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Godwin Samararatne: A Tribute

by O. R. Rao
(Member of the Krishnamurti Foundation of India)

I first met Godwin Samararatne in 1978 in Kandy when we as a family were the guests of Mr. Gopal Gandhi (who was the First Secretary of the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka) and his wife Mrs. Tara Gandhi. Gopal introduced me to Godwin and I met him many times during our two weeks' stay in Kandy. I do not now remember the exact contents of our conversations, but I felt an early rapport with him. He was a tall and rather big made person, but there was a lightness about his being which struck me immediately. An incident I remember was when he took us to the house of one of his relatives (probably one of his brothers') where there were two or three young children of about ten years of age. He immediately fell in with their playful mood and was soon romping about with them on a bit of grassy, sloping ground. The reason why I remember this scene so vividly even now must be that firstly, I am myself not capable of such easy rapport with young children and secondly, that Godwin's 'lightness of being' must have been very evident in this scene.

Other persons too have noted this rapport Godwin had with children. Gopal told me that sometimes when he and Tara had to be away from home for a length of time for some reason, they would leave their two small daughters at home with Godwin for company. Once when they came back they found both the children riding on Godwin's back. He was on all fours on the floor!

Godwin and I must have had some 'philosophical' conversations at that time, and I still have with me some letters and notes relating to these matters, written by Gopal and Godwin. At that time I was much preoccupied with (or I had persuaded myself that I was pre-occupied with) the split between science and spiritual truth, fact and value, 'is' and 'ought' and so on. Scientistic materialism and allied philosophies denied that any values-spiritual, aesthetic or ethical-are inherent in the 'objective' structure of the universe. Thus there could be no 'objective' verifiable, ethical or spiritual truths or knowledge, but only 'subjective' value preferences. There could be no 'truth value' in ethics, religion or art. These views led to the rather tiresome and clich├ęd debates about whether human beings are condemned to live in a meaningless universe and so on.

I had written a long article about these matters and sent Godwin a copy of it when I returned to India. The letters and notes which I have with me now relate to the talks we had had, and to the contents of this essay. The note from Gopal beautifully and succinctly summarizes Godwin's views on these issues. Godwin pointed out that we need not fall into the trap of the objectivist/subjectivist debate couched in the language of empiricist-idealist-critical realist debate, since true ethical impulses have deeper independent springs. "The origins of ethics would be in meditational or spiritual experiences which are totally non-objective. Ahimsa for instance is not a subjective value-judgement preference but a system of social ethics which has been abstracted, as it were, from meditation on the truth of suffering." (The words are Gopal Gandhi's conveying the gist of Godwin's views.)

Godwin thus took the question of the 'truth-content' of ethics out of the modern western epistemological debate between Realism, Idealism and Critical Realism and so on, and said that we could and should step out of this debate into a 'fourth position' in which ethical truth is seen as the truth perceived in meditational experiences. In fact he went further and said that the persons who took this step into this 'fourth position' and who could see the truths of ethics as perceptions in heart-felt existential experience should stop being defensive about the 'truth value' of such perceptions. Godwin pointed out how the Buddha himself gave an example of how such "subjective experiences could be put to the test of verification. Looking for an ideal teacher (which is conceptually a search for non-verifiable attributes) one could make a wise choice by watching the actions of the would-be teacher. One could adopt, with advantage, the methodology of verification. A teacher who by his actions does not convince one of his wisdom or maturity could be rejected. In this instance an objective correlate would have been found and employed in what is essentially a non-objective pursuit".

Though the academically oriented empiricist philosopher might dismiss out of hand such a methodology of 'verification of non-verifiable attributes' as too vague and loose, Godwin's reference to the 'deeper springs' of ethical truths had the ring of truth for me. Implied in this was an assertion that we need to go beyond conceptual searches for truth. Epistemological debates, philosophies of science and metaphysical speculation in general sought to fulfil the human need for truth by constructing structures of conceptual coherence and correspondence with reality. But such conceptual coherence and correspondence as given in science for instance, though pragmatically highly successful in the material realm, leaves us ultimately unsatisfied because we seek a deeper coherence, a wholeness of the entire being, that which used to be known by the old-fashioned word 'wisdom'.

Godwin himself later sent me some notes commenting on the article I had sent him, and referring to the differing views that philosophers of science had on the nature of the scientific method and scientific truth. (I still have these notes with me). He said, "A kind of relativism seems inevitable from the divergent standpoints. We tend to forget this sometimes and venerate the scientific method as if it is absolute in content."

He went on to ask, "What is one to do who wishes to be scientific? Wait till there is agreement among the philosophers of science or accept what seems to confirm one's position and reject the others or dismiss the notion of 'scientific method' as something existing in the minds of philosophers?"

"Are the above positions or any others going to make us wiser by these exercises? What is the way out of this 'net of views'?"

"One has to fully realize the nature of concepts ... the very process of thought itself as a detached observer. (Can scientists be detached observers?) This exercise which can be called meditation should be done without upholding any 'ism' be that 'Buddhism', 'Hinduism', Krishnamurtism' (their dhammas are converted into 'isms') Consequently one should realize the difference between concepts and REALITY." (The emphases on certain words in all these quotations are Godwin's).

I have quoted this statement of Godwin made more than thirty years ago, at length because it is a powerful statement which has the ring of truth in it, and was important for me because, being made by a person like Godwin, it opened up the possibility of there being such a thing as spiritual truth. What I understood from this was that if one was watchful and mindful enough, it was possible to look beyond concepts and the distortions they produced in the mind, and to thus directly 'see things as they are'. It was possible to 'wipe the dust from one's eyes'. The person making the statement made the difference between authenticity and a mere claim.

