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Rev. Sri Dhammananda serving the World

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 into laughter.

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 condition.

"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 offer."

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 Lanka.

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 dhamma".

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, Malaysia, 13-March-2000


Updated: 3-5-2000

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