Publication of A Buddhist Perspective on Pain, Stress and Illness

Since writing this I have moved all of Bhikkhu Sumedha’s teaching and paintings to a new site specially for his work, see: Bhikkhu Sumedha – His Teaching and Paintings

Bhikkhu Sumedha

Last year I mentioned that we were hoping to publish a book by the late Swiss monk Bhikkhu Sumedha this year, and now it has finally come out.

The book is based on the teachings he gave to the doctors, nurses and patients in the Peradeniya General Hospital (Kandy, Sri Lanka), while he was helping in the Intensive Care Unit for the last ten years of his life.

Bhikkhu Sumedha was best known as an artist, and we have very fortunately been able to include around a dozen of his paintings in the full-colour publication.

Much merit to all who helped with the publication, including Mun Yee from Sukhi Hotu in KL and his designers, and the many supporters, led by the Low Family, who helped make the publication possible.

1,500 have been printed, locally the book will be available from the Sukhi Hotu outlets in Malaysia, while 500 will go to Sri Lanka, where there will be a book launch later this year as part of a coordinated attempt to raise money for a Burns Unit in Peradeniya Hospital, which was Bhante’s last wish, and the reason I first met him.

If you are unable to get hold of a copy of the book, don’t worry, starting next Sunday I will serialize the book on this blog, one chapter at a time, and it will run for the next nine weeks.

Today I am including a memorial by Bhikkhu Bodhi, who was one of Bhikkhu Sumedha’s long-time friends:

Cover

Introduction

On December 21st, 2006 at approximately 10.30pm Sri Lankan time, my beloved friend, Ven. Bhikkhu Sumedha, the Swiss-born monk residing at the Manapadassana Lena in Dulwala, near Kandy, passed away. Ven. Sumedha would have been 75 years of age the following February. Earlier in 2006 he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer and in March had undergone surgery. In November he had contracted pneumonia and was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital. While still at the hospital, he felt sharp pains in his abdomen and noticed blood in his urine and feces, which convinced him that his cancer had returned. Surprisingly, however, he left the hospital shortly thereafter. Our mutual friend Joel Harary, who regularly visited him at the hospital, wrote to me on November 19th that the doctors “offered to keep him for a few more days to determine the cause of the pain but Bhikkhu Sumedha refused…. [He] is in good form and has lots of energy. The doctors said they didn’t think he had cancer.”

On returning to his cave, beginning perhaps on November 24th, he suddenly stopped eating and drinking, claiming that to ingest any food or even water caused him nausea and vomiting. He knew this would result in his death, but he wasn’t the least bit afraid; rather, those who visited him said that he radiated unusual exuberance and luminosity. Many reported to me that they were astonished by his constant vitality, dynamism, and clarity of mind, which persisted even after several weeks of fasting. He spoke on the Dhamma for hours, yet he showed no signs of weariness. He seemed to be powered by an immense source of energy and his mind was always bright, sharp, and perceptive.

After several weeks, however, his physical strength waned. His steward, Jagath Wijesiri, who had attended on him like a son since the late 1980s, suggested to him that he again enter the hospital. Aware that doing so would relieve Jagath of the burden of looking after him, he agreed, on condition that his wishes would be respected. He especially emphasized that he did not want to be force-fed or be given substantial nutriment intravenously. He agreed to receive fluids by IV, but would not accept food apart from an occasional sip of liquid to alleviate the dryness of his mouth. Over his last few days he became weaker and began to have spells of diarrhea. The British monk Ven. Anandajoti, who was with him near his end, said that his mind was clear and alert right up to his death.

From the American couple, Ken and Visakha Kawasaki, who visited him almost daily during his last weeks in the hospital, I heard a touching tale. On the very day of his death they went to visit him and found him emaciated and extremely weak. In the adjourning cubicle there was a young boy, very ill, who cried and wailed. The sound of his wailing reached Ven. Sumedha’s ears, and despite his own weakness, he looked up with great compassion and inquired what could be done to ease the suffering of that child. Such was the character of this monk who always showed so much concern for the poor and destitute, especially for the simple villagers of Sri Lanka.

Long before his death, he had requested that after death his eyes should be removed and donated to the eye bank for cornea transplants, that any of his bodily organs that were still viable should be used for transplants, and that his body should be donated to the medical faculty of the University of Peradeniya for medical research. Immediately after death his eyes were removed, as he wished, and the morning after death, his body was officially donated to the faculty of medicine. Meanwhile, on Friday morning, monks from his monastic fraternity, the Ramañña Nikāya, including his close friend, Ven. Y. Dhammapāla, arrived and performed the “sharing of merits” rite on his behalf.

