Aggamahapanditha Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitriya Mahanayake Thero celebrated his 102nd birthday on 23 August 1997. When the Mahanayake was observing lent of Rainy Season in London at the Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre where the venerable is the patron, he gave Tilak S. Fernando an exclusive interview [at the time to The Island - Saturday Magazine]. Wishing the Ven. Ananda Maitriya a happy 102nd Birthday, London Diary is reproducing that interview which was published on 23 August 1994.
The 99th birthday of the most ven. Aggamahapanditha Balangoda Anandamaitreya Mahanayake Thero was celebrated at The Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre, Kingsbury, North West London on 23 August 1994. The Ven. Mahanayake was observing the lent of Rainy Season (Vassna Retreat) in London at the time. Addressing a large gathering on this occasion Ven. Thera said : " You are celebrating my birthday and I am reaching my 99th year. That means my life span is fast coming to an end. Is this a thing to celebrate ? Well ! as for me, it is a thing for celebration, because nearer I go towards death happier I feel, as I know nearing my death means I am moving towards a new birth. My humble wish is to be reborn over & over again among human beings for the service of the Buddha Dhamma. In this life I could not fulfil my wish to its pristine purity. But I know in my next life I will be more influential, better learned, much stronger and capable of carrying out my service to propagate Buddhism in the world. It is common knowledge in Sri Lanka that my aspiration is to attain Buddha hood some day in the distant future. Perhaps it will be decided when I see Lord Maitreya".
Q. I am sure, people in Sri Lanka would like to know something about your life prior to your priesthood . Would you like to talk about it ?
A. Yes, I was born on 23 August 1896 to Heenmenike and Mathies Appuhamy. Fourteen days after I was born, my mother had died and my saddened father had left the village altogether. It was my uncle Dingirihamy Mudalali ( father's brother) and his wife Yasohamine who brought me up. To me they were my parents.
Q. What were you called in your childhood, and what made you to enter priesthood?
A. My ( gihi) name was Punchi Mahattaya. At the age of 9 an eminent figure from the Mahabodhi Society, Brahmacharya Walisinghe Harrischandra visited my school, Kumara Vidyalaya, in 1905, and delivered a speech on Buddhist way of life. Having listened to his talk, I thought I should follow the true Buddhist path and be a model like the gentleman himself. Those days everyone respected and honoured monks. At the age of 15, after a ' battle' with my ' parents' to obtain their blessing to take up robes, I received their consent in 1911. Finally I was ordained as a 'Samanera', at Nandaramaya, Balangoda Udumulla Temple, which was also built by my uncle Dingiri Mudalali.
Q. In a spiritual context, how would you explain the moral decadence of the people in Sri Lanka over the years ?
A. Towards the latter part of the British rule Sri Lankans lived a happy and a pious life. Their aim was to uphold their culture and religion. When foreign influence was encroaching upon the Lankan society people like Anagarika Dharmapala fought against such tide waves . They foresaw the impact and the damage the foreign influence was going to have on the Country. That was the main purpose set forth to oust the British and seek Independence. But once we received our Independence, our National leaders, in my opinion, did not understand the very purpose of achieving that freedom. Therefore, they carried on as before, and the result was that the country went from bad to worse.
Q. We didn't really reap the benefits out of our Independence , is that what you mean ?
A. During the British rule, at least the Europeans listened to our peoples' claims and their agitation, but our leaders turned a deaf ear to any public outcry. By Sri Lanka becoming more liberalised, it caused a steep decline in cultural and religious values. Soon, people started to divide themselves into various political groups, whereas during the Colonial regime there was complete unity among the people. That unity was associated with preserving Buddhism and our cultural values, but today's deterioration on moral cultural, economical and spiritual values are due to this division of our own people. They are only interested in competing against each other & promoting their own political parties and not religion or cultural values.
Q. In the light of reference to ' Devas' ( Gods) in Buddhist ' prayers' such as in " Ethipiso Bagawa... &. Eththa Watcha Chamhehi.....; Swakhato Bhagawatho..etc..." can you reconcile such references with the concept of an Omnipresent God, as referred to in Hinduism ?
A. Buddhists don't believe in an Omnipresent or Omnipotent God. Every man , according to Buddhist philosophy, has the opportunity to be born in one of six Deva Worlds as a Deva, if one lives a morally good clean life. In other words, there are people who have ascended to higher worlds due to their good Karma. There are some earth bound Devas too, who are very near us. Humans can transfer merit to some Devas, but not to every Deva. Merely repeating gathas ( prayers) like a parrot such as" Aaaka satt tarta bhummatta or Ethha Watcha Cham hehi", out of habit , or offering alms, for the sake of name and fame , there is nothing to transfer as merit to Devas, and people cannot expect protection from Devas in such circumstances. Today when they want to give alms to priests some go in search of Nayaka Theros, famous priests ( " big guns"... with an infectious laugh ) and forget the poor monks who lead religious & secluded lives. Out of such alms giving people cannot expect any help from Devas! It is my personal belief that Devas have forgotten our country, unfortunately !
