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Basic Social Etiquette for the Buddha

by ratnawalli - September 8, 2014 at 4:37 pm

Published in my  Column in The Nation (print edition here) and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 24 August 2014

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

“Buddhaghosa’s role, as well as that of Mahanama, the author of the Mahavamsa, was to translate the available material into Pali (see Mhv. Tika, i, 36, etc., loc. cit., pp. Ivi). As the Tika states, the Mahavamsa was a faithful rendering of the original Sinhalese source-material with the only change that it was put into Pali verse. Compared with the previous clumsy attempt at versification in the Dipavarnsa, Mahavamsa stands out as a work of considerable poetic achievement though it falls short of the elegant poetry of the Canonical metrical literature. The fact that it was a metrical rendering could have placed certain restrictions and limitations on the author as regards presenting a faithful rendering of the original material. In the case of the Bahiranidana there were no such restrictions, and undoubtedly one may suppose that it is even more faithful to the original Sinhalese source than the more elegant literary product, the Mahavamsa. It is partly on this basis that minor discrepancies in some proper names between the Bahiranidana and the Chronicles are to be explained, e.g. Issaranimmana, Kalingakula, Pakundaka, Tavakka, etc. (see notes to Translation). However, the word-for-word similarity between wholesale passages of the Bahiranidana and the Chronicles (see Geiger, the Dipavarnsa and Mahavamsa, 106 ff.) shows that there were no wide divergences between them. This similarity does not presuppose the fact that the chronologically later work was based on the earlier work, but that they go back to a common tradition.”

– (p XXIV, N.A. Jayawickrama;1962[i]full text)


‘Holmes, if we were to introduce this lady to the sources of Mahavamsa through carefully selected paragraphs like the above, do you think it would make any difference?’

‘I doubt it Watson’.

‘My thought exactly Holmes. An earnest and passionate lady like that wouldn’t care whether it was a single man or a collective tradition which violated the spirit of Buddhism. She would be equally scathing’.

Holmes sighed. ‘Watch out Watson for the day that you lose the distinction between individuality and tradition. It may be a sign that Elvis has left the building.’

As the reader can probably guess Holmes and I were still on the subject of “Which Buddha? Whose Buddhism?” an article in the popular press (Colombo Telegraph) by Tisaranee Gunasekara. In typical misogynist fashion Holmes was using the article to dissect the female psyche. The reference to “Elvis” was beyond me.

‘Come, come Watson don’t look so mystified. I’ll explain. I’ll use her own lines with a slight change. In place of her “Mahawansa” and “Bikku Mahanama”, I will use “Sihala atthakatha tradition”. With that change, her key argument reads; The Buddha of the Sihala atthakatha tradition is a totally different being from Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha we meet in the Tripitaka and other Buddhist texts. The Buddha of the Sihala atthakatha tradition is a holy-warrior who uses natural cunning and supernatural force to defeat enemies of faith. Buddha in the Sihala atthakatha tradition does not regard every living being with equal compassion, as the Buddha did.”  Let us also recall why all this is said. I quote the lady with the above change added; “So the Buddha of the Sinhala atthakatha tradition does something the Buddha never did. He comes to Lanka, and instead of preaching to the Yakkas, chases them away”. Do you experience any difference Watson, of perspective now that the center of blame has been shifted from a mere man to a tradition?’

‘I suppose there would be a certain diffusion Holmes, a dilution of one’s emotions when they no longer have in their cross hairs, a lone man with a name, with whom one can get even more personal by giving him a background and all sorts of motivations.’

‘How true Watson women can never resist motivations, just look at this; “And this unequivocal rule would not have suited either Bhikkhu Mahanama or the monarch who is said to have commissioned the Mahawamsa, Dhatusena. Dhatusena was Bhikkhu Mahanama’s patron – and his nephew. The uncle brought up the nephew, in adversarial times. Lanka was under Pandyan rule for almost thirty years; Dhatusena came to the throne after overthrowing the last Pandyan king”. Unbridled excess Watson, even for a woman. Even the most flighty lady novelist would hesitate to attribute this much background to a monk, whose name does not even appear in the work he authored. One would think that the Mahavamsa carried a full author bio with photograph on its dust jacket. Mahavamsa itself Watson does not name its author. There’s another book named Vamsatthappakasini (aka Mhv-tika) written several centuries later as a commentary to the Mahavamsa. Throughout its pages, this commentary only refers to the author of Mahavamsa as “achariya”. It is only in the colophon that Vamsatthappakasini deigns to give us the bare facts about the author of Mahavamsa, just his name and Pirivena. Not enough to weave soap operas from’. “The author of Mhv is a certain Mahanama from the monastery of the general DIghasanda, according to the commentary (Mhv-t 687,4). Nothing else is known about him, and any possible identification with other persons bearing this rather common name is speculative•”- (p90, von Hinuber;1996[ii], full text)

Even though I understood that Homes was trying to de-personalize Mahanama in order to protect him from personal assaults that over determined his role, I still could not see how that helped. Misrepresentation of the Buddha still remained an issue irrespective of whether it was a man or a tradition which did it. All the lady had to do was to transfer her passions from Mahanama to the Sihala atthakatha tradition which being the work of many men, would afford a larger scope for them. I asked Holmes what good a transfer of anger was when the cause still remained.

