Ven. Bhikkhu Sumedha: The Sage-Artist of Dulvala


By Ven. Bhikku Bodhi
(The first part of this article appeared yesterday)

At Kataragama the two European men became Hindu Shaivite ascetics. They wore saffron robes, grew beards, daubed their bodies with ash, and learned the chants and hymns of praise to the God Shiva. They dwelled separately on nearby mountains, each pursuing his own sadhana, his religious practice, which they learned from Tamil Hindu ascetics who lived in the area. However, after some months they were to come to a parting of ways. While Wilson took readily to the Hindu religious life, and under the name Swami Shiva Kalki remained a Shaivite ascetic up to his death in 1995, Schmidlin soon came to feel that devotion to Shiva was not his true calling. After the initial excitement of his new way of life wore off, Shaivism lost its appeal for him and another voice began to beckon him. This was not the voice of the world calling him back to a life of sensual enjoyment. Rather, it was the lure of a different spiritual vocation. He had brought along with him to Kataragama some German translations of the Buddha's discourses, and as he read them, he realized that this was the teaching that spoke to his heart, this was the path he wanted to follow, this was the path he had to follow to find the peace for which he yearned. And he did not have far to travel to fulfill this aspiration, for Sri Lanka was the ancient home of Theravada Buddhism, which for some 2300 years had preserved the Buddha's teachings of the Pali Canon.

Thus after several months, he left Kataragama to seek a Buddhist master who would initiate him into the life of a Buddhist monk. His first attempt almost led to disaster. He had inquired from a Sinhalese lay contact, a prominent entrepreneur, how one goes about becoming a Buddhist monk. The gentleman told him--from whatever motive I do not know-- that if one wants to be ordained one should purchase a set of monk's robes, put them on, and then go seek an elder monk to ordain one. So Schmidlin bought a set of bhikkhu's robes, clad himself in them, and then went to Balangoda to ask if Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya--the esteemed old scholar-monk--would ordain him. He did not know that he was committing an act that, if done with conscious intent to deceive, is called in the Pali Vinaya texts theyyalinga, "wearing the marks of a monk (the robes) by theft," i.e., without legitimate ordination, and is considered a very serious matter.

Ven. Ananda Maitreya was not at his temple at the time, but when the other monks (all Sri Lankan) asked Schmidlin why he wanted to meet their teacher, he replied that he wanted to get ordained. Puzzled, they asked him why, if he wanted to get ordained, he was already wearing monk's robes. When he told them about the advice his supposed benefactor had given him, their faces shriveled with expressions of horror. It was as if someone were to say that the proper way to get warm on a cold night is to throw oneself into the fireplace, or the proper way to enjoy the view of New York City from the top of the Empire State Building is to jump down to the street below. The monks at Balangoda corrected this error, procured a set of layman's clothes for him, and then sent him on his way.

 His search next led him to Ratnapura, where he found the teacher he was seeking in the person of Ven. Prof. Henpitagedara Gnanawasa. Ven. Gnanawasa gave him his first formal instructions in the Dhamma and arranged his "going forth," his ordination as a novice-monk or samanera, under his own monastic superior, Ven. Pandita Henpitagedera Gnanasiha Nayaka Thera. The ordination took place on 5 December 1975. After a period of guidance under his teacher in the ways of the monk's life, the newly ordained Sumedha then returned to Kataragama, where he lived a life of solitary meditation in a cave on Valli Amma Kanda, one of the famous seven hills outside the town. Later, in 1981, at the sacred city of Anuradhapura, he received full ordination (upasampada) as a bhikkhu in the Ramañña Nikaya, again with Ven. Henpitagedera Gnanasiha as his preceptor and Ven. Henpitagedara Gnanavasa as his teacher. His periods of solitude on the mountain were interspersed with phases of pilgrimage, when Sumedha would walk long distances, collecting his food by walking house to house on alms round and spending the nights at any temples he happened to encounter along the roads or even sleeping out in the open.

 During the late 1970s, Ven. Sumedha had visited the renowned German elder Ven. Nyanaponika Mahathera (1901-1994) at the Forest Hermitage in Kandy. Though so different in character--the German scholar-monk methodical, rational, and punctilious, the Swiss artist-monk intuitive, emotional, and instinctive--the two quickly became fast friends. When the elderly German nun, Sister Uppalavanna, left the Manapadassana Lena at Dulwala, seven miles from Kandy, in 1979, Ven. Nyanaponika wrote to Ven. Sumedha asking whether he would like to move from his austere cave in Kataragama to a more comfortable cave near Kandy. Ven. Sumedha responded positively and moved to the Manapadassana Lena, "The Cave with the Lovely View," whose Brahmi-script inscription above the drip ledge testifies to its use by Buddhist monks even from ancient times. Here, in this hillside grotto to be reached by climbing 99 stone steps, he lived for the last 26 years of his life. His proximity to Kandy enabled his friendship with Ven. Nyanaponika to blossom over the next 14 years, right up to the Mahathera's death in 1994. It was on one of his visits to the Forest Hermitage, in 1982, shortly after I had returned to Sri Lanka after five years in the U.S., that I first met Ven. Sumedha, and we quickly became united by a strong, deep, and lasting friendship.

