Table of Contents
In Memoriam by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Ven. Bhikkhu Sumedha:
The Sage-Artist of Dulvala
first published in the newsletter of the
Buddhist Publication Society
On December 21st, at approximately 10 pm Sri Lankan time, my beloved friend, Ven. Bhikkhu Sumedha, the Swiss-born monk residing at the Manapadassana Lena in Dulvala, near Kandy, passed away. Ven. Sumedha would have been 75 years of age next February. Earlier this year he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer and in March had undergone surgery. In November he had contracted pneumonia and was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital. While still at the hospital, he felt sharp pains in his abdomen and noticed blood in his urine and feces, which convinced him that his cancer had returned. Surprisingly, however, he left the hospital shortly thereafter. Our mutual friend Joel Harary, who regularly visited him at the hospital, wrote to me on November 19th that the doctors “offered to keep him for a few more days to determine the cause of the pain but Bhikkhu Sumedha refused…. [He] is in good form and has lots of energy. The doctors said they didn’t think he had cancer.”
On returning to his cave, beginning perhaps on November 24th, he suddenly stopped eating and drinking, claiming that to ingest any food or even water caused him nausea and vomiting. He knew this would result in his death, but he wasn’t the least bit afraid; rather, those who visited him said that he radiated unusual exuberance and luminosity. Many reported to me that they were astonished by his constant vitality, dynamism, and clarity of mind, which persisted even after several weeks of fasting. He spoke on the Dhamma that continued for hours yet he showed no signs of weariness. He seemed to be powered by an immense source of energy and his mind was always bright, sharp, and perceptive.
After several weeks, however, his physical strength waned. His steward, Jagath Wijesiri, who had attended on him like a son since the late 1980s, suggested to him that he again enter the hospital. Aware that doing so would relieve Jagath of the burden of looking after him, he agreed, on condition that his wishes would be respected. He especially emphasized that he did not want to be force-fed or be given substantial nutriment intravenously. He agreed to receive fluids by IV, but would not accept food apart from an occasional sip of liquid to alleviate the dryness of his mouth. Over his last few days he became weaker and began to have spells of diarrhea. The British monk Ven. Anandajoti, who was with him at his end, said that his mind was clear and alert right up to his death.
From the American couple, Ken and Visakha Kawasaki, who visited him almost daily during his last weeks in the hospital, I heard a touching tale. On the very day of his death they went to visit him and found him emaciated and extremely weak. In the adjourning cubicle there was a young boy, very ill, who cried and wailed. The sound of his wailing reached Ven. Sumedha’s ears, and despite his own weakness, he looked up with great compassion and inquired what could be done to ease the suffering of that child. Such was the character of this monk who always showed so much concern for the poor and destitute, especially for the simple villagers of Sri Lanka.
Long before his death, he had requested that after death his eyes should be removed and donated to the eye bank for cornea transplants, that any of his bodily organs that were still viable should be used for transplants, and that his body should be donated to the medical faculty of the University of Peradeniya for medical research. Immediately after death his eyes were removed, as he wished, and the morning after death, after some haggling with the university bureaucracy (“Who is the next of kin?”), his body was officially donated to the faculty of medicine. Meanwhile, on Friday morning, monks from his monastic fraternity, the Ramañña Nikaya, including his close friend, Ven. Y. Dhammapala, arrived and performed the “sharing of merits” rite on his behalf.
This was not Bhikkhu Sumedha’s first encounter with death. In 2001, he had almost died due to asphyxiation. One morning in late March of that year, when Jagath came to the cave to prepare his morning tea, he found him lying in bed in a comatose condition. Immediately, he carried him down the hill and rushed him to the ICU of the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital. When we—his friends in Kandy— visited him at the ICU, his condition looked so grim that we started to plan his funeral. He was completely unconscious and was hooked up to what looked like a half-dozen machines. Unexpectedly, however, on perhaps the fourth day he emerged from his coma, regained consciousness, and then slowly regained his health. But a bigger surprise was to come. Not only did he recover his health, but he felt such gratitude to the staff of the ICU for saving his life that there arose in him an irresistible urge to find some way to express this gratitude. Convinced that his deep coma and near-death experience had given him a rare insight into the state of critically traumatized patients, he decided to become a spiritual guide to the patients of the ICU. He spoke to the doctor in charge of the unit, Dr. Chula Goonasekara, about his experience and ideas, and the doctor accepted his offer of help.
