The world’s biggest Theravada library
Bibliophile, Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi recounts
high points of his life
By W. Aiyyar
I was, indeed, a naughty boy in my pre-teens. One day I noticed the visit of a
Buddhist monk to our home. The monk was seeing my mother and her intentions were
A few days later she accounted for the monk’s visit. She told me very
affectionately that I would bring great merit on the entire family by being
ordained as a samanera (Novitiate). I recall that I readily agreed to her
A week later I was taken to the Verahena Temple in Matara where I was ordained
as a samanera in June 1960. I then took on my present name – Kirama Wimalajothi.
I had the mistaken notion that the samanera’s routine was an easy one. But the
never ending work during the day, no food after 12 noon, and nightly
memorisation of the Bana Daham Potha and sections of the Dhammapada (for
chanting) gave me the right understanding of the samanera’s life and a strong
aversion to it.
Disrobing was on my mind. However, my mother and others kept encouraging and
urging me on. From the temple I moved to the Mahaman Pirivena in Matara where I
began my formal education, inclusive of Pali, Sankskrit and several other
subjects. There were also Prachina Prarambha exams. All this made me think of
After 10 years of dhamma training, I joined Stafford College to master the
English language. I found many French friends among those who visited my temple.
But while following them to Thailand, I changed course and went instead, with
another monk, to Malaysia.
There in Kuala Lumpur (KL) I saw Buddhism in a very different light. There were
many dhamma talks and meditation courses. We had social welfare and counselling
work to do.
KL was a hive of interesting activity. The dynamo behind all this enthusiastic
fervour was Ven. Dr. K. Dhammananda, the Chief Priest of our Malaysian Temple –
and he had a multi-racial following which included Malaysians, Sri Lankans,
Europeans and Chinese Buddhists. Many were tourists.
After two weeks stay in Malaysia, the Ven Dhammananda cross-examined me about my
plans. When I said I was going to France to disrobe, he said, “Stay here. You
have a good future.”
My popularity increased, and I was more mentally focused now. An internal change
was definitely occurring as Buddhism began to mean much more to me. I was
ordained by the Ven. Dhammananda, my second teacher, and it was in an Islamic
country (Malaysia) that I became a bhikkhu.
In 1986, I had completed 13 years in Malaysia and plans for Buddhist projects
were stirring in my mind.
There were visa extension problems in Malaysia and Ven. Dhammananda arranged for
me to go to the Singapore Buddhist Mission. This stay lasted four years. Then I
travelled to the USA.
I recall my days at the New York Buddhist Temple, until 1992, during which time
I got my Green Card. I would visit Sri Lanka on and off. Then a momentous
decision was made in 1992 on visiting my temple in Matara, Sri Lanka.
A young monk went about finding permanent residence for me in greater Colombo.
He was the one who found the place at No. 125 Anderson Road, Dehiwela.
Changes came slowly. First, small zinc-sheet structures were set up. Then I
began building a house, with donations from Malaysia and USA. By 1992 other
buildings were erected. At the end of that year I started meditation classes for
tourists. The other impetus towards library-building came to me when tourists
and bibliophiles made many requests for Buddhist books and I could hardly find
any. Ven Dhammananda was of great help when I visited Malaysia. He gave me 25
copies of each Buddhist book printed in English.
In India, several local scholars had written learned treatises on Buddhism in
English. But Indian publishers ignored Sri Lanka in sales campaigns. Books were
sent to other countries but not to Sri Lanka. I bought as many Indian titles as
I could. A historic date was January 2, 1993 when the Buddhist Cultural Centre
was opened. Those present included the Ven. Ananda Maitriye, the Ven. Dr. Rahula
an a few other bhikkhus and lay people.
Sinhalese dhamma books had been available before independence but now were out
of print. Something has to be done. So I went to KL, borrowed money from close
friends, came home and set up a printing press. Simplicity was my watchword.
In 1994-1995 I organised book exhibitions at the Colombo Art Gallery and the
Public Library. Every year, subsequently, I advertised the dhamma book
exhibitions in the newspapers.
