06 July 2023

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Illustration by Sumudu Athukorala

Time passes over events, personalities and outcomes. In that passing truth bends or is made to bend. Time is the password that lets in the lie. And so we have stories. Version. Legends. Some preposterous and some believable. However, in both lies and truth, in the relevant excavations, in the inevitable interpretations, there are tales that delight and lessons that are useful.

What is before us could very well be a composite of error and deceit as much the work of men, women, artists, historians, the elements and time.  A finely crafted statue of the Buddha always calls for meditation. That’s probably because of the cultural ethos I was born into and grew up in, heavily influenced by Buddhist thinking and practices, but then again there have been churches, Hindu temples and mosques that have had a similar effect.

For now, it’s about Aukana. The majestic budu pilimaya (it’s 42 feet in height) is dated to the reign of King Dhatusena and therefore the 5th Century has never failed to inspire awe. The sheer dimensions and the exquisite craftsmanship would call for long reflection, if not on the eternal verities perhaps nudged by the buddhaalambana preethiya then by the effort and skill of the sculptor.

Thus has the Aukana stilled and awakened me. I’ve wondered about that unknown and unnamed sculptor. I’ve known that it was during King Dhatusena’s reign and have wondered why he and not the sculptor is mentioned by name.

And then there’s the legend. Apparently the king had been journeying with his Royal Sculptor and having come upon the rock from which the statue has been hewn, had asked, ‘Do you see the buduhamuduruwo?’ And the sculptor had said ‘yes.’ The work had been commissioned. And the Aukana Buduhamuduruwo, ‘trapped’ in a rock for who knows how long, was released.

I don’t know if the story is true, but it is a nice story and it makes for deep reflection. I have, since hearing it for the first time, imagined the rock without the statue. I have imagined images trapped in rocks and therefore releasable. And reflecting on the reflection, I have obtained a sense of what upadanas (fixations) are, how they are created and how, perhaps, they could be avoided.

All this from the Aukana, remember. All this from an image released from a rock. All this from working back from release to entrapment and all the traps that distract and stop the exercise of grasping the eternal verities.

I remembered the Aukana story because of an incredible extrapolation, again associated with a rock, again associated with a depiction associated with the Buddha or Buddhism.

The rock, Bathalegala, has been in the news recently over the construction of a temple at the summit. Objections have been raised by people who claim that the natural beauty would be sullied. Visual pollution, they say. Let’s not get into the politics and hypocrisy of any of the many parties involved.

For me, nothing that has been mentioned or expressed about Bathalegala and the controversy has been more compelling  than an artistic projection posted by Sumudu Athukorala. Sumudu, an architect, imagined Bathalegala as the base of a massive stupa. The projection has drawn a lot of invective. Some feel he’s encouraging stupendous and stupendously silly constructions on rocks and mountain tops, desecrating the environment and in many ways demonstrating abysmal understanding of the Dhamma. Others see this as an alternative to the construction of a stupa and therefore locates Sumudu in those who are virulently anti-Buddhist.

I feel, though, that Sumudu was merely proposing an option. He had a single word caption: 'avasarai...' (with your permission...). There's humility and a most benign engagement in that single word. What is he saying?

You don’t have to build a stupa to ‘see’ a stupa. You can see the buduhamuduruwo in a rock and leave it at that.  You could chip away all that is ‘not buduhamuduruwo’ and obtain an image, a sculpture and delight thousands of people centuries into the future.

Sumudu has shown a way for those who are to a greater or lesser degree fascinated by objects that are associated with a doctrine, faith or religion.  You could, theoretically, eye-manufacture a massive cross upon Sigiriya. It’s yours. It’s your faith. Your way of affirming faith.  You can see a temple in a church and vice versa.  And, if that is your preference, you could make a mind-offering of anything and everything to that object of worship.

I’ve seen Bathalegala. Thanks to Sumudu, I can see Bathalegala as the base of a gigantic stupa. It will astound me. It will make me reflect on ‘constructions’ at a deeper level. I hope, by and by, the stupa will disappear and the rock as well. I will confer merit on Sumudu and move away and towards the destination I have happened to choose. 


['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: 

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

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


Mahinda Gunasekera said...

A very interesting analogy that is based on the Teachings of the great Sage
where every rock in the island of Sri Lanka could depict the image of the
Buddha, just as your friend Sumudu imagined a stupa atop the Bathalegala rock.
The rock hewn image of the Buddha carved over 1500 years ago at Aukana truly brings forth veneration for the great teacher, just as the rock hewn statues of the Buddha seen at the Gal Viharaya in Polonnaruwa. This masterful craft has enriched the lives of Sri Lankans of all ages, and continues to generate
much Saddha or veneration for the Teacher of the Middle Way.

I am reminded of the Buddha's own words where he is cited as having told one of his monks that if one sees the Dhamma one will see the Buddha in his true state. Mahinda Gunasekera