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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 suspect.
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 request.
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 disrobing.
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 II)

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.

‘Fifinella’
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 have shown…’
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 mine.
“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.’

“Remember what?”
Social butterfly
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.”

First marriage
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 bridesmaid.
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.
Bombing
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 with anger.
“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)

****

 

 

 

 

 

 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
 
 

 

 
     

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