Another idea of mine that was flamboyant and far more eye-catching than
conventional exhibitions was a multi-coloured bus that took dhamma books to
thousands of villages in Sri Lanka. For eight years I travelled in a book-laden
bus and we served the island district by district. My next move was to meet good
writers and propagandists, who were told of the need for Buddhist literature in
both Sinhala and English. Simplicity of language was stressed.
A long-range plan was the finding of 10 boys from diverse areas of the island
for ordination. The boys became young men in my temple during their three-year
training. Today these 10 monks are highly qualified. I ensured that 15 dhamma
centres were opened in various parts of the island. The meditation centre at
Horana also began in a small room much like the centre at Anderson Road. Today
the Horana centre comprises a well-laid-out 25 acres called the Dehkanduwela
Meditation Training Centre. The building houses 40 mediators at a time. To get
back to books, the entire Tripitaka, which was printed during the Buddha
Jayanthi, went out of print and has now been re-published. It cost the centre
about Rs. 750 million.
Books cannot be given free as the BCC needs revenue and its own finances. But
our book publishing and sales are done at cost. Serving truth-seekers in the
world with Theravada literature is the present and central task of the world’s
largest Theravada library.
Girl of the jungles, woman of the world (part
Review: CHRISTINE: A Memoir by Christine
Spittel-Wilson, Perera Hussain Publishing House, Colombo 2007 - pp. 266
To take up this review from where I left off, I
would first like to tell you of what Martin Pieris said of Christine in his book
The Sri Lankans:
“She had bright, kind eyes and looked radiant in a long sleeveless dress and a
printed scarf – she looked nowhere her age.”
(And Christine said what was so true of her): “I was always devoted to the
jungle – I must have inherited this, I think. I loved the sound of the birds. I
loved the wild people who had never seen a ‘civilised’ woman in their lives
before I went there.”
This is the best introduction I can muster, to tell you of Christine’s return to
Ceylon. She was 18, and was to be regarded as, even if her friends teased her
so, the “poor little rich girl” and, more pertinently, a “child-woman.”
The return was a new experience and, as she says, ‘a strange mixture of control
and freedom – up to a point.’ The adjustment took time ... social rituals,
invitations to teas and trivial conversations, wandering through Wycherley,
searching in vain for voices from the past.
The car she received from her father as her 18th birthday gift was a Wolseley
Hornet Special. She called it Fifinella; had her road accidents, and was even
told by a judge in court: ‘... you are the daughter of Dr. R. L. Spittel. I
would have thought his daughter would have more sense of responsibility than you
Things such as this bring this memoir face to face with her surging inner self.
It tells us, in Christine’s tremendous sense of emotional language, what the
heart feels when the soul whispers its regrets:
“... I had always sheltered under the mantle of my father. Now it was not
enough. Something stirred, strongly resistant, an immature child-woman
struggling for recognition of a dormant self? During that long time at school in
England and the bleak loneliness of Yorkshire, that self had almost disappeared
and become a non-person, fed on encouraging letters from home that told me what
to do, with what results? Here, in my moonshine haven that other self struggles
slowly towards whatever the waves, the sky could teach me. Or would there always
be the child-woman crying, ‘Help me! Help me!’
“Clouds hid the moon, and it began to drizzle. But I looked again at the
darkened wave-crests, leaving, still, lace-patterns on the sand. Although I
could not see them, they were there, immutable. Oh moon, teach me to be strong,
oh sea, teach me your whispered advice.
“Now I was me, clamouring to get out, to make my own mistakes and know I must
find my own answers.
“You are a pale shadow of your father”… I have a different shadow, which is
“What of your mother?”… She once went under. Am I to go under too?
“The sea and the wind and the waves said: ‘No. Not as long as you see us, see
nature in the heart of a single flower as answer to your questioning. Your
answer is the questioning of a frightened mind. Remember.’
It was her mother who, unwittingly, wanted to make of Christine a sort of
artificial social butterfly. To her father, Christine was leading an unnatural
life for a young girl – and he saved her from it all. He took her, for the first
time, to the jungles, and on an important mission too – to try, if he could,
track down the Vedda murderer, Tissahamy, who had escaped from the police. The
son, Tikiri, could, if he wished, lead them to where his father hid.
