana Samitiya of Walana, Panadura. The Ven Thera was assisted by HPJayawarden a, later Head of Royal Primary School, who edited the journal. As time passed, the Samithiya and Jayawardena decided that producing this Journal was too onerous a task for one individual. He then made the praiseworthy decision to gift the publication of Vesak Sirisara to the Government Services Buddhist Association [GSBA] in 1991. Since then, the GSBA has produced this journal every year, without fail. Significantly, it has recognized the multi-ethnicity of government service by publishing the journal in Sinhala, Tamil and English. This ideal is reflected in the message of President Maithripala Sirisena, where he says, “ At a time when there is enmity and hatred among different religious, ethnic or political groups, and within such groups too, this Vesak season is a more suitable time to draw attention to the quality of kindness and compassion taught by the Buddha.”
This review refers to the English edition edited by Neville Piyadigama. The Journal begins with heartfelt tributes to two founding members Dr. Ananda Guruge and PB Weragoda. Dr, Guruge was closely associated with Vesak Sirisara and for many years, contributed valuable articles on various aspects of the Dhamma. Weragoda was an organizer par excellence and kept the GSBA a vibrant and active organization. May I suggest to the editor, that a brief account of the writers at the conclusion of their contributions will be appreciated.
The themes covered by erudite scholars of the Buddha Dhamma are wide and varied and, in some instances, boldly reinterpret customary beliefs and practices. Others discuss the relevance of the Buddha’s teachings to today’s lifestyles. An impressive range of authors, many of them from the Public Service, enriches this journal – among them Bhikku Bodhi, Ananda Guruge, Professors Amaratunga and Marasinghe, Siri Vajirarama Nyanasiha [Olcott Gunasekera], KHJ Wijyadasa, JR Jayewardene and a few talented poets. As a review is too brief a format to discuss all these valuable contributions, I will restrict myself on commenting on just a few that struck me.
Writing on’Merit and Spiritual Growth,’ the American savant Bhiku Bodhi explains the wrong thinking behind the popular fallacy that has emphasized merit as a productive source of worldly blessings – A fallacy expounded in ‘anusasana’ all too often at our alms-giving. Professor NA de S. Amaratunga on ‘The Advent of Buddhist Rituals in Sri Lanka’ discusses how the early Buddhism, introduced by the Arahat Mahinda, was ‘devoid of mystic and transcendental features’. But, over the centuries these very characteristics ‘came with Mahayana later on that made way for the subsequent development of ritual.’ He writes, “Mahayana had been heavily influenced by Hinduism, and had adopted several of its doctrines which made it critically different from early Buddhism…..One of the Mahayana tenets that had a far-reaching effect in Sri Lanka was the bhaktimarga introduced as an alternative to gnanamarga which was the path recommended by Buddha to attain Nirvana.” He refers to the crucial role played by the Indian Bhikku Buddhagosha who arrived here in the 5th Century and undertook the task of translating the Sinhalese commentaries on the Tripitaka into Pali. He suspects Buddhagosha of infiltrating Mahayana beliefs into the Buddhism we practice today –“dependence on yaksha, pistascha, yantra, mantra, etc “
Professor MMJ Marasinghe writing on The Great Betrayal of Theravada Buddhism ? also shares the view that Buddhagosha ‘corrupted’ Early Buddhism in his work. “He was selected to translate the some political patronage are in fact ineffectual and at most only Ego promotions”. His concluding Sinhala commentaries into Pali because of his expert knowledge of the Pali language. It is not clear how he managed to translate the Sinhala explanations of the texts without an equally deep knowledge of Sinhala.” What is most disturbing, and totally inexplicable, in the Buddhagosha episode is that the original Sinhala Commentaries were burnt immediately after the Pali Commentaries were completed. Who did this ‘sacrilege’? Did the Sinhala Bhikkus never protest at this destruction of a great masterpiece in the Sinhala Language ? This remains forever the greatest mystery of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist history and Sinhala literature.
Asoka Devendra comments, “ Fanciful, pompous, elaborate rituals organized by some bhikkus often with paragraph in his Buddha Dhamma is not a Religion, it is a Way of Life says “ it is you and only you as a Way of Life and not use it as a form of religion.”
Venerable Vajiraramaye Nyanasiha [formerly Olcott Gunasekera] writes with clarity and simplicity on the ‘Concept of Liberation in Buddhism’ – “Are you really interested in gaining liberation? Kindly ask this question from yourself. If you do, start the process this very moment, by learning or training yourself to let go the attachment to things…… So let go from your grasp your attachments, one by one, and you will become a happier person and finally be gaining liberation.”
Rajah Kuruppu writing on “Cultivation of Happiness” writes perceptively “ ,at times we have thoughts of ill-will towards people, who have not harmed us but have done blatant harm to other unknown persons. Extending compassion to the victims is in accordance with the Dhamma, but thoughts of ill-will towards the perpetrators of that action are not in conformity with the Dhamma. We should not entertain such thoughts even to those who may even physically torture us”.
Dr.Kingsley Heendeniya, a close associate of the late Venenerable Nyanavira of Bundala, writes very simply of a little known Sutta where the ‘Ten Perceptions of Meditation’ that the Buddha advised venerable Ananda to preach to the gravely-ill venerable Girimananda – who thereby attained arahathood.
Former President, the late JR Jayewardene writing , to Vesak Sirisara 1985,on ‘ Buddhism and Politics’ states, “The society that comprises the state is a purely acquisitive society and the sickness we suffer from is the sickness from an acquisitive society….The politician in power can change this framework. He can change the environment, he can control and direct education.
”. Dr.Ananda Guruge [Vesak Sirisara 1985] beautifully sums up the ‘Uniqueness of Buddhism’ when he writes, KHJ Wijayadasa’s article on ‘The Way Forward for Buddhism in the 21st Century’ is a most thought-provoking analysis. He begins with the Fluctuating Fortunes of Buddhism where the “Civilizations it inspired shone brilliantly and were then eclipsed …….as if to emphatically prove the cardinal Buddhist teaching of impermanence”. He then recounts the great revival of the Buddha Dhamma under Asoka Maurya and its spread to Sri Lanka, its favored home. Next is a brief account ‘The World Remains in a State of Turmoil and Discord’ where, today, “Human beings are killing human beings for political, social, economic, racial or religious reasons. Terrorism powered by racial extremism or religious fundamentalism is decimating thousands of innocent civilians “.
He then discusses the ‘Challenges confronting Buddhism’ which, he remarks, are nothing new. “They have emanated both from within and outside……Some of the most virulent and predominant exogenous challenges which are certainly beyond our immediate control are racial and religious fundamentalism, terrorism driven by religious fanaticism, religious proselytization engineered by the rich and well organized non-governmental organizations and socio-cultural degeneration brought about by the inescapable phenomenon of commercialization and globalization.The writer clearly identifies today’s greatest challenge to the Buddhists of Sri Lanka as unethical conversions and analyses the danger. An interesting selection of poems on Buddhist themes adds luster to this anthology. Chandra Wickremasinghe’s poetry is well recognized, Erika Dias disdains CAPITALS in her interesting poem, Claudia Weeraperuma, H.Kamal Premadasa and Shirleen Markalanda Jayawardena, all write sensitively, but I refrain from quoting extracts as they will not do their poems the justice they deserve. They will enhance your reading pleasure.