The sound of silence | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

The sound of silence

29 April, 2018
AGE-OLD RITUALS: Bhikkus walk on pindapatha under the forest canopy for the mid-day meal to the alms hall in Madakada Aranya
AGE-OLD RITUALS: Bhikkus walk on pindapatha under the forest canopy for the mid-day meal to the alms hall in Madakada Aranya

Near Ingiriya, meet a community of monastic Bhikkus thriving on the ancient discipline of meditation amidst tranquility in the heart of the forest canopy at Madakada Aranya Senasanaya

A labyrinth of paths snake through the rainforest in the hermitage at Madakada. It is dawn and the misty, nippy air envelops us. Rays of sunlight filter through the silhouetted leaves of the massive trees in the forest and the continuous sound of gushing waters of Nachchimale Ela (stream) reverberate across the forest. The cicadas and songbirds exercise their vocal chords in their tranquil surroundings.

We are at Madakada Aranya Senasanaya, an abode of higher beings. Nestling on the bank of the Nachchimale Ela, near Keenagahawila village in the outskirts of Ingiriya, the Madakada Aranya Senasanaya lies beneath the leafy canopy of a rainforest reservation extending over 50 hectares. The natural rain forest shields the hermitage from the outside world, providing an ideal setting for the Buddhist meditation practised there.

It is just two kilometres north-west of Ingiriya town on Keenagahawila village, along the Colombo-Ingiriya main Road, a one and a half hour drive from Colombo.

The hermitage, a complex of 20 Kutis (cells) and a rock cave, a small shrine, Bo tree enclose, alms halls, Chaitya, refectory and a kitchen sit astride a saddle of rock, reached by a rough, serpentine path and a cement stairway of even steps and jumps. The environment is one of calm serenity and silence, except for the gushing waters of Nachchimale Ela and the swish of leaves in the wind and the chattering of birds.

Each Kuti has a door and window, a narrow bed, table, low stool, some pictures of the Buddha and an electric light. A firewood hearth is provided for making tea and herbal drinks. A neatly paved walkway winds through the trees for Sakman Bhavana (meditative walking).

The routine of the hermitage day begins in the darkness before daybreak, and consists of a closely organized samatha vipassana timetable of meditation, study, instruction, worship and chanting sacred pirith litanies and a special Buddha Puja program ‘Buddha Watha’ until 10 pm. Insight meditation is done sitting, usually lasting one and a half to two hours at a time, twice a day.

The daily program also includes a few domestic duties, as well as sweeping pathways, shrine rooms and alms hall. Meticulous personal cleanliness is required, so the hermitage schedule includes a daily bath. The Bhikkus dress in a deep brown habit, symbolic of their renunciation of the world, and observe contemplative decorum in all activities, in silence and solitude.

The two main meals (purely vegetarian) at the hermitage – breakfast and lunch – are provided by alms donors, who are assigned to offer alms 365 days a year to the hermitage. Each donor comes with a group of devotees to the hermitage on his assigned date and prepares meals in the kitchen and offers them to the Bhikkus. At the hermitage, the Bhikkus receive food in their begging bowls at a preaching hall and confer merit on the donors. They then bring it to the Dana Salawa (alms hall) where the food is consumed. Begging for food, or Pindapatha, is also a facet of the renunciation of worldliness inherent in Buddhist monastic life.

Each day in the hermitage is a closely structured balance of mind development, concentration and awareness exercises, food, drink, rest and sleep, solitude, silence, study, worship and instructions. The austerity of this regimen is also very healthy. Many beneficial side effects stem from a serene environment, cleansing the mind of tension, stress, worry, guilt, anger and evil thoughts, helping to balance the proper functioning of blood circulation, the nervous system and vital organs in the process. This is strongly borne out by evidence that most Bhikkus who follow meditative routines live in good health to an advanced age.

At present, there are about 15 meditative Bhikkus at the hermitage. Their Vipassanadhura meditation is a mainly contemplative one. The Samatha Vippassana Bhavana insight meditation is the dominant and central theme and experience. These contemplative communities live mostly in secluded woodland hermitage complexes (Aranya) in rock shelters, caves and kutis. Madakada Aranya is also one of the best meditative places for foreign Bhikkus who search for spiritual environs and nature’s affinity.

It was founded in 1945 by Ven Wanawasi Saddatissa Thera, a doctor by profession whose lay name was Sam Atapattu. He later entered into Buddhist monkhood and came to the cave of a thick forest of Madakada through Nambapana Ela (stream) close to Keenagahawila with the help of an officer of the Department of Forests. He used to stay alone in a cave at Madakada, practising Samathavipassanabavana and walked around eight to 10 kilometers in the leech-infested thick forest in the morning for pindapatha, to find food only for one meal a day. Later, the Thera became popularly known as ‘Dosthara Hamuduruwo’ who developed the place with devotees in nearby villages establishing a committee of devotees to develop the place as ‘Madakada Aranya Senasanaya’. Today, the hermitage consists of over ten meditative branches islandwide.

The Madakada hermitage is administrated by its chief monk, Ven Ampitiye Mangala Thera whose serenity, mental clarity and spiritual depth reflect long schooling in meditative discipline as well as a refreshing light- heartedness and good humour. He was the chief pupil of Ven. SaddatissaThera. The deputy chief monk of the hermitage, Ven. Dambuluwana Samitha Thera, one of the scholastic pupils of Ven. Ampitiye Mangala Thera does most of the administrative work of the hermitage.

The cave which Ven. Saddatissa Thera occupied, has been turned into a magnificent shrine room in the hermitage where all the Buddha pujas are offered with veneration. A portrait of Ven. Saddatissa in a meditative posture and another painting as a layman in full suit adorn the wall of the cave.

Walking around the wooded shade is balm to stressed nerves. Gigantic trees, their barks entwined with three-inch thick vines, add to the feeling of being in the thick of the forest, while the whisper of leaves rustling in the breeze is another soothing element. We observed many wonders of nature in the form of rare birds, butterflies, medicinal plants and wild flowers as well as endemic fish at the cascading Nachchimale Ela.

The chief monk also points out that it is wrong to address the hermitage as a Nachchimale Aranya and its correct name is Madakada Aranya Senasanaya. He narrates the story about how it became known as Nachchimale.

In the past, most of the people who worked in estate plantations around Ingiriya were Tamils who came from South India. The Tamil people in the estates close to the hermitage used to go to Ingiriya town to bring provisions for cooking. One day, an elderly woman who crossed the stream with her provisions on the head, had fallen into the deep waterhole in the stream and drowned. Hence, the stream was called Aachchimale (the place where the elderly woman died) and later it became known as Nachchimale.

Nachchimale Ela comprises a very rich bio-diversity hotspot with the rainforest and is home to a number of endangered bird species and reptiles adjoining the Madakada Aranya. During the holidays Nachchimale Ela is a popular bathing spot among the locals and some fatalities have also been reported.

However, you must keep in mind that this is the abode of higher beings who are aspiring for spiritual advancement, so don’t break the silence! Enjoy nature and the refreshing environs, but do so quietly.