From Maha Oya, they crossed three rivers to reach the hamlet of the Bintenne
Veddas. Jungle life and jungle lore... ants and ticks and jungle fowl... wild
pigs and a sloth bear and her cub... and this from Christine’s diary:
“As we walked on, we saw a bunch of hair on the path, a leopard and excreta of a
monkey, jungle fowl, porcupine; holes by anthills, pangolin; for the yams of a
creeper, wild boar; near anthills and a bear.
“Massang Alia was a lovely camp we set up by the river. Daddy-with his long
legs-skimmed zigzagging over the water. A dragonfly paused for a second on a
quivering leaf… Yellow butterflies and copper ones, the colour of dead leaves on
the sandy banks. Small fish darting in the shallows.”
Her first marriage... to London for her trousseau... no flowers in the church...
no bridegroom in the marquees on the Wycherley lawn. He was comforting a weeping
And Christine says, ‘I think I grew up then. This marriage must work...’ And so
to Heronsdale, the estate her father had bought and the planter’s bungalow he
had built: and, as she had thought from the beginning, ‘Let the charade go on!’
Pregnancy... and malaria... and Anne, her eight-month baby she dearly loved. But
that ‘eternal loneliness’ prevailed.
She wrote her first published story, The Blue Ginger Jar and knew that there
would come, sooner or later, that breaking point in her marriage. Anne went to
Colombo, stayed at Wycherley, went to Ladies’ College. In swept World War II and
her father suggested a break abroad. Five months in Central Europe: Vienna,
thousands of Jews in concentration camps, the Austrian Alps, Hungary and the
plains of Hortobagy, Trieste and the journey back to Colombo.
There was no more Heronsdale, but there was Nagrak, the island’s most remote tea
estate that skirted the Horton Plains. To Christine, Nagrak’s total isolation
could be the answer to her failing marriage. She even welcomed the loneliness as
her husband stayed away for longer and longer intervals.
War came nearer, became more insistent. The Japanese bombed Trincomalee, and
Christine hurried to pack, leave for Colombo. On the last night, the house began
to burn as a big log from the fireplace fell against the skirting board of the
wall. As she says:
“When I left the despoiled home that had sheltered and strengthened me, I knew
that a part of my life was over. (Also)... one thing was clear. My marriage was
over.” On the morning after, she reached Colombo, sat with her parents in the
Wycherley study. The Japanese bombed Colombo. She had to involve herself. She
became a Class III Temporary Woman Assistant at Army Command Headquarters. Anne,
just seven, was sent to a school in the hills. Christine rose to become
Brigadier’s Secretary, and yet, she remained the too-nice girl who wasn’t the
type the troops were looking for:
“Once my mother invited two young Dutch officers she had met, to lunch with us
at Wycherley. They were nice, came from good homes, politely asked me out after
the second outing. They spoke shyly yet formally, ‘We are very sorry, we shall
not be going out with you again... No! Please, it has nothing to do with you.
You are very nice girl. Too nice. Frankly, we are men, we need women. You are
not the type, and so...”
But the atmosphere at home began to get chilly. Christine insisted on doing her
bit by going to Officers’ Mess Dances, to her parents’ horror.
“For God’s sake, Bunting, are you mad? What’s come over you?”
“For God’s sake, my beloved parents, let me be! For the first time in my life I
feel liberated. And if you can’t trust me, it’s too bad, because there’s nothing
for you to feel bad about, and nothing I feel bad about, so let it be!”
My parents were worried sick. Night after night I would go out, returning when
our road was closed, our gates locked by order, and having to climb the locked
gates. My parents received anonymous letters. ‘Why do you let your daughter go
out?’ they said in harsher language. My father showed them to me, his face pale
“I don’t go over the edge,” I said, bursting with rage. “If you can’t trust me,
that’s too bad,” and I flounced out of the library.
(And it was at one of those dances that she met Alistair...)
“Alistair Wilson, just come out of Burma,” someone said. Alistair came over and
joined us... and (his) steady grey eyes that met mine directly had something in
them that made me look at him again as he firmly took my hand.”
She met Alistair again at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. There could be no mistake
this time. They were married at St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk on December 11, 1944.
Anne, who came back to Ladies’ College was delighted, and loved Alistair
dearly... and so were Christine’s parents; and when he talked about Burma,
Christine knew that he always had some greater story about his times there.
(To be continued next week)