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Reflections on things left unfinished

by Gayan Abeykoon
December 4, 2023 1:10 am 0 comment

My sweetest childhood memories are of Kurunegala. ‘Kurunegala’ was not the capital of Wayamba for me. It was not a bustling township, not for me. Kurunegala, to me, was the home of my maternal grandparents. It was where we spent all our school holidays. It is a place of magical memories.

Among them, one which is indelibly etched in my mind is early morning pirith. It was customary for my grandfather to wake up early, his head covered with a shawl for it could be quite cold at that time and sit by the radio listening to the recitation of the Thun Sutra.

He didn’t turn up the volume. It didn’t make me jump out of bed. It just blended with the birdsong that indicated night was done. I didn’t know the meaning. I didn’t ask and he didn’t venture to explain. We didn’t mind.

When I was older, there were days when he would get us; that’s my sister, brother and myself; to read from the Maha Pirith Potha which contained the Mangala, Rathana and Karaniya Metta sutras. He knew these by heart. He recited along with us, pausing whenever we stumbled over a word that was particularly difficult to pronounce. We didn’t know what it meant. He didn’t tell us. We didn’t mind.

Years later, I did learn the meaning of the Pali stanzas. The music lingered though because what wafted out of that ancient radio was pleasing. And therefore from time to time some lines would pop up in my mind.

Sometimes it’s a line from the Ratana Sutra (Jewel Discourse) which is found in the Sutta Nipata and is usually chanted to bless those who face any form of evil, negativity, sickness and fear of death. I ‘hear’ the Karaniya Metta Sutra (Discourse on Loving Kindness). Today it was the Mangala Sutra (Discourse on Blessings) and I can’t really figure out why. Two verses came to me.

The first:

Patiruupa-desa-vaaso ca

Pubbe ca kata-puññataa

Atta-sammaa-panidhi ca

Etam-mangala muttamam.

Living in a civilized country, having made merit in the past,

Directing oneself rightly:

This is the highest good fortune

‘Patiruupa-desa’ could be translated as ‘ideal land’ or ideal country/nation. A place, then, of wholesome social order. It’s easy to conclude, ‘we are not blessed.’  So we can ask two questions. First, is there a patiruupa-desaya and if so where is it, what is its name? If there isn’t such a land, we can ask, ‘how do we create such a land?’ We could also abandon the search for a patiruupa-desaya and the creation of one. The Mangala Sutra is not prescriptive after all. It simply says, if such and such things are evident, then it is a blessing.

This side of the pursuit of enlightenment, the lay person does imagine ideal communities, ideal social systems. So it is essentially a political project. In such a land, perhaps, it is easier for people to reflect on the elements of the doctrine that could lead to ultimate emancipation. It is good to think of creating such a community and system, as advocated by the Buddha in the Chavalata Sutra (Firebrand Discourse) where four types of people are discussed: those who practices to benefit neither themselves nor others; those who practices to benefit others, but not themselves; those who practices to benefit themselves, but not others; and those who practices to benefit both themselves and others.

So, on to the second stanza that came to mind:

Maataa-pitu-upat thaanam

Putta-daarassa sangaho

Anaakulaa ca kammantaa

Etam-mangala muttamam

Support for one’s parents, assistance to one’s wife & children,

Jobs that are not left unfinished:

This is the highest good fortune.

This line in particular: anaakulaa ca kammantaa or jobs that are left unfinished. In relation to the first one referred to above, the unfinished job is that of creating the patiruupa-desaya. The ‘how’ of it is a challenging task. If people knew, we would not be inhabiting this nation that is so far removed from ‘wholesome,’ and is almost the polar opposite of a patiruupa-desaya.

Of course one might say that such a ‘pure land’ is an impossible proposition. And yet, we do have reference to such an abode in some Mahayana discourses where two elements are privileged, wisdom and compassion.

The fourth type of person described in the Chavalata Sutra is best prepared to undertake the task of creating the patiruupa-desaya. Such a person would want to engage in practices that benefit that person as well as others. And such a person needs to be empowered with wisdom and compassion. Thus, we can conclude that the cultivation of these is the pathway to finish the unfinished job(s) related to the patiruupa-desaya.

Today, thirty one years after he passed away, I feel my grandfather’s presence and I offer him what merit has accrued to me for a swift journey to the end of samsara and for the compassion and wisdom necessary to play his part in delivering the patiruupa-desaya, be it in some well-defined territory or in the more elusive land that is his mind as he listens, contemplates and acts upon conclusions reached.

While wisdom is being acquired, compassion can be wished and that could very well be what my grandfather probably wanted for himself and others:

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