Writings on Buddhism and Human Rights
Nalin Swaris – As I Saw Him
by Asanga Tilakaratne
Buddhist Studies Program
University of Colombo
(May 04, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Nalin Swaris passed away on 17th April 2011 while he was on a tour in China. Although Nalin’s health had not been that good lately the news of his death came as a shock mainly because for many of us, including Nalin, life is an unfinished job, and the all too abrupt halt to things disorients one. Anyhow, once it happens, death is not the problem of the one who is dead, but it is something to be coped with by those who have been left behind.
My association with Nalin goes back to the early 1990s, when he was still resident in the Netherlands and writing his doctoral dissertation on the path of the Buddha. In Sri Lanka he used to stay at the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue in Havelock Town where he found a congenial environment for intellectual debates, and used to visit the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies to read and discuss Buddhist philosophy. Nalin was excited about what he found in the Buddhist philosophy, which he had undertaken to study latterly. Nalin already had a great deal of exposure to the Christian theology, and at one point of his life he had undergone the training to be a Roman Catholic clergyman and, in fact, had served as one for several years. He came from a very strong background in Western philosophy, theology and classics and languages such as Hebrew, Greek and Latin. In addition to these, Nalin had read and been fascinated by Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Derrida and Foucault. With his Christian, Western philosophical and post-modernist background Nalin approached Buddhism and saw things that some of us who have been born and brought up as Buddhists did not or could not see. Nalin proved that coming totally fresh to Buddhist studies (or to any field of study for that matter) had its own advantages (and perhaps disadvantages). Nalin’s approach was not to attribute Western religious and philosophical categories to Buddhism. In fact, Nalin was very critical of such an approach and always said that Buddhism had its own methodology and that it had to be studied and understood through its own principles. Nalin was obviously referring to such Buddhist concepts as dependent co-origination and no-soul-ness, which provided the basis for the Buddhist understanding of reality.
Nalin thought that the Buddhist concept of anatta (no-soul) did to Indian philosophy and religion what Derrida’s deconstruction did to contemporary philosophy. Nalin was highly impressed with the deconstructive power of anatta and was very open in acknowledging it even to the embarrassment of some of his friends with a definitive a-religious stance. Nalin himself made a clear distinction between Buddhism as a religious organization and ideology and Buddhism as the teaching of the Buddha. While he was unequivocal about his admiration for the latter, he was equally openly critical and rejected a good many things in organized religion including those in Buddhism.
While I agreed with Nalin on many of his interpretations of Buddhism, a major disagreement I continued to have was with his reconstruction of the Buddhist philosophy and practice exclusively as an enlightened social movement, and consequently, the Buddha exclusively as a social reformer. He built this interpretation in his doctoral dissertation, a revised version of which was subsequently published as The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation: a Socio-Historical Approach (1999). When this work was published Nalin wanted me to review it, which I agreed to do. However I could not attend to this work for several months mainly for the reason that I could not find enough time and quietude to read this substantial work, substantial both in quantity and quality. In 2000, I went away on my sabbatical leave and the first thing I did was to start reading his book. I remember it took one full month for me to finish reading it cover to cover, with the help of a dictionary and with some self-teaching in post-structuralism, postmodernism, psychology, anthropology and politics. Reading Nalin was a great intellectual experience, and it made me reexamine some of my own understanding of Buddhist philosophy and practice. The socio-historical approach that Nalin had adopted was not totally new in Buddhist studies. It had been tried by others like D. Kosambi before. But the specialty of Nalin’s was to use this approach to develop a comprehensive picture of Buddhism as a whole: philosophy, practice and the organization of Buddhism as an enlightened social movement of a group of ‘liberated’ people. While I agreed with Nalin that the Buddhist path and its fruit is not a private affair of an isolated individual I could not agree with his downplaying of strong ‘soteriological’ aspect of it. I wrote a long review to his book (running into 23 printed pages in Dialogue New Series, vol.xxvii pp.111-133.), in which I highlighted the merits of his interpretation and also recorded where I parted company with him. Let me quote from that essay:
“I fully sympathise with him in his view that the tradition has made Buddhism basically a monastic tradition in which house-holders have been relegated to a marginal position. Also I do not want to undervalue the message Swaris is trying to bring up, namely, that the path of the Buddha needs to be reinterpreted not as a system of ‘private salvation seeking’ but as a path of social action. My dissatisfaction, however, is that, in the process, we might make the path of the Buddha nothing more than a form of enlightened social living. This I think is to lose sight of the deep and subtle psychological import of the teaching of the Buddha. In other words, Buddhism demythologizes and demystifies our religious beliefs, but at the same time it leads us to higher form of understanding of our own individual and social reality. In Swaris’s interpretation the first part of this comes out very beautifully; but the second part remains largely unasserted. (pp.125-6).”
We have had this debate on and off, neither being convinced by the other. In 2008 Nalin published a somewhat abridged version of this book for he felt that the earlier version was a little too long. Except for some stylistic changes, the new version was exactly the same in content. Although Nalin wanted me to write a brief newspaper introduction to this version, to my dismay now, I was unable to oblige. If I had written it readers would have known that we were never done with our old bone of contention.
Nalin published Buddhism, Human Rights and Social Renewal in 2000. Rights and justice were two areas in which Nalin was not only academically interested but also was deeply concerned and involved. This relatively short work, which was published by the Asian Human Rights Commission based in Hong Kong, is an in-depth treatment of the issues of human rights and justice and highlights how Buddhist insights could be used in constructing a social philosophy rich enough to address the burning issues of our globalized society. For some time, Nalin wrote to English newspapers almost on a weekly basis on contemporary issues including terrorism, nationalism, corruption and education.
Nalin was a passionate believer in what he said. The issues he discussed academically had great existential relevance and significance to him. Nalin was the exact opposite of the objective, detached and disinterested seeker of knowledge. For him knowledge was inseparable from praxis. As a result Nalin always got into passionate debates and arguments with his friends in the course of which he even lost a few of them. But deep inside Nalin was a warm and compassionate human being. Although social realities marked by injustices and violations of human rights said otherwise, Nalin never gave up his idealism, and consequently he was nearly always a frustrated man. This is not only Nalin’s fate; it is bound to be the fate of many of us who try to cling tenaciously to our ideals in the face of harsh and unpleasant social realities. As we know Ideal forms exist only in Platonic heaven; Nalin showed that to yearn for them is not a sin, but is not very practical either. Closely associated with this phenomenon is being alone amidst thousands of people. All those who do not go along with the majority have ultimately to grapple with their own existential loneliness, and Nalin was not an exception.
Nalin is gone. As the last sentence of this note I do not wish to reduce Nalin’s life to one single identity or something of that sort. Among the many facets of his life, Nalin was a deeply religious man, although he renounced organized religion whether it was Buddhism, Christianity or any other. In Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation Nalin has a substantial discussion on ‘nirvāṇa’ which is the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path with which he identified himself. Although I am not quite sure whether or not Nalin’s ‘nirvāṇa’ exactly coincides with mine, I wish him the bliss of ‘nirvāṇa’, the ultimate freedom from suffering.