Ven. Katukurunde Ñāṇananda

Venerable Ñāṇavimala Mahāthera belongs to that category of monks whose lives epitomize for us the exemplary lives of the disciples of the Buddha’s time. For me, he was the Mahā Kassapa of this age. After I went forth under Venerable Kadugannawe Ñāṇāloka Mahāthera at Island Hermitage in 1967, I had the privilege of associating with him for five years. When I met him for the first time, he had just returned from his first walking tour (cārikā) after twelve years of cloistered meditation on the little island. From what I heard about the hardships he had undergone in his long trek on foot, it was perhaps the first test of endurance for his later lifestyle.

As a young lay disciple (upāsaka) looking forward to ordination, I visited him in his hut (kuṭi) to get his advice and blessings. In his deep reverberating voice, he reminded me of the true aim and purpose of an ideal monk’s life. After my ordination, I sought his instructions and guidance from time to time. Apart from that, it was a great inspiration for me to watch him going about his daily routine with mindfulness and full awareness. There was a formality of his own which cut off excesses that make for distraction. His frugal ways and stern simplicity emanated an atmosphere of seriousness reminiscent of the life of Venerable Mahā Kassapa as recorded in our scriptures.

The evening session of chanting was held at the refectory of the Hermitage in those days. Venerable Ñāṇavimala used to come with his lantern, which he put on the table near the kitchen before he took his seat in the refectory. While some of the other monks were chatting, he would keep his gaze fixed on the flame of the oil lamp before the Buddha statue. Only rarely did he pay attention to the conversation going on around him and respond to it.

Once, the Burmese monk, Venerable Ñāṇinda Mahāthera, who used to visit the Hermitage quite often, asked Venerable Ñāṇavimala, after the chanting, whether he intended returning to his mother country at some time. Almost like a retort, Venerable Ñāṇavimala came out with the terse reply: paṭirūpadesavāso (residing in a suitable locality). It served to convey to the Venerable Ñāṇinda Mahāthera the fact that he preferred to remain in an environment most congenial to his practice – true to the Buddha’s behest in the Mahā Maṅgala Sutta (Discourse on the Great Blessings, Sn 2:8).

Once, after this chanting session, I was going to light my lantern when I suddenly became aware that Venerable Ñāṇavimala was waiting nearby to light his own. Out of respect for him, I took his lantern and with an unnecessary haste, tried to light it first. Thrice, I tried to bring the half-lit paper strip near the wick, but every time it went out before I could light it. I was still fumbling with it when he took his lamp from me and lit it at the very first attempt, saying: ‘slowly-carefully-mindfully’. These three words are still ringing in my ears like a souvenir worth a lifetime.

A learned Mahāthera who happened to visit me once, wished to see Venerable Ñāṇavimala and I took him to his hut (kuṭi). He was highly impressed by Venerable Ñāṇavimala’s exemplary way of life, so much so that he humbly confessed: ‘We are all dabbling with shallow things. Only you are doing the real thing.’ But Venerable Ñāṇavimala’s response was a modest compliment in return: ‘But then, you Venerable Sir, are giving the people an opportunity to listen to the Dhamma. After all, everyone cannot go into solitude at the same time!’

Venerable Ñāṇavimala seemed to live in a ‘present’ which had no ‘future’. No one could guess when he would set forth on his next cārikā until he came to hand over the key of his kuṭi. While on cārikā, he usually stayed three nights at one place. When he was asked where he would go next, he used to say: ‘I will decide when I come to the junction’. Once, one of our fellow monks had gone to him and said: ‘Venerable Sir, I hope to leave tomorrow’. His retort was: ‘Go today, why tomorrow?’

While on cārikā, whenever he happened to stay for more than one night at a forest hermitage (arañña), he used to clean and arrange the kuṭi he was given as the first thing.

There is a strange incident relating to his sense of orderliness which I came to hear from a Western monk. Once, Venerable Ñāṇavimala in the course of his cārikā, had arrived at a certain forest hermitage. The chief monk had given him the key of the Uposatha Hall, a building which also served as the library of the hermitage. When the chief monk came to see him the next morning, he found the books which were earlier lying here and there, well arranged by the visitor. After a couple of days, Venerable Ñāṇavimala had gone to the chief monk to say he was leaving and had handed over the key. After he left, the chief monk – probably out of curiosity – had gone to the Uposatha Hall and opened the door. To his amazement, all the books were found disarranged exactly as they were before!

A Western monk had heard this episode from that chief monk when he himself visited that hermitage. The chief monk had exclaimed: ‘What a wonderful monk,’ because he was impressed by the way Venerable Ñāṇavimala had mindfully disarranged the books!

