Finding the Path
As told by Ishanka to Amal Randhir Karunaratna
Amal: My earliest memory of Ven Ñāṇavimala was after he visited my father in his medical surgery in Kandy with some discomfort in his stomach. My father examined him and diagnosed some kind of gastritis problem, as I recall, and wanted to prescribe some medication. He seemed to be in some pain. When my father asked him if he could obtain the medication for him, he politely refused, saying “the pain arises and passes away”. I remember my father telling me that he couldn’t sleep that night, and kept thinking about this tranquil monk who refused medication and seemed to tolerate pain. This story was imprinted in my young mind as well as my fathers.
Over the years, I encountered Ven Nyanavimala when he visited our house for dana in Kandy or when my father and I saw him at the Forest Hermitage with Ven Ñyanaponika on one of his infrequent visits to Kandy. We moved to New Zealand in 1972 and then to Australia in 1975, and, on visits back to Sri Lanka, I would try to see him if I heard of his whereabouts. Whenever I met him, he would immediately ask me about my parents by name: “How is Dr and Mrs Karunaratna?”
On one occasion, I was driving to Anuradhapura and happened to be wondering where I may find him, when he suddenly appeared ahead, walking along the road at a steady pace. I stopped the car and ran over to him to pay my respects. He had not seen me for many years and I was much older then and taller than when I left, but he recognised me instantly and asked me the usual question about my parents.
Whenever I saw him and he was in a position to talk at length, he seemed to talk to me about things that were concerning me at the time - he never failed to astonish me with these comments. When I visited Sri Lanka in 2004, I met a monk at Kudumbigala who was one of his caretakers and he told me that Ven Ñāṇavimala was gravely ill and wasn’t seeing anyone. That was the last news that I had about him before he passed away.
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I once heard my teacher say that a spiritual friend (kalyāṇamitta) is one who supports and guides one on the path to liberation. While I count my friend Ishanka as a kalyāṇamitta, she, in turn, had the great fortune to be so guided by Ven. Ñāṇavimala.
Ishanka is not her real name. She wishes to remain anonymous, so I have used a pen name to narrate her story. Here, she tells me how, despite being born into a Sri Lankan Buddhist family, her path to the Dhamma was established only after meeting Ven. Ñāṇavimala.
Ishanka really found Ven. Ñāṇavimala at a time when her life was in crisis, and, as is often the case, it is during such times that the wise turn to spiritual guidance, which she received in abundance from Ven. Ñāṇavimala over a span of some 20 years. This is the story of how his guidance changed her life and brought her to the path.
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I first met Ven. Ñāṇavimala as a young child. The first time I saw him was when I accompanied my family on a visit to the Island Hermitage at Dodanduwa on the south coast of Sri Lanka to take dāna (meal offered to monks) for the resident monks, one of whom was Ven. Ñāṇavimala.
My family took dāna to Island Hermitage from time to time. On one such occasion, Perera, a supporter (dāyaka) following his dāna presentation at Island Hermitage, continued on to Kataragama, where a man dressed in white walked up to him and said, ‘What are you doing here? You’ve just given a highly meritorious dāna,’ and wandered off. Perera was puzzled by this encounter and searched for this man shortly after, but never saw him again. The next day, Perera went back to Island Hermitage to see Ven. Ñāṇavimala and told him of his Kataragama encounter and asked Bhante if he was a sotāpanna, a stream enterer. Ven. Ñāṇavimala did not respond to this question but, instead, sat quietly with his eyes downcast. Perera concluded that Ven. Ñāṇavimala was somehow special and that it was a deity who had brought him this information at Kataragama.
I lived abroad for around ten years and completed my university education and also holidayed in France and learned to speak French. After this period I decided to return to Sri Lanka. When Ven. Ñāṇavimala was in Colombo he would stay at the Vajirarama Temple where my cousin visited him regularly.
Sometimes Ven. Ñāṇavimala would stay at Lanka Vipassanā Meditation Center on Wijeyrama Mawatha (the well-known Mahasi centre), and he would walk the short distance to our house, possibly because he had a long association with my aunt and her family. We invariably offered him tea and then transport to wherever he needed to go. He always politely refused, stating that his feet were capable of doing the job. My family all considered Ven. Ñāṇavimala ‘special’.
One of my cousins, Sarath was a hard drinker and considered a bad boy in the family, but later, due to his close association with Ven. Ñāṇavimala, who guided him in reading the suttas, Sarath underwent a dramatic transformation. He stopped drinking and became a model citizen – to the infinite gratitude of his wife. She prepared meals and visited Ven. Ñāṇavimala with Sarath, and I accompanied them during one of these visits and was re-introduced to Bhante. On one such occasion, I offered some liquid refreshment (gilanpasa) to Bhante who commented about the heat of the day and expressed his appreciation of the drink.
