I have been wanting to write about Ven. Prof. Bellanvila Wimalarathana for a long time. But having worked with him closely it was difficult to bring myself to write about him as the grief was so great. I still wonder whether I have fully come to terms with this loss. His untimely demise was a great loss to the entire nation.
Personally, I valued and respected him for many reasons. First of all, he was an intellectual. He possessed a doctorate in Buddhist Philosophy. He was forthright in his views and he had no fear or favour towards anyone. He would express his thoughts succinctly to anyone. I have also witnessed many an instance where he chose to remain “silent “ so as to render a very strong message.
He was a respected monk. Irrespective of the Nikaya, the Maha Sangha held him in high esteem. Many sectors looked to him for guidance. He was often invited for scholarly discussions by the media. I learned a lot from my close interactions with him. He was very particular about how we worded letters to individuals about the Perahera. He detested requesting for any form of assistance , money or sponsorship. He always instructed us to “write a letter to say there is an opportunity to take part in a noble deed”. By doing this, he ensured that no one was forced to take part. It was entirely up to the recipients of the letters to decide whether they wanted to take part or not. That was how fair he was in his approach.
Similarly, he would not accept sponsorship from anyone suspected of earning their wealth through dubious means. He would discreetly inquire about the character of the person before agreeing to get his support. This was a clear message he sent to the business community about ‘Samma Aajiva’. If someone did not earn money by honourable and sincere means, then the Bellanvila Temple was not open to receive their support. It is sad to note many religious institutions across the country bowing down to the ‘wealth’ of unsavoury characters. Ven. Prof. Wimalarathana Thera stood by his principles.
Propagation of Buddhism
As a priest, he was totally committed to the propagation of Buddhism and he actively demonstrated how Buddhist monks could promote religious harmony. His actions in this regard may have been in total contrast to what a majority of ‘Buddhists’ believed about other religions and races. He was totally against business establishments being attacked by so called Buddhists. In spite of opposition from his own clergy, Ven. Prof. Wimalarathana however, walked on the path of the Buddha by embarking on programmes for religious harmony and inter-racial amity.
Another great trait of Prof Wimalarathana was that he never treated anyone with arrogance. If ever such calibre of people visited the temple, he would talk to them and treat them well. But it was clear that he was not willing to be under obligation to anyone by obtaining favours.
- As a priest, he was totally committed to the propagation of Buddhism and he actively demonstrated how Buddhist monks could promote religious harmony. His actions in this regard may have been in total contrast to what a majority of ‘Buddhists’ believed about other religions and races
In the face of Power
I once witnessed an interesting interaction between him and a former president. The then president visited the Temple for a function and as he was leaving after the proceedings he saw the Thera’s car parked outside and asked, “Shall I send a new vehicle for you?”. The Thera’s immediate response was . The manner in which he spontaneously declined the offer with such a statement direct to the president really showed the true calibre of the monk. This was at a time when anyone would have jumped at the idea of receiving a free vehicle from the President .
I must reiterate that he treated any politician with courtesy and respect. May it be a President, Prime Minister or Minister he received them well. I never knew his political views or if he had any affiliations to any party. He probably did not as he was an independent person. But one thing was certain and that was that he would speak his mind in the face of power. I remember him telling former President Sirisena this about the Bond scam: ‘Even a grade-8 child will know that it is a fraud’!.
Uplifting the Poor
Among his top priorities was that of uplifting the poor in the area who were mainly Buddhists. But he did not exclude other groups. The entire income from the car park goes into the health programme, especially to provide financial assistance to patients who undergo surgery. Some 50,000 rupees is provided every month to people irrespective of ethnicity. This service is continuing to date without much publicity .
The Temple provides technical and industrial training through the Bellanwila Community Development Foundation to youth which includes lathe work and welding. These training programmes along with English and Japanese language classes are offered free-of-charge to young people in the area. The Vocational Training Center the Ven Thera set up has been in existence for 30 years. The number of students who enroll at the Centre after their Ordinary Level exams has increased over the years. The Centre continues to offer these opportunities and those who have enrolled are reaping the benefits of the training. In fact this vocational training centre to a great extent inspired me to set up the Lalith Athulathmudali Vocational Training Centre in Ratmalana.
