Last October 40 monks and 800 Buddhist followers of the Mahamevna meditation Dwelling went on a pilgrimage to India led by Kiribathgoda Gnanananda Thera. At the time he was interviewed by Shyama Samarasingha, which was published in the Budusarana of November 28, 2006. The translation of this interview.
When did you decide to become a bhikkhu?
I was ordained at age 17. I did not have a good understanding of life at that age. Just felt attracted to it. First I received traditional Buddhist academic education and entered the Jayawardenapura University. Before completing the degree, I left the university education and became a hermit.
I understood that what I was seeking was not available in the traditional education system. Because of this understanding, most of the time I lived on my own and learnt the Dhamma through meditation centres and hermitages.
In the beginning I stayed with Kithulampitiye Wipularansi Thera. He is a special person. He has abandoned everything and has gone to India ten years ago and reached the Himalaya. I have not heard about him since then.
After that I stayed at a meditation centre in Colombo for sometime. In 1997, I started a Dhamma service though I was not particularly interested in it. I had a personal ambition to attain Nirvana quickly. I pursued this goal with dedication. I lived in the Sri Pada forest many times alone.
During the off season periods I took the Kuruwita route to Sri Pada. I met Baduraliye Chandima Thera in one of these trips. My desire was to live alone in a sparsely populated place. But while paying homage to the Sri Pada, it dawned on me that I can be in danger in the forest and can even get killed by wild animals. If that happens, then nobody is going to benefit from me.
Therefore I decided to teach the Buddha Dhamma to the people for sometime. I was able to do this from time to time. In 1997, I decided to go to the forest again, but soon realised that I could not achieve my goal as fast as I wished. Again I decided to spread the Dhamma.
I went to Colombo Sambodhi Vihara to deliver Buddhist talks. Because I was new, I had to overcome many obstacles. Only four people attended my fist sermon. Slowly, this situation changed. The problem at that point was to find a large enough place to give the talks.
At this time I met Kotapola Amarakitti Thera by chance. He asked me to accompany with him to Polgahawela. He took me to the present day Mahamevna monastery site. At the time it was an expanse of Eraminiya shrubs. I did not know anybody in the village and there were no Dayakayas. Amarakitti Thera offered me support.
He told me that I have to take charge of the place. It was a very quiet place, and I thought it would be ideal for meditation and to propagate the Buddha Dhamma. As the pioneer, I had to make many sacrifices.
I was able to build three Kutis with thatched roof and walls of plastic sheets. In addition there was a Dhamma Hall of 20 x 10 also with a thatched roof. This was the beginning of the Mahamevnawa.
Afterwards, the Dhamma started spreading beyond belief. My honest and sincere wish to spread the Dhamma is the secret to this success.
I understood the real Dhamma as taught by the Buddha and used my creativity to propagate it. I talked to the seekers with empathy. I showed them the delusions. I convinced them of their wrongful attachments and devotions to the astrology, auspicious times, and the likes which consume their energy.
I used simple Sinhalese to explain the Dhamma. I made it clear that it is the Four Noble Truths that is essential to the realisation of the Buddha Dhamma.
Intelligent people gathered around me, and hundreds of young men came to me to be ordained as monks. The learned and intelligent monks in Sri Lanka ordained these young men. Now we have 35 branches of Mahamevna in Sri Lanka and one in Canada. There are 300 trainee Bhikkhus in these hermitages.
The Mahamevna that I started in August 14th, 1999 blossomed into a huge tree with numerous strong branches within a seven year period. It is a common thing to be the target of criticism and slanders when one becomes a popular figure. I was the target for endless criticism from Sri Lankan monks. It is difficult to develop Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
The main reason for this is the jealousy among the monks. The Sri Lankan attitude is to destroy the person who is genuinely serving society. This happened to the Bhikkhus Dolakande, Soma and Ariyadhamma. This can also happen to me. Before that I have to stop my Dhamma propagation activities. At that time, the jealousy ridden individuals can sleep soundly.
I have herd that you are a Catholic by birth. What led you to become a Buddhist?
After 1505 Catholicism started spreading. Before that all the Sinhalese were Buddhists. There was no foundation for Catholicism in Sri Lanka; it is not surprising for a born Catholic to become a Buddhist. Missionary invasion of Asia forced people to convert to Christianity. It is happening today too.
Especially the Catholicism spread in the coastal areas of Sri Lanka among the fishermen. This happened because many people who lacked the understanding of the Dhamma looked down on fisherman clan.
Why did you decide to go on a pilgrimage to India with a large group this time?
There is a reason for it. Many of us do not create a complete mental orientation for such a pilgrimage. People lose their spiritual tendencies after reaching India. I felt empathy towards them. I taught them how to methodically conduct a Buddhist pilgrimage to India. I met a suitable and capable organiser for our Dhambadiva pilgrimage.
Dambadiva is the land of the Buddhas and Buddhist saints. The environment in Dambadiva has not changed from the great times. I have gained many experiences travelling in the area.
I see it as an ideal place for a lay person to attain his goals amidst many hardships. Bodhisatvas are born from time to time in Dambadiva. I see Dr. Ambedkar, a Buddhist leader from the recent past, as a future Buddha. Anagarika Dharmapala also had Bodhisatva qualities.
What do you think about the Sri Lankan Buddhists?
Most Buddhists in Sri Lanka are filled with empty pride. They are plagued with many obstacles, preventing them from reaching a sound understanding of the Dhamma.
Mahamevna forest retreat at Polgahawela
They think they know everything even though they know nothing. They engage in slandering and gossip. There are also very intelligent, moral, and faithful Buddhists in Sri Lanka. I am very proud and happy about it.
I have a special request for all Buddhists. Do not vote for any bhikkhus to the Parliament. It will be detrimental to the Buddhists. I translated many Pali Pirith books to Sinhalese.
The translations available were not very meaningful. I also started reciting Pirit in Pali mixed with Sinhalese. People did not understand even the meanings of the verses used for the homage to the Buddha. It is useless to recite Pali verses beautifully to the common people who can not understand them.
The verses recited in Pali have many mistakes in the way we break the sentences and also in the pronunciations. People really like the way I recite the Pirith, since they could know the meaning of contents.
What a blessing it would be to see the young generation being attracted to the Meditation and Dhamma in an age that most temples are being abandoned.
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