Reflections of Buddhist intellect: A light in dark times

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka | Published on August 22, 2013 at 12:28 am

nguished Sri Lankan, Dr Thakshan Fernando, died last Thursday in New Zealand at the age of 81. A Muslim place of worship was attacked on the day after Eid, in Grandpass, Colombo, on Saturday. What is the connection?

Dr. Thakshan Fernando

The distinguished Sri Lankan in question, a former student of Ananda College and a Buddhist of Sinhalese ethnic origin, had an understanding of Buddhism and a commitment to inter-religious co-existence and cultural fusion

Dr. Thakshan Fernando

Dr. Thakshan Fernando

that was the complete and explicit anti-thesis of the ideology of intolerant, fundamentalist, fanatical ‘Sinhala Buddhism’. Dr Fernando wove his understanding of the Buddha and the Dhamma in one of the most brilliant trans-cultural presentations I have read on the subject, even during my years at the UNESCO.

Dr Thakshan Fernando retired as Director of Mental Health of the Ministry of Health of New Zealand. Having obtained a fellowship in general medicine to the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris in the early 1970s, he switched his field to psychiatry and was Senior Lecturer in Psychological Medicine and Consultant Psychiatrist in Wellington, New Zealand. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) awarded him somewhere in the 1990s, the College Citation to honour his special contribution to Psychiatry and the RANZCP.

Anti colonialist

He refused one of New Zealand’s highest honours because it would be from the Queen, and Thakshan had been a principled anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist most of his life. An exceedingly well-read man of the Left, he was the doctor of the Cuban Embassy when it opened in Colombo and had been close to the leaders of the Communist Party. He evolved into a left liberal.

My mother’s favorite cousin 

He phoned me a few months ago from New Zealand to convey with enormous equanimity the news of the growth in his lung and that he would probably have a maximum of six months to live. From my years in Geneva he had written and phoned, critically engaged with my writing and public discourse, disgusted and distressed by post-war distortions and degeneration, always concerned about my life chances back home and advising me to seek alternatives (which counsel I never seriously acted upon). During my boyhood and early teens he had been something of a hero of mine and when he migrated in the mid 1970s I was slightly shocked and judgmental; disapproving. I met him over two decades later when Prof Nalaka Mendis arranged for him to address an audience in Colombo. By the time we reconnected I knew better. He had been prescient and I told him so. He was (easily) my mother’s favourite cousin; thus my uncle. He married Sushila, a cousin (of his and my mother’s), a teacher and a Catholic.


On Christmas Day 2011, he posted the following comment on a website, having read the superb oration at Ananda College by Prof Sudharshan Seneviratne. “Sincere thanks to Sudharshan for a brilliant presentation in celebration of Ananda, and to this website. I am 80 years old, an Anandian from 1938-1949, grateful for the gifts that so many of my teachers gave me. The pioneering, emancipating spirit they engendered can never be forgotten. It was an inclusiveness that characterised the regimes of Kularatne and Mettananda in my time and continued on for the most part. But, there were dark periods and let us not forget them for there may be lessons to be learnt with a wider focus than Ananda. I refer in particular, to divisiveness, intolerance and bigotry which, we were taught, were the antithesis of Buddhism.”

Comments on websites gave insight into Dr. Fernando’s thinking    

Six months later he posted on Groundviews a comment on an article written by a young doctoral candidate Kalana Senaratne of the University of Hong Kong: “A fine article in these very challenging times. Our Tamil and Muslim brothers and sisters will take note and be encouraged that there are Buddhists to whom practising the Dhamma is more important than calling themselves Buddhists. Please offer the article to the Daily News and Silumina as well so that the Govt can also reply.”

Men in dark times 

The political thinker Hannah Arendt wrote a book called ‘Men in Dark Times’. In these dark times, from Weliweriya to Grandpass, I wish to share with the readers some extracts of Dr Thakshan Fernando’s views as a thinking and practising Buddhist, pluralist and humanist.


[Extracts from the keynote speech delivered by Dr Thakshan Fernando at the Sea of Faith Network (NZ) Conference 10 October ’98]

Some Reflections on Illusion, Reality and Relevance

Dr Thakshan Fernando

(Delivered at the Sea of Faith Network (NZ) Conference 10 October, 1998)

