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
Today is the 4th death anniversary of the Swiss monk and artist Ven. Sumedha who passed away in the Intensive Care Unit in Peradeniya Hospital, where he had spend the previous decade working with the critically and terminally ill.
I knew of Ven. Sumedha for a long time, and had seen some of his paintings adorning the covers of books published in Kandy by the Buddhist Publication Society, which at that time was headed by his friend Bhikkhu Bodhi.
I didn’t know then though that he had had a long and successful career as an artist in the ’60s and ’70s, with studios in both London and Vienna.
He had given all that up when he came to Sri Lanka in the late ’70s, and had become first a Hindu sādhu at Kataragama, and later had ordained as a Buddhist monk. Sometime in the ’80s he had moved to the Manāpadassanā Cave just outside Kandy, where he was to spend the better part of 30 years.
I had seen him at BPS a couple of times in the meantime, but never had the chance to speak, and I didn’t really meet him until a few months before he died, when he suddenly contacted me and asked if I could help him write an appeal for a Burn’s Unit he wanted to establish at the Hospital.
I was more than willing to help, of course, but somehow he never followed up, and it wasn’t until he was admitted to the ICU in early November of that year, that I saw him again.
I was living at the time in the Vihara which is attached to the University of Peradeniya, as is the Hospital, and I had been visiting another monk-friend everyday for around a month, taking dāna down to him to supplement the in-house food.
Just as that monk was discharged, Ven Sumedha was admitted, so I then started doing the same for him, though within a couple of days he started to refuse all food.
He told us at the time that he had been diagnosed with cancer and that there was no chance of recovery, so rather than drag it out he intended to let nature take its course.
This seemed to me to be quite reasonable, and it was only much later that it became clear that there had been no such diagnosis, which then left the matter very ambiguous, but by then Ven. Sumedha was already approaching his last days, and there was therefore not much that could be done.
During his Last Days
I was with him on the day he died, although not at the time he died, which was late in the evening. By then he had also stopped taking water for a week, and the nurses were trying to clean up his mouth, which had a furry covering from the dehydration.
He had allowed the cleaning for the first time in many days, and we had made him a little more comfortable. His mind seemed to be still quite clear, but his body was, of course, in a wretched condition.
He died at 10.30 that evening, and in line with his wishes, his eyes, which were the eyes of an artist who had seen the world so differently from most people, were donated to the eye-bank at the hospital.
In the morning we went down to the Hospital and, to complete his wishes, were trying to get the body to the anatomy department, where it could be preserved and used by medical students in their classes.
The problem was it needed to be injected with formaldehyde within 12 hours of dying, and the staff were late in coming in as it was the first day of an extended holiday over Christmas. But eventually someone turned up, and after a short chanting ceremony conducted by Ven. Y. Dhammapāla, he was accepted – just in time.
led by Ven. Y. Dhammapāla
As I mentioned earlier Ven. Sumedha had been working with the Hospital and particularly with the doctors in the ICU for around a decade prior to his death, and through his unselfiish work had gained the confidence of doctors and staff alike.
During that time he had given many verbal instructions, both to patients and to the doctors, and one of them in particular, Prof. C.D.A Goonasekera, had taken to writing these instructions down.
Some of the other doctors had also recorded short interviews with him, and after his death they collected all the material together in the hope of making a book out of it.
Eventually that work was passed to me and I have worked several months on it in order to work it up, and it is now entitled A Buddhist Perspective on Pain, Stress And Illness, and is presently being prepared for publication by Sukhi Hotu in Kuala Lumpur.
The book itself represents a wisdom approach to the subject, unlike most books which seem to present a comfort or mindfulness approach.
Bhante Sumedha was very sensitive to patient’s needs and would never force himself or his views on others, but if he saw they were ready and able he could point out the lessons to be learned in time of illness very well, and show how the Buddha’s teachings can be applied in all situations, and I feel the book fills a long-standing gap in the literature.
It also reminds me of the original teaching, because it was only when the Bodhisatta saw old age, sickness and death that he got the spiritual anxiety to find out the truth about existence for himself and put an end to suffering.
We have very fortunately been able to acquire photographs of Bhante’s paintings through his kappiya and lifelong friend Jagath Wijesiri, and they will also be included in the work.
Next year I will begin serialising the book on Dharma Records, but for now I include one or two of Bhante’s paintings, which I especially like but which will not be included in the book.
I have added the titles in accordance with how I see them – Bhante himself seems not to have given titles to his paintings.