My Spiritual Father

Ayoma Wickramsinghe

Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa

The Most Venerable Ñāṇavimala Thero was one of my dearly beloved Teachers who sadly passed away in 2005. My first guru was the Most Venerable Webu Sayadaw of Burma. In my close observation and association of both of them, I was convinced, in fact, I know, they had completed their journey in this most miserable, horrifying, and endless saṁsāra. They were Heroes who purified themselves fully with great wisdom and indefatigable and never ending endeavour. How very lucky they are! How I wish, and wish, I could emulate them fully. How wonderful it must be to have Complete Peace within, with no āsavas (mental defilements) hammering away!

The very first encounter with that Great Being, Venerable Ñāṇavimala Thero, really astonished me. It was just a few minutes past twelve noon in Hawa Eliya district, near Nuwara Eliya. The bhikkhu (monk) was walking with his bowl slung over his shoulder. The first time I saw him (I had already been told about him by my dear friend Geeta Sri Nissanka), nobody told me it was him, but I knew it instantly. I told my husband to kindly stop the car and having gone to a nearby shop and purchased some food, I raced back and offered it to the bhikkhu. Very sternly, he refused the food and said: ‘Bhikkhus do not accept food after twelve noon’. I was amazed that, even without a watch, he knew the exact time, when it was perhaps, only a few minutes past noon.

On having asked to where he was proceeding, I was sternly informed ‘The Vajirarama at Hawa Eliya’. I visited him there twice or thrice and was disconcerted when he refused most offerings. This was quite contrary to the mode of practice of the Most Venerable Webu Sayadaw of Burma who, with overflowing mettā (loving-kindness), welcomed and accepted all people and their gifts. It was only later that I realized it is as Bhikkhu Bodhi has described him: ‘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’.

From then onwards, I came across him throughout the years, often suddenly and unexpectedly. We were so thrilled when we had the opportunity of encountering him anywhere. In the early stages it was at Vajirarama and later at Island Hermitage and then Parappaduwa. Once, I met him on the road to Kandy and had the good kamma (accumulated merit) of offering almsfood (dāna) which he partook of on the roadside.

At one time, he stayed in a section of our own house in Ward Place, Colombo (my grandfather’s surgery, converted by my husband for me to have solitude) for over one year, and as I recall, he spent the Rains Retreat there as well. He also spent over a year in our Pitipanna Estate residence, and another year, in the same place, in a delightful and quite large hut (kuṭi), under a huge spreading banyan tree, which was built especially for him. The kuti is now called ‘Ñāṇavimala Thero Kuti’. Forest bhikkhus still use it, on and off.

He was so powerful. His aura and vibration left an unforgettable impression on one. Because of him, I came across ten or so lovely people, devout followers of the Dhamma, who became my life long spiritual friends (kalyāṇamittas). This wonderful bhikkhu’s influence on us was unbelievable. We trusted him profoundly. What he advocated for us, we generally carried out to the best of our abilities. He was a ‘father’ and a kalyāṇamitta to all of us. He gave such comforting and valuable advice to all of us which helped tremendously, enabling us to tackle our lives’ more serious problems.

For example, he advised a middle-aged lady, whose husband tortured her by having relationships with other females in front of her eyes, to go away and live a life of solitude in the Dhamma. Because of this, she became a great and very effective Dhamma teacher till she was over 83 years old in a famous meditation centre.

Another younger person was devastated when her Western fiancé went off with another woman. He comforted her by reminding her to recall how she herself, had let down a former fiancé just before their marriage, and thus, she must forebear the retribution. This young lady, who was almost losing her mind, became avidly absorbed in Dhamma practice and became a great yogi and Dhamma guide.

Also, he guided me through many years to get used to spells of solitude and when he knew I was ‘ready’ and had avid love for the Pāli suttas (discourses), he told me to renounce. I replied: ‘I am not ready, Sir’ and he said: ‘We are never ready,’ and so through great respect and belief in what he said, I renounced. And I am so happy that I did so. It was the greatest and most profitable time in the Dhamma sphere of my life. Unfortunately, I gave up after a very wonderfully peaceful and happy one year, but got back into recluseship some years later and will continue to do so till the end of my life.

On his death bed ‘as it were’ (he passed away much later, but on this occasion was very ill), he said: ‘You must be an example to the rest of your family. You must show them by living and practising the way’.

His ‘letting go’ of his own family was phenomenal. There was a ‘clean cut’ with no turning back whatsoever, no letter writing, no contact at all. He related a story when he was a young man about a pretty girl from his home town who was devoted to him. One day he saw her talking to another young man and was overwhelmed with jealousy. That moment he realised this sort of attachment gives such excruciating suffering, and that he must not indulge in relationships and attachments. Then and there, he estranged himself and cut the relationship completely. The girl was devastated and even had to be treated in hospital.

He repeated several times: ‘One should not forsake one’s own progress for another’s sake (no matter what benefit to the other, even for a short period)’. He emphasised strongly and repeatedly: ‘To read the suttas is imperative, it is essential’. He appreciated and praised very much my absorption and dwelling in the suttas.

He pushed hard for me to get into deep practice and to study the texts. I think he was particularly impressed how I studied the Pāli texts sincerely and deeply. He had a very deep knowledge of the Sutta Piṭaka (‘basket’ of discourses) and generally knew chapter and verse. He often quoted and encouraged me to read particular texts. He did not, however, encourage me to explain to others the Pāli Texts, but rather to remain simple and unknown and press on with my own striving.