We do not know whether this little incident had some deep meaning. It could be that Venerable Ñāṇavimala was conscious of the fact that he had no right to ‘arrange’ another’s library. Or else, it may be that he had simply wished to leave behind an object lesson in mindfulness for the chief monk.

In the course of his cārikā, Venerable Ñāṇavimala visited the Kudumbigala Forest Hermitage, which was not easily approachable in those days. Upon his return, one of our fellow monks had asked him about his experiences with wild animals. He told him that he had suddenly met a bear on his path and that he looked directly at its eyes with mettā (loving-kindness). To the apprehensive question: ‘But, Venerable Sir, if it had pounced on you?’, his mild reply was: ‘Well, I would have died with a pure heart.’

Sometimes he would be out on cārikā for several months. By the time he returned, he was emaciated and the soles of his feet were worn out. Even if the path to his kuṭi was fully covered with fallen leaves, he would not make it a point to sweep it fully the following day itself. He would do it systematically, part by part, thoroughly-slowly-carefully-mindfully. It is as if he taught us that if we sweep hurriedly, we would be leaving more ‘rubbish’ in the mind than we had swept away.

When he was staying at Vajirarama in Colombo, a wealthy lay supporter who was highly impressed by a Dhamma discussion with Venerable Ñāṇavimala, came with his family the following morning to offer him alms. With all the delicacies he had brought, he was eagerly waiting at the gate of the temple until Venerable Ñāṇavimala came out to go on his alms round. As soon as Venerable Ñāṇavimala showed up, he reverentially approached him and served a hopper (rice flour pancake) into the bowl. He was going to offer more when Venerable Ñāṇavimala made a sign with his hand to prevent it, saying: ‘Please give an opportunity for poor people also to offer alms.’ Long after this experience, that particular donor told me about it, not with a sense of disappointment, but with great appreciation for the frugal ways of Venerable Ñāṇavimala.

One of our fellow monks was staying at another hermitage when Venerable Ñāṇavimala also came there in the course of his cārikā. The monks of that hermitage were in the habit of distributing food to crowds of poor people who regularly turned up there. Venerable Ñāṇavimala was curious why this practice was going on. Our monk had explained, saying: ‘Venerable Sir, it is because they are poor.’ Venerable Ñāṇavimala’s rejoinder was: ‘If they are poor, we should take food from them.’ According to modern values, Venerable Ñāṇavimala’s attitude is grossly unkind. But most probably, he meant something deep by that retort. One reason for poverty according to the law of kamma is the lack of practice of giving. To encourage the poor to take from monks rather than to offer them, is to give them an inheritance of poverty in saṁsāra (endless round of rebirth).

Venerable Mahā Kassapa Mahāthera who was foremost in austerity, on rising from his attainment of cessation after seven days of fasting, used to prevent not only kings and millionaires, but even Sakka, the king of the gods, from offering him alms food and gave that rare opportunity of making merit to poor people living in huts. Materialistic thinking of today might, of course, interpret it as an exploitation of the poor.

Whenever Venerable Ñāṇavimala heard the pathetic excuse from a poor house on his alms round: ‘Venerable Sir, today we have nothing to give’, he used to console them with the sympathetic thanksgiving: ‘I came to give you mettā!’

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By fervour of austerity, severity of discipline and rigour of fortitude, the late Venerable Ñāṇavimala Mahāthera appeared hard like a stone. But, with his overflowing mettā (universal love) and deep compassion, he was at the same time, soft like a flower. It was not easy for some who knew him to understand this wonderful blend of qualities. They were not all able to appreciate the straightforward and brief advice he gave in his deep and reverberating voice. However, as he trekked from village to village, from town to town, from hermitage to hermitage, from monastery to monastery, he left an indelible impression on those who met him of the exemplary life of an ideal lone dweller of the Buddha’s time.

As he walked unshod from end to end over this island, he reminded the people of the heyday of Buddhism in this country. Wherever he sojourned, he had a word of encouragement for monks and novices who were attracted by his austere ways. Unswayed by the vicissitudes summed up by the Eight Worldly Conditions – gain and loss, fame and ill-fame, blame and praise, happiness and suffering – he endured all hardships on his way with equanimity. His spirit of renunciation and the sense of detachment was such that every time others inquired about his health, he reminded them of the sickly nature of this body. Though his body was sick, he was never sick in mind – well knowing where true health lies.

It was no coincidence that Venerable Ñāṇavimala, who began his monkship in Island Hermitage, breathed his last on the solitary isle of Parappuduwa nearby. Perhaps, by then, he had found that ‘island’ which no flood can overwhelm.

“Uṭṭhānen’ appamādena
saññamena damena ca
dīpaṁ kayirātha medhāvī
yam ogho nābhikīrati” [Dhp. v. 25]

By unflagging effort, by diligence,
by restraint and self-control,
let the truly wise man make for himself
an island which no flood can overwhelm.