Wednesday, February 18, 2009
The Meditation Teacher Godwin Samararatne -the Man I knew
He was a meditation teacher, loved and respected by all who knew him. His fame went beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. He worked with European Psychiatrists of the Jungian school, and with them he was involved in experimental application of Buddhist meditation methods for the treatment of psychiatric patients diagnosed as suffering from neurosis. He assisted Mr. Francis Story, and then Professor K. N. Jayatillake, in rebirth investigations and was later invited by Professor Ian Stevenson, to follow up the cases of rebirth in Sri Lanka, he had included in his well known book ‘ The evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of former Incarnations.’
He was a very popular Meditation Teacher and travelled extensively in Europe, India, South East Asia, USA and South Africa, conducting retreats. His retreat in Ixapo in South Africa early this year was to be his last.
He was not interested in politics, though his sympathies were with the left. However, when late Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali, was still in the UNP, and perhaps considering the formation of a new political party, is said to have consulted many leading personalities in different walks of life in Sri Lanka, and Godwin was one of them he consulted. After the discussions, the Minister had offered to provide electricity to the Nilambe Meditation Centre, which Godwin had refused on the ground that he would like to preserve the primitive, other-world atmosphere in Nilambe which is more congenial to meditation.
I met Godwin Samararatne for the first time at the Matale Municipal library some where in 1959. That meeting was to be a long friendship, which was to last until his death. We were constantly in contact through correspondence, telephone calls whenever he was in Europe, and long conversations when we met. His last letter to me from Sri Lanka is dated 22 February, 2000- exactly one month before he died.
He spoke less and listened more and provoked others to talk. He was very clever at picking a word and make a pun of it, laughing mischievously like a child. He was one of about fifteen or twenty Government Servants travelling from Kandy to Matale by train, who had the second class compartment all for themselves. He took part in all fun and frolic, that was going on, and laughed while others were caught in their mischief, which sometimes ended just short of fist fights. He was full of humour and never a spoil sport. Nevertheless, he was careful to stay away from mischief himself, though he was sometimes a sly instigator.
He whetted my interest in religion. He read a lot on religion, philosophy, psychology, extra sensory perception and novels like those of Colin Wilson, Herman Hess, Albert Camus and those great Russian writers. He was even then when I met him, a meditator. He remained the epitome of meditation unto his last. I sometimes, visited him at his home, on the Peradeniya Road, Kandy, on Sundays, and saw how he talked and discussed with numerous friends that dropped in to see him, on subjects varying from politics to religion, letting others, for the most part, do the talking. He did not try to impose his opinion on others. Even in discussing a question of Dhamma, he did not flaunt his knowledge, when the other person was wrong, he tactfully put a counter question that showed his error. He was not judgemental, when others were critical, Godwin always pointed out a good quality in the person in question. This he used as an axiom in his Dhamma talks, later, at the Nilambe Meditation Centre — "you should not always give ‘minuses’, you should also give ‘pluses.’"
His pleasing unaffected comportment with his friends, he extended to others he respected. I have seen him with Venerable Nanaponika, Venerable Piyadassi, and with Francis Story. Even with them he had that ease of conversation and a quiet interrogative manner of speech to get them to talk at length on a subject. Late Venerable Seevali was a very close friend of Godwin, from his school days at the Dharmaraja College, Kandy. When Venerable Seevali was to be ordained, I accompanied Godwin to the Kanduboda Meditation Centre in Kelaniya, where the ceremony took place. And later for his higher ordination we went to the Maliyadeva Forest Meditation Centre, somewhere near Kurunegala. Godwin too, would have liked to have donned the robes of a Buddhist monk but I thought it was because of his love for his mother that he wished to remain a lay meditator. Venerable Seevali later went abroad and died there of a heart ailment. Godwin was deeply saddened by his death. Despite his detached attitude towards life he could be moved by the news of someone’s death. Death had taken away his father when he was yet a child, and his elder brother and his wife, in a tragic accident.
