Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi:
Thank you for informing me of the sad news about the passing away of Ven. Nyanadipa. He was one of the last elder Western monks from my generation left in Sri Lanka, and for close to half a century he had been a sturdy pillar of a Western monastic presence in Sri Lanka. With his rigorous lifestyle, I truly thought he would live into his 90s. However, the unpredictable law of impermanence has struck earlier than expected and taken him away from our midst.
Ven. Nyanadipa had an excellent and profound understanding of the Dhamma, and when we periodically met he would share his insights with great clarity and eloquence. However, he was not only deeply learned but was a rare example of one so totally dedicated to the practice that he was willing to renounce everything for the sake of the goal. In his way of life, his devotion to solitude and simplicity, he exemplified better than anyone else I personally knew the muni ideal extolled in many of the suttas of the Suttanipata, a work that guided his outlook and practice.
While I did not have any direct contact with Ven. Nyanadipa since I left Sri Lanka in 2002, it had always been a consolation to me to think that somewhere in the jungles of Sri Lanka he was present silently following in the footsteps of the ancient solitary sages. Now that he is gone it seems like a big empty gap has opened up in my mind. Nevertheless, I am confident that Ven. Nyanadipa will pass on to a fortunate rebirth and that his firm determination will lead him back to the path and to the quest for the Deathless.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bandarawela Nyanasumana:
Bhante and I first met at Thanjanthenna Monastery in 2008 through Ven. Vimalanyana Thero. Already from the first day, I had a very positive impression about Bhante.
Upon invitation from the monastery, Bhante had conducted Dhamma discussions for three years, and afterwards informed the Sangha that he would not conduct them anymore. On the day there was a meeting with Bhante together with the abbot, other Venerable monks and myself. In front of us all, Bhante informed us that he wishes to appoint me as Upastayaka (assistant), and that I am given permission at any given time to visit kutis or any locations that Bhante would dwell. This is how the Upastana started, eleven years ago. From that day till today, I delivered the promise as agreed to Bhante. Because of this, I got the opportunity to have many deep discussions with Bhante; on how to dwell in the forest, being alone in the forest, about Vinaya, Dhamma, especially about Vipassana. We had discussions for five years continuously. I was granted permission to visit once in every three months and sometimes, two months. And permission was given to visit anytime if an emergency situation arises. When I made a visit, Bhante tells me in advance when I should visit next.
Every time I made a visit, I had questions about Dhamma, mainly regarding my Vipassana meditation practice. Since I did not have profound knowledge, I had many questions regarding Samadhi and Pannya. All answers given brought to me lots of delight, and by putting those answers into practice, I was able to see many changes in life. And because of the answers given by Bhante, I was able to cruise smoothly in my meditation practice. Buddha has said that with a sappurisa you can master your practice, and I experienced this with Bhante wholeheartedly. Especially, I got the opportunity to learn the Sutta-pitaka from Bhante.
Throughout this time I observed and witnessed Bhante’s patience, moral conduct, Samadhi and wisdom. I firsthand believe that Bhante was extraordinary, as I have enough evidence to prove so, along with the things Bhante said. The Venerable was a very simple monk, was not attached to anything, did not have any worldly cravings, his only hope was to realize Nibbana. He always advised us to practice non attachment, conduct ourselves with purity without getting caught to defilements and to realize Nibbana without a delay.
Also, I want to especially mention one more thing: because of Bhante I was able to associate a set of truthful friends, monks and laymen. For the past 11 years, I have visited all kutis and villages that Bhante was using. Even in times I was busy travelling or having a busy schedule I tried to visit him. There were instances that I landed only to visit Bhante. These visits are known by my friends, Dinesh and Dishan. I especially want to bring to memory, in 2011 Bhante introduced me to Mr. Sidath Wettimuny, his brothers Mr Sunil and Mr Ranjan Wettimuny, Mr. Nimal, and Mr. Mithra. Because Bhante introduced me to them, I got the opportunity to associate with these kalyanamittas. From that day onwards, especially Mr Sidath and Mr Ranjan arranged everything whenever required. When Bhante informed me that he needs something, I used to inform Mr. Ranjan or Mr. Sidath and they quickly looked into it. They were very helpful from those days. Also, Chandana helped us a lot: he was there with me on many occasions. We visited Bhante, and assisted me in all transport needs as upasthayaka. When Bhante was not feeling well, Dishan helped to search information and find medicine for Bhante. And also, Mrs Siriwardena, especially wants to mention that she did even the smallest puja every time she went to visit Bhante. She did and collected a lot of good merits. All the upanthana I did, was never done by myself alone. It was a collective effort taken forward with understanding, together.