Over a decade earlier, in 1987, Ven. Sumedha had organized a free first-aid clinic at his village of Dulvala, which first operated at his cave, with himself as the “bare-foot doctor.” He had taught himself first-aid care from a few textbooks he acquired from abroad. After some months, he trained locals in the first-aid practices and moved the clinic to the village itself. The clinic has continued, maintained by a retired school principal with the support of a Swiss Buddhist. But now he launched into a new phase of his astonishing life with its many transformations. For the next five years he would visit the ICU and other wards in the hospital three or four days per week. He spoke to patients, offered them advice and consolation, inquired about their special needs, and sought ways to fulfill them. He went to the most gravely injured of them all, without the least squeamishness: the woman whose in-laws had poured gasoline over her clothes and set them ablaze, so that her body was a mass of scars; the young man who had lost both legs in an auto accident; the child afflicted with a rare disease, lingering on the verge of death, surrounded by his distraught parents. To the astonishment of the medical staff, he showed an uncanny ability to discover the precise way in which a patient in a particular critical condition could best be treated in order to regain hope and courage. He became fast friends with Dr. Goonasekara, and the two worked together as a team at conferences and on special projects. With the doctor’s support, he organized trainings sessions for the other doctors and nurses in which he would actually teach them how to tend to the patients in their care.
Though his father (who vanished in his childhood) was a medical doctor, his instructions were not based on any background training, but on sheer intuition. It was the intuition of an artist, one with a gift for seeing deeply behind people’s faces and beneath their words into the hidden recesses of their hearts—an intuition that came naturally to him, for in lay life Ven. Sumedha had indeed been a highly trained painter gifted with vision and rigorously disciplined in artistic technique. It was also the intuition of a yogi, for in his early 40s he had renounced the world for the life of a contemplative Buddhist monk, meditating for years in solitary caves.
Born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1932, he was the son of a German mother and a Coptic Egyptian father who held doctorates in both medicine and pharmaceutacology. Because of a peculiar Swiss law, he always remained a German passport holder though he had never set foot in Germany. His name in lay life was Aja Iskander Schmidlin. The middle name he acquired from his natural father; the name “Schmidlin” accrued to him when, after his father vanished, his mother married a Swiss army officer and art dealer. Of his first name, “Aja,” probably given by his father, he used to say, jokingly but quite correctly, that in Pali or Sanskrit it means “the Unborn,” a synonym for Nibbana. During his lay life, this was the name he used to sign his paintings, still unaware of its implications for a reader of Pali or Sanskrit.
As a young man in Europe, he began his artistic training at the École des Beaux Arts in Geneva and continued later in Paris. Under the impact of this training, his paintings show the influence of Cubism and Paul Klee, but they also preserve a distinctive originality that is unmistakably his own. From 1952 to 1974 he lived as a free-lance artist in Zurich, and from 1968 on he simultaneously ran a second studio in London. He had been married twice, the second time to a highly gifted illustrator of children’s books. He had two children, a daughter through the first marriage and a son through the second.
In 1970 he made his first trip to Sri Lanka, and in each of the following three years he visited the island for extended holidays, spending several months there at a stretch. In Colombo, he lived the ebullient life of an avant-garde artist, mingling with the indigenous literary and artistic elite and with Western expatriates like himself. In 1974, after his second marriage ended in divorce, he settled in Sri Lanka. Thereafter he never left the island.
One day, probably in 1975, in the small hours of the morning at a merry house party, a friend of his, the script writer and scuba diver Mike Wilson, suddenly declared to him: “The time for renunciation has arrived.” With hardly a second thought, Schmidlin said: “I’ll join you in that.” Thereupon the two men wrapped up their worldly affairs and spontaneously set out for Kataragama, the ancient mystical seat of Hindu and Buddhist spirituality in the southeast corner of the island. Here they became Hindu Shaivite ascetics. While Wilson took readily to the Hindu religious life, and under the name Swami Siva Kalki remained a Shaivite ascetic up to his death in 1995, Schmidlin soon came to feel that this was not his true calling. After the initial excitement of his new way of life wore off, Shaivism lost its appeal for him and another voice began to beckon him. This was not the voice of the world calling him to return to a life of sensual enjoyment. Rather, it was the lure of a different spiritual vocation. He had brought along with him to Kataragama some volumes of Neumann’s German translations of the Buddha’s discourses, and as he read them, he realized that this was the teaching that spoke to his heart, this was the path he wanted to follow, this was the path he had to follow to find the peace for which he yearned. After several months, he thus left Kataragama to seek a Buddhist master who would initiate him into the life of a Buddhist monk.
His first attempt almost led to disaster. He had inquired from a Sinhalese lay contact, a prominent entrepreneur, how one goes about becoming a Buddhist monk. The gentleman told him—from whatever motive I do not know— that if one wants to be ordained one should purchase a set of monk’s robes, put them on, and then go seek an elder monk to ordain one. So Schmidlin bought a set of bhikkhu’s robes, exchanged his swami’s robes for them, and then went to Balangoda to ask if Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya—the esteemed old scholar-monk—would ordain him. He did not know that he was committing an act that in the Pali Vinaya texts is called theyyalinga, “wearing the marks of a monk (the robes) by theft,” i.e., without legitimate ordination, and if done with conscious intent to deceive is considered a very serious matter.
Ven. Ananda Maitreya was not at his temple at the time, but when the other monks (all Sri Lankan) asked Schmidlin why he wanted to meet their teacher, he replied that he wanted to get ordained. Puzzled, they asked him why, if he wanted to get ordained, he was already wearing monk’s robes. When he told them about the advice his supposed benefactor had given him, their faces shriveled with expressions of horror. It was as if someone were to say that the proper way to get warm on a cold night is to throw oneself into the fireplace, or the proper way to enjoy the view of New York City from the top of the Empire State Building is to jump down to the street below. The monks at Balangoda corrected this error, procured a set of layman’s clothes for him, and then sent him on his way.