This was not Bhikkhu Sumedha’s first encounter with death. In 2001, he had almost died due to asphyxiation. One morning in late March of that year, when Jagath came to the cave to prepare his morning tea, he found him lying in bed in a comatose condition. Immediately, he carried him down the hill and rushed him to the ICU of the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital. When we — his friends in Kandy — visited him at the ICU, his condition looked so grim that we started to plan his funeral. He was completely unconscious and was hooked up to what looked like a half-dozen machines.

Unexpectedly, however, on perhaps the fourth day he emerged from his coma, regained consciousness, and then slowly regained his health. But a bigger surprise was to come. Not only did he recover his health, but he felt such gratitude to the staff of the ICU for saving his life that there arose in him an irresistible urge to find some way to express this gratitude. Convinced that his deep coma and near-death experience had given him a rare insight into the state of critically traumatized patients, he decided to become a spiritual guide to the patients of the ICU. He spoke to the doctor in charge of the unit, Dr. Chula Goonasekara, about his experience and ideas, and the doctor accepted his offer of help.

Over a decade earlier, in 1987, Ven. Sumedha had organized a free first-aid clinic at his village of Dulwala, which first operated at his cave, with himself as the “bare-foot doctor.” He had taught himself first-aid care from a few textbooks he acquired from abroad. After some months, he trained locals in the first-aid practices and moved the clinic to the village itself. The clinic has continued, maintained by a retired school principal with the support of a Swiss Buddhist. But now he launched into a new phase of his astonishing life with its many transformations.

For the next five years he would visit the ICU and other wards in the hospital three or four days per week. He spoke to patients, offered them advice and consolation, inquired about their special needs, and sought ways to fulfill them. He went to the most gravely injured of them all, without the least squeamishness: the woman whose in-laws had poured gasoline over her clothes and set them ablaze, so that her body was a mass of scars; the young man who had lost both legs in an auto accident; the child afflicted with a rare disease, lingering on the verge of death, surrounded by his distraught parents.

To the astonishment of the medical staff, he showed an uncanny ability to discover the precise way in which a patient in a particular critical condition could best be treated in order to regain hope and courage. He became fast friends with Dr. Goonasekara, and the two worked together as a team at conferences and on special projects. With the doctor’s support, he organized trainings sessions for the other doctors and nurses in which he would actually teach them how to tend to the patients in their care.

Though his father (who vanished in his childhood) was a medical doctor, his instructions were not based on any background training, but on sheer intuition. It was the intuition of an artist, one with a gift for seeing deeply behind people’s faces and beneath their words into the hidden recesses of their hearts — an intuition that came naturally to him, for in lay life Ven. Sumedha had indeed been a highly trained painter gifted with vision and rigorously disciplined in artistic technique. It was also the intuition of a yogi, for in his early 40s he had renounced the world for the life of a contemplative Buddhist monk, meditating for years in solitary caves.

In May 2005 Ven. Sumedha applied for Sri Lankan citizenship. In preparing his application, he had written a letter to the President of the country (who alone could recommend citizenship) explaining the reasons he was making this request. He had sent the draft of the letter to me so I could polish his English. Fortunately, I still have the file on my hard disk and I found this closing paragraph, which is particularly poignant to read on the day of his death:

‘I have made Sri Lanka my adopted homeland and it is my wish to pass away in this country. I no longer have any sense of identification with any other country. Since my ordination I have not left this island, and I have no intention to leave for the rest of my life. I hold a German passport, though I have never lived in Germany. I would like to become a Sri Lankan citizen, both to express my sense of belonging to this country more than to any other country in which I have lived, and also, in my old age (I am now well over 70), to spare myself the trouble of applying each year for a residence visa valid for only one year. I have been a monk now for thirty years and I am fully intent on remaining one until the end of my days.’

Just a year and a half after writing the above, he reached “the end of [his] days” still clad in the brown robes of a Buddhist monk, a much loved and venerated member of the Sangha. He came to Sri Lanka as an artist seeking enjoyment and relaxation; the strange workings of karma, swelling up from an unfathomable past, turned him into a sage who found here wisdom, consolation, and a path to final peace. He lived and died as a true monk and rare visionary: Sumedha “the Unborn” (aja), the cave-dwelling meditator, the spiritual patron of the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital, the genius artist, and one who, even on the brink of his own death, still thought of a frightened child crying on a nearby hospital bed.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
Bodhi Monastery
Lafayette, New Jersey, U.S.A.
December 21-22, 2006

 




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