The bond with me and Bhante was amazing. We have never argued or fought over any matter. I had tremendous respect for Bhante, and Bhante had special attention for me. He has told me many things about his life, Dhamma, about things to do in future. His wise advice about everything is great education for me, and this is what I gained from Bhante. I think it is the greatest blessing for me in my life, getting to associate such a supreme sappurisa person as Bhante. He was like a father to me. Because of my love and respect for Bhante I would do anything for him. He was truthful, he observed sila and conducted himself well for 50 years, developed samadhi and pannya meditation. Bhante’s experiences also do match with the word of Buddha. Also, Lord Buddha’s sermons matched with Bhante’s. So, Bhante was truly a son of Buddha, who conducted himself accordingly. I like to thank everyone who helped and who were there.
Finally, I would like to say that Bhante has left a great message with us. If we follow this message, I can say without a doubt that we will reach Nibbana and bliss. I like to remind that even though Bhante is not among us now any longer, his teachings are eternal. And if we practice according to it, we will also reach the most high state of Nibbana.
Ven. Bhikkhu Hiriko:
The Silent Sage – Bhante Ñāṇadīpa
A time inevitably comes when even legends and heroes pass away, as it has now come to Bhante Ñāṇadīpa. I count myself as very fortunate to have met him a number of times, even though he was always hard to approach.
I remember very well my first trip to see the Māhathera, for it had been my greatest wish for many years to meet a real forest monk who had great respect for the same teacher as I did: Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera. Geographically, Bhante Ñāṇadīpa was not too far from the place I was staying at that time, but the journey to reach him was a long one. After the usual slow pace of travel on Sri Lankan roads we turned onto a very obscure mud road which passed a few lonely houses. And then, after a few kilometres, we turned onto an even more remote road, which was hard on the vehicle. At some point the car could go no further, and we had to walk by foot for some time to reach a small group of houses. Is this the place? No, no, not yet! Behind one of the houses was a path, and that path led to a mountain. So we walked for another hour in the jungle, where elephants could be seen, and after a sweaty climb, there was Bhante, peacefully sitting on his chair. His kuti was simple, without a front wall. There was a hard wooden bed, a tiny table, and a small cupboard for some medicines. But he was only staying at that place for a few weeks; he actually lived in an even more remote area. Bhante’s practice was that as soon as his place of residence got too known by the public he would simply walk away to another location. And over time, the more he sought seclusion, the more mysterious he became to others – and consequently more famous. And the more famous he became, the more he sought seclusion. For years fame continued to chase him, but with his ageing and ailing body it was increasingly difficult for him to avoid its unwanted consequences.
But his life of seclusion has actually created a wonderful community of monks who are inspired to live in a similar way. Bhante Ñāṇadīpa moved many times from one kuti to another, and those empty huts have then been occupied by other monks who wanted to walk in his footprints. Eventually, a slightly more organized community was created, called Laggala Sangha. As with any community it has scheduled meetings – that is, at the rate of three times… a year! If one is already a competent hermit, then even fewer meetings need be attended. The monks inspired by him didn’t have to receive much verbal instruction from Bhante. Rather, his lifestyle was the great lesson, his determination strengthened their motivation, and his faith was their inspiration. In this community there was no interest in superficial traditions, ordination Nikāyas, the kind of robe one was wearing, etc. Nor was there any tendency to form personality cults. What brought those monks together was pure faith in the Buddha’s Teaching and a regard for the Buddha’s words alone as the most authoritative teaching. There was only Dhamma and Vinaya – an attitude that was standard and normal in ancient times.
When interacting with him Bhante Ñāṇadīpa could certainly be a bit intimidating. And his toughness and physical strength were remarkable. My first meeting with him was on my 31st birthday, and he was over 70 at that time. Yet I felt that I was much more fragile than him: I found his lifestyle too hard for me. During that fist meeting I also quickly realized how sharp and clear his memory was! It was a real battle for me not to embarrass myself with a weak memory, and I realized that true age should not be measured by the age of the body, but how one nourishes one’s mind: not by indulging in laziness, but by putting oneself out of one’s comfort zone!