His search next led him to Ratnapura, where he found the teacher he was seeking in the person of Ven. Prof. Henpitagedara Gnanawasa. Ven. Gnanawasa gave him his first formal instructions in the Dhamma and arranged his “going forth,” his ordination as a novice-monk or samanera, under his own monastic superior, Ven. Pandita Henpitagedera Gnanasiha Nayaka Thera. The ordination took place on 5 December 1975. After a period of guidance under his teacher in the ways of the monk’s life, the newly ordained Sumedha then returned to Kataragama, where he lived a life of solitary meditation in a cave on Valli Amma Kanda, one of the famous seven hills outside the town. Later, in 1981, at the sacred city of Anuradhapura, he received full ordination (upasampada) as a bhikkhu in the Ramañña Nikaya, again with Ven. Henpitagedera Gnanasiha as his preceptor and Ven. Henpitagedara Gnanavasa as his teacher.
During the late 1970s, Ven. Sumedha had visited the renowned German elder Ven. Nyanaponika Mahathera (1901-1994) at the Forest Hermitage in Kandy. Though so different in character—the German scholar-monk methodical, rational, and punctilious, the Swiss artist-monk intuitive, emotional, and instinctive—the two quickly became fast friends. When the elderly German nun, Sister Uppalavanna, left the Manapadassana Lena at Dulwala, seven miles from Kandy, in 1979, Ven. Nyanaponika wrote to Ven. Sumedha asking whether he would like to move from his austere cave in Kataragama to a more comfortable cave near Kandy. Ven. Sumedha responded positively and moved to the Manapadassana Lena, “The Cave with the Lovely View,” whose Brahmi-script inscription above the drip ledge testifies to its use by Buddhist monks even from ancient times. Here, in this hillside grotto to be reached by climbing ninety-nine stone steps, he lived for the last twenty-six years of his life. His proximity to Kandy enabled his friendship with Ven. Nyanaponika to blossom over the next fourteen years, right up to the Mahathera’s death in 1994. It was on one of his visits to the Forest Hermitage, in 1982, shortly after I had returned to Sri Lanka after five years in the U.S., that I first met Ven. Sumedha. We quickly became united by a strong, deep, and lasting friendship.
During his years as a monk, Ven. Sumedha did not abandon his artistic training but steered it in a new direction. He used his new-found meditative skills, his sharp and original intuitions into the Buddha’s teachings, and his extraordinary gifts for balancing color and imagery to transform his art into both a vehicle and an expression of his meditative experiences. During his most productive periods, paintings, mainly watercolors, drawings, and sometimes mixed media creations, poured forth from his hands with remarkable profusion—wondrous, evocative, mystifying pictures that, in his own words, were meant “to make the invisible visible.” He even experimented with photography and for a while with poetry.
Despite his high level of productivity, for many years Ven. Sumedha’s work remained shielded from the eyes of the public. Perhaps, as a cave-dwelling hermit, he did not want to attract public attention to himself and become known as an artist rather than a monk. He did share his paintings with a few friends; a few made their way to the covers of our publications; and some were given as gifts to friends and supporters. But they did not spread beyond this. Nevertheless, sometime in 1995, word of his talent somehow reached the ears of executives at the Deutsche Bank in Colombo. They approached him with the idea of holding an exhibition of his work, and he finally agreed to break his artistic silence. Thus in October 1995, at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery in Colombo, a two-week exhibition was held of over a hundred of his paintings, mostly watercolors, jointly sponsored by the Deutsche Bank and the Goethe-Institut. The exhibition was repeated at the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy the following February. The title of the exhibition— “The Vision of Dhamma”—was the name of the anthology that I had compiled of Ven. Nyanaponika’s essays, originally published in Britain in 1986 and re-issued by the Buddhist Publication Society in July 1994, on the author’s 93rd birthday. Ven. Nyanaponika expired just three months after the book was re-issued, and the exhibition was appropriately dedicated to his memory.
The title “The Vision of Dhamma” involved a double-meaning. In the Buddhist texts, it refers to a key event in the spiritual development of the disciple, when one gains the dhamma-cakkhu or “eye of truth” that sees into the heart of the teaching, into the interconnected unity of the four noble truths. But in relation to this exhibition it also signified the refraction of the Buddha’s teaching through the medium of art: the Dhamma rendered visible in color, form, and figure. Some paintings from the exhibition were sold, but Ven. Sumedha did not receive any earnings for himself. In advance he had specified as beneficiaries a number of charities operating in Sri Lanka and he allowed the buyers to donate the cost of the painting to whichever charity they chose.
