Glimpses of Ven. Ñāṇavimala

Ñāṇadīpa Thera

Ñāṇavimala stayed in a kuṭi (hut) on Island Hermitage that that had originally been built for Ñāṇamoli. He kept strictly to his kuṭi, and one could see him outside only when he was sweeping, bathing or taking his single meal in the dānasāla (dining hall). Rare were the times when he would allow a visitor. I did not dare to approach him. But before I left in ’68, the Sinhalese monk, Ñāṇasanta obtained permission for me to visit him. He asked me why I was leaving. I said that I had not yet fully decided to become a monk. He advised me not to go, for I might not again get such good conditions for ordaining as I was having now. However, he did not insist when I said that there always would be some place where I could get ordained. The talk he gave me I do not remember, but I felt deeply impressed.

During my stay with him as an upāsaka (layman) in ’68 and as a sāmaṇera (novice monk) in ’69, he was the only inspiring model I had. What inspired me, however, was the sight of him rather than the Dhamma (teachings) he spoke. In those days he was very reserved and when he talked, it was always to emphasize the importance of the preliminary parts of the practice, which I found rather uninteresting. On a few occasions, however, he became very friendly. For instance, when I was getting ordained as a sāmaṇera (a simple ceremony done in the dānasāla), he got up from his seat and gently helped me put the robe on. Towards the end of the stay, he could more often be seen outside the kuṭi, sometimes joining for breakfast and the evening recitation that ended with tea-drinking. Once, I even saw him have a swim in the lagoon, which I found rather surprising.

The last two or three weeks before leaving, he remained in the dānasāla (dining hall) after tea drinking in order to be taught Sinhalese by the chief monk, Ñāṇaloka. He got help for composing a mettā-kathā (talk on mettā meditation) so as to be able to give a small baṇa (sermon) to the people who helped him on his cārikās (walk tours). When he left, he was gone and no one knew to where. He left leaving a vacuum – no one anymore to be inspired by. Conditions gradually deteriorated and a few months later, I found it necessary to leave for Bundala, not heeding his advice to ‘stay at least five years’.

The bear incident at Kudumbigala he told to me in ’69. He was staying in a faraway cave. I was shown that cave later, it still had most of the ancient walls. At night, a bear came through the entrance, stood up on its hind legs, raising its front legs with the claws out and slowly approached him (anyone who has seen a bear with its claws open, knows what a terrifying sight that is). Ñāṇavimala started to recite the so-called Khandha-paritta (Group Protection), a chant to appease snakes, but it can be used for other animals too. The bear slowly drew back its claws, turned around and left. This incident dates back to his first cārikā (’67-‘68). We came to know about Kudumbigala because of him.

Later on, Ñāṇavimala rarely (if ever) had a prolonged stay in the forest. As he said to another monk ‘The forest is not my kamma’(accumulation). I don’t think he often stayed out in the open. That would only have been for lack of a suitable place. He preferred the closed room to an open forest. When walking, he kept to the beaten track. That was more convenient to his practice of sati-sampajañña (mindfulness and comprehension). To me, he once said: ‘Why the forest?’ For him, of course, it was not needed. But he failed to understand that it could be an important part in a monk’s practice. (Note: in this respect he was unlike Mahākassapa who was a forest monk who kept resorting to the forest, even in his old age. In the Theragāthā his verses echo his delight for the forested hill far away from human habitation.)

Some people say that outside vassa he would not stay any more than three days in one place. This is not completely true. Occasionally, he would stay longer if he found a suitable place. At Sinharāja Aranya (Waturuwila branch), I was told by the chief monk that he had spent a month in a kuṭi. He gave me the same kuṭi. That was in ‘70, my first cārikā. When passing through Tamil areas, he would sometimes stay with Christian priests. He said they treated him very well. He would sometimes talk to them about mettā and dāna (loving-kindness and generosity) and other things common to both religions. Beyond that he did not go, ‘That is all I can say’, he would say. However, when there was both a Christian and a Buddhist place, he would choose the Buddhist place though he was less well treated there. For, as he said, ‘that is where I belong, dāyakas (supporters) have built it for Buddhist monks’.’

