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.


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

Buddhism and Empiricism

A friend has just sent me a terrific article on Buddhism and empiricism – thanks, Don! It’s by Carlo Fonseka, and appears in the Sri Lanka Guardian. It gives a very nice summary of the history and role of empiricism in Western philosophy, and goes on to discuss the main contributions towards reconciling Buddhism and empiricism. Kudos for the point that, as empiricism itself is an inexact search for knowledge, any marriage of Buddhism and empiricism can only be partial and problematic – but necessary nonetheless.

Helping Tamil children orphaned in the Sri Lankan war

The following message is from our good friend Ramya Panagoda. She spoke to me of her recent visit to Sri lanka, and about the urgent need for support in the reconstruction. The war’s over: now we must win the peace.

While in Sri Lanka last December we travelled to the security areas in the northern province. The simplicity of the ordinary Tamil and Sinhalese people touched our hearts. But a lot of work needs to be done. I visited Nagadeepa, Anuradhapura and many other Buddhist areas. I am currently working with 64 Tamil orphans who their parents entrusted to the local Buddhist temple during the conflict years, in a remote boarder village. The youngest was 4 days old when he was left at the temple door by his fleeing parents. The Buddhist monk with the help of the army protected these children all these years and gave them an education. The children are unpolluted and is a breath of fresh air. They do not know anything about Television or radios. Their needs are simple, soap, washing powder and milk!! The children attend school and after school attend to agricultural work on temple grounds.

We managed to get a lot of publicity for the temple and Sri Lankan government declared Sethsevena Children’s Home as a charitable institution. Recently there was a news paper article about this monk and the article appears on their website.

I have been fund raising for the basic needs of these children. Our Tamil friends in Sydney have offered to provide beds for the children and this in a small way is uniting the two communities in Sydney.

If people want to donate I have the bank details for the Children’s Home. I can be contacted by email: ramyapanagoda[at]yahoo[dot]com[dot]au

One day I would like to take you and Ajahn Brahm to visit these children. Recently they discovered a big cave in the jungle near the temple. Apparently it was used by about 500 Arahaths during the time of King Dutugamunu when Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka some 1500 years ago. The Monk told me that the energy in the cave is so powerful that monks from all over the world now visits the Cave for meditation. Bhante that’s an inspiration for you to visit the cave!