04 July 2023

Precept and practice

More than twenty years ago, a group of young men spent four to five days at an aranyaya, a retreat designed for study and meditation. They were guided in this by a haamuduruwo well versed in the Dhamma.

He walked his students through the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on mindfulness. He took them through the contemplation of the body, contemplation of feeling, contemplation of consciousness and contemplation of mental objects.

Heady stuff of course. They struggled. The haamuduruwo was a good teacher. He was kind and patient. The disciples learnt something.

There was a meditation exercise every morning. After the first session, the haamuduruwo asked the disciples to describe the experience. So they answered. One said that he had fallen asleep. The haamuduruwo said this was not uncommon. He went around the room, asking each young man what he had felt or thought. One of the boys (let’s call him Asanka) didn’t respond. He appeared to be deep in meditation. His name was called out. He didn’t respond. It was called out louder and he opened his eyes as though startled.

‘I realised that the entire universe is patterned,’ he said solemnly.  

His friends didn’t buy it. They knew him. But they were polite; they let it go. One did not. He asked, ‘is that something you truly realised or is it something you read in a book?’ He was blunt, that way. The question startled the young man all over again. This time probably for real. His response, a quick, sharp uttering of ‘no’ which was repeated several times, confirmed quite the opposite. No one said anything.

A few days later, when they were about to leave the aranyaya, one of the others (let’s call him Nalin) decided that it would be fun to tease Asanka.

Haamuduruwo has suggested shaving all our heads. It’s just a simple exercise to affirm the principle of abandoning upaadaanas (fixations).’

Asanka, friends, had long hair and it was known that he was quite in love with his locks.

‘He’s not serious,’ Asanka laughed it off.

‘He is.’

‘But we know the principle. That’s what is important. These things are frivolous, unimportant.’

‘That’s the very point. Theory is easy, it’s the practice that stumps. So this is a simple exercise that could help us understand the concept better.’

He wasn’t sure whether Nalin was being serious.

Nalin went to the haamuduruwo and told him what had happened.

‘You don’t have to cut his hair. Just shave my head. That would be enough.’

Nalin wanted his laughs. The haamuduruwo was indulgent.

Nalin sat on a chair. The haamuduruwo had the shaving implements ready. A few minutes later, Nalin, bald headed now, smiled at Asanka and said ‘It’s your turn now.’

Asanka was sweating by this time. He was clearly distressed.

Someone else volunteered for a shave. Maybe someone else as well. Not Asanka.

Nothing more was said on the subject. Asanka was left alone. Everyone learned a lesson. Indirectly, Nalin did too. Intent on exposing Asanka he had forgotten that it was in fact a distracting exercise. Compassion and kindness had to be retired. Upaadaana had been formed to some meaningless matter.
The idea is explained in the Silabatta Sutra where the Buddha puts a question to Ven Ananda: ‘Ananda, every precept & practice, every life, every holy life that is followed as of essential worth: is every one of them fruitful?’

Ven Ananda says that it is not to be responded to with a categorical answer. The Buddha then suggests that an analytic answer be given.

‘When — by following a life of precept & practice, a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth — one's unskillful mental qualities increase while one's skillful mental qualities decline: that sort of precept and practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitless. But when — by following a life of precept and practice, a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth — one's unskillful mental qualities decline while one's skillful mental qualities increase: that sort of precept and practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitful.’

The student spoke thus. The teacher approved. Later, the Buddha offered the following observation: ‘Monks, Ananda is still in training, but it would not be easy to find his equal in discernment.’

It was after the Buddha Parinirvana that Ven Ananda became an Arahat, but he had known the principles long before that. The true test, though, is not one of discernment but the affirmation of discernment in practice.

Asanka may have known. Nalin may have known. Even the haamuduruwo may have known. Twenty years have passed. May each of them have moved closer to practice. And may all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be free from suffering; sabbe satta bhavantu sukhitatta.


['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:

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited

In praise of courage, determination and insanity

The relative values of life and death

Feet that walk

Sarinda's eyes

Poetry and poets will not be buried

Sunny Dayananda

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990)

What makes Oxygen breathable? 

Sorrowing and delighting the world

The greatest fallacy 

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Beyond praise and blame

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