By Sunil Thenabadu and S.V.D Kesarralal Gunasekara
The Most Venerable prelate Agga Maha Panditha Rajakeeya Sri Weligama Gnanaratana Mahanayake Thera was appointed the new Mahanayake of the Dharmarakshita chapter of the Amarapura Maha Nikaya by the Executive Sangha Committee of the Amarapura Maha Nikaya on 12th September 2003, a position vacated with the demise of the Most Venerable Agga Maha Panditha Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayake Thera. The Mahanayake Thera was until then the Anu Nayaka Mahanayake Thera for 47 years. On October 14, 2013 the Mahanayake thera turns 100 years old.
The Thera received the ‘Aktha Patra’ from the then Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe at a solemn ceremony held at the BMICH. This paper traditionally depicts and discloses the origins and elaborates in detail on the Thera’s immense contribution to Buddhism, the Sasana in particular since he was ordained on November 30, 1925 for a period spanning 88 years. For the enormous services rendered to the Sasana, the Thera was conferred with the title ‘AGGA MAHA PANDITHA’ by the Myanmar (Burma) Government in the year 2008. This title was felicitated under state patronage.
The most Venerable Agga Maha Panditha Weligama Gnanaratana Mahanayaka Thera was born on October 14, 1913 to devout Buddhist parents at Welliweledeniya in Weligama and was the youngest of a family of seven brothers and four sisters. He was ordained under Devundera Sri Dharmananda Maha Thera, Chief Incumbent of Devundera Sri Dhamaraksita Pirivena at the tender age of just 12 years at Ahangama Eluketiye Bimbarama Maha Viharaya.
" The most Venerable Agga Maha Panditha Weligama Gnanaratana Mahanayaka Thera was born on October 14, 1913 to devout Buddhist parents at Welliweledeniya in Weligama
This pioneering effort was aimed to reintroduce the Theravada tradition to Nepal and in conducting the higher ordination the ‘Upasampada’ ceremony not held in Nepal for centuries. "
The Thera completed his primary monastic education in the village temple. In the year 1931 he entered the Vidyodaya Pirivena, Maligakanda, one of the most leading monastic centres recognised even internationally. The Thera acquired from the renowned academic centre the required higher education to receive the higher ordination ‘Upasampada’ in 1933 from the Maha Sanga. He simultaneously commenced learning oriental studies, which he completed successfully. He passed the final examination in traditional studies obtaining a Pandith degree in 1948 mastering Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit languages. This is the highest qualification one can obtain in Sri Lanka to be conferred, as honourary ‘Panditha’. The Most Venerable Gnanaratana’s most important milestone in his distinguished prolonged career in the Sasana was the invitation he received from the Most Venerable Palene Vajiragnana Thera, who was the foremost of the modern erudite monks in Sri Lanka. The Chief Incumbent of the Sri Vajiraramaya temple which is undoubtedly the most famous monastery in the country even up to then had many renowned monks viz. the Venerable Narada, the Venerable Piyadassi the pupils of Palene Vajiragnana Mahanayake Thera. The Venerable Panditha Weligama Gnanaratana was invited to Vajiraramaya as he was one of the most pious, erudite learned monks in the Dhamma and competent in Oriental languages to nurture and fathom the young monks at Vajiraramaya to learn the vast knowledge of the Tripitakaya of the Buddhist Therevada tradition.
As a stern disciplinarian, an ardent and a very staunch Buddhist the responsibility bestowed on him was an exercise, he grabbed with great pleasure and immense satisfaction as the opportunity arose for him to impart his wide and profound knowledge in the preaching of the Buddha to the young monks. In addition he had learnt well the important aspects of natural culture and heritage which he always cherished and willingly gave it his highest priority.
In the year 1950 the Venerable Panditha Gnanaratana Thera was considered a matured monk to accompany the Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera to India on a pilgrimage and study. During this tour which lasted for six months the Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayake Thera was recognised by the Myanmar Government by conferring the title of ‘Agga Maha Panditha’. This tour gave the opportunity for the Mahanayaka Thera to acquire the required knowledge about the Indian Buddhist heritage. A very significant milestone in the Prelate’s career in the ‘sasana’ was his visit to Nepal in 1951 during his tenure at Vajiraramaya , the birth place of Buddha along with a group of monks.