At a later date, he said: ‘..but not in a scholarly way of studying’ and he said: ‘It is high time you actually achieved something’. I was then sixty-four years old. He said: ‘Go away into solitude for six months and save yourself’. When I thought to myself: ‘Ha, he thinks I can do it in six months – what an achievement!’ He caught my thought and said: ‘No, not six months, but one year’.

Once, in private he said to me: ‘You have now understood dukkha (the noble truth of suffering)’; ‘At this time there is nothing more to say as advice to you’; ‘One should have pīti (joy) all the time’. Then I said ‘All the time, Sir?’ He said: ‘Of course, it is like planting a seed, one has to foster it and wait till it grows – it cannot mature in a hurry.’

One experience of his which he related to me was this: Soon after the war, alcohol was naturally very rare. One night some bottles were available in a bar. While some men were drinking, a fire broke out in the building. Other people screamed ‘run out, run out, the building is about to fall’, but so great was their attachment that the men continued to drink and all of them perished in the fire – so dreadful is the power and pull of desire.

Once, when he was walking for a long time in forest terrain, he was overwhelmed with hunger and wondered where he would next be offered food. No one was around for miles and miles. Suddenly, he came across a little hut and an old devotee (upāsikā) came forward carrying a tray laden with food and offered it to him. He asked how she knew he was coming and she replied: ‘When I was offering flowers that morning, a voice said ‘a bhikkhu is coming this way, please prepare food and offer it’ ’.

He made us aware of his extraordinary knowledges only to teach us some aspect of Dhamma. Once, when I was driving him to Kelaniya temple, I was lightly doing ānāpānasati (meditation on breathing) as it helped me concentrate better (the Most Venerable Webu Sayadaw advocated doing ānāpānasati all the time). Ven. Ñāṇavimala Thero said ‘when one is driving, it is best not to do ānāpānasati concentration’. How did he know? Wasn’t that an extra-sensory awareness?

As Bhikkhu Bodhi states: ‘Ven. Ñāṇavimala Thero 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 fits the other person’s needs.’

When he was living in the separate section in our Colombo house, my mother became bedridden and unconscious. He observed and studied her and commented: ‘She has lost her intellect, but her ‘inside’ has been looked after’. And when she passed away, he commented: ‘She has gone to a Deva (heavenly being) world, but not a great one’. When the mother of a friend of mine passed away (he was a devoted follower), he commented: ‘He has gone to a higher deva world!’

He had related to some of my friends his experiences in past lives. He said in one former birth, he had been a father in a certain family. One day when he had climbed a ladder, he fell down and lay on the ground in a dire state. The sorrow of the family was forever devastating to him. What a sorrow existence is! It is such an overwhelming sorrow to glean from a True Disciple of the Tathāgata. The only solace being, ‘How lovely that they have ended all sorrow’.

Here are some of Bhante’s sayings that I remember hearing during the forty to forty-five years I knew him:

He often spoke of the power of Metta-ceto-vimutti (release of mind through loving-kindness). Another oft-spoken of topic was the removal of asmimāna (conceit ‘I am’).

As far as I remember, he often quoted from the Majjhima Nikāya, Saṁyutta Nikāya and Anguttara Nikāya. He emphasised several times to study Saṁyutta No. 35 (Saḷāyatana Saṁyutta). Regarding ānāpānasati, he advised to study Majjhima Nikāya 107, 117 & 125 and Saṁyutta 5, 22 & 35. When he referred to the content of the suttas he always said: ‘It is from this or that particular sutta’, thereby it is not his wisdom, but that of the Enlightened Ones. He displayed this humility and great respect for the Tathāgata: ‘Many current bhikkhus write books and articles using their name and indicating it is their knowledge. Many books have even been written: ‘The satipaṭṭhāna by so and so’ when it is the Exalted One’s satipaṭṭhāna. Hasn’t all the Dhamma necessary for Nibbāna been lucidly set out by the Great Being in detail and succintly? Is it necessary for anyone else to explain?’

In my observation, Ven. Ñāṇavimala Thero confined himself only to the Sutta Piṭaka explanations. He never encouraged the distribution of other writings in the ancient exposition of the Abhidhamma, Visuddhimagga etc. I may be wrong in this.

The Most Venerable Ñāṇavimala exuded mettā and sincere affection to all his followers, as a real father would. Actually, he cared more for us than our real fathers (all Perfected Beings do because this caring is based on anatta realisation and not on self-interest). When he passed away, it was a devastating sorrow – more than the passing away of our parents.

I miss him still – his lovely guidance, his peace, his genuine care and concern for us. Unfortunately, during the last couple of years of his life, we were not permitted to see him or mix with him. The bhikkhu looking after him thought that, for his benefit, he should not be disturbed. Many devotees and forest monks who sought his guidance, thus suffered tremendous loss by being unable to see or contact him.
His closest bhikkhu disciples were Bhante Ñāṇaloka and Bhante Upasama. Amongst his lay disciples were Brindley Ratwatte (later Bhante Siddhartha), Mr Damayanthi Ratwatte, Sylvia Gunatilleke, Janaki & Andy De Silva, Nirmal Sonnadara, Kusuma Abeysinghe, Komi Mendis, Sanath, myself and numerous others I did not know.

I ask forgiveness of the Great Bhikkhu and True Son of the Tathāgata, the Most Venerable Ñāṇavimala Thero for any misconceptions or misrepresentation in my words, and also of the readers if I have caused them any sort of unhappiness.