The Temple also builds cost effective houses for the poor every year. This is an incredible service and support to those from low-income families in the area.
There are two dhamma schools which function in the English and Sinhala medium. In addition to giving support to schoolchildren who study Buddhism in both languages, it also enhances their knowledge of English. The Sri Somarathana Memorial Programme also provides scholarships to school-going children from low-income families. This is a huge relief to parents who struggle to find the means to pay for school materials.
Under his leadership the Temple conducted health clinics where government doctors voluntarily come to serve. Lab tests are also done and this is an invaluable service to low income families. Especially, the cost of diagnostic tests which are extremely expensive to get done and this clinic eases that burden. Going to a government hospital at 5am is difficult especially for ailing and ageing patients. Hence this service is greatly appreciated, as it is a outreach programme for the needy. In addition to this, vision tests are also done and spectacles are donated during the eye clinic. This is also an ongoing programme.
Organizing the Perahera
The Bellanvila Perahera is as great as the Kandy Perahera in size and stature. Organizing this is a humongous task even for a committee. During his time, I was in the habit of making a list of things that we needed to do. I recall that he would raise the same points from his memory. This shows what a sharp mind he has and his overall knowledge on organizing such an event. Year after year, we were able to organize a successful perahera thanks to his guidance and discipline that he ensured in all of us.
I feel I must write about how much he cared for the temple elephants. I remember the time an elephant was struck by lighting and died. Ven. Prof. Wimalarathana was very sad about it. I suggested that we should write to the President and request for another elephant. He refused to do so. Through his own contacts he approached the Myanmar Government and received the gift of Myanmar Kumara in 2013. Ven. Prof. Wimalarathana himself visited Myanmar on several occasions to check on the pedigree and health of this elephant prior to being brought to Sri Lanka. He was extremely fond of this beautiful and majestic tusker and had a special bond with it. Every time he travelled abroad, special fruits were brought especially for the elephant. He loved the elephant so much that when I visited him prior to his demise, he reiterated, ‘the elephant did not do anything to me’. Even in his last days he did not want any false blame to be placed on the animal, which could not defend itself.
Sense of humour
Ven. Prof Wimalarathana had a great sense of humour and from time to time he would narrate funny stories about the clergy. I have learnt and enjoyed so many stories which were narrated by him. Sometime in the 60’s, I think it was Albert Edirisinghe, he wanted to provide a telephone to the temple of erudite Monk Ven. Ganegama Saranankara Thera, he gave instructions to the Telecom Engineer to install the phone give instructions on its usage to the priest and then to inform Mr. Edirisinghe, so that he could give the first call to the Ven. Priest. Upon installation he was notified and thus he dialled the temple, the priest lifted the receiver and said , Mr Edirisinghe was thunderstruck and replaced the receiver immediately. He was wondering what had gone wrong, anyway after a couple of days he visited the temple and the Ven. Saranankara Thera thanked him profusely for the provision of the telephone. Later it transpired that on that day when Albert Edirisinghe had called, the Nayake Thera as instructed lifted the receiver, at that same moment a samenera monk was coming towards the hall carrying a heavy load of plates, the thera seeing this, fearing that it would fall ordered the samenera thera to put the plates down .
A Great Loss
In today’s context where we see monks bowing down to politicians I feel that the sudden demise of the Ven. Professor is a great loss. Even when his term ended as the Chancellor of the Sri Jayawardhanapura University he never requested for any extensions. President Maithripala Sirisena himself visited the Venerable Professor with the letter of Re-appointment . It was no secret that everyone valued him and respected him for his knowledge and way of life. He was someone who could put any government on track. We do not see priests of his calibre in today’s context. Visionary thinking, his fearlessness, strong Independence and straightforwardness were some of the rare qualities that we will certainly miss. Therefore the loss is to the entire nation. I have been fortunate enough to work under his guidance and I am eternally grateful to the lessons he has taught me.
May his sansaric journey be short and may he attain the supreme bliss of Nirwana.