The search for insight | Sunday Observer

The search for insight

7 May, 2023
Meditative bhikkhus led by the present chief incumbent walk under the forest canopy for the mid-day meal to the alms hall in the Madakada Aranya
Meditative bhikkhus led by the present chief incumbent walk under the forest canopy for the mid-day meal to the alms hall in the Madakada Aranya

Near Ingiriya, in the Kalutara district, meet a community of monastic bhikkhus thriving on the ancient discipline of meditation amid tranquility in the heart of the forest canopy at the Madakada Aranya Senasanaya

Alabyrinth of paths snakes 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 the Nachchimale Ela (stream) reverberates across the forest. The cicadas and songbirds exercise their vocal chords in their tranquil surroundings.

 The wooded path with a concrete flight of steps to Aranya Senasanaya

We are at the Madakada Aranya Senasanaya, an abode of higher beings. Nestling on the bank of the Nachchimale Ela, near the 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 low country wet zone natural rain forest shields the hermitage from the outside world, providing an ideal setting for meditation.

When I was a small boy, I still remember, my grandmother took me to the Madakada Aranya to offer alms to the meditative bhikkhus with a group of devotees in our village. I witnessed all the rituals and events that happened there as a boy and enjoyed nature’s beauty over a forty-five years ago.

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

Complex of 20 Kutis

The hermitage, a complex of 20 Kutis (cells) and a rock cave, a small shrine, a Bo tree enclose, alms halls, a Chaitya, a 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 the 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, a table, a 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 organised samathavipassana timetable of meditation, study, instruction, worship and chanting sacred pirith litanies and a special Buddha Pooja 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 bhikkhus 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 an assigned date and prepares meals in the kitchen and offers them to the bhikkhus.

Around 10.30 am at the hermitage, the bhikkhus 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.

Closely structured balance

The gushing waters of the Nachchimale Ela (stream)

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 borne out by evidence that most bhikkhus who follow meditative routines live in good health to an advanced age.

There are about 15 meditative bhikkhus at the hermitage. Their Vipassana 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. The Madakada Aranya is also one of the best meditative places for foreign bhikkhus who search for spiritual environs and nature’s affinity.

The Madakada Aranya was founded in 1945 by Ven. Wanawasi Saddatissa Thera, a doctor by profession whose lay name was Sam Atapattu. He after ordination came to the cave of a thick forest of Madakada through the Nambapana Ela (stream) close to Keenagahawila with the help of an officer of the Department of Forests.

The founder of the hermitage Ven.Wanawasi Saddatissa Thera as a layman and later a bhikkhu, illustrated in the main cave shrine

He used to stay alone in a cave at Madakada, practising Samatha vipassana bavana and walked around eight to ten kilometres in the leech-infested thick forest in the morning for pindapatha, to find food only for one meal a day. The Thera came to be known as Dosthara Hamuduruwo developed the place with devotees in nearby villages setting up a committee of devotees to develop the place as Madakada Aranya Senasanaya. Today, the hermitage has over ten meditative branches throughout the country.

The Madakada hermitage was administrated by its chief incumbent, Ven. Ampitiye Mangala Thera whose serenity, mental clarity and spiritual depth reflected long schooling in meditative discipline as well as a refreshing light-heartedness and good humour. He was the chief pupil of Ven. Saddatissa Thera.

After passing away of Ven. Ampitiye Mangala Thera, the deputy chief bhikkhu of the hermitage, Ven. Dambuluwana Samitha Thera, who took over the administration of the hermitage is one of the scholastic pupils of Ven. Mangala Thera, is following the footpath of the late chief incumbent.

Shrine room

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

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.

Ven. Ampitiye Mangala Thera told me before he passed away 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 those who came from South India. The 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 a 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.

The area surrounding Nachchimale Ela comprises a rich bio-diversity hotspot with a low country wet zone rainforest and is home to a number of endangered bird species and reptiles adjoining the Madakada Aranya. During holidays, the 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.

A resident bhikkhu conducts a Buddha Pooja at the cave shrine. (Centre): Devotees offer alms to the bhikkhus.  (On right): A meditative bhikkhu practises meditation in his kuti (cell)