Our future meetings were less intimidating, and my relationship with Bhante become warmer. I also had the great fortune to take care of him when he was ill, and we had a chance to talk for many hours. I listened with great interest to his stories of his life as a monk, even those from 50 years ago. His recollections were always incredibly clear and detailed. We also had occasionally a laugh, something that is, for many, hard to imagine, since Bhante is generally well-composed and serious. But his face always brightened when he had a chance to discuss Dhamma. That was his passion. He would quite quickly dismiss pointless talk and walk away, but for the Dhamma he was ready to sacrifice his seclusion, especially in later years when he got older. It was great for me to be around him and talk to him … well, until he started to quote too many Sutta verses in Pali to me! He was probably the greatest expert in Pali of our time, and I the worst. It was hard to hide my confused expression when his high Pali was spoken, and I always hoped he didn’t notice that. But that encouraged me to improve in this regard, too.
I was also able to use some sweet-talking to convince Bhante to translate some Suttas – at least the Aṭṭhakavagga and the Pārāyanavagga. I told him that he was probably the only qualified person to translate those verses. He was an expert in Pali, especially in verses (gāthās), and he was living the life as described in those Suttas. He originally rejected that proposal, but in 2016 he translated the Aṭṭhakavagga and in 2018 also the Pārāyanavagga. These Suttas have been published under the title The Silent Sages of Old. I am still very much grateful for that and still honour that book as my little Bible. Unfortunately, that is his only legacy for the world. There was an idea to also translate the Theragāthā, but sickness prevented him from doing so.
Bhante loved jungle life. He knew the natural world, the plants, the life of animals – especially elephants and snakes. There are really many anecdotes of his encounters with dangerous and deadly animals, too many to include here. He loved to spend hours just walking on jungle paths while constantly reciting gāthās, especially those from the Sutta-nipāta. He carried with him only two notebooks in which he wrote all the gāthās that he wanted to know by heart. (One of these notebooks will soon be available for the public.) He scarcely read anything other than Suttas in Pali. Also, he really owned only what he could put into his little bag. There was nothing else! If he received gifts that he didn’t need he immediately gave them away to other monks. And if he received something useful, like a torch or a compass, he then discarded the old. He never accumulated anything. In Laggala and elsewhere in Sri Lanka his huts were always built with only three walls, the fourth side being simply open to the jungle’s life. And sleeping? Three hours is more than enough. I was really impressed by that. He didn’t need stuff, fame, people; his wealth was freedom, Dhamma, and – who knows – maybe the company of devas.
Bhante Ñāṇadīpa became seriously ill three years ago. We sensed at the time that things would go downhill, physically, from that point. The last time I saw him was in February – it was a goodbye meeting, I felt. Many great and caring monks were around him helping and protecting his seclusion as much as they could. I contributed only a little, but I was one of the lucky ones for having gotten to know him better than some. And now he is truly and completely secluded from us. His eagerness to understand Dhamma was tremendous: he wanted to live longer only for the sake of attaining arahatship in this lifetime. We will never really know the degree to which he succeeded, but the kind of tireless fight against defilements he exhibited will surely destroy them completely, and finally.
Ven. Tathaloka Bhikkhuni:
I’ve been thinking to share with you our conversation with the venerable Thero. Actually, it was not so much a conversation, as Ven Pasāda Bhikkhu, the Thero’s attendant, had warned us so strongly not to engage in any conversation that could be tiring to him, with the wish to protect his health recovery.
So, much was listening, with the venerable Thero bringing up these topics entirely on his own initiative. The topics were two in a way, but also were interrelated, interconnected with one another in the way the venerable Thero spoke of them.
First, he asked after our welfare here in Sri Lanka, mentioning he has heard the situation for nuns and bhikkhunis is fraught with difficulties, with it hard to find good teachers or well-supported conducive environments for women renunciates to learn from good renunciate teachers and practice the Buddha’s teaching well and blessedly in the traditional ways. He sympathised with us about this, and expressed compassion for our hardships and challenges, and also expressed great pity that it should be so in a Theravada Buddhist culture which so prides itself on preservation of its ancient traditions. While at the heart, the very core of these traditions and their essential purpose/s is not being well supported with even many hindrances and hurdles set up to such practice sometimes even by those what are charged with being guardians of the Sasana or who are self-appointed as such.
