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in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn
Berries, hermits, and undreamed dreams
Bhikkhu VinVen. Vineetha aged 17 with his grandparents, minutes before his ordination as a novice.
Bhikkhu Vineetha first came to our UK monasteries on a short visit from Sri Lanka with Ven. Ñanananda in 2003. He came again in 2005 to spend the vassa at Cittaviveka, afterwards requesting full ordination as a bhikkhu (he had been practising for twelve years as a novice) from Luang Por Sumedho. He continues his training with Luang Por, and with his old friend Ajahn Vimalo, at Amaravati. He kindly agreed to write something about his experience coming from Sri Lanka to England.
I was born on 31 January 1977 as the second of three children in my family. Our home town was Embilipitiya, in the southern part of Sri Lanka. Both my parents worked as civil officers in a government office there, and I studied until age 17 in the local school, earning a GCE A Level. In thinking about my childhood, I like to remember the times I stayed with my grandparents ‐ where I went for almost every school vacation. Like all children, I used to wait for my vacation to arrive. I wanted to spend time with my dear grandparents. It was the most joyful time I had in my childhood world.
My grandfather was a village rice farmer and my grandmother helped him with household work, although actually, she was the boss. Their life was extremely innocent and relied on the earth, with a few primitive possessions. Most of the villagers were rice farmers, or rubber or cinnamon growers. Even though they were not very literate, they were far more intelligent than I thought and clever enough to teach me many things about life that literate people didn’t know.
Village life was unforgettable and fascinating, making me feel innocent and heart-warming emotions. The breeze coming over the rice fields gave me a feeling that the world is harmless; it harmonized my world and me into delightful dreams. I used to work in the fields with my grandfather as best I could. He worked hard. Even though I couldn’t give him enormous support physically, I tried my best. Eating my meal in the fields with the other farmers was full of happiness, and made me see the world in a very pleasant way. When I ate my meal in the field, I tasted my food a hundred times more than at home.
The rice fields need a lot of water to plant seeds in them. So there are many little fish all the time swimming in the little brooks and waterways. It was fun to count the fish, counting how many stripes they have, guessing who is whose father and mother, who is the leader and that kind of thing. As an adult today, I feel a bit embarrassed when I remember the conversations I had with them in my mind. When I was all alone, I would silently speak with the fish.
The wildlife in the village was rich and lush. There were many kinds of wild fruit that encouraged naughty little boys to come and enjoy. I used to pick the different types of wild berries until all the little berry bushes turned purple. It still makes me happy when I happen to see a berry tree full of fruit. Finding a bush full of berries was like discovering a valuable treasure. I had my little friends who accompanied me whenever I went to pick wild berries. I remember how greedy I was when I collected them. But I could not break the children’s law of sharing them with all the others! Fortunately, they were kind to me because I was a guest; treating your guest first is always important and I got that lavishly from my friends.
All this was unknown to my grandmother, as she wouldn’t let me go to the forest because I was her responsibility, to be returned safely to my father. She was wise: going to the forest is a risk. There are many snakes, pythons and other dangerous things one might encounter in the forest. She always warned me about pythons and snakes. I was totally unaware of their danger.
Our playthings were all handmade by me or my friends with readily available things. Even our rubber ball was made of little rubber scraps we could find in the plantations. To make a toy, we only had local materials. To make a little cart we used parts of old rubber slippers, wood sticks, and threads we took from banana tree trunks in our fields.
April was New Year for us. That was the richest time for fruit trees, especially cashew fruits, mangoes, wild berries, and other more obscure tropical fruits. At that time it’s impossible to keep children from going to eat cashew fruits in the jungle. We used to go to the forest to eat cashew fruits and cashew nuts: it would be a whole day’s job with a few friends. To take the cashew nuts out, we had to make a fire and burn them in it. Eating excessive amounts of cashew fruits gives you a rough throat and sometimes makes you sick. Getting these symptoms a few times during that month was usually unavoidable, and this was the evidence for the adults to know what we’d been doing, even though we tried to hide it with vain tricks. They were hard to fool.
