Inspiring Virtues

Ven. K. Pemasiri

Ven. K. Pemasiri Mahāthera is a renowned meditation teacher in Sri Lanka and is abbot of Sumathipāla Araṇa, Kanduboda. He first met Ven. Ñāṇavimala Mahāthera in 1967 and then on many more occasions in the following decades at various locations in Sri Lanka. The recollections below have been compiled from translations of talks Ven. Pemasiri gave in Sinhala in November 2016 and February 2018 at Sumathipāla Araṇa.

Ven. Pemasiri Teaching

Even before I was ordained I had heard of Ven. Ñāṇavimala. After I ordained, I met him for the first time in 1967. He became ill with fever in Jaffna, moved to Habarana, and later came to Arankele, Kurunegala where I was staying. He was like a skeleton at that time, very weak and didn’t have enough strength to draw water to bathe or even wash his under robe. I offered to wash his robe and help him bathe, but he flatly refused my help.

Later, wherever I happened to be living, he would sometimes visit, staying a few days longer than he normally would in one place. Whenever this occurred, we saw his way of life and saddhā (faith) would arise in us. He had a lot of viriya, mettā and upekkhā (energy, loving-kindness and equanimity) and other wholesome qualities.

In 1968, when I was living in Gampola, I met him near Nuwara Eliya around 7:30 in the morning. It was wet and cold and he was coming down from a forest area. I was in a vehicle and offered him a ride, but he refused and continued on foot. Later in the day I saw him again, still walking, and that night he turned up at the temple where I was staying. This was long before he developed a hip condition from his continuous walking trips (cārikā). Almost every place I stayed, I would meet him, in Gampola, Kurunegala Anuradhapura, Kanduboda or in Colombo. In himself, he had no connection to anybody, anywhere. After leaving Germany, Ven. Ñāṇavimala never returned there. Eventually, he was given citizenship in Ceylon.

If he had already returned from his alms round and someone placed more food in his bowl, he would not like it. Sometimes people put a complete papaya fruit in his bowl, but he would not show his displeasure. However, on one occasion a lady put too much chocolate in his alms bowl and he told her in future not to do things like that.

There was no way you could give Ven. Ñāṇavimala in excess of what he needed. An extra robe would definitely not be accepted. If there was a patch on his robe, it was a genuine patch, not like the modern trend of wearing patched robes just to simulate austerity. Once, I offered Ven. Ñāṇavimala a new robe, which he refused saying, “I already have a robe. What if I take this and I pass away before the old robe is worn out, it won’t serve any purpose”. Having seen his example, I have no doubt about what standard of moderation and sense contentment monks should have. Even what he said in declining that offer, he said in the most gentle, pleasant way possible. I recall with veneration that I knew a person like this. It was a privilege. This fewness of wishes (appicchā) is something we can all hold in high esteem. He relinquished things to get the maximum benefit from consistently practising detachment. His mental elements were extremely pacified and this manifested in moderation and contentment. Having seen such people as Ven. Ñāṇavimala practising as the Buddha taught, really encourages one and is a boost to the monk’s life.

Ven. Ñāṇavimala was satisfied with whatever he received. He would go around barefoot and carried just three robes, his almsbowl and a sitting cloth. In keeping with the requisites, he had a thread and needle and also carried a piece of soap wrapped in a jack leaf. Whether you prepared a very comfortable place for him or whether he had to sleep on the floor, it was all the same to him.

Sometimes, whilst on cārikā when he stopped at temples for the night, they would not allow him to stay in the main building, but would offer him the dānasālā (dining hall) or verandah floor, but he did not mind. When he wasn’t given a place to stay in temples, he stayed in churches, schools or village halls. The first time he went on cārikā, it was very difficult for him, but on subsequent walking tours, after people got to know him, it became less difficult and he would readily be offered places to stay. He told me he visited just about every village in Sri Lanka and once remarked “Sri Lanka is such a small island country”.

I recall being in Arankele and the monks were discussing Dhamma with Ven. Ñāṇavimala. He could answer all of their questions. At that time, I didn’t know anything about these subjects, they were just words to me. Discussions about cetovimutti (liberation through mind) and paññāvimutti (liberation through wisdom) were very interesting, even though I didn’t understand them. The other monks became quite worked up during the discussions, but Ven. Ñāṇavimala remained calm and answered their questions in a very relaxed manner.

Any advice I received from Ven. Ñāṇavimala was mostly about mettā, karunā and khantī (loving-kindness, compassion and patience). He also suggested that I practise ānāpānasati (mindfulness of breathing). He didn't say very much to me. Maybe he spoke to me at the level I could understand at that time. Later, when I had studied the scriptures and had more knowledge, he didn’t speak of those earlier topics. When I was very young, he would often speak about the value of ordination. Whenever I met him, Ven. Ñāṇavimala only spoke about some aspect of the Dhamma. There was no worldly talk at all.

No matter where he went, he would keep up the same routine. Mostly, he did not take the food offered in a temple, but would go on almsround. If you read books about monks in ancient times, it was similar to that. He had minimum requirements. I can’t say too much about his spiritual attainments, but only give my impressions. Some people talk about monks these days with high qualities, but in comparison with Ven. Ñāṇavimala, it is like comparing the sky and the earth. This is something you can know only through association. There was nothing false, he was like that everyday. I have only seen three or four of that level and one of them was Ven. Ñāṇavimala. Their lives were similar in how they traveled by foot and their practices regarding food and meditation. They never found fault with others or got angry. Monks like that are very few.

The qualities of patience, compassion, humility and other virtues were the best things about Ven. Ñāṇavimala. These were at the highest level. My faith grew from seeing these qualities in him. His behaviour was always consistent and there was always something to learn from him. There was nothing put on. There was no conceit or hurried behaviour and I never witnessed a day when he clashed with anyone. Possessing such high qualities, even the devas would have taken notice of him. It could be said that his virtues protected him, for example, when he walked through jungles where there were wild animals such as elephants and leopards and no harm ever befell him.

One could honestly say that this person was definitely on the way to nibbāna (liberation). There was clearly no doubt about it!