Solias Mendis, a great Buddhist artist

Many of you will have seen some of the paintings by the great Sri Lankan Buddhist artist, Solias Mendis. One of the most famous is the image of Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta arriving in Sri Lanka with the Bodhi tree sapling, greeting by King Devanampiyatissa.

Sanghamitta arriving in Sri Lanka

I included this image, with a substantial discussion of the symbolism, in my White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes. Recently, I chatted about Mendis with Rane Ranatunga, and he kindly sent me a couple of short articles, which I thought I’d share with you. Solias Mendis was an exceptional artist, whose work is superbly crafted and creative. I hope to see it in its proper context when I visit Sri Lanka in December. Meanwhile, we shall have to be content with a few digital images. You can see more on this site.

Soliyas Mendis (1896–1975)

Artist Soliyas Mendis, renowned the world over for his murals in the Kelaniya temple in the suburbs of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, was a self-taught painter. Hailing from a rural village, he was an extraordinary man who shunned any form of publicity and concentrated on doing his task in a quiet way.

When authorities of the Kelaniya temple sought the advice of the famed Indian painter Nandalal Bose, he visited the temple and seeing what Soliyas Mendis was doing, had no hesitation is advising that Mendis should be permitted to continue with the paintings in his own inimitable style. Bose admired Mendis’ work and gave him a few tips to improve his style. Bose advised him that the colour of the paint to be used for a particular mural should be prepared from the clay of the same shade. He then travelled many a distance looking for the clay bearing the particular colours he needed. He succeeded in his effort and soon realised that using such clay resulted in the colour lasting for a great length of time without any discolouring.

Soliyas Mendis, who had a passion for painting from his young days, tried his hand at a few village temples and was happy with his effort It was when he was doing the paintings at a temple closer to Kelaniya that the trustees of the temple were impressed and invited him to do the paintings. He the studied the style of art used during the period of the last kings who reigned from Sri Lanka’s hill capital, Kandy (the rest of the country was then under the British) commonly referred to as the Kandyan style. He closely studied the costumes and other traditions of that era.

A bachelor he had few wants in life. He did not look for material comforts or personal glory. He led a simple life and donated his land, house and even the small car he used for use as an orphanage. He used a bicycle after selling his car.

Soliyas Mendis: From ‘Among Those Present’ (1962)

When renowned Sri Lankan journalist D B Dhanapala selected 22 Sri Lankans who had made a name for themselves in numerous fields, for his book, ‘Among Those Present’ (1962), Soliyas Mendis was one of them. Referring to the ceremony of the offering the new wing built at the Kelaniya temple to the Maha Sangha, he wrote:

“….There was one man to whom nobody paid any attention. He paid attention to everybody by observing and making mental notes of this scene of consecration. For he had to paint it on the bare walls of the new section of the shrine which had been gifted to the Sasana.

He had already finished the sculpture work round the new shrine, having created three friezes of dwarfs, sacred geese and elephants, without repeating once any one pose and having endowed the outer walls with nine abodes of the gods above the friezes.

Now, the bare walls alone had to be painted. And he was all set for the task.

If genius means untutored, natural, instinctive but extraordinary talent, imaginative or inventive, modern Ceylon has produced at least one real genius.

He is Walimuni Soliyas Mendis, the man who painted the frescoes in the new wing of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihare.
Born a peasant, bred a peasant, Mendis never had any professional technical training of any sort. He was the son of a village Ayurvedic physician. But Ayurveda proved a bitter pill to him that he refused to swallow. He preferred to do quick drawings for the delight and amusement for his friends studying in the Pirivena where he had his higher education.

Later, he was interested in painting frescoes on temple walls in his areas round about Negombo. Paint seemed to be mixed with his blood. The frescoes just flowed from his brush according to the traditions.

The late D C Wijewardane who was in charge of the execution of the work in the new section of the Kelaniya Temple went in search of this remarkable man to his home. He found him not only a good painter but also a great student of history.
Wijewardena sent Soliyas Mendis on a study tour to Ajanta, Ellora and Bagh caves to see for himself what the old Buddhist artists had painted. He came back inspired and fired by the masterpieces in these Buddhist caves. But he had made no notes, copied no pictures, taken no photographs.

Out of these masterpieces of the past in India, out of the extant ancient frescoes in Ceylon, out of his own imagination and out of the historical traditions of the Sinhalese, Soliyas Mendis re-created in modern Ceylon something of his own on the walls of Kelaniya for nearly twenty years.

These pictures painted at Kelaniya may be considered the best work done in Ceylon since the Polonnaruwa period (12th century AC) , if not Sigiriya (5th cen AC).

