The trio led by D.C. Ranatunga, a University colleague and longstanding friend of mine, has six coffee table books to their credit. This is their seventh and it is nothing but right for us to expect a very high quality production. A coffee table book on the Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera was a [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

A book that awakes one’s curiosity to learn about a great savant


The trio led by D.C. Ranatunga, a University colleague and longstanding friend of mine, has six coffee table books to their credit. This is their seventh and it is nothing but right for us to expect a very high quality production. A coffee table book on the Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera was a suggestion of the late Mahanayaka Thera’s illustrious pupils, the Most Venerable Tirikunamale Ananda Mahathera, the chief prelate (Mahanayaka) of the Amarapura Dhammarakshita Nikaya and the latter had full confidence in the competence of Rane, which is how we used to call him, to undertake this onerous task. I am happy to state that the production is up to the high standards expected.

Book facts
The Lone Voice – Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera
Concept and Text – D.C. Ranatunga
Design & Layout – Somachandra Peiris
Photography – Sarath Perera
Published by the Sasana Sevaka Society, Maharagama, Sri Lanka, 2015.
Reviewed by Siri Vajiraramaye Ñānasīha

When I started reading the book I did not want to keep it down and was able to read with ease the entire book at a single go. This was because of the lucid journalistic style that Rane has acquired over the years. At the time the text was prepared he used to constantly remind me that this was not a source book on the Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera, with whom I have associated for well over 50 years, but a book that will give the reader a panoramic view of the 90 years’ life span of the Mahanayaka Thera in the context of the main events of the time.

Let me give one illustration. When writing a biographical sketch of any person, the very first sentence would give the date and place or country of birth and some family details. For example the Wikipedia has as its first sentence the following: ‘Madihe Pannaseeha Nayaka Thera was born on June 21, 1913 in the village called Madihe in Matara district, as the youngest in a family of five.’ Rane, showing his skill to keep the readers with him, pushes details of the birth of the Mahanayaka Thera and the family details to the second chapter under the title ‘A monk at thirteen’ and gives the reader a feel of the village of Madiha and some background of the Matara district in the first chapter with the title ‘A Son of the South’.

The opening paragraph is as follows:
‘Madiha is a rural village close to Sri Lanka’s southern coastal town of Matara. Being on the coast the village took a severe beating during the tsunami in December 2004. Many residents of Madiha were forced out of their homes which were totally destroyed. Among them was the ancestral home of one of the most illustrious Buddhist monks in contemporary Sri Lanka, Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera.’

In a few pages with selected photographs, the author ably contracts a long history of over two millennia to show the pivotal role the sons of Ruhuna played in safeguarding Buddhism and the much cherished cultural traditions, in the wake of foreign invasions from South India and the colonial rule of European powers. The twentieth century brought independence to Sri Lanka after 450 years of maritime occupation by three European powers of the time and the 133 years of complete loss of independence after Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) became a colony under British rule. In this manner the contextual framework has been prepared for the reader to assess the contributions made by the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Thera to Buddhist reawakening and socio-cultural emergence from a position of virtual servitude.

The chapters are not numbered, presumably because it would break the flow, and in the next two chapters a fair outline of the formative phase of the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Thera is given. The suggestive captions given to these two chapters are ‘Young monk gains recognition’ and ‘Responsibility thrust on him’. The curiosity to learn more of this great savant is thereby kept alive, urging the reader to explore the unswerving qualities possessed by the Mahanayaka Thera.

The significant contributions made during the lifetime of the Venerable Mahanayaka Thera are encapsulated in the four chapters that follow under the headings ‘A Buddhist Reawakening’ (2500th Buddha Jayanthi and the role played by the Mahanayaka Thera); ‘Training of monks’ (establishing of the Bhikkhu Training Centre or the Siri Vajiranana Dharmayatanaya, Maharagama with his brother monk Sri Ampitiya Rahula Mahathera); ‘Spreading the Dhamma’ (the world tour in 1964 and the establishment of the first Theravada Buddhist Vihara in the USA, the Buddhist Information Centre at 50 Green Path, Colombo, opening of Buddhist Viharas in Toronto, Canada and Melbourne, Australia); ‘Serving Mankind’ (founding of the Dharmavijaya Foundation in 1977 with the objective of promoting the total development of man, both spiritually and physically, through programmes for economic, health, education and moral development at national and grassroots level, and thereby establish a ‘dharmavijayasamajaya’; communal harmony; and serving the youth). It is with happiness and a sense of fulfilment that I call to mind the close association with the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Thera in almost all these activities and even more, such as temperance work.

The summing up is in the last two chapters, namely, ‘The Supreme Patriarch’ where in a nutshell the cordial relationships he built with all the Mahanayaka Theras of the other Nikayas and the distinct contribution he made to his own Amarapura Nikaya by unifying over 20 sub-sects to form the Sri Lanka Amarapura Nikaya of which he was made the Uttaritara Mahanayaka or the Supreme Patriarch. The Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera was the first to hold that high office. The many accolades and academic awards bestowed on the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Thera and the long list of pupils starting from Venerable Maharagama Dhammasiri, the head of the Washington Buddhist Vihara concludes the written word. The last chapter ‘The Tradition continues …..’ is all in pictures and the task of carrying it forward is placed squarely on the shoulders of his many renowned pupils whose names are mentioned. I fully endorse the final remarks of the author, ‘To see such a committed set of pupil monks continuing the ideals and values of their revered teacher is indeed a most satisfying experience’. However, to me who was deeply involved with the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Thera in setting up the Bhikkhu Training Centre, to see such a continuance is indeed more than a ‘satisfying experience’.

The book, I consider is unique because of the selection of photographs exquisitely taken by the veteran photographer Sarath Perera. His heart was in it and there was no compromise with quality. The pictures that are nearly hundred are from different sources. I was most fascinated to see photographs taken from the paintings of the Maharagama Dharmayatanaya. It brought to memory the discussions the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Thera had with Venerable Chandakitti Thera, who was in his youth, and myself. After initial discussion, a sketch was presented by the artist and before final approval was given the minutest details were discussed. The idea was that a lesson on Buddhism and/or Buddhist civilisation be taught to a class of the Dhamma School based on each one of the paintings. I am thankful to the producers of the book for including photographs from the paintings.

There is the adage ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’. It is most intriguing to see how the life of a bhikkhu has been crafted into the book by way of pictures. No words can do full justice to such a theme, especially if the reader is not familiar with the life of a Sri Lankan bhikkhu. For example, often we speak of pandupovanava, or the preparing of the robes worn by a monk by dyeing. There is a photograph of this activity. It shows what imagination and preparation have gone into this book.
Somachandra Peiris, who was responsible for the design and layout, has also done a superb job. No wonder the trio deserves our commendation. Not only have they done justice to the main focus of the book, namely the Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera, but also they have set a high standard for such publications in the future.

A final word, however. With my close association with the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Thera and reading through the book, I wish to suggest one change; and that is to change the title of the book from ‘The Lone Voice’ to ‘The Unwavering Voice’.

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