An encounter: Ajahn Brahm meets Bhante Nyanavimala

Bhante Brahmali sent me this snippet. It is a few words by Ajahn Brahm remembering an early visit to Sri Lanka and his meeting with the renowned (among meditators) forest monks Bhante Nyanavimala. Enjoy!

I only met Venerable Nyanavimala once, but the meeting left a lasting impression. Sometime around 1990, I was visiting Sri Lanka, staying at a monastery in Anderson Road, Nedimala. One afternoon, an English monk and I, together with our Australian attendant, decided to walk to Vajirarama to pay our respects to Venerable Piyadassi. We arrived hot and tired only to be told by Ven. Piyadassi to take a seat and he would arrange some tea. Little did I know that the great Mahathera was to make the tea himself for us! I was stunned by such humility.
After some discussion with the Venerable, he mentioned that Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi was staying at Vajirarama, having just arrived back in Sri Lanka from the U.S. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi was another of my “monk heroes” and I jumped at the opportunity to pay my respects and express my sincere gratitude to him for translating so many Suttas into readable English.
Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi then mentioned that Ven Kheminda was staying in the next room. Ven Kheminda had written that excellent booklet on the importance of Jhana and had, as a consequence, endured with admirable fortitude the unwarranted criticism from other less knowledgable monks. I had admired him for many years and relished the occasion of bowing at his feet and expressing my support for his courage in standing up for the Dhamma taught by the Buddha.
Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi then advised that we should pay our respects to another monk whom I had never heard of before, an ageing German monk called Nyanavimala. It was as if the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi was saving the best treat for the last. I recall Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi saying that Ven. Nyanavimala doesn’t speak very much so we should just enter the room, pay our respects and then leave. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi waited outside.
It was over an hour before we left that room. What happened inside remains with me today as the best Dhamma Talk that I have ever had the good karma to listen to! It was worth the whole journey from Australia to Colombo to experience. The Venerable Nyanavimala wove quotes from the Suttas together with explanations from his own experience into such a symphony of Dhamma that I left not with stars in my eyes, more like Dhammacakka wheels in my eyes! They would call it today “Awesome”.
I felt so sorry for the kind Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi. When we emerged he asked where we had been. When we replied that we had just heard a rip roaring Dhamma Talk from Ven Nyanavimala, the venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi lamented that the Ven Nyanavimala rarely if ever gives such talks and he had missed it!
I never had the good fortune to meet Ven. Nyanavimala again but that one chance meeting will never be forgotten. A photo of the Ven. Nyanavimala hangs in our Danasala in Perth alongside other great and inspiring monks.
Ajahn Brahm, 27th December 2011

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15 thoughts on “An encounter: Ajahn Brahm meets Bhante Nyanavimala

  1. vandana bhante
    thanking you
    i think this the monk i took soup to he was living then on Ayya Khema’s island then and did not talk or hsve visitors. But he did come out of his room with help and Oh! l can not tell whe he looked at me and his is what erhaps one would exect from any aryian. the eyesas blue as the sky the skin clear and with glow and the smile. ven with so litle food and no medication only meditation. what an inpiration i do wish i had taken a phptp but it just did seem right perhaps disrespectful at that. our meeting was just perhaps two or three moments but has left me with such a lasting impression.
    thanks for the memory
    vandana
    ayya lonon dhammadinna

  2. vandana bhnte
    sorry about the typing but the hands are no good now and some i miss letters on the phone keyboard

  3. “Little did I know that the great Mahathera was to make the tea himself for us! I was stunned by such humility”. Not to say that the great Mahathera was not humble but that Ajahn Brahm was stunned would, to me, be more a reflection on Ajahn Brahm’s monastic background and conditioning.

    Bhante Sujato is the whole “pay respects” thing big in Sri Lanka?

  4. Bhante

    “Little did I know that the great Mahathera was to make the tea himself for us! I was stunned by such humility.”

    My mother used to make tea for me, what’s the difference? My mother had nursed many with serious war injuries, does that make her any less great?

    Didn’t Mahathera primarily study and practice the Dhamma for his own enlightenment? If so, what is so admirable about that?

    Did he have any sympathy for Bhikkhu Bodhi missing out on this Dhamma talk and go to the effort of doing another one for him?

