Editor’s note: The German monk Ven. Ñāṇavimala was one of the great forest monks living in Sri Lanka in modern times. I had the privilege of staying in the same monastery with him for a couple of years near the end of his life (from 1999-2002).
He was surely one of the most inspiring monks one could hope to come across, although, because of his infirmity, we were not able to meet him very often – generally only when we could think up excuses that couldn’t be ignored: blessings for New Year’s Day, or Sinhala New Year, beginning of the Rains or the end of it, etc.
Those were days we all looked forward to, and Bhante would give uplifting talks about the Dhamma, the Path and the need to exercise effort and attain Path and Fruit – old and infirm though he was, he could easily speak for an hour or more on just this subject, with his eyes alight and the atmosphere electric, inspiring the young monks, and we would all go back to our rooms more determined than ever to practice and try to attain the unattained.
Bhante was an ascetic to the end, and although his legs were very swollen and he was barely able to walk, let alone go out on alms round, he had his two attendants go out, and he lived on the piṇḍapāta that they brought back, and had blended so he could easily digest it.
The following are recollections of some of Bhante’s teaching written by the ex-monk and Dhammafarer Chittapāla. He himself spent seventeen years in the robes, most of them in remote forests in Sri Lanka, and met with Ven. Ñāṇavimala on many occasions, and kept notes of their conversations. These come from instructions he received in Vajirarama Temple, Colombo in 1981 and 1984, which he has recently extracted for this piece.
There are many stories about Ven. Ñāṇavimala and we now have another friend in Sri Lanka working to get some more material about him recorded, which will hopefully result in a more substantial memorial at some point to one of the most outstanding monks of recent times.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala used many Pāḷi and Sinhala words when he spoke, as the people he spoke to would generally be able to understand both. In this transcription translations have been added for foreign words: if you don’t know the meaning of a word just hover the cursor over any word with a light dotted line to find a translation.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala, Colombo, 1991
Ven. Ñāṇavimala Mahāthera [1911–2005] was a German monk who took robes in Sri Lanka in 1955. After twelve years of study and meditation at Island Hermitage near Dodanduwa in the south of the Island, he set out bare-footed on continuous walking tour. His only possessions were three robes, an alms bowl and some basic requisites.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s usual practice was to stay just one night at any place. He would stay longer if conditions were conducive to meditation, or he needed to attend to chores like mending robes, or he was ill. During the obligatory annual rains retreat he would stay three months in one place maintaining strict seclusion and dedicating himself to meditation practice.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala maintained this walking tour practice until very late in life. Due to deteriorating health, he spent his last few years on Parapaduwa, an island adjacent to Island Hermitage.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala was well known and greatly respected throughout Sri Lanka. His calm demeanour, fewness of wishes and steadfast practice inspired confidence in those who met him. The legacy left by Ven. Ñāṇavimala is the exemplary life he led – something to which others could aspire.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala did not take on students, nor did he give formal teachings. However, he was always very generous in sharing his wisdom with those who had sincere interest in the Dhamma.
The Buddha Dhamma is different to the Hindu system which builds up a world of happiness and bliss. Dhamma points to that which is dukkha. 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 in 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. One delights in having a nice kuṭi, 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. 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. 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 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 for whatever reason. Don’t make arrangements with dāyakas. One doesn’t even have to talk with them. One just has to concentrate on becoming a puññakkhettaṁ. 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 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 – 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.
Ven. Ñāṇavimala, Kandy, early 90s
The bhikkhu 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, expectation, what will I experience, 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 pleasantness 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 in this bhikkhu life. Without sukha one cannot develop bhāvanā. Count one’s blessings, that one has come so far to the bhikkhustate 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 to get the sentence meaning. Later on, with practice, one can know the meaning of whole sentences. So it is with various dhammasaññā. One is continually taken in by objects until one practises enough. Then one immediately sees the object’s inherent nature of asubha anicca etc.
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 and the dangers of kāmasukha. Even if just the thought of a girl arises, learn to see the object of your thought as a heap of rubbish. If strong urges come (not unusual when one is living alone trying to do bhāvanā), do sakmana or 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, is developed, one will not be able to give up this loka. In meditation, don’t try to develop nimittas as the Visuddhimagga says, but rather see that the mind is free from nīvaraṇa. One can then delight in the purity of mind that comes from jhāna. Jhāna is that samādhi that has no connection with this loka.
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 sits. Use mettā to calm the mind before ānāpānasati. If the mind is too distracted, recite gāthā or do sakmana. One should use all the different kammaṭṭhāna 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 consider ill. Sweep around one’s kuṭi carefully or spend time cleaning one’s room mindfully. One can contemplate anicca in fallen leaves and suññatā in one’s empty room. One should respect and take care of Saṅgha property – it functions a bit like an army.
In the first years there must be solitude and the chance for complete application to practice so that one can fulfil indriyasaṁvara 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 mātugāmo and asubha because then it sticks in one’s mind. See the asubha in the outer form: hair, skin etc. Get the asubhanimitta in one’s mind. When one is practised a little one can look at them, but if rāga arises, just do internal contemplation it’s 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 are very difficult to put away, especially when one is young. Seeing women just nourishes rāgānusaya. 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 thus we can’t avoid contact with women, etc. yaṁ kiñci dukkhaṁ sambhoti, sabbaṁ āhārapaccaya.
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.
The Saṅgha is in decline, so one has to make the effort oneself. As long as one is making the effort, paṭisotaṁ, 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.
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 can’t 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.
Dukkha: one can’t expect to stay in one place forever and when one seeks a new senāsana, one can’t expect to find a suitable place.
Bodily pain: lie flat on one’s back, really relax, 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, buddhānussati. Then go back to the breath. Have a whole range of meditations to combat certain defilements as they arise.
Study: read suttas 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 useful at certain times. Practice is most important. Study can become just another piyarūpaṁ sātarūpaṁ, 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 (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 Pātimokkha, these can be rectified. Pātimokkha is only to do with speech and body, but the ten kammapatha 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 are not so important. If practice is not clung to and one is firm in it, that is okay.
Cārika: it is difficult when one is young to go out alone. I wouldn’t advise cārika 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. On cārika 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 practice during the day should be strong. In solitude one may feel that some obstacles have been eliminated, but on cārika new ones can arise. Having seen one’s problems, one should then try to overcome them. When on cārika, one should announce from where you come from and one’s teacher, etc. when one arrives at a temple. Do vandanā even to bad monks as one is then paying respects to the Saṅgha. If one hasn’t been given nissayavimutti, one should live near a teacher.
Food: 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. 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.
Attainment: don’t even announce it to oneself. It can hinder progress and strengthen ‘asmimāna’. Time will tell whether one has attained this or that. Remember the simile of the adze handle [by looking at an adze handle every day, one can’t see it wearing away. However, over time with constant use one can see this. Similarly, by looking every day one can’t see the wearing away of mental impurities. However, over time through constant practice, one can see this.]