To celebrate my teacher’s 80th birthday in 2007, his students compiled reflections and memories into a book; below are the recollection contributed by me (including some parts cut from the book).
By the way, Bhante G celebrated his 85th birthday in December 2012. In much of 2012 our once remarkably vigorous teacher struggled with heart trouble requiring surgery, and he has had a long recovery; however, as of January 2013 he looks quite well, energetically delivering a teaching to us nuns by Skype.
Preserving the Dhamma – Writings in Honor of the Eightieth Birthday of Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, published by Bhavana Society Forest Monastery, 2007, p.47-50.
Bhante G; photo by Mike Belleme
“Recollections of Bhante G” by Ven. Bhikkhuni Sudhamma
Following are some recollections from living with Venerable Gunaratana at the Bhavana Society, during the years 1998 – 2002.
A quote that has been attributed to Bhante Gunaratana: “Devas [deities] cannot do anything for you. They only cheer you on. And then when you get somewhere they try to take all the credit!” Soon after arriving at Bhavana, I heard that Bhante G had said this, and the quote sounded credible to me. A year or two later, however, when I asked him whether he had indeed said this, he just chuckled.
On Attachment 1
Bhante G commented, “The one death I most deeply feared was my mother’s. After that, I didn’t have to fear.” He went on to explain that he was never attached to anyone so strongly as his mother (not even his beloved brothers and sisters), nor did he believe he would ever become so attached to anyone again.
In other words, after his mother’s passing, he became free of the worry and sorrow over loved ones, that nag at almost everyone else in the world. He had no more of the attachment-love that would create piercing grief, nor was he interested in developing it towards anyone. Instead, he had become devoted to universal loving-friendliness: metta.
This comment from the Buddha comes to mind: “For him who has completed the journey, for him who is sorrowless, for him who from everything is wholly free, for him who has destroyed all Ties, the fever (of passion) exists not.” [Dh 90.]
One time while working on a lengthy project with a fellow, Bhante G repeatedly needed to extend their deadline. Bhante G pledged to stick to the latest timeframe, and this fellow conveyed the message to other interested people. But later, Bhante G needed another postponement. Unfortunately, I received the dreaded task of telephoning and delivering the unwelcome message to the man, who became irate.
Upon my reporting this man’s anger to Bhante G, he said, in a gentle tone, “He is angry. But I am not angry.” To my surprise he flashed an innocent, sweet smile and concluded, “So, I think it is oooohh-kay.” (The man ended up quitting the project in a rage, and didn’t talk to Bhante for a long time. He did eventually seem to come around, but it took a few years.)
On Attachment 2
For some people, Bhante G’s metta seems palpable. Some may experience his metta as a sense of uplift that strengthens as they approach him, or as a sudden surge of joy in his presence, or as a subtle brightness that permeates a person, leaving only uplift and tingling happiness.
But his metta cannot be bought or earned. A stranger he meets at the airport, if receptive, can feel from him the same lovely metta as that given to the most devoted disciples.
Ayya Sudhamma working in the Bhavana library
Therefore, be forewarned: Just because a devotee attaches to Bhante G does not mean that Bhante G will return the attachment, or offer special approval or favors. Not even ordained residents at his monastery obtain that from him.
To the contrary, Bhante G considers the opportunity to live in a sacred place, learning the Dhamma and giving to others, as reward enough in itself. Residents are expected to devote themselves to the study and dissemination of the Dhamma and to the caretaking of non-resident visitors—always giving without expectations—like him.
One afternoon while washing dishes, I noticed colorful bubbles forming and disappearing at the top of a large container of dish washing liquid. One large soap bubble, three or four inches wide, emerged. Watching its colors twirl, marveling at the beauty, I patiently waited for the bubble to pop. Moments passed; it seemed as though it would never burst. Bhante G walked by the kitchen door and I called to him, “Bhante, look, this bubble…!” Just as he looked, it burst.
