Bhante’s Advice’ has been compiled from handwritten notes I made after meetings with Ven. Ñāṇavimala at Vajirarama Temple, Colombo in the early 1980’s. In 1991, the notes were typed up at Amaravati Monastery in England and distributed to some branch monasteries.
I was ordained in Thailand in early 1977 and relocated to Sri Lanka at the end of 1978. The first I heard of Bhante Ñāṇavimala was in 1979 when I was residing at Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa. The abbot, Ven. Piyaratana, announced Bhante had arrived on the island and would be staying a few days before continuing on cārikā (walking tour). At the midday meal, I and Ven. Visuddhācāra (compatriot Australian monk), paid respects to Bhante, who agreed to meet us in the eating hall at 3 pm that day. We arrived at the eating hall just after three, only to learn that Bhante had already left. This could be considered a first teaching from Bhante. It doesn’t pay to be unpunctual when meeting a senior monk! After all, we had only been in robes two and one years, respectively. At evening chanting, we had the opportunity to apologize to Bhante, and he kindly agreed to meet us again the next day. For that meeting, we arrived well ahead of time! I can’t remember what Bhante said during the meeting, but I am sure it would have been excellent dhamma (teaching).
I lived at Island Hermitage for twelve months and Bhante visited again during this period. On that occasion, he was in silent retreat mode. When I had opportunity to visit his kuṭi (monastic hut) to deliver some requisites, I remember the path to the kuṭi had been swept very methodically, as was the entire enclosure. Everything about Bhante was meticulous - his robes, his requisites and his dwelling place. He conveyed an air of minimalism, a result of decades of mindfulness practice. An example of this was told to me by another senior western monk: when Bhante was on cārikā he was known never to have left any belongings behind at the places he stayed.
Where I met Bhante most often was at Vajirarama in Colombo. This seemed to be his base in the eighties. At Vajirarama, he stored a few requisites and some handwritten dhamma notes. Also at Vajirarama, he had a mentor in Ven. Kheminda, a very learned senior Sri Lankan monk. I regularly saw them engrossed in dhamma conversation on the wide verandah outside Ven. Kheminda’s room. I’d heard that in earlier years, when more able bodied, Bhante would travel the length and breadth of Sri Lanka on his walking tours. Later on, the duration and distance of his walking tours was increasingly less, and so he more frequently passed through Colombo.
Constant cārikā can be hard on the body and I wondered if decades of subsisting on alms food in very poor regions of Sri Lanka had been one of the conditions for Bhante’s deteriorating health in his later years. If so, I don’t think it would be an issue for Bhante who cultivated a mind strong enough to overcome all obstacles.
Bhante advocated aloofness and that was his general persona. Once, I met him at Vavulagala Arañña, Imaduwa, and when we were washing our alms bowls after lunch, his parting words were ‘keep aloof’. It took many years for me to fully appreciate the depth of this instruction. On another occasion, Bhante told me not to worry about learning to speak Sinhala. He said if a Western monk speaks Sinhala too well, he will regularly be requested to give sermons, which would be a distraction for practice. Some Western monks told me that there was also an ‘abrasive’ aspect to Bhante’s personality. I didn’t experience this, but Visuddhācāra mentions it in the following account.
“I resided at Vajirarama on occasions when Bhante Ñāṇavimala was also in residence. I had the privilege of being in his presence and listening to his dhamma instructions. On one occasion, I experienced another side of his dhamma (nature). This was when I had just finished bathing in one of the bath cubicles at Vajirarama and the soap in that bath cubicle was finished. I saw Bhante Ñāṇavimala mindfully headed for that same cubicle, so I went to my room and retrieved a bar of soap and proceeded in haste to the bathing house. Bhante had already entered the cubicle and locked the door. I politely knocked on the door, he opened and I offered the soap, but he was obviously not impressed with my intrusion, and refused the soap in the coldest manner. That day I felt I had interrupted the Buddha himself as he was about to enter Nibbāna (cessation of suffering)!
On a later occasion, when I had more maturity as a monk, I had a wonderful session listening to Bhante talk in his room at Vajirarama. He emphasized how to get over some of the difficulties of the monk’s life by being practical with your chores and reflecting on the reason we have to do sweeping and cleaning, ‘It’s because of aniccatā that I have to do this again’.”