This pioneering effort was aimed to reintroduce the Theravada tradition to Nepal and in conducting the higher ordination the ‘Upasampada’ ceremony not held in Nepal for centuries. This was a memorable event and an important land mark in the sasana career of the Maha Nayaka Thera. The cultural and religious links between the two countries exist even up to today.
In the year 1955 another memorable event in the life of our Nayaka Thera took place by participating in the historic meeting, ‘the Chattha Sangayana’, the sixth council in Myanmar (Burma) along with the Sri Lankan delegation. This tour afforded the unique opportunity for the Nayaka Thera to study the Burmese Buddhist tradition by travelling widely in Myanmar.
The Most Venerable Panditha Weligama Gnanaratana Thera was appointed as the Secretary of the Nikaya in the year 1955 after the demise of most Ven Palene Vajiragnana Thera. In the year 1956 Maha Nayaka Thera visited the city of Kathmandu in Nepal to participate in the conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists.
D.J. Kodituwakku Hewamallika, JP a relative of the Mahanayake Thera was a Marriage Registrar and a reputed businessman who had done a lot of voluntary work for the Sasana particularly for temples scattered throughout the island. As a philanthropist, had on several occasions informed the Mahanayaka Thera to request for financial assistance for the development and uplifting of the Buddha Sasana as he was actively engaged in propagating the ‘Dhamma’ Nationally and Internationally. While based at the Vajiraramaya. One day he had to leave for another ‘Avasaya’ as he was not a pupil ordained under the ‘Agga Maha Panditha Madihe Pannasiha Maha Nayaka Thera. This was an opportunity for our Maha Nayaka Thera to request for a plot of land to be purchased in the suburb of the city from wealthy devotee, D. J. Kodituwakku Hewamallika, JP who without the slightest hesitation looked for a suitable place.
The details of the requirement were made known to Edmund Samarawickrema Minister of the Municipal Council who had been a pupil of the Maha Nayaka Thera. Fortunately his brother Percy Samarawickrema was then engaged in the exercise of selling blocks of land at De Soysa Estate, Ratmalana. He found an ideal 30 perch block suitable for a temple, which was purchased, immediately in early 1958. This place was later described by the Maha Nayaka Thera as ‘a very lucky plot’. The auspicious time was found by Kodituwakku Hewamallika, JP and the foundation stone was laid on May 28, 1958 amidst chanting of pirith by the Maha Sanga at a simple ceremony at an auspicious time.
During the latter part of 1958 Maha Nayaka Thera spent the retreat season (vas) at the invitation of Venerable Yatirawana Narada Thera the Chief Incumbent of Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe Viharaya in Kandy. During early part of 1959 the construction of the temple was completed. It consisted of 3 rooms, a verandah, a store room and a bathroom with a toilet and a well. Up to today for a period of 54 years the Thera lives in this room.
A new era commenced in the Maha Nayaka Thera’s religious and Buddhist educational service with the establishment of the Mallikaramaya temple in July 1959. The Maha Nayake, a true servant of the Buddha had a vision and a mission. He felt deeply the plight of Buddhism, Buddhaputra and the Buddha-sasana. Concepts such as sin, shame, determination, concentration and right mindedness were common topics chosen for his sermons. His approach towards devotees instigated and stimulated the Dayakas and Dayikas to actually take interest in the activities of the temple and its subsequent expansions. Under the guidance of the Maha Nayaka Thera it did not take long for Mallikaramaya to become a fully fledged religious centre and a monastery in a highly urbanised area.
The Mallikaramaya temple has all the components of a complete Buddhist temple. It has a sense of serenity and calm which cannot but impress anyone entering the premises. Although the Maha Nayake Thera has been conferred as ‘Agga Maha Panditha’, he continues to reside humbly in the room he occupied since it was originally constructed. He is still accessible to any devotee. His age to date has been no barrier to his services to the devotees. He still continues to preach and still visit houses of devotees to render traditional services expected from a Buddhist monk.
