19 December 2012

Nation-building and the lessons of the Kula Sutra

Last night I searched for an article I had written a long time ago and found it in the archives of the 'Daily News', to which newspaper I contributed a daily column under the title 'The Morning Inspection'.  On a whim I checked out what I had written the next day and came across the following, as pertinent then, I believe, as it is today.

The most enchanting thing about Buddhism for me is that even the simplest sutra is made for multiple application in multiple situations, for untying straightforward knot or unravelling the complexities of being to reveal (at least those who have slain appropriate volumes of the kleshas) the pathway out of sorrow.

I was introduced to the Kula Sutta (on families) a short while ago. ‘Can you see if the Kula Sutra is on the internet?’ was the question. I googled it. Found it. A simple observation. Here is the first part.

“In every case where a family cannot hold onto its great wealth for long, it is for one or another of these four reasons. Which four? They don’t look for things that are lost. They don’t repair things that have gotten old.

They are immoderate in consuming food and drink. They place a woman or man of no virtue or principles in the position of authority. In every case where a family cannot hold onto its great wealth for long, it is for one or another of these four reasons.” All kinds of applications of the above observation are possible, all kinds of extrapolations too.

I was thinking ‘nation’. I took ‘nation’ as family, or to put it another way, Sri Lanka as household and Sri Lankans as family.

We are currently classed as a middle-income nation but have often been thrust into the low-income bracket, described as ‘poor’ or condescendingly called ‘developing’ instead of the more apt ‘underdeveloping’ (S.B. de Silva’s doctoral work is essential reading on the subject: ‘The political economy of underdevelopment’). We were not always like that though. We must have been a wealthy nation to earn a name such as ‘Granary of the East’.

We could not, it is clear, hold on to our wealth and if one went back to personality and event the reasons for debacle could easily be slotted into one of the four mentioned in the Sutra. Our ancestors were not exactly wasteful. Thrift is something they knew. Sustainability, long before it became a development buzz word, was second nature to them.

They were never in a hurry, and that’s not because they were lazy, but just that their unit-time reference was not lifetime, but lifetimes or of sansaric proportions. Still, they were industrious. They looked for lost things, found them, and reverted back to life as it always was: the seasons, seasonality, doing the right thing at the right time in the proper manner and treating the vicissitudes of life with as much equanimity as they could muster.

Today people are urged to reuse, recycle and reduce. Back then there were no I/NGOs or state agencies running media campaigns on such themes. Our ancestors did not subscribe to a use-and-throw ethic; they may have not heard the term value-addition, but they both recognized value and added to it. They knew how to repair. They repaired. And when things wore out beyond the point of resurrection, they transformed them into other things that had other uses.

And yet, we squandered it all, not so much to forces of superior strength but on account of immoderation in consumption on the part of leaders and also their scant regard for virtue and principle.

Greed is a strange thing. I believe that societies are tinder boxes and people matchsticks and consequently am constantly thankful that bonfires are a rarity. Greed is a flame and all it takes is for one madman or madwoman with the power to decree flaming to sink a civilization for decades and even centuries. Yes, we are that fragile!

The Sutra has a second part, one that pertains to recovery, resurrection and preservation. It is the reverse, naturally, of the first part.

“In every case where a family can hold onto its great wealth for long, it is for one or another of these four reasons. Which four? They look for things that are lost. They repair things that have gotten old. They are moderate in consuming food and drink. They place a virtuous, principled woman or man in the position of authority. In every case where a family can hold onto its great wealth for long, it is for one or another of these four reasons.”

In the year 2010, as we ponder the long and arduous journey to recover that which was best in our past and embrace that which is best in the world while divesting ourselves from the nonsensical baggage that history often burdens us with and as such we ourselves acquire out of ignorance and arrogance, we won’t lose anything by reflecting on these wise words of arguably the greatest intellectual that walked this earth, Siddhartha Gauthama.

We have to look for things that we lost, we have to recover that which was robbed from us by way of the colonial project and this refers also to the vandalism of land, labour and cultural artifact and the humiliation of our people and their belief systems.

We have to un-learn the largely Western ethic of use-and-throw and re-learn how to re-make the things we break or things that break or are broken by others. This includes all our traditions, all customs, all technologies and belief systems that were denigrated by a project that was violent, arrogant and in the final instance self-destructive.

We have to re-learn moderation. In all things. We have to understand that the middle-path is not just something between ‘left’ and ‘right’ (‘straight’ is not a bad idea compared with ‘straying’) but one that chooses ‘caress’ over ‘tight grip’ and ‘callous rejection’. We have to strive to deal better with the upadanas (attachments) that we as pruthagjanas (unenlightened beings) tend to fall prey to. And finally, have to learn to be virtuous and principled before we demand virtue and principle from our leaders.

And our leaders? They could refer to the dasa raja dharma, but that’s another article. For now, I suggest that we, as citizens, reflect on the kula sutra.

msenevira@gmail.com
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1 comments:

sajic said...

as relevant today as it was in 2010, and hopefully in the future.
We will never learn.