When he was about sixty, he lost all his teeth. He simply stopped caring for them. They became rotten and fell out, one by one. Regarding this, he said to me, ‘All the trouble I had in caring for my teeth, toothpaste, toothpowder and brushes, all that I am free from now.’ He said he managed to chew an apple with his gums.

Once he was staying at Vajirarama in a room next to the common bathroom. I had gone to his room to pay respect when someone flushed the toilet cistern next door making a loud noise, he smilingly dismissed the loud sound saying, ‘Waterfall’, showing his equanimity toward such disturbing sounds. This was a teaching for me in regard to handling such unwanted disturbances.

Regarding Ñāṇavimala’s giving up vegetarianism as detailed in ‘The Life of Ñāṇavimala Thera’, I have heard a different explanation. At Polgasduwa in ‘69, I heard him telling this story: ‘I got very sick from lack of protein and the doctor kept telling me that I had to eat meat. Still I refused. Finally, they told me: ‘If you don’t eat meat, we will send you back to Germany’. Well, going back to Germany, I would have to kill people! So I decided to eat meat.

In the same article, it is stated that Ñāṇavimala set out on cārikā in ‘66. I disagree with this. It must have been in ’67. In ’68, I spent seven months at Polgasduwa (April-November) and he came back in the middle of that period. The day he came in ’68 was exactly one year after he left in ’67 (as the first Yugoslavian monk, Ñāṇajivaka told me). He had set out on that first cārikā after eleven years (not ten) years of uninterrupted stay at Polgasduwa. On a later occasion, he said to me: ‘I didn’t leave on cārikā till I knew I could control my mind’. After returning he spent one more year (or slightly more) at Polgasduwa, after which he left for good. Thus, altogether, he spent some twelve years at Polgasduwa in his initial grounding period. I had left in November ’68, but was back in June ’69 in time to have a few more months with him. I was ordained as a sāmaṇera in September, a few months before he left for good (apart from some short visits).

In ‘Spending Time with Venerable Ñāṇavimala’, Hiriko says that Ñāṇavimala ‘refused to study’ after the first period as a young monk. That is not so. When he returned from his first cārikā in ’69, he picked up Warder’s ‘Introduction to Pāli’ (which would not have been available when he was a new monk) and also some other sutta books. He also sometimes picked up some sutta books when he was at Vajiramama (at least in the earlier period).

Guttasīla says in ‘Recollections of Venerable Ñāṇavimala’ that Ñāṇavimala would walk only ten kilometres a day. This should be corrected to ten miles. He told me that if he walked longer, the soles of his feet would get worn out.

I read the article ‘Slowly-Carefully-Mindfully’ in Sinhalese some time ago and one point has to be corrected. It is related that once Ñāṇavimala was staying in an arañña (forest monastery) belonging to a very learned monk. He was given the sīma (area/building designated for Sangha acts) to stay in. it contained a lot of books that were not properly arranged. Carefully, he put all the books in order. But before leaving, he put them all back into the disordered arrangement he had found them in. The learned Thera supposed that he had done so in order to teach a lesson. I don’t think so. I heard a similar story from a monk staying in another arañña. He was given a kuṭi and the first thing he did was to rearrange all the things that were found in the kuṭi. Before he left, he put all the things back in the original order. The monk was amazed at his precise memory. He did so not to teach or criticize, but for the sake of his own well-being. Things around him had to be harmoniously ordered. It may have even been his habit to rearrange things in kuṭis and rooms he was staying in, at least if he intended to stay some length of time. Certainly, his kuṭi in Polgasduwa was neatly arranged.

I did not intend to make a portrait of Ñāṇavimala, only to give a few glimpses of him. I always had a deep respect for him and liked him as a person. But due to different ways of approaching Dhamma, I didn’t look to him for guidance. But still now, years after he has gone, I can at times feel greatly inspired by thinking of him.