I used these opportunities to sit and talk with Bhante for a while. I explained my background to him, that I had been offered good career opportunities, one of which was to work and be trained in the U.S.A., but I never followed this up. Bhante commented that it was a good thing that I was back in Sri Lanka. He said it was important that I was brought up as a Buddhist and this background was necessary for the acceptance and development of virtue (sīla), as I had been resentful of discipline as a child. He commented on this without being prompted and said, ‘Yes you are lucky to be born a Buddhist, if we simply follow our instincts, we fall away from the path.’
At this early stage of my association, I noted very little in particular about him, other than his calm demeanour. I commenced working at a foreign embassy and had to deal with a hot-tempered Corsican woman who was constantly sarcastic and irritating. Others, too, found this woman’s behaviour annoying, but I found myself responding in a like manner. My usual response was to ‘give as good as I got’, and I felt entitled to do so, but I also became aware that my responses were too aggressive and soon became ashamed of my reactions.
I found myself talking to Ven. Ñāṇavimala about this work problem. He listened patiently, and to my surprise, asked if this person was a Sri Lankan. I answered no. He listened further and finally said, ‘Well, you are also responsible for this state of affairs,’ from which I concluded that this interaction was karmic. I felt like a worm. I had to think again and stop being a victim. Ven. Ñāṇavimala then advised me to practice loving-kindness (mettā). I accepted this advice readily and followed his instructions to develop mettā to myself, to someone dear, someone neutral, and also to someone hostile and focus loving thoughts on this person and on all living beings.
On one occasion, I had been disturbed by the behaviour of some monks during a dāna I had attended. I was upset by their lack of decorum and reluctant to be respectful and wanted to seek out only worthy monks to support and venerate. Without my raising this matter, Bhante commented on this incident, saying that I should not judge nor discriminate between such monks based on my own perceptions and conditioning, but to respect them as members of the Mahā Sangha. And, despite the accelerating deterioration of the Sangha, the institution should be supported, so that if at least one gem arises, he would be supported. ‘All inherit their own karmas (actions), may they all realize this and experience the bliss of nibbāna, (liberation),’ he exhorted.
By this time, I had developed total confidence in Bhante, and started doing mettā practice morning and evening, despite difficulties during the early stages. When it came to generating mettā for the hostile being, I had to virtually grit my teeth and say, ‘Ok, may you be happy!!’ After two months of this practice, however, I found myself having a gentler attitude towards the Corsican woman, even though I had no further interactions with her. After some time, she even started to smile and was actually pleasant, and her behaviour stopped being a problem. I was certainly impressed by this development and I thought, ‘If mettā works on this hard case, then it is truly amazing.’
In 1992, six months after this situation had settled, Bhante asked me how the problem at work had turned out. I waved my hand and said, ‘All finished.’ I continued my mettā practice after that, just in case, but quite convinced of its efficacy from my own experiences with this woman at work.
Around this time I had started a relationship with a Frenchman I had met. At the time, as I was of marriageable age, I was presented with a string of proposals and met with several eligible young men. In addition, my cousin Sarath introduced a suitors formal proposal which was well approved of by my family. All this pressure resulted in me throwing a tantrum which Sarath duly reported to Bhante. He responded calmly and advised Sarath ‘not to push anyone into a life of kāma (sensuality).’ Sarath had also discussed the matter of the Frenchman with Bhante whose response was: ‘They (the French) are good people, but morally loose, but this is her karma.’
By 1993, I realized that the relationship was falling apart. This man had other partners, and made no promises or commitment to me. When the relationship finally ended, I was unable to sleep or eat. In short, I spiralled into a state of depression without realizing what was happening. While I never felt suicidal, I felt quite empty and flat, with nothing to focus my attention on, and feeling like a zombie. I gave up my work and chilled out at home. Living in a world of my own thoughts from August through October. Then, late in October, around the 22nd, I decided that I needed to visit Ven. Ñāṇavimala again who was 81 years of age at the time.
I had confidence in Bhante and felt instinctively that he would be able to advise me. It also dawned on me that, while I was born a Buddhist, with some knowledge of rituals and customs, I needed to learn the Dhamma and practice meditation to calm the mind. I knew my mind was going off the rails. I was irrational, I couldn’t maintain a clear line of thought. I knew something was wrong and couldn’t trust my own judgment.
