For a remarkable man of peace who is currently on a worldwide teaching pilgrimage to every continent, Bhante Y. Wimala certainly had the most humble of beginnings. He comes from the land of Serendipity, from a Buddhist temple in the republic of Sri Lanka, where he was ordained at the age of fourteen.
The story goes that an 18th-century English author coined the word “serendipity,” to describe the tiny, teardrop island off the southern tip of India that would pass through Portuguese, Dutch and British rule as Ceylon and would later become known in Hindu epic as Sri Lanka, Resplendent Land.
Like many other Sri Lankan children, Bhante Wimala, the third son of nine children, enjoyed an idyllic childhood in the village of Yatiravana, bathing in the Ravana River, for which the village was named, listening to ancient stories in the evenings after a long day of boyhood games. Playing cricket and dashing barefoot with his brother, Siri, 18 months older, through farmlands and rice paddies, the young boy got into his share of mischief.
His birth name was Amarasinagha, “the eternal (or) deathless lion.” Years later, renowned throughout the world as a man of peace, Bhante Wimala would marvel at the sometimes agressive antics of his youth, “…the many fights I had as a boy.” He muses now that his naming might have foretold something about his early nature.
The family thrived in what Bhante Wimala recalls was “middle class style,” given the Sri Lankan culture of the late Fifties and early Sixties, when he was young. “I had a wonderful, magical childhood in the heart of this land called Serendipity,” he wrote in a chapter called “My Life in Serendipity,” in the book edited by Franklin Abbot, BOYHOOD: GROWING UP MALE, A CROSS-CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE. Of his Sri Lankan childhood, Bhante Wimala says, “We never had the knowledge that something was missing. Everything was at hand.” Demonstrating the great compassion for which he later become widely known, Bhante Wimala says, “As I considered how snugly the whole universe fit me back then, I can’t help but feel sad for the large and confusing world that most children know,”
The parents of Bhante Wimala were respected elders of the village, his father a “gurunance” (esoteric healer and astrologer) who farmed and helped his wife run a restaurant. The stars were certainly smiling in the early summer of 1958, when five sisters and a brother helped welcome the infant, the second from the youngest, into the world. He would have one more sister. Embraced with open heart and arms by his generous, warmly nurturing mother and strict father, by his “…delightfully eccentric Aunt Tilaka,” and by a village tradition that was wrapped in security, respect and love, Bhante Wimala sprouted and grew strong in his faith and courage. Love and gentleness mixed with fierce tutoring to produce the stout, brave heart of this future monk and teacher.
For his father, Bhante Wimala felt “…a respectful sort of fear,” conditioned by the older man’s fierce, firm discipline of his children. Caning of children was considered proper discipline back then, and the young, mischievous boy often felt the fall of his father’s cane across his dutifully outstretched hand or across his buttocks. But the child also had his father’s power to fear. He recalls especially frightening initiations into the village culture, when he would witness his father in one of his shamanic ceremonies.
As the village healer, his father often had to perform exorcisms. Bhante Wimala describes one in BOYHOOD, recalling how the men turned out in masks and costumes to assist his father with the exorcism of a demonic spirit. Drums beat loud rhythms into the night, horns blasted terrifying notes as he cowered under the table, incense choking his nostrils. The one episode he described grew even more heart-stopping when the demon came out of the patient.
If fierceness was one molder of a young mind, the other great influence in his life was the woman who gave birth to him. As a child and as an adult, Bhante Wimala adored his mother. “She loved us for ourselves,…a feeling that remains alive in me today. She was, and is, a living goddess to us.” He recalls how close he was to his mother, who always taught through patience and humor. Gentle, believing that she would be killing, his mother kept chickens but refused to boil eggs. “And so, I think that reverence for life is the most important quality I inherited from my mother,” says Bhante Wimala.
It was the tradition to send one child to the temple, and for the sake of piety and the family’s community standing, Bhante Wimala’s father sent his first son. However, after receiving and examining the young lad at the temple, the older monks determined that this was not the one who was destined to become a monk. It was the young third son they chose, and so Amarasinagha was ordained at the age of thirteen and given the name Wimala, “without stain” or, colloquially, “pure one.” The day before his departure, the young monk learned something unexpected about his father.
“It was quite rare for a man to show his feelings, especially my father,” he recalls, “but he hugged me and wept the day before my ordination, the most special show of tenderness he had displayed.” Bhante Wimala recalls that his father, an honorable man who differed from most Asian men of the times because he never beat his wife, had long regarded his second son his favorite. A devout Buddhist, he was torn between his great reverence for the Buddha and his favorite son.
Training in Hinayana (or Therevada) Buddhism for seven years, Bhante Wimala studied the many stories about the Buddha. His teachers brought his restless and playful nature under their guidance and schooled him in meditation. When he was twenty-one, the young monk made a startling decision. He decided to interpret the ancient charge of Gotama, the Buddha, to his first 64 trainees–“Monks, go forth”– in a wider arc than was traditionally cut by monks. He decided to travel to every continent, to every nation and peoples, to teach and to spread peace.
On the eve of his great step out into the vast, unknown world beyond his island, Bhante Wimala had a dream that set the tone of his journey. He was frightened and full of uncertainties. In this dream, he discovered a great teacher, one he had long hoped to meet, who seemed to know him instinctively, personally. “Follow your heart,” the wise teacher said. “You will be blessed and guided, and you will always be given what you need as you go forth.”
