Ven. Bhikkhu Khantiko reports on the passing of this much loved Sri Lankan monk.
Funeral of Ananda Maitreya
Ven. Bhikkhu Khantiko reports on the passing of this much loved Sri Lankan monk.
On 18 July 1998, Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, the most eminent contemporary Buddhist monk of Sri Lanka, passed away at a hospital near Colombo after a brief illness. At the time of his death he was 101 years of age and would have celebrated his 102nd birthday on 23 August. In 1969 he was elected the first president (Mahanayaka Thera) of the United Amarapura Nikaya, the monastic fraternity to which he belonged, and though he relinquished this position in 1975 he still continued to bear the honorary title Mahanayaka Thera. Ven. Ananda Maitreya’s manifold services to the cause of Buddhism were not confined to Sri Lanka but extended over many countries. Perfectly fluent in English and at home with Western modes of thought as well as with classical Buddhism of several schools, he was as popular with Western Buddhists as he was with traditional Asian Buddhists who admired his vast learning and simple, humble ways. During the 1980’s and l990’s he had been particularly active in Britain and the United States. The monks of the Amaravati and Chithurst monasteries in Britain regarded him as a trusted spiritual friend and often sought his advice and help. Last year the government of Myanmar conferred on him Myanmar’s highest ecclesiastical title, Abhidhaja Maharatthaguru, which means something like “His Eminence, the Great Spiritual Teacher of the Nation.”
Before I describe the funeral itself, I wish to give a brief account of the background to his death. Earlier this year Ven. Ananda Maitreya had been invited to visit Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand, and had gone there in May. On returning to Sri Lanka he had developed chest problems – a build-up of phlegm in the lungs – for which he was warded in the Sri Jayawardhanapura Hospital, near Colombo, for perhaps a week or two. On Saturday, 13 June, Ven. Bodhi, Ven. Vimalo, and I, along with a lay supporter, went to visit him. When we arrived at the hospital we learned that he had been discharged that same morning and had returned to his branch temple at Maharagama, close to Colombo. We immediately went there to find him apparently fully recovered and in good spirits. We had a very nice talk with him, for about half an hour, in the course of which he gave us some illuminating insights into his own approach to the practice of insight meditation.
The body rested on a raised bier covered with a shining golden silk cloth. Four youths stood guard with ornamental spears at the corners; others supported ornamental fans.
Five weeks after that meeting, close to midnight on 18 July, Ven. Ananda Maitreya passed away in that same Sri Jayawardhanapura Hospital. Apparently the phlegm had continued to accumulate in the lungs and pneumonia set in, bringing his life to a close. He had been in the hospital for twenty-four days prior to his death. Thus he must have been re-admitted about ten days after we met him.
The funeral was announced for the following Thursday, 23 July, at Balangoda. It was to be a state funeral, attended by government ministers and numerous dignitaries, both Sri Lankan and foreign. Ven. Bodhi and I decided to make the trip out to Balangoda (a 5-6 hour drive from Kandy), and we were joined by a third monk, Ven. Kosiya (originally from Surinam), who had been ordained by Ven. Ananda Maitreya and also wanted to attend the funeral. We decided to go the day before the actual cremation so that we could pay respects to the Mahanayaka Thera’s body. The body had been brought out to Balangoda in a solemn procession on Tuesday (the 21st), after a stopover the previous day in Ratnapura (about 50 miles out towards Balangoda) to enable the people in that area to pay final respects to him.
As we left Udawattakele (the Kandyan forest reserve where the Forest Hermitage is located) after the midday meal the first thing we came upon at the entrance to the access road was a banner stretched across the road, expressing grief at the demise of the late Venerable Ananda Maitreya. Many shops and houses in the city also displayed yellow or orange flags. It seemed that his passing had affected the whole nation; but obviously, in contrast to such events in the West, there was no sense of sombreness in such displays.
This was only the beginning. When the southbound road down from Kandy linked up with the cross-country road leading from Colombo to Balangoda, we found to our pleasant surprise that every town and village we passed through was decked out with yellow and orange banners and streamers inscribed with words of homage to the Mahanayaka Thera. Almost every home and shop had yellow flags and plastic strips hanging out from their windows and facades. It seemed more like a carnival than a funeral that we were heading towards. Many vehicles we passed also displayed yellow flags, signifying their owner’s grief over the death of the monk. We were all deeply moved by this, and the feeling became stronger the closer we came to Balangoda.
When we reached Balangoda, a little after 6 pm, we found the town fully decorated from end to end with banners, pennants, and pictures of Ven. Ananda Maitreya. People were thronging the streets, drifting towards the Sri Dhammananda Pirivena – the monastic college that the Mahanayaka Thera had founded in 1936 – where the body was laid out in state. On the long road to this temple the “mourners” – hardly the appropriate word for this generally smiling and happy looking crowd – were channelled and directed by an army of attendants and supervisors. I was struck by the orderliness of the whole affair: people of all ages, who had probably travelled long distances, often on rickety and uncomfortable public transport, inched their way towards the pirivena in the late afternoon light, but with hardly a sign of fatigue or impatience. The column, two or three abreast, must have stretched well over a mile, and was constantly being added to from the rear as more people arrived.
Along the side of the road a number of Muslim households had set up stands and were offering the people on line glasses of water. Later we learned that other Muslim establishments in the town had offered free meals as well. Ven. Ananda Maitreya had enjoyed very cordial relations with the local Muslim community and had a number of close Muslim friends from the time of his childhood.
