The Forest Sangha is
a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn
Ven. Vajiragnana Nayake Thera
The Most Venerable Dr Medagama Vajiragnana Nayake Thera passed away peacefully in London at Hammersmith Hospital on 15th December 2006, after several years of debilitating illness. He was 78 when he died, having lived in robes for 64 years.
Ven. Vajiragnana was born in Sri Lanka in 1928. He received samanera ordination at the age of 14, and was ordained as a bhikkhu in 1949. Following an extensive Buddhist education in Sri Lanka and India, he taught at Pirivena Teachers Training College in Ratmalana before travelling to London in 1966, where he was appointed Assistant Head of the London Buddhist Vihara. There, he established classes in Buddhism and Pali ‐ teaching for the first time in English. These classes drew many Western students; among them was Pat Stoll, the first woman to request ordination as a nun in our community.
In 1980 he was once again back in his native Sri Lanka, having taken up an invitation to be principal of the Pirivena Teachers Training College. He returned to the UK in 1984 to become Head of the London Buddhist Vihara, where he devoted his energies to serving the Sri Lankan Buddhist community and also to representing Buddhism at innumerable civic and religious functions throughout the UK. He was a founder member of the Interfaith Network for the U.K., and in 2006 was awarded an OBE for his work in promoting mutual respect and understanding among the numerous diverse faith communities in this country.
Ajahn Sumedho’s first meeting with Ven. Vajiragnana was in 1977 when he visited the newly reopened Hampstead Vihara in order to pay respects to Ven. Ajahn Chah, then on a brief visit to England. Since then Ven. Vajiragnana has been unfailing in his support of our communities ‐ offering help in many ways, large and small.
The most noteworthy occasion was the Amaravati Temple opening on 4th July 1999, for which he arranged an all-night chanting of parittas by monks of his community ‐ a wholehearted response, which was echoed by others of the Sri Lankan community who arranged for ceremonial drumming and traditional dancing to amplify the drama of the occasion.
We will miss Bhante Vajiragnana ‐ partly for the gestures of support that were always forthcoming, but ‐ more importantly ‐ for who he was as an exemplar of human values. I will always remember his gentle kindness, his modesty and self effacement, and his willingness to serve in whatever way he could; attending to the needs of his congregation, meeting other religious leaders or royalty with equal attentiveness. I would feel concern sometimes at his lack of consideration for his own needs. When invited to spend time in retreat or to rest at Amaravati or in the forest at Chithurst he would always respond: “But I must get back to the Vihara ‐ they need me there.”
Now he has gone, leaving a smile and warmth in the heart ‐ a sense of gladness at a life well lived and the encouragement to bring the values he exemplified to our own lives and practice.
May he know perfect peace.
Ven. Samdech Maha Ghosananda
The Most Venerable Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda passed away on 12th March 2007, in Northampton, Massachusetts, aged 78. Ven. Maha Ghosananda’s life and work led him far from his native land ‐ and while he often followed a spontaneous schedule known only to himself, it always had the happiness and welfare of others as its end point. He reawakened the heart of the Buddha’s message in Cambodia, calling for peace and reconciliation after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and was several times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Born in Takeo Province, Cambodia, in 1929, Ven. Ghosananda entered monastic life as a novice at age 14. A gifted scholar and linguist, he earned a doctorate from the University of Nalanda in India before laying aside his studies to practise meditation with Ajahn Dhammadaro, a well known teacher in southern Thailand. It was there he first heard the heart-breaking tales from his country’s darkest years. He began walking from one refugee camp to another along the border with Thailand, which set the pattern of his life’s vocation ‐ bringing a message of love and peace to all those divided by conflict: "Hatred can never be appeased by hatred, hatred can only be appeased by love."
Moving to Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the 1980s, he carried on his work. “Reconciliation,” he was quoted as saying, “means that we see ourselves as the opponent. For what is the opponent but a being in ignorance, and we ourselves are also ignorant of many things.” Ven. Maha Ghosananda was later made a Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhists.
In the Nineties, Ven. Maha Ghosananda led a series of walks for peace and reconciliation, called Dhammayatras, across the ravaged landscape of Cambodia’s remaining war zones. These marches became an annual institution carried on by others, which even now in times of peace promote awareness of social and environmental issues such as poverty, landmines and deforestation.
I was fortunate enough to spend my first year as a bhikkhu at the monastery in Phnom Penh where Ven. Maha Ghosananda stayed, and to join him on the 5th Dhammayatra for Peace and Reconciliation in March 1998, which focused on deforestation and the link between the military, illegal logging, and the ongoing civil war. We spent a month on the road walking from Phnom Penh to the remote forested north-eastern province of Ratanagiri. Even though we were marching through areas that were still controlled by the Khmer Rouge and annexed from the rest of the country, I well remember the love and joy that seemed to radiate from Samdech Som (as we affectionately called Ven. Maha Ghosananda) as he led the way, filling our hearts with a sense of safety and hope.
Like many great masters, Ven. Maha Ghosananda could reach others in ways suited to their character and situation, and which could inspire as well as amuse. Before we set off, I remember standing with others waiting for him to join the massing throng. Even in such a situation, which demanded his attention to the greater event at hand, Samdech Som displayed his unique ability to connect with and make time for the individuals around him. He emerged from his dwelling with several books in his hands. Making a beeline for myself and the newly disrobed David Wharton (ex-bhikkhu Suviro) who were standing nearby, he presented us with gifts: for myself, a Wheel edition of Ven. Maha Kaccana’s weighty expositions of the Buddha’s pithy sayings ‐ and for David, along with a cheeky grin, a copy of Bhante Dhammananda’s more down-to-earth Dhamma reflections on happy marriages.
Ven. Maha Ghosananda was a loving presence and guiding light whose blessings and great accomplishments will not be extinguished by his passing. All who knew him can bear witness to the light he kindled in the ‘Heart of Darkness’, and to the Dhamma of compassion and wisdom of which his whole life was a profound illumination.
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