By Dawpadee Kawshalya
For someone who has become familiar with the pulse of the busy city, Colombo, meditation may look like an impossibility among the hustle and bustle. But the array of saffron robes in the Dhamma Sala of Vipassana Meditation Centre, situated in the very heart of Colombo 7 told a different story. The silence that pervades around you, only invites you to immerse yourself in the sense of tranquility, and let go of your worldly worries for a moment.
This was the picture presented by 53 undergraduates of the Pali and Buddhist university, Homagama, who were taking part in a five-day retreat at the Vipassana Meditation Centre, under the guidance of Ven. Harispattuwe Ariyawansalankara Thera.
Last Wednesday saw the passing out of the first batch of trainees which consisted of 49 monks and 12 laymen. The Vipassana meditation centre, frequented by people of all walks of life, irrespective of their ethnicities and religious beliefs, has dedicated the month of July for undergraduates.
Briefing the long history of the centre, Ven.Harispattuwe Ariyawansalankara Thera said it was started fifty-five years ago as part of the 2500 Sambuddha Jayanthi celebrations. According to him, the importance of such an institution was first discussed at the Asian Prime Ministers’ Summit in Bandung, as a result of which, Vipassana Centre was established as a gift from Burma, which was a branch of Sasana Iththa Centre in Rangoon.
The meditation centre was initially housed in Nissanka bungalow, a residence belonged to a powerful yesteryear politician. It had been the sanctuary of many Burmese monks who came to take part in year-long meditation programmes. The change of place came when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike came into power and a one-acre land in Koombi-Kele was donated to the centre.
As times go by, Vipassana Meditation Centre became a mother figure, under whose guidance several of its branches were established across the country. Out of them, the one situated in Kanduboda has won a name of its own.
Vipassana centre is taken care of and governed by the Vipassana Society, which consists of a group committed personalities, who are dedicated to the dhamma and the welfare of both the clergy and laity who find refuge in the centre.
Even though the centre is spacious enough to accommodate quite a number of clergy and laity, with two two-storied buildings in its compound, being qualified to take part in the sessions is a compulsory procedure. According to Ven. Thera, the applicants should forward applications together with a character and medical certificates for his approval.
“Sometimes our programmes are fortnight-long, some of them are week long. Meanwhile we have five-day and three-day programmes for those who can’t spare a day more than that. It’s not about how many days you are meditating but how much meditation you do within the given time,” he explains.
Once one becomes qualified for a residential training, accommodation and food are provided free of charge during the course of the programme. After the programme, if one wishes to continue taking part in spiritual activities organized by the centre, one can get the membership by paying a membership fee which is spent on the improvements and expenses of the centre.
A student who took part in the programme, voicing his opinion said, “Taking part in a residential meditation programme such as this was a component of our university curriculum. I consider it a privilege to complete the training under the guidance of a prominent and eloquent preacher like Ven. Harispattuwe Ariyawansalankara Thera. Many of us had seen him preaching on television. But the experience with him as a teacher and a guide was one of the most memorable lessons I have learnt in my life. He talked to the youthful hearts and used a lot of modern methods to put across his message. We came into this centre as different persons, today we leave this place, changed vastly for the better.”
A Buddhist monk narrating his experience said, “The five-day programme injected a lot to our lives and we go out today as better persons. Ven. Harispattuwe Ariyawansalankara Thera was always behind us, giving us advice and confidence. He was a like a teacher monk watching over his student monks day in and day out. Past five days taught us a lot of things and life would never be the same again.”
Speaking on behalf of the Vipassana Society, U.G.S. Ariyarathna said the students were treated like his own children even though they were the bearers of the sacred saffron robe. “I hope this programme will help those who are beginning to get grips of life’s realities and help others who are trying to understand it. I hope you will learn how to live the right way of living and not give way to temptation to blind you. This programme will be an investment that will bear fruit when you attain maturity,” he added.
A soft breeze was blowing across Colombo and the sun was dying down. The first batch of trainees was making their exit from the hall and the next batch was arriving. You begin to think twice of the things you thought held a higher importance in your life. And you wonder whether the things that matter to you really matter to you in the deeper sense. And with a sense of new revelation, you begin to see the senselessness of human hypocrisies and worldliness. You wish you could stay, meditate and see the end of human suffering at the threshold of nirvana. And you realize the spiritual bliss you have been dying to come across had always been waiting for you at Vipassana Meditation Centre.
Pics by Indraratne Balasooriya
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Ven. Harispattuwe Ariyawansalankara Thera said that it is always important to assure the students that the teachers are there to guide them and stand by them in times of trouble and tribulation.
“Here at Vipassana Centre, I always tell my students that if ever they find it difficult to figure out a way to live or feel lost in life, come to me, I will take charge of you,” he added.
The eloquent dhamma preacher, Ven. Thera served as a school teacher for 16 years and a lecturer for 25 years. Even though for many he is a popular face that comes on TV, only very few people know about his service as a conductor of meditation programmes. After retiring from his teaching career, he started conducting meditation programmes all over the country, which won a huge public response.
Then he became the head of the Vipassana Meditation Centre and won praise both nationally and internationally for his fluency in Sinhala and English. His preaching style and clarity with which he explains complex parts of the dhamma made him one of the best preachers in the country.