Unlike certain other Western monks who made Sri Lanka their homeland, Ven. Sumedha was not a writer or scholar, but he understood the Dhamma well, understood it deeply, and cherished it with a love born of this understanding. His style of comprehending and explaining the Dhamma was quite unique, almost idiosyncratic. I used to say that whereas most of us understand and explain the Dhamma by way of ideas and concepts, Ven. Sumedha understood and explained the Dhamma by way of images. He didn’t absorb the teachings conceptually, as a normal person does; to assimilate them with his own peculiar mental faculties, he had to relate to them imagistically, to turn them into pictures. Even when he gave talks on the Dhamma, the talks usually unfolded by stringing together images or by abruptly juxtaposing conceptually discrete notions in an almost metaphorical way rather than by linking logically connected sequences of thoughts. Those who could enter his intuitive sphere of understanding would say of his talks, “Brilliant!” “Mind-boggling!” “Wonderful!” “His teachings are most precious!” “He helped me understand things I never understood before!” On the other hand, those who adhered to tightly compartmentalized, rational modes of thought might say, “I couldn’t understand a single thing he said,” or, “He’s a bit nutty,” or, “He’s got the Dhamma all mixed up.” I myself, in our Dhamma discussions, could relate to his formulations in two ways: often I thought his intuitions were indeed brilliant and scintillating; but at other times I thought he would overstate an insight, driving a point to an extreme where it did not belong. I also had the same view of his assessment of people. In the early years of our friendship he tended to resent objections to his insights, which he took to be infallible. This sometimes led to friction in our relationship. When I would question or criticize his ideas, he would dismiss me with such words as, “You scholars can never understand the Dhamma. You’re just locked up in your own brains.” But over time he mellowed, and came to realize that he needed to modulate his own insights by taking into account the views of others.
While Ven. Sumedha could speak uninterruptedly on the Dhamma for hours, his most congenial medium for communicating his understanding of the Buddha’s message was visual art, and in this medium imagery naturally prevailed over concepts. His paintings, however, were not constituted by ordinary images, by familiar pictures of the everyday world. They disclosed to us, rather, mysterious and hidden realms of the imagination, landscapes of the deep mind. In these landscapes, geometric shapes emerge out of space, intersecting, melding, or colliding; bizarre figures hang suspended, staring out at us with enigmatic expressions, as though trying to convey to us a tale that cannot be stated in words; animals, humans, demons, and deities join in a deep embrace, dropping their differences in the recognition of a shared psychological space; luminous spheres arise against dim backgrounds, floating spheres filled with faces, sometimes solemn, sometimes gleeful, sometimes absorbed in meditative bliss—often different perspectives on Bhikkhu Sumedha’s own face! In Ven. Sumedha’s paintings we meet many strange beings, indeed; yet these beings are not as strange as they might seem at first sight. They are the deep images of the subconscious mind becoming manifest through watercolors and paints. They are our own past and future lives staring back at us and asking to be acknowledged. They are the myriad potentials of our karma, which the Buddha himself has said are more varied than the most complex work of art, splattered among the realms of sentient beings. And through Ven. Sumedha’s art they speak to us of crucial themes that take us to the heart of the Dhamma: of the transience of sensual pleasures, of the dance of impermanence, of the mask-like nature of selfhood, of the ever-shifting stream of forms that constitutes samsara, and of a peace that always lies just on the other side of this stream, transcending all conditioned modes of understanding
Once, probably in the mid-1980s, when Ven. Sumedha and I were taking a walk in the woods, I asked him whether he began his painting with an idea and then found the images to fit the idea, or instead began with the images and then tried to find an idea to determine the direction of the subsequent images. He told me that the latter was indeed his method: the original images came first, floating into his mind seemingly out of nowhere. He rendered these on paper, and then as they took shape, he would grasp a unifying idea that would guide the formation of the following images. In this way he fulfilled his aim of “making the invisible visible.”
When he was preparing his selection of paintings for the “Vision of Dhamma” exhibition in Colombo in 1995, he asked me to help him give each of his paintings a Pali title. He also wanted to have a passage from the Pali texts to elucidate each painting. Thus, over a period of several days, we sat together and worked on this project. He would tell me his English title, and I would translate it into Pali and later search for a text to match it. For some pictures, the English title would have a natural Pali counterpart, e.g., “Inner Tangle, Outer Tangle” would be Antojata Bahijata and illuminated by the verse at Samyutta Nikaya I 13 (1:23). Others, like his “Game of Searching for Blue,” had nothing in the Pali Canon to correspond to it. I had to translate the title literally but almost meaninglessly as Nila-pariyesana-kila, and randomly illustrate it by the text on “the base of mastery” based on a vision of blue forms.
In my opening talk at the “Vision of Dhamma” exhibition, I said that when art historians of the 25th century look back at the 20th century, they will say that the 20th century produced two truly great painters: Sumedha and Picasso, in that order of greatness. Of course I am not an art critic, and the 20th century painters whose work I’m familiar with might be counted on less than ten fingers, but I was only half-joking when I made that statement, so highly do I esteem the depth and purity of Bhikkhu Sumedha’s art work. To be fair to Ven. Sumedha, though: He would tell me that when he compares his own work to that of “the real masters,” he becomes aware of his own deficiencies and makes no claim to membership in their ranks.
