Philosophy of Life

My Philosophy of Life

Why Be Possessed by Possessions?

Swimming in the Sea


What is the purpose of human existence, if any? I often ask myself this question. Then it occurs to me that in this seemingly endless cycle of births and deaths it is rarely that one is born as a human being. I am privileged indeed to have a human body with five senses; it is my good fortune to have a mind with the ability to reason, and above all, I have a heart with the potential capacity for feeling great compassion. Because I happen to be a human being in my present life, I seize this golden opportunity to aspire to that highest of all goals which I somehow failed to attain in my previous lives --- spiritual perfection. Whereas theists like to term this exalted state of being as union with God, others simply call it Liberation or Illumination. It is all very well to enjoy life, but sooner or later it suddenly dawns on one that everything in life should be secondary to that inward Transformation.

I do not think that any particular religion has a monopoly on truth. Therefore I have an open-minded approach to religion. My outlook has been shaped by the timeless wisdom of many spiritual masters. Fortunately, my religious views are drawn upon an eclectic mixture of both occidental and oriental religious traditions. Deep is my distrust of dogmatism and fanaticism, especially because religious harmony is a sine qua non for a world that is at peace.

I have discovered that there is always a certain spiritual dimension to great literature, noble art and sublime music. The spirit of divinity permeates them even though they might not have been fully inspired but partly man-made. However it is in nature that the creative force or divine energy seems to manifest itself not only completely but also at its best. When I walk in the woods what I delight in are the beauties of nature --- the shapes and colours of flowers, the landscapes of lush green trees or the ageless ragged rocks. Our eyes have got accustomed to such sights with the result that the beauties of nature no longer have a great fascination for us. We do not realise that everything in nature points towards that sacred Source. Botanists can intellectually explain how plants grow but they are often at a complete loss as to why they grow. That mysterious and invisible power pervading the entire universe is somehow beyond the reach of our limited intellect. The principal purpose of religion should be the development of that non-intellectual capacity to see what is on the other side of all material forms.

In life I have not sought vast riches but knowledge. The love of books has sustained me. I have always been a voracious reader. Already in childhood I knew that reading was an antidote to loneliness and unhappiness. Yet as I grew older I realised that my fondness for reading should not become a mental distraction from reality.

It also struck me that simply being a storehouse of information and ideas was not good enough; I disliked people who prided themselves on their erudition; I eschewed the company of academics who regarded their knowledge as their most important possession. Therefore I tried to become more like a man of virtue than one of learning.

It is a sign of the times that so few place a high premium on goodness and moral excellence. Seldom are we fascinated by the lives and teachings of saints. But successful sports stars, pop stars and film stars are idolized. Multimillionaires are treated with awe. I am not impressed by people who are lacking in uprightness of character. I realise, though, that all the virtues, including the virtues of charity, generosity, kindness, truthfulness, loyalty and humility, are very difficult to attain. In monasteries, convents, temples and various spiritual centres throughout the world I have met aspirants to spirituality who try very hard to put these virtues into practice. All their well-intentioned efforts might result in some superficial and short-lived changes but I doubt their becoming paragons of virtue. The flower of virtue blooms only when an effortless fundamental revolution takes place in the mind and heart. What experience has taught me is that this metamorphosis, like acts of divine grace, cannot be artificially brought about. But it was through a process of meditation, introspection, self-observation and psychological self-purification, which entailed the entire elimination of negative traits such as pride, avarice, aggression, violence, envy, hatred and anger, that I came by a very rare and blessed state. It was a state of being wherein every virtue, as it were, presented itself suddenly and unexpectedly. Paradoxically, I found myself leading a virtuous life without having practised any virtues. I therefore do not feel the need to practise either self-effacement or self-surrender because, after having divested myself of pride, the virtue of humility has spontaneously come into existence.

Nearly all religions prescribe various so-called self-purificatory methods. These techniques would supposedly result in a fundamental inner transformation. It is hoped that there would be a replacement of man's primitive, animalistic and egotistic nature by one that is replete with altruism, generosity, gentleness and compassion. But it seems to me that any religious practice that is designed to superimpose artificially the state of goodwill and virtue on the impure heart and the impure mind is inevitably doomed to failure. Is it really possible to join the state of purity to the impure mind and the impure heart that are full of defilements? Would not such an effort be as foolish as trying to mix water with oil? Is it possible for love to coexist with hate? However, it will be seen that the honest, undistorted and clear-sighted recognition of the existence of hate within oneself, that sudden flash of insight, would be immediately accompanied by the dissolution of hate. Without the need to make any effort whatsoever, a spontaneous change takes place; namely, the total elimination of hate with the concomitant flowering of love. Thus the very act of seeing clearly is itself the state of purity. Only in that soil of clarity that goes hand in hand with the state of purity will all the virtues flourish. The cultivated artificial virtues of a “religious” person can be likened to a house that is built on a sandy beach : it must inevitably collapse. But all the good qualities, which are part and parcel of the rare individual who discovers that state of purity, are like the secure walls of a house that has been built on the rocky foundation of self-knowledge.

