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Godwin Samararatne: A Tribute to a Remarkable Man
by Dr P.W. Kodituwakku
(Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Neurosciences,
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.A.)
Professor Gunapala Dharmasiri introduced me to Mr. Godwin Samararatne in 1972, a few weeks after I joined the Department of Philosophy at the University of Peradeniya. I vaguely remember our first meeting, which took place in Godwin's office at the Kandy Municipal Library, where he was a librarian. Although I can not recollect what we discussed in this meeting, his captivating smile, polite manner, and sense of humour made lasting impressions in my memory. Until I left Sri Lanka in 1979 for post-graduate studies, Godwin and I met regularly to discuss various topics ranging from Buddhist philosophy to politics in Sri Lanka. Over these 7 years, I got to know Godwin and his family, including his beloved mother, well. I have recalled and arranged my memories of Godwin from this period under the following labels: scholar, Buddhist practitioner, and friend.
Godwin's desk at the library was always cluttered with stacks of books, which made me wonder if he read all the books that he acquired for the library. I used to call Godwin "the Renaissance man" because he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of a wide range of subjects including literature, philosophy, art, psychology, history, and Buddhism. While Godwin had an intimate knowledge of the Buddha's discourses, he felt comfortable discussing ideas of western philosophers (e.g. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Camus, and Wittgenstein), psycholinguists (e.g. Chomsky), and anthropologists (e.g. Bateson).
Given that Godwin possessed a mental toolbox filled with conceptual frameworks and ideas from different traditions, he was able to quickly comprehend and assimilate novel concepts. As a young assistant lecturer, lacking confidence in my own reasoning ability, I often sought Godwin's help when I felt that I did not have a firm footing on a philosophical position. I recall that one of my first assignments in the Department of Philosophy was to assist Professor Padmasiri de Silva teach an undergraduate course in philosophical psychology. While preparing for this course, I was fascinated by the force of Gilbert Ryle's argument that the dualistic position of mind-body was based on an erroneous assumption, which he termed category mistake. Ryle illustrates category mistake by means of an example of a foreign student visiting a university. As the student is shown various buildings, libraries, and campuses, the student asks, "But where is the university?" The student's question assumes that the university is of the same logical category as that of library or buildings, which is obviously a mistake. This entails that it is a mistake to talk about the mind as a substance that exists independent of feelings and thoughts etc. I asked Godwin if Ryle's refutation of the dualist position was comparable with the Buddha's rejection of atta or self. He brought my attention to the following well-known verse in Vissuddhi Magga and discussed at length about similarities and differences between Ryle's analytical and Buddhist introspective methods:
Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found,
The deed is, but no doer of the deed is there.
Nirvana is, but not the man that enters it.
The path is, but no traveller on it is seen.
At the end of this discussion, I was astonished at the extent of Godwin's knowledge of Western and Eastern philosophies despite his lack of formal training in philosophy. Godwin later told me that he developed his interests in philosophy through frequent discussions that he had with the late Professor K.N. Jayatillake, who was one of my mentors.
Godwin was connected with a wide network of local and foreign scholars from different disciplines. Numerous faculty members from the schools of Medicine, Dentistry, Science and Arts in the University of Peradeniya frequently stopped by Godwin's office just to chat with him. He enjoyed these interactions since they allowed him to keep abreast of new developments in different areas of studies. He used to peruse popular journals on science such as Scientific American in search of new developments in neuroscience or psychology. I recall that one time Karl Pribram's "holographic brain" theory caught his attention and he talked about it with intense interest. New discoveries in physics and psychology were also of particular interest to Godwin as he was grappling with the question of the relationship between physical and psychological aspects of our existence. I believe that Godwin's interest in the relationship between the physical and psychological aspects of existence was an offshoot of his long-term goal of explaining Buddhist metaphysical concepts such as re-birth and extra-sensory perception. He read with intense interest Arthur Koestler's The Roots of Coincidence and Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics to understand the metaphysical aspects of the universe.
