The writer met with the most Venerable Aggamahapandittha Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Mahanayake Thera in London, when he was 99 years old. The Venerable observed the rainy season (Vassana retreat) in London at that time.
The Buddhist Centre organised a religious ceremony on account of his 99th Birthday, on 23 August. Many Buddhist devotees gathered at the Buddhist Centre to participate in a religious ceremony. Addressing a large gathering, the venerable said:
“You have organised a pinkama on my Birthday to celebrate. I will be 99 years old. That means my life span is fast coming to an end! Is this a thing to celebrate? It is an important day for me because the sooner I move towards death, the happier I feel as death means moving towards a new birth! I could not fulfil my desire in its pristine purity in this life, but I know in my next life, I will be much more vigorous in carrying out my services to propagate Buddhism in the world.”
The writer had direct access to the Venerable amidst the crowd. Seizing the opportunity, he wanted to discuss many things with the most eminent monk.
“I was born on 23 August 1896 to Heenmenike and Mathies Appuhamy. My certificate of birth carried the name ‘Punchi Mahattaya’. Fourteen days after I was born, I lost my mother. My grief-stricken father not only left me but the village altogether. I was orphaned. My uncle Dingirihamy Mudalali and aunt Yasohamine brought me up.
An Internal revolution
“A representative from the Mahabodhi Society visited our school in 1905, when I was nine years of age. Mr Harishchandra Walisinghe delivered a speech on Buddhism that made an internal revolution in me. I wanted to emulate him. At the age of fifteen, my foster parents gave their blessings and I ordained as a ‘Samanera‘ priest at Nandaramaya, Balangoda Udumulla Temple.”
“Venerable Sir, with your long experience in life I would like to hear from you about the moral decadence in Sri Lanka over the years!”
“Towards the latter part of the British rule, Ceylonese were happy and did not eat beef at all, because the majority being Buddhists. When foreign influence began to invade, individuals like Anagarika Dharmapala fought against foreign influence because he foresaw the impact on the local community. Such protests gradually continued towards the ousting of the colonial rule.
“But it was rather unfortunate that once Ceylon gained Independence on 4 February 1948, our national leaders continued to govern in a worse manner than the Colonials.Foreigners at least listened to peoples’ claims and agitations, but Lankan leaders turned a deaf ear to any public outcry! The Ceylonese leaders caused a steep division in society by forming different political parties and working on their agendas. During the colonial era, local society was united as one unit and preserved the Buddhist cultural values, but since the Independence, morality and cultural values became tainted.”
The writer focussed then on Buddhist stanzas like ‘Eththa Watcha’ and ‘Akasatata Bumatta’ and wanted to know from the monk whether Buddhists could transfer merit to various gods (Devas) as is the current practice today; whether it could reconcile with such practices within the concept of Buddhism?
“Buddhists do not believe in an Omnipresent or Omnipotent God.” Also, by merely repeating Gathas ( stanzas) in parrot form, out of habit, or offering alms for the sake of name and fame, no transference of merit to any god will happen.” Today, when some people want to give alms to priests, they search for prominent priests (‘big guns’ with an infectious laugh) and forget about the poor monks who lead sanctified and secluded lives. By offering alms to the sangha alone, one cannot expect any help from devas! In my personal opinion every deva has forgotten this country.”
Is there a difference between the ‘Soul’ and‘Athma‘? The writer became curious.
“In Buddhist philosophy it does not mention the word Soul or Athma.”
How would you then, Venerable Sir, account for the cycle of birth and rebirth?
“There are two answers to your question. Let’s take the sun as an example. A teacher may explain to young children that the sun is rising and setting down, although no such phenomenon occurs. On mature students he uses a scientific example. We know that it is the earth that rotates while the sun is stationary. Therefore, Lord Buddha used the words ‘Soul’ and ‘Athma’ in the proper backdrops.”
Likewise, Lord Buddha’s teachings varied according to the level of intelligence of seekers of the truth. That is why Lord Buddha taught Vipassana Meditation to deal with this topic to those aspirants who had opened up their intelligence. Also, according to Buddhist philosophy, a person may be born in one of the six Deva worlds. To achieve that stage, one needs to lead a moral life in the human world; mind you, some people have ascended to higher levels of intelligence due to their good karma!”