Once we had arrived at the pirivena and had refreshed ourselves with a soft drink, we went over to the open hall where Ven. Ananda Maitreya’s body had been laid out. The body rested on a raised bier covered with a shining golden silk cloth. Four youths stood guard with ornamental spears at the corners; others supported ornamental fans. Below the coffin there were photos of Ven. Ananda Maitreya at different periods of his life. Monks sat on the ground at two corners with their heads to their knees, a small fan resting against the top of their heads. These seemed to be the ones keeping the wake. We were ushered through the crowd and could pay our respects as we circumambulated the body. I was most deeply struck by the complete composure of Ven. Ananda Maitreya’s face in death: though he had passed away the previous Saturday night, in that light he looked as if he were just asleep. The file of lay people continued to pass by, as they had done all day and would continue doing late into the night.
At about 7:30 pm, after we made a second visit to the hall, we went out to Udumulla, the tiny village about three miles from the pirivena, on the other side of the town. This is the site of Sri Nandaramaya, the small temple where Ven. Ananda Maitreya had been ordained in 1911 and had received his training during his first nine years in robes. The temple had been constructed by Ven. Ananda Maitreya’s father at the beginning of the century. In his later years, the Mahanayaka Thera had spent most of his time here, but it was only in the last few years of his life that any significant changes had taken place in the physical premises. Ven. Bodhi remarked that the only changes he could see in the main residence and refectory, since the time he had lived there (1972-75), were the installation of electricity and some cement to replace the compacted cowdung-&-mud floor of the verandah. In fact it seems likely that this building, constructed along with the other original buildings, had not changed at all. I did notice, however, that a new roof had been raised on the vihara. In his biography, Ven. Ananda Maitreya makes the comment about his teacher, Ven. Denihene Silananda, the first incumbent of the temple, “He was not at all interested in things like beautifying the body, decorating the residence, and amassing possessions. I also acquired this way of life from him.”
More recently, on the hill above the old temple complex, a large cottage for the Mahanayaka Thera along with an even larger library-meeting hall had been built by a group from Japan. The library houses most of Ven. Ananda Maitreya’s enormous collection of books. The fiction section in English was an interesting browse. The Collected Works of Agatha Christie stands out in my memory now. Ven. Bodhi was struck by a novella by Hermann Hesse, translated from the German, placed among the “Classics of English Literature.”
The next day, after breakfast, we returned to the pirivena and once again joined the throng of lay folk and monks paying final respects to the body. This time the mood was accentuated by the somehow appropriate dirge of a Japanese Nichiren monk chanting “Nam mo myoho renge kyo.” In the morning light Ven. Ananda Maitreya’s features were truly those of a dead person. It seemed right that the cremation would take place that afternoon.
The funeral rites commenced in the early afternoon, at the playing field of the Balangoda Mahavidyalaya, the local high school right next to the pirivena. A public holiday had been declared for the town of Balangoda, which allowed the town’s citizens to attend the cremation. It would seem hard to believe that any residents of Balangoda, apart from the sick and their caretakers, did not turn out for the occasion. When we arrived we found that a very large gathering of people had already settled down to await the proceedings. People sat on rooftops and in the trees; all available space was filled. The next day’s newspapers estimated that 100,000 lay people and 4,000 monks had attended. There were also government ministers, opposition politicians, and delegates, both monastic and civilian, from foreign countries.
The funeral pyre was again, in keeping with the Mahanayaka Thera’s ways, a rather simple construction: the pile of wood was covered by a kind of decorative tent of four tiers, with a wooden frame and pinkish orange cloth. Funerals in this country tend to be rather long-winded affairs, and this one was no exception. The various speeches and addresses continued from 3 pm until shortly after 5 pm. All this time the coffin was displayed in front of the large makeshift hall erected to accommodate the monks.
By the time the actual cremation took place many of the Sangha members had left. The last rite began when the direct disciples of Ven. Ananda Maitreya lifted the coffin and bore it to the awaiting pyre, where it was placed on the heap of wood inside the tent. One could feel the intensity of emotions building up, and as this small group made the triple circumambulation of the pyre many of the close disciples shed tears. Finally two lay disciples, bearing flaming torches behind their backs, made a triple run around the pyre – in opposite directions – before depositing the flaming brands in amongst the wood to start the incineration of the body. The doors to the pyre were then closed so that the coffin was not in view.
At this point most of the monks left, but some of us waited around a while longer. The lay people moved in close to the pyre; some had brought incense which they cast in towards the flames through a small slit in the orange tent around the pyre. I felt sorry for one old lady who had brought a few small pieces of firewood but had nowhere to put them! Finally, as we made our way back to the pirivena, we were waylaid by large numbers of lay people of all ages who wished to pay respects to us. It took us some time to cross that small space of a few hundred metres to get back.
It seemed as though some benign influence prevailed up above to hold off the rains that might well have made the cremation a washout. A thin cloud cover shielded us from the overhead sun and allowed us to sit or stand outside quite comfortably all afternoon. Ven. Nandasara, the chief incumbent of Sri Nandaramaya, insisted we return to Udumulla for the night. It seemed the better choice, as the pirivena was still in disarray after having had so many monks passing through it over the previous few days and nights.
The next day at 5 am we left Balangoda for Kandy. As soon as we were out of Balangoda the rain began – one of the heaviest rainfalls I can ever remember – and continued almost nonstop for most of the journey. It abated only when we were within a few miles of our destination.
The papers reporting on the funeral quote a number of different people, both monks and lay people, who believe that Ven. Ananda Maitreya was probably the most important monk to have lived in Sri Lanka in this century. Yet the temple where he lived speaks volumes for his simple, unostentatious ways. His funeral a very dignified affair but also low-key, was the same.
Although the Mahanayaka Thera is no longer in our midst, the example he set will inspire all those who came within the orbit of his wisdom and compassion.