At the age of twenty-two, he left for India, the first leg of his remarkable journey, where he would study Yoga and meditation and prepare for the life he felt called to undertake. Already, the island of Serendipity was undergoing massive modernizing changes, plunging it into strife, conflict and government upheavals. Sri Lanka had become prey to all manner of modern maladies, including not enough jobs, not enough food. In spite of rich rice harvests, Sri Lanka’s imports now exceed exports.
Beyond the familiar world of the East, Bhante Wimala went forth with little more than a begging bowl and a saffron robe. What a contrast the lifestyle and faith of this simple monk offered in Western lands, sick with despair, materialism and stress. His message was not of conversion to Buddhism, per se, but to a way of being kind, loving and patient. In fact, when asked if he has conversion aspirations, he says, “I cannot make little Buddhists; Buddhism is a way of life that is chosen.”
To comprehend Bhante Wimala’s origins and the basis of his teachings, it may be helpful to study the Twelve Principles of Buddhism, to know of the Four Noble Truths leading away from suffering and craving, to hear the Noble eightfold Path of the Fourth Truth, to understand the Middle Way to Enlightenment that Gotama, the Buddha, walked and left as a legacy to millions. But children understand him right away. “Whenever I go to speak at a school,” the monk says, “the children are at first shy when they see my robes and how different I appear from anyone they know.” Here he identifies a common human frailty, the suspicion of diversity. “But after half an hour, they smile and want to touch me, and they are over their shyness,” reports Bhante Wimala.
Traveling to Canada in the early Eighties, Bhante Wimala continued his lecture and teaching schedule on the North American continent. He spoke at Jewish temples, at Christian churches, universities, collages at retreat and healing centers. Sometimes his topic would be Buddhism or an aspect of his early life, the importance of meditation and mental discipline, but most often Bhante Wimala taught himself. Out of his life story, he shared with his students and new friends everywhere the path to peace.
In 1984, while he was teaching in Canada, Bhante Wimala received news of his beloved mother’s death, and he was devastated. “I began to faint,” he recalls, “and I fainted repeatedly. I required medical attention, and it was such a great shock to me that it took me a long while to recover sufficiently to teach.” Then he realized that he carried within himself his mother and all that she had taught him. “I learned from her my voice, listened to others and celebrated there a lifestyle that is now quickly vanishing,” he recalls.
Fundamental to the way of Buddhism is the belief that in every grain of sand, there is a Buddha. The reverence for life and the attainment of Enlightenment as the purpose of life is a message that thousands of students have heard in one form or another from Bhante Wimala in the past fifteen years. When in 1986, he was invited to the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York, the monk found himself among like-spirited souls, many seeking inner knowledge and peace by a variety of paths, be they Buddhist, Sufi, Christian, Jewish or other. He returns to Omega as a faculty member each summer, greeted by enthusiastic students, and the program evaluation forms ring with praise. “I just have to sit in the same meditation room with him to feel peace,” said one participant. “This man has changed my life in only one week,” raves another.
With the founding of the Center for Conscious Evolution in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bhante Wimala and his students and friends began to send out a newsletter in 1990, with articles about Buddhism, guest columns from psychotherapists and scholars of Buddhism. “What Is New” is a column that Bhante Wimala writes, observations of his travels and life. His travel schedule sends him on about a 100,000-mile excursion each year, across the U.S. and abroad, criss-crossing the Atlantic to Italy, Portugal, England, Russia, Sweden, Poland, France and Germany and many other parts of the world.
In 1996, Bhante Wimala completed a book called LESSONS OF THE LOTUS, which a publisher asked him to write. The story of a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk in the West, the book covers his beliefs on Life, Love, Death, Meditation. In a series of cassette tapes published by the Center, Bhante Wimala gives what he believes is the key to life. “Meditation seems to lead to inner peace and is one of the surest and quickest ways to happiness,” he intones on the tape PEACE WITHIN.
Among the many stress-reducing and life-giving results of meditation, claims Bhante Wimala, are: reduced anxiety and increased inner stability; clearing the space in your mind that you need for love and compassion; makes the mind clear, calm and focused. “Meditation washes away our personal barriers against the deepest truths of our existence,” summarizes Bhante Wimala on his tapes INNER PEACE, THE HEALING SELF and PEACE WITHIN.
In a typical year–if his lifestyle can be called typical–Bhante Wimala criss-crosses the Atlantic several times, carrying his patient, loving message of peace. “In the heart of a person, no matter who he has been, there is a peaceful, patient and loving person,” he counsels the thousands who hunger to hear his message and to sit in his presence. He travels to Russia, Poland, Sweden, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, England, Africa and to many points across the United States. In a typical week, he may stay with several hosts, and these friends will range from very rich and influential to very uneducated, poor and simple. He goes where he knows he is needed, beside those dying of AIDS, beside the beds of orphans, into the churches and temples of the world and into the assembly halls and schoolrooms as well.
The presence of peace that has impressed countless pilgrims wherever Bhante Wimala goes, wherever he touches and calms their lives, can be felt on his tapes. He reassures his listeners, both those who will and those who won’t meet this remarkable monk. “It may give you heart to remember that you are at the same starting point of the Sidhartha Gotama who later became the Buddha so many years ago. So remember you are a sleeping Buddha and work diligently to discover your own Buddha nature and know the tast of feedom and spiritual awakening in this life.”
Linda Bulloch is the director of Hiraeth, A non- denominational retreat center in North Georgia. She is the auther of Tribe: A Journal Approach to the Other Self and a novel, Central Casting, and teaches writing at the University of Georgia.
Written in June, 1997