In May 2005 Ven. Sumedha applied for Sri Lankan citizenship. In preparing his application, he had written a letter to the President of the country (who alone could recommend citizenship) explaining the reasons he was making this request. He had sent the draft of the letter to me so I could polish his English. Fortunately, I still have the file on my hard disk and I found this closing paragraph, which is particularly poignant to read on the day of his death:
I have made Sri Lanka my adopted homeland and it is my wish to pass away in this country. I no longer have any sense of identification with any other country. Since my ordination I have not left this island, and I have no intention to leave for the rest of my life. I hold a German passport, though I have never lived in Germany. I would like to become a Sri Lankan citizen, both to express my sense of belonging to this country more than to any other country in which I have lived, and also, in my old age (I am now well over 70), to spare myself the trouble of applying each year for a residence visa valid for only one year. I have been a monk now for thirty years and I am fully intent on remaining one until the end of my days.
Earlier today he reached “the end of [his] days,” still clad in the brown robe of a Buddhist monk, a much loved and venerated member of the Sangha. He came to Sri Lanka as an artist seeking enjoyment and relaxation; the strange workings of karma, swelling up from an unfathomable past, turned him into a sage who found here wisdom, consolation, and a path to final peace. He lived and died as a true monk and rare visionary: Sumedha “the Unborn” (aja), the cave-dwelling meditator, the spiritual patron of the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital, the genius artist, and one who, even on the brink of his own death, still thought of a frightened child crying on a nearby hospital bed.
Lafayette, New Jersey, U.S.A.
December 21-22, 2006
Remembering Ven. Sumedha by Anandajoti Bhikkhu
first published on Ven Sumedha’s 4th death anniversary
I knew of Ven. Sumedha for a long time, and had seen some of his paintings adorning the covers of books published in Kandy by the Buddhist Publication Society, which at that time was headed by his friend Bhikkhu Bodhi.
I didn’t know then though that he had had a long and successful career as an artist in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with studios in both London and Vienna.
He had given all that up when he came to Sri Lanka in the late ‘70s, and had become first a Hindu sādhu at Kataragama, and later had ordained as a Buddhist monk. Sometime in the ‘80s he had moved to the Manāpadassanā Cave just outside Kandy, where he was to spend the better part of 30 years.
I had seen him at BPS a couple of times in the meantime, but never had the chance to speak, and I didn’t really meet him until a few months before he died, when he suddenly contacted me and asked if I could help him write an appeal for a Burn’s Unit he wanted to establish at the Hospital.
I was more than willing to help, of course, but somehow he never followed up, and it wasn’t until he was admitted to the ICU in early November of that year, that I saw him again.
I was living at the time in the Vihara which is attached to the University of Peradeniya, as is the Hospital, and I had been visiting another monk-friend everyday for around a month, taking dāna down to him to supplement the in-house food.
Just as that monk was discharged, Ven Sumedha was admitted, so I then started doing the same for him, though within a couple of days he started to refuse all food.
He told us at the time that he had been diagnosed with cancer and that there was no chance of recovery, so rather than drag it out he intended to let nature take its course.
This seemed to me to be quite reasonable, and it was only much later that it became clear that there had been no such diagnosis, which then left the matter very ambiguous, but by then Ven. Sumedha was already approaching his last days, and there was therefore not much that could be done.
Ven. Sumedha in Hospital
I was with him on the day he died, although not at the time he died, which was late in the evening. By then he had also stopped taking water for a week, and the nurses were trying to clean up his mouth, which had a furry covering from the dehydration.
He had allowed the cleaning for the first time in many days, and we had made him a little more comfortable. His mind seemed to be still quite clear, but his body was, of course, in a wretched condition.
He died at 10.30 that evening, and in line with his wishes, his eyes, which were the eyes of an artist who had seen the world so differently from most people, were donated to the eye-bank at the hospital.
In the morning we went down to the Hospital and, to complete his wishes, were trying to get the body to the anatomy department, where it could be preserved and used by medical students in their classes.
The problem was it needed to be injected with formaldehyde within 12 hours of dying, and the staff were late in coming in as it was the first day of an extended holiday over Christmas. But eventually someone turned up, and after a short chanting ceremony conducted by Ven. Y. Dhammapāla, he was accepted – just in time.
led by Ven. Y. Dhammapāla
As I mentioned earlier Ven. Sumedha had been working with the Hospital and particularly with the doctors in the ICU for around a decade prior to his death, and through his unselfiish work had gained the confidence of doctors and staff alike.
During that time he had given many verbal instructions, both to patients and to the doctors, and one of them in particular, Prof. C.D.A Goonasekera, had taken to writing these instructions down.
Some of the other doctors had also recorded short interviews with him, and after his death they collected all the material together in the hope of making a book out of it.
Eventually that work was passed to me and I have worked several months on it in order to work it up, and it is now entitled A Buddhist Perspective on Pain, Stress And Illness, which was originally published by Sukhi Hotu in Kuala Lumpur, and then again by the Buddha Educational Foundation in Taiwan.
The book itself represents a wisdom approach to the subject, unlike most books which seem to present a comfort or mindfulness approach.
Bhante Sumedha was very sensitive to patient’s needs and would never force himself or his views on others, but if he saw they were ready and able he could point out the lessons to be learned in time of illness very well, and show how the Buddha’s teachings can be applied in all situations, and I feel the book fills a long-standing gap in the literature.
A Momentous Meeting by Kumudini Hettiarachchi
Their paths were not meant to cross until twenty days before his passing away, although many were the times she attempted to contact him.
The one and only meeting that did take place “at the right time” in a bare and humble cave up in the hills of Getambe in 2006, lasted from dawn to dusk, though he was very feeble and frail having had no solids for three weeks and no water for 10 days because “he had a problem with his throat and lungs and found it difficult to swallow”.
That single defining moment has yielded not only a very moving exhibition but also a meaningful film for posterity. As Sri Lanka celebrates the thrice-blessed day of the birth, attainment of enlightenment and passing away of Lord Buddha, audiences here will be able to witness not only the life and times of a man who cast aside worldly pleasures to follow in the footsteps of the Master but also messages and links between Buddhism and the modern world.
‘The Truth is Unbelievable’ is the result of that one and only “encounter of a different kind” between Venerable Bhikkhu Sumedha and dynamic Argentinian painter Cora de Lang.
Bhikkhu Sumedha passed away when he was 75 years old. His body had been ravaged by cancers that he had overcome but when I met him it was after a bad bout of pneumonia, says Cora who is in Sri Lanka with husband Richard Lang, the Director of the German Cultural Centre. Cora had got to know of Bhikkhu Sumedha through Richard who had to read up about important and interesting people when he took up a new posting.
“The first connection came when we saw a catalogue of the paintings of Bhikkhu Sumedha which had been put out by Deutsche Bank,” says Cora, explaining that Richard had pointed out the similarities between those paintings and hers.
Soon after, when she was in Kandy on a painting trip she tried to contact him but was not able to meet him, for he was in hospital.
However, later she had got an address and a phone number for his humble abode, Manapa Dassana Lena, hidden away from the madding crowd up 108 steps, in Dulwela village close to the Getambe Temple, from Ven. Metta Vihari, whom they were in contact with.
Richard, however, had gone to the cave earlier to invite Bhikkhu Sumedha to a conference and also to exhibit his paintings on the theme ‘Buddhism in Art’ during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the German Cultural Centre.
The monk while explaining that he was just a hermit had declined to attend the conference but agreed to the exhibition as he was “trying to paint the Dhamma”.
Painting for Bhikkhu Sumedha was a form of meditation, says Cora. “It was a spiritual exercise. He sacrificed his art to Lord Buddha.”
He indulged in some “incredible works where you could actually go inside the paintings” and did sell some of his works, while also giving away many to friends and relatives, but Cora believes that as an ardent follower of the Buddha he did not handle cash. He had made arrangements for the funds to go to charities and to develop the Intensive Care Unit of the Peradeniya Hospital.
Although he agreed to be part of the exhibition to be held in August 2007, he clarified one small detail. “I will participate but I won’t be there,” he told Richard, who couldn’t believe his ears.
Soon after, Cora had an exhibition in 2006 at Barefoot and it was then that Bhikkhu Sumedha, even though he had never met her, laid down a small condition, sending an e-mail to Richard asking whether she would agree to be the curator of his exhibition. She was surprised – it was a very Buddhist thing. Could she handle it? Why did he pick her? She was assailed by doubts.
The exhibition was held in the meditation room of the Sambodhi Viharaya in Colombo 7, but he had passed away by that time, recalls Cora. If certain things were not meant to be they were not meant to be, she says adding that it was as if he was guiding the whole thing. She cites the example of a huge table that couldn’t be taken out of the room. Wracking her brains how to deal with it she had decided to cover it with white cloth, bought metres of it and hired a tailor to stitch it up. The day before the exhibition when they attempted to fit the cloth, it just would not. Desperate she wondered what to do when an idea crossed her mind – why not use his robes and “that was perfect”.
Cora reveals how Bhikkhu Sumedha who was known as Aja Iskander back home, and was a good artist across the seas, in Switzerland, came to don the robes of a monk in Sri Lanka forfeiting all worldly comforts and living in a wet and insect-filled cave. Born to a German mother and Egyptian father, Aja had lived a comfortable life with his mother in Switzerland, after his parents separated. “He held a German passport but never lived in Germany,” she says.
Life took its usual course for Aja – he married twice, had children. “He was very fond of his grand-daughter,” says Cora explaining that many were the visits they paid him in the cave.
Suddenly, as young people do, he decided to travel the world and came to Sri Lanka. Getting into the whirl of Colombo’s social circuit, it was at a party that something happened and he decided, “that life was over”. He went to Kataragama, thinking he would become a Swami and lived in a cave there, only to realize that the only path for him was the path of the Buddha.
