(The venerable monk was former Professor JOTIYA DHIRASEKERA of the University of Peradeniya, the University of Kelaniya, and the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies)
Listening to the sermon given three months after the passing away of the Venerable Professor Dhammavihari Thera, I was reminded of the day the scholar donned the robes of a Buddhist monk. The commemoration “pinkama” was held at the Narada Centre, where Ven. Dhammavihari Thera spent close on two decades in the service of the Sasana.
The monk giving the sermon was Koswatte Ariyawimala Thera, who was the late professor’s pupil at the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies. He recalled the first sermon the Bhikkhu Dhammavihari preached as a monk.
The day was May 18, 1989. I looked on as Dr. Jotiya Dhirasekera stepped down from his “kutiya” and walked along the uneven footpath lined with pine trees. His head was shaved and he was dressed as an “upasaka”, in white banian and cloth. His look that day was a complete contrast to the figure he had cut as a smart young lecturer on the Peradeniya Campus.
We would see him come down the steps of Jayatilaka Hall, where he was a sub-warden, immaculately dressed in a full white suit, climb into his light-blue Triumph Mayflower, and drive off to conduct his next Pali class.
I was not his pupil in the strict sense of the word. The majority of us did not study Pali. But he did teach us many a lesson on how to lead a good, law-abiding and peaceful life.
As fresh undergrads, we could be restless. We had complaints, mainly about the food. On a couple of occasions, we walked in procession to the warden’s office carrying empty soup plates in protest! But not after Dr. Dhirasekera became our sub-warden. He would listen to us, discuss our problems with the senior sub-warden, Dr. S. Vithiyanathan (who later became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Jaffna), and find a solution. He taught us to be patient and tolerant.
Our complaints rarely reached the warden, Professor Gunapala Malalasekera, who had a completely different approach to problems from that of the previous warden, Professor J. L. C. Rodrigo. Driving his Volkswagen, Professor Malalasekera would arrive in the evening, park his car under the porch, get down and sit on the steps. “Kiyanawa ko thamuselata thiyena prashna” [tell me your problems], he would say. That was enough for us. We instantly forgot our “problems.”
Dr. Dhirasekera would quietly observe us from a distance as seniors ragging freshers. As long as we did not go “over the limit”, he did not mind. He knew we would not let him down. The worst we would do to a fresher was give him a “bucketing”, and only if we felt he was a “little too much.”
He was loved by his pupils. In a note in the Felicitation Volume compiled by the Sri Lanka Association for Buddhist Studies (2005), his one-time colleague, Professor N. A. Jayawickrema, wrote that Dr. Dhirasekera was one of the most popular teachers during his time.
“He was admired by his students for his elegance and dynamism as well as for his lively and stimulating style of teaching. Though his speciality was Vinaya Studies, he earned a very high reputation for his deep understanding and lucid teaching of different aspects of Buddhist civilisation, especially the aesthetic philosophy of Buddhism.”
Professor Jayawickrema described Dr. Dhirasekera’s study, “Buddhist Monastic Discipline”, which earned him his PhD, as “an excellent research work.” The study was regarded as an authoritative exposition of the subject, covering its salient features in minute detail and drawing on primary Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese sources.
With his deep knowledge, he was the obvious choice to succeed his guru, Professor Malalasekera, as Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. He was later invited to serve as the director of the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, at the University of Kelaniya. His service at both institutions was hailed as “outstanding.”
He was always keen to disseminate the teaching of the Buddha in its purest form. In keeping with the intention of the Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Maha Nayaka Thera, at whose feet he was ordained, Ven. Dhammavihari worked hard to establish the Buddhist Information and Research Centre. (The Sarana Road centre was put up in memory of Narada Maha Thera.)
Using the computer and IT facilities, he and Bhikkhu Mettavihari worked with a group of students from around the world. He would provide answers to their questions on a regular basis, via Mettanet, a website set up to propagate the Dhamma.
He was invited to attend international symposiums, and his contributions were widely acclaimed. He spoke with great satisfaction of his meetings with the Dalai Lama, and renowned teachers, such as the meditation guru Ajahn Brahmavamso. He also contributed to many scholarly journals. When he passed away, several manuscripts were found in his laptop. Many who knew his value made good use of him, while others were simply unable to understand him.
He was a great lover of nature. He turned a little patch of ground behind his room at the Narada Centre into a pretty garden with lots of greenery. He would do his “sakman bhavana” there, or he would take a chair and sit out, sipping plain tea with his companion, Bhikkhu Mettavihari.
I was privileged to associate with him for many years, and upto the very last. Our friendship goes back to the days when I was a student at Ananda College, and he was a temporary teacher awaiting his final-year examination results.
I treasure a piece of advice he gave me when we met at Bolawatte, a few days before he donned his robes:
“My friend, renounce the world before the world renounces you,” he said.
D. C. Ranatunga