‘What I intend to do Watson is to assign the cause of her anger, namely the sin of breaching “Social etiquette for Buddhas according to Tisaranee Gunasekara” to its original perpetrator; the Pali Cannon. I hope to spotlight and extract the maximum sense of absurdity out of this disagreement between the Cannon and Tisaranee Gunasekara on ‘what’s done’ and ‘not done’ by the Buddha. I will then use this ‘sense of the absurd’ to show up the chasm that exists between the lady and the texts she is trying to criticize, emphasizing that it’s not only the age of the texts that creates the chasm but her want of sense, which would have alerted her to the perspective adjustments needed before one looks back some 2000 years.

Better sense would have prompted the question; “did the Sihala-atthakatha tradition make a radical break from its parent and cognate traditions in representing the Buddha?” If it did not, if its treatment of the scenes where the Buddha appears is derived from the parent tradition (the Pali Cannon) and syncs with the cognate traditions (non Theravadin literature), then perhaps the traditions represent a Buddhism, which resists confinement within “Tisaranee Gunasekera’s Social etiquette for Buddhas” – basic rules – do not display supernatural powers, do not gad about subduing mythical creatures- why subdue only them? – show equal compassion, act ruthlessly detached-attachments are passé, do not single out groups and regions for special regard, avoid making predictions about particular countries, stay inside boundaries of political correctness as will be determined by certain people of the distant future.

The first European translators of the Pali Cannon Watson recognized the fact that ordinary, modern people may need guidance in processing ancient texts. The complete Mahavagga of the Vinaya was translated into English by Oldenberg and Rhys Davids during the last twenty years of the 19th century. But, you will notice an odd thing. When it comes to the Vinaya rule forbidding ordination of eunuchs, preceded by the story which led to it being formulated, only the rule is translated, not the story, which the translators left in Pali in a footnote (p215, 216, full text[iii]). Ditto the incident involving the hermaphrodite who had received pabbajja ordination, which led to hermaphrodites from being barred from ordination (p222, ibid). About 58 years later Miss I.B Horner felt it safe to offer decorous translations of both stories (p108, 113, full text[iv]). But even she left some Vinaya passages untranslated. Writing the translator’s introduction in 1938, she justified the Vinaya Pitaka as well as her translation filters’; Such lack of restraint as is found may be embarrassing to us, but it must be remembered that early peoples are not so much afraid of plain speech as we are. No stigma of indecency or obscenity should therefore be attached to such Vinaya passages as seem unnecessarily outspoken to us. For they were neither deliberately indecent nor deliberately obscene… Nevertheless the differences in the outlook of an early society and a modern one may easily be forgotten or disregarded. I have therefore omitted some of the cruder Suttavibhanga passages, and have given abbreviated versions of others, while incorporating them in their unabridged state in Pali in an Appendix…”-(p XXXVII in full text[v])

‘Are you drawing an analogy Holmes? Are you saying that as a delicately nurtured lady in 1938 would have had hysterics had she understood those ‘outspoken’ passages, Ms. Gunasekera is having hysterics now, but for different reasons?’

‘I don’t think they had actual hysterics anymore in the 1930s Watson, but in essence that’s what I am saying’.

–      @ http://ratnawalli.com /  and rathnawalli@gmail.com



[i] N. A. Jayawickrama, 1962, ‘The Inception of Discipline and the Vinaya Nidana’, Being a Translation and Edition of the Bāhiranidāna of Buddhaghosa’s Samantapāsādika, the Vinaya Commentary in Sacred Books of the Buddhists Vol XXI (Full text)


[ii] Oskar von Hinuber, “A Handbook of Pali Literature” in Indian philology and South Asian studies; Vol. 2, de Gruyter, 1996- (full text)


[iii] The Sacred Books of the East, Vol XIII, Vinaya Texts Translated From The Pali By T. W. Rhys Davids And Hermann Oldenberg, Part I- The Patimokkha, The Mahavagga, I—Iv- (Full text)



[iv] The Book of the Discipline (VINAYA-PITAKA), Volume IV (MAHAVAGGA), translated by I. B. Horner, M.A.-(full text)


[v] The Book of the Discipline (VINAYA-PITAKA), Volume I ((SUTTAVIBHANGA), translated by I. B. Horner, M.A- (full text)


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