When I saw Ven. Ñāṇavimala, he looked at me with deep compassion and said simply, ‘Only faith (saddhā) can hold you together.’ He also said, ‘Parting from the beloved is painful, but you have done this to him and now he has got back at you.’ I understood that this was karma working, I had my just desserts. I found that when someone really understood my situation, it was very comforting. I had managed to hide everything from my family, but with Bhante it was clear that he knew everything!
He advised me to read Ven. Ñāṇatiloka’s book The Word of the Buddha, which he said was the book that brought him to Buddhism. Before that, Bhante had mentioned to my cousin that he had been a Hindu of sorts.
I calmed down with this knowledge of karma and its result. Then Ven. Ñāṇavimala spoke about his cousin, whose husband had treated her very badly. Although she was not a Buddhist, she had been very patient and didn’t lose her temper with him. Instead, she had been kind and considerate, and he finally realized his mistakes.
The fact that Bhante understood my situation gave me a great deal of solace. He knew that I was not sleeping, he said: ‘At night, even though your mind and body are tired, you may not be able to sleep.’ He asked me to practice mettā regularly, as often as possible, and explained the benefits of mettā practice. ‘You will sleep well and the gods will protect you and so on.’ (one of the eleven benefits of practising loving-kindness according to AN 11:16).
So I practiced mettā daily for around three months, and at the end of this time I was out of this mental cloud. I remember that the practice of mettā, this time round, resulted in feelings of inexplicable joy accompanied by tears. I enquired from him why I cried every time I practiced mettā. He replied, ‘Yes, it can be quite emotional at times, these may be tears of joy.’ I felt reassured.
I had now gained confidence and went back to Bhante to ask if I should practice ānāpānasati, watching the in-out movement of the breath. He asked, ‘Why?’ I replied that I just felt like it. Perhaps I had read somewhere or heard that the practice of ānāpānasati held the key to happiness. I had known this from before, but perhaps I was not ready for ānāpānasati yet. After three months, Bhante approved. When I asked him how to go about it, he referred me to the Girimānanda Sutta (AN 10:60) which explained the Ten Perceptions including ānāpānasati practice.
I read the sutta in Pāli (language of early Buddhist texts) and English before starting ānāpānasati. The long and short breaths seemed obvious, but I was stuck at the third sentence, sabbakāya paṭisaṁvedi (experiencing the whole body) with regard to observation of the breath. I asked Bhante to explain what it meant, but he said it had to be realized through experience and gave me some basic instructions to observe the breath. ‘The mind,’ he said, ‘will wander and you will believe these other things are permanent, happy and relevant to self (nicca, sukha, atta) but remember they are not, that they are all dukkha (suffering) and to bring the mind back to the breath.’ He didn’t explain any of the other teachings I read. Even with just these instructions, I practiced ānāpānasati and mettā, and some strange things happened at home.
Although nothing happened initially, most of the time, my thoughts were about the relationship. I was due to see Bhante in a week, but I was too ashamed to tell him about my lack of progress and inability to stay on the breath. Finally, after two weeks when I went to see him again with my cousin, he asked me, ‘How is your meditation?’ I said, ‘I may not be trying hard enough, if I tried harder, I’m sure I could do it properly.’ He smiled and said, these emotions will come up, sometimes you want him, sometimes you hate him and sometimes you will be glad it’s all over.’ This was quite true, but I was particularly impressed by the accuracy of the latter statement. I hadn’t thought it remotely possible. I smiled inwardly at this as I had barely acknowledged it to myself.
I was now starting to observe the workings of my mind. Bhante talked about a sense of relief now the whole relationship thing was over. I was aware of this but hadn’t admitted it to myself. Bhante was always able to anticipate the key issues in my life and give me the right advice that alleviated my problems. One example was when I had developed an idea that I had insulted a monk in a former life. I read somewhere that such an act would prevent one from walking properly on the Path. In reply, he simply said, ‘You have nothing to regret.’ I was able to put that doubt to rest for good after this assurance.
Not long after, the mental cloud lifted, I thought of the meaning of the word sandiṭṭhika, here and now, and I realized that here was someone who had actually transformed himself with the words of the Buddha. I thought to myself that it would be good to be like Bhante and mentally said this to him. I then checked myself, wondering, ‘How can I aspire so high?’ To me, he embodied the pinnacle of achievement.
I wondered how he, a foreigner, became accustomed to a strange climate, language and people, a different way of thinking in order to be a monk in Sri Lanka. I felt that since I was born here, perhaps I should be able to do this better and more easily! I realized that I had to have Nibbāna as my goal. At one stage, I thought that attaining sotāpanna (Streamwinner) would be nice, and then I read the story of King Bimbisāra (a Streamwinner who was tortured by his son, Ajātasattu) and realized that this was an inadequate aspiration.
