We conclude Mindfulness Month with an excerpt from Journey to Mindfulness: The Autobiography of Bhante G. Here, Bhante G. lays bare the often-surprising ups and downs of his seventy-five years, from his boyhood in Sri Lanka to his decades of sharing the insights of the Buddha, telling his story with the “plain-English” approach for which he is so renowned. In the selection below, Bhante discovers the curing nature of meditation, at a time when it seemed nothing would save him.
The Final Cure: Meditation
A few days after my higher ordination, I eagerly took on one of the privileges of a full monk, to participate in a seven-day chanting. This ritual, called paritta in Pali, is designed to drive away evil spirits—another example of how folk beliefs and Buddhism often co-exist. If someone is sick or a village is suffering from famine or drought (misfortunes that potentially could be the doing of evil spirits), people ask monks to perform this special chanting. For an entire week, pairs of monks chant nonstop. Each pair chants for an hour at a time and is then relieved by another pair. The chanting is energetic, more like shouting than singing. Only monks with strong chanting voices are selected, and they are held in high esteem for their efforts. Young monks impatiently wait their turn to join the chanting teams.
One of my friends from monks’ school was as eager as I to participate in a chanting. He was ordained the day before I was, so we became eligible at the same time. Soon, we wrangled an invitation to participate in a chant from a friend of ours who was head monk at a temple nearby.
We were young and enthusiastic, and since this was our first seven day chanting, we wanted more than just one turn. So my friend and I begged some of the older monks to give us their slots. They had already done many parittas and were happy to oblige, so we ended up chanting most of the time. Our only breaks were for eating and answering the call of nature.We didn’t sleep at all!
Each day at 6 a.m., 11 a.m., and 6 p.m., drummers would announce the start of devotional services by beating on drums. They had to beat loudly to be heard over our chanting. To prove our zeal, my friend and I chanted even louder. Trying to drown out the drums, we were eventually shouting at the top of our lungs.
After three days my friend passed out. Some of the laypeople at the temple took him to a bedroom and laid him on a bed to sleep. By evening he recovered and joined me again in the chanting.
By the end of the week,we were both in bad shape. Even though we desperately needed rest,we couldn’t sleep.We couldn’t eat, either, and both of us had severe headaches.We couldn’t stand to be around anyone else, and I think we must have been suffering some kind of nervous breakdown.
Worst of all, I lost my memory, and not just my photographic memory, but everything! I couldn’t recognize any alphabet—Sinhalese, Sanskrit, Tamil, or English. I would open a book and be unable to make any sense of what was on the page. If I met someone and then saw him five minutes later, I couldn’t remember his name. I was upset and humbled by what had happened to me. All my pride in my academic achievements was gone.
Back at school, I failed my final exams. The principal, puzzled that his star pupil had done so miserably, called me into his office. I told him about the seven-day chanting and how my memory had disappeared. He told me to go back to my temple to rest and get some treatment.
For most of the next year I subjected myself to all kinds of treatments, in a desperate search for a “cure.” First, my teacher made a medicinal paste from plants and applied it to my forehead every morning. After a month I was no better, but I yearned to return to school nonetheless. My glory days were over. I now had to struggle to learn even the simplest things.
Not only was my photographic memory gone, but I had to struggle to read sentence by sentence, word by word, sometimes even letter by letter. Some nights, while reading a textbook, it felt like insects were running all over my scalp. I was in agony and began to entertain thoughts of suicide. I didn’t want to live in that condition at all. I had heard that the fabric mantels in kerosene lamps were poisonous if you ate them, so I started collecting them and hiding them in a box. Luckily, my friends got wind of my plan and threw the box away.
Some people suggested I go see an Ayurvedic doctor who advertised in the newspaper. I went to him and told him my problem, but said I had no money. He was a kind man; he gave me a very expensive medicine for free. Every day, as he recommended, I applied some of the oil to my head, sniffed it, and even drank a few drops of it. It helped clear my sinuses, but brought back only a little of my memory; I was still a long way from recovery.
Then my teacher suggested that my affliction was the work of some evil spirit. “We’ll do an all-night chanting for you,” he said. At the time, this suggestion didn’t strike me as ironic. While I laid on the floor, eight monks chanted suttas in Pali all night long. The next morning I felt no different.
