- Rev. Sri Dhammananda serving
At 81, Rev K. Sri Dhammananda may have to slow down
somewhat in his mission in life, but MAJORIE CHIEW finds the Chief High Priest of Malaysia
and Singapore still the sharp personage she met 11 years ago.
A decade ago,
a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk based in Malaysia had to go for heart bypass surgery at the St
Vincent Hospital in Sydney, Australia.
Before the operation, a woman clutching a Bible came by to
see him. As he was garbed in hospital attire, she did not know that he was a Buddhist.
Concerned that he was about to undergo a major operation, she told him that she would pray
for his safety.
The monk did not protest, so the woman prayed, and
concluded with "Amen", to which the monk responded in Sanskrit with
"Ama", which means "Yes sir."
Shortly afterwards, a group of Malaysian Buddhist students
from the University of New South Wales visited the monk. They too prayed for him, and that
was when the woman learnt that the patient was a Buddhist and a monk, and a very senior
one too: the Chief High Priest of Malaysia and Singapore.
When the woman realised who he was, she apologised but Rev
K. Sri Dhammananda told her: "You're doing some service with good intentions. A
blessing is a blessing and it's not a religious label. This is the Buddha's
attitude." Nevertheless, the operation by world-renowned heart surgeon (the late) Dr
Victor Chang went without a hitch.
Rev Dhammananda, who celebrated his 81st birthday
yesterday, was in high spirits when he recounted this tale at his office at the Buddhist
Maha Vihara in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur last Tuesday. He didn't seem to have aged a day
since the last time I met him 11 years ago to do a story on his life. He was his usual
cheerful self, still got that sense of humour, and full of spontaneity whenever he broke
Among the items on his desk were a planner, telephone and
files he had to attend to. There was a bowl of water with tiny white petals, a daily
offering by a woman devotee.
He sits flanked by two shelves. One is decked with books
and correspondence files with Buddhist societies worldwide, recognisable by their country
names on the spine of the files. The other is full of photographs, mementoes and
souvenirs. He has a computer too but admits that he isn't too savvy with it. In front of
his desk is a couch where he says he takes his noon naps.
As chief monk of the Buddhist Maha Vihara, he is
affectionately addressed as "Chief Reverend". Birthday cards for the chief had
poured in, said a temple worker. For an octogenarian, Rev Dhammananda seems a picture of
health and hearty laughter--it's tough to imagine that he is a diabetic and has a heart
"I have had diabetes for 40 years. Some people don't
believe it because diabetes can destroy kidneys, eyes and the heart." For him, the
disease has affected his heart. He has been on medication for 40 years.
One would assume he has a strict diet to adhere to owing
to his health condition, but he finds his "manageable". "But I need to
reduce my salt intake (to curb hypertension) and control sugar consumption (against
diabetes). I should not eat food that is too rich and oily like cheese and butter,"
as they are not good for the heart.
The layman tends to see monks as vegetarians. Rev
Dhammananda explains: "Some Chinese and Koreans monks are vegetarians, but the
Japanese, Sri Lankan, Thai and Burmese monks are not all vegetarians, only some of them
are." He says that as monks "we never order food, we accept what people
Rev Dhammananda eats only two meals a day. Breakfast is a
bowl of oats and soya bean powder mixed in hot water, while lunch comprises rice,
vegetables and fish. After that, he takes fluids and no heavy "solids", unless
he is sick.
By partaking in two meals instead of the usual three a
day, "it would bring relief to the public who support us when we sacrifice one meal.
Besides, monks try to control their senses and it (two meals daily) is good for our
health. Light food is a relief to the heart, especially fruit juices and liquids."
Last year, devotees and fellow monks had planned a grand
birthday celebration to mark Rev Dhammananda's 80th birthday. But major activities were
cancelled on his request as he fell terribly ill in early February, soon after his return
from abroad. He had been on a two-and-a-half month tour of India, England, the United
States, Canada, Sri Lanka and Singapore. The exhausting trips had taken a toll on his
heart. "I had heart palpitations and had to be hospitalised for three weeks--in
Singapore and Malaysia."
Nowadays, he takes things easy--doctor's advice. He has
turned down a recent invitation to give talks in New York. However, he tries to fulfil his
religious duties involving short trips to countries such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Sri
These days, other than attending to matters in his vihara
(temple), he still goes out to give dhamma (teachings of the Buddha) talks four nights a
week. In his sermons, he addresses various issues, including scientific ones to keep up
with the times.
"People want to know about issues pertaining to
modern development like cloning of humans. They want to know if such a move is acting
against the will of God. In Buddhism, we can't say no to cloning, because Buddhism
encourages people to use their intelligence. In the West, Buddhism is introduced as a
religion of freedom and reason."
Age, or rather ageing, is far from Rev Dhammananda's
thoughts. "I don't feel I'm old. Someone once asked me: 'What is the age limit to
understand that one is old?' My reply was: 'At any time when he feels he's old.' "
He cited a 102-year-old monk who visited England, South
Korea and Taiwan to give religious talks. "Ageing is natural," he says,
"but those who have worries, fears, disturbances and insecurities would experience
physical decay (faster). If the mind is free, then one can maintain good health. One
should not take things too seriously. Let them come and go. Then the mind is free."
Rev Dhammananda was born into a devout Buddhist family. He
was the eldest son and has two brothers and three sisters. His uncle was the chief monk of
a local temple in Sri Lanka. At 12, he was ordained a novice monk in Sri Lanka.
"Dhammananda" means "one who experiences happiness through the
He came to Malaya in 1952 at the invitation of the Sasana
Abhiwurdhi Wardhana Society, the oldest Buddhist Society in Malaysia. The society had
written to a temple in Sri Lanka to ask for a monk to reside in its temple in Brickfields.
From among 400 monks, Rev Dhammananda was chosen.
An indelible memory of his early times was three months
after his arrival in Malaya. He was summoned by Sir Gerald Templer, then British High
Commissioner to Malaya, for an explanation on the Buddhist temple's stand on Communism.
Rev Dhammananda told him that the communist terrorists encouraged violence while Buddhism
propagates peace. "So there's no connection between the two."
Sir Templer later invited Rev Dhammananda to aid the
government in its psychological war against communist insurgents in the country. The monk
consented to his new "mission". Together with his devotees and interpreters,
they set out to new villages, particularly in Perak and Malacca, to preach Buddhism as
well as to advise the people "not to carry out bloodshed or destroy properties".
Turning 81 is perhaps a significant milestone in his life
as a monk. Reverse that number and it was a totally different story then, because when he
was 18 he had wanted to give up monkhood. He had returned home and told his mother he was
disenchanted with being a monk, finding the life "dull and no fun".
But his mother managed to make him see the light.
His mother told him: "If you come home, you can serve
us and your family. If you remain as a monk, you can serve the whole world.
"When I think of you, I can die peacefully. My other
children cannot give me that happiness."
Source: The Star newspaper,