Oasis of silence | Sunday Observer

Oasis of silence

12 May, 2019

Over eight bhikkhus clad in deep saffron robes that cover both shoulders and carrying begging bowls were present for the midday dana (alms). Indeed, it was a rare sight to see them walk silently on pindapatha down the pathway under a forest canopy, in keeping with tradition dating back to the days of the Buddha when bhikkhus went on alms rounds for their food.

The group of bhikkhus of varying age came in single file, each carrying the alms bowl covered with the robes. After their feet were washed they moved on and patiently stood until the devotees served the dana into their bowls, chanting Sadu… Sadu... Thereafter they retired to the dana salawa (alms hall) a little distance away and sat down to eat the food they had been offered. A dark saffron robed figure stayed behind in the dana salawa to confer merit on the devotees who served alms. This is a moment in the daily routine of the bhikkhus of the Bodhinagala forest hermitage.

We were at the Bodhinagala forest hermitage or the better known Dombagaskanda Aranya Senasanaya, about eight kilometres from Ingiriya town. The hermitage nestles on the banks of the Kalu Ganga near Dombagaskanda hill from which it derived its name, in the outskirts of Ingiriya in the Kalutara district. It lies beneath the leafy canopy of a wet zone rain forest reservation, some 347 hectares in extent. The natural rain forest shields the hermitage from the hustle and bustle of the outside world, providing a serene undisturbed environment for the meditating bhikkhus who live a life of contemplation with nature.

Although it was a sunny day when we arrived at the forest reserve, we heard the sound of rain. Further up, we noticed that it was not rain, but the sound of a stream flowing across the hill. We also had a glimpse of the Kalu Ganga which flows along the foot of the forest reserve through massive trees. The silence of this serene and undisturbed forest is occasionally broken by the sound of a hornbill or a monkey. A neatly kept pathway led us on a steady climb through the forest, the greenery all around providing a cool canopy.

The hermitage is a complex of more than 10 kutis -cells and a rock cave, a shrine, Chaitya, alms hall, refectory, preaching hall and a kitchen, reached by a neat, serpentine path and a long stairway.

Each kuti has a door and a window, a narrow bed, a table, low stool, some pictures of the Buddha and electric light. A firewood hearth is provided for making tea and herbal drinks. A paved walkway has been constructed in front of each kuti for sakman bhavana – meditative walking. The hermitage has a hollow gediya - wooden gong which is sounded at four set times of the day to signal four separate times in the monk’s day.

Organized timetable

The hermitage day begins in darkness before daybreak, and consists of a closely organized timetable of meditation, study, instruction, worship and chanting of sacred pirith litanies until 10pm. Insight meditation sittings usually last 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 making simple articles for use in the hermitage. Meticulous personal hygiene is required, so that the hermitage schedules a daily bath. The bhikkhus dress in a deep brown habit, symbolic of their renunciation of the world, and observe contemplative decorum in all activities, in the solitude of silence.

Two main meals at the hermitage –breakfast and lunch– are provided by alms donors, the bhikkhus receive food in their begging bowls and confer merit on the donors. Begging for food, or pindapatha, is also a facet of the renunciation of worldliness inherent in Buddhist monastic life.

Although the fare is simple and almost purely vegetarian, great care is taken in the preparation and presentation, as giving alms to bhikkhus is rated high on the scale of a Buddhist. A hot porridge made with rice, coconut cream and fresh green herbs is always a staple for heel dane, as breakfast is called, together with a rice meal and a chilli relish. Lunch is rice with vegetable, with perhaps fresh fruit or curd and palm treacle to follow.

The procedure of offering alms sees a donor selected for each day of the year. The chief donor together with relatives and friends offers alms to the bhikkhus on the day assigned to him. Some would come to the hermitage the previous evening and stay overnight at the Giman Hala (resting hall) to prepare the morning breakfast and lunch which would be offered the following day. Most donors are from nearby places while some are from faraway places around the country.

Sri Lanka’s Buddhists follow the classic, historical Theravada teaching. Guided by monastic orders and the ancient Pali canon, meditative practice varies from the simple to the profound. It is practised by all ordained bhikkhus to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the routines of each hermitage.

Insight meditation

The daily programs of vipassana dhura monks are a mainly contemplative one, in which vipassana bhavana insight meditation is dominant and central theme and experience. Insight meditation employs many techniques and subjects, one of the most widely used being anapanasati, the concentration on rhythmic inhalation and exhalation of breath. These communities live mostly in secluded woodland hermitage complexes (aranya), in rock shelters, caves, cob huts or cells, collectively called kuti.

Each day at the hermitage is a closely structured balance of mind development, concentration and awareness exercises, food, drink, rest and sleep, solitude, silence, study, worship and instruction. In the meditative process, specific activities of the mind and body are explored and worked within a personal, inward journey towards contact with the universal truths and Buddhist virtue.

The austerity of this regiment is also very healthy. Many beneficial side effects stem from a serene environment, cleansing the mind of tension, stress, worry, guilt, anger and evil thought, 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 bhikkhus who follow meditative routines live in good health to an advanced age.

About 12 bhikkhus reside permanently at the hermitage, while foreign bhikkhus too come for short periods to practise meditation. To avoid disturbing the meditative bhikkhus, visitors are allowed into the area of kuti only from 12 noon to 1pm.

Founded 70 years ago, the Bodhinagala forest hermitage is today administrated by its chief monk, Ven. Dharma Keerthi Sri Vippassanachariya Labugama Ananda Dhamma Kithti Thera, whose serenity, mental clarity and spiritual depth reflect long schooling in meditative discipline, as well as a refreshing lightheartedness. “In the administration of the hermitage, the essential spirit of seclusion and solitude of hermitage life is preserved, with communal rituals limited to the barest minimum. Above all, we place before all who meditate here an opportunity to journey to the peace that comes with understanding, with true insight,” the chief incumbent tells us.

We left the hermitage, with joy in our hearts, having witnessed its spiritual serenity. The happiness we enjoyed, spending a few hours under the canopy of green, away from the sights and sounds of the outside world, was more than words could express.