07 January 2013

The virtues of staying within slapping distance

Twenty one years ago in a small temple in Pallimulla, Matara, a man by the name of Jayantha Silva lectured a bunch of undergraduates and young graduates.  There were also two Maoists in attendance, Sunny Dayananda and M.D. Daniel.  The subject was the chathuskotika, the four-fold system of logical reasoning in Buddhism.  Jayantha Aiya brought in several examples to illustrate the point.  One was the story of the Ascetic Siddhartha placing his paaththaraya (begging bowl) on the waters of the river Neranjana wiling it to travel upstream and thereby offering a sign.  The other was the biblical slapping, the turning of the other cheek.

The logical frame in four parts, in brief, can be described as ‘Exists, does not exist, exists and does not exist, and neither exists nor does not exist’.  This is not the place for elaboration.  I remembered Jayantha Aiya, then working as Shroff in the Agriculture Department, Peradeniya when a friend related a story about a week or so ago. 
Here are the relevant excerpts:

‘I've just returned home after a 'thanksgiving service' at the little church -the corner of Jawatte Rd. It was for the Very Rev Fr James Amerasekara, who was Vicar at St Paul's church, Kandy in the late 60s and 70s. A lovely man. Not a great speaker, but good-very liberal and kind. He put up with my never-ending questions about church dogma. He died some years ago.  But what really interested me was what Bishop Duleep de Chickera said in his short sermon.  Apparently Fr James was chaplain at St Thomas when Duleep joined as a new curate. He said Fr James' ministry was governed by 2 points. The first was intriguing. The reference was to Jesus' exhortation- 'If a man slaps you on your cheek, turn to him the other also'.  He said that he, together with many others, found that very difficult, until he realized that what Jesus meant was 'stay within slapping distance; don’t move away because that distance is also the distance for an embrace’.’

Later, after thinking more about the story, I wrote to my friend:  ‘Reflected on this just now.  Sits well with the Buddhist notions of attachment and non-attachment.  You neither seize nor do you dismiss.’
We are human being and frail consequent to the fact.  A doctrine can be encapsulated in a few words strung together but it is only those who have studied the word and practiced as per prescription that can assume to read even approximately.  Rev. Chickera would know and I would not.  My friend, a deep reflector and ‘liver’ would know more than I do. Much more, probably.  

Buddhist philosophy is voluminous and the idea finds extensive elaboration, for example in the Satipattana Sutta and in the various erudite commentaries from a long time ago. For the prthagjana or the uninitiated who are yet to step on the path interpretation is not forbidden. Nothing is, in fact.  Only, the assumptions and actions thereto have consequences in the manner of the paticcasamupaada or, as a Christian might put it, in view of Judgment Day.  Whether we indulge or step away from interpretation, we act, as the existentialists would argue. 
What is slapping, then?  In a sense, an attack, possibly out of anger.  In another sense, a Christian might say, it could refer to a divine testing of faith.  ‘God’ would put one through trials and tribulations and how one responds will count at the end.  Such ‘slaps’ can make you rebel against the ‘giver’, in this case ‘faith’, which would amount to return-slap, or make you run away, which mean disavowal, a rejection of faith, again a return-slap (of the negative kind).  The omniscient and omnipresent would arguably remain within embrace-distance, but the slap-taker, if he or she did not offer the other cheek (or remain within slapping-distance) would by choice have rejected embrace. 

A Buddhist reading would draw from the principle of non-attachment, the employment of upekkha or the ways of treating life’s vicissitudes with equanimity, with metta (compassion) and pragna (wisdom), with full cognizance of the errors spawned by the defilements and showing fidelity to the recommended practices. 
The extrapolations are many of course.  We could, for example, use the principle to think of tensions between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state.  We could think of ‘competition’.  Or, simply, our relations with one another. 

In this world there are very few Christians who turn the other cheek and very few Buddhists who can claim to treat things with equanimity.  There is much to be learnt in the respective doctrines, the respective faiths.  And from each other of course.  We don’t do that enough.  And perhaps this is because we don’t stay within slapping distance (literally and metaphorically); we don’t will our respective begging bowls to travel upstream against the tide of human misery and ignorance. 

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1 comments:

Fazli Sameer said...

"In this world there are very few Christians who turn the other cheek and very few Buddhists who can claim to treat things with equanimity. There is much to be learnt in the respective doctrines, the respective faiths. And from each other of course. We don’t do that enough. And perhaps this is because we don’t stay within slapping distance (literally and metaphorically); we don’t will our respective begging bowls to travel upstream against the tide of human misery and ignorance."

this is mainly because human beings are not in a state of mind of doing this in all good intent, honor, and sincerity. Selfishness and oneupmanship is the order of the day and I cannot see that changing at all in my lifetime