“The human being consists of a mind and matter. The mind is a series of impermanent occurrences as unchanging essence( ‘soul‘). The Physical body is a stream of material state subject to momentary change. In Buddhist, philosophy the word soul does not exist at all. This practice of understanding is dependent on one’s level of intelligence, wisdom, and training.”
The writer then became curious about ghosts, a subject that the Venerable was familiar with publicly. Reverend Sir, Currently, there is a Chair for Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh to deal with the study of ghosts. Do you accept that ghosts do exist?
“When a person dies, that person will be born in a different world, sometimes with a subtle body due to his attachment to his loved ones and property. In that fine (astral) body form the dead person can live for some time until that astral body ascends to a higher phase with the help of meritorious deeds done by his relatives. It all depends on the amount of direct transference of merit to the dead person. Some astral bodies can travel at a tremendous speed faster than light!”
How is it that some individuals can see such subtle bodies whereas others do not? The writer queried.
“Some of the dead could freeze their astral bodies, and others may not, that is why astral body can be seen.”
Astrologers do often say that humans belong to various categories, known in Sinhala as ‘Gana,’ meaning ‘Rakksa, Deva’ and ‘Manussa,’ Gana. Is there any truth in the saying that only those born under Manussa Gana can see ghosts?
“It is only an astrological interpretation. Now, I belong to Rakksa Gana, and do you find me as a horrible person?” (Venerable monk gave my chin a little tickle).
Concept of worshiping Sai Baba
Many Buddhists worship Sai Baba these days! Some Buddhists have a different opinion and say because it is due to devotees’ confused state of mind. What do you think about this question, Sir?
“I visited Sai Baba some 20 years ago when I suffered a cataract in my eyes. Everyone advised me against the operation because I was over 70 years of age. I was confused. But out of the blue, a Dayaka, in our temple, requested me to be his translator as he could not speak English. He wanted to visit India to see Sai Baba and promised to look after all my expenses, including my air ticket. I accompanied him to Bangalore.”
“ Sai Baba came straight to where I was standing. Next moment Sai Baba waved his right hand in the air and wrote something and walked away from me. After taking a few steps forward, he turned back and walked back towards me, smiled and said, “Get your eyes operated“. I was stunned. At that exact moment I wanted to ask him about my eyes! Two weeks after my return from India I went blind. Immediately, I was admitted to the General Hospital and got my eyes operated on.
Some people spread the rumour that the Venerable was involved in politics ! The writer was compelled to enquire about it, but the venerable quite calmly said:
“I am not a politician but a steadfast Buddhist priest. I knew President Premadasa from his youthful days when he came to our temple to learn Dhamma lessons. I was in the USA when the President named a village in Balangoda as ‘Ananda Maitreya Gama in the Gam Udawa programme’. I was clueless about the whole exercise. When I returned to Sri Lanka, President Premadasa invited me again and showed me a video of a plot of land and said:
“Hamuduruwane, do you like this place?”
“It was a plot of land near a river and ideal for my meditation. I told him so, and I proceeded to England. But when I returned home, he phoned me again and requested me to occupy the new temple he had built (completely without my knowledge). Mr Ranasinghe Premadasa had already named it “The Battaramulla Chitta Viveka Asramaya.
President Premadasa said, “Hamuduruwane, this is a personal religious gift to you from me.”
” What are your final plans, Venerable Sir?
“I want to engage in Dhamma whenever I get an opportunity. But the problem is that I never get a free moment whether I am in Sri Lanka, England, or the USA, because people always visit me seeking advice. My main aim is to accomplish a higher level of mental development. When I die, I would like to be reborn in Sri Lanka again to develop Buddhism further and propagate Lord Buddha’s philosophy throughout the world.”
The Most Ven. Aggamahapandittha Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Mahanayake Thera expired at the age of 103!
picture credit: Ceylon Today Newspaper