- He served people around the world for more than 78 years of his 91-year life
- He enjoyed talking Buddhism to adults as well as kids every second he had to spare
The chief incumbent of the New York Buddhist Vihara, Rajakeeya Pandit Dr. Kurunegoda Piyatissa Maha Thera, passed away on October 11, 2019, after serving people around the world for more than 78 years of his 91-year life.
Ven. Piyatissa Thera was born in the village Kurunegoda in Polgahawela, Sri Lanka on December 28, 1928. He was ordained in 1941 and received the higher ordination in 1950. He obtained two BA degrees, one from Vidyodaya University and another with honors from University of London, and a MA from Temple University, PA. He taught at various pirivenas and schools including Ananda College, Colombo before he moved to London Vihara in 1972. He came to New York in 1981. He wrote several books in Sinhala and English and was the President of the Sri Lanka Sangha Council, Vice President of the World Sangha Council of North America, Executive Committee Member of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, and a faculty member of the New School University in Manhattan, NY. He was instrumental in getting the UN to commemorate the annual Day of Vesak at the United Nations and the initiative to have the “Thripitaka” declared as a national heritage in the UNESCO “Memory of the World” Register. Buddhists all over the world have lost one of their most venerable monks, and here I would like to share just a few of the ways he deeply impacted my community and I, as I’m sure he did for so many communities around the world.
I had the immense pleasure of learning under Ven. Kurunegoda Piyatissa Nayaka Thero at Ananda College. In the 1980s I was a graduate student in Pittsburgh and my wife and I visited the NY Buddhist temple. His memory was so sharp, even after about 10 years later, he recognized me immediately. One piece of advice he gave me that day still reverberates in my mind; even to this day, I use his words to advise my students. He said “Unil mahatthaya, americava sagarayak vagei, dothak gatthata sagarayata denene neha” which can be translated to “USA is like the ocean, taking a handful is not going to harm the ocean”. So he was telling us graduate students to get knowledge from USA and use it well and that benefits us and does not harm.
In 1992, I was a faculty member at Georgia State University and also the graduate director of the Physics programme. We used to invite Piyatissa thero for the thanksgiving break and hosted him in our houses. He enjoyed talking Buddhism to adults as well as kids every second he had to spare. No matter how clean we try to make his room etc, , when he comes out it always looks cleaner than when it was before. He also had a profound influence on our children during his stay and gifted them books including the “Illustrated Dhammapada” by Ven. Weragoda Sarada Maha Thera. My wife read a story from that Dhammapada daily to our kids before going to bed, and years later, they still remember learning from that Dhammapada and the teachings Ven Piyatissa shared with them. Not everyone can connect with people across generations and nations, but Ven Piyatissa did.
Former President Maithripala Sirisena visiting the Buddhist Temple in Queens, New York.
Ven. Piyatissa also tried hard to follow even the minor rules. Even when I send a check to his name the receipt comes from the Vihara Association. In one instance, he told me that sometimes he thinks about how much more spiritual his teacher was compared to him”. Ven. Piyatissa was one of the most spiritual erudite monks I have observed and for him to say something like that shows his incredible humility, which is another lesson that he taught me and I try hard to keep in mind. Ven. Piyatisssa came to participate in the opening ceremony of the Georgia Buddhist Vihara in Atlanta in 2000. As we walked towards the entrance, he suddenly said to me “Unil Mahattaya, bring me a fallen leave”. He wanted to prevent the ants from accidentally being trampled on the path to the temple (as the ants were gathered around a piece of food). Knowing very well, that without the thought of killing, no demerits would be accumulated, he still wanted to save the ants from an accidental death, and save the kids from an ant bite while saving the environment. That is how attentive he was even during a casual walk. Following this advice could greatly reduce so much suffering due to not paying attention such as accidents etc.
Ven. Piyatissa Thera visited us for my father’s 25th death anniversary alms giving. As I saw him at the airport, I realized how weak he was and told him that he should have told me his condition, but he just smiled. Another patron, had told the priest that he should have declined, given his condition. The priest had said “it is Unil Mahatma’s father’s 25th death anniversary, how can I refuse; I have known him as a child! This is the only favor he asked me!” What an answer! If we help others in their need, irrespective of what comforts one has to forgo, what a great society we would have.
Once, I asked him how I could explain Nirvana to a nontraditional Buddhist. Within a detailed discussion, one question I still remember. When the water flows from a river to the sea (once it is mixed), can you show where is the river water? Just because you cannot separate, can you say that there is no water from the river in the sea? Just like that, Nirvana exists, even though we may not yet be able to pinpoint it. Thinking back on discussions like these from over a dozen years ago, I’m reminded of Ven. Piyatissa’s ability to explain deep and complex concepts using clearly understood examples that would resonate with us for years to come.
In 2016 we had decided to visit Ven. Piyatissa Thera and had an appointment at 2.30 pm. When we called, a monk answered saying “is this Unil Mahathma, the monk’s grade 9 student from Ananda?”, “Nayaka Thera was expecting you all day today, he did not go to sleep as usual around 12.30 waiting for you and just few minutes ago he fell asleep.” We visited him once he woke up. Although his physical strength was weak, his mind was very sharp as always, he remembered our kids, the other Atlanta devotees and said that we all should try to get the UN to recognize Vesak as a world religious day. Even then, he was thinking about what can he do to propagate Buddhism. Unfortunately, I could not meet the Thera after that. As the Buddha taught us, everything is impermanent, so this is expected. Nevertheless, I am very lucky to have been a student of such an erudite, spiritual monk and to learn from him. I remember Ananda college as an institution of incredible and devoted teachers, and Ven Piyatissa is a shining example of that. If I can follow at least some of his examples, I will be a much better person, and I do not think I am alone in that sentiment. His teachings touched the lives of so many people and our world was made better by his kindness and wisdom.
Ven. Kurunegoda Piyatissa Thera instilled important values in young minds at various educational institutes across Sri Lanka. I am sure this included not only Ananda College but also other institutes that benefited immensely from him. Later in life, he broadened his focus to not only help kids, but also young adults and adults alike, all over the western world. He was a shining example of a devoted teacher and a beacon brightening the world by spreading the teachings of Gautama Buddha in a way we lay people could understand and carry with us to better our communities.
May he attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana!
The author is a Professor of Physics - Department of Physics and Astronomy, Georgia State University