A friend recently shared an old poem by M.H.M Ashraff called “The Buddha and the Poet”. In it, the Poet – presumably the author – meets the Buddha, and they discuss, in rather rambling verse, the problems in the country, and [in the poem] the Buddha concludes that he must return and teach the Dhamma in Tamil. At the time (in the later 90’s, I believe) this poem sparked a fury among the more extreme Buddhist groups.
It’s not hard to see why. I did not like the poem very much; on the first pass, it seemed childish and more provocative than thought-provoking. However, two important things happen therein. In the beginning, the Poet addresses the Buddha in the Sinhala language; the Buddha does not respond, for he does not know Sinhala. And towards the end, the Buddha, after recounting all the ways this country has strayed from his teachings, says:
“I want to teach the Dhamma once again
In a language they understand.”
Let’s examine the truth of these statements.
Not much is known about Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha. The books I grew up with – including the Life of the Buddha by L. Adams Beck – would have us believe that when he was born, he walked on seven lotus flowers and made fully articulate pronouncements. And yet Buddhism as a whole tells us that Siddartha was a man, of flesh and blood like the rest of us, who meditated his way to enlightenment with of his exceptional intelligence and discipline.
This mystification is something that every religion suffers from. History becomes legend; legend becomes myth; the founding figures are made superhuman and ultimately diefied over the centuries. Fact gives way to fiction.
But there is one thing that everyone agrees on: Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha, understood the power of language. He preached his philosophy in Pali. And yet, in his time, it was Sanskrit that was considered the noble tongue – Sanskrit was the language of kings, queens and ministers, the upper classes of society. Pali was the poor man’s language. It was a linguistic situation not very different from Latin and English a few centuries ago. The important stuff was all done in Sanskrit.
Yet the Buddha preached in Pali. The language of the masses enabled his philosophy to directly reach a majority audience. It was a very good move. After all, a religion is a meme: it is only as effective as the number of people who believe in it. The teachings of the Buddha could be readily understood by almost the entirty of the target market. Not only did his teachings have reach; they also had the benefit of being undiluted by translation. Buddhism flourished.
2500 years down the line, we’re at a curious reversal.
The target market is Sri Lanka, an island where the majority read, speak and understand Sinhala. To this majority, Sinhala is the chief medium of communication – information, ideas, propaganda spread with this tongue. Pali is acknowledged as a distant relative or Sinhala, perhaps and ancestor, but for all points and purposes, it’s like Latin to English: a dead language preserved only in writing.
And yet Buddhism has not adapted. The canon of the Buddha’s teaching – for we have no Gautama to guide us now – remain locked in a language unused for centuries. Our prayers we parrot in a language that we barely understand. We sit by the temple grounds under the full moon of Poya and make promises to burning lamps without knowing what we promise.
“Poojemi Buddhang Kusumena nena…” goes one gatha. I know it is a prayer committing these flowers to pooja. But why? And to whom? What purpose does it serve? What is my excuse for denuding the countryside of these flowers so I can put them on a plastic tray and bury them amongst their kind?
If these answers are there, they exist in a language I never understood. And I cannot be alone in this. Perhaps we knew the answers in school, when failing religion was not an option. Perhaps. We had schoolbooks filled with cryptic lines of verse, underlaid with explanations that we struggled hard to remember for the exams. And once the tests were done with, we turned our minds to other things and forgot. Now we stand in line and say what we have to in order to get on with our lives. And when someone dies, we watch the priest, repeat our lines, and try not to fidget in the funeral parlour. The act has no meaning; we are parrots squawking out lines in order to conform.
Why bother? I will not kill, I will not steal, I will not commit adultery; I will do my duty by my children, take care of my parents in their old age, respect my elders, maintain an inquiring mind – are these not better preserved in the language we speak day in and day out? The teachings are relevant, but the language is a locked door guarded by time and knowledge. The keys are held only by a select few. They tell us how to think, how to act, and if there is falsehood in what they say, we cannot tell. All we can do is nod and repeat.
Perhaps the Buddha saw this coming. It is said that he predicted the slow death of Buddhism, thousands of years after his death. Perhaps he did the math: how many generations does it take for the language to die and the meaning to be lost?
This language issue is not isolated to Buddhism. Christianity has direct parallels. The Bible and the teachings of Christ were immensely popular in Latin, but they reached far greater heights once the Church began communicating them in English. The issue is always one of understanding.
Posterity is one thing. To maintain the original records, that is important. But it is just as important to be relevant. We can fill hundreds of government textbooks with annotations and paragraphs and histories, but unless we’re better than the Buddha at his own philosophy, nothing beats a prayer in the language of the times. The poet was right, though perhaps not in the way he envisioned. It’s past time we preached in a language they understand.