Spending Time with Venerable Ñāṇavimala

Ven. Hiriko

I believe it was 1997 when I went for the first time to the Island Hermitage and met Venerable Ñāṇavimala. His attendant at the time was a monk called Vappa, who was from the Netherlands, I think Vappa was getting ready to leave the Island and move to an Australian Vihara to continue his practice there. Soon after I arrived at the Island, he took me to Venerable Ñāṇavimala’s kuṭi (hut) where I paid my respects soon after I arrived at the Island.

I was quite impressed with the Venerable’s bearing and the quiet holiness that was radiating from him. His room was almost empty – no books, no extra clothes, not even a pair of sandals – he walked barefoot. He was quite skinny and walked with some difficulty since one of his hips wasn’t in very good shape. He rarely smiled.

As I introduced myself he expressed his surprise that even though I had been in robes for some years I wasn’t ordained as a bhikkhu (monk), but as a sāmaṇera (novice monk) and he encouraged me to take bhikkhu or higher ordination soon. He gave some brief instructions about the life of a monk: that one should cut one’s connection with one’s family, lay-friends and one’s old country. Then one should stay near one’s preceptor or teacher without going here and there for the first five years at least, and even more, if one doesn’t feel ready to live independently. Then one should study and memorise the important passages from the Pāli suttas (discourses) and vinaya (monastic discipline). He didn’t fully endorse the Abhidhamma books.

He praised the gradual training and recommended me to practice loving-kindness (mettā bhāvanā) as a foundation for a more advanced practice since it gladdens the mind and makes it vast and peaceful and happy. Then one should proceed to breathing meditation (ānāpānasati) and work towards developing absorption (jhāna). He praised the jhānas most highly, and considered them the foundation for insight. When told that some Burmese and Thai teachers don’t emphasize jhānas he would reply with: ‘Well, why then would Lord Buddha so many times teach about them in the suttas?’

As Ven. Vappa left the Island soon after my arrival there, and there were no other older monks keen on taking on his position as the Mahāthera’s attendant, I gladly accepted the invitation of Ven. Rakkhita, the abbot at the time, to attend on him. I started going to Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s kuṭi a few times a day, bringing him his meal (he ate once a day), afternoon tea (he drank tea, but totally refused black coffee, considering it harmful for practice), sweeping his kuṭi and occasionally helping him to wash his robes and as he got weaker, even helping to bathe him.

Venerable was around 84 years old at the time I met him. He even joked, saying: ‘Lord Buddha lived till 80. I am already 84, it’s not necessary for me to live longer than that.’ But he lived on, and even though he didn’t like it, he was once taken to a hospital in Colombo to remove a cataract from his eye. Ven. Mettavihārī and I accompanied him. I remember him telling us ‘I don’t need this surgery. After all, I’ve seen enough of this world. What more do I need to see?’ But a supporter who arranged the operation believed that the Venerable would really like to read books again. Thus, the operation was performed and his sight did get better. Nevertheless, he never read anything. He didn’t have any desire (or need) to read. As a young monk he memorised most of the important passages in Pāli and English, and he refused to study after that. Occasionally he would look at a small notebook with the passages, but only when he wasn’t sure about a quotation he wanted to share.

Interestingly, he refused to speak German even when people spoke German to him. He said it reminded him of his old country. At that time he had lived in Sri Lanka for over 40 years. He even became a Sri Lankan citizen, or at least, on his last visit to the Immigration Office in Colombo to renew his visa, the officer took away his German passport and promised to issue a Sri Lankan passport (even though it may not have happened since no one has seen that passport). The officer told him: ‘Hāmuduruvo (monk), you are too old, no need to come here again to renew your visa. It’s taken care of, you are a citizen of Sri Lanka, I’ll send you the passport.’ So Ven. Ñāṇavimala stopped going to the Immigration Office after that. I heard this story from some older monks.

He told me once about a woman, his adopted mother, who took care of him when he was a child in Germany. She didn’t have children of her own and was quite attached to him. During his first ten or so years in Sri Lanka, he would receive letters from her every once in a while. But he wouldn’t even read them at first. He would put them in a drawer, wait for some time, and only then open them. ‘There would usually be some issue or other that she would ask me about,’ he told me, as he was instructing me how to stay unattached to my own family, ‘but by the time I would actually open the letter, it would be unnecessary to write back. By that time the issue in question would have been already solved, so I never wrote a single letter to her or to anyone since I became a bhikkhu,’ he explained. I was never very good at following that instruction, I must admit.

As for the teachings that one could find in the texts, he often said: ‘Go and look for that passage, it’s in that sutta. It’s from the Buddha who is the supreme teacher, so learn from him, it’s the best. I can’t say it better than him.’ In that way he encouraged me to study the suttas. He was a compassionate man, but it was ‘arahat’s compassion’(detached compassion). He stayed with the Dhamma, and only talked the Dhamma.

Venerable Ñāṇavimala spent many years walking from one end of Sri Lanka to the other. He carried all his possessions with him. It wasn’t much, and the begging bowl isn’t that heavy, but if you carry it day after day always on one side, the right side (as is necessary because of the style of the Theravāda robe), then the spine can slowly bend to the opposite side – and that’s what happened to him. So walking became difficult, and he returned to Polgasduwa after many years of doing his cārikā (walking tours).

Once, I asked him if during these wanderings anyone has ever stolen anything from him. He thought hard and said with a smile: ‘Yes, once I arrived late in the town of Matara, and decided to sleep at the railway station. When I got up in the morning to leave, I realised that my bag had been opened. The thief had stolen the rope I would carry and spread between two trees to dry my robes after I wash them.’ I am sure the thief must have been bitterly disappointed that the bag didn’t have anything better to take away but a single old rope.

