A Mahākassapa for our Time

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

It has often struck me that certain Buddhist monks I have known bear an uncanny resemblance to great disciples of the Buddha, at least in so far as we know them through the texts. This has raised in my mind the intriguing question whether the great disciples represent human archetypes, fixed molds that shape human character and behaviour, or whether, to the contrary, Buddhist monks tend to model themselves on their great predecessors. I have no way to answer my question with any certainty, but I believe the correspondence I have noted is real and not merely a figment of my imagination.

In terms of such correspondences, there is no doubt at all which of the great disciples the late Ven. Ñāṇavimala represents. Ven. K. Nyanananda (author of Concept and Reality, The Magic of the Mind, and other works) expressed the fact most succinctly one day when I met him in Colombo. He said: ‘If you want to get a sermon from Mahākassapa, go see Ven. Ñāṇavimala.’ The austere deportment, the ascetic bent of character, the firm self-assurance, the individualistic mode of practice: all these traits of Ven. Ñāṇavimala are reminiscent of Mahākassapa. And though we have, of course, no portraits of the great elder, I could not help noting the resemblance in physical stature and facial features between Ñāṇavimala and Mahākassapa as he is depicted in Chinese Buddhist statuary. They even share the same penetrating eyes, the broad forehead, and the large ears.

My relationship with Ven. Ñāṇavimala goes back almost forty years, to my first year as a monk in Sri Lanka. In June 1973, just a few weeks after my higher ordination, my teacher, Ven. Balangoda Ānanda Maitreya, brought me to the Kanduboda Meditation Centre for a course in vipassanā (insight) meditation. At the time, another American monk, a sāmaṇera (novice monk) named Samita, was living at Kanduboda. When I arrived he was in Colombo taking medical treatment but he returned to the center a few days after I started my retreat. One day after the mid-day meal he came to see me and we struck up a conversation. He told me that he had recently met Ven. Ñāṇavimala in the General Hospital in Colombo and had been deeply impressed, even awed, by this encounter. I had heard earlier of Ven. Ñāṇavimala from another German monk but was led to believe that, because of his itinerant life style, it was almost impossible to meet him in person. Now that door was about to open.

As a result of his encounter with Ven. Ñāṇavimala, Samita said, he had lost faith in the type of vipassanā meditation that was taught at Kanduboda, the ‘dry insight’ practice stemming from the Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw, under whom the Kanduboda meditation master, Ven. Sumathipāla, had trained in the 1950s. Samita told me that Ven. Ñāṇavimala had claimed that jhāna (meditative absorption) is necessary as a basis for vipassanā and that there can be no genuine insight not rooted in the jhānas. Since I was just beginning to read the Nikāyas in Pāli, and had been struck by the role that the jhānas played in the ‘gradual training’ sequence of the Majjhima Nikāya, I felt this report conveyed an important point.

Samita said that he intended to return to Colombo the next day to meet Ven. Ñāṇavimala again and invited me to come along. Impressed by what I heard, I thought I shouldn’t let this opportunity slip by. Thus I decided to join him, even though this meant short-circuiting my meditation retreat at Kandaboda. We met Ven. Ñāṇavimala at the Colombo Hospital. Since he was about to be discharged, we did not speak much at this first meeting. He told us that he intended to spend a few days in Colombo, at Vajirarama Monastery, before setting out once again on his wandering. So the two of us, Samita and I, went to Vajirarama, where we again met Ven. Ñāṇavimala, perhaps the same evening or the next day. This time I could speak to him privately and at greater length.

At this meeting, in so far as I remember, he did not speak in any detail of meditation techniques or higher stages of attainment. He seemed to have an acute ability to assess a person’s character and station after just a brief exchange of words, and he would adjust his Dhamma talk to meet the other person in precisely the way that best fit the other person’s needs. Thus, after a few opening remarks, he spoke to me about the issues he thought were essential for a newly ordained monk to understand. He summed up the points he was about to cover under the general rubric of ‘the work that has to be done.’

