27 November 2023

The naked truth

Whenever I visit the Aukana Buddha Statue, look at a photograph of what an exceptional sculptor extracted from a rock face or even think about it I remember Mr Ilyas.

Mr Ilyas was my scout master. Years later he agreed to teach me Tamil. We also discussed things of common interest. I remember discussing with him the issue of religious icons. We talked about the Hindu and Islamic views on the subject. Later, reviewing Gunadasa Amarasekera’s ‘Pilima lovai, piyavi lovai (‘The world of images and the real world’ or ‘Reality and its representation’), I referred to Mr Illyas.

I argued for the Islamic position because I felt that images detract from comprehension. "But it can be argued this way too," he said, "If you see the image, you do not see God, but if you see God, you do not see the image". The Buddhist elaboration on impermanence and illusion would then resolve the issue. Still the fact that images are consciously employed to deceive is something that one needs to be vigilant about. 

Today there’s a discussion on the Aukana Buddha Statue or, to be more precise, the ‘dressing’ of the statue with a robe. Much of the discussion in social media on this can be captured in a single word. Preposterous!

Anuruddha Pradeep Karnasuriya explains it well: ‘ශිෂ්ටාචාරයක් තිබුණ යුගයක නෙලපු පූර්ණ පිලිමයක්, මෙච්චර කල් නිරුවතින් තිබුණේ කියලා හිතෙනවා කියන්නේ ශිෂ්ටාචාර අර්බුදයක් (To think that a statue perfectly crafted at a time when there was a civilization is naked, is itself a civilizational crisis).’ Liyanage Amarakeerthi’s comment on the above Facebook post probably resonates with many, myself included: ‘මමත් අවුකන ප්‍රතිමාව දෙස නොයෙක් වර පැය ගණන් බලා සිට තියෙනවා. විශේෂයෙන් බලල තියෙන්නේ සිවුරේ රැළි නෙලා ඇති සැටි (I too have gazed upon the Aukana statue for hours, especially the way the folds of the robe have been sculpted).’

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Those with authority can and often do impose their notions of beauty on others. A crude example would be the king who commissioned the unknown sculptor to wrest image from rock. Someone could argue that it was beautiful as it was in the natural state and that the carving of an image disrupted aesthetics.

Then again, art is typically followed by critic. The artist and the artist’s intent be it buddhalambana preethiya (the joy of ‘beholding the Buddha’) or something else can and does get obliterated by the gazer and the gazer’s predilections.

It does get complicated with ‘art’ that has taken on the kind of cultural significance that is associated with the Aukana. There were objections raised when a canopy of constructed ‘to protect the Aukana from the vagaries of the weather’ several decades ago. No one disputed the intention; the criticism stemmed from notions of propriety. People argued on the basis of ‘as is’ or the natural state which, as pointed out was essentially a reordering of a previous ‘natural state.’ Others lamented that the majesty diminished because of this canopy. It was removed.

Part of it has to be about familiarity. Part of it has to do with something that has nothing to do with the doctrine, namely archaeology. The Aukana is an archaeological artifact even as it is a cultural icon, in particular one that is clearly valued by Buddhists. It is living heritage, though, since the devout do engage in a religious manner at Aukana, offering flowers, chanting gathas etc.  

The first thing that came to mind is ‘why a second robe?’ I concur with Anurudda and Amarakeerthi. However I do acknowledge that the aesthetic element lends itself to any number of opinions on what exactly is beautiful. What exactly makes for buddhalambana preethiya I do not know. It’s subjective. It is, to me, unfamiliar. I am drawn to vote in favour of aesthetic valuation closer to what I find more familiar. Therefore I, being a prthagjana, am rather disturbed by the Aukana being draped with a robe.

There is nothing to indicate that either sculpture or king planned to re-robe the Aukana or in fact did so. For me, therefore, the act is not one of robing, but disrobing. It is an insult to that unknown sculpture who made Amarakeerthi, Anuruddha, myself and countless others stop in wonderment and perhaps nudged us to reflect on some element of the doctrine.

