Recollections of Venerable Ñāṇavimala
Rewritten transcript of an interview
I was ordained at Wat Bowon, Bangkok in 1976 as a bhikkhu (monk) and in 1975 as a sāmaṇera (novice monk) at Wat Phleng Vipassana, also in Bangkok. In 1979, I was invited to participate, along with some other foreign monks, in a Dhamma seminar and pilgrimage to Sri Lanka. During this trip, we managed to visit Nissarana Vanaya at Meetirigala. There we met Ven. Katukurunde Ñāṇananda and the abbot, Ven. Mātara Śrī Ñāṇārāma. It was a very beautiful forest monastery and I could see that the Sri Lankan monks there were very dedicated to their meditation. But also, they were quite learned. What attracted me was the combination of sutta study with the meditation practice. I returned to Thailand and then in 1980, arranged to spend my fifth vassa in Sri Lanka. I had permission from my upajjhāya (preceptor), Somdet Ñāṇasaṁvara, the abbot of Wat Bowon to go to Sri Lanka. After the 1980 vassa at Island Hermitage, I got the opportunity to go to Nissarana Vanaya and that became the base for my stay in Sri Lanka for several years.
When we used to go to Colombo, we stayed at a study temple called Vajirarama. The abbot at that time was Ven. Nārada. It was still quite a beautiful place to stay in the suburb of Bambalapitiya as that area was not yet so commercialized. It was mainly just residential houses which made it easy for piṇḍapāta (almsround) practice. It was the seat of the Sri Dharmarakshita Nikāya (a sub sect of the Amarapura Nikāya), which was also the Nikāya that Island Hermitage belonged to. So monks at Island Hermitage had ordained through Vajirarama. This was also the place where Bhante Ñāṇavimala used to come whenever he stayed in Colombo.
I’d heard about Bhante Ñāṇavimala from some of the senior foreign monks in Sri Lanka such as Ven. Ñāṇaramita. In Sri Lanka, I had a lot of regard for foreign monks who were senior to myself. Sri Lanka was a place where we could still find this lineage of senior Western monks. Ven. Ñāṇapoṇika was still alive in Kandy. He must have been about 80 years old at that time. I think Ven. Ñāṇavimala was the most senior monk after Ven. Ñāṇapoṇika and he had quite a reputation. As young Western monks, we need senior monks to look up to, especially, senior Western monks.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala showed the more practical aspect of the monk’s life. He lived a wandering life outside the vassa. Only during the vassa did he find a suitable place to stay. Apart from that, he had the reputation of only staying three nights in any particular place. As he was walking, then obviously, he would have stayed longer at places he liked. I understand there was one arañña at Polpitigama, Kurunegala where he liked to stay. Ven. Ñāṇavimala was a German monk, and he was very austere and spent his time on cārikā (walking tour). Because of his lifestyle and the different stories we heard about him, we were very impressed. This made him a good role model to look up to.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala, from what we heard of him had spent ten years continuously at Island Hermitage. I don’t know if he did leave the island at that time. If he did, it was for only very short periods. Ven. Ñāṇavimala was very fortunate to have the company of Ven. Ñāṇamoli and some of the other very learned and inspiring monks from the Vajirarama tradition. These included Ven. Soma, who was a Tamil monk, and Ven. Kheminda who was a very close associate of Ven. Ñāṇavimala. Ven. Kheminda was someone that Ven. Ñāṇavimala looked up to and was very bright and healthy in those days at Vajirarama. Ven. Ñāṇavimala therefore had the company of some of these learned, very sincere, monks for ten years at Island Hermitage before he started his wandering career. Occasionally, he would return to Island Hermitage for visits.
I would have first met Ven. Ñāṇavimala when he called into Vajirarama on his walking tours in 1981 or 1982. He struck one as someone who was very self-contained. He had exceptional saṁvara (restraint) and he was extremely serious. By being restrained, I mean to say that he didn’t enter into conversation easily or readily with those around him; the way he walked was very restrained – he wasn’t looking here and there; he had very few possessions because he was walking and carrying everything with him. He only had his bowl and a carrying bag in which had his basic requisites – it was extremely light.