 During his years as a monk, Ven. Sumedha did not abandon his artistic training but steered it in a new direction. He used his new-found meditative skills, his sharp and original intuitions into the Buddha's teachings, and his extraordinary gifts for balancing colour and imagery to transform his art into both a vehicle and an expression of his meditative experiences. During his most productive periods, paintings, mainly watercolors, drawings, and sometimes mixed media creations, poured forth from his hands with remarkable profusion--wondrous, evocative, mystifying pictures that, in his own words, were meant "to make the invisible visible." He even experimented with photography and for a while with poetry.

 Unlike certain other Western monks who made Sri Lanka their homeland, Ven. Sumedha was not a writer or scholar, but he understood the Dhamma well, understood it deeply, and cherished it with a love born of this understanding. His style of comprehending and explaining the Dhamma was quite unique, almost idiosyncratic. I used to say that whereas most of us understand and explain the Dhamma by way of ideas and concepts, Ven. Sumedha understood and explained the Dhamma by way of images. He didn't absorb the teachings conceptually, as a normal person does, by linking logically connected sequences of thoughts; to assimilate them with his own peculiar mental faculties, he had to relate to them imagistically, to turn them into pictures. Even when he gave talks on the Dhamma, the talks usually unfolded by stringing together images or by abruptly juxtaposing conceptually discrete notions in an almost forceful way that might open up a new dimension of understanding in those who heard them. Those who could enter his intuitive mode of communication would say of his talks, "Brilliant!" "Mind-boggling!" "Wonderful!" "His teachings are most precious!" "He helped me understand things I never understood before!" On the other hand, those who adhered to tightly compartmentalized, rational modes of thought might say, "I couldn't understand a single thing he said," or, "He's a bit eccentric," or, "He's got the Dhamma all mixed up."

 I myself, in our Dhamma discussions, could relate to his formulations in two ways: often I found his intuitions indeed brilliant and scintillating; but at other times I thought he would overstate an interpretation, driving a point to an extreme where it didn't belong. I had the same view of his assessment of people. Often he had astonishingly acute insights into people, sharply perceiving a person's shortcomings and vulnerabilities upon a brief meeting, often with only a superficial exchange of words. Yet sometimes he would pass flawed judgments on people, and insist on these judgments even when they flew in the face of repeated experience. In the early years of our friendship he tended to resent my objections to his insights, which he took to be unerring, and this occasionally led to friction in our relationship. When I would question or criticize his ideas, he would dismiss me with such words as, "You scholars can never understand the Dhamma. You're just locked up in your own brains." But over time he mellowed, and came to realize that he had to modulate his own insights by taking into account the views of others. During the 1990s, when I gave weekly discourses on the suttas of the Majjhima Nikaya at the Buddhist Publication Society, Ven. Sumedha would come from his cave for the discourse and my lecture would often be followed by a lively discussion between us, which enhanced our mutual respect.

 While Ven. Sumedha could speak uninterruptedly on the Dhamma for hours, his most congenial medium for conveying his understanding of the Buddha's message was visual art, and in this medium imagery found its natural home. His paintings, however, were not constituted by ordinary images, by familiar pictures of the everyday world. They disclosed to us, rather, mysterious and hidden realms of the imagination, extraordinary landscapes of the deep mind to which he seemed to have a backdoor access. In these landscapes, geometric shapes emerge out of space, intersecting, melding, or colliding; bizarre figures hang suspended, staring out at us with enigmatic expressions, as though trying to convey to us a tale that cannot be stated in words; animals, humans, demons, and deities join in a deep embrace, dropping their differences in the recognition of a shared psychological space; luminous spheres arise against dim backgrounds, floating spheres filled with faces, sometimes solemn, sometimes gleeful, sometimes absorbed in meditative bliss. Often, with a touch of humor, these are different perspectives on Bhikkhu Sumedha's own face! In Ven. Sumedha's paintings we meet many strange beings, indeed; yet these beings are not as strange as they might seem at first sight. They are the deep images of the subconscious mind becoming manifest through watercolors and paints. They are our own past and future lives staring back at us and asking to be acknowledged. They are the myriad potentials of our karma, which the Buddha himself has said are more varied than the most complex work of art, splattered among the realms of sentient beings. And through Ven. Sumedha's art they speak to us of crucial themes that take us to the heart of the Dhamma: of the transience of sensual pleasures, of the dance of impermanence, of the mask-like nature of selfhood, of the ever-shifting stream of forms that constitutes samsara, and of a peace that always lies just on the other side of this stream, transcending all conditioned modes of understanding

 Once, probably in the mid-1980s, when Ven. Sumedha and I were taking a walk in the woods, I asked him whether he began his painting with an idea and then found the images to fit the idea, or instead began with the images and then tried to find an idea to determine the direction of the subsequent images. He told me that the latter was indeed his method: the original images came first, floating into his mind seemingly out of nowhere. He rendered these on paper, and then as they took shape, he would grasp a unifying idea that would guide the formation of the following images. In this way he fulfilled his aim of "making the invisible visible."

