Being with Elders

Updated 16th January 2014

by Bodhicarini Upasika Jayasili (Jacquetta Gomes)

The Buddhist Group of Kendal (Theravada) is fortunate to have as its Spiritual Advisors Venerable Dr Balangoda Ananda Maitreya (24th August 1896 – 18th July 1998), and Venerable Henepola Gunaratana who was the subject of “Being with Elders” in the Spring 2009 issue of Fearless Mountain: Newsletter of the Abhayagiri Monastery. We are all very grateful to Venerable Henepola Gunaratana for his inspiring example and visits to our group. Upasika Panna of our group received her name from him when she took the Eight Lifetime Precepts at Gaia House in England in 2007. He also gave Upasika Canda her Buddhist name and the Panca Sila (Five Precepts) at a retreat in Cumbria in 1995.

My first meeting with Venerable (now Ajahn) Amaro was at the Buddhist Society Summer School in 1982. The November 1982 issue of The Middle Way: Journal of The Buddhist Society showed photographs of Venerable Amaro being presented with a birthday cake; and on Pindapat (alms round) with Venerable (now Ajahn) Sumedho and the late Sister (later Ayya) Rocana.

Sister Rocana was the oldest and the first of the nuns and Ayyas in the Forest Sangha in the West. One afternoon Venerable Sumedho gave a talk and left, leaving the young Venerable Amaro and the older Sister Rocana to answer questions. Someone asked a question. Venerable Amaro endeavoured an answer, but it was a question that required a great deal of practical experience of life. Sensing his difficulty, Sister Rocana asked “May I speak?” and Venerable Amaro replied “Say anything you want to”. Sister Rocana used her much longer experience of life to answer this and other questions. The decision to include Sister Rocana demonstrated to all present that the young Venerable Amaro had common sense, maturity and the makings of a very good future teacher.

The 87-year-old Venerable Ananda Maitreya and Anagarika Munindra were guest speakers at the Summer School. Despite his great age Venerable Ananda Maitreya stood to give a talk on “The Three-Factored Path”. This talk appeared in the February 1983 issue of The Middle Way: Journal of The Buddhist Society. Venerable Ananda Maitreya was already well known to the Forest Sangha at Cittaviveka Chithurst Monastery. In 1981 he stayed at Chithurst and convened the assembly which authorized Venerable Sumedho to be a Preceptor and conduct Bhikkhu Ordinations. For this purpose Venerable Ananda Maitreya conducted the ceremony to establish a Sima (bounded area of consecrated ground) for which he had the necessary qualifications according to the Vinaya rules. Ordinations have to be conducted on a Sima. The Cittaviveka Sangha named the new Sima the ‘Ananda Maitreya Sima’.

When I attended the 1982 Summer School I already knew Venerable Ananda Maitreya from the London Buddhist Vihara. At the Summer School I went to his room to take something he needed, and waited outside the open door while he was talking to Venerable Sumedho and Venerable Amaro on the subject of the monastic life. From where I was standing I could overhear the conversation, and it was interesting to hear Venerable Amaro asking the elderly Venerable Ananda Maitreya questions based on the latter’s decades-long experience of being a Bhikkhu, a Buddhist Elder and leader. Venerable Ananda Maitreya eventually asked me to come in and present the required item.

Venerable Ananda Maitreya

Venerable Ananda Maitreya was ordained as a novice on 2nd March 1911 in Sri Lanka. His upasampada (higher ordination) was conducted on 14th July 1916. He was Mahanayaka (Head) of the Amarapura Nikaya of the Sangha in Sri Lanka and had been a participant at the historic sixth Sangayama (Buddhist Council), held in Burma in 1954-56. That Council was held to coincide with Buddha Jayanthi, the 2500th anniversary of the passing away of the Buddha. Members of the Sangha from the five Theravada Buddhist countries of South-East Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia) attended this Council. The purpose of these Councils is to rehearse (Sangayama means Rehearsal) and compare their respective copies of the Tipitaka (Pali Canon), the teachings of the Buddha, in order to ensure that purity and accuracy has been maintained over the years. The previous five Councils had all been held under royal patronage in India and Sri Lanka. An important Council was convened in the 3rd century BC by Emperor Asoka of India after his conversion to Buddhism, when he found that wrong teachings were being taught and practised by the Sangha. That Council saw the expulsion of many unsuitable monks.

The Burmese government wished the Sixth Council to produce an authorized version of the Tipitaka. Venerable Ananda Maitreya was the Sri Lankan representative on the final editing committee. He had also served as chairman of the Council for a few weeks during its third session in 1956. The Burmese government subsequently conferred upon him the honorific title of Agga Mahapandita (‘Chief Great Scholar’). After his 100th birthday he was invited to Burma where he received their highest religious title, Abhidhaja Maharatthagura (‘His Eminence, the Great Spiritual Teacher of the Nation’).

Venerable Ananda Maitreya frequently stayed at the London Buddhist Vihara. He was popular with everyone, and valued for his long and deep experience of being a member of the Sangha. Most of the questions he was asked he answered in relation to his many years of being a Bhikkhu.

Venerable Ananda Maitreya authorised me to teach in 1983. He gave a talk at my wedding in 1986, and performed the wedding blessings. That talk appeared in his book, Buddhism – Lectures and Essays, under the title ‘A talk given at Chiswick Buddhist Vihara at an English Buddhist girl’s wedding’. He conducted the ceremony in which I was given the Bodhicari Precepts in 1994. I will always remember him with gratitude for his inspiration and indefatigable efforts to develop Theravada Buddhism in the West.

Ajahn Amaro and Upasaka Nick Scott visited our group in 2008 as part of their 25th anniversary walk across England from Cittaviveka Chithurst Monastery to Ratanagiri Harnham Monastery. (I had attended a talk given by Venerable Amaro in Manchester, during the original walk in 1983.) Anicca (Impermanence) means that we are no longer the youngest people involved in Theravada Buddhism, and are all moving through our different roles to being Elders ourselves. Hopefully, down the years, we have all remembered the advice Ajahn Amaro gave at the Summer School in 1982 to live simple and humble lives, and the advice given in the Maha Mangala Sutta that it is a blessing to associate with panditas, wise people, and to avoid the company of balayas, foolish people.

Before Ayya Rocana left for India to visit the sacred sites she stayed the night at our flat in London. I remember her telling me that in the future, Ajahn Sumedho and his contemporaries will be remembered by people with the same nostalgic reverence accorded to Venerable Ananda Maitreya. Ayya Rocana passed away during the course of her pilgrimage to the sacred sites; and, as the Buddha told Ananda Thera, anyone who passes away while visiting the sites associated with his birth, enlightenment and Parinibbana will be reborn in the deva (celestial/heavenly) realms.