I found that a compassionate outlook on life arose soon after my heart had been cleansed from anger, hatred and all such impurities. Furthermore, my ideas and attitudes started emanating from that inward divinity that had just been unveiled. My pacifism --- the view that violence, war and all forms of barbaric tortures are wicked activities --- was not the outcome of logical and rational thinking, but rather the direct result of compassion. Similarly, my lifelong commitment to vegetarianism sprang solely from my love of animals. The numerous reasons that vegetarians give to support their particular diet have not influenced me much. This is because the heart, not the intellect, is the governing force in my life.

I do not wish to convey the impression that I am verging on sainthood. Sometimes there are ruffles to my composure, especially when I am subjected to loud noises or when people make offensive remarks about me. But such disturbances, like the passing winds, do not last for long. Fortunately, they only touch the periphery of my consciousness. I soon forget the insults and the underlying animosities. Unaffected by the taunts of the malicious, I continue to remain in a state of tranquillity, feeling and showing compassion for those who are sick with hate.

Without trying to get any personal benefit from my good deeds, which is the quintessence of altruism, I share what little I have with my less fortunate brothers and sisters. In whatever way possible, I try my best to alleviate their poverty, pain and suffering. During my temporary sojourn in this planet my guiding light is compassion born of a purified heart.

Much though I like helping needy people, I find it difficult to go into social work, as I love to remain in a state of virtual solitude. As time goes by I find that I am becoming increasingly reclusive. Naturally I enjoy living in the quietness of the medieval Provençal village of Les Arcs-sur-Argens in the South of France. My time is now devoted to contemplation, yoga, reading, writing and organic gardening.

---Memoirs of an Oriental Philosopher

---My Philosophy of Life

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Why be Possessed by Possessions ?

For all his much vaunted technological progress, modern man has not managed to find a lasting solution to his inner malaise. Any person who takes the trouble to travel across different countries will invariably notice that people are unhappy everywhere. Seldom, if ever, does one meet an individual who can truthfully say “I am absolutely happy”.

It seems to me that the principal cause of man's unhappiness is his irrational attachment to material things. We overlook the fact that all material possessions are by their very nature subject to change, decay and destruction. We have invested a lot of faith in perishable objects. Why have our possessions become so precious to us? Is it not because our minds have foolishly attached to them an importance that they inherently lack? Our minds, for instance, mistakenly attribute a great value to a diamond, whereas in actuality a diamond, even a rare and polished one, is nothing more than a mere stone.

Those countries which are economically badly off are branded “under-developed” as though poverty were a crime and a disgrace. By the same token, the West is termed “developed” as if material prosperity were the criterion of superiority. The yardstick of materialism is unfortunately used nowadays to categorise nations as the rich and progressive countries on the one hand or the poor and backward ones on the other.


What is materialism? It may be described as an attitude to life wherein possessions, money, power and position are regarded as the only things that matter. The term “materialism” is also used to describe a philosophy which asserts that only physical matter exists; along with this theory is the concomitant idea that there is no such thing as a spiritual world.



The popularity of materialism in our day and the corresponding decline in respect for otherworldly concerns can be partly traced to the doctrines of Marx, Engels and Lenin, who believed in dialectical materialism. With their utter contempt for spirituality they liked to scoff at religion.

Ours, alas, is a commercially orientated world. So whether we like it or not, we are compelled to acquire money to meet our daily expenses. There is surely a world of difference between the need to earn a small and reasonable amount of money on the one hand and the pathological urge to hoard money with the intention of becoming super rich on the other. We obviously must have some money in order to obtain the bare necessities of life. Is it not possible to live comfortably with a modest income? Life becomes unnecessarily burdensome when one begins to crave for things that are not absolutely essential. Why spend on luxuries? Why fritter away one's money on ostentatious clothes? Why do so many desire to own palatial houses? Why long for sumptuous meals in expensive restaurants when healthy and simple fare is best for the body?

Governments throughout the world are preoccupied with the effort to keep on improving the general standard of living. Our standards of living tend to increase whenever states make it possible for us to become rich. The wealthy are regarded as those who have achieved success in life; conversely, the poor are scornfully viewed as the unproductive ones who get their just deserts. Multimillionaires are envied and frequently they are respected as though they were heroes. It is also important to realise that in the process of becoming more and more affluent we inevitably draw on the diminishing resources of the planet. Therefore our avariciousness must sooner or later threaten the very existence of the human species. It was Mahatma Gandhi who pointed out that although the world has enough for everyone's need, it has not enough for everyone's greed.