On one cārikā, the Venerable was walking through a forest, one of the bigger National parks, perhaps Yāla. ‘There were not many villages there,’ he said, ‘and these villages were very poor. On top of that, I would arrive unannounced and so nobody would have any food to give me. Two days went without receiving any food, and on the third morning I was really hungry. But I was still deep inside the National Park and I didn’t expect that I’d receive any food from the villagers even if I encountered any. Early that morning I arrived in a small village and as I was walking through it an elderly lady came from her house with a pot in her hands. She came towards me and made an añjali (reverential salutation). Then as I opened my bowl, she put the food inside. The food she offered was of excellent quality, so I was quite surprised. It looked as if she knew that I was coming and she had the food prepared and was waiting for me. So after I chanted a blessing, I looked at her and against my custom of not engaging in conversation during piṇḍapāta, I asked her about it. She answered ‘Venerable Sir, last night as I was offering flowers and praying in front of my altar a devatā (celestial being) appeared to me. He told me to get up early tomorrow morning and prepare the best food. He said that a bhikkhu is on his way and will pass through our village and that I should offer it to him to get some merit. So when I saw you coming I was already prepared and very happy because I already knew that you will come.’ I heard this from the Venerable’s own mouth, I don’t remember the reason he told me, but there isn’t any reason to doubt that it really happened.

During his wanderings in Sri Lanka Ven. Ñāṇavimala often slept in forests or tea plantations if he was unable to find a suitable temple for that day. One of the temples of the forest tradition that he was quite fond of, and mentioned a number of times, was Meetirigala. He was also on very friendly terms with the Ven. Abbot of Meetirigala. But he didn’t choose to stay there for any longer period of time because, as he said, there is a danger of getting attached to the place, to always having nice food, and quiet.

Regarding quietness of mind and deep concentration, here comes a warning. Even though Ven. Ñāṇavimala praised and commended jhānas, he related this story to me as a warning of the ‘wrong jhāna trap’: ‘I stopped in Meetirigala and spent a few days there,’ he said, ‘they gave me a nice kuṭi to stay in. In the evening I sat in meditation and the practice went smoothly so I decided not to get up. But then, after what could have been a few hours, I heard the temple bell ringing and opened my eyes. The temple bell rings there only for the meals so I felt strange. I was sure it was still evening. In fact the light outside my window was something in between daylight and night so I felt it was dusk. Then I listened carefully to the singing of birds. They sing somewhat differently in the evening and at dawn, at the break of the day. Well, after a while I realized it wasn’t dusk, it was dawn. So, it seemed I spent the whole night sitting in meditation without even realising that all those hours had slipped by. And here is the real problem. Even though I had a pleasant abiding (he used these words often when talking about jhānas: pleasant abiding), I wasted all that time. I wasn’t fully aware of the passage of the time. In other words, I felt I wasn’t sleeping but I nevertheless wasted all these hours. Just feeling good, but not investigating body, feeling, mind and mind states. So one should be aware of the danger of concentration that is too deep.’

On another occasion, the Venerable told me how he meditated in a certain cave as it was very hot outside. Again he entered into deep concentration (samādhi), and as he came out of samādhi, and started moving, he realized there was something heavy lying on top of his hands. It was a coiled snake that he didn’t even notice but that must have been lying there for some time. He quietly lowered it to the ground. The snake didn’t do any harm to him.

Regarding animals, here is another story: While walking through a National park once he encountered a bear. He said: ‘When I raised my head the bear was just a few metres away from me. We were both taken by surprise, and the bear looked like it was getting ready to attack. I lowered my gaze and started radiating mettā towards him. The next thing I knew was that when I lifted my gaze he was nowhere to be seen.’ Again, if these two stories came to me from some of Ñāṇavimala admirers I would doubt them. But I heard them from him directly, and he wasn’t a man who would make things up. It’s just that I spent considerable time with him during that year, and I asked him many questions, so on occasion he was in the mood to relate these stories.

Once in the evening, I entered his kuṭi, bringing him some tea. Ven. Ñāṇavimala was lying down in the lion’s position on the concrete floor. I was a bit surprised to see him down there, but I assumed it was some practice he was doing, or else, since it was a hot day, he had moved from his bed to the cold floor to feel cooler. Well, I went around him in silence, put the tea on his table, and asked him whether I could do anything else for him. He said in a patient and kind way: ‘Well you can pass me that tea, but first, would you please help me get up. It’s not very comfortable to lie on the floor.’ Ooops! I realized he ended up there against his will. As I was helping him to his feet, I asked, ‘What happened Bhante?’ Then he explained to me that he rose from his bed, tried to walk, lost consciousness, and fell down. His hip was injured in that fall, and he couldn’t get up on his feet by himself. So he spent some three hours or so waiting for someone to show up and help him. I felt very sorry to hear that. After that event his walking became even more difficult.

On another occasion, I entered his kuṭi bringing him his daily meal. As I was passing him his bowl with food he smiled and told me that I had woke him up from a nap. He said he had just had a dream. ‘What kind a dream was it, Bhante?’ I asked curiously. ‘Oh nothing special,’ he said,’ I was walking through a village, carrying a bowl, doing my piṇḍapāta, and then a laywoman approached me to offer some dāna. As I was getting ready to receive it, you entered the kuṭi, and I woke up.’ Interesting, I thought. His dreams weren’t all that different from his real life – simple and pure.