A Compassionate Monk Beyond Compare

(From: Daily News [Colombo], Monday June 5, 1989)

An appreciation by Mahinda Wijesinghe

I was not introduced to Venerable Bodhesako. I was attracted to him.

A few years ago, he was begging for alms, one morning in Borella, when I chanced to see him. Such was his serenity and demeanour that I stopped my car and after offering some alms purchased from a boutique hard by, made an appointment to meet him that evening. So began an association that terminated on his untimely death at the age of 46 years, in Nepal.

Ven. Bodhesako, as a layman was Robert Smith, the only son of a Russian Jewish émigré family, who probably would have had a surname closer to Jaberowsky (!), but thanks to the ingeniousness — or ingenuity? — of the Ellis Island immigrant officials, Smith it became and Smith it remained, until he was ordained as a monk.

In time, the immigrant Smith family struck it rich in America, the land of plenty. But, the young Robert was after greater riches. Riches that the materialistic West could not offer. Then began his spiritual treks to Nepal, India and Thailand, where he was ordained, Bodhesako, and finally to Sri Lanka.

When I met him, that momentous day, his ‘home’ was a ‘kutiya’ — a small hut — in Nildandahinna. It was in the back of the beyond. Some sixty miles away from Kandy, and I visited him there.

Just to climb up to his ‘kutiya’ was an arduous feat. Yet, there he was, going up and down on his alms rounds or whenever the need arose. The unspoilt villagers treated him as a mini-god. They loved and venerated him, though he could not speak in Sinhala. Yet he knew Pali and Sanskrit — to read the scriptures.

He lived strictly according to the Vinaya — the code of rules applicable to a monk. Beginning from the colour of his robe, to eating a solitary meal daily and not handling money, the venerable monk adhered to the Vinaya rules, diligently. It was most difficult to make an offering to him.

“Oh, no, I don’t need such and such” or “that would be an indulgence”, were favourite utterances. He wore the cheapest rubber slippers in the market. That was good enough for him — and he did have to travel quite a bit.

So, to the uninitiated, the possession of a word-processor was indeed incongruous. Wasn’t that indulgence of a high order? Little knowledge could be dangerous, and so it proved, yet again. In fact, the word-processor seemed anachronistic amongst his other frugal belongings.

The venerable monk obtained his mod con to enable him to write and publish his magnum opus — Clearing the Path. A book, inter alia, which published the letters of Venerable Ñánavíra, whom the young American monk greatly admired.

To have rejected any tool that facilitated the writing of this book would indeed have been foolish. People prefer the Concorde to the steam ship if at least to save time. And the venerable monk had very little time — as his untimely death revealed.

His expounding of the Dhamma was so simple and yet profound. A neighbour of mine, whose six-year old child had died after being in a coma for a few months, asked the Ven. Bodhesako: “Venerable Sir, why did my child die, in this manner?” And, the learned monk replied: “Because he was born.”

He was an inspiration to people around him. His charming smile and serene disposition born out of his Buddhist practice endeared him to those around him. Weren’t Hubert and Connie Congreve, who invited the good monk to reside with them — separately, of course — at Wye Estate in Bandarawela, non-Buddhists?

Ven. Bodhesako was invited to attend his father’s 80th birth anniversary, back in the States, and it was during his journey — in Nepal — when he succumbed to a stomach ailment.

I had the privilege of driving him to the airport, when he was leaving Sri Lanka, for the last time, as it turned out, and I remember snatches of the conversation I had with him, during the leisurely drive to Katunayake.

To my question: “Reverend Sir, how do you think your father will react seeing you after such a long time?” He answered: “When I was ordained a monk, my father would have thought, perhaps justifiably, that this was just a passing fad. But, now when he realises that it is not so, he is bound to be disappointed. I cannot help that.”

And he continued, in that almost earnest manner, “When I go there, I am sure most of my people will regard me as some sort of nut (he laughs) and that too I cannot help. In fact it does not bother me.” But, he added rather ruefully, “Only, I’ll miss begging for my alms.”

Sadly, it was only his ashes that reached the United States.

For him Buddhism was not — to repeat the oft-quoted, misconceived cliché — a philosophy of life. It was life. And, he lived it to the full, in the manner the Buddha proclaimed in the Vinaya rules for monks. He was no computer monk.

He was a compassionate monk, beyond compare. As the title of his book states, ‘Clearing the Path’. He was. So, his attainment of Nibbána will indeed be a matter of time. He was a Brahmin, by word, deed and action.

In your travel to the attainment of Supreme Bliss, I prostrate myself in obeisance before you, O Brahmin.

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