In this first talk with me he emphasized that the Buddhist training is a gradual path, which one has to traverse in stages, and he said that it’s crucial to lay a solid foundation at each preliminary stage before attempting to scale the next stage. During his many years in robes he must have seen dozens of Westerners come to Sri Lanka, ordain as monks, and rush off to attain arahantship (full liberation) on a fast-track schedule, only to wind up back in civilian clothes, with a plane ticket to their home country, before their first year as a monk was over. He might have had this in mind when he warned me not to be in a hurry to reach higher stages before mastering the lower, simpler, more elementary ones.

He stressed the importance of reading the Vinaya (monastic disciplinary code), of scrupulously observing the precepts, of daily self-examination, of studying the suttas (discourses), and of obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the Dhamma based on the Nikāyas. He avoided speaking about philosophical issues, like the meaning of non-self or dependent origination, for he gave priority to practice over theory. He, no doubt, believed that proper understanding of these matters could only be acquired by those who had reached some level of maturity in the practice. He must have thought that for a relative newcomer to turn these teachings into topics of discussion and debate risked digression into the labyrinth of conceptual proliferation (papañca).

He spoke of the practice as a solitary journey, which we should be prepared to walk alone, without dependence on others. And he stressed the need to find delight in seclusion, to be content with simple requisites, and to establish solid right view and right motivation. He probably also spoke of the importance of serving one’s teacher, whether or not one actually receives instructions from him, simply to fulfill the Vinaya requirement that one live under the guidance of one’s teacher for five years. This was a theme I heard him dwell on through the years whenever he spoke to other newly ordained Western monks.

I don’t recall whether he gave any specific instructions about meditation. However, since in later talks he emphasized the importance of the jhānas, it is quite possible that in our first conversation he also brought up this topic. I do not recall him specifically criticizing the modern ‘dry insight’ system of meditation, but his emphasis on the role of the jhānas might have implied a criticism of systems of meditation that devalue them.

During this same stay at Vajirarama, I also met Ven. Kheminda Thera, a senior Sri Lankan monk whom Ven. Ñāṇavimala respected for his scholarship and dedication to practice. In my talk with him, Ven. Kheminda confirmed the value of the suttas. Upholding the kind of ‘suttanta fundamentalism’ that prevailed at Vajirarama in those days, he said that one should only accept the commentaries when they are in accord with the suttas (as if a newly ordained American monk would be capable of making such nice distinctions). He certainly stressed the importance of the jhānas and spoke dismissively of the Burmese school of dry insight meditation as an aberration.

Ven. Kheminda showed me the records of an extended debate that he had had with a learned Burmese sayadaw, a teacher in the dry insight school of meditation. Their debate was published in the pages of the Sri Lanka-based magazine World Buddhism in the late 1960s or early 1970s. He told me that he wanted to extract his contributions to this debate and weave them together into a single booklet, but poor health had prevented him from fulfilling this wish. I offered to do the work for him and spent much of my first rains retreat cutting out the articles, editing them, and linking them together to create a booklet that was privately published under the title The Way of Buddhist Meditation. Since my teacher, Ven. Ānandamaitreya, was an advocate of the Burmese system of insight meditation, I did not want my name mentioned as the editor.

Subsequently, as my knowledge of the suttas developed and I acquired a broader perspective on the range of possibilities in the Buddha’s path, I came to question this insistence on the necessity for jhāna as a foundation for insight. In my current understanding, it is certainly possible to attain the first two stages of realization — stream-entry and once-returning — on the basis of insight without a foundation of jhāna. I also came to see the whole subject of meditation as involving complexities that cannot be resolved simply by reciting sutta and verse. I now understand the jhānas to take on a crucial role, from the suttanta perspective, in making the transition from the second to the third stages of realization, that is, in moving from once-returner to non-returner. I also don’t discount the possibility, attested to in the commentarial literature of several Buddhist schools, that even arahantship can be won by means of the ‘dry wisdom’ approach without reliance on the jhānas. In these early days, however, it was the views of Ven. Kheminda and Ven. Ñāṇavimala that most strongly shaped my understanding of meditation.