Every day he would go piṇḍapāta to the houses around Vajirarama in Bambalapitiya. There was one particular room where he tended to stay when he was at Vajirarama. It was quite a large room, self-contained with its own toilet and bathroom. When he entered the room, you didn’t see much of him as he tended to stay inside most of the time. But every day he would come out and he would have Dhamma discussion with Ven. Kheminda, either inside Ven. Kheminda’s room or on the walkway outside the room.
If I was at Vajirarama, I would try to arrange to meet him. During introductions he would ask if you were a monk of more than five years, if you had freedom from nissaya (dependence on a teacher). For Ven. Ñāṇavimala this seemed to be one of the things that was important to him. He himself had spent his first ten years in Island Hermitage. Ven. Ñāṇavimala always took the position of being a teacher. It was never the situation of being a Dhamma discussion. Ven. Ñāṇavimala would be sitting in a chair and I would be sitting on the floor. There was always that big difference in vassa and seniority.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala had certain suttas from the Majjhima Nikāya which he liked very much – which he thought younger monks should study for training. For example the Gopaka Moggallāna Sutta (MN 108), a step by step training of a young monk – such things as the Dantabhūmi Sutta (MN 125), again a step by step training. Ven. Ñāṇavimala very much emphasised the need for good sīla (precepts), sense restraint, Pātimokkha (monastic code) rules, the need for sati-sampajañña (mindfulness and comprehension), the need to try to overcome the five hindrances and developing the four satipaṭṭhāna (applications of mindfulness).
He would talk more about the standardized gradual training in the discourses. Ven. Ñāṇavimala had a very strong, conservative, traditional understanding towards Dhamma and sīla. Traditional here means the sutta base – that was his background. I am not sure how much he relied on the commentaries. Ven. Ñāṇavimala belonged to this small group of monks who believed that jhāna (meditative absorption) was necessary for progress in Dhamma – they were not very sympathetic towards the Mahasi tradition. The Vajirarama Theras Soma, Kheminda and Kassapa took a really strong stand against the Mahasi tradition. Whereas, Ven. Ñāṇapoṇika was part of the Vajirarama tradition, but was more a supporter of the Mahasi tradition. Even though Ven. Ñāṇavimala joined in Dhamma discussion with Ven. Kheminda, I think he liked certain suttas (discourses) and was more limited or rigid in terms of what he based his practice upon.
However, the knowledge I had of Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s actual practice, what he imparted to some of his Sinhalese disciples, was based on mindfulness and awareness of the six doorways. Of course, we can imagine when you are spending so much time walking on cārikā, it wouldn’t be possible to practise deep samatha (tranquillity) meditation. The emphasis was on mindfulness in everything, so no matter what activity he participated in, to keep in mind the kammaṭṭhāna (meditation object), and also an emphasis on the six doorways.
I think he is the only monk who has walked around Sri Lanka a number of times, so in some areas he walked, like the Muslim or Tamil areas, it is quite likely he didn’t get very much food at all on piṇḍapāta. But that would be insignificant for Ven. Ñāṇavimala, it would be just extra ‘food’ for practice. One of the tips we heard was that if piṇḍapāta in the village was not successful, he would sit down some place where people could see what he was doing. That was actually a condition for people to go to bring a bit more food to supplement the piṇḍapāta.
I think he tended to stay in the village temples on walking tour and would return to those temples that were suitable. In his routine he would walk in the morning, which would include walking for piṇḍapāta, and then some time in the afternoon, if he’d found a suitable place such as a pansala (village temple), he would stop for the night. So, he would walk only ten kilometres a day. I think he didn’t over walk. There is a tradition in Sri Lanka with the village temples that visiting monks can stay for three days. In many of the village temples, he probably would not like to stay any longer. I understand that when Ven. Ñāṇavimala, after arriving at the pansala and obtaining permission to stay and a room was given to him, then, basically he went inside the room and closed the door. I don’t know if he would have even received black sweet tea from the pansala because he would have been concerned about breaking Vinaya (monastic discipline) if it was purchased by monks (rather than offered by supporters).
We must remember that Ven. Ñāṇavimala was walking in the '60's, '70's and '80's. I think the temples have become more worldly since then. Vajirarama back in the early eighties was still a very pleasant place to stay, even though it was right in the city. Now everything has become developed in the Galle Road area – there are so many cars and everything has changed so much. I think when Ven. Ñāṇavimala was doing his walking, the pansalas were more peaceful.
