Visions and voices | Daily News

Visions and voices

A few years ago, I had the chance of visiting the abode of the well known Buddhist priest who translated the sacred text Visuddhi Magga into English as The Path of Purification. Having read the text, I had the inner urge to know more about the learned priest who stayed in the Island Hermitage at Dodanduwa.

In addition to The Path of Purification, he translated from the original Pali into English some of the rarest and difficult texts belonging to Theravada Buddhism. One such text is ‘The Life of the Buddha According to the Pali Canon’. On reading the chapters of the work that runs to 16is written in the form of voices, reminding the phrase ‘Thus have I heard’ and in Pali as ‘Evam Me Sutam’. The sources of the Pali Canon include Anguttara Nikaya, Chulla Vagga, Digha Nikaya, Dhammapada, Itivuttaka, Jataka, Mahavagga, Samyutta Nikaya, Thera Theri Gatha and Udana. Having studied each of these areas in the canon, the learned monk makes use of the poetic and dialogue form as the main literary technique in the narration of the life and the teachings of the Buddha.

Vocal narrative

I have never found a treasure house of so many legends, parables and anecdotes linked to the life of Prince Siddhartha as the personality of the Buddha after the great renunciation. In many ways, the compiler scholar-monk makes the reader feel that he is keenly listening to four scholars from four directions instead of reading a single text packed with material gathered carefully from Pali Tripitaka sources. The voices include, in the first instance, a narrator, who in the first instance paves the way to the contents in each chapter.

The narrator is also pictured as a compere of the present day, who introduces the subject content. Followed by the voice of the narrator one, enters the narrator two who brings forward the subject material from the sources with a brief historical and tradition-bound information, responding to questions like where, what, which and how, as in a present-day communication lesson. As such, he is also an interpreter like an elderly monk who is trying to clarify facts from another standpoint. Followed by this, enters the Voice One, mainly the character of Venerable Ananda is pictured.

Venerable Ananda is referred to as the main disciple of the Buddha and the personal attendant, who recited the intended discourses or Suttas concerned. They were the main Suttas that went into the making of the First Council that was held after the Great Demise of the Buddha or the Parinibbana. The voice of Venerable Ananda is followed by Voice Two. This happens to be the voice of Venerable Upali, another great disciple of the Buddha known to possess the retaining powers as found in most Suttas mainly referring to the Disciplinary teachings of the Buddha. The third voice comes from a recite or a monk who recorded the events that were marked in the First Council. They look more like sacred utterances as heard with a pensive mind. The final voice is cited as a chanter.

Verse creations

It is through this voice of the chanter that the life of the Buddha is recorded as ‘thus have I heard’ or ‘evam me sutam’ as found in all the suttas at the beginning. These recordings include teachings of the Buddha in the form of prose and verse creations that has come down the centuries. The adoption of the narrative format enables to read the work as an event-packed saga. The reader is made to be possessive of self-help guidance as a reference is made to the original content. As a reader, I found that there is no moment of dullness in his writing style. Each chapter could be read aloud in a classroom picking representative voices. As I wished to find more details pertaining to the author scholar-monk Nanamoli, there happened to be a brief account inserted. The author monk’s lay name is shown as Osbert Moore (1905 – 1960) born in Britain.

Having graduated at Exter College, Oxford had served as an army staff officer during a visit to Italy that he had come across an Italian book on Buddhism. Since then he had developed an interest in knowing the teachings of the Buddha. This particular book is known as ‘The Doctrine of Awakening’ by J Evola. The translator of this book, from Italian to English, is cited as Harold Mason, who, in 1948, had accompanied Osbert Moore to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). In 1949, both of them received novice ordination as Buddhist monks at the Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa.

Monastic tradition

Later they received higher ordination and Bhikkhus at the Vajiraramaya, Colombo. The author monk who studies the Pali Canon received the monastic name of Nanamoli and his companion the name Nanavira. Both of them stayed for a long time, where Venerable Nanamoli has spent eleven years studying the Pali canon. It is believed that Venerable Nanamoli has spent his time dedicated to self-study of the Pali canon bringing out text after text into English. They were all lasting contributions and sources of religious communication. The chapters of this book under discussion, The Life of the Buddha According to the Pali Canon are arranged in chronological order. The first chapter titled as The Birth and the Early Years covers in an overview of the sociological conditions that prevailed during the time of the birth of Prince Siddhartha or Gautama Buddha.

Into the second chapter flows the title: The Struggle for Enlightenment, attempts to cover how these conditions paved the way for Gautama to renounce the lay life in order to achieve the inner sense of living that culminates in the path to Enlightenment.

Chapter Three and Four which lay emphasis on the enlightenment and spreading f the Dhamma, a reader is gripped into several layers of inner insights that tends to feel the meanings behind the teachings known as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path. Step by step, as the chapters develop into the formation of the order of monks and the formation of nuns.

Venerable Nanamoli’s work covers the entire period of the Buddha’ dedication as a seeker of truths, the preacher par excellence and the facing of revolts on the part of evildoers like Devadatta. All in all, the work transcends the narrow barriers of a biography and ascends to the peak of a world vision. I felt that each chapter is packed with resourceful material that helps gauge where we stand in society today.


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