Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi: Recollecting Ven. Bhikkhu Sumedha

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-Bodhi

I am delighted to know that today marks the establishment of the Bhikkhu Sumedha Trust for constructing a burns unit at Peradeniya Hospital. I wish that I could be there with you for the occasion, but I am now living in the United States, and a persistent health problem makes it hard for me to travel. However, I am happy to give my blessings and to extend to all of you my appreciation for your work on this initiative.

During the time I lived in Kandy, Ven. Bhikkhu Sumedha had been my closest friend. On many occasions, I would go to spend a couple of days with him at the Manapa Dassana Lena in Doolwala, where he had lived from 1980. I would usually go in the late afternoon, stay through the night, and return to Udawattakele the next day. During this time, we established an exceptionally close bond of friendship, born of our shared love for the Dhamma, our concern for the spiritual progress of humankind, and a commitment to social justice. I looked on Ven. Sumedha, not only as as a friend, but also as a mentor, someone that I could turn to for inspiration and advice. Others, also, regarded him in the same light. I always trusted the integrity of his judgment. He did not have any private agendas of his own to fulfill, but would always listen single-mindedly when I sought his guidance, and he would then speak from a place of mature wisdom and compassion.

During the twenty years of our friendship, I found Ven. Sumedha to be one of the most extraordinary people that I have ever known. He was gifted with rare insight into people and situations and an unwavering commitment to the monastic life. It was most uncanny that he should ever have become a monk, for he was not by nature the religious type. As a layman, he had lived the life of a bohemian artist, with studios in Zurich and London. He enjoyed the pleasures of the senses, carousing with fellow artists, writers, actors, and musicians. I used to ask him, “If, during those days, a visitor from the future came up to you and told you that you would live out your last years as a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka, what would you think?” He said, “I would think the guy was crazy. I would never have believed him.”

Yet the workings of karma are inconceivable. Some deep inner power—perhaps past karmic conditions—led him exactly to this destiny. At first, his ties to Sri Lanka had nothing to do with Buddhism. Beginning in 1970, he came to Sri Lanka on holiday, where he would enjoy himself on the beaches and vacation resorts. In 1974, he settled on the island, never to leave again. He became a member of Colombo’s artistic and literary elite, frolicking in the free atmosphere of those circles. But, in early 1975, in the late hours of a party in Colombo, he suddenly felt drawn to a life of renunciation. The call came to him completely out of the blue. Along with his friend, Mike Wilson (later known as Kalki Shiva Swami), he became a Shaivite sadhu at Kataragama, where he lived in a hillside cave. However, soon he realized that Shaivism was not his path, and, instead, he felt the pull of the Buddha Dhamma. Thus, he relinquished his status as a Shaivite ascetic to take ordination as a Buddhist monk under Ven. Henepitgedera Gnanavasa. Once ordained, he never looked back. He never had any second thoughts, but remained unwavering in his commitment.

At first, after embracing the monk’s life, he relinquished his artistic pursuits in order to devote his time to Dhamma study and solitary meditation. However, after moving to Kandy, he resumed painting and drawing, which he then saw as a channel for expressing his insights into the Dhamma. In this, he was encouraged by the late German monk, Ven. Nyanaponika Mahathera, whom we both regarded as our mentor. His understanding of the Dhamma was exceptionally deep, and he could explain the teachings in original, stimulating, and sometimes provocative ways. But, in that he was an artist, art rather than speech served as his vessel for conveying the Dhamma. Over a period of fifteen or twenty years, there poured forth from his hands a mind-dazzling stream of paintings and drawings that are striking in their brilliance and originality. In my opinion, they are truly profound expressions of creative genius that can stand alongside the best artwork of the late 20th century. I sometimes imagine a list of the great artists of the twentieth century: Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Jean Arp, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, Bhikkhu Sumedha…. I have no doubt that, if his work gained more publicity, he would be right up there with these giants.

Besides his artistic endeavors and his dedication to Dhamma practice, there was another side to Bhikkhu Sumedha that came to full manifestation only after his near-death experience in 2001. This was his compassion, his love for the simple village people of Sri Lanka. During his early years in Doolvala, he had regularly gone on alms round, so he knew the people well and regarded them almost as members of his family. In the 1980s, he even established a first-aid clinic at his cave and learned how to provide medical care as a “bare-foot doctor.” But, after his near-death experience, he discovered in himself an even stronger determination to help the critically ill. Thus, for the next five years, right up to the weeks preceding his death, he served as spiritual adviser to the patients in the Intensive Care Unit at the Peradeniya Hospital. He developed an uncanny intuitive sense of how to care for the critically ill, and he used these intuitive powers to assist Dr. Chula Goonasekera, who became his good friend in the ICU.

The cases that most stirred Ven. Sumedha’s heart were burns victims. He realized that neither the Peradeniya Hospital nor the Kandy General Hospital had a unit especially dedicated to burns patients, and he felt a compelling urge to do something about this lack. We had even discussed by mail the possibility of seeking help from the Buddhists of Taiwan or Japan. I had recommended the Tzu Chi Foundation of Taiwan, founded and guided by the remarkable Taiwanese nun Ven. Cheng Yen, the “Mother Theresa of Buddhism.” However, because of his final illness and death, Ven. Sumedha did not live to see his dream come to fulfillment.

It is now up to his friends and supporters to pick up where Ven. Sumedha left off and to provide the Peradeniya Hospital with a modern, well-equipped burns unit. It is a wonderful honor that the unit will bear his name. I am sure he will be looking down from on high and will flash a bright smile on the day the unit officially opens.

The initiative shown in this matter by Dr. Chula Goonasekera is especially to be commended, as well as the support being given by Ken and Visakha Kawasaki and by Ven. Sumedha’s former steward, Jagath Wijesiri, who was almost like a son to him.

Shortly after the death of Ven. Sumedha, I gave a talk on his life and work to my students at Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey. A few weeks later, they collected donations to support the construction of the burns unit. Once the fund is established, I will ask the manager of the account to forward this collection.

May the great compassionate heart of Bhikkhu Sumedha shed its waves of blessings upon everyone involved in this project. May it quickly reach completion without hindrance.

Chuang Yen Monastery
Carmel, NY

 




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