Unforgettable Experience of Attending on Ven. Ñāṇavimala
Ven. Pannipitiye Upasama and Nimal Sonnadara
I thought of writing the details of our memories, how it all began, and the experiences we had with the most Venerable Ñāṇavimala. In this writing, Buveneka Wijetilaka is the lay name of Venerable Pannipitiye Upasama and my name is Nimal Sonnadara. Until Buveneka was ordained, our meetings with Ven. Ñāṇavimala mostly overlap, so the description presented here is from both of us, and with the permission of Ven. Upasama. Ven. Upasama has collected some short Dhamma teachings as well which he heard from Ven. Ñāṇavimala.
We first happened to visit Island Hermitage (Polgasduwa), where Ven. Ñāṇavimala lived, with Ven. Vipassī, a British monk we met at Ratnagiri Buddhist Monastery, Harnham, England. Ven. Vipassī spoke highly about Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s presentation of Dhamma regarding mental development, e.g. jhāna (absorption). That day, we couldn’t meet Ven. Ñāṇavimala as, after taking his one meal a day, he retired to his kuṭi (hut) for the rest of the day.
We had an opportunity to see him when we visited Island Hermitage next time to engage in some voluntary work requested by the then abbot Ven. Rakkhita. I think we stayed two nights. It was unforgettable. At 6:00 am Ven. Ñāṇavimala was taking his seat in the dining hall (dānasālā) and four of us went straight to him to pay our respects. The blessings we received were well concentrated and directed towards us. After the breakfast, he sat on the front verandah and we approached him and had a brief discussion. He asked, ‘Do you meditate?’ He gave some suttas for us to read and went on ‘You can use the library and it may be you can get help from the Saṅgha.’ What we gathered at the end was that one has to put in effort or else, ‘Nobody can help you’.
The next encounter we had was when we had to fix the cistern in his toilet. We saw him meditating and he gave no attention at all to the disturbance which came from our work. Finishing the day’s work, we went to pay respects, and it was particular with him that he blessed us mindfully and mentioned that this work was done for the Mahā Saṅgha.
As we were marine engineers we went back to sea for some time to engage in our work. I received a letter from Buveneka that he was back in Sri Lanka and had the opportunity to look after Ven. Ñāṇavimala, who was then at Vajirarama, Bambalapitiya. He asked me to also take the opportunity to look after Bhante. Thus I got the opportunity to care for him with the guidance of Ven. Mettāvihārī.
Buveneka told me that a dāyaka (lay supporter) had provided a paid attendant for Ven. Ñāṇavimala. When Bhante came to know about this, he insisted that a paid worker should not look after him as it is against the sāsana paṭipadā (accepted practice of the Buddha) and it would be better for him be at a hospital where no payment is required). Buveneka then offered to look after Ven. Ñāṇavimala instead of the paid worker and that’s how the foundation was laid for Buveneka to start his life with Ven. Ñāṇavimala.
As well as Buveneka and myself, there was Kshanaka also looking after Ven. Ñāṇavimala at Vajirarama whenever he could. He used to go to work at the office in the morning and then spend the evening attending to Ven. Ñāṇavimala. On his off days, he would attend for the full day.
Bhante occupied a spacious room at Vajirarama, but the neighbourhood adjacent to the temple premises was noisy and smoky due to a hotel kitchen. We felt another venue would have been more suitable, although Ven. Ñāṇavimala made no comment whatsoever. Buveneka and Ven. Mettāvihārī were looking for a place in the country where Bhante could be accommodated for a longer period.
Later, Bhante spent one vassāna (rains retreat) at Hindagala Dhammakuta near Kandy where Buveneka was present to care for him towards the end of that period. Ven. Ñāṇavimala had one eye operated on for cataract in 1997. In January 1998, he got the other eye operated on for cataract. He was thereafter in Bowalawatte Forest Hermitage, which was affiliated with Vajirarama, and during his stay there was cared for fully by Buveneka.
In 1998, for the rains retreat, we took Ven. Ñāṇavimala to Island Hermitage and Buveneka and I looked after him. I remember an unforgettable experience with Ven. Ñāṇavimala on the Kaṭhina Day in 1998. In the morning he felt a little unusual and refused to take food, only a spoonful of water being accepted. He stayed in bed as if he was in a coma from 9:30 am to 3 pm. After that he said he was okay. I asked ‘What were you doing during that time?’ and he replied he was observing his mind. This gave us a hint that the trained mind could do miracles when one’s health is in crisis.
On the open verandah of a kuṭi overlooking the lagoon of Ratgama, Bhante was seated in a reclining chair. He asked me, ‘Can you see the far end of the lagoon?’ It looked really beautiful with the borders of coconut trees etc. Then he continued, ‘although all the things of the scenery looked really beautiful, among what you see are the houses in which people are living. These people could never escape old age, sickness and death. So one should not be pleased or displeased about what you see, and you should not cling to it.’