Bhikkhu Sumedha was in touch with Ven. Nyanaponika – who was the editor of the Buddhist Publication Society – in Kandy and it was he who invited him to the Manapa Dassana Lena, earlier occupied by a German nun. That was where he lived for 26 long years until his passing away.
The one and only meeting Cora had with Bhikkhu Sumedha is vivid in her mind. She was painting in Galle when Richard called her and said that he had received a message that the monk who was very ill had left hospital saying that he had certain things to do.
Richard felt it was time to see him as Bhikkhu Sumedha had contacted him and said that the time was close. She came back home to Colombo from Galle and early next morning it was that they journeyed along with Ven. Metta Vihari to Dulwela. Having heard before that he was averse to being filmed, she just grabbed a not-so-sophisticated camera, more for taping his voice.
As they climbed the 108 steps, others had beaten them to it. A crowd had gathered, bringing with them small offerings such as king coconuts. Two nurses were also there, one weeping softly.
“He was very kind to simple people and helped the villagers, attending to their wounds,” says Cora.
The moment they entered, he started speaking. “He was expecting us,” says Cora, explaining that he was sitting on his bed and in one corner of the cave there was a skeleton moving gingerly. When she gestured carefully that she would like to tape what he was saying he gave a sign that it was okay.
The simple cave seemed like a message… there was a bronze statue with the words scribbled on a piece of paper, “DNR” indicating do not resuscitate. Art installations were scattered everywhere. Even a small toilet constructed by Jagath Wijesiri who was by his side until the very end, had been turned into a work of art.
“He saw in advance his death,” says Cora who felt as if she was part of the process of accepting her own father’s death.
For 12 long hours he spoke, “heavy matter – non-stop”, while they filmed and wondered how this frail monk could hold forth like this. “First part was more for us and the second a kind of message to the world,” she says… lot of material, speaking in German, English, Sinhala, Pali, etc.
He spoke of modern things – parallel worlds, the modern world with Internet and the teachings of the Buddha. He was full of energy – sometimes provocative, also providing his own answers because he had experienced it all, marriage, kids, love, hate, separation.
As the evening shadows lengthened, they sensed he was tiring out and bade him goodbye, with the hope that they would see him again. But as they went down the steps, his voice rang out and still she hears the echoes in her mind… “Remember, remember, everything is anicca (impermanent)”.
It was his final goodbye.
Cora knows of a wish Bhikkhu Sumedha had. He wished to be known as a “Sri Lankan monk” and not a German monk, truly reflecting his love for this land.
Ven. Bhikkhu Sumedha – Anecdotes by Nan
first published in the Sunday Island
December 19, 2019 (reprinted with permission)
I read with great interest Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s two articles on Ven. Bhikkhu Sumedha in the daily Island of 11 and 12 December, titled Ven. Bhikkhu Sumedha: the Sage-Artist of Dulvala. Any writing by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is excellent.
I have been most fortunate in meeting him in the Forest Hermitage in Udawattakele in Kandy, to find out how the acceptance of Vesak as a holiday by the UN was achieved. He was kind enough to speak with me and also gave me a copy of his address to the General Assembly in New York on the first occasion of Vesak being accepted by the UN. This was in 1999 when the UN recognized Vesak Day internationally which was to be commemorated annually at the UN Headquarters and other UN offices and missions. I had written to him and hiked up the beautiful wooded hill of Udawattakele, where he was resident, mostly to care for Ven. Nyanponika Mahathera during his final days. He was also busy as editor in the Kandy Buddhist Publication Society. The ‘connection’ of knowing him continues as my son and family attend Bhikkhu Bodhi’s day retreats in his New Jersey aranya. My son and grandson also attend longer meditation courses, which are often facilitated by Ven. Uda Eriyagama Dhammajiva Maha Thera, head monk of Meetirigala Nissarana Vanaya Forest Hermitage, who visits Bhikkhu Bodhi often and assists him. It is with pride they acknowledge the erudition and ability to communicate with, and instruct meditators, by this Sri Lankan Thera.
On Wednesday I had my second son email me inquiring whether I read Bhikkhu Bodhi‘s articles in The Island and transferring images of very many pictures of Sumedha Thera’s paintings. He says Ven. Sumedha’s paintings are available on line, but at a price. His book of paintings is long sold out, said a sales person from Vijita Yapa bookshop.
The Ten Preceptor – Ayya Nanasiri
Another very inspiring and happy connection was with Ven. Ayya Nanasiri who resided in Kandy, also in close contact with Bhikkhu Bodhi, visiting the Forest Hermitage often to see to the monks’ welfare. She was a visitor to my kalyana mitra (in the true sense of the word) Ratna Dias’ home where she stayed whenever the need arose to visit Colombo, mostly on visa matters. We visited Ven. Nanasiri and occupied the main house at Gurudeniya belonging to Mr and Mrs M D Fernando. A picturesque annexe had been built for the nun, overlooking the Mahaweli Ganga far below. Her gardener had terraced the incline and grown all sorts of flowering and foliage plants.