Hearing that we’d been in Anuradhapura then, he spoke about the cultures of worship which have developed that can make it hard to find a quiet place for meditation practice or quiet contemplation in these great ancient sites. With us remarking on the quiet serenity of one place we’d visited where there are quietly practicing women contemplatives, Anula Devi Cetiya, we also expressed our concern that on the last visit there recently, we saw a large pile of gravel and pile of sand in the midst of the site, and then learned the local hotel had recently gained permit from the Archeology Dept to build a large, new Buddha image in the center of the site. The nuns said were told it will have no impact on their lives. The Thero quickly affirmed and agreed with my unstated concern that local people will then come to worship all the time and spoil and overrun this otherwise so pristine and tranquil ancient world heritage bhikkhunis’ site, currently so valuable and conducive for practice.
This led to a discussion of the masses being encouraged to spend their most valuable assets of time and money on the development of more and more Buddha images, rather than on preservation and support of the things of far greater value in the Sasana.
As dusk was falling on the forest hermitage, the sound of loud amplified music from the city below started to rise and fill the forest hermitage. Meanwhile, foreign tourist hikers also hiked up to the doorstep and needed to be directed away. The Thero mentioned with some strength the noise problem, and how the amplifiers are filling even the forest hermitages making it hard to find any places on the Island of true silence and seclusion. His perception of this is of it being of great harm and disservice to the very heart of the tradition, the quiet and secluded renunciate practice of recluses and sages in the Sasana, and the ability for the practice to deepen and bear excellent fruit. As well as an environment where arahantas would like to stay, a culture supportive of arahantas and the natural inclinations of arahants. If the Theravada Buddhist Island culture here is not supportive of the deeper practices and of the natural abiding inclinations of arahantas, then how can it truly be called a “traditional Theravada Buddhist culture”?
He then apologised sincerely several times for speaking so, as it is a criticism. But feeling that it is important to understand and to give care, with compassion for those who have good roots and could deepen their practice here, and for those whose practice is deep already, that there are supportive environments for them to stay as a great merit and blessing for the Island. Also compassion for those who do genuinely wish to preserve and support the heart of the true heritage of this ancient path of the Buddhas’ here and in our world, that they direct their efforts rightly and wisely.
Then, with dark falling, it was time for us to depart.
I asked myself afterward, “why would he say these things in our presence?” The only answer that arose is that the Thero might think that we have some connection with those who are able to well receive the message.
(From a letter to her friends, February 2018)
Ven. Samanera Pasanna:
For the first years of my life as a meditating monk in Sri Lanka I knew about Bhante Nyanadipa from various inspiring tales. Depending on the source of the story it told about a monk flying over rivers, braving wild animals in extremely remote forests, or a monk whose practice of Dhamma had gained remarkable depths in single-minded, dedicated striving towards the final goal of extinguishment.
So, maybe not even consciously, we as young monks started to feel his inspiration that a committed practice was possible, and necessary in order to achieve the real goal of Dhamma. So after years of training in a monastery-setting I decided to give it a try myself and enhance my meditation by retreating deeply into the jungle, relying solely on the frugal support of local village people.
During this period I came to understand the immense benefits of solitude, which I might never have had the courage to face without the example of Bhante Nyanadipa. So, I knew why he did it.
At the same time I started to realise that it made no sense to just try and copy his lifestyle 100%, to try and be another mini-version of him. Still I always looked up to him as a role model. Also because I felt that here is someone who was doing it his own way, in the early years even against everyone’s advice. Therefore I took that to be an inspiration here, too.
Later I had a chance to live for some time with Bhante at the Forest Hermitage and attend to him. Since we both came to stay there for the same reason – an inflamed stomach that couldn’t take the spicy village food any longer – I was able to give him some tips on how to handle his gastritis. Of course we had many occasions to walk the pleasant forest around the Forest Hermitage and discuss Dhamma.
His Sutta knowledge was excellent and although his individual interpretations did not always convince me, again I felt deep inspiration for his courage to go his own way in terms of Dhamma-interpretation.
Later other people in Colombo took over the responsibility of looking after him and our contact ended. Still I feel blessed that I had the opportunity to come to know Bhante Nyanadipa so closely and personally. He, his determination to go his own way to liberation will inspire me for the rest of my life. A just in case he isn’t yet, may he be completely free from all samsaric dukkha!