Ven. Ñāṇavimala always stressed the importance of piṇḍapāta (walking for almsround). In 1999, Kshanaka was ordained and became Ven. Ñāṇāloka of Bambalapitiya. At that time, Parappaduwa Island (the nun's island) was vacant. Buveneka suggested that Ven. Ñāṇavimala move to Parappaduwa along with the newly ordained Ven. Ñāṇāloka. There, they could have the practice of piṇḍapāta (almsround), as at Island Hermitage, the lay supporters brought alms (dāna) daily. With the support of many lay people, we soon got Parappaduwa Island ready with a couple of kuṭis with the surrounding suitable enough for Ven. Ñāṇavimala. We shifted then from Island Hermitage and the piṇḍapāta practice was started.
The dāna was entirely supported from piṇḍapāta by Ven. Ñāṇāloka, and Buveneka went behind as an assistant lay supporter observing ten precepts. Once, when Buveneka was away to settle things at home for a few days, I also had the opportunity to walk behind Ven. Ñāṇāloka on almsround as a lay supporter observing the precepts. Those memories were unforgettable. This happened for many years till Ven. Ñāṇāloka got permission from Ven. Ñāṇavimala to go on cārikā (wandering). By that time, Buveneka was also ordained and the piṇḍapāta practice went on uninterrupted.
For some time Ven. Ñāṇavimala was given Stugeron (antihistamine) and Cardiprin (aspirin) tablets as a life support drug because he had long experienced blackouts. Then, he suggested that as a monk living on piṇḍapāta, he should abstain from taking this medicine and stressed that giving up taking the tablets would have no effect on him. So we stopped giving him any medicine and he was healthy till the last day proving his words were right.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s Early Life
Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s lay name was Friedrich Möller and he lived in the village, Rinteln (about ten houses), four miles from Hessendorf (about sixteen houses). This town is now called New Hessendorf and is 50-60 miles from Hannover. His father was Karl Möller and his mother’s name was Charlotte. His sister, Lina was married to Friedrich Meier and he had a brother who was killed in a nearby village. Also, he had a younger stepbrother named Karl.
He liked athletics and the vertical and horizontal bars in gymnastics. He was injured when he was swimming and got an infected leg. He also took part in the 1936 Olympic March, where he attended the speeches of Adolf Hitler. He mentioned that the speeches had authority and his actions drew the youth towards him.
Sometimes we used to ask about his childhood. He mentioned that he did not like the work in a farm as there was animosity towards animals and he stated as a child that this was not his place. His mother used to say to him, ‘What would happen to you when you grow up without knowing the farm work?’ One day he was asked to slaughter a chicken. He recalled the experience as devastating and he determined not to do it again.
After World War I, he saw the wounded and destitute coming to his village looking for food. There was so much suffering. He told me of a person known to him saying that he had nothing to worry about as he was a wealthy owner of an insurance company. But after the war he lost everything and was on the road like everyone else. His teacher, who was serving in the Army, went to help a wounded enemy soldier and was shot in the eye while bringing him water. He suffered a lot and was in agony with the pain. So the teacher asked him not to join the Army and even suggested his parents encourage him in his studies.
He happened to come across the Bhagavad Gīta (a Hindu religious text) and this appealed to him as it encouraged compassion, similar to what he practiced on the farm toward animals. As a child he liked the Army uniform (probably because of past lives inclination). He also liked to be in the woods alone and he had migraine headaches from childhood.
He once had a distant friendship with a girlfriend. When she intended to strengthen this friendship by introducing him to her parents, he explained that his inclination was to lead a spiritual life and he wished for her that she would meet a partner, which indeed happened later on.
Past Lives and Karma
One day Bhante said that in the past, not only did he perform wholesome activities, but unwholesome ones as well. He was having migraine headaches even after becoming a monk, and wanted to know the cause. He told me that after a deep meditation, he realized what had happened in the past to make him suffer so much from migraine: during the time of the Crusades, he was a German soldier and there was a battle with the Romans in a German village. One Roman soldier, short in height, approached him and he gave a blow to his head with the club which killed him.
Then in the life after, he was in the Army again and this time he fell from the horse he was riding and had injuries. He could remember lying down, near a monument, taking his last breath and thinking, ‘Why did all this happen to me and why did I join the Army?’ He then passed away, as did his horse.
In another life, he remembered he was in a church during a battle. Fire surrounded the church and he could not get out. Through the window he saw the bell ringer jumping from the tower. He too jumped out, was injured and died. Afterwards he became a ghost, and whilst roaming around he saw the villagers coming to put the fire out. They saw him as a ghost. He was shy and slipped away to another place where he met a friend who was also a ghost and they had this brief conversation, ‘Ah! You are here?’ ‘Yes I am also here.’
In a recent previous life, he remembered he was a farmer and was arranging hay at a high place in a barn. He fell and had a serious head injury and, as he was taking his last breath, he saw his two children and wife weeping and crying. He mentioned that the sight was devastating.
So it shows after the first incident of killing the Roman soldier, in his following lives he always had head injuries or died, and in this life he suffered from migraine headaches.
