The Germany-born Ven. Ñāṇavimala was one of the great forest monks living in Sri Lanka in modern times. I had the privilege of staying in the same monastery with him for a couple of years near the end of his life (from 1999-2002) and like everyone else who came into contact with him, could not help but be deeply impressed.
Bhante was surely one of the most inspiring monks one could hope to come across. Unfortunately, due to his infirmity at that time, we were not able to meet him very often – generally only when we could think up excuses that couldn’t be ignored: blessings for New Year’s Day, or Sinhala New Year, the beginning of the Rains retreat or the end of it, etc.
Those were days we all looked forward to, and Bhante would give uplifting talks about the Dhamma, the Path and the need to exercise effort and attain Path and Fruit. Old and infirm though he was, he could easily speak for an hour or more on just this subject, with his eyes alight and the atmosphere electric, inspiring the young monks, and we would all go back to our rooms more determined than ever to practice and do our very best to achieve what he himself assured us could be attained.
Bhante was an ascetic to the end, and although his legs were very swollen and he was barely able to walk, let alone go out on alms-round, he had his two monk attendants go out, and he lived on the almsfood (piṇḍapāta) that they brought back, and had blended so he could easily digest it.
In 2011, I was contacted by the former forest monk Chittapala who had shared his notes about Ven. Ñāṇavimala’s teaching. I subsequently published them on my blog Dharma Records, and suggested that we contact others who knew Ven. Ñāṇavimala and request them to write up their memories of him.
The testimonies and recollections we have managed to gather here come from many sources, including fellow senior monks, who go back to his early years, attendant monks who knew him towards the end and lay disciples whose lives were changed by their encounters with him.
When making this collection we have sought views from many people to try and give a full picture of this extraordinary monk and the effect that he could have on people’s lives, his one aim always seeming to be to inspire others to make their very best efforts to put the teaching into practice.
Bhante himself was very severe in his practice, and some of the people writing here remember that, and are even critical of it, but there is no doubt that if Ven Ñāṇavimala was tough on others, he was even more tough on himself, and even by his own very strict standards, he lived what he preached and proved to be an exemplary monastic himself because of his total commitment to the life he had chosen.
It seems unfortunate that no one thought to record his Dhamma lessons and instructions, as many feel, as I do, that they were the most uplifting talks they have ever heard. Bhante did however keep a list of readings he would recommend to people, both lay and monastic, which are reproduced in an appendix here, and Bhante would be the first to declare that the best person to learn from is the Buddha himself.
We sincerely hope that this small collection of materials about this great monk will serve the purpose of firstly, keeping his memory alive, and secondly, inspiring a new generation with the thought that, if they have the commitment and are willing to put forth the energy, they will be able to attain the unattained, and gain a safe passage out of the round of births and deaths once and for all.