When I was selected for an appointment in Paris, I was hesitating to accept the post for family reasons. When I asked Godwin for his opinion, he said it is better that I go and not regret later. From Matale, he was transferred to the Kandy Municipal Library and resigned from there to take charge of the Nilambe Meditation Centre, at the request of Mr. M. B. Alahakoon, who constructed the buildings and provided all the material support to the Centre. Godwin became a popular and much sought after meditation teacher, and was invited to conduct retreats at various Meditation Centres in Europe — Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Holland and U.K. Conducting retreats in these places far apart from one another was a physically exhausting exercise, however dedicated he was to the cause. During one of these visits he was able to get a visa to France, to come and stay with me, on his way from Germany to London. I was to meet him at the Gare du Nord Railway Station in Paris.
As scheduled, the train by which he was to come arrived, but Godwin was not in it. I thought he had missed the first train and decided to stay for the second. That too arrived, but there was no sign of him. I was worried not knowing the cause of his delay. But, finally from the third train, to my great relief, I saw the tall figure of Godwin emerging from a compartment, tired and worn out, but still with that unfailing smile on his face. He told me, hardly able to stop laughing, that he had been arrested by the Swiss Frontier Police. The policeman had apparently asked for his visa to Switzerland, through which the train was passing. The policeman spoke only French and Godwin only English, there was none in the compartment who could help one or the other. He was taken to the police station, for further questioning. Godwin kept his broad smile and repeated that he cannot understand French. Quite exasperated the policemen took him back to the station and put him in the next train to Paris.
The few days he spent with me he really enjoyed. There was no getting up early in the morning, or sitting through meditation session, and making Dhamma talks. He was relaxed, and played with my baby son. The children took to him very easily and they loved him. We went to Sacrecoeur Church in Montmatre. He was fascinated by the wayside artists painting portraits of those sitting for them. At the Church Notre Dame de Paris, which was almost empty, he thought it a good place in its sacred silence, to meditate. We sat down and waited in silence watching the great gothic structure with its beautiful windows.
The day he left us, my wife and I, accompanied him to the railway station, from where he was to take the train to London. He said that every next visit to Europe for retreats, he will come and stay with me for at least a week just to relax, (provided of course, I had improved my cooking). It was never to be as he was unable to get a French visa, however much he tried !
Later, he told me of an incident in that train to London. He was seated in the train in his characteristic manner, with his arms folded, and eyes closed, when someone tapped on his arm. He looked up, and saw the anxious face of a woman. She told him, showing an aged gentlemen seated in a corner seat on the other side opposite to him, that he was her husband and they were travelling to London, to take treatment to him, for his headaches, probably migraine. He had observed Godwin from where he was seated and told her that he was sure, " ‘that man’- showing Godwin, "can cure my headache", and she asked him whether he could help. Godwin gave his seat to the woman and went and sat by the side of the man, and having spoken to him for a while, told him to take a deep breath, and then breath normally, and inhale conscientiously, saying to himself ‘Bud’, and exhale conscientiously, saying to himself ‘dho’, and asking him to continue, went back to his seat. When he got down at the Victoria Station in London, the old couple came to him, and said with gratitude in their face that his headache had disappeared.
I followed a few retreats with Godwin at Nilambe. What I liked there was the liberty given to the meditator, to meditate at his or her own pace without forcing them to follow a method or a system. Evening discussions were a stimulating deviation from the days silence and meditation sittings. Godwin did not like making long Dhamma talks on a subject. He allowed the meditators to talk and selected a subject as the discussions proceeded. The main theme for discussion was ‘ loving kindness’. This covered the whole aspect of human behaviour, and was cleverly manoeuvred to bring out into open discussion, problems among meditators, any acts of indiscipline he had observed during the day, or complaints or abuses of freedom. He often said that the retreats abroad, were well organised, and when the time came for his Dhamma talk at the end of the day, he was given a subject, and was provided with an alarm clock to time his talk for one hour. But, he said he preferred the disorder in Nilambe, through which positive results emerge.
Though he was of the Theravada tradition, he sought to accommodate meditators of all traditions in his retreats and introduced ‘choiceless awareness’, leaving the traditional ‘in and out breath’ as an object of meditation to those who were comfortable with it.