Ven. Nanasiri was an American university professor, who, on a visit to India with her husband had a phenomenal experience. Once in a dak bungalow in a remote Indian hamlet, she felt convinced she had lived in the place. (Recollection of a previous birth?) While seated out alone in the evening she found she had been in deep meditation, for the first time in her life. That led to studying Buddhism and taking to meditation and on the death of her husband, coming to Sri Lanka to become a yellow robed ten preceptor.
It was she who took us to the cave retreat of Ven. Sumedha at Dulvala reached by climbing 99 rock hewn steps. He had been in hospital (detailed in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article) and told Ven. Nanasiri that he had given instructions that he never be taken to hospital again. “I will get ill again but I will just walk into the wilderness here on this hill and die. I have lived a long life and it’s time to die.” The nun and we protested. He gave her these directions since she was, along with Bhikkhu Bodhi, one of his carers.
Ratna received a message from Ayya Nanasiri a month or two later that Ven. Sumedha was again very ill and if we wanted to see him before his death we should come over soon. We did, taking as directed food for invalids, mostly liquid. When we arrived in Gurudeniya, Ven. Nanasiri said the monk was back in his rock kuti. We were glad he was much better and so we went with the nun to see him. “Sister N, I have had a remission from the cancer. I am feeling perfectly fit. I know why this remission was given me and not death. I was too involved in my art and painting so I was neglecting my progress on the Path. I am giving more time to my meditation. I still feel the strong desire to draw; so I shall do so when I need to but shall choose charcoal as my medium. No more oils and colour. Henceforth only purely Buddhist pictures.”
I well remember the exhibition of his paintings that was mounted at the Lionel Wendt in October 1996 for two weeks sponsored by the Deutsche Bank. I also can picture his kuti perched high on a rock face with bushes and weeds in plenty. The rock eyrie kuti – long and on a ledge - had been occupied by the German ten preceptor, Sister Uppalavanna. It was known as Manapadassana Lena in Dulvala, seven miles distant from Kandy. On a stone ledge was a large clay pitcher with water for drinking. Ven. Sumedha was completely self sufficient and got his noon dana from the villagers living below.
Act of Merciful Sacrifice
Which brings me to a very significant anecdote told to us by the Ven. Thera himself.
Ven. Sumedha was to leave Sri Lanka on pilgrimage to India and would be away for three weeks. This was at the height of the JVP uprising – 1988/89 - when they terrorized people, both rural and urban. There had been an election and the JVP in that area had warned people not to vote. One evening rather late the monk heard noises from below and also saw bright lights – very unusual as it was also a decree of the then JVP that one had to live in semi darkness with no radios and TV sets switched on. The monk readied to go to bed, surmising the villagers were probably celebrating a wedding, engagement or some such occasion. Then he heard a woman’s wail – “Buddhu Amme, epa mahattaya!” Not delaying even to wrap his outer robe, he rushed down the 99 steps in semi darkness to find the little hamlet lit bright with two Petromax lamps and a girl on the ground weeping among her shorn hair. The wailing was from another young girl whose long hair, now come loose, was clutched by a man with a huge pair of scissors in his other hand. He clutched her hair from almost its roots. The monk just darted to the man and ordered him to release the girl. He commented later that he did not imagine even for a moment the consequences that might befall the girl he defended and himself. There would surely have been a silent, totally suspenseful tableaux. The man hesitated, then released the girl and summoned another young fellow who was holding the girl’s boyfriend in a vice like grip. Four JVPers left the place. The crime of the people was that some from the village had voted. “So Sister Nanasiri, how could I leave them and go on my trip to India? I am fed by them and they look after me. I just have to be concerned about them. Surprising but the JVP still respects the Sangha robe!” These were the very words with which he ended his story, which he narrated in answer to Ayya Nanasiri’s asking him when he was leaving for India and whether he needed anything.
Born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1932 to a German mother and Coptic Egyptian father, he was named Aja Iskander Schmidlin. He first arrived in Sri Lanka in 1970, and with another foreigner, spent time in Kataragama as a Shaivite devotee – one who respects and follows the Hindu God Shiva. His friend stayed on while the young Aja, disillusioned, left. He had been reading a German book on Buddhism and thus interested, was directed to Ananda Maitriya Mahathera. Ordination followed on 5 December 1975. He went to Kandy to the Forest Hermitage and met Ven. Nyanaponika. In 1982, when Bhikkhu Bodhi returned after five years overseas, they met and became firm, lifelong friends.
Sister Uppalawanna’s rock kuti was vacant and it was offered to Ven. Sumedha. He moved in in 1979 and lived in it for 28 years. He died in the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital on 21 December, 2006, not of bladder cancer but of pneumonia. His last concern, as detailed in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article, was a boy in a bed close by who had met with a grievous accident. Ven. Sumedha of course was willing and able to die in complete serenity.
His was an inspiring life, well spent. I certainly do not want to preach but we need to remember monks such as Ven. Sumedha and Bhikkhu Bodhi and so many of our own Bhikkhus, both dead and living; such that faith, reverence and trust in the Sangha is maintained in the face of these being fast eroded by certain members of the Sangha themselves.
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