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Visharada Pundit Amaradeva: Heaven-St(r) uck or In-stream?

November 9, 2008

(Prof. Suwanda H. J. Sugunasiri,
Founder, Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies,
writing from Toronto, Canada)

That Visharada Amaradeva has ignited a latent rasa bhaava of a musically starved Sinhala people into a kinetic energy for a full half-century many have written about as I have, too (Sunday Observer: http.//www.lanka.net/lakehouse/2000/08/20/ent01.html). But is there anything Buddhist in particular about his music? This is what we will seek to answer in Part I. And in Part II, we will seek to answer a follow up question: Is there anything Buddhist in particular about Amaradeva?

Part I: Bathing a People in a dharmic Musicality

Sitting in the Sunroom of our Forest Hill residence in Toronto, Canada, watching the sun set, I'm listening to song # 18 of his CD, sasara wasana turu. The words echoing the religious sentiment in me are ringing in my ears. Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa. I visualize myself at the feet of a Buddha image, paying homage, along with many others - . "Homage to Him the Fortunate One, the Worthy One, the Perfectly Enlightened One".

Then begins the musical rendering:

paaramitaa bala poorita poojita Buddha divaakarayaano,
wesak poho dina dinoo sayka lowa Buddha divaakarayaano.

To the words of Sri Chandraratna Manavasinghe, our cuckoo turned devotee reminds us why homage is paid (poojita). It is in recognition of 'the power (bala) of the perfection (poorita) of Perfections (paaramitaa)'. And He is also the 'Honoured repository of resplendence' (divaakarayaano), or less poetically 'the Honoured bringer of the day', or less literally, 'the Honoured Sun', 'winning over the world on the day of Wesak [=May]' (wesak poho dina dinoo seyka lowa), a reference to the Buddha's Enlightenment.

So, our devotee continues to sing. 'Let's find solace at the feet of the Sage' (saenasemu puda di muni siri paaday), and 'Let's dip n' dip in the Ocean of the Virtues of the Buddha' (kimidemu kimidemu budu guna mooday), the enthusiasm heightened in the repetition in kimidemu kimidemu.
Surely why not?

'Solace bring he did to the whole wide world by offering Nibbana' (sanasaa mulu lowa nivan labaa dee), along with 'a bellyful of merit, peace and concentration' (punya mahodara shaanta samaadhi).
Buddha he is 'to the entire human and the deathless worlds' (sanaraamara mulu loka), 'having defeated Death.' (maara paraajaya kara), 'with the cool torrents of compassion and friendliness' (karuna seetala met daharaa)… And, 'expelled is the darkness of dukkha suffering of the three worlds' (pitayay dukanduru may tun lokay) by 'the light born of the accumulation of the Buddha's rays' (buduraes kaeti wee naegi aalokay).

Thus falling prostrate musically at the Buddha's feet, he also sings of His Teachings, the Dharma.

Let's listen to # 19 of the CD, the words composed by our radio lovable Karunaratna Abeysekara reminding us that we are indeed 'born if only to die' (ipida maeray) and 'to be born again' (yali ipiday) in this 'unstable ocean of samsara' (notira sasara saagaray). And don't we, 'in between' (atarature) 'die without dying, tens of thousands of times' (nomaeri maeray dasa dahas waray)?. The message must surely have been lost on the few of us still singing it past midnight on our way back from an out-of-town Maname show!

Ironic it surely must have been, too, to sing the words, 'Why dance, play, horse around in laughter' (kumata naetum keli kavata sinaadaa), the very wares we, in the Maname troupe, were promoting! 'There indeed are no obstacles to the Lord of Death' (maruta nomaeta kisivitakadi baadaa). 'When Death doth come unannounced, there's no staying behind, go indeed you have to' (obata nodannaa maru mehi aa daa / yannata sidu vannay / innata baeri vannay). So (let's remember) 'the unstable ocean of samsara', repeated twice here as if to underscore the message. And now an encouragement and a final reminder: 'It's only the good done that remains in this world' (kala honda pamany melowa rendennay), At least there was solace here. Maname was a 'good' done! But, we are asked: "Why on earth don't you impoverished weaklings (apamana neti beri kam ati minisune) just think of this (reality)(aey meya nositanne)?"

Indeed there is more, singing the praises of the Buddha at his 'lotus feet' (siripaa piyumay (to the words of our born poet, Mahagama Sekara) (#.17 of sasara wasana turu), and His teachings of friendliness, compassion and appreciative joy (metta karuna mudita).

"Those who are in the know of the Dharma body (dharmaskandhaa)", next we listen to our musical voice (# 9 of waelitala..CD) to the words of John Silva, "practice the wonderful precepts, regularly and with commitment" (paywee rakiti sonda seelay nibandaa). A wonderful reminder indeed, is it not, that foundational to liberation is self-discipline (sila), as well known from the threefold division of the Noble Eightfold Path - sila, samadhi, panna 'self-discipline, concentration, wisdom'?

Then there is the caution against of the dangers of entanglement in lust, leading to ignorance and delusion (raagay paetalee moha vikaaray) (#16, sasara wasana turu)), and an invitation (through Dharmasiri Gamage's words) to 'demolish the sins' (vanasaa paapay) and 'the net of attachments' (trsna jaalaa) 'in this mirage world' (maayaa lokay) and walk the 'Path of liberation' (mokshe margay) and win that 'absolute peace of Nibbana' (parama shaanta woo nirvaanay), the song ending in a drone, as if to remind of the illusory nature of things (maayaa).

Not to be forgotten by the maestro is the Sangha either, of whom 'there are many [who have] cleansed themselves of defilements' (klaysha nasnaa bhikshu / aetteya boho say) 'as the City of Anuradhapura now comes into view' (anuraadha nagaraya daen pene ossay). Among them are the 'many arhants who are capable of teleportation' [traveling through the air by the superhuman powers of concentration] (erdiyen yannavu nek rahatungay). And so many of them are there in the sky that 'the sun's heat is made to disappear [literally 'shattered'] by their shadow' (sevanaelleni hiru rashmiya bhangay). So it is with devotion and pleasure that he watches the leaves of the bodhi tree in Anuradhapura 'dancing to the beautiful sounds of a vannama (dance beat)' (natai kola vannama lesa mahabo / sumeeree naadenaa).

His sights end not at the local city as we see him paying homage at the propitious 'Buddhagaya temple' (siri buddhagayaa viharay), the very site of Awakening, wishing for liberation (vandinay mo…moksha pataalaa) (#9, swarna vimanaya CD).

Nor are those who seek the comfort of deities forgotten either, as Amaradeva sings, to a faster beat, a song about the Gods of the four quarters 'satara varam devi' (# 11 of Sasara..) to the words of Ratna Sri Wijesinghe.

So yes, what is Buddhist about our geeta kokila Amaradeva is that the Sinhala Buddhist has been bathed in a dharmic musicality. Can we indeed not hear a whole family singing together the praises of Buddha whose 'powers are accrued through the perfection of the paramitaa'? Amaradeva's singular contribution, to the Sinhala Buddhist, then, is that he has re-kindled, and kept rejuvenated, their saddha (devotion) and bhakti (faith).

If traditionally, such religious stirrings would be limited to a Full Moon day at the temple or to an alms giving, what we have here are the strings of the religious heart plucked in every nook and corner of the island nation, in completely secular contexts, time and time again, day after day, year after year. The quality of saddha, for sure, may not be as in a devout villager falling prostrate at the cetiya or a bo-tree in the calming light of a Full moon night at the temple, to borrow a characterization from our respected doyen, Martin Wickremasinghe. But what is lost in depth is assuredly gained in the breadth of its reach, by getting a whole nation singing off the same page of veneration, a scale that no religious context can be said to have matched or sustained.

Part II: The Spiritual in Amaradeva

We ended Part I by noting how Amaradeva's is a story of bathing the Sinhala Buddhist in a dharmic musicality. But what about his own spirituality?

Whatever it may be that the many melodies and raga-tala harmonies do or don't do for Pandit Amaradeva's own spiritual life, at a personal level, we may never know, any more in relation to him than to any of us. Only he would be privy to it, spirituality being internal (ajjhattika).

What gives us appreciative joy, i.e., mudita, however, is that the Visharad himself stands to benefit from it all, in what could be called a cybernetic punna (merit) loop. A musical dana prompting saddha and bhakti builds a mountain of happiness for a people, which in turn reverberates back in the form of a mountain of punna for donor Amaradeva, as if it were an echo in a mountain range. He may have gained much merit as well by laying the groundwork for a next and next and next generation of creative artistes to bring out not only their own creativity but also their devotion, raising the quality of the massified saddha and bhakti. If Victor Ratnayaka comes to mind (samindu siripaa ringing in your ear?), you get the point.

But something else brings out the mudita in this writer. And that is the pleasurable passing thought that perchance, our music maestro may well be poised, just may be, to be a spiritual maestro as well, should he so decide, in this life, or a next. And this is said in no light vein.

To be a Buddhist is to take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. By that reckoning, then, to render the social the personal now, Maestro Amaradeva would well fit the bill of a 'Buddhist'. He sings off the same spiritual page as any one of us Buddhists.

But are his saddha-prompting songs mere words of a 'Protestant Buddhist', as a modern day scholar might put it, merely paying lip service? Or are they indicative of a deep saddha in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, felt from the bottom of his heart? To what extent has our musical devotee himself been touched by the spirituality he has kindled in the body politic?

Mindfulness (sati), the Buddha teaches (in the Satipatthana sutta), is the first of the 'seven qualities of mind on the side of Awakening' (satta bhojjhanga). Another is concentration (samadhi). Anyone watched Amaradeva on stage - the great concentration and mindfulness he brings to his performance? Then there is the effort (viriya). Any doubt about the effort he has put in to come first on the violin in his class in India and to get to where he is at now? Not to be forgotten is happiness (piti), another bhojjhanga, he protrudes on stage. So would it be an exaggeration to say that all we see on stage is Amaradeva the Happy. A final bhojjhanga is relaxation (passaddhi). Has anyone seen an Amaradeva the Stressed Out on stage?

Then there is the balance he brings to the music, reminding us of Buddha's remark how good spiritual practice is like a well-tuned string of an instrument - neither too loose nor too taut. Some scholars have gone to the extent of saying that, though etymologically questionable, 'samana' (as in Samana Gotama) is from 'sama' meaning 'balance'!

With five qualities supportive of Awakening under his belt, then, with an added balance, we hope we won't be faulted for saying that our Visharad comes not by chance!

Stage performance is not off-stage performance, you say. Sure, but the point is that our maestro has all these liberational skills in him, albeit in a secular context. What that tells us is that perhaps the skills, though certainly honed in and refined in this life, may have karmic roots in a past life. Ask Mozart, who is known to have composed music at age five, if he thought so. But if my lame thesis has any legs to it, would it be preposterous to suggest that our Amaradeva may well have been a musical virtuoso in a past life, too?

But what has any of that got to do with spirituality? All one can say perhaps is that at most, our Amaradeva seems 'Heaven-st(r)uck', so to speak, an entertainer taking the route of sagga magga (Path to Heaven). He seems to be walking the path of the happy lay life, Buddha outlining the principles for those who wish just for that.

But a Buddhist perspective allows the possibility that the musical maestro of this life may have been not just a music maestro in a past life but a spiritual maestro as well. Would you then allow me to be so bold as to say, to put it in standard Buddhist language, that the respected Amaradeva may already have been a streamwinner (sotapanna) in the immediate past life? Once in-stream, Buddha tell us, one needs no more than seven rebirths to win the Grand Prize of Nibbana. And, despite Theravada heresy, who is to say then that our Amaradeva could not win it in this very birth? So was he born into this life to work out some remaining wrinkles?

What a grateful mudita of a people can offer is the wish that for all the saddha and the happiness given to ease their pain in their own lives, the maestro himself be relieved of his own dukkha of sentience in this very life. Transference of some more merit can help. But there is work for the maestro, too - to re-direct the Awakening skills already available to him in a secular context, now towards the other bhojjanga of investigating the dharma (dhammavicaya). Mindfulness and concentration now comes to be on the breath, and on the body (kaya), feelings (vedana), mind (citta) and dhamma, to list the four increasingly subtle satipatthanas (foundations).

Would it be long before Dhammacari Amaradeva comes to be personally experiencing the Dhamma he has been long paragoning, now coming to see reality as it is (yathabhoota naanadassana), with equanimity (upekkha), the last of the bhojjhanga now in full gear? And weakening and eventually jettisoning in the very same process the raga, dosa and moha (greed, anger and ignorance) that is the territory of us sentient beings. A literary image suggests itself - like dew drops on the grass tip (tana aga pini bindu vaenna) in the morning sun (arunalu)!

Visharada Amaradeva, allow me then to offer my pranamaya respects, for rejuvenating the spiritual persona of a people. Would you also allow me, then, to offer the hope that the hard work put in by you bears fruit (phala), in this very life, if not in the next, not in the mythical halls of the Gandharva sabha, but in Nibbana?

Visharada Pandit Amaradeva, 80 years and counting, digaayu waywaa!



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