Over the following years I met Ven. Ñāṇavimala numerous times, usually at Vajirarama, and my recollection of his teaching is thus a collage of talks he gave on different occasions. Sometimes I spoke to him privately, sometimes along with other monks. Whenever we met one to one, after I paid respects, he would always begin the conversation by asking, ‘How are you getting on?’ This was not just a polite inquiry but a loaded question intended to elicit from me a disclosure of my state of development, which would open the way to a discourse on practice. For Ven. Ñāṇavimala, the Buddhist training was always something to be done, a matter of ‘getting on.’

Over time, as I met him on successive occasions, he gradually introduced more explicit teachings on meditation, and there emerged from his talks a clearer picture of his methodology. He stressed that in the early stages of practice one should focus on tackling the two major hindrances, sensual craving and ill will. The remedy he prescribed for the first (following the suttas) is the perception of the impurity of the body (asubhasaññā); the remedy for the second, loving-kindness (mettā). He especially praised loving-kindness and spoke about how it can lead to higher and higher states of purification. Though in his personal cultivation he apparently made much use of mindfulness of breathing, he seemed to regard the breath meditation as a more advanced practice that could only unfold its potential when the groundwork had been prepared by the meditations on bodily impurity and loving-kindness.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a hip injury that he had incurred years earlier re-emerged and caused him great pain when walking long distances. This made it hard for him to continue his wandering and he was therefore compelled to spend long periods at Vajirarama. Here he became much more accessible, not only to other monks, but to lay people living in and around Colombo. To protect his seclusion, he posted a notice on the door of his room stating that he would see visitors only between certain hours (I think between 6 and 8 pm, but my memory of the hours is hazy). It was not unusual to see people waiting outside his room to meet him. They would come either as individuals, as couples, or in small family groups, seeking to tap his wisdom and blessings. I usually stayed in a room close to his, where I could hear his resonant voice rising and falling in a steady, inspiring rhythm for hours. During the day, however, from early morning till evening, the door of his room would be shut and he would emerge only to admit the supporters bringing his meal.

My own relationship with Ven. Ñāṇavimala was not one of unmixed adulation or emulation. Certainly I had enormous respect for him and usually found his advice immensely useful. But not always. Temperamentally, we were far apart. From my point of view, he displayed a certain Teutonic sternness that did not mesh well with my own softer disposition and tolerant cultural background. His attitudes sometimes seemed to me more reminiscent of Western theistic religion than the gentle warmth that I saw embodied in many of the Sri Lankan monks I have known.

Taking a broad overview of the early Buddhist Sangha, I can see two major paradigms of monastic life taking shape in the Buddha’s time and continuing down the centuries to the present. One was the model of the solitary forest ascetic, which was perhaps derived from older forms of Indian spirituality preceding the advent of the Buddha. This ideal is reflected in Buddhist literature in the image of the paccekabuddha (solitary Buddha), who attains enlightenment without a teacher and then makes no effort to enlighten others. Mahākassapa, it seems, continued this heritage under a Buddhist imprint. The other model was that set by the Buddha himself, who gained enlightenment, taught others, created a community of disciples, and divided time between enjoying the bliss of seclusion and guiding others. This altruistic spirit seems to have been a distinctive contribution of the Buddha to Indian spirituality. According to tradition, it stemmed from his great compassion and his resolve over many past lives to deliver sentient beings from suffering. In the Sangha, Sāriputta and Ānanda may be seen as the ones who, after the Buddha himself, best exemplify this ideal. Both were able to combine a meditative life with dedicated service to the Dhamma and the task of teaching both fellow monastics and lay people.