“It popped!” I said, surprised and disappointed. Bhante G leveled a knowing look at me and said, significantly, “You see?” and was gone.
The Chanting Tape
One time in 1998, Bhante G arrived home from an overseas trip, carrying about two dozen cassette tapes and twinkling like a Christmas tree. Resident disciples knew something was up. After everyone had greeted him and most had drifted away, he handed a tape to one lay disciple and said, a little too nonchalantly, “Listen to this.” She promptly did, and after a few moments of listening, raced to the monastery office to use the cassette tape-copying machine.
People living in a monastery—or at least the stubborn residents—soon learn some simple ground rules for survival. These include not asking permission if you’re going to do an action anyway and quickly doing whatever is necessary before anyone says not to do it. On this occasion, the lay resident quickly made a copy of the remarkable tape. The tape contained the beautiful sound of a very young child’s voice, perhaps as young as three or four, confidently chanting Pali suttas, including three well-known protective chants and a few chants for healing.1
When residents next gathered, Bhante G raised the topic of the tapes, saying that they had been entrusted into his care and that he had promised their owner not to copy them. “No one must copy those tapes!” he declared, and looked at this one disciple. Returning his gaze impassively, she nodded solemnly along with the rest.
Then, twinkling brightly again, Bhante G related the background story of the tapes. In the early 1970s in Sri Lanka, a two-year-old child began to spontaneously chant at night. Within a year, knowledgeable Buddhist monks had confirmed that the child’s mysterious sounds were Pali suttas chanted with astounding perfection. Tape recordings were made. The boy informed adults that he recalled the Pali chanting from a distant past life as a monk. Word spread, and the child became a sensation, chanting to crowds of pious Buddhists. As he entered adolescence the boy wished to live a normal life, leaving behind his chanting fame and the overprotective monks who expected to ordain him. His family consented and put out the word that the boy had gone overseas.
Like so many others, Bhante G said that he heard of the famous chanting boy and attempted to track him down during visits to Sri Lanka, but received a false story. Occasionally, as the years went by, the chanting boy came to mind and Bhante made inquiries, but no one could give him any answers.
Bhante G then related an encounter that had taken place some years before (in the early 1990’s), during a visit to Australia. A certain lady named Elizabeth picked him up at the airport, bringing along a couple of friends. Sitting in the car, Bhante G suddenly began thinking of that boy he heard of long ago, and he spoke up, describing the child who chanted, and asked Elizabeth whether she had heard of this child.
“Yes,” Elizabeth answered.
“Do you know where he is now?” Bhante G asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Where is he?”
“In the front seat.”
Bhante explained to the residents that the former chanting boy, by then a young man, had heard of Bhante G and had timed a visit to Australia during Bhante G’s trip, in hopes of meeting him. The young man had also connected with Elizabeth, and at that moment they were riding together in the same car! The young man bonded strongly with Bhante G, becoming a devoted disciple. Bhante encouraged him to go public with his remarkable story, but the young man was sensitive about his experience, so he declined.
After some years went by, Bhante G said, the young man became stricken with a nearly fatal illness; which he suddenly overcame, upon determining that he would live to serve the Dhamma. After that, he decided that he would go public with his story. He and Bhante G met up during Bhante’s latest travels, and he gave Bhante G twenty-four tapes of his chanting.
Bhante G concluded by saying that this man later intends to publicize his story widely and produce recordings of his chanting. Therefore it was imperative that no copies be distributed outside of the man’s control, as they would surely get mass-produced. After Bhante G’s talk that evening, the resident disciple carefully guarded her treasured bootlegged tape, allowing friends to listen, but not allowing copying despite many pleas.
A couple of years passed. One day Bhante G telephoned the Bhavana Society office from Canada, where he had been summoned to the bedside of a child who appeared to be dying. He asked that someone quickly send him one of the boy’s chanting tapes. He explained that the sound of another child’s voice chanting would comfort the ailing child. It would also comfort the parents by offering proof of rebirth. However, Bhante could not recall where he kept the collection of tapes. No one knew. The office was searched, and searched again. Bhante’s bedroom was searched. No tapes.