Q. Today Lord Buddha's message is being interpreted to the world in various forms, such as Hinayana, Mahayana and Vagirayana. Do you agree that these different interpretations tend to blur Buddha's basic message ?
A There may be different schools of thought, different rituals and rites among various sects, but the underlined factor is that Buddhists are all united in Lord Buddha's ' Attangika Magga' ( 8 fold path). Rituals & ceremonies are unimportant but what matters is the quality of life one leads & whether it is pure and unblemished. Then you will find you are on the way to progress, in Lord Buddha's point of view.
Q How would you analyse the terms ' Soul' & Athma' ? Lord Buddha taught that the word 'soul' had no meaning . How would you account for the cycle of rebirth taking the concept of soul as interpreted by other religions?
A. There are two ways of explaining this if we take the Sun as a simple example. A teacher, who takes a class of young children, may use the conventional language to tell his students that the Sun is rising and setting, although there is no such thing , but the phenomena take place due to the rotation of the earth. When the same teacher takes an advanced class he has to use 'deeper' language and use scientific examples and perhaps be more philosophical. Likewise, Buddha's teachings varied according to the level of inteligence of the seekers of the truth and he used the words such as ' Soul' and ' Athma' as appropriate. But to those aspirants who had opened up their intelligence, Lord Buddha taught the Vipassana Meditation - dealing with topics such as " what is life? What is man ( matter + mind)- Mind is a series of impermanent occurrences to be taken as unchanging essence or 'soul'; Physical body is also a stream of material state subject to momentary change & there is nothing to be taken as ego, entity or soul" . This practice of understanding one's own nature, Buddha said, was not practicable to use in the ' ordinary world'.
Q. The subject of paranormal phenomena is being explored in depth today in the western world. In the University of Edinburgh, a Chair has been set up for the sake of Parapsychology which involves the study of Ghosts. What are your views on Ghosts or Bhuthayas as we call them?
A. Well! when a man dies, sometimes he is born in a different world with a subtle body due to his attachment to his family. In that subtle (astral) body form the dead person can live for some time till he ascends to a higher world with the help of meritorious deeds done by his relatives. In that body, such a person can travel faster than light because it moves with the mind.
Q. How is that only some people can see such subtle bodies and others not ?
A. Some dead persons in that state can make their astral bodies become solid so that others may see it. Others are not able to do it and, therefore, they cannot show themselves. Q. There is a belief in Sri Lanka that people are always born under various 'Ganas' such as Rakksa, Deva and Manussa Gana. Is it a fact ?
A. It is only an astrological interpretation. Now, I belong to Raksa Gana but I am not cruel at all ( highly tickled with laughter )
Q .. Today a lot of Buddhists are becoming Sai Baba devotees. In view of the confused state of mind in certain Buddhist quarters, could you throw some light on the subject ?
A. I also visited Sai Baba some 20 years or so ago when I was nearly going blind with Cataract. Everyone advised me against an operation and, I was very confused. Suddenly a Dayaka in our temple, who could not speak English paid my travelling expenses and invited me to accompany him to India , as an interpreter, to see Sai Baba. When I saw Sai Baba at Whitefield, Bangalore, he came to me straight, out of the crowd, and blessed me with his usual gesture of waving his right hand and walked away from me. After taking a few yards, suddenly he turned back and walked towards me again. Next, he put both his hands on my shoulders, smiled and said " Get your eyes operated, it will be successful". I told Sai Baba, that was exactly I was contemplating in my mind to ask him. He simply smiled again and repeated, "Don't you worry, operation will be successful" , and went away.
Q. What was your instant reaction?
A I was stunned because even without having to ask the question Sai Baba knew exactly my thoughts. According to me, He is a very powerful person with some wonderful psychic powers. He is regarded as incarnation of Lord Vishnu, a world teacher, coming Messiah, advanced yogi etc., by various people. But to me, he is one who has tremendous powers and spiritually elevated personality to a very high level
Q. So, then, as a Buddhist there is no harm in following Sai Baba ?
A . Well! supposing if you were to visit a Harley Street specialist for a consultation or to get some treatment, is it harmful to your religion ? (smilingly) . Likewise, people go to Sai Baba to clear their doubts, seek help for various forms of mental, psychical psychological etc. There is no harm at all in doing so.
