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Godwin Samararatne: In Appreciation

by Anne M. Blackburn
(Associate Professor of South Asia and Buddhist Studies, Cornell University, Ithaca, U.S.A.)

In this last decade since the death of a dear teacher and skilful friend, Godwin Samararatne, it frequently occurs to me that I grew up in Godwin's company. When first we met I was just shy of twenty, still very much a child though I did not (of course) recognize that at all. In the more than twenty years since then, shared with Godwin both in his life and in later memory and reflection, much has happened, all of it deeply improved and made easier by the fact of his wisdom and generosity. At Godwin's death, I felt bereft, as though a fundamental touchstone in life were lost. Gradually, I came to realize that what he taught - in smile, word, tone, and gesture - could not be lost without wilful neglect, and that it would assure his continued presence.

This is, really, enough to say in personal appreciation of Godwin. Yet his friends and students seek something more, contributing to a collective affirmation of his work in the world. For those who missed the opportunity to meet Godwin Samararatne, but who pursue some connection to his practice, our images of Godwin may enrich a sense of possibility, and of confidence.

So let us begin again, with a few images. Godwin, ill at the Wickramaratne home in Kandy, smiling one of his winsome smiles of delight at a parcel of oranges and palm sugar. Godwin, well but fatigued, standing in front of the house on Peradeniya Road, saying farewell after a strange hard year spent coping with the news of burning tyres and vanished teens. Godwin, earlier in that same year, speaking gently with those gathered weekly thanks to Harilal and Visakha's hospitality, about anger, violence, and pain, within a circle overtaken by the hardship of the island's second JVP era. Godwin, at his brother Hector's home in Watapuluwa, before that household's tragedies unfolded, standing in the garden with a smile for the flowers in the sunshine. Godwin, in the bright hilltop afternoon at Nilambe, watching clouds change the pattern of the tea terraces across the valley.

The kitchen at Nilambe: a place in which preparing beans for curry was a greater pleasure than preparing beans for curry anywhere else, because Godwin's presence infused the place. And because the cook, whose name I have unconscionably forgotten, taught a great deal also with the generous warmth of his eyes, in the face of so many earnest seekers, and so very, very few chillies. Godwin, during a first stay at Nilambe, answering one of the classic questions with generous gravity, as if it were the first time ever: "Won't this meditative distance reduce my life by taking away its spontaneity?" "This is one of the fundamental defences of the mind at this stage. Later you may come to see that awareness does not reduce spontaneity." Godwin on his cushion in the meditation hall at Nilambe, anchoring a room and the people in it, as mountain light caressed the room with the potentia of dawn and dusk.

One striking dimension of Godwin's work was his interest in psychotherapeutic studies. For many years he read avidly about psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy, gathering books from corners of the world. In doing so, Godwin had in mind both patients undergoing psychiatric treatment and people experiencing less profound forms of disorientation but still grappling with emotional suffering and distress. Given the strong presence of a psychological discourse within many of the non-Sri Lankan communities among whom Godwin taught and travelled, it was natural for him to explore areas of overlap and resonance between Buddhist teachings and techniques, and the analyses made by psychologists and psychotherapists. But Godwin's circle of care and practice retained a crucial, central, orientation to Sri Lanka and to local experience. He spent many years exploring characteristic patterns of emotional expression within Sri Lanka, considering whether Buddhist teachings and modes of understanding mental and emotional life might be used for psychotherapeutic purposes where a Euro-American psychological discourse was not at home.

A dedicated partnership ensued between Godwin and some of his colleagues at the Kandy Hospital and the University of Peradeniya's Medical Faculty, nurturing a rare creative attention to the role of Buddhist teachings in psychological treatment. This continues even now among some of the island's most talented physicians. Outside the hospital sphere, Godwin's meditation sessions and discussion groups also reflected his creative movement between these two modes of analysis in the work of, and with, emotions. Rather than directly tackling questions of repression, attachment, childhood experience, trauma, guilt, and the like, Godwin was usually most inclined to harness Buddhist terms and idioms for the work of exploring the mind and its sources of distress.

Among the most central moves was, I think, his striking use of loving-kindness (metta): "How can we feel loving-kindness for others if we do not feel it for ourselves? Let us see whether it is possible to make friends with our mind. Can you find loving-kindness for what is in your mind, even if it is painful?" Since one cannot make friends with a stranger, investigation was also necessary. Here Godwin relied on local familiarity with insight (vipassana) meditation, which he introduced usually in the spirit of 'bare awareness' interpretations borrowed from Burma: "So let us look at the mind. See what is coming and going. Don't try to push it away. Let us try to become familiar with our mind."

Nilambe - a space for meditative retreat perched high in tea-estate country and accessible from Peradeniya campus on the Galaha Road - is central to my memories of Godwin. And, yet, so is Kandy town. Godwin's movement between the aerie and the city was one of his greatest strengths, emblematic of the wide-ranging and compassionate interest he took in human lives. Moving weekly between Nilambe, Rajapihilla Mawatha, and the Buddhist Publication Society near the Kandy lake (and, in earlier days, the old house on Peradeniya Road), with regular forays to the hospital, Godwin brought the Dhamma to those without the luxury of retreat. In Kandy, over decades, communities formed around Godwin in the city: clusters bound by meditative practice, conversation, a friendly warmth, and ginger tea.

Such relations made a crucial difference to the lives of many who shared them, offering a gentle and often humour-filled space for the cultivation of a mindful life. It is hard enough to live thus in any time or place, making friends with the mind as Godwin encouraged us to do. In contemporary Sri Lanka, which has now seen decades of brutality, as well as the harshness of an ailing economy burdened by inflation, the mind-heart and the body are taxed harder still. Those fortunate enough to know and work with Godwin found a buffer in his subtle work of Buddhist therapeutics, as they benefited also from his warm laughter and a smile that was, itself, a lesson in living well. An island where Buddhism often lives with dark violence in the words and deeds of politics writ large and small brought us also a man of great insight, strength, and creativity. Godwin Samararatne was - and remains - an important reminder of the Dhamma's beauty, a sign of the good work it may do quietly, in skilful friendship.

Anne M. Blackburn
Ithaca, NY, U.S.A