I see Ven. Ñāṇavimala, especially during the early years of my acquaintance with him, as fitting into the former of these two models. In his teachings to Western monks, he placed an almost exclusive emphasis on personal development, discouraging involvement with others and engagement even in activities intended to promote the Dhamma. He sometimes expressed views that I thought were excessively pessimistic. For instance, he would say that there is no point in writing about the Dhamma since there are already enough materials available for those with sufficient interest, and no point in distributing literature on the Dhamma since few people have vision clear enough to accept the teachings. While the amount of literature available on Buddhism today may indeed be excessive, I do believe that the efforts of organizations like the Buddhist Publication Society, the Pali Text Society, and now (via the internet) various Buddhist websites have contributed enormously to the spread of the Dhamma in ways that Ven. Ñāṇavimala had trouble grasping.

As the doctrine of impermanence implies, people do not have fixed and unvarying characters but can change over time, and this seemed to occur with Ven. Ñāṇavimala as well. Despite his emphasis on the solitary life, he was gifted with a unique eloquence and self-assurance that drove the teachings deep into the hearts of those who approached him for guidance. In his later years he came to share the teachings abundantly with others, and this engagement seemed to soften the hard stance that he had often displayed in earlier years. In the late 1990s I encountered Ven. Ñāṇavimala only infrequently, since I was living in Kandy in the Central Province and he was at Parappaduwa Island, deep in the south. But occasionally our paths would cross when we both had reason to come to Colombo. At the last meetings that I had with him, I could not help but notice changes in Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s perspectives. He spoke more appreciatively of the work of the Buddhist Publication Society and showed a more positive attitude toward the efforts others were making to promote the Dhamma, especially among people in the West. He was also more appreciative of the efforts that I had put into the translation of Buddhist texts, a commitment of mine which, in earlier years, he seemed to regard as a distraction from the ‘real work’ of a monk. I think he would also have admired the efforts of Western monks to establish Buddhist monasteries in Western countries.

Ven. Ñāṇavimala said nothing about any changes in his attitudes and he may well have believed he was being consistent all along. I believe, though, that the evolution in his thinking was real. I would attribute the change largely to two factors. One was his long period of confinement at Vajirarama in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This brought him into more frequent contact with lay people, which may have awakened in him stronger feelings of sympathy with their plight and respect for their attempts to apply the Dhamma to their daily lives. The other was his practice of loving-kindness meditation. Though this had been one of his staple practices for decades, perhaps in combination with his more extensive personal contacts it precipitated an interior change. However, while these explanations are merely speculative, I am confident that my perception of a softening in him was accurate.

There is a tendency among the admirers of Ven. Ñāṇavimala to regard him as an exclusive model of the ideal Buddhist monk. I look at him in a different light. I believe that the diversity that we can see among the Buddha’s own great disciples represents different modes in which Buddhist spirituality can be embodied. From this angle, the great disciples can be seen as ideals for those of later generations to emulate. The Buddha himself held up Sāriputta and Moggallāna as the foremost models, the one representing the epitome of wisdom, the other of psychic powers. But other disciples represented excellence in other fields: in learning, in expository skills, in monastic discipline, in devotion to the training, in meditation, in recollection of past lives, and so forth. Each is worthy of respect for the virtuous qualities that he or she manifests, and this respect should be extended to Buddhists of the present age who, though far from perfect, sustain the heritage of the Dhamma.

Thus it would be a mistake, I feel, to interpret the points stressed by Ven. Ñāṇavimala as constituting an exclusive model of the ideal monastic practitioner. In my view, other ideals are possible, and those who pursue them should not be denigrated by comparison with the more solitary and ascetic model that the German elder exemplified. However, at a time when examples of strict renunciation have become so rare in the Sangha, a person like Ven. Ñāṇavimala certainly stands out as a bright star in the firmament of the teaching. Though he never sought renown or publicity in any form, the worthy example he provided has won veneration and admiration from many, both from those who knew him personally and those who have learned about him by word of mouth.