13 June 2023

Beyond praise and blame

The first time I encountered the word ‘ruffled’ was in the main hall of my school. The walls were lined with adorned with photographs of distinguished alumni and under each set there was an inspirational quote. This was one: ’The wise are not ruffled by praise or blame.’ 

It was much later that I learned the word ‘equanimity’ and that this is a quality that is good to cultivate for it helps in dealing with the vicissitudes of life. 

Praise and blame can be levelled at us, people we love, institutions we identify with and even the faiths we subscribe to. We have seen a lot of the last of these three recently.  It’s not just what’s said but the way it is said. Tests us. 

My friend Sugath Kulatunga, by way of response, recommends reflection on the Brahmajala Sutra. 

Here’s the background. It is the first of 34 sutras in the Dīgha Nikāya (the Long Discourses of the Buddha).  Once, while the Buddha was traveling with his disciples between Rajagaha and Nalanada, a Brahmin named Suppiya, traveling in the same direction with his apprentice Brahmadatta, tailing the convoy, had uttered disparaging words about the Enlightened One. Brahmadatta, in contrast, had praised the Buddha. 

Later, the disciples who had heard all this, had related the exchange to the Buddha, who then proceeded to offer advice with respect to dealing with criticism and praise. The sutra is quite elaborate and covers many things, but the following passages posted by Sugath makes for much reflection:

‘Monks, if anyone should speak in disparagement of me, of the Dhamma or of the Sangha, you should not be angry, resentful or upset on that account. If you were to be angry or displeased at such disparagement, that would only be a hindrance to you. For if others disparage me, the Dhamma or the Sangha, and you are angry or displeased, can you recognize whether what they say is right or not?’ 

The disciples answer in the negative.

‘If others disparage me, the Dhamma or the Sangha, then you must explain what is incorrect as being incorrect, saying: “That is incorrect, that is false, that is not our way, for that is not found among us.” But, monks, if others should speak in praise of me, of the Dhamma or of the Sangha, you should not on that account be pleased, happy or elated. If you were to be pleased, happy or elated at such praise, that would only be a hindrance to you. If others praise me, the Dhamma or the Sangha, you should acknowledge the truth of what is true, saying: “That is correct, that is right, that is our way, that is found among us.”’

If indeed response is warranted, it should be founded in reason, in compassion and framed by equanimity. It is not unkind. 

Of course, there is no guarantee that the person or persons, organised or otherwise, would accept logic and reason, particularly if the intent to insult, vilify and in other ways disparage, is a particularly malicious fixation. Still, even this does not warrant anger, resentment or agitation of any kind on the part of the receiver. If indeed one does get angry, resentful and agitated, it would be a hindrance to self, the doctrine one subscribes to and the collective one identifies with. It detracts, just as the insult amounts to an insult of the insulting individual, the doctrine in whose name the insult is made and the congregation the insulter identifies with. 

The elaboration of these beliefs is very detailed, focusing on how the beliefs (faiths) come to be and the way they are described and declared. The Buddha, in the Brahmajala Sutra, elaborates on how beliefs or faiths come to be and the ways in which they are described and declared. The danger lies in clinging to beliefs because this indicates an inability to escape from desire, hatred and ignorance. Such individuals get entangled in the net of samsara while those who are open to perceiving the eternal verities and therefore are not perturbed by praise or blame are less likely to be captured and confined thus.

A corollary could be obtained. Criticism is best engaged with logic. The criticism, if valid, could inform, educate and persuade further reflection. Again, an open mind is required. Again, a refusal to be angered is required. Again, humility is a precondition. In the very least, even if the intent is vile, one’s peace of mind would not be compromised. The vilifier would be left to deal with the vilification. 

Easy to say, ‘be wise,’ so much harder to acquire wisdom and act and speak accordingly. The Brahmajala Sutra, in which the Buddha elaborates on precepts, is a guide to being that would not detract from any doctrine or the practices of the relevant devout. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Letters that cut and heal the heart

Vanished and vanishing trails


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya

The soft rain of neighbourliness 

The Gold Medals of being

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri

All those we've loved before

Reflections on waves and markings

A chorus of National Anthems

Saying what and how

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart