This is a translation o the first fifteen stories of the thirteenth century Sinhala work, the Saddharma Ratnvaliya written by the monk Dharmasena. The Saddharma Ratnavaliya is in turn an expanded version of the fifth century Pali work, the Dhammapadaattakata.
The stories are lively and entertaining, of interest to the general reader and the specialist. A skilled teacher and raconteur the author probes the depths of Buddhist philosophical doctrine and makes it meaningful for his lay audiences. Generations of Sri Lankans have read, heard and enjoyed the stories. They deal with the vicissitudes of the human condition and so, like all good literature have a timeless relevance and appeal.
“It is a fascinating and rich repository of Buddhist culture from which I have learned much-the tales are so beguiling, and the imagery so striking.”
- Steven Collins, Concordia University
- H. L. Seneviratne, University of Virginia
The Place of the Saddharmaratnavaliya in Sinhala Culture
My own first encounter with the Saddhurmaratnavaliya (The Jewel Garland of the True Doctrine) was as a child. Growing up in Sri Lanka, in the city of Colombo, we considered the high point of our lives to be the school vacations, which we spent in our grand father’s house in the small village of Palapathwela in the central hill country. There, often of an evening, after the first lamp was lit, my grandfather would sit at the dining table, relaxed after his day’s work, take out a fat leather bound book and read aloud. At that twilight hour, when it was too dark to do anything more exciting and dinner was still only a matter of curry smells wafting from the kitchen, we would slowly gather round grand- father and his lamp, a motley group of children of all ages drawn like moths to a flame, and we would listen to his sonorous voice reading from the Saddhurmaratnavaliya or the Jataka Tales. We didn't always un- derstand all that he read. Some of my younger cousins often fell asleep at the table. Others, bored, would disappear after a while into the more interesting world of the kitchen. But a few of us older ones stayed and listened. We were his faithful. Sometimes we would interrupt with a question. His answers were always short and simple, and seemed then to be eminently sensible. He rarely stopped to explain at any length. For the most part he just read on and we listened.
He read, I now realize, mainly for himself, and reading aloud was only his way of reading. But he didn’t mind our collecting round him and even acknowledged our presence by every now and then interrupting the flow of the text with a "a putha,” which I can only translate as, "Isn’t that so my child?"
The reading would stop abruptly when grandmother brought the steaming rice and curries to the table. Grandfather would close the book without protest, at whatever point he happened to be, and give up his place and lamp so that we children could eat.
Many of the stories grew very familiar with time. We heard them told and retold in many different contexts; in the temples, when the elders observed the eight precepts on full moon nights, as illustrations in the sermons of monks, and in schools where they were often assigned in the literature classes. But the stories I remembered best, and the bits and pieces that remained stuck in my mind were those that had fired my imagination as a child—Cunda, running about mad, screaming like a pig and boiling in hell fires; Devidat being sucked into the earth; the distraught bride following after prince Nanda, who in turn reluctantly followed behind the Buddha; or the majestic elephant Paraliya, broken- hearted, watching the Buddha depart.
This I think is how most Sinhala children (at least those growing up before the fifties) came to know these stories. In a paper on "The Con- science of King Dutthagamani Abhaya" (1987), Gananath Obeyesekere remarks: "The abstract ethics and the abstruse concepts of the doctrinal tradition were given immediacy, concreteness and an ethical salience in peasant society through storytelling." Looking back on my childhood, I realize we were never given religious instruction as such, either in school or at home. We participated in Buddhist rituals and ceremonies, mostly with the extended kin group, went to temple on full moon days (that, too, mainly during vacations), and listened to many, many Buddhist stories. That was how we learned to be Buddhists.
The stories of the Saddharmaratnavaliya and the Jataka Tales have I think, always performed this function, ever since they were translated into Sinhala. They have been central to the dissemination of Buddhist values and doctrine, and for this very reason were preserved and cherished, copied and recopied by monks, and passed on from generation to generation. In recent years their role has diminished. Buddhism is taught as a subject in schools, in Sunday Schools or Daham pasal, that have sprung up all over the country, and children study doctrinal texts and understandably, are extremely bored with them. Ours was a much more exciting way to come to the Teachings.
ON TEXT5 WITHIN TEXTS AND TRANSLATIONS OF TRANSLATIONS
The Saddharmaratnavaliya is one of the best known and best loved books of the Sinhala literary canon. It is the work of a thirteenth century monk, Dharmasena Thera, and is a translation of the fifth century Pali work the Dhammapadatthakata or Dhammapada Commentary. For Sinhala readers over the centuries, however, it has taken on an identity and life of its own. Its connection with the earlier Pali work hardly surfaces in the consciousness of the generali5inhala reader or listener. To them, it is essentially a Sinhala Buddhist work, rooted in the culture, the world view and the very texture of Sinhala society. This is not surprising because the world of reference of both the Pali and Sinhala works is agrarian, feudal, medieval, and profoundly Buddhist. In spite of five hundred years of western colonial contact, the world and value systems of the Sinhala Buddhist peasant, even as late as the nineteen fifties, was not too far removed from that thirteenth century world and so the stories had an immediacy and relevance. For the Sinhala scholar and for those who have come to be identified as the "vernacular intelligentsia" (in contrast to the western educated intelligentsia of postcolonial times), the Saddharmaratnavaliya was an important Sinhala literary work that resonated with the deep rooted values of their Buddhist past. There was perhaps yet another reason for this resonance. Long be• tore the fifth century A.D. the text had existed in Sri Lanka, and had been known to Buddhist scholars as an important commentarial work on the Dhammapada (one of the central texts of the Buddhist canon). Thus, it was originally a Sinhala work.
