21 January 2020

M.D. Daniel’s lessons on integrity

Manikkuvadura Daniel will be 90 years a few months from now. He lives with two daughters and a grandson in Gonagalapura, Induruwa. He sometimes uses glasses, but can still read without them. On the rare occasions he gets on his push bicycle and rides to the retail shop in the village. He spends most of his time reading and making notes of the world around him and the universe within his mind.  

I first met Danny Aiya in the year 1990 when we were involved in a political group which evolved into the now defunct Janatha Mithuro. A few years later we were arrested along with 13 others in a temple in Wadduwa. Danny Aiya and I were transferred to some security-related office on Longdon Place. That first night was the most uncomfortable ever because he and I were handcuffed together. The following morning, Danny Aiya, then a veteran political activist 62 years of age, threatened to urinate all over the office space (where were were held) unless our captors agreed to allow us to sleep in a less fettered manner. He won the day. We won some degree of the rest of the nights of our captivity. 

Danny Aiya, to all his political associates regardless of their age, has of late read and reflected on the Tripitaka, the canonical collective of Theravada Buddhism. He is as well versed in the Marxist canon as he is in the Dhamma having been a long time Maoist. He knows history. He knows heritage. He knows politics and political nuance. He can see beyond what most people see because he can see through them all. 

Danny Aiya has many stories to relate. The visit was too short to listen to even a fraction for we had to reminisce, update each other about our respective families and of course partake of a humble but absolutely delicious meal of rice, a potato curry and a mukunuwenna malluma. According to his means, I told myself. As always, we discussed the political moment about which we could have talked for hours. He spoke briefly, mostly in Sinhala, and said a lot.   

‘It occurred to me that if people who had no notion of the way Buddhism is practiced by some in Sri Lanka read the Tripitaka and also visited our country, they would be shocked.’

We have to take into account the objective reality, he said, in English, and went on to talk about Angulimala. 

‘The Buddha, Gauthama Muni, not on stopped Angulimala’s crazed quest for 1,000 fingers, but ordained him and even dedicated a sutra for mothers undergoing labor pains. That was Gauthama Muni. Here we see bikkhus who come on various television channels insisting that that one or this one must be punished. It’s all selective. There’s a pattern of ignoring the vile things done by “our people.” We never had that kind of trait in our system, that was not our upbringing.’

Two things. First the selectivity. We have had successive governments operating as though the only mandate received was to arrest the government that had been ousted. There is selectivity. There appears to be targeting. There’s also soft-hands approaches on loyalists or rather those considered to be on ‘our side’. 

That has become par for the course. The Yahapalanists were supposed to do things differently. They were by far the worse in recent times. The FCID, for example, was a kangaroo court run by a set of people tasked to take political opponents down. The crimes of ‘our people’ were not taken up. This Government, to be fair, has not gone easy on ‘our people’. It’s still ‘early days’ but surely, even though there’s enough reason to investigate some who have been questioned and even arrested, there are far more serious crimes about which we are not hearing much. Perhaps some matters take time, but then again there remains two pertinent issues: a) it is the prominent people in the Opposition who are being targeted, and b) there is a lot of media-noise about these cases.  

The second issue is that of the political role of the bikkhu. I don’t subscribe to the view that the bikkhu should do nothing apart from meditate in a temple or a monastery. The boundaries of a bikkhu’s universe cannot be determined anyone but the vinaya rules and of course those set by the particular bikkhu. It is silly for those who are rabidly anti-Buddhist and who subscribe to fundamentalisms associated with other faiths to pontificate on what a bikkhu should and should not do. And yet, there is something that just doesn’t seem right when a bikkhu advocates punishment. That’s the business of the judiciary. If the judiciary appears to be slothful, selective, incompetent or even unjust, the bikkhu following the social role of the clergy and as a citizen has every right to advocate reform. What that reform ought to be is the business of those conversant in such matters.

In the end it is about self-discipline. The lessons are in the buddha vacana or the Word of the Buddha, as contained in the Tripitaka. In general self-reflection on the extent to which fundamental tenets are adhered can help. Jathi-jara-marana (birth, decay and death), the Sathara Brahma Viharana or the four divine virtues/abodes (loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity and the virtue of rejoining in/with another’s joy) and such. Serenity. Now. Always. In and out of the political firmament. In and out of the temple. In the delivery of a sermon or a political speech, in the contestation of that which is patently evil, in essence, in the course of conduct, every moment.   

Danny Aiya, as we parted, smiled and said ‘mata eka bim angalak nehe (I do not own one inch of land).’ He fought and still fights to win freedom for the people of this nation. For him there’s no end-point in event and time. He refuses to retire from political engagement. He knows who has wronged him but holds no grudges. He recognizes mistakes and strives to correct them. A bikkhu without a saffron robe exemplifying a practice that certain agitated bikkhus would do well to emulate.

This article was first published in the SUNDAY MORNING [January 19, 2020]