He mentioned he faintly remembers in one life he was writing books, probably Dhamma books, and in another life he was going on piṇḍapāta, but was not sure whether it was in Lord Buddha’s time.
He repeated these incidents a few times when we were looking after him, and each time the details were the same. There wasn’t any variance which may have resulted from decaying memory.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala related an incident that occurred during the Tamil insurgency in the early 1970’s. Whilst walking on cārikā along a forested stretch of the Habarana Road, he was surrounded by insurgents suspecting him of being a spy. Threatening death, they took him into the forest. Knowing he would be shot at any moment, Ven. Ñāṇavimala requested that he be given a few moments to prepare his mind for the situation. He sat on a nearby rock and told them he would raise one arm to indicate when he was ready. Ven. Ñāṇavimala closed his eyes, went into meditation and then raised his arm. A few minutes passed and nothing happened. He opened his eyes to see nobody around. Then, he continued on his cārikā again.
Once, whilst on alms round, Bhante noticed there was an unused home with no occupants and an unkempt garden. On another day, the house was not empty and he was invited for dāna (almsfood). He was treated well and the place was very clean. But, to his surprise, in the coming days this house was exactly the same as before with no trace of ever being cleaned. Ven. Ñāṇavimala considered this event was organized, not by humans, but by devas (celestial beings).
This is an incident related by Mr Asoka de Silva: on one occasion he was having a Dhamma discussion with Ven. Ñāṇavimala in his room at Vajirarama. The discussion continued till dark and when it was finished, he came out of the room and met people outside who had seen coloured lights moving in and out of the room whilst the Dhamma discussion was taking place. Mr de Silva believed these lights were devas. On another occasion, my brother saw two large crimson balls descending outside Bhante’s room at Island Hermitage making the entire area bright. I thought they were perhaps devas.
Once I asked Ven. Ñāṇavimala, ‘Sir, have you crossed the river?’ (I meant had he achieved an attainment and become an Ariya Puggala, a Noble Person). He gave a sharp look and did not answer. I even mentioned that when I was ten or eleven years old, after offering flowers to Lord Buddha, I made a wish to meet monks who had become Ariya Puggala. A day after Ven. Ñāṇavimala casually told me only a Sammāsambuddha (Fully Awakened One) could accurately make statements about their attainments, and others could easily make misjudgements about themselves.
When Bhante Yogāvacāra Rāhula (an American monk) met with Ven. Ñāṇavimala, I heard Ven. Ñāṇavimala asking him, ‘What were your intentions in becoming a monk?’ After they discussed some more, I heard Ven. Ñāṇavimala say, ‘I can tell you my experience is that my mind now does not cling to anything in this world’.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala pointed out that one scholarly monk who had translated suttas and was well versed in the texts, asked, ‘Now, what am I to do next?’ Bhante explained that even when one has knowledge of the Dhamma, but does not truly practice, this can lead to a state of puzzlement. He witnessed some well-known monks who were very good in preaching but who had very poor mental states at the moment of death due to their lack of practice.
Bhante did not favour milk foods, Sustagen or any special foods or supplements, and had the practice of skipping meals completely some days, especially on Poya days. He mentioned the best drink was water.
Although Parappaduwa Island was supposed to be inhabited by reptiles we had never seen any snakes. A week before Ven. Ñāṇavimala passed away, a snake started to roam around outside his room. Ven. Upasama saw that this snake was trying to peep through the window of Bhante’s room.
He asked us to look at his aging body and said, ‘you are looking at your future’. He also said, ‘I was a Christian and from a different country and language, but you are born Buddhists with no language problems. What have you gained by being born Buddhists in this country compared to me?’
I remember when Ven. Ñāṇavimala was getting closer to his last days, he said he could hardly speak now and mentioned this is what is called jarā dukkha, suffering from old age. When we paid respect, he continued to bless us, his lips moved in the usual manner though the voice was hardly present. He also made a comment that the engineers (we were marine engineers) should stop, ‘singing’, i.e. indulging in worldly affairs, and direct their minds to Nibbāna after this experience.
Towards the end, Ven. Upasama sought Bhante’s permission for him to receive medical support and was refused. Ven. Ñāṇavimala said he was quite capable and confident of handling his last moments. Bhante was on a liquid diet, then he wanted to be on water for few days, and at last even that was given up for the last three days. He only needed our help to turn his body over in the bed sometimes.
Half an hour before he passed away, Ven. Upasama was at his bedside continuously. Ven. Ñāṇavimala got himself prepared for the last minute by feeling his arms and fingers then cleared his ears, pushed up his chin and pulled up his robe to cover his chest, then kept both the arms resting on the chest as if he was ready. Ven. Upasama happened to look at Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s face and saw him expel his last breath peacefully. How fortunate would it be to face the last moment in this fully controlled manner! May he have attained the highest bliss, Nibbāna!
A collection of short teachings Ven. Upasama heard from Ven. Ñāṇavimala: