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Vesak is just around the corner and it would put any Buddhist to shame if one was told that he or she erroneously recited ‘Itipi so Bhagava Araham…’, the Gatha for worshiping the Buddha, one of the very first Gathas any child learns. In fact, most of us are guilty of winding up the Gatha with ‘…Buddho Bhagawa thi’, when instead, it should be ‘…Buddho Bhagawa’. If one took the trouble to peruse the Tripitaka one would find that ‘thi’ at the end of the Gatha is the Pali equivalent of ‘so’ as in “…so reflect to oneself.”
“We often chant Gatha written in Pali script with little or no understanding of its true meaning,” said Saminda Chandranath Ranasinghe, an engineer by profession and a self-made scholar in the Dhamma. He reiterated that devotees often misinterpret such fundamental matters of the Dhamma when they are not familiar with the Tripitaka. “If we do not peruse the Tripitaka, we would not know whether what we are doing is correct or not.”

But not everyone is conversant in Pali and most would find the Sinhala translations of the Tripitaka equally difficult to grasp. When asked whether it would not be more practical for such devotees to read English translations, Ranasinghe explained that word meanings depend heavily on culture it is derived from. “The Eastern culture that Sinhala was derived from is quite similar to that of Pali. But some Pali words don’t even have Sinhala equivalents. Reading the Tripitaka in English would be subject to more misinterpretation than if it is read in Sinhala,” explained Ranasinghe.

Sinhala translations

Ranasinghe admitted that most people are reluctant to familiarize themselves with the Tripitaka  and  Atthakatha because they doubt the Sinhala translations. “They feel that the version we have is different from the original Pali text,” explained Ranasinghe. However, he maintained that Sri Lanka has received the Tripitaka in a scrupulous manner, which also well documented.

The Sixth Buddhist Council took place in Burma between 1954 and 1956 with the participation of 2500 monks from 10 Theravada Buddhist countries, including China, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Sri Lanka’s own Ananda Maitreya Thera also sat in the Council. Ranasinghe explained that in comparing the Theravada Buddhist texts with our own that there is no difference between our own texts and Buddish scriptures of the aforementioned countries. Other countries where such scriptures are well preserved are Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Nepal and India.

The first Buddhist Council was held three months after the Buddha’s Parinibbana and the second 100 years later, in the presence of eight Theras who have seen the Buddha while alive. Six of the eight Theras were disciples of Ananda Thera and two were disciples of Anuruddha Thera. “It was these Theras who decided the manner in which the Tripitaka should be sent to Sri Lanka. It was Upali Thera’s deciples who bestowed on us Buddhism.” pointed out Ranasinghe. “Most people doubt the authenticity of Atthakatha because they believe that they were written much later. But the point is that the main Atthakatha are included in it and nothing has been omitted when translating from Pali into Sinhala.”

Propagation of Buddhism

The Tripitaka was handed down from teacher to disciple starting with Upali, Dasaka, Sonaka and finally Siggava and Chanda-Waggi T heras. It was foretold by Revatha Thera that a Brahma called Tissa would be born to the human realm and invited Siggava and Chanda-Waggi Theras to ordain him and teach him in the ways of Attakatha. This was to be Moggaliputta Tissa Thera. Moggaliputta Tissa Thera, who presided over the Third Buddhist Council (236 years after Parinibbhana), played an instrumental role in sending his disciple Mahinda Thera to Sri Lanka to propagate Buddhism.

“It’s said that Mahinda attained arhanthood while his head was still being shaved,” said Ranasinghe. “But he studied Atthakatha for three years, because even arahants do not understand everything! Only a Buddha can comprehend everything.”

Atthakatha is more interesting than it seems. “Things that have been discovered recently through science have been described in vivid detail in Buddhist scriptures,” said Ranasinghe. For example, the first story in Atta Wagga alludes to an ancient architect who built a majestic building. He got wind of a conspiracy to assassinate him. He escaped with his family, flying off the top of the building, in a flying machine he designed. “We were always made to believe that it was the Wright brothers who invented the first ‘flying machine’, when in fact, quite technical flying manuals dating back thousands of years have been discovered from the Eastern civilizations.”

Ranasinghe pointed out that in Sri Lanka one can obtain a PhD in Buddhism without reading the Tripitaka. “This is because the syllabus has been done by westerners. Even the syllabi of Dhamma schools, schools and universities have been compiled by foreigners.”

Ranasinghe explained that the Buddha expected all his disciples and lay adherents to be knowledgeable, disciplined, learned in the Dhamma. “To do this, one has to familiarize oneself with Tripitaka and Atthakatha,” pointed out Ranasinghe. “Even to refute contradicting views you have to explain the Dhamma to the one harbouring such false views and show him or her the correct path to Nibbhana. You can’t do this if you are not conversant with the Atthakatha.”