19th December 1999

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Wednesday is Unduvap Poya

That sermon by a Czech Bhikku

By Owen Peiris

I read with great interest the article titled Men who know the bliss of solitude by Upali Salgado which appeared in The Sunday Times of July 25, this year.

I go back 60 years when the German scholar Bhikku Most Ven. Gnanathiloka Maha Thera headed a team of devoted Bhikkus of four or five different nationalities resident in the island jungle hermitage of Polgasduwa on Dodanduwa lake described by Mr. Salgado.

One day in the last week of July 1939 by prior arrangement I was ferried across to the hermitage in a canoe. Within a few minutes I stood before Ven. Gnanathiloka. After paying my respects I introduced myself and talked to him about the life he led with five of his pupils in that remote jungle island infested by snakes.

The Venerable Bhikku assured me they did not encounter problems with any creatures. They were seeking peace according to the Buddha's words, and were happy having opted to be in voluntary poverty. I mentioned to him the purpose of my visit to the hermitage which was to ask him to deliver a sermon at Rankoth Vihara in Panadura.

He regretted his inability to undertake it as he was physically unfit suffering from acute lumbago - and advised me to speak to Bhikku Gnanasatta, a young Czech national, who was a good preacher fluent in the Dhamma and English language.

Bhikku Gnanasatta agreed to deliver the sermon. He was for a few moments in a meditative state of mind and turning to me asked how the subject "Necessity for Religion in the Twentieth Century" would be. I replied that it would be wonderful. His face changed.

In deep thought he started saying there was no religion in the world, man was killing man to grab power and some people were going mad, trying to conquer the world not realising that death could conquer anyone at any moment, with no notice at all - be he the mightiest war-lord in the world. At that time war clouds were gathering over Europe and Adolph Hitler's Germany was ready for attack signalling the Second World War. It was this problem that haunted Bhikku Gnanasatta's mind when he agreed to deliver the sermon on Saturday August 19, 1939 from 6.00 a.m. to 7.30 p.m.

Bhikku Gnanasatta was visibly depressed. He said the two German Bhikkus, Venerable Gnanathiloka Maha Thera and Gnanathilaka, would have to undergo internment on directives of the British Colonial Government and added that he himself may have to suffer the same fate although he was of Czech origin.

Back in Panadura, my uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Peiris, with whom I was living at that time were waiting to know the result of my mission. I gave a full description of the hermitage and discussions with the Bhikkus but prudently ignored the threat of war. They were happy about the outcome of my endeavours.

Interpretation of a deep subject like "Necessity for Religion in the Twentieth Century" was indeed a tremendous exercise and Victor Fernando who retired from Public Service in early 1939 offered to do it. Mr. Fernando was highly competent in both languages and Buddha Dhamma.

All matters connected with the programme were finalised and it was given out that an European Bhikku was to deliver a sermon (Dharma Desana) in a country dominated by colonial sovereignty.

I informed the Station Master at Panadura in advance that the Czechoslovakian Bhikku, Ven. Gnanasatta was due from Dodanduwa at 2.30 p.m. He promised to extend his assistance. My uncle Mr. Peiris accompanied by me and Mr. Fernando were at the railway station. The train came on time and the station master in his white uniform was present to greet the Bhikku. We then escorted him to the Rankoth Vihara. A young Bhikku assigned for the purpose of attending on him was at the first flight of steps and took charge of the alms-bowl and the umbrella.

Ven. Jothirathna, Nayaka Thera of Rankoth Vihara received Bhikku Gnanasatta and after the usual greetings they began to converse in Pali, the language common to the two. That was the first time I had the good fortune to witness a conversation in Pali - to me an unforgettable event. I took leave of him when he was guided to his temporary apartment.

When I saw Bhikku Gnanasatta that evening (August 19, 1939 at 5.30 p.m.) he looked fresh and happy. The news that an European Bhikku of Czechoslovakian origin was making a Dharma Desanawa at Rankoth Vihara in Panadura had reached almost every corner of the region. The Dharma Salawa decorated plainly with Buddhist flags was full, with most of those present being women.

A large number gathered outside. They were thrilled about this unique event unheard of in the history of Panadura, the citadel of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

The sound of hewisi broke the silence and the bare-footed Venerable Bhikku Gnanasatta walked up sedately to the pulpit at 6.00 p.m.

Mr. Fernando who volunteered to be the interpreter introduced the European Buddha-putra.

The venerable Bhikku commenced his sermon and dwelt at length on the necessity for religion in the world and to prove the validity of his subject commented on the war clouds gathering over Europe at that very moment.

The sermon delivered in English punctuated with Pali quotations from Buddhist scriptures kept the devotees spell bound.

Mr. Fernando's effortless translation was flawless. The atmosphere was filled with reverence and the Dharmadesanawa ended with the soft cry of Sadu, Sadu, Sadu - the entire gathering standing with upraised arms and folded palms.

The devotees were visibly disappointed that the sermon ended on schedule.

The programme ended the next day with the Pahan/Bodhi Pooja in the midst of a large and representative gathering. They were disappointed that Ven. Bhikku Gnanasatta could not be present to grace and bless the final episode due to escalation of the war threat directly affecting the resident Bhikkus of the island hermitage.

Two weeks later on September 3,1939 Germany declared war against Britain.

To my dismay I witnessed the distressing scene when the two German Bhikkus, Ven. Gnanathiloka Maha Thera and his pupil Ven. Gnanathilaka Thera, were escorted to the YMCA under armed guard for internment in a concentration camp elsewhere.

I was then working in the Registrar General's office which was housed in the old Dutch Building opposite the YMC.A.

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