Bhante didn’t encourage or aspire to having students. However, he was very generous in sharing dhamma. When I asked to speak with him, he always made himself available for meetings in his room. After I paid respects, he would ask a few questions about my well-being and what I had been doing, much in the mode of the Buddha who would exchange convivial greetings before instructing in dhamma. Bhante presented teachings in a structured manner with a recurring theme of the gradual training based on morality, mindfulness and contemplation. During these sessions, he constantly smiled, beaming mettā (loving-kindness). The session would typically end with Bhante saying, 'well then, get on with it'.
One time, I asked Bhante if I could discuss a personal problem with him. He declined, instead suggesting I discuss it with a kalyāṇamitta (spiritual friend). On a couple of occasions at Vajirarama, when Bhante learned that I was ill, he came to my room concerned about my welfare, and offered me some fine foods he had received on his alms round.
Bhante Ñāṇavimala’s focus on the path was unwavering, nothing distracted him from the practice of mindfulness. He had no interest or concern about any worldly matters whatsoever. He lived and breathed nothing but Dhamma. For this reason, he was an incredibly inspiring role model. Indeed, it was a great blessing to meet such a practitioner in this life.
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The Buddha-dhamma (teaching of the Awakened One) is different to the Hindu system which builds up a world of happiness and bliss. Dhamma points to that which is dukkha (inherent suffering of existence). One has to be independent of all externals in following the dhamma. One’s happiness is not in high meditation states as these can just be a further object of clinging and also disappointment. One’s happiness is in following dhamma, the knowledge that each day one has not given in to one’s desires and aversions and one is keeping one’s mind pure. One has to learn not to delight in anything because all experiences last but a moment and can’t be kept.
There is a danger in a well-kept arañña (forest monastery). One delights in having a nice kuṭi, (monk’s hut) seclusion and certain foods. Then there is aversion when these conditions fall away. Monks in the Buddha’s time lived in the forest, dependent on piṇḍapāta (alms round). They had illnesses to contend with, just as we do, but learned to accept whatever arose. We have to develop detachment no matter what the externals are. All externals are conditioned and forever changing. One depends on one’s past kamma (actions). We have to be careful to take care of our body, but we should not store up conditions for a new one. It will be sick, decay and die just as this one does.
Learn to live in the present. Making plans troubles the mind. Live with whatever arises. Turn away from everything. Develop nibbidā (dispassion) from day to day – we have to develop this from the beginning – to learn to delight in solitude – if one is to die alone, one has to learn to live alone. Study, stay in a suitable place under a teacher. Do not break Vinaya (code of monastic discipline) for whatever reason. Don’t make arrangements with dāyakas (supporters). One doesn’t even have to talk with them. One just has to concentrate on becoming a puññakkhettaṁ (field of merit). Communications, letters, etc. are just a further bond and do not help to free one. Simplify one’s possessions so that they are no weight on the mind. There is less trouble for Vinaya practice if one has only three robes, no shoes and does not accept invitations etc.
Happiness comes from following the dhamma. Learn to see defilements as impermanent, not yours, and they won’t be so troublesome. If one can’t do bhāvanā (meditation) as one would wish, then just accept it – that is the way things are. One has to be independent of everything external to oneself. In the first five years, learn to accept whatever conditions prevail – and see to one’s duties between teacher and pupil properly. If one is training properly, one should be able to be independent of the teacher after those five years. There is a danger in solitude wrongly grasped, if one is unhappy or happy to receive visitors, or if one is unhappy or happy not to receive visitors, learn to see that all these mental states as dukkha.
The bhikkhu (monk) should just look to the present. One has broken with one’s past, family and friends. Why renew old fetters or take on new ones? Don’t go back to what one has renounced already. Thoughts about the future, expectations, ‘what will I experience?’, etc. are all motivated by unwholesomeness, by craving. One should just aim to have a pleasant state of mind in the present, without greed, hatred or delusion. This can only condition pleasant states in the future. One can do no more than that.
A bhikkhu should not have a mind of depression, dejection or disappointment. Having learnt Buddha’s dhamma, we have to apply it. Having come to this state, being a bhikkhu, don’t go back to the past. If you are in a suitable place with a teacher, seclusion etc., don’t go craving to be anywhere else or do anything else. Study the dhamma and follow it. Nothing else will give happiness. One has to give up the comforts of food and lodgings. This is helpful to see dukkha. Don’t seek happiness connected with this world. Seek happiness of the mind secluded from defilements.