These statements also showed the extent of his grasp of the gist of certain crucial debates in modern Western philosophy, which has important implications for spiritual seekers. Godwin sometimes expressed regret that he had not undergone the discipline of a modern University education. However, in his case, this, as we know, was no great loss and in fact may have been an advantage in that his mind was never subjected to the deadening influence of examination systems! In fact Godwin's case could be held up as a good illustration of Ananda Coomaraswamy's statement, "It takes four years to get a first class University education and forty years to get over it." Godwin never had to undergo this prolonged 'getting over'. This is in keeping with his 'lightness of being' which every one has noticed. He carried no excess baggage through life-not even theoretical baggage.

Carrying 'excess theoretical baggage' would have meant for him falling into what is called the 'net of views' (ditthi) in Buddhism. Godwin was of course fully aware that Buddhism could itself become a ditthi as is evident from his remark which I have quoted. He claimed no exclusive right to the truth for Buddhism and in fact was interested in and open to other spiritual teachings. During talks with him I gathered that he had studied the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, two important spiritual figures in modern India. This might at first sight be surprising as the language used by these teachers was based mostly on Hindu religious philosophy, but the language in itself was no obstacle for Godwin.

Among all modern spiritual teachings, Godwin was most drawn to those of J. Krishnamurti, of whose talks and writings he made a close study. He had quite a few of Krishnamurti's works added to the library of the Nilambe Meditation Centre. At the invitation of the Krishnamurti Foundation of India, he took part in the Krishnamurti Centenary gathering held in Chennai in 1995. He took an active part in the gathering, leading some dialogue sessions and making many friends. The importance he attached to the teachings of Krishnamurti was shown in the fifteen page account he wrote of this gathering and about the impact that Krishnamurti and his teachings had had on his 'followers'.

In this article he noted how some who were drawn greatly to Krishnamurti's teachings were falling into the trap of making an authority of him-the very trap Krishnamurti had repeatedly warned his listeners about. Godwin was pointing out how, instead of meeting life with their own existential questions, and maintaining an open questioning attitude, followers of spiritual teachers often fall into the trap of making the teachers into an authority figure. This article was meant for publication in Sri Lanka, but I do not know if it was ever published.

Godwin's own approach, one felt, was a fine balance between scepticism and questioning on the one hand, and a firm grounding in deeply felt and experienced existential truth on the other. This attitude is expressed in Buddhism by the quality of being known as 'Shraddha' [Pali: saddha] which is 'reasoned faith'. The clearest example of this is given in the Kalama Sutta in which the Buddha tells the Kalamas, who are bewildered and doubtful about the many different teachings advocated by different teachers, that it was good that doubt had arisen in them in a matter that was doubtful, and advises them to be sceptical of all authority-be it that of tradition or of scriptures or of a famous teacher, or even of subtle logic-and to rely only on their own carefully considered experience regarding what is true and beneficial. One felt that Godwin was a perfect example of this kind of 'reasoned faith'.

Another quality which endeared him to many was his ability to let people be themselves. For all his grounding in the truths of his own experience, he never imposed them or himself on others. In conversations he preferred to remain in the background, letting others express themselves, only intervening minimally with his own remarks and questions. His presence was never intrusive but was felt by the quality of his listening, and was all the more effective because of this. It was a kind of 'presence in absence', the quality of having no centre of gravity which others have remarked upon.

Owing to this quality of Godwin's, people felt able not only to discuss so called 'impersonal' philosophical matters with him, but to open up their own personal problems to him and to listen to what he had to say about them. It was this quality of being able to blend the 'personal' and the 'intangible impersonal' in friendship which made him a true 'Kalyanamitra', a spiritual friend, to many people in many parts of the world.

Just as Godwin drew no line of distinction between the 'personal' and the 'impersonal', he made no distinction between the 'worldly' and the 'spiritual' either in regard to persons or to actions. Thus he had among his friends both persons whose interests and professions most people would consider to be very worldly and materialistic, as also persons who were more 'serious minded'. I remember that whenever he visited Chennai , Godwin always paid a visit to one of his friends whose work and interests would be normally considered to be 'mundane', and who also used to tease Godwin about his philosophical and spiritual interests and activities. But Godwin only seemed to enjoy this kind of badinage. For him it was the living person with whom he was talking who mattered and not his profession or ideas. A true example of metta bhavana!

A remark he once made that has remained in my mind relates to the question of sexuality. Godwin said, "I think one can think of oneself as a human being first and as a man or woman after that. I think that that would be a very beautiful way of dealing with one's sexuality."

That statement for me was remarkable in that it opened up an entirely new perspective on the question, which needed to be meditated upon for a long time. Also, although the inseparability of truth and beauty is a well known assertion in philosophy and literature (for example in Platonic philosophy, and in Keats' line, "Truth is beauty and beauty truth") the assertion gains authenticity and comes alive only because of the living authenticity of the person making it.

My last memory and image of him is that of an evening spent over dinner at our house in Chennai in 1998 or 1999. He was on a transit stop-over at the Chennai airport on his way to Bodh Gaya and we were able to bring him home for a couple of hours. My son and I returned him to the airport late at night and that was my last meeting with him.

I had remarked to him at some time that 'there was no celebration of life in Buddhism'. A few days later I got a post card from him saying that he was 'celebrating life' in Bodh Gaya! After that there was one post card with a photograph of a Buddha statue from the place in South Africa where he was giving talks. The letter is not dated, but it must have been on that trip that he contracted his last illness. That was the last communication I had from Godwin.

O. R. Rao
Chennai, India