“If one could take his last breath with a smiling face and clear mind”….
It was a friend that first sent me this quote along with the photograph of a person who had faced death with these last words and a smile. The person who had so passed on in life was a saffron-robed Bhikku. He had been born in Denmark but had chosen to become a monk at a very young age after understanding the value of Buddhism. For nearly 50 years since he had lived a monastic life in the forests of Sri Lanka.
The Bhikku, who passed on in early September after having lived a disciplined monastic life till the very end was better known locally as Gnanadeepa Thera of Denmark. It was not often that the Bhikku who mostly lived in the Laggala, Pallegama area socialized with others. If at all he was only seen in the mornings when he would visit with his begging bowl in search of alms. He kept away from laymen as well as small talk and even when he did associate with others it was to mostly talk about the Dhamma.
Gnanadeepa Thera received his ordination as a Buddhist monk in 1969 at the Polgasduwa Aranya. It is a well known fact that there were many wonderful things hidden in the meditative life of Ven. Gnanadeepa Thera. The villagers in Laggala, Pallegama refer to him as the White Bhikku who would collect alms, his robes unwet even in the heavy rain. In fact, the villagers believed he had a spiritual power that allowed him to remain unwet amidst even a heavy downpour. The villagers also relate other unbelievable experiences they have seen when the monk would visit to collect alms. To this day the villagers find it difficult to believe if he had in fact visited the village by foot from the forest he lived in as villagers cannot often trace his steps beyond one’s sight.
The Chamber of Death
In a note written about Gnanadeepa Thera, American Bhikku Rahula Thera said prior to living in the Laggala forest, Gnanadeepa Thera had once meditated in the forests of Bundala, in the Southern province. According to Rahula Thera though he had not met Gnanadeepa Thera recently, he had last met him nearly 10 years ago during a visit to Sri Lanka.
Rahula Thera said he first met Gnanadeepa Thera in 1975 in a meditation chamber deep within the Bundala forest. Another foreign Bhikku had occupied this chamber previously. The Bhikku known as Gnanaweera had passed on in life, and his meditation chamber was then occupied by another Bhikku who had later passed on untimely after being bitten by a poisonous snake. Later Gnanadeepa Thera had occupied the same chamber going on to call it ‘The Chamber of Death’.
“I visited him several times when he was meditating in the Bundala forest. He had a deep knowledge of the Dhamma. He was also well versed in Pali. He had quick answers to any query we had through his knowledge of the Suttas. He also did yoga exercises at the time. Since I also learned Yoga we talked about that as well. He said he would occupy the Sirsasana yoga position (Head stand) for 30 minutes a day”
Kindness to animals
It is believed he was able to mediate among elephants, leopards and poisonous snakes due to the compassion in his heart.
“He once told me that when he was meditating in the Padmasana posture he felt a sharp pain in his foot. A poisonous snake appeared to have wrapped itself around his foot. In awhile the snake had slithered up to his shoulder. He had not moved and instead commenced the Maithree meditation. After some time the snake had slithered away from the Thera. He had however continued to meditate for another 30 minutes despite the pain he felt. His monastic life within the forests of Sri Lanka was an inspiration to me as well. I chose a forest area in Dolukanda, Kurunegala. There I too experienced the monastic life amongst dangerous animals” he said.
However, Rahula Thera who later traveled abroad only met Gnanadeepa Thera once more after nearly 35 years. “I met him again in 2010 when I returned to Sri Lanka. At the time he was meditating in a forest in Laggala. He would only allow other Bhikkus to meet him once a week” he said. However not denying Rahula Thera’s request to meet him away from this set time frame, he recalls his visit to meet Gnanadeepa Thera.
Visit to Laggala
“In 2010 I attempted to meet him. At the time he spent most of his time meditating and in self-reflection. He would spend the three months of Was in a chamber and then continue to do so for another three months. Only after that would he visit an Aranya that is close by and perhaps get any medicines or other supplies needed.”
“When I visited Sri Lanka it was not a time he was willing to meet outsiders. But I informed a mutual associate that I wished to meet Gnanadeepa Thera after 30 years to discuss some questions I had on the Dhamma. Surprisingly he gave me that opportunity. The time allotted to me was while accompanying him on his morning rounds of collecting alms. There were two other Sri Lankan novice monks along with him as well. Every day he would travel 2 km from the forest and come to a rocky plateau.” he recalled.
“The villagers would also travel nearly 1km to the place and present their alms to him. Following the almsgiving, we discussed various dhamma subjects. I explained to him what I had done to spread the Dhamma during the last 30 years. He listened to me patiently and just said one thing. You have paid your debt for nearly 30 years. Now retire from it. Now spend the rest of your time to make sense of your life. I took his advice and prepared a program to disseminate the Dhamma. I moved away from it all thereafter. After giving me this advice he returned to the forest” Rahula Thera said.
Till the very end, Gnanadeepa Thera lived a simple life. According to villagers, he had always requested them to only give in alms part of the food they would prepare for themselves and nothing more. He had only chosen to live in an Aranya from time to time after facing an accident where his thigh was stomped on by a wild elephant.
It is said former President Ranasinghe Premadasa when he was a Deputy Minister had once met Gnanadeepa Thera by chance. When asked by Premadasa as to what Gnanadeepa Thera needs, he had responded that a Bhikku only needs his robes and his begging bowl, and nothing more.
Although physically weak, he was endowed with unlimited mental strength and did not give up his determination till the last moment. He spent his last days at the Meegalawa Kathnoruwa Athdathgala Aranya Senasanaya before on September 12 leaving forever his simple and disciplined monastic life with a smile.