 Despite his high level of productivity, for many years Ven. Sumedha's work remained shielded from the eyes of the public. Perhaps, as a cave-dwelling hermit, he did not want to attract public attention to himself and become known as an artist rather than a monk. He did share his paintings with a few friends; a few made their way to the covers of books issued by the Buddhist Publication Society; and some were given as gifts to friends and supporters. But they did not spread beyond this. Nevertheless, sometime in 1995, word of his talent somehow reached the ears of the chief executive at the Deutsche Bank in Colombo. He approached Ven. Sumedha with the idea of holding an exhibition of his work, and the monk finally agreed to break his artistic silence. Thus in October 1995, at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery in Colombo, a two-week exhibition was held of over a hundred of his paintings, mostly watercolors, jointly sponsored by the Deutsche Bank and the Goethe-Institut. The exhibition was repeated at the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy the following February. The title of the exhibition-- "The Vision of Dhamma"--was the name of the anthology that I had compiled of Ven. Nyanaponika's essays, originally published in Britain in 1986 and re-issued  by the Buddhist Publication Society in July 1994, on the author's 93rd birthday. Ven. Nyanaponika expired just three months after the book was re-issued, and the exhibition was appropriately dedicated to his memory. The title "The Vision of Dhamma" involved a double-meaning. In the Buddhist texts, it refers to a key event in the spiritual development of the disciple, when one gains the dhamma-cakkhu or "eye of truth" that sees into the heart of the teaching, into the interconnected unity of the four noble truths. But in relation to this exhibition it also signified the refraction of the Buddha's teaching through the medium of art: the Dhamma rendered visible in color, form, and figure. Some paintings from the exhibition were sold, but Ven. Sumedha did not receive any earnings for himself. In advance he had specified as beneficiaries a number of charities operating in Sri Lanka and he allowed the buyers to donate the cost of the painting to whichever charity they chose.

 When he was preparing his selection of paintings for the "Vision of Dhamma" exhibition in Colombo in 1995, he asked me to help him give each of his paintings a Pali title. He also wanted to have a passage from the Pali texts to elucidate each painting. Thus, over a period of several days, we sat together and worked on this project. He would tell me his English title, and I would translate it into Pali and later search for a text to match it. For some pictures, the English title would have a natural Pali counterpart, e.g., "Inner Tangle, Outer Tangle" would beAntojata Bahijata and illuminated by the verse at Samyutta Nikaya I 13 (1:23). Others, like his "Game of Searching for Blue," had nothing in the Pali Canon to correspond to it. I had to translate the title literally but almost meaninglessly as Nila-pariyesana-kila, and randomly illustrate it by the text on "the base of transcendence" based on a vision of blue forms.

In my opening talk at the "Vision of Dhamma" exhibition, I said that when art historians of the 25th century look back at the 20th century, they will say that the 20th century produced two truly great artists: Sumedha and Picasso, in that order of greatness. Of course I am not an art critic, and the 20th century painters whose work I'm familiar with might be counted on less than ten fingers, but I was only half-joking when I made that statement, so highly do I esteem the depth and purity of Bhikkhu Sumedha's  art work. To be fair to Ven. Sumedha, he would tell me that when he compares his own work to that of "the real masters," he becomes aware of his own deficiencies and makes no claim to membership in their ranks. But I think that while his modesty may be fitting with regard to technique, as far as depth of vision goes, I don't hesitate to put him among them.

 In May 2005 Ven. Sumedha applied for Sri Lankan citizenship. In preparing his application, he had written a letter to the President of the country (who alone could recommend citizenship) explaining the reasons he was making this request. He had sent the draft of the letter to me so I could polish his English. I still have the file on my hard disk and I found this closing paragraph, which is particularly poignant to read on the day of his death:

" I have made Sri Lanka my adopted homeland and it is my wish to pass away in this country. I no longer have any sense of identification with any other country. Since my ordination I have not left this island, and I have no intention to leave for the rest of my life. I hold a German passport, though I have never lived in Germany.  I would like to become a Sri Lankan citizen, both to express my sense of belonging to this country more than to any other country in which I have lived, and also, in my old age (I am now well over 70), to spare myself the trouble of applying each year for a residence visa valid for only one year. I have been a monk now for thirty years and I am fully intent on remaining one until the end of my days."

 Earlier today he reached "the end of [his] days," still clad in the brown robe of a Buddhist monk, a much loved and venerated member of the Sangha. He came to Sri Lanka as an artist seeking enjoyment and relaxation; the strange workings of karma, swelling up from an unfathomable past, turned him into a sage who found here wisdom, consolation, and a path to final peace. He lived and died as a true monk and rare visionary: Sumedha "the Unborn" with the stubborn temperament of a goat (aja); Sumedha the cave-dwelling meditator; Sumedha the spiritual patron of the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital; Sumedha the genius artist who makes the invisible visible; Sumedha who, even on the brink of his own death, still thought of a helpless child lying paralyzed on a nearby hospital bed.

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