I will tell you another story. In Anguttra Nikaya, Lord Buddha referred to six great teachers who were true believers in a creator God called Brahmma. These teachers taught people how to follow a morally good path in life to develop their jhanas ( spiritual knowledge). Those who practised such disciplines were later born in Brahma world. So, The Buddha said, the pupils were not even Buddhists but followers of Brahmma God, yet they listened to their teachers with open minds, respected their masters' teaching and followed their good advice and led pure and moral lives which helped them to earn much merit. They were consequently reborn in Deva & Brahmma worlds.
Q. What happened to your sight after you met Sai Baba ?
A. Two weeks after I returned back to Sri Lanka I went completely blind in both my eyes. Immediately I entered the general hospital and got my right eye operated on. It was successful. Later the left eye was operated on. Now I can read big letters even without having to wear spectacles.
Q. Do you think that Sai Baba helped you & encouraged you to undergo your eye operations ?
A Yes ! Yes !! His blessings on me also have helped me a great deal.
Q How would you categorise Buddhists in Sri Lanka today - Average, Deep or just ritualistic ?
A. People in every village and town are now becoming more and more interested in the practice of meditation. Specially it is encouraging to see mostly the youth , both male and female , becoming interested in Vippassana meditation. In my view, the uneducated are getting caught up in ritualistic practices which was not found some 50 years ago. But on the whole, Buddhism is now improving among the educated classes and it is a very good sign.
Q. In Sri Lanka you are regarded as one of the most respected and holy monks who has reached spiritual enlightenment to a very high degree. Yet in some sections of the society there were subtle criticism about your close association with the late President R. Premadasa , who was a politician. What are your comments?
A. I am not a politician & I do not belong to any political party . People have totally misunderstood me. I knew Mr. Premadasa as a young boy who came to our temple to read my Dhamma School books. I was very much familiar with him long before he entered politics. Later when I was in the USA he had named a new village in my home town Balangoda, under his Gam Udawa project. He called it the Ananda Maitreya Gama, and I did not even know about it as I was in the USA at the time. When I returned to Sri Lanka I went to thank him. He asked me whether it was not a good idea to live close to Colombo , at my age, as it was tiresome for me to travel to & from Balangoda. Within a week he showed me a video film of a plot of land and asked me, " Hamuduruwane do you like this place" ? It was a calm place near a river and ideal for my meditation, I told him so. When I was in England two years later, he phoned me and asked me return to Sri Lanka to take over the new temple which he had already built without my knowledge. He had already named it Battaramulla Chitta Viveka Asramaya . When I saw him in Colombo again he told me, " Hamuduruwane, this is my religious obligation as I have a great regard for you, and this has nothing to do with politics. I do not want you to get involved in politics or become a UNP supporter. It is true that I went to see some of his Gam Udawa programmes, and that was purely out of my own accord to see what they were like. Even Mrs. Bandranaiyke has told me the same thing when she was the Prime Minister. - not to get involved in politics. Late Dr. N.M.Perera had made a request in his last Will for me to perform his funeral rites . The moment I heard about it I went & did everything to fulfill his last ambitions.
Q. Looking back at your past, would you comment on the lax-discipline of some of the modern monks. Do you agree that Vinaya Council in Sri Lanka has not pulled its weight to cleanse the Sangha of such deviants? Some years ago the Vinaya Council exercised stringent powers of discipline. Why has it failed to deliver?
A. Some years ago Bhikkus were much engrossed in keeping to Vinaya. Even now in most temples there are many disciplined monks. If there was a lax in discipline I can only think of the new University education, followed by monks taking up teaching careers. Even among them I know quite a few who are trying to maintain highly disciplined Orders.
Here and there, of course, you will always find black sheep, you can't avoid it. Even during Lord Buddha's time there were 250 bhikkus who were living in a monastery misbehaving. They were dancing with women and sleeping with women . Women were singing and playing the Harp & were were entertaining the monks etc. Ultimately Lord Buddha had to send Ven. Sariputta to chase the undisciplined monks away ( laughter....) . My advice is, if you come across an undisciplined monk try and explain to him the purpose of his becoming a bhikku, in a loving and caring manner, otherwise if you condemn him he will become incorrigible.
Q. What are you future plans?
A . To do some service to Dhamma whenever I get an opportunity. But the problem is that I never get a free moment, whether I am in Sri Lanka , England or in the USA, people are gathering to see me and they seek advice. I suppose it is also a form of service . My main aim is to attain to a higher level of mind development. I will do it. My conscience says that I am going to do it. I do not want to be born in heavenly worlds when I am dead. I would like to be born in Sri Lanka as a human being to develop Buddhism further and propagate Lord Buddha's philosophy throughout the world in its pristine purity. I have this strong feeling & urge within me. Apart from that, as many people are aware, my aspiration is to attain Buddha-hood in the distant future someday. Perhaps it will be decided when I see Lord Maitreya.
The Island - Saturday Magazine 24 September 1994