In the course of the conversation Bhante said: Now that you aspire to overcome dukkha, follow the path, step by step. I continued my practice, combining it with reading of suttas and Dhamma books, including The Eightfold Noble Path by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Bhante also helped to fine tune some lapses in my sīla (precepts). ‘You have a tendency to exaggerate things a bit, so be careful how you report things to people. Speak gently and mindfully.’
After practicing for some time, I was starting to experience a feeling of disintegration of the body and its components. This was strange and unexpected. I wondered whether everything was liable to break up and whether nothing at all endured. When I went to see him with these experiences he asked, Do you still think there is something permanent? Nothing is permanent, not even true love, and he shook his head. I knew there was no point in asking further questions; it was clear that he knew what was passing through my mind.
At one point, I felt that I should go somewhere to practice meditation, and even wrote to Parappaduwa monastery but received a reply which informed me that they were not accepting any new people. It was then that I came across Dhammakuta, a retreat centre outside Kandy where the Goenka system of meditation was taught and practiced. I was confident that I could practice more intensively on a retreat than at home as I had been doing. My two sisters had already participated in many different types of meditation retreats, and they had more knowledge and experience than me.
Before that, I had also briefly considered ordaining as a nun. It was a fleeting thought, really, but to my surprise Bhante picked up on it. I had started to wear white and was about to cut off my hair. When I went to the temple one day, Bhante asked me why I was wearing white. The question was loaded. I was guarded about answering this question as the family were unaware of all this, and I was accompanied on that occasion by a male cousin who would have been shocked! So I sort of swallowed and replied, ‘Because I feel like it.’ Then Bhante said: ‘There is nothing special to do, walk the path step by step.’ This was unusual as in some other cases I know he had advised people to give up household life, but not in my case.
By this time, my former partner was back, but as a friend. At work there were people who were anti-Dhamma who said, I prefer to live with my imperfections than to die of wisdom, and another one who thought that, a life worth living was lived with passion at full throttle. The latter comment was from Marie, a very well educated woman with two PhDs. Neither had any interest in the Dhamma. I encouraged Marie to do a Dhammakuta course, and she did, but gained nothing from the experience. She played the part of an objective observer of others and wrote a very witty article about it, and she said that she wanted to stay in contact with me. When I saw Bhante, without any prompting he said: It is better for you at this stage not to associate with people who are not in the Dhamma. I nearly fell through the floor!
I was now full of gratitude and deep affection for Bhante and this came with the fear that I would lose him as he was now quite old. So, I wondered what was to happen now? He was preparing to leave Colombo after an extended period of being unwell. With this concern in my mind he advised: ‘Do not depend on uncertain bhikkhus, you should stand on the Dhamma.’
I was full of attachment and full of reverence. I wondered if I had met him in a previous life? He responded to this thought with, ‘this is not the first time we have met.’ I started to accept these mental questions and verbal responses as quite normal.
When I recited the Sangha Guṇa (virtues of the Sangha), he appeared to me in my mind. I read somewhere that the Buddha exhorted: ‘If you meet a Buddha Putra (lit: a son of the Buddha, i.e. a true disciple) venerate him as you would me.’
I thought that he had given me so much, I wanted to do something for him, but without expecting anything in return. Then, this thought occurred spontaneously and I understood: ‘This is not possible, whatever you give him, will return greatly enhanced to you,’ which is roughly my understanding of anuttaraṁ puññakhettaṁ lokassa, the unsurpassed field of merit to the world. I wished that in saṁsāra (the never ending cycle of rebirth), I had given something, even a glass of water, to quench his thirst when he needed it.
In April 1994, Bhante returned to Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa. My world fell apart. I wondered: ‘Why is he subjecting himself to all this hardship, why can’t he stay here?’ I thought he might die before long. Before his departure, I went to see him with another cousin and during our conversation he said quite casually as if we were discussing the weather, ‘I might die. This body is useful for certain things but when you have done what you want, it doesn’t matter anymore, it will take its own course.’ I didn’t stay long, I was overcome with emotion and in tears. I left the jug of beli (bael fruit) juice that I had brought for him and left very quickly.
A couple of weeks later, another cousin went to see him in Island Hermitage to see how he was doing, so I sent some more beli juice that I had prepared for him – it was sufficient for about five people. He found that Bhante was well settled in his kuṭi (monk’s hut) but he fell into conversation with other monks and had forgotten to give Bhante the beli juice. When he eventually returned to Bhante’s kuṭi, he was reminded about the beli juice he was supposed to deliver: ‘You have brought some gilanpasa? Pour some into this cup and take the rest and offer it to the other monks as well.’