It is important to have sukha (happiness) in this bhikkhu life. Without sukha one cannot develop bhāvanā. Count one’s blessings, that one has come so far to the bhikkhu state and has the opportunity to get on in the dhamma. Feel happy even when one sits down to read the dhamma in Pāli.
When learning a language one initially learns the grammar and has to continually refer to the dictionary for every word to get the sentence meaning. Later on, with practice, one can know the meaning of whole sentences. So it is with various dhammasaññā (perceptions according to reality). One is continually taken in by objects until one practises enough. Then one immediately sees the object’s inherent nature as asubha (bodily unattractiveness) anicca (impermanence), anattā (not self) or dukkha (suffering).
Living in solitude in the forest is very good because one feels close to the Buddha and his early disciples. Having had the good kamma to live in such conditions, one has to reflect wisely and strive while one is young. Soon one will be old and not able to practise in the same way. If any internal disturbances arise, don’t neglect to consult with a kalyāṇamitta. Sometimes things are locked up inside and it needs discussion to bring it out.
Keep contemplating the dangers of the kāmaloka (sense realm) and kāmasukha (sensual happiness). Even if just the thought of a girl arises, contemplate the unattractive nature of the form you desire. If strong urges arise (not unusual when one is living alone trying to do bhāvanā), practise caṅkamana (walking meditation) or do some work to put them away. Make sure to avoid falling into a heavy offence.
Everything is affliction and one has to learn to delight in nothing. But in the beginning one has to delight in one’s meditation, being wary of attachment to it. Unless nekkhamma, renunciation of kāmārammaṇa (sensual objects), is developed, one will not be able to give up this loka (world). In meditation, don’t try to develop nimittas (signs) as the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) says, but rather see that the mind is free from nīvaraṇa (hindrances). One can then delight in the purity of mind that comes from jhāna (absorption). Jhāna is that samādhi (concentration) that has no connection with this loka.
One aspect of dukkha is that one can’t expect to stay in one place forever and when one seeks a new senāsana (lodging place), one can’t expect to find a suitable place.
Don’t try for quick results. Having dedicated one’s life to Buddha-dhamma, just keep practising. Don’t hold on to any experiences, nimittas etc. as being attainments. Don’t try to force the length of sittings. Use mettā (loving-kindness) to calm the mind before ānāpānasati (mindfulness of breathing). If the mind is too distracted, recite gāthā (verses) or practise caṅkamana. One should use all the different kammaṭṭhāna (meditation objects) to combat the different defilements when they arise. Mettā is the easiest meditation from which to gain great happiness.
The monk’s life is one of restricted activities in order that one can contemplate dukkha. Sweep around one’s kuṭi carefully or spend time cleaning one’s room mindfully. One can contemplate anicca in fallen leaves and suññatā (voidness) in one’s empty room. One should respect and be very careful when using Saṅgha (monastic community) property.
In the first years, there must be solitude and the chance for complete application to practice so that one can fulfil indriyasaṁvara (sense restraint) and also to leave nothing incomplete in one’s Vinaya training and duties to one’s teacher. One’s present residence is a result of one’s kamma, so one has to work out ways and means to overcome one’s problems.
In the village one should avoid non-dhamma talk, although girls can possibly be instructed in the dhamma. It is good to recite selections about mātugāmā (women) and asubha because then it sticks in one’s mind. See the asubha in the outer form: hair, bodily hair, nails, teeth and skin etc. Get the asubhanimitta (sign of the unattractive) in one’s mind. When one has practised for a while one can look at women, but if rāga (passion) arises, just do internal contemplation until asubha is developed. It is difficult not to look at or speak to women, but one should try to keep all one’s attention on one’s practice. It is good from time to time to have periods of non-speaking.
This body has been conditioned through innumerable lives with sex urges being a major cause. Anusayas (underlying tendencies) are very difficult to put away, especially when one is young. Seeing women just nourishes rāgānusaya (underlying tendency to passion). This body is enough trouble and dukkha. Why do you want more trouble? Most actions in life are just to keep this body going. It needs physical supports and nutrition, and thus we can’t avoid contact with women, ‘yaṁ kiñci dukkhaṁ sambhoti, sabbaṁ āhārapaccaya’ (whatever suffering arises, all of it is due to nutriment).