I wish to thank the Sea of Faith Network (SOFN) for according me the privilege of being a keynote speaker at your Annual Conference of 1998. I approach my task with a sense of challenge and some trepidation. I have no claims to erudition in matters of philosophy and religion and, in that respect, I am probably something of a maverick amongst you! In the context of your metaphor of the “Sea of Faith”, however, and your notion of “spirituality” in its wide and essentially humanistic sense, we do have common ground. The most useful contribution I can make is by presenting my personal reflections evoked by the theme of your conference: “Inventing Reality”. (The qualifier “inventing” provides me with a great deal of comfort because of the variety of ascribable meanings!). I will have achieved my objective if these reflections provide responses, ranging from resonance to considered rejection. Since I have no particular claim to fame I will need to ask your indulgence in order to explain “where I am coming from”, as a good Kiwi would say. I have tried with only modest success to lead a life informed by the teachings of the Buddha. For me, the most attractive and, paradoxically, the most daunting aspects of the teaching have been:


• The need for self-reliance and self-discovery, albeit guided by the Buddha’s teachings (“Anhahi Attano Natho” or “One is one’s own refuge”);

• The injunction to exercise personal choice, based on experience and practice of the teaching;

• The uniquely Buddhist, existential focus, which could be disturbing without the right tools and without the development of requisite skills.


There have been other indirect influences which have helped me on my way. One was the liberal outlook fostered by my parents, and by my school, Ananda College. Ananda was at the forefront of the revival of Buddhist education in Sri Lanka after 450 years of colonialism. Looking back on my early years, it seems as if a touch of “heresy” (in the original Greek sense of the word) was not merely permitted, but even encouraged! It was a valuable antidote to bigotry, and it encouraged us at a young age to examine ideas. I then had the good fortune to fall in love with a Christian—we are still in love, I think! Finally, in a somewhat serendipitous way, I discovered Psychiatry, rather late in my career as a doctor. In psychiatry and, in particular in psychotherapy, one is constantly challenged to discover within oneself feelings of Maitreya (loving kindness), Karuna (compassion), Muditha (joy at the success of another) and Upekha (equanimity). Needless to say one does not always succeed.


I shall often rely on Myth, Legend and Narrative to provide foci for our “Reflections”. So let me start with three rather well-known stories which illustrate some thematic aspects of Illusion, Reality and Relevance. The first two are Sufi legends as narrated by Idries Shah.


The first is well-known and is the story of the Elephant in the Dark. A number of blind people, or sighted people in a totally darkened enclosure, grope and find an elephant. Each touches only a part. Each gives to friends outside a different account of what s/he has come to believe an elephant is like. One thought that it was a fan, having felt the ear; another that it was a pillar, having felt a leg; a third a rope, having felt the tail and so on.

Idries Shah analyses the satirical significance of this story at various levels.

• It makes fun of scientists and academics who try to explain things through the evidence which they can evaluate, and none other;

• It laughs at the stupidity of people who come to conclusions on such little evidence;

• It says at a philosophical level, that man is blind and is trying to assess something great by means of inadequate tools;

• It says at a religious level, that God is everywhere and everything, and man gives different names to what seem to him to be separate things, but which are in fact parts of some greater whole which he cannot perceive because “he is blind” or “there is no light”.


In the next two stories, you will have to invent you own analyses! The Mulla Nasrudin was sent by the King to investigate the lore of various kinds of Eastern mystical teachers. People recounted to him tales of the miracles and the sayings of the founders and great teachers, all long dead, of their schools. When he returned home, Nasrudin submitted his report, which contained the single word “Carrots”. He was called upon to explain himself Nasrudin told the King; “The best part is buried; few know—except the farmer—by the green (above) That there is orange underground; if you don’t nurture it, it will deteriorate; there are a great many donkeys associated with it.”

The third story concerns a disciple of the Buddha named Malunkyaputta and I have adapted it from Rev. Walpola Rahula’s narration.

Malunkyaputta asked the Buddha ten classical questions on metaphysical problems and threatened to leave the Order unless he received answers. These included:

• Is the universe eternal, or is it not eternal?

• Is the universe finite or is it infinite?

• Does the Thathagatha (Buddha) exist after death, or does he not exist after death?

The Buddha answered as follows: – “Suppose Malunkyaputta, a man, is wounded by a poisoned arrow and his friends and relatives bring him to a surgeon. Suppose the man should then say: ‘I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know who shot me … what his name and family may be; whether he is tall or short; the kind of bow with which I was shot the kind of bowstring used… etc.’ Malunkyaputta, that man would die without knowing any of these things. Similarly, if anyone says ‘I will not follow the holy life unless the Buddha answers these questions such as whether the universe is eternal etc’ he would die with these questions unanswered. I have not explained them because they are not fundamentally connected with the spiritual life, they are not conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquillity, penetrative thought, awakening, Nirvana’.

We can hardly regard these sketches of Illusion, Reality and Relevance, as clues of Ariadne while we tread our labyrinthine way. Yet they may serve as an ironic echo of our footfalls.