Someone recalled the resident who had possessed a tape of the chanting, and the focus shifted to her. A messenger hurried to her cottage with the order: surrender your tape for copying. Surprised, she resisted. Hadn’t Bhante G said no copies should be made? Hadn’t he promised the tapes’ owner? It would be wrong, she decided.
It can take a while for an American to understand the shift and flow of reality—or perceptions of reality—in a Buddhist monastery. Rigidly structured thinking creates suffering for anyone who clings to it. A typical American’s sense of right and wrong overlaps—but does not completely match—the monastery moral code. In this case, to the monks and other resident disciples, the higher paradigm of compassion overruled any sense of contractual obligation; and obedience to the master definitely overruled an individual disciple’s personal opinion. Hence this resident, clinging to her rigid thinking, found herself In Trouble with the master, who from Canada quietly roared his demand. With just a little further psychological pressure by a couple of fellow residents (akin to a thumb being swiftly pulled back), the stubborn American resident caved in. That same afternoon a copy of the tape was on its way to Canada by express mail.
After that episode, everyone wanted to listen to the inspiring chanting tape, and a flurry of copying ensued. A tape was kept in the office for copying, as needed. Bhante G occasionally sought a copy to give to particular visitors to the monastery. Whenever the office copy disappeared, as it did repeatedly, people turned to that certain resident for her well-guarded copy, to make more. For a number of years, although the rest of the 24 tapes remained well hidden or lost, the Bhavana residents and many supporters commonly possessed a copy of that one chanting tape, to their uplift and great benefit.
Bhante G finishes his lunch and is the first to leave the dining hall, while others are still eating. Shortly he slips from his bedroom, across a hallway and out the back door, moving quickly to escape possible hangers-on. Hat on his head, staff in hand, he is ready for his daily walk.
He reportedly walks five miles on each outing. One often sees him along the road, waving at every passing car—always offering the enthusiastic, friendly wave that has helped him to gain acceptance among the locals.
Not all local people initially accepted him. Venerable Gunaratana stands out as “different” in this backwoods area: the design and color of his clothing, his country of origin, his skin color, his shaven head, his stature, his accent, and his religion. Nonetheless, passing drivers return the wave even of someone so different, because the friendly wave-and-response exchange remains a deeply entrenched social gesture in the rural South. You would feel, as they’d say, “downright mean” not to wave back at Bhante G’s cheerful, outgoing greeting.
The local people’s responsive wave to Bhante G, a positive gesture made time and again, has created friendly feelings towards him. It has even forged lasting friendships.
Bhante G says that walking is his time to practice his metta. In other words, as he walks along the road, he radiates loving, friendly feelings towards all living beings. This practice often comes to mind when I take a walk.
When it comes to the Dhamma, no flaw stands out in the message of Ven. Gunaratana. However, I sometimes held opinions that were out of harmony with his, when it came to administrative decisions for the monastery or the management of residents. Before embarking upon the holy life at age 35, I had been an attorney and a righteous feminist—an educated, independent American woman brimming with strong opinions.
On one occasion I could have demonstrated in a dozen ways the correctness of my viewpoint, and felt particularly frustrated. Angrily righteous, I stubbornly quarreled with our teacher. Later, on my knees, I approached Bhante G to make my apologies (not an uncommon sight). I apologized for my attitude, for having spoken out against his decision in front of everyone, and for having been rude and disrespectful. He received these apologies graciously. Yet I couldn’t help but add, “But I was right!”
His eyes flashed ever so briefly, then he looked past me and commented softly, “Maybe you had better think about that.” Therefore, I did; lowering my hands, I sat back on my haunches, and pondered, as a new idea emerged. From every logical angle, my point of view was factually true, provable, and unassailable. So what could he mean…? Then it hit me, and I declared, “I cannot be ‘right’ so long as my mind is unwholesome!” Bhante G gave his sweetest approving smile and said, “Yes, that is correct.” I prostrated.