Underlying this longing for wealth is the belief that being rich is synonymous with being happy. That great riches will somehow ensure everlasting contentment and peace of mind is a deeply ingrained expectation in our psyche. I used to know a multimillionaire who owned vast estates and chain stores in different countries. His closest friends were stockbrokers, and The Financial Times was his Bible which he regularly studied. He was always concerned about the ups and downs of his worldwide investments. His moods fluctuated according to the rise and fall of the interest rate. Never have I seen a more unhappy person. He hardly smiled. He was also a miser in the sense that he hated spending money. But he loved amassing it because the feeling that he possessed so much gave him a tremendous sense of power. At the same time he was always full of the fear that he might lose it all. He suffered from insomnia. He worried so much that eventually he had a massive heart attack and died.

Let us consider the exemplary life of Ramana Maharshi. Apart from a few personal effects like his loin cloth and walking stick which, interestingly enough, was an article that he himself had painstakingly carved out of wood, did Ramana really possess anything else? He managed to survive on the offerings of food from various devotees. He was the poorest of the poor. Yet Ramana was the happiest of men. He had neither worries nor personal problems, and he enjoyed the blissful state of deep sleep. Why was he such such an exception? Was it not because he was totally immersed in the Truth? Therefore mundane matters never troubled his inner being.

Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi is a work that is replete with aphorisms. In it there is a saying of Ramana that deserves to be pondered over by all: “Divestment of possessions is the highest happiness.”

On account of the fact that our lives are devoid of a spiritual foundation, we tend to overrate our material possessions, forgetting that these, like the toys of children, should be seen as things of nothing more than temporary interest. In the stormy sea of life, why hang onto ephemeral objects, when the only reliable refuge from sorrow is the deathless Absolute?

All the great religions of the world have unanimously frowned on man's fondness for possessions. Their underlying message is that the renunciation of possessions qualifies one for salvation. This theme is like a golden thread that runs through all the sacred scriptures.

Lord Mahavira, who was not only a senior contemporary of the Buddha but also the last of the twenty-four great exponents of Jainism, stated that “every man must consider that he will surely have to go away from this world someday, leaving behind his belongings such as his fields, house, gold, sons, wife, relations and even his own body”. Therefore he taught that one should not entertain any feeling of attachment or possession.

There is a beautiful stanza in the Dhammapada, one of the oldest Buddhist classics:

Without possessing anything, O let us live in joy!

Like spirits of light, let us live in joy!

How we waste our energies, endlessly acquiring all manner of things, as though with every new addition to our goods the sum total of contentment were going to increase correspondingly! The Talmud contains these prophetic remarks: “The more property you have, the more worries will follow.”

The teachings of Islam emphasise the virtues of purity and poverty. “It is difficult,” observed the Prophet Mohammed, “for a rich man to walk up the steep path that leads to bliss.”

There is the oft-quoted saying of Jesus that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). Why have so many Christians not taken a serious interest in this particular teaching of their Saviour? Why have the churches of Christendom amassed so much wealth? Why again, have the Christian nations of Europe enriched themselves by colonising and exploiting the comparatively poorer parts of the world? Alas, like every other religion, Christianity has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

After their attaining Enlightenment, the Jain Munis and the Hindu Jivanmuktas as well as the Buddhist Arhats started regarding the material needs of their mortal frames as mere trivial details. Some sages became so desireless that they lost all sense of possession, consequently they were totally indifferent even to their bodies.

---My Philosophy of Life

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Swimming in the Sea

I was very fond of walking barefoot along the lovely sandy beach that stretched a few miles from Dehiwala to Mount Lavinia. A famous seaside resort to the south of Colombo, Mount Lavinia was high among Sri Lanka's tourist attractions. Almost everyday in the 1950s I used to spend a few hours there. The deep blue skies and the immense Indian Ocean somehow raised my spirits. By wading in the warm shallow waters I found some rest and relaxation. The very sight of the sea and the smell of seaweed gave me a certain feeling of happiness. The sea air would calm my nerves. Like a ceaseless sacred chant, the gentle murmur of the sea would soothe me down. Often I was transported with delight as I watched the rough waves in the breeze. Sometimes I felt ecstatic while contemplating the evening sun as it disappeared below the distant horizon.


I never liked missing my daily strolls along the beach where the foamy waves broke. I would go there even when the southwest monsoons were blowing. Ignoring the heavy rains, I would enjoy the sight of the waves furiously dashing against the rocks. Those days I had very few friends. They were aware that I was attracted to this special seashore. They all mistakenly believed that I went swimming. Little did they know that I had never learned to swim well although I had taken a few swimming lessons. I only knew the breaststroke, but if ever I started practising it, I would soon get very tired. This meant that I was incapable of going for long swims.