    I would be more impressed if he had “put himself out” for someone else…..

    cheers

    Geoff

  5. Bhante, thank you for sharing this story from Ajahn Brahm. Thank you also for providing a forum for teachers such as Peter and Geoff. Here is a wonderful lesson in the choices we all have, to see situations in a positive light and respond with gratitude and kindness, or to see things negatively and respond accordingly.

    May we all progress on the path, particularly the sixth step.

  6. Robert
    I share your sentiments in being grateful to Ajahn Sujato for creating this opportunity but I am not a teacher I just enjoy the conversation and the sharing with fairly like minded people.

    With regard to seeing things in a positive or negative light there is also a third way. If there was a seesaw and humility was on one end what would be on the other?

  7. The difference is one of expectations. Humility is a trait you don’t expect to find in a senior monk. At least not in Thailand. I’ve had very limited experience with Sri Lankin monks. One monk I met when I was still a layman was like “On your knees! Pay respects now!”, literally (though he barely spoke english so it was by gesture), and he was young. There’s probably more of an expectation that Sri Lankin monks will be waited on, than for Thai monks, there’s probably no probably about it, more like definitely. But I’m not sure to what extent individual monks take that to heart, obviously some do and some don’t. Still with my present conditioning I’d be significantly more surprised by humility than arrogance.

    Monastic culture can be strange. It’s like when a monk decides to look after a kitten or a goat kid or something, and people are like “he’s so kind and gentle”. Except of course, you have to be a complete failure as a human being to be unable to be kind and gentle to a baby animal so it ends up more being a statement about the expectations on an average monk (i.e you expect him to look out for number one and not care about anyone else).

    Excuse my cynicism,
    Nandiya.

  8. Ven. Nandiya,

    Interesting what you say about how we are suppose to be impressed by the generosity of monks when non-monastics are as generous (if not more so) all the time eg:

    Dr. Fred Hollows (now deceased) – ophthalmologist and health activist:

    Australian Humanist of the Year 1991:

    For his practical contributions to improving the eyesight of Aborigines, and his program to train local technicians to perform eye surgery in Eritrea, Nepal and Vietnam. He lived and died with these beliefs: “I am a humanist, I don’t believe in any higher power than the best expressions of the human spirit, and those are to be found in personal and social relationships”.

    cheers

    Geoff

  9. vandana bhante
    i taught vinaya here for some time. which was some time ago now. but correct me if i am wrong monastics that is bhukkhu and bhikkhuni do not make or serve food and drinks for the laity this is not a pride thing as i see it but a practical thing also monastics are not to become servents which would hinder their progress. of course as junior monks and nuns it is about respect for the years of renounciation and hopefully their insight. and all
    monastics have to learn the haromious way of the vihara. if i when i went to visit a monastic of another church would make me tea? this maha thera is at level of a bishop and a bishop never makes tea. this i know personally. so perhaps if you visted the local bishop and walked yo the kitchen and made tea what would you think and say then? the same thing i think.
    not good at this bloging thing but i think it is important to look at things another way some times
    vandana bhate

  10. Dear Ayya Dhammadinna,

    Thanks for the comment, and for offering your perspective. And how is life treating you in London?

    In the Vinaya the monastics do not cook food, as they are alms mendicants. This is to encourage contentment among the monastics, not so that they shouldn’t be servants. There are no rules that prevent monastics from serving lay people, except in a couple of contexts, such as acting as a go-between for sexual liaisons. There is no rule against monastics offering food and drink to lay people (although there is a rule concerning offering food to mendicants of other traditions).

    Do Bishops offer tea to people? I have no idea. But when I visited Wat Pa Pong many years ago, the abbot Luang Po Liem made coffee and offered it to me and my mum, so there’s that. I don’t think it’s anything unusual – I must admit I was a little surprised in Ajahn Brahm’s article to see that he made such a big deal about it. Perhaps he had different experiences when in Thailand.

  11. The more important thing here is what is the motivation behind the story. I feel bad for Bhikkhu Bodhi. I don’t think one should judge one’s practice, purity, enlightenment or understanding by the good fortune to meet great teachers or have abundance of food etc. As from what i understand Buddhism is a practice towards holiness & purification of the heart and not a practice to gain abundance or a large number of followers etc. There are some monks who are really pure in mind and heart but only get very little food at times and that does not mean their practices were not good enough or not enough good merits for them to have abundance. In my opinion, abundance attracts temptation which attract desire which attract greed which attract corruption which attract downfall in any aspect of life.

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