It would be nice if I could report that this revelation stopped me from ever arguing my viewpoints with anyone—particularly with the venerable teacher. Unfortunately, for someone with habitual mental impediments like a thick wall, no permanent cure can be instantaneous. Yet this moment with Bhante G opened for me a new way of seeing things—a door which would, over time, slowly widen.
The words guna (pure) and ratana (jewel) denote that the name Gunaratana means “Jewel of Purity.” It’s a very apt name, for his pure integrity inspires anyone who knows him. The Buddha said that a virtuous man has no fear from any quarter; like a king who has conquered all enemies and can sit without fear on his throne.
One time during his daily walk, Bhante G came across a strong-willed visiting monk strolling in the woods with a female devotee, hand-in-hand. The rules given to monks by the Buddha and the protocols for monks at the Bhavana Society are very clear about such matters: being alone with or in physical contact with the opposite sex is forbidden. The solitude and physical contact between these two people violated monastic rules. The sight must have come as a shock to Bhante G; however, as he came up to them and passed by, he aimed only one word at them: “Don’t.”
The laywoman later described the incident, and said that after Bhante G had left the scene, the monk blustered and protested his point of view to her. Nonetheless, one corrective word from an undeniably pure being has undeniable power. He said, “Don’t.” Therefore, despite both of them holding to their own opinions, they didn’t.
During a Dhamma talk, Bhante was describing how he had spoken sternly with himself. He began to quote his thoughts, saying, “Now, Bhante…”
Then it occurred to him how odd it may sound to inwardly call himself by the honorific “Bhante.” Interrupting his self-quote, he explained to his listeners, “For, you see,” he said coyly, “I certainly cannot call myself ‘G’…” 2
Bhavana Society meditation hall
The late Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda, known as the Chief Buddhist Monk of Malaysia, and with whom Bhante G resided for a number of years, visited the Bhavana Society in September of 1998. The two venerables talked together late into the night.
Later, wondering what two Great Masters may discuss when alone, a disciple asked Bhante G the topic of their conversation. He answered that they discussed the meaning of the phrase spoken by the Buddha, “This mind, O monks, is luminous.”
Bhante explained that the mind, though by nature luminous, remains covered, in unenlightened people, by the defilements. Were the defilements removed, this luminosity would shine forth. (Even just by covering up these defilements, as in states of concentration, the luminosity can be known temporarily.) However, the fact of this natural luminosity is not the same as being purified inside. It is not correct to say that one is really “a Buddha” inside. One still must make the effort to purify the mind.
To help his student understand, Bhante G gave a metaphor. He said that it is like a cup of dirty water taken from a sewer: although one can correctly say that the nature of water is, in its essence, inherently pure, would you drink from that cup of sewage water? Despite the inherent purity of water, before drinking, you still need to purify it! Similarly, we must remove our defilements. It is incorrect to point to the existence of natural luminosity and say, “We are all Buddhas” and proceed as though one’s work has been done.
A year or so later, the disciple gave a Dhamma talk to fellow Bhavana Society residents in which she used this teaching on luminosity of mind. Conversing with Bhante G afterwards, the disciple got the impression that he felt surprised that she had remembered the details of their long-ago conversation.
One must wonder how many lovely teachings Bhante G has given that his listeners never managed to hear, although they were sitting right in front of him. Of all that he has taught, we probably absorb only the smallest fraction.
1. The common Pirit (protective) chants of Ratana Sutta, Mangala Sutta, Karaniya Metta Sutta, and the three healing chants of Maha Kassapa Thera Bojjhangam and two related bojjhanga suttas.
2. To Bhante G’s disciples and friends in the USA, the “G’ stands for “Gunaratana.” In some Buddhist countries, however, the same sound, “Ji,” is an honorific title worthy of a great sage.