This Sinhala commentary or collection of stories was translated into Pali in the fifth century by a foreign Buddhist monk; he was popularly believed to be the scholar monk Buddhaghosa. The Pali translation was entitled the Dhammapadatthakatha and soon became known throughout the Buddhist world. I shall refer to this text from now on for convenience as the Dhammapada Commentary.
Then in the thirteenth century AJ)., perhaps because the pre—fifth century Sinhala work was lost by that time, the Sri Lankan monk Dharmasena Thera, decided to retranslate the Pali Dhammapada Commentary hack into Sinhala, creating the text known as the " Saddharmaratnavaliya."
The translation of Buddhist texts and commentaries, from the classical languages of Pali and Sanskrit into the vernacular languages, and vice versa, has been an ongoing activity throughout the Buddhist world. Translations were generally of two kinds; either closes textual translations of primary canonical material, or freer adaptations or transformations of secondary materials such as commentaries or illustrative stories.
Both the Dhammapada Commentary and the Saddharmaratnavaliya be- long to the latter category. In prologues to their works, each of the two authors indicates how he approached his task. The translator of the, fifth century Dhammapada Commentary states he was told by a Senior Monk that:
A subtle commentary thereon [the Dhammapada] has been handed down from generation to generation in the island of Sri Lanka. But because it is composed in the language of the island it is of no profit or advantage to foreigners. [If it were translated into Pali] It might per— haps conduce to the welfare of mankind. This was the wish expressed to me by the Elder Kumara Kassapa, self-conquered, living in tranquility, steadfast in resolve. His earnest request was made to me be- cause of his desire that the Good Law might endure.
Then, with the slightly dismissive impatience of a classicist for the stylistic involutions of an indigenous vernacular, he adds:
Therefore I shall discard this dialect and its diffuse idioms and translate the work into the pleasing language of the Sacred Texts. Whatever in the [Dhammapada] Stanzas has not been made clear in the Stanzas themselves, whether in letter or in word, all that will I make clear. The rest I will also tell in Pali, in accordance with the spirit of the Stanzas. Thus will I bring to the minds of the wise joy and satisfaction in matters both temporal and spiritual?
While the original Sinhala text on which the Pali version was based was probably lost long before the thirteenth century, the fifth century Pali translation remained in circulation in Sri Lanka and in the larger Buddhist world. It was translated into English by E. W. Burlingame in 1921 and published by the Pali Text Society in 1969 and again in 1979. Dharmasena Thera’s Saddharmaratnavaliya, too, has remained in circulation in Sri Lanka since the thirteenth century. It was preserved originally in the form of palm leaf (ola) manuscripts stored in Buddhist temples throughout the country. But since the late nineteenth century it has been edited and published in book form. The most recent is a two volume edition published in 1985 by the Oriental Languages Association and the Sinhala Department of the Colombo University. The author of the Saddharmaratnavaliya states in his introduction how he approached the task of translation. He says:
We have abandoned the strict Pali method and taken only the themes, in composing this work. It may have faults and stylistic shortcomings but [you the reader should] ignore them. Be like the swans who separate milk from water even though the milk and water have been mixed together, or like those who acquire learning and skills even from a teacher of low status, because it is only the acquisition of knowledge with which they are concerned, . . . So, consider only its usefulness and apply the healing salve of the Saddharmaratnavaliya to remove the hazy film of Delusion that clouds the Eye of Wisdom, and go happily and with clear sight along the highway of Right Actions to the city of nirvana.
Thus, with mock modesty and a subtle irony, he seems determined In restore the "diffuse idioms" of his native tongue, which his august predecessor had so assiduously eliminated! The Saddharmaratnavaliya, not surprisingly then, is much more than a translation and turns out to be three times as long as its original. Like the Dhammapada Commentary it is a reworking of its sources. Both writers work in terms of the feel and How of their respective languages. The Saddharmaratnavaliya contains additional stories, expanded descriptions, new metaphors, and elaborate images not in the Pali Dhammapada Commentary which are intended to capture the imagination of his thirteenth century Sinhala readers and listeners. It is written in an easy flowing, colorful prose, in the half—colloquial, half-literary, style still used by Buddhist monks in their sermons. The speaking voice and narrative persona of the author/ translator cuts into the text constantly, revealing his humanity and humor, his narrative gifts, and above all the intellectual and psychological subtlety with which he explores and illuminates abstract elements of Buddhist doctrine, relating them to the everyday needs and actions of ordinary people.
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