Like many others, my grandmother had a little plot of land growing cinnamon. The whole village smelt of cinnamon ‐ even people’s clothes were full of a cinnamon fragrance. Even now, whenever I travel somewhere where cinnamon grows, I’m gladly reminded of my childhood with my grandparents. That fragrance is so close to my life.
My grandmother had a separate mud kitchen. Her kitchen was her life and territory: no one could go in. I always loved the delicious food my grandmother cooked. In fact, she was the best gourmet chef I ever met. I later found out the secret of why her food was so delicious. It’s because the cooking pots she used to cook with were all clay and at least twenty years old. I had heard that she had been using the same set of clay pots to cook food since my father was a child. It’s wonderful. I didn’t know how she could protect all those clay pots for such a long time, up to my generation. She was strictly protective of every clay pot: even accidentally breaking one would get me returned home. Sometimes I felt, “Why does she love her clay pots more than me?”. Reflecting on it now, I can guess her reasoning. Now I understand what wonderful lessons she tried to give me about frugality, love, respect and mindfulness in our life. I regret that I couldn’t learn or at least respect her philosophy of caring for even inanimate clay pots. It takes time to learn a lesson. We start to regret after a long time or sometimes even never understand at all. I would be really happy if I could have appreciated her lessons. I think it was because I was young and she was old.
My hero and protector in the village was my uncle. I thought he was bigger than anyone in the whole village. I thought he was unbeatable and whatever he did could not be wrong, and that as long as I slept in his room I would be safe from ghosts. He used to tell me spooky stories. I loved him because he didn’t stop me from my mischievous activities.
These childhood times in the village were unique and unforgettable in my life. It was such an innocent, harmless and non-competitive world. This time in “heaven” would end when my father came to collect me for school, which was like a “hell” in comparison. It was like going back to the battlefield, where merciless people always wanted to make me how they thought I should be.
I was 17 years old when the sudden change in my life began after watching a movie about the life of a hermit. Immediately after I saw it I decided to become a hermit. I went to see the monk who lived in my village temple. He was surprised at my change but extended his hand to help me. He was anxious that he would get blamed by my father if I left home, but as he couldn’t ignore my request he at least pointed me to somewhere I could do meditation retreats. Then one day he took me to a little monastery about 50 miles away from my home. As soon as I saw this monastery, I decided it would be an ideal place to renounce the world. We arranged a date for me to come and stay with the monks there, but by the time we came back home my father had already come to know what I’d done. He told me very strictly that I should not leave home and he scolded the monk who helped me to find the monastery.
But somehow, with my mother’s blessing I found a way to escape from home to go for a one-month meditation retreat. My mother felt that at least I would be a better person after the retreat, and she was not much worried since she thought I would come back even before one month. I will always appreciate her daring to clear my way to escape the world that I didn’t want to live in. I later learnt that she was blamed by my father for letting me leave. I heard also my father cried on the day I left even though he was a very strong-minded man. It was the only time I know of that he cried for someone.I took a three-week retreat, and after about one month I decided to stay in the monastery and become a monk. But there was one problem: getting permission from my father. In the Buddhist tradition one cannot ordain without permission from one’s parents. A few months went by, but still I didn’t get my father’s consent. One day, unexpectedly, my father came to visit me at the monastery. He asked me to come back home. I refused. Eventually, he said I could do whatever I like ‐ that was the consent I needed. I was overjoyed.
Ajahn Vimalo and Ven. Vineetha together at Amaravati.
So I became a novice there in 1994, at the Meditation Centre, Lellopitiya, Ratnapura, with Ven. Bhante Piyananda Maha Nayaka Thero, who later became head of the Sri Lanka Swejin Nikaya, and I studied the Pali language and Buddhist scriptures. Over time I stayed at other monasteries, later including the Island Hermitage, but when I stayed with Ven. Bhante Pemasiri Nayaka Thero at the Lanka Vipassana Bhavana Centre, this was where my world became much bigger ‐ including first seeing Western monks.