Godwin was extremely generous with his time helping researchers. Numerous post-graduate students and foreign scholars often sought Godwin's assistance when planning and conducting research in the areas of anthropology and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Having heard of Godwin's extensive knowledge of Sri Lankan culture and his kindness, foreign students from other disciplines also came to Godwin seeking his help. One time a graduate student from an American university sought Godwin's advice on a research project related to art therapy. After joining the Department of Psychiatry in Peradeniya as a trainee clinical psychologist, I embarked on a project of validating a test instrument designed to screen psychological symptoms in patients who visited medical clinics. This project necessitated the establishment of norms for various scales on the test in the general population. Godwin not only helped me find local sites for validating the test, but also walked from house to house in a village near Kandy administering the test to villagers. I have never forgotten this experience.
Godwin said that he became interested in Buddhism and spiritual matters very early in his life. As an adult, he actively sought knowledge of Buddhism through extensively reading suttas and seeking advice of scholars such as Professor K.N. Jayatillake and Ven. Nyanaponika. He was well-versed in Buddhist suttas when I met him in 1972. In the early 1970s, Professor K.N. Jayatillake's influence on the interpretation of Buddhist texts was palpable around Peradeniya and Godwin's ideas reflected this influence. Like Professor Jayatillake, Godwin espoused an empirical approach to understanding our existence and to achieve the ultimate goal of Nibbana. This approach also assumes a form of realism in that the phenomena (e.g. physical, biological, moral, etc.) that the Buddha discovered through extra-sensory perception exist independently of sensory experience. Godwin's abiding interest in science and parapsychology indexes Professor Jayatillake's interpretation of Buddhist epistemology.
Godwin represented a seamless blend of Buddhist precept and practice. Godwin devoted himself to teaching and practicing meditation after his retirement from Kandy public library. Even in the early 1970s I considered Godwin to be someone very special, someone who had unique qualities, and someone who had entered the path of purification in a Buddhist sense. During the 7 year period that I was closely associated with Godwin, I never heard him utter a word reflective of anger, unhappiness, or greed. Nor did I witness a behaviour indicating these negative feelings. As mentioned above, he was kind, compassionate, and always willing to help others. He looked happy always, facing events in his life with a serene attitude. He chose to remain single, taking care of his widowed mother. Like any other Sri Lankan mother, Godwin's mother wished he had married and had a family. Whenever his mother raised the question of marriage, Godwin laughed and said, "I haven't found the perfect woman that I am looking for".
Godwin was however a normal human being who experienced normal biological feelings. We had several discussions on Buddhist practice and desires arising from biological roots. One day he talked about a Tibetan exercise in which participants argue without emotions. This suggested that he was interested in decoupling cognitions and emotions. Another discussion I had with him dealt with the Vitikkasantthana Sutta in which the Buddha directly addressed the question of the removal of distracting thoughts. Godwin chuckled to himself when reading the following verse from the sutta: "If evil, unskilful thoughts continue to rise in a bhikkhu in spite of his reflection on the removal of the source of unskilful thoughts, he should with clenched teeth and the tongue pressing on the palate, restrain, subdue and beat down the (evil) mind by the (good) mind". During this discussion, he admitted having experienced sexual thoughts occasionally despite his age (he was then about 46 years old). As Buddha himself advised monks, such thoughts are normal and can be overcome through practice. Unfortunately, I did not see Godwin in his later years and believe that he continued to be very skilful in handling distracting thoughts.
Godwin was one of my best friends. He treated all human beings with compassion. His social network was ever expanding and he did not hesitate to help anyone who asked for help. He, in fact, helped my transition from philosophy to clinical psychology. I have now drifted further to study biological processes underlying different psychological processes using modern neuro-imaging methods such as functional MRI. I am now in a position to peek inside the brain when one is practising mindfulness meditation. When I formulate my research questions, I still hear Godwin's voice in my head. I feel happy that I was fortunate to have met in my life such a remarkable human being as Godwin.
P. W. Kodituwakku,
Department of Pediatrics and Neurosciences,
University of New Mexico School of Medicine,
Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.A