Venerable Prof. Dhammavihari Thera

Professor Dhirasekera of the University of Peradeniya at around the age of 60 renounced lay life and joined the Sangha. His initial years he spent in a temple in a remote area. Once he received full ordination he moved to reside at the Narada Centre down Sarana Road, Colombo 8. This is where many of us Colombo resident Buddhists got to know this monk who had had a very prestigious academic life which included post graduate studies in Cambridge University and founding the Pali and Buddhist University first within the Vidyalankara Pirivena, later the University of Kelaniya. He was principally credited with making this Buddhist University autonomous and moving it to its present site in Colombo.

In this appreciation I wish to deal with personality attributes of Ven. Dhammavihari which distinguished him from most other monks and endeared him to Buddhist devotees.

He was persistent in exhorting the devotees who gathered on poya days at Narada Centre to work out their deliverance from samsaric existence with diligence. More prosaicly would he request people to observe sil for a 24 hour period, at least. He derided the habit of observing the eight precepts from six in the morning up until six in the evening. "That is not observing sil" he would comment. Another request was for abstaining from a meal at night at least once a week – a very healthy habit.

He went strictly by the word of the Buddha, by the Tripitaka in his preaching and writing. Often he would lament the interpretations given the Dhamma by monks which were contrary to, or aberrations of the Buddha Word. He had a distinctive way of preaching in a mixture of Sinhala and English. That may have jarred on some ears but it was consequent to his wanting to reach his listeners and have what he said ingrained in their minds.

His day to day life was a mixture of strict orthodoxy and slight departures. He abided strictly by the vinaya rules but did not conform to the traditional image of the distant monk. He spoke easy with people, often addressing an older woman as sister; and bringing in humour into a conversation. He always had time for people. In fact, a woman at the monk’s funeral told this writer how only a day before the monk’s death, she had visited him with her son. Ven. Dhammavihari was visibly tired, having just returned from a four day visit to India, but kept talking for an hour and a half, very eruditely on the Dhamma.

I used to meet him on my early morning walks. A yellow robed figure would emerge from the dawn haze that enveloped the Independence Square area. Wondering what to say, I’d stutter but soon enough was set easy by his cheery "Good morning sister! Good day to be out so early." His walks had to be terminated with his heart condition deteriorating.

He innovated for sure, moving out of seclusion and into our midst for our good. He started Sunday afternoon meetings with parents and their children at the Narada Centre where he would speak to the children, coming down effortlessly to their level. He initiated the chanting of the Angulimala pirit to expectant mothers, a very effective way of giving them confidence in the efficacy of these stanzas that were preached by the monk Angulimala during the Buddha’s time when a woman was heard to be in the throes of childbirth pangs.

A wonderful innovation was the chanting of the Dhamma Cakkappavattana Sutta (Setting Rolling the Wheel of the Dhamma) on maase poya evenings (moonless nights) in the garden of the Narada Centre. Pahanas would light up the area and a Buddha statue would be brought down. Led by Ven. Chandakiththi, monks from the Bhikkhu Training Centre Maharagama and Ven. Dhammavihari would chant the Buddha’s first sermon preached to the five ascetics at Sarnath in the eighth week of his enlightenment. The ambience on these dark evenings was piety mixed with relaxed absorption in the wonder of the Buddha’s life and Teaching. In reflection, one praised Ven Dhammavihari for this innovative activity.

He insisted that it was of paramount importance to nurture children in a Buddhist home atmosphere and have them initiated into the culture of the religion early in life and more particularly at teenage stage. Thus was he invited by me one evening to meet a couple of adults and very especially grand nieces. He spoke easy with them and I remember one bright spark of around 14 chatting equally easy with the venerable monk, much to his approval of this spontaneous ingénue.

He engaged himself in Dhammaduta activities. Being both erudite and English speaking, he was much in demand to preach in countries both in the west and east. Thus his visits to the UK, USA, Malaysia, Singapore and several others. He had returned from a seminar in Patna in India just days before his death, and as mentioned, seemed tired after the rushed five day trip. A day or two later he was found fallen by his bed having suffered a stroke early in the morning. He was conscious and remained thus until he passed away early Saturday 13th. I was told that one of the last acts of his was to raise his hands, using the unaffected one to lift the other, and say sadhu to a Buddha he mentally conjured.

It was Ven. Dhammavihari’s practice to arrive from his ground level room to the first floor for ‘heel dane’ early in the morning. Rushing in with breakfast for the monks, one was delighted to see Ven. Dhammavihari seated in the sitting area with his plate like bowl in hand. Greater pleasure was it to serve him the first meal of the day after 18 hours of no solid food since he partook of the food one served generously, with the obvious message conveyed he enjoyed and appreciated one’s effort. In deference to him and monks of foreign birth one often took a more ‘western’ breakfast instead of the usual string hoppers and kiributh. He would always thank the giver, not only in the traditional way of joining the Head Monk, Ven. Gunasiri, but would also say a thank you after the meal.

He was in his late eightees and was, we are sure, while accepting the fact that death could come at any time, planning more preaching, foreign trips and writing. His conversations with Kumar de Silva a year or two ago on TV on poya days were very popular. He was gifted a further lease of life by Ven. Mettavihari of the Narada Centre. I am sure he will disapprove of this bit in my article, Ven. Mettavihari I mean. But it’s an incident that calls for re-telling. About five years ago, I presume, when the two monks climbed up three flights of steps at the Narada Centre (a lift has now been installed), Ven. Mettavihari had commented on the fact that his older companion in robes was panting heavily. Moving from merely commenting, the monk arranged for Ven. Dhammavihari to consult a heart specialist. Result and just in time: a pacemaker was inserted, the monk’s heart having worsened considerably. Hence it would not be wrong to say that Ven. Dhammavihari would have died at least a half decade earlier if not for Ven. Mettavihari and members of the Dayaka Sabha of the Narada Centre.

A second memory. A nephew was critically ill in the nursing home. His brother, a medical specialist, knowing the end was near, advised the chanting of pirit. The only two relatives available to go for a monk were the patient’s sister and I, their aunt. We drove to the Narada Cente, my niece at the wheel, and requested a monk accompany us to chant to a patient breathing his last. A gentleman who had come to invite a monk to chant at his taking residence in his new home did not consent to delay until the more urgent matter was attended to. Ven. Dhammavihari heard the request being made by me of the man who had come for a monk. The man’s refusal to accommodate an urgent need had the monk saying he would come to the nursing home. The remarkable feature of his generosity was that he had had an eye operation two days previous. In spite of this and the held belief that hospitals are full of germs, Ven. Dhammavihari, requesting Ven Mettavihari to accompany him, overlooked the fact that they were to travel in a car with two females. Not for him such rigid traditions in the face of a dire need. His metta and sense of duty overcame the held prejudice of traveling in the same car with females. The monks arrived just in time to chant pirit as the patient’s life ebbed away.

Thus the practicality and concern for his devotees and a life of real service. Ven. Dhammavihari was a ‘new’ kind of Buddhist monk and all the more welcome. His death need not be mourned; rather should his life be celebrated as one of eight decades and more of service to university students and then in the Dhamma. The long procession that followed his cortege to the cemetery – of students, academia, admirers, devotees and more than a hundred monks was testimony to the greatness of this monk.

May he attain Nibbana!

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