Ajahn Vimalo was the very first Western monk I ever saw. I was so amazed by this big, impressive white-skinned monk full of joyfulness ‐ I could only peek at him with wide eyes from a distance. It was something I could never have imagined, English-speaking foreign monks. It’s embarrassing now, but when I was about six years old I thought westerners came from space. I had seen pictures of astronauts landing on the moon, and they had big backpacks on their spacesuits. So when some westerners came to visit my town wearing big rucksacks, I thought they had landed their saucer in the forest. When they left, I hid under a table and peeked through a window at them, afraid they might take me to their planet as they waved back at the other children with their rucksacks on. This was just a silly child’s fantasy, but when I met Ajahn Vimalo it really expanded my world, like the frog in the well that sees a bigger world when he comes out to the surface. Meeting him brought many things into my life. It is because of him I was eventually able to come to Amaravati.
Later I stayed in a kuti near a Sri Lankan monk who spoke English named Ven. Sunetta, and he encouraged me to read his books of Ajahn Chah. I didn’t know English so I was not interested, but he translated some passages for me and I loved what I heard. He helped me with many words and gave me an English dictionary and books of Ajahn Chah. I learned English by slowly translating them until I understood. I might be the only person Ajahn Chah ever taught English to. I was surprised when I later learned he could not speak it himself !
Eventually, I found a forest hut where I spent an unforgettable period of my life. That little hut was my heaven for some time. I lived two miles into the jungle. It was enjoyable, but the lifestyle had many risks: mainly from wild animals, such as elephants, leopards, snakes and fierce insects. I was always afraid of encountering an elephant or a leopard. Fortunately I never met any elephants, only elephant dung sometimes. Somehow I managed to stay there for one year without being harmed by any of them. Every day I was woken by the singing of birds. There were many varieties. I liked one kind especially, because their song almost sounded like my name. I had a beautifully pure river in which to quench my thirst and bathe. Everything in that jungle was intact, without human interference. I was the first person that drank and bathed in the river; it was as if flowing from some kind of heaven ‐ like I was living in a heaven.
(left)Receiving alms in Sri Lanka.
I used to go for almsround every day to a little village where about 25 families lived. Half of the month I went to another village about 5 miles away. I ate only one meal a day. I would be able to eat everything they gave me because I was extremely hungry after waiting 24 hours without food. The people in the village were poor and primitive. Their main form of wealth was water buffaloes. There was no properly accessible road, not even a push-bike in the whole village, let alone other things. Most of the villagers were rice farmers and a few were hunters. They treated me like their own son. They were always anxious for me until I came back to the village each day ‐ especially at times of heavy lightening. Then they saw that I was still alive, and they felt happy.
By Years later, near the kuti where he read Ajahn Chah’s books.
this time I had read books of teachings of Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho. Their teachings were wonderful and I wanted to keep them in my mind. Wherever I lived, I tried to reflect on Ajahn Chah’s teachings as best I could. I liked the forest tradition even then as I do now. Eventually, with the help of Ajahn Vimalo and my longtime friend Ven. Ñanananda, I managed to come to Amaravati.
As you can probably guess, coming to Amaravati seems like a miracle to me whenever I consider my past. It is almost unthinkable that I am here today. One thing I can certainly say is I could never have even dreamed that something about me would
Ven. Vineetha in front of the garden shed kuti at Amaravati.
someday be published in the Forest Sangha Newsletter when I first read a copy many years ago in Sri Lanka. Things happen in such unexpected ways. Dreams can come true even though you don’t think they can. There are things in your life that you’d like to reach but seem unreachable, yet finally become reachable in wonderful and unexpected ways. Everything - coming to stay here, and publishing this article about me is like an “undreamed dream” coming true in my life. Everything is unexpected, not sure, not predictable.
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