The body never stops giving trouble. Even if one sits in deep meditation for five or six hours, it seems like only a couple of minutes and then one is back to the dukkha of the body again. Thus, one has to continually contemplate anicca and see that no experiences can be clung to. Aniccasaññā is begun in a general way, i.e. seeing that one has to keep repeating the same processes of living day by day – all for what? Later on this contemplation will become more specialized, e.g. seeing the rise and fall of the breath.
When there is strong bodily pain, lie flat on one’s back, really relax and view one’s body from above. Recognize pain when it arises. Just accept it, see how it comes and goes, different intensities at different times. See it as anicca, dukkha, anattā. If there’s too much pain for ānāpānasati, go to a meditation one has previously developed in order to make one’s mind happy, e.g. mettā or Buddhānussati (recollection of the Buddha). Then go back to the breath. Have a whole range of meditations to combat certain defilements as they arise.
The Saṅgha is in decline, so one has to make the effort oneself. As long as one is making the effort, paṭisota (against the stream), one is doing the proper thing as a member of the Saṅgha. Even if the whole Saṅgha is corrupt, one knows at least one person is making the effort.
One should be a fighter of defilements. Even if it kills one, one has to make good conditions for one’s rebirth. If one just goes the way of one’s desires, one cannot say where one will be reborn. Each day, one should reflect if any defilements have arisen which would be obstacles if one were to die. If there has been, one should determine that these obstacles will not arise tomorrow. One must continually examine the mind to see that craving is not arising.
When studying, read the suttas (discourses) and select the most useful parts for practice. It is not helpful to just read and read because one tends to forget. Collect useful sections under headings. Study and recitation are means only and are useful at certain times. Practice is most important. Study can become just another ‘piyarūpaṁ sātarūpaṁ’ (dear and pleasing form), a condition for clinging. Concern with words can take one in the wrong directions, one may become a scholar. Going towards the ‘true idea’, one turns away from the ‘sign’. Going to the ‘sign’, one goes away from the ‘true idea’. Recitation is very useful to combat thīnamiddha (sloth and torpor), a great danger when one is living alone). Contemplating the dhamma awakens the mind.
Sīla is the basis and should be kept perfectly. If there are occasional light transgressions of the Pāṭimokkha (major disciplinary rules), these can be rectified. Pāṭimokkha is only to do with speech and body, but the ten kammapatha (ways of action) should be kept perfectly. Mind is most important to look after, because then one’s speech and bodily actions will fall into line. Don’t let Vinaya become a ‘bugbear’. Differences in practice between monks are not so important. If practice is not clung to and one is firm in it, that is okay.
It is difficult when one is young to go out alone. I wouldn’t advise cārikā at all because one meets so many things, one is continually confronted with sense objects. Before setting out, one must be established in asubhasaññā and aniccasaññā (the perceptions of unattractiveness and impermanence). On cārikā, one must consider whether the mind is developing well and whether one is affected by the various objects. If so, one should return to solitude. One’s satipaṭṭhāna (applications of mindfulness) practice during the day should be strong. In solitude one may feel that some obstacles have been eliminated, but on cārikā, new ones can arise. Having seen one’s problems, one should then try to overcome them. When on cārikā, one should announce from where you come from and one’s teacher etc. when one arrives at a temple. Do vandanā (pay respects) even to bad monks as one is then paying respects to the Saṅgha. If one hasn’t been given nissayavimutti (release from dependence), one should live near a teacher.
Don’t be overly concerned with food or the body. The body is not yours, so why cling to it? Don’t be making arrangements with dāyakas etc. Learn to avoid this from the beginning. Avoid special dānas (meal offerings). Develop detachment. Eat mindfully, considering what it is for. Don’t let defilements grow. If on piṇḍapāta, one gets a lot, a little, or nothing at all, develop detachment just the same. Bless those houses even where one does not receive food. One should not wait too long and only a short time in front of shops to see if there is spontaneous giving.
If one thinks one has realized some attainment, don’t even announce it to oneself. It can hinder progress and strengthen asmimāna (the conceit ‘I am’). Time will tell whether one has attained this or that. Remember the simile of the adze handle – if ones looks every day one can’t see the wearing away of mental impurities - only over time, through constant practice, one can see this.