I also had occasion to offer alms at Island Hermitage in June 1995, along with my parents, elder sister and some relatives. My parents had just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary with a grand party for family and friends in Sri Lanka on one of their frequent visits from Australia. But I was more keen on this dāna, as I knew how they would benefit. Bhante was not well, but he graciously participated, slowly walking from his kuṭi (hut) to the hall with the help of his walking stick. Watching my mother and father serving dāna to him, I was quite overcome with excitement and joy. I distinctly remember telling myself to calm down or else risk spilling whatever dish it was I had in my hands. Bhante partook of only a little of what was served to him. After dāna, much to my delight, he especially blessed my parents.
In March 1998, Ven. Ñāṇavimala accepted an invitation to stay at Dhammakuta, near Kandy, along with Ven. Mettāvihārī, who took care of him devotedly. They took up residence in the kuṭi at the top of the hill. I went to the centre, planning to stay there for three days, but extended it for three weeks. Meditation courses continued in the meantime and Indra, who was in charge of the kitchen observed that when stocks started to run out, the most important items would turn up without any prompting – someone would turn up with exactly the items that were required. There was such an abundance of food during that time, it was more than sufficient for everyone. During this time, Bhante did very little talking, but blessed many people. Everyone came to pay their respects and received his blessings as they completed the course.
An incident occurred with the cook, Mrs. Daya, who had had a miserable life. Her husband was an alcoholic and was totally crazy. She went to see Bhante to pay her respects, but said nothing. She wept with emotion. Bhante gently said to her ‘anun te kala de thaman to pala de’ (What you do unto others, comes back to you), ‘tell your husband to come and see me.’ A few days later, she brought her husband and the children to see Bhante. After giving a short blessing, he dismissed the rest of the family, but asked the husband to remain. Bhante spoke in English to him about the dangers of alcohol, the virtues of protecting the family and the implications for future lives. This man was dumbfounded by this discussion and highly moved. He came to his senses and gave up his drinking. This change was considered to be a miracle by the family. Further, he became helpful, calmed down, and resumed a normal family life.
Often, when he was giving talks, Bhante would mention devas: ‘We have all been devas and brahmās (celestial beings), there’s nothing unusual about this. There are devas who can help you on a spiritual path at his or her level but don’t look for them.’
Commenting on this further, while walking through a remote area of Sri Lanka it was approaching noon when monks traditionally eat their midday and sometimes only meal of the day. Bhante described how he approached an intersection of two roads and, underneath a tree, a village woman and a little girl were standing, holding a parcel of food. She was a chena cultivator (one who clears the land by burning it). ‘What are you doing here in the middle of nowhere?’ Bhante asked them. ‘We were waiting for you, Bhante,’ was the reply. This morning, a relative who had passed away, but was now a deva had told her that she could do something good and acquire some merit. The deva instructed her to make food for her family and some additional food for a worthy monk who will be along shortly and that she should offer him this food.
While on cārikā (walking tour) around the south of the island in elephant country, Bhante had expected to reach the next village before nightfall but it was getting quite dark as the sun had set. Some way in the distance he could see a light and when he approached it, he could see that it was a monk standing patiently by the road with a lantern. When he approached the monk, he invited Bhante to accompany him to his kuṭi in the forest, about one kilometre from the road, where there was a well with good water. Bhante asked the monk how he knew of his approach? ‘I was meditating earlier today and I was informed that a monk will be approaching and I can do him some service. He is one of your relatives and he will be here soon.’ He stayed with this monk for about three days and continued on his way.
Bhante left Dhammakuta the day after Vesak. In his final blessing to everyone, he said: ‘You have perfect conditions here for your practice,’ and his face was radiant even though he was now quite weak. To me, he said, ‘Forget the past and continue with your practice.’ His departure coincided with the commencement of a twelve day course that focused on mettā.
Everyone gathered in the corridors of the hall, waiting to line up on both sides of the road leading from the top kuṭi to the hall to pay their respects. It was raining heavily and it didn’t seem as though there was going to be any let-up, but right at the time Bhante was due to leave, around 8 am, the clouds parted, the rain ceased, and the sun burst through the clouds. Bhante emerged from his kuṭi smiling and was carried in a chair along the path. A chorus of ‘Sādhu! Sādhu! Sādhu! (It is well!)’ broke out as he was helped into the car which was taking him to Colombo. The car had barely left the property and the clouds closed, the sun disappeared and the rain came crashing down again as the car disappeared into the rain soaked distance.