From what Ven. Mettāvihārī told me, Ven. Ñāṇavimala could speak Sinhala, but his thick German accent made it difficult to understand him. When Ven. Mettāvihārī was still a layperson, he invited Ven. Ñāṇavimala to their home and Ven. Mettāvihārī’s Sri Lankan mother-in-law couldn’t understand the Dhamma talk Ven. Ñāṇavimala gave in Sinhalese. His Sinhala was fairly basic, but also his pronunciation was very difficult to understand. From my understanding, Ven. Ñāṇavimala didn’t like to get involved in conversations that were considered frivolous, thus his Sinhala was very basic – just sufficient to get around.
We heard various kinds of stories about Ven. Ñāṇavimala. For instance, he walked from Tissamaharama right through to Panama and Pottuvil on the other side (around 150km through difficult lands). He stayed in Kudumbigala Arañña at a time when there were no monks in residence and it was being looked after by Upāsaka Maitreya. There is a story about Ven. Ñāṇavimala staying in a cave there and how a bear came into the cave while he was sitting in meditation. But once the bear noticed him, it didn’t do anything and turned around and went outside.
There is one story I heard where Ven. Ñāṇavimala was on the east coast on walking tour and was staying at a small Wathuruwila meditation forest monastery (belonging to the Siam Nikāya forest sect). He was staying in the sīmā (the building for official Saṅgha acts) and when he was away from the sīmā, the abbot had a look at Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s possessions. The abbot found that everything Ven. Ñāṇavimala had was old and used or broken – even a thief would not like to steal anything.
Another story was about how free Ven. Ñāṇavimala could actually live. Once, I was at Vajirarama and Alec Robertson, this very eminent lay Dhamma teacher, was visiting, as he often used to. He said at one time he was coming into Vajirarama and met Ven. Ñāṇavimala who was setting out on his trip. Alec Robertson asked Ven. Ñāṇavimala if he was leaving. Ven. Ñāṇavimala said yes. Then Alec Robertson asked ‘Bhante, where are you going to go?’ Ven. Ñāṇavimala said ‘I decide when I get to the gate’. He hadn’t even made a decision until he got to the gate of the monastery whether he would turn left or right.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala was a solitary monk. It was very hard to get close to him. I think, in the ten years that he stayed on Island Hermitage when Ven. Ñāṇamoli was still alive, he tended to isolate himself from the other monks. From what I understand, Ven. Ñāṇavimala had a very conservative attitude. I was coming from a later generation which was more open-minded. But Ven. Ñāṇavimala would have kept himself apart from the more ‘hippy-ish’ personalities, the more open liberal truth-seekers who came to Island Hermitage at that time – there must have been many. Ven. Ñāṇavimala was what we would call very ‘straight’ – kind of narrow in personality. There was a kind of severity, not wanting to waste his time, not wanting to be frivolous, not wanting to become involved in meaningless talk. So that’s why he would have kept himself apart. He was so self-contained, he didn’t need to talk to others and this made him a little bit unapproachable.
Something that happened to me slightly changed my attitude to Ven. Ñāṇavimala. In 1984, I decided to go back to New Zealand as my mother had a stroke and my father had a by-pass operation and pacemaker fitted. My parents were too old and sick to visit me in Sri Lanka. The last time I had seen them was in 1973 in Australia when we spent a couple of days together. I hadn’t had a long meeting with my parents since 1970. I stayed in New Zealand till the end of 1984. I couldn’t take New Zealand anymore, so decided to come back to Asia. I was in Thailand on the way back to Sri Lanka when I heard that my mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, so I decided to go back to New Zealand for the 1985 vassa also, as I wasn’t sure how long my mother had to live she died toward the end of 1986. So after my mother died, I decided it was time to go back to Sri Lanka.
When I arrived in Sri Lanka, I stayed in Vajirarama at a time when Ven. Ñāṇavimala was resident. On piṇḍapāta that particular morning, as I was going down the street toward the main road there was an old beggar lady sitting in the door of a closed shop. She must have been well into her seventies and she showed a lot of faith toward me, with her hands in añjali (respectful salutation), as I walked past. On the piṇḍapāta, I received some food that was a little bit extra special. I passed the old lady on the way back and it crossed my mind that I wanted to give her a small portion of my piṇḍapāta food. I could hear someone walking behind me and this made me change my mind. Who knows, it could have been people who actually gave it to me? I thought I’d better not give food to this old lady even though I wanted to.