He stressed the necessity to cultivate ‘aloneness’, during a retreat, and live without creating psychological wounds in oneself, and quoted J. Krishnamurthi, "...an innocent mind is a mind which cannot hurt oneself, and therefore incapable of hurting others."
Though he was happy to be in Nilambe, which he told me on several occasions, his responsibilities restricted the time he could devote for meditation. In his later years he had the ‘habit‘ of closing his eyes, in the course of a conversation or in listening to someone. Godwin told me an anecdote concerning this ‘habit’ of his. An American who was meditating with Godwin at Nilambe, had met a meditator from another meditation Centre. Speaking about his teacher, this latter meditator said, that his teacher is very clever, and has a third eye, and they are all open all the time. And the meditator from Nilambe said to him, mine too, he is very clever, but he has only two eyes and they are both closed, most of the time.
Godwin came to be known not only among the Buddhist circles in the West, but also among the Western psychiatrists. This was because of his involvement in the field of application of Buddhist meditation for the treatment of psychiatric patients diagnosed as suffering from neurosis. In an interview given to Stephen Coan, a journalist from South Africa, Godwin said "when they come to see me, in the frst place I give them an opportunity to speak out....then I try to build up a friendly relationship, and then they describe the neurotic symptoms. I tell them not to consider it as a mental illness, not to consider themselves as different from others....The third thing I try to communicate with them is some aspects of meditation. I encourage them to be their own psychotherapists so to speak - to work with the symptoms and states of mind that seems to affect them."
When he was still working as a librarian, and engaged in investigating into cases of memories of previous lives, he assisted Mr. Amarasiri Weeraratne, who was using hypnosis to study previous life memories by regression of selected subjects. Later on Godwin himself became an adept at it, and had successfully regressed several persons.
He was a meditator calm, gentle and serene, but he was also, a handsome and an attractive man, and he had his share of problems with the opposite sex. He was even proposed marriage by a woman who was already engaged to be married. This was, before he became a full time meditation teacher at Nilambe. Unexpected as it were, Godwin summoned his experience as a meditator to act with utmost tact, first, not to hurt her feelings, and second to dissuade her from acting foolishly. He used his gentle persuasion to change her mind, and parted good friends.
Not as serious, but to a lesser degree, were the experiences he encountered when he was conducting retreats abroad, and they were altogether new to him. In retreats a time is set apart every day for personal interviews and the meditators discuss their progress, or difficulties in meditation with the teacher. But to these retreats, there are those who come with the hope, that through meditation they can find a solution to their emotional problems. Godwin was taken by surprise at an interview in one of his first retreats abroad, when a woman meditator in tears, almost hysterically, spoke of her pains, anguish, frustration and fears she goes through, and taking hold of his hand, held tightly onto it, pleading with him to help her. Godwin spoke to her calmly, and gently, and releasing his hand laid it gently on her head, and then asked her to go and relax. After that, when similar situations occurred he was armed to deal with it - place his hand gently on the head, and stay silently for a few seconds. Some of them found in this act a healing power. All emotions are, after all mind made.
An Indian meditator had once told him that his first name Godwin was too Christian for a Buddhist meditation teacher, and therefore he should change his name to Jayadeva. When he told me this I suggested ‘Anagarika Jayadeva’ Godwin shrugged it off with a smile.
My attempt so far was to describe the man, who I knew as Godwin Samararatne, and the words were easy to find. But to describe, the meditator that he was, a being of great spiritual stature, the words are inadequate. Where-ever he was, he created a fertile void, a pregnant emptiness, around him, where all barriers melted away. He infused the environment with gentle compassion, such that his friends became your friends and yours his. That was the inexplicable phenomenon he was. His kindness, selfless benevolence, and genuineness, influenced those he came in contact with, and without exaggeration, they became different, their attitudes changed, there was an irresistible desire to be like him, think like him and act like him. He was generous. He gave, but did not take. He lived simply and carried no baggage. He traversed his chosen path — the path of a Bodhisatwa.
May he attain Nibbana.