My parents agreed that an evil spirit might have possessed me, so they called in an exorcist. I met the man at my parents’ house. He asked my father to get seven lemons and then had me sit on a chair, while he held a lemon and a pair of scissors over my head, chanting a mantra in some language I think he made up on the spot. As he chanted, he cut the lemon with the scissors and let the juice drip onto my head. He repeated the ritual with all seven lemons. Then, as a finale, he tied a cotton thread around my neck.
My parents were sure this would do the trick. It didn’t, so they invited another exorcist, supposedly one with more power.
This one came to the house with an entourage of six people. He asked my father to gather a long list of things: coconuts and coconut oil, areca nuts, red hibiscus flowers, and several dry sticks wrapped in cloth to serve as torches. Meanwhile, the exorcist was carving a clay statue to represent me. It was round and plump, like a terracotta snowman. When it was finished, the exorcist and his attendants put on white sarongs and turbans. They led me to a small shed and sat me down in front of the clay statue they had made. Other family members were allowed to sit nearby, on mats on the ground. After chewing betel, the men started chanting in a strange language. It was neither Sinhalese, nor Pali, nor Sanskrit. I had never heard anything like it. It was just a jumble of sounds.While chanting, they held the lit torches and threw powdered incense into them to make their flames brighter.
Each time the torches flared, two of the attendants sitting on either side of me would yell in Sinhalese, “Ayu bova!” (May you live long!).
The ritual continued the entire night, until the torches were burnt down. At dawn, the men skewered some spikes into the head of the statue, evidently to free me from my affliction. Then they tied a thread around my neck, just as the first exorcist had done.
Again, there were no results.
My parents were all out of ideas but my teacher offered one more: He gave me a talisman made of copper sheeting that had been rolled into a two-inch tube about the size of a ballpoint pen. It was a traditional Ceylonese talisman called a ratana yantra, or jewel talisman. Selected stanzas of the Ratana Sutta are engraved on it. The Sinhalese believe that if this type of talisman is worn around the neck or waist, it will keep evil spirits at bay.My teacher hung it around my neck.
I was very grateful to my parents, my teacher, and the healers who tried to help me.Unfortunately, their efforts were all in vain. Nothing worked. My superb memory was gone forever.
At this point of utter desperation, a very unusual thought occurred to me: Perhaps meditation would help. When my friends heard that plan, they burst out laughing. The practice of meditation was hardly a common thing to do in those days, even for a bhikkhu.
“Are you crazy?” one friend said. “Meditation is only for old people who can’t do anything else anymore. You’re still young, too young to meditate. Don’t be foolish.”
Although I was well-versed in the theory of meditation and knew the four foundations of mindfulness by heart, I had never actually meditated, believe it or not. Very few monks did in those days. They were too busy preaching Dhamma, chanting, and performing blessing ceremonies. There was much talk about meditation, of course, but very little practice. Some people actually believed that if a person meditated too much, it would cause mental disturbance.
Well, I figured, I already had a mental disturbance. What did I have to lose?
Secretly I began to meditate—sometimes late at night, sometimes early in the morning.Whenever I could steal a few minutes alone, I meditated, sitting in a dark corner of the shrine room where I hoped nobody would notice me. I knew I was trying to instill a new mental habit, and in order to be successful, I had to set aside time every day to do it. It was like a workout for the mind, trying to flex muscles that were weak from lack of training.
At first, I simply tried to calm my mind by recalling mundane things—names of my friends or temples I had visited, titles of books I’d read. It wasn’t easy; there were big gaps in my memory. But I tried not to panic.
Then, drawing on my scriptural training in the four foundations of mindfulness, I began to watch the flow of breath, of bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts that moved through me.
That watchful observance gradually led to a very peaceful feeling inside. Occasionally I even experienced spontaneous flashes of joy. Those brief moments, of course, made meditation enjoyable and encouraged me to keep going.
Eventually things I had studied in the past started coming back to me. I began to recognize letters and numbers. Unexpectedly, my temper, too, began to improve. After a couple of months of steady practice, I was able to read again and to remember what I had read. I was elated, and so relieved that I had found a “cure.”
Meditation did what all the incantations and medicinal oils and talismans hadn’t been able to do.
It brought peace to my mind.
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© Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Journey to Mindfulness (Wisdom Publications, 2003)
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