In inventing or discovering “Reality” we should consider the following:

• Whose Reality? (Personal meaning? Inclusive or exclusive?)

• Which Reality? (Reductionist or gestalt?)

• What can one do with the Reality that has been discovered? (Function and relevance?)

I have been reading recently a fascinating book with the intriguing title ‘The End of Science’ by John Horgan, a well-known science writer. It is not, as one might suspect a doomsday prophecy. On the contrary, it is a paean of Science’s triumphs, based on interviews with a galaxy of eminent scientists, many of them Nobel Laureates. They examine the thesis that Science, especially Physics, has approached, or is fast approaching, the end of the road of Great Discoveries—a sort of “ne plus ultra”! The slightly grandiose quality of the thesis aside, it does raise a number of important issues.

The scientific achievements of the last 300 years and, particularly of the 20th Century, have provided us with considerable explanatory power regarding natural phenomena and immense potential for gaining material benefits. As you well know, however, they constitute a double-edged sword. Some years ago, Thomas R. Blackburn summarised it thus in the journal Science (1971):

“We live in a technological culture, and that culture is in trouble. Recent essays that have explored the relationship between modern science and the history and psychology of technological man, have generally concluded that the scientist’s quantifying, value-free orientation has left him helpless to avoid (and often a willing partner in) the use of science for exploitative and destructive ends.”

I shall only remind you of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl, napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam, smog, the hole in the Ozone layer, dumping of nuclear waste, genetic cloning etc.

Another problem is that the potential for gaining material benefits is not distributed equitably throughout mankind. Some years ago the U.S. Administration gave a fascinating justification, amongst others of course, for intervening militarily in the Middle East. It said that God’s gifts to mankind–Oil in this instance–should be accessible to all mankind. The same noble, moral-ethical (dare I say “spiritual”?) principle, does not seem to apply to the benefits to mankind of Science, ironically Man’s Gifts to Mankind! Not surprisingly, we need to return to Myth to find a benchmark. Prometheus, stole Fire from the Gods for All Mankind! The exponential growth of scientific knowledge constitutes one aspect of Reality. The lack of a synchronistic development of the spiritual/moral sensibilities of Man gives rise to an Illusion of supposedly righteous behaviour, which however, is dominated consciously or unconsciously by Self-interest.

It is fascinating to note however, the synthesising influence of certain over-arching concepts developed by several great scientists who first became aware of them through their own disciplines. For example:

• Neils Bohr’s and Heisenberg’s “concept of complementarity” which emphasised the active role of the scientist who, in the act of making measurements, interact with the observed object—in other words incorporates a sensuous or subjective element.

• Stephen Hawking’s “no-boundary proposal” which led to the view that talking about the beginning and end of the universe was as meaningless as talking about the beginning and end of a sphere! Perhaps the Buddha was right!

 I am reminded however, of Rilke:

“What will you do, God, when I die?

When I, your pitcher, broken lie?

When I, your drink, go stale or dry?

I am your garb, the trade you ply,

you lose your meaning, losing me …”

In a sense, Rilke hints at the relationship between Man and God (or gods), a relationship that has to be examined further if the human psyche, conscious or unconscious, is not to be left with a void. What human needs were fulfilled by Gods? Would “I lose my meaning, losing Him/Her?”

I would like to ask you to reflect a moment on whether the following quotation captures a similar sentiment.

 “If the nature of Man is man’s highest Being, if to be human is his highest existence, then man’s love for Man must in practice become the first and highest law. Homo homini Deus est—man’s God is MAN. This is the highest law of ethics. THIS IS THE TURNING POINT OF WORLD HISTORY”.Ludwig Feuerbach

As you well know and, not surprisingly, Feuerbach’s writings greatly influenced Marx and Engels. We also know that in the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe and Cuba as well as in most parts of the non-communist world, “man’s God as MAN”, has been a God that has faltered if not failed!

…So, does Myth itself, despite its illusory characteristics, contain aspects of reality in a humanly assimilable form? Does Myth fulfil a psychological function, being as it is a representation of the ‘collective unconscious’ as well as being a repository of generational wisdom? I believe it does. As with Science, old myths are replaced by newer myths, which seek to explain the inexplicable and, more relevantly perhaps, provide anodynes to assuage our human frailties. I shall suggest that Myths have something in common with psychological defences. Despite their illusoriness they have a partial, transitory, relevance and utility, because the fundamental Realities of human existence are anguishing and strike at the core of our narcissistic Self-image— the yearning for a Self rather than a transient, impermanent, self.