After going for piṇḍapāta, I went to see Ven. Ñāṇavimala. I explained to him how the last three years I was away from Sri Lanka and how I looked after my parents, etc., but I also explained I was able to keep my monk’s precepts during that time. Bhante Ñāṇavimala gave a little bit of a Dhamma talk to me. I brought this question up about the old lady to Ven. Ñāṇavimala. He changed and became kind of stern and he spoke to me in a very hard way saying ‘You went back to New Zealand just to indulge your senses, just to enjoy yourself, sāmaṇeras like you shouldn’t go piṇḍapāta. You should just keep your mind on the meditation object and take your meals in the dining hall (dānasālā)’. I was not a sāmaṇera, but a bhikkhu and for me, this was just so severe and insensitive. He said, ‘That’s enough now, you can go’. So I paid respects and left. This is a monk I thought very highly of, a role model, someone to inspire one in one’s monk life. I still saw him as a very wonderful monk, very sincere in his practice, but what this showed me was that he could be very insensitive.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala could be very conservative, very narrow and set in various ways. He couldn’t understand how anyone could go back to the West. For him, anyone who went back to the West only went to enjoy himself. He couldn’t appreciate how someone could have gone back to spend time with aged parents out of compassion and also to serve the Buddhist community. On another occasion I was present in Vajirarama when a Dutch monk went to see Ven. Ñāṇavimala. When Ven. Ñāṇavimala learned this monk had been back to the West, he severely admonished him about indulging in sensuality. Ven. Ñāṇavimala, we could see, had certain set views. This is what I mean about the rigidity and conservative attitudes in Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s mind. I think another thing here is Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s lack of ability to actually communicate with the other person. Ven. Ñāṇavimala was remote, it was almost like a person from a previous generation talking to one of a younger generation and the gap was just so wide.
I think Ven. Ñāṇavimala was a very sincere, upright, Western monk, so senior to us. Of the senior Western monks, Ven. Ñāṇavimala stood out as being very strict in terms of his Vinaya practice – very ascetic, having fewness of wishes, very restrained in every way. In his walking lifestyle and in other ways he embodied a number of austerities that was a very good role model for us.
Later on when Ven. Ñāṇavimala became infirm and had to be cared for, his attitude completely changed. I am not sure, but I think Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s walking tours ended in the early 1990s. I can remember when staying at Vajirarama in the early 90s that Ven. Piyadassi had met Ven. Ñāṇavimala at a temple in Ratnapura. Ven. Ñāṇavimala was heading off for Colombo – he was unwell and was having difficulty walking. Ven. Piyadassi offered to take Ven. Ñāṇavimala to Colombo by car, but Ven. Ñāṇavimala refused and walked. We were expecting him to come to Vajirarama – walking from Ratnapura would take a few days. But then we’d heard that he’d actually walked to the vihāra (temple) in Colombo hospital where there is a monk from Vajirarama in residence. When he got to the hospital, he was in an extremely sick condition with complete fatigue and exhaustion and he may even have been put in the intensive care unit. Also, he was beginning to have extreme difficulty with his hips. Basically, he wore out his hips from walking. A couple of years later, Ven. Ñāṇavimala spent some months at Vajirarama before permanently moving down to Island Hermitage.
I was staying in Vajirarama in the mid-nineties when Ven. Mettāvihārī was looking after Ven. Ñāṇavimala. At that time he had become so skinny, just like a bag of skin and bones. He could only take liquid foods. He was so sick that everyone thought he was going to die. Ven. Mettāvihārī used to help him walk one length of the room. This little bit of exercise was all he could accomplish. Even to turn in bed, he had to be assisted – he was just so weak. Ven. Mettāvihārī was very wonderful, the care he gave him during that time. When present, I was also helping a little bit. Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s character completely changed, he was helpless. Here was this person who had a very bright mind which actually showed a lot of love and patience. This was very different from the Ven. Ñāṇavimala that I saw previously – self-contained, austere.