The philosophy of the Maha Nayaka Thera is that a Buddhist Vihara must always be nothing other than a Vihara and an extremely religious institution. The temple is devoid of a ‘devalaya’ and is unaffiliated to any established political party. The Maha Nayaka Thera always maintains his impartiality but will not hesitate even for a moment to be outspoken on matters concerning the Sasana and society.
The Mahanayaka Thera has been a renowned popular preacher over the SLBC for over seven decades and more recently on television. He has made sermons to audiences in all parts of the island and in several countries abroad. If they were counted the number of sermons would easily exceed over 10,000.He has the ability to grip the listener and viewer from moment to moment keeping them spell-bound. He knows exactly how the lay Buddhist should be educated. His sermons had special characteristics and in his own inimitable style in a simple language. He knew well that it had to be pleasing in the beginning, pleasing in the middle and pleasing at the conclusion. He developed the unique technique as a preacher over the years enticing the listeners of all ages with soothing and informative sermons with his inherited gifts.
The Mahanayaka Thera has rendered a memorable contribution to the print media by writing many books on Buddhist theories and practices. He has the habit of donating to Dayakas and Dayikas his books autographed by him wherever he meets them. He has written nearly 100 big and small books on different topics and contributed immensely for Buddhist magazines. Apart from the many booklets and leaflets he has authored for the benefit of lay-devotees, the Prelate is the author of many scholarly books. The translation of ‘Kudisika Vivaranaya’ is regarded as an important secondary Vinaya source among Buddhist scholars.
Since 1997 he has been a member of the Council of the Buddha Sravaka Buddhist University of Anuradhapura. In addition the Venerable Thera is a member of the advisory council for Buddhist Affairs, a member of the advisory panel of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and an Executive Council Member of the Oriental Studies Committee. At this age he has been and is still playing a leading role in many scholarly works undertaken by the state.
The Mahanayaka Thera has found time to write his own autobiography in the year 1993 to coincide with his 80th birth anniversary and also written successfully the autobiographies of nearly 15 loyal Bikkhus who have contributed immensely for the Sasana. The ‘author’ Maha Nayaka’s most lengthy book is named ‘Gihi Vinaya’ laying emphasis on the discipline for lay Buddhist based on various ‘Suttas’ related to the Dhamma. He has also translated and edited many books. The Maha Nayake Thera has nurtured and brought up over 50 young monks at the Mallikarama Monastery and at other Monasteries, out of them about 40 or more have received ‘Upasampada’.
The Venerable Monk has spent over eight and a half decades as a member of the Maha Sanga and seventy eight years as an ‘Upasampada’ monk. He has travelled widely for Buddhist activities to many countries including India, Burma, Nepal, United States, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom and Europe. During his visits he had looked into the shortcomings that existed and rectified them. He also gave advice to uplift and improve Buddhist temples that lacked basic facilities. He is one of the most senior erudite Buddhist Monks in the country; not only in Sri Lanka but the entire Theravada Buddhist world respect him as an extraordinary erudite monk who maintains a very high position amongst the most respected monks in the annals of the history of our country.
As a gesture of immense gratitude the Dayaka and Dayikas organised a series of Buddhist events to invoke blessings to coincide with the Maha Nayake’s, birth anniversary. This year too it was no exception. Donation of limbs to those crippled, releasing and freeing cattle (Abaya Danaya) and many other Buddhist activities, particularly benefiting, the less affluent take pride of place on every Poya Day. Even at this age although he does not deliver sermons attends to Buddhist activities. Even last year he had visited Singapore to attend to the Katina Pinkama which he had been attending almost every year.
All devout Buddhists in our country and those abroad would no doubt wish our Most Venerable Agga Panditha Rajakeeya Maha Nayaka Thera good health and longevity with the Blessings of the Noble Triple Gem for a trouble free tenure as the Mahanayaka Thera of the reputed Dharmarakshita Chapter of the Amarapura Nikaya. The yeomen service rendered by him to the Sasana has to be etched in gold.