….When Mendis had finished all but the last fresco in the Kelaniya Temple, for some mysterious reason, he was requested not to proceed with the work. The last fresco was to be the biggest, the best, as the background to the new seated Buddha of granite in the innermost shrine room, the Hall of Perfumes. A white wandering artist of a very mediocre type was brought in to paint this last bit of bare wall. How out of place, out of time with the rest of the paintings, this last bit of work is apparent to anybody who visits the Kelaniya Temple.

Showing the Himalayas with a wealth of an alien kind of blue and white the picture is a cultural hammer blow to good taste and appropriateness of things.

This barbaric treatment of a man who had dedicated his life to a mission of art at what may be considered not very attractive rates left a very bad taste in the mouth.

Mendis, in unexpected disgust, gave up for ever painting and retired to his village to live once again the life of a farmer. He had bought a small coconut estate out of the money he had been paid for his work. Here he built a house and gifted both estate and house as an orphanage to the nation.

A simple peasant, Mendis is. But he is the only genius we have produced who could not only create something new of his own but who could also give away in a spirit of self-sacrifice all that he had made in the attempt.

Awakening Women Online

Here’s a message from our friend Ayya Adhimutta.

dear friends,

~i want to write to you of a very grand and inspiring initiative that a group (hopefully soon to become very international and multifaceted group, a vast web/network coming together of buddhist women) of us are undertaking.

~ we are hoping to create a multimedia database, gathering chanting, images, art work, interviews, videos, stories, writing and much more from women all round the world.  we hope that each different tradition and lineage and country will be well represented ~ and that this will be an inspiring and very magnificent treasure trove for female practitioners everywhere.  And that instead of such images and stories being difficult to come by and to find, that they will be readily, and that the inspiration from them will be deeply transformative for many.

~ we’re expecting that this project will be ongoing and will take a few years before we have the solid core of resources together (and i’m guessing that it will be ongoing for many years after that. . . . especially as, once we have the internet and basic collection side of things going well, it would be wonderful to share much of this information with our dhamma sisters who speak different languages and who do not have easy access to web-resources.  so, this project, really has vast potential, and i feel will be deeply transformative for many many women (and also our wonderful dhamma brothers ~)

~ there is a spectrum of activities that need your help and assistance, and its diversity means there will be something of interest for almost anyone.  We need people to help collect and record chanting, conduct interviews, collect images, do research and so on,

in the Dhamma,

adhimutta bhikkhuni

For more information please see:

If you would like to be involved in some way with our project, please contact:

And now, in religions’ baffling inability to cope with women…

A Christian group at Bristol University in England is being investigated for its discriminatory policies. Women are banned from teaching at their weekly meetings without their husbands beside them. The email from their president said:

“We understand that this [women teaching] is a difficult issue for some and so decided that women would not teach on their own at our CU:Equip meetings [its principal weekly meeting], as the main speaker on our Bristol CU weekend away or as our main speaker for mission weeks.”

The email goes on to say that women may teach at these meetings, as long as it it with their husbands.

It is fantastic that these discriminatory policies are being dealt with at last. The sad thing is, of course, that similar discriminatory policies are being practiced in Buddhism. From Amaravati’s notorious “Five Points” of discrimination against women:

2. In line with this, leadership in ritual situations where there are both bhikkhus and siladhara–such as giving the anumodana [blessings to the lay community] or precepts, leading the chanting or giving a talk–is presumed to rest with the senior bhikkhu present. He may invite a siladhara to lead; if this becomes a regular invitation it does not imply a new standard of shared leadership.

The full list is on Leigh Brasington’s site. He’s added a variation to the list that was created some time ago, where “monk” and “nun” are replaced by “Whites” and “Blacks”. There are more variations here. The alternate wordings create a stark and disturbing impression, as if the original was not creepy enough.

We can only hope that Buddhist groups realize the harm that these policies create and change them before they are forced to do so by the law.

Planting a Bodhi tree

Planting Bodhi tree at Dhammasara Nuns Monastery.

The fourfold community gathered around the Bodhi tree

On 25 November, I was honored to take part in a ceremony for planting a Bodhi tree at Dhammasara. Congratulations to the nuns and community of Dhammsara for organizing this, and much thanks to the monks of the Mahavihara in Sri Lanka, who came personally to oversee the planting of the sapling taken from the original at Anuradhapura.

Much joy was felt! The event was full of such spirit; the devotion of the people, and the calm coolness of the moonlit bushscape of Dhammasara. At a time like that, the Dhamma draws near.

Good News for Nuns

There has been some wonderful progress for nuns and bhikkhunis in the Tibetan tradition in recent months. I’ve been kept up to date by Ven Jampa Tsedroen. Here’s a summary.

