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Tributes to Godwin
The Late Godwin Samararatne,
A personality I loved and respected
by Sampath Dissanayake
(Written in commemoration of the second anniversary of Godwin's death)
I first met Godwin Samararatne when I was a student at Dharmaraja College in Kandy in the late seventies. At that time he was the Librarian of Kandy's D.S. Senanayake Memorial Public Library. I used to see him frequently when I visited the library almost every afternoon after school.
During a discussion session on psychotherapy which I attended at the library, Godwin spoke briefly at the request of the medical professionals who were gathered there that evening. He said only a few words regarding his experiences about the workings of the mind and the importance of meditation in understanding the psyche. I felt something deep in his gestures and soft voice beyond what he expressed verbally. I experienced a kind of deep calmness in his dignified appearance, his smile, his half-closed eyes and his white attire.
I started inquiring about him after this encounter. I also spoke to him when I was at the library. He had many intellectual interests. He had read widely, from religion to psychology to philosophy to politics. He was an academic researcher in addition to being the Librarian of the public library. His investigations encompassed fields such as the therapeutic aspects of Buddhist meditation, the development of Buddhist meditation traditions in Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries, reincarnation (rebirth studies), near-death experiences, and other paranormal phenomena.
He started as a member of the research team set up by late Prof. K. N. Jayathillake in the early sixties and later served as a field worker and as a collaborator in various research projects carried out in Sri Lanka and abroad with researchers and academics connected to the University of Virginia, the Northwestern University, the University of Iceland, and many other institutes throughout the world which pursued studies in the preceding fields. He collaborated with Prof. Ian Stevenson of the Dept. of Behavioural Medicine and Psychiatry of the University of Virginia in his research projects in the field of parapsychology for nearly thirty-five years. In the last stage of his life, he worked closely with Prof. Nimal Senanayake, a well-known Sri Lankan medical educator, researcher and practitioner, in his research projects in this particular field.
I did not see Godwin for one or two years. However I remained interested in the topics that he had spoken of. In the early eighties I tried to meet him to discuss those subjects further. I learnt through his friends that he had retired from the public service and started a meditation centre with a close circle of his spiritual friends in a village called Nilambe. This place was located about seventeen miles away from the city of Kandy on the Peradeniya-Galaha road. I also learnt that he was the Resident Teacher there. I went to the Nilambe Meditation Centre after a couple of weeks with a friend of mine. The Centre was located on a beautiful hill overlooking a number of small towns and villages around Nilambe. There was a beautiful forest and a small lake in the vicinity of the Centre. There were about fifteen Westerners and a couple of Sri Lankans in addition to my friend and myself. The Centre had just opened, and it was crowded with foreigners, especially Westerners, who outnumbered the local people.
Godwin was very casual. We were undergraduates of the University of Peradeniya at that time. When my friend and I started talking to him, he did not utter a word on meditation or anything related to that. He just asked about our problems related to memorizing course material, paying attention to lectures in our classes, applying the facts that we have learnt in our exams, and things of that nature while offering us some tea. Then he said that there was going to be a group sitting around 6:00 pm and asked whether we would like to experiment with some meditation techniques with him. We told him that the purpose of our visit was to experience these things.
The sitting lasted about two hours. Godwin showed the people who were gathered there some simple techniques for improving their concentration. He taught us to accomplish this by paying attention to a particular natural process taking place in our body (such as breathing) and by listening to a particular sound in our surroundings. Then he suggested that we pay attention to how distractions arise when we try to focus attention on something. He gently guided us in observing how thoughts about a past incident take our attention away from the present. He also showed us how a simple casual thought proliferates to manufacture an entire new story which is not related to what is happening at the moment, and how subsequently we create anger, jealousy, anxiety and all other forms of psychological suffering. He encouraged everyone to experiment with trying to catch distractions immediately when the mind started to wander off and to see how long it takes even to realize that the mind has become distracted.
We also experimented with attempting to bring our attention back to the present moment in a gentle way without forcing the mind too much. This was one of Godwin's ways of understanding and overcoming psychological suffering. This experiment, although using simple techniques like calming down and observing one's mind, was the beginning of a learning process for me towards seeing, knowing and understanding the way our minds work.
Around 8:00 pm, after experimenting with these techniques, we sat for a discussion session while having soya coffee. Everyone was given a chance to