The Aukana is sculpted from rock. Robes have far shorter life spans. The Aukana stands not because of the robe. The robe has value because of the Aukana. Whether re-robed or not, I will always see the Aukana, replete with the sculpted robe. The cloth won’t hide it. Perhaps those who see the robe will not see the Aukana. Perhaps those who see and have seen the Aukana have not and will not see the rock. Perhaps in these transformations, interventions and debates over what Aukana is and how it should be, we could comprehend the eternal verities of jati (birth), jaraa (decay) and marana (death). 

My reflections on the Aukana (before re-robing) were as follows:

I have 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 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.

The Aukana can direct people to the doctrine. It doesn’t mean that everyone who gazes upon it will necessarily peruse the philosophical canon. The Aukana, robed, mis-robed or disrobed, does not necessarily impede such exploration either.

This re-robing or rather disrobing puzzles me. In another time I might have been appalled. I am not. I have to thank Mr Illyas for it. 

['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 the 277th article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below]


Other articles in this series: 

The poetry of resistance 

Dung-lies and flower-truths

The word as a sword held to the throat of truth

Residents of and residency in heart and mind

Merit, integrity and seniority in the superior courts

Hunters and 'victims' of immemorial light

The unbearable lightness of pause

Magic carpet to Dutuwewa

Gauze, blood-stained and torn

Seasons bookeneded by leaves on park benches

Writers' blocs and dead lines  

Stop Press!

The world shall not be emptied of poetry

Reclaiming the everyday with solidarities of tender fury

An Aussie broke a SLan heart in Ind for Afg

Writing magical pieces about something beautiful when time permits

The scattered archives of art and protest

Friendship that keep friends permanently at 16

Amherst: silent, rural, poetic and serendipitous 

The virtues of unemployability

A breathless hush at the close

Ahmed Issa, fearless and audacious in Gaza

Let us take a deep breath now...

How Grolier Poetry writes 'Harvard Square'

Let us write beautiful poetry

Following children and their smiles

Let's plant words in cracks and craters

Re-weaving lives and love

When the earth closes upon us...

Let us now march to the battleground of words

The most pernicious human shield

Who bombed Frankfurter Buchmesse

The truly besieged 

Love's austere and lonely offices

The mysteriously enjoined in the middle of nowhere

Serendipity now!

Reflections on the unimaginable 

Jackson Anthony is a book and will be read 

A village called Narberth Bookshop

Gateway drugs to A-B-C

'Irvin' and other one-word poems

Earth pieces Kerala and Sri Lanka

Obligation as bomb and ocean

In the land of insomnial poets

In and out of shadows

Over to Eve

When you don't need an invitation, it's home

When the Canadian House of Commons applauded a Nazi...

Touching the touch-me-nots

The importance of not skipping steps

No free passes to the Land of Integrity

Hector Kobbekaduwa is not a building, statue, street or stamp

Rajagala and the Parable of the Panner

Let's show love to Starbucks employees!

You've got mail?

Octavio Paz and Arthur C Clarke in the stratosphere 

Enduring solidarities 

Coco 'Quotes' Gauff!

9/11 and the calm metal instrument of Salvador Allende's voice 

What a memory-keeper foregoes 

Whitman, Neruda and things that wait in all things

Thilina Kaluthotage's eyes keep watch

Those made of love will fly

Profit: the peragamankaru of major wars

Helplessness and innocence

The parameters of entirety

In loving memory of Carrie Lee (1956-2020)

Mobsters on and off the screen

Transfixing and freeing dawns

We're here because we're here because we're here

Life signatures

Sha'Carri Richardson versus and with Sha'Carri Richardson  

A canvas for a mind-brush

Sybil Wettasinghe's shoes

Love is...

A stroll with Pragg and Arjun along a boulevard in Baku

Meditation on tree-art

Daya Sahabandu ran out of partners but must have smiled to the end

Gentle intrusions 

Sleeping well

The unleashing of inspiration

Write, for Pete's sake

Autumn Leaves Safeness

 Sapan and voices that erase borders

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

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