The fear of death is partially relieved by belief in an Eternal Life. What of old age? Marcel Proust said somewhere: “Of all realities, old age is perhaps that of which we retain a purely abstract notion longest in our lives.” Is the subliminal sensing of our frailties, and our reluctance to accept them as realities of the human condition, at the core of our common preoccupations with egocentricity, parochialism, the exercise of power over others and—even competitiveness and the meaningless search for invincibility? The Myths and Epic poems of many parts of the world made sure that their Heroes (“Supermen”) were all stamped with one blemish which seems in my view to have been a powerful symbol of the realities of the human condition such as the inevitability of death, and the spiritual frailties of the physically powerful. Thus we have the heel of Achilles, the unprotected shoulder of Siegfried, Balder and the mistletoe and most strikingly in the Mahabharata, the supreme warrior Arjuna with Lord Krishna as his charioteer, riven with doubt, not fear, just before the battle. (As you probably know, the dialogue which ensued between Arjuna and Lord Krishna constitutes the Bhagavad Gita—the Song Celestial—revered by the Hindus).

We also have a heroic mythical figure symbolising Feuerbach’s “Homo homini Deus est” (man’s God is MAN)—Prometheus—half god and half man, but unquestionably committed to the service of man—unquestionably altruistic towards ALL his human fellows, punished by the Gods, but NOT a sinner!

“To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite;

To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;

To defy power which seems omnipotent;

To love and bear; to hope till hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;

Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;

This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be

Good , great, and joyous, beautiful and free;

This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory!”

Shelley: Prometheus Unbound

Albert Camus in one of his short essays entitled ‘Prometheus in the Underworld’ provides a different profile which captures his anguish, courage and fortitude: “The enchained hero maintains, amid the thunder and lightning of the Gods, his quiet faith in man. This is how he is harder than his rock and more patient than his vulture. More than his rebellion against the gods, it is this long stubbornness which is meaningful for us. It accompanies this admirable determination to separate and exclude nothing, and which always has and always will unite the suffering heart of men and the Spring-times of the world”.

In many instances there are paths that lead to the relief of suffering and one of these is psychotherapy (more correctly, the psychotherapies). Nina Coltart, an English psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, has succinctly portrayed the correlations and similarities between some of the key concepts of psychotherapy and Buddhist teaching and practice. Time does not permit a full discussion. I shall ask you simply to reflect for a moment on the elements of the Eightfold Path.

… There are two themes that have kept recurring in my reflections today. The first is the anguish of the human condition. The second is the paradox of man as hero, despite his human frailties. This was not contrived. I suspect that these themes can inevitably be discerned in any serious consideration of our spiritual values, although sometimes they appear in disguise.

 They are very relevant to the Buddha’s teaching. Some have perceived it as nihilistic because of a fundamental premise in the teaching, sometimes referred to as the Three Signs of Being—Impermanence or Transience (Anicca), Anguish or the state of unsatisfactoriness” (Dukka) and No-Self (Anatta). The Venerable Saddhatissa makes the important point that these are not articles of faith but facts of life realised by every searcher after the truth who must perforce reason out each step of the path by himself having recourse to his own experience as the one, sure guide. Hence, the claim that this is a Reality.

It is not my intention to provide an exposition of Buddhist teaching for obvious reasons which I stated at the outset. I shall, however, emphasise two salient issues:

The Buddha (being Man, not god) gave to humans a gift of a way for the cessation of anguish. This was his teaching and the methods of practice which constitute the Dhamma.

As far as I am aware the Buddha did not say his teaching was the only way. It was, however, his well-considered and well-tested prescription. Nevertheless, he once made a memorable statement to his disciples: “O bikkhus (monks), even this view which is pure and so dear, if you cling to it, if you fondle it, if you are attached to it, then you do not understand that the teaching is similar to a raft, which is for crossing over, and not for getting hold of”.

 Secondly, it is surely an illusion for us to assume that we, as we are—all of our frailties and foibles intact, can experience Awakening (to use Stephen Batchelor’s term)! Yes, the Buddha says “Atthahi Attano Natho”—One is one’s own refuge”. But there is no doubt that this involves an arduous process of discovery through the “perfecting” of thinking, feeling and behaviour which the Buddha described in the Eightfold Path. He also described the methods for doing so which include “bhavana” often inadequately translated as “meditation”; its meaning is more correctly rendered as the development and perfection of a “mental culture”.

 I stated at the outset that my aim was to provide “Some Reflections”. I would have succeeded if I have raised questions rather than provided answers. If you ask me to speak again at one of your gatherings my task will be considerable easier. I shall probably, like Nasruddin, just say “Carrots”.


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Dr. Thakshan Fernando

Reflections of Buddhist intellect: A light in dark times

nguished Sri Lankan, Dr Thakshan Fernando, died last Thursday in New Zealand at the age of 81. A Muslim place of worship was attacked on ...