I was such a poor swimmer that even in small swimming pools I could only swim widths rather than lengths. For this reason I never went swimming in the sea; I simply confined myself to wading waist-deep in the water.

The seashore, which sometimes seemed deserted, tended to be crowded with locals and foreign tourists during weekends and public holidays. European women who wore scanty bathing suits frequented the place. Many men stared at them lasciviously. I used to think that if these men took the trouble to practise self-observation while they were ogling women, then this form of self-purifying meditation would help them to gain the tranquil state of freedom from lust.

I always felt that the serene beauty of this palm-fringed tropical beach was somewhat marred near Dehiwala where half-naked fishermen in sarongs gathered to sell their catch. These men were usually surrounded by hundreds of dark crows that continually cawed and demanded their share of the killed creatures. The sight of so many silvery fish in the sand was by no means pleasant; they were like human corpses that had just been washed ashore. Their nauseating stench was so strong that I would turn away in revulsion, wondering how human beings ever brought themselves to eat fish.

The little bay in the Mount Lavinia end of the beach was very picturesque because a few jagged rocks stuck up out of the water. The notice on the board nearby said “BATHING PROHIBITED”. For close to these rocks many had drowned in the sea. The general public was not unaware of the existence of dangerously strong currents in the bay. People bathed or swam there at their own peril. Actually the entire beach had a high fatality rate.

The event I am going to describe happened in 1952 when I was a student at Ananda College in Colombo. For about four months I kept away from school without permission. Luckily, I was not penalized for playing truant. I went into retreat because I felt the need for solitude, quietness and spiritual refreshment. It seemed a good time to practise the Zen teaching to the effect that

Sitting quietly,

Doing nothing,

The spring comes.

“Doing nothing” was literally what I tried to do while lazing by the seashore.

Once I got up before dawn and cycled into the Mount Lavinia beach. Not a soul was there as I savoured the stillness of the sea. The air was cool. Colourful clouds enhanced the beauty of the morn.

So calm was the sea that I decided to wade through the water and to move slowly and cautiously from one end of the empty beach to the other. No sooner had I started wading through the shallow water than I found that a very strong current had drifted me out to the deep sea. It all happened very quickly. I was terribly scared. I realised, to my dismay, that I had gone out of my depth in the sea. I was desperate to be on dry land again. But that was precisely what I was incapable of doing. After I had been swept out to sea by a powerful current, how could I possibly go against its flow? I tried to swim but all my efforts were of no avail. It appeared as if I were caught in a whirlpool. I was breathing quickly and with great difficulty. I was struggling to keep my head above the water but the more I struggled the more I gasped for breath. I shouted “help” several times but none was around to hear the cries. Then I resigned myself to the fact that nobody was going to rescue me from the inevitable watery grave.

Suddenly, I could feel a strong arm round my shoulders. As the arm was holding me tightly, I distinctly heard these words:

“Please calm down, don't panic!”

In the same way that a little child who falls down is scooped in the arms of his mother and carried away, I found that an unknown person was using his arm to rescue me from drowning. Next, my body effortlessly floated on the sea as it was gently taken to the beach. I think the entire rescue operation took only about five minutes.*

When I realised that I was safely standing in the beach and facing the sea, I was very keen to express my gratitude to my rescuer. But where was he? This stranger had suddenly disappeared. Both the appearance and the disappearance of the rescuer had happened in such surprising and extraordinary circumstances. It is a pity that I have no recollection of this fair person's facial features. This individual did not seem to be either a male or a female. This compassionate helper seemed to be of no particular age. I wondered whether or not this being belonged to our world. Probably it was my guardian angel who saved my life.

After I had returned home, I met father and eagerly related the story of my strange experience. “Son, it was your good karma,” he said, “that nothing terrible happened. Your account reminds me of an unusual incident in my past. In my younger days I was in very dangerous situations several times. Once a friend and I were deep in the jungle somewhere between Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. It was not only late in the evening but also extremely difficult to find our way back home. Before nightfall we wanted somehow to get out of the jungle which was full of wild animals and snakes. We were frightened. Suddenly right in front of us we saw an enormous figure in white who was about thrice the size of a human being. The figure first raised one hand and then moved it sideways. We were thus guided in a certain direction. We followed that direction and then we discovered a footpath. Soon we were able to leave the thick forest. We were grateful to the deva.”

“Deva” is the Sinhalese word for “celestial being”.

---Memoirs of an Oriental Philosopher

*Claudia refers to this miraculous incident in her poem Susunaga.


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