In May there was a decision to allow Tibetan nuns of the Gelugpa tradition to receive a geshe title. This has been controversial in the past due mainly to the requirement for full Vinaya studies. The geshe degree is the highest title in Tibetan Buddhist studies, and it requires a thorough training in all areas of Buddhist texts in the Tibetan canon. This includes the Vinaya, traditionally the last section to be taught. According to the Tibetan tradition, however (shared also with the Chinese tradition), Vinaya may only be taught to those fully ordained. (This idea probably originated in a misunderstanding of some passages in the early Vinaya, but that’s beside the point here.) Since nuns cannot be fully ordained, they cannot complete the studies and therefore cannot become geshe. Now the full course of study has become available on a non-sectarian basis.

Here is an article about the issue by Ven Jampa Tsedroen.

In addition, the Tibetan department of Religion and Culture has organized a high level committee to support the introduction of full ordination for women in the Mulasarvastivada tradition. The committee includes two members from each of the four main Tibetan sects, as well as two representatives from the nuns.

The committee has invited Ven Jampa and others to present research results in the last two weeks of October. They have received specific requests as to the texts that the committee is interested in, and these are being prepared. There seems to be a good chance that some genuine progress is at last at hand.

In other news, congratulations for the new samaneris ordained at Aranyabodhi and at Santi! It feels strange not to be there, but I couldn’t be happier.

The Problem with Nuns…

is not just a Buddhist thing. The Vatican has been enduring increasing levels of anxiety about the nuns, specifically the nuns of the US.

The leading representative body for nuns in the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, despite it’s canonical status within the Church has come under repeated fire and investigation for various heretical tendencies, which you can read about in the Vatican’s statement here, and the LCWR response here. The Vatican takes this so seriously that have set up a formal investigation, and the LCWR is talking about seceding from the communion.

The parallels with the situation regarding Wat Pa Pong and nuns are quite remarkable, for all the differences in the details. Despite the misleading and sensationalist headline, this article from AlterNet does a good job of explaning the background to the dispute. The author argues that the basic issue is about power, and it’s hard to fault this. Just as WPP criticized Ajahn Brahm and others for questioning the orthodoxy, so ‘obedience’ is foremost in the lessons that the bishops would have the nuns learn.

And the basic conflict is pretty much exactly parallel. The conservative group insists on keeping the medieval power structure in place, insisting that that, and that alone, is the truth; while the progressive party—more alive to the nuances and changes of history—look for inspiration in the heart of the teacher’s message for guidance in changing times.

It’s not just the LCWR that’s proving controversial. A leading academic nun in the US, Sister Margaret Farley, has come under fire for discussing sexual ethics in ways that the Vatican declares to be “not consistent with authentic Catholic theology”. As always, it’s best to read the Vatican’s original response, which is posted here.

Sister Farley is criticized for taking liberal positions on a range of matters relating to sexuality and relationships, namely masturbation, homosexual acts, same sex marriage, and divorce.

What’s interesting (or interestingly boring, depending on your perspective) is the wording of the criticisms. The document speaks of ‘doctrinal errors’, ‘the constant teaching of the Magisterium’, ‘the objective nature of the natural moral law’, ‘errors and ambiguities’ (Oh, those ambiguities! Can’t have them… Or can we?), ‘conform to Catholic teaching’, ‘This opinion is not acceptable’, ‘Sacred Scripture… presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law…’ ‘Legal recognition of homosexual unions… would mean… the approval of deviant behavior…’.

It’s all astonishingly unreconstructed. Despite Vatican 2 and the tremendous efforts by Catholics all over the world to genuinely engage with modernity within the framework of their faith, in this document the patriarchy just slams right down, no concessions granted. Modernity is just shrugged off like an annoying mosquito.

The Vatican document cites the ‘confusion’ among laity, a similar position to that which was expressed at the same sex marriage meeting I attended in April. This was also a key point in the official Amaravati document on the Five Points that subjugate the nuns. These were intended to allay the ‘confusion’ of the lay folk, which is why they were called ‘Points of Clarification’. For these patriarchies, allaying confusion means insisting on the One and Only Truth, which always has been and always will be, and which is fully embodied in the patriarchy itself.

The original document on the five points is here, and it’s worth reading it side by side with the Vatican documents. The Vatican, being older and more confident, expresses itself directly, whereas the Amaravati document ties itself in knots trying to apologize. But the end result is the same: obey or get kicked out.

There is, of course, the difficulty that many of the propositions insisted on by the patriarchy are unethical and harmful. They stem not from any timeless well of truth, but from well-understood social and historical conditions, conditions that no longer exist—except in the minds of the patriarchs. But as long as ‘modern’ notions can be dismissed by the sheer fact of their heterodoxy, they need not be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Buddhists and Catholics go about our lives. We hear these pronouncements: sometimes they make us angry, sometimes they make us sad, sometimes they make us feel pity. But no one will ever be persuaded by them. They are a call to spiritual devolution, to a regression to lesser lives and diminished horizons. The spirit calls us on, and we won’t be shackled.

First Bhikkhuni Ordination at Dhammasara Nuns’ Monastery

Some wonderful news: there’s going to be a bhikkhuni ordination in Perth this Thursday! Myself and Ayya Sudhamma will be going from Santi to participate. This will be the first bhikkhuni ordination at Dhammasara – the previous bhikkhuni ordination was held at Bodhinyana.

It’s all been organized very swiftly, so all we have is the brief announcement from Dhammasara.

The Dhammasara Nuns’ Monastery is delighted to announce that the “First Bhikkhuni Ordination” will take place at Dhammasara on Thursday, 1st March 2012 in the morning at 8am, before dana.

Candidates : Samaneri Pasada from Santi Forest Monastery, NSW and Samaneri Nissara from Nirodharam Meditation Centre, Thailand.

Both presently staying at Dhammasara Nuns’ Monastery.

This is coming about at short notice due to a brief visit of our Pavatini (Preceptor), Venerable Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni Theri, from USA.

Followed by the dana at Dhammasara.

In the late afternoon, the two one sided Bhikkhunis will present themselves to Bhikkhu Sangha at Bodhinyana Monks Monastery, Serpentine for a brief Sangha Kamma (Ceremony) to confirm the ordination (the afternoon time yet to be determined).

Both events are open to our supporters and friends.

With Metta,

Ven. Nirodha & Ven. Hasapanna

On Climate Change and Dumbology

My thanks to Bhante Brahmali who recommended that I read The Australian, apparently to moderate my excessively liberal views. I warned him that it was likely to have the opposite effect than desired, and alas I was proven correct.

Perusing our national broadsheet in the plane back from my recent trip to Perth (on which more when I get some time), I came across two articles on climate change, both skeptical (of course). One was so silly I immediately consigned it to the rubbish bin of my unconscious, in fear that it would infect my brain.

The other, in wonderfully serious tone, really looked as if it was making a serious ‘argument’. Global temperatures hit their peak in 1997, it said, and this is a fact of deep concern for proponents of the global warming ‘theory’. I was struck with existential doubt: perhaps my advocacy for, you know, using less and helping the environment, had been misguided all along!

In the real world, I was struck with an existential anxiety, a sort of fear mixed with pity mixed with horror, at the stupidity of the dialogue. Is it not completely obvious that if you compare things with the extreme peak, they will be less? How can it be that anyone takes this seriously? Fortunately, as a master of the erudite and complex research tools Google and Wikipedia, I accomplished a sophisticated study of the data (known among rocket scientists as a ‘google search’) and came up with the following graph:

The temperatures peaked in 97/98, but the temperatures overall in the last decade have been near this peak, making the decade clearly the warmest on record.

Why is it that such elementary knowledge is beyond us? A recent study has made a strong case that people who hold conservative social values are less intelligent and more fearful. (And, by the way, congratulations to the authors for increasing global intelligence by making their work freely available.) Cognitive ability is linked with compassion, allowing one to empathize and imagine the suffering of others.

This has been covered in the Daily Mail, which as Charlie Brooker points out, is a wonderful piece of irony.

George Monbiot‘s more sober analysis raises the important point that liberals have been too polite in allowing the ultra-conservative viewpoint to steamroller reason. Did I hear someone say, ‘Bhikkhuni ordination will never be accepted by any Theravadin monks!’ Sometimes reason has to stand up for itself.

Justice for Phulmaya

Those who have been following the story of the nepalese nun who was viciously raped last year will be pleased to hear that justice has been served. From Donor Direct Action. Also see Parakhi.


On 9 January 2012, the final court hearing against a bus driver and other bus company employees charged with gang raping a young Buddhist nun (“Phulmaya”) in Nepal took place. The Sankhuwasabha District Court pronounced judgment in favor of Phulmaya, who is represented by FWLD, and delivered its verdict against the accused. The court sentenced four of the perpetrators to 12 years of imprisonment and compensation of Rs. 50,000 (Nepali Rupees) each, on charges of rape. The fifth accused has been sentenced to six years ofimprisonment for attempted rape. All five of the accused have been ordered by the Court to equally compensate Phulmaya for the Rs. 130,000 (Nepali Rupees) that they robbed from her. FWLD Founder Sapana Pradhan Malla and Nepali “singing nun” Ani Choying recently visited Phulmaya and delivered funds that Donor Direct Action had raised on her behalf. She was very grateful. Since the July 2011 rape, she has been improving, is happy with the school she is in and wants to continue her education there because she is with other Buddhist nuns.