The remains of the late Ajhan Jinawamsa Thera being taken for cremation to the Kirimetiyama Burial Grounds on December 11 (Friday)
The mysterious death of Ajhan Jinawamsa Thera from the Netherlands gives us a reminder that things could go wrong even on a remote hermitage which most people think is the ideal place for mental progression.
Ajhan Jinawamsa Thera came to Sri Lanka eight years ago and seemed to have ended his search of true Buddhism when he landed at Polgasduwa Island Monastery. He has received good reviews from his peers and teacher monks after his death, but stories that the monk might have been depressed is a talk that’s doing the rounds. Expatriate monks getting depressed and a few having premature deaths or becoming insane as a result have been recorded in history.
The late Ajhan Jinawamsa Thera
The chief monk of the Polgasduwa Monastery airing his views to the Sunday Times, about Ajhan Jinawamsa’s untimely death, rules out murder. With the police officials being quoted in newspapers that they found a stone tied on to one leg of the deceased monk a window is now open to consider whether the monk attempted suicide?
There is talk that he was a pious monk and a good human being. There is no talk or record about the monk making great progress in his meditation. There is also talk about the monk being annoyed with activities in the area like fishing in the Rathgama Lagoon, noisy boats moving around in the waters close to the monks’ huts, the destruction of mangroves and the plans to construct a road across a sanctuary in the vicinity of the hermitage. Did the monk still get involved in worldly affairs despite taking to robes?
Another prominent fact that’s highlighted in recent newspaper articles is that some of the foreign monks in this island hermitage have been dejected with the negativities of life. Some of these foreign monks though being eager to don the yellow robes have found it hard to digest lessons on impermanence. This could have been the issue with Ajhan Janawamsa Thera. In the hut that the priest meditated the police found two mobile phones, 11 memory cards and two sound recorders, but according to newspaper reports the SIM cards of both phones were missing. Did the priest have contact with the outside world?
An issue associated with the foreign monks is that they are hellbent on becoming scholars in the Dhamma and neglect the practice of love (Karuna) to others including oneself.
The book titled ‘The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka’ -and penned by Michael Carrithers (Published by Oxford University Press in 1983)- reveals of instances of forest monks getting depressed, but being guided on to the right path by a seasoned guru. The book refers to one Gunananda Thera who got sick of everything while meditating and even had hallucinations. There came a time when he could not eat or sleep and even feared that he’d die in is sleep. His guru, one Nanarama Thera, had told the young monk to stop everything and practice cultivating loving kindness and it agreed with him. He eventually made great progress and ended up as a trusted teacher of the Sansthawa (the order of forest dwelling monks). The young monk was made to develop joy (Priti) and practice Vitakka Vichara (Discursive and applied thinking which are characteristic of the first Jana).
The underlying message in this chapter of the book is that a monk must stop what he’s doing when the path is not clear. There have been occasions when the minds of foreign monks have rioted when the atmosphere they are made to meditate in doesn’t agree with them. In the case of Ajhan Jinawamsa Thera the civil activities that were threatening the peace in the area of these monasteries (there are four islands housing such monasteries) were not to the liking of him and other island hermit monks.
Back in the 1950s or before that there were efforts to revive the order of the forest dwelling monks. Kadawedduwe Jinawamsa Thera was in the forefront of this movement. But there were several other movements back then trying to surface and claim the distinction to be the right path in Buddhism for monks residing in the jungles. On these developments the NananandaJinawamsa ‘clash’ is recorded. Then there was the ‘Tapasa Movement’ which drew the attention of Prime Minister Sir John Kothalawela. But despite all that Kadawedduwe Jinawamsa was able to add strength to the order of the forest dwelling monks. It is said that Kadawedduwe Jinawamsa Thera was happy where this order of forest dwelling monks was at the time Sri Lanka marked 2500 years of Buddhism in the island nation. The year was 1956.
Most of these foreign monks have had the experience of studying other religions. There are accounts of Ajhan Jinawamsa Thera showing great interest in accepting any books on Buddhism written in English. In this context there is a paragraph in the book which is of great importance and it says, “With Buddhism there is no vagueness. There are the 227 rules of the monastic code to start with, the entire shelf of Sutta Pitaka, Abhidhamma Pitaka. Buddhists are firmly resolved that there is no intentional mystery or mysticism here, but there is enough teaching of an ambiguous sort to last a lifetime”.
Government authorities did their part by informing the Netherland Embassy here about the monk’s demise. Some have said that the mystery death is a black mark on Sri Lanka. But we have to also consider the impact this death will have on the hermit order of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. This is because when going by newspaper reports we observe a school of thought that depression led to the suicide.
The late forest dwelling monk Thambugala Anandasiri (To whom references are made in the book) had stressed that priests who observe precepts alone won’t make progress towards enlightenment. This priest underscored the need for a monk to understand impermanence; for which Vidharshana is needed. Vidharshana is needed to understand Anithya (Impermanence), Dukka (Suffering) and Anathma (No soul). Buddhas appear from time time to teach Vidharshana. There are some who say that forest monks are selfish and achieve religious progress for themselves. The Sansthawa order has often countered this by stating that such utterances are made by people who don’t understand much about the Buddhist order. But one saying by Anandasiri Thera perhaps offers food for thought when we are disturbed by hearing news of a monk committing suicide after becoming sick of life. Anandasiri affirms that a hermitage must meet 10 qualities to be accepted by the ‘Sansthawa’. One of them is to have a priest with Thripitaka knowledge who can teach it to others. Did the late Ajhan Jinawamsa Thera learn his lessons well or did he lack receiving detailed instructions?
The last rites were performed on the late Ajhan Jinawamsa Thera at the Kirimetiyama Burial Grounds on December 11 (Friday) in the presence of priests and villagers. The priest’s death reminds us that human life is associated with lessons on impermanence and they must be learned with diligence to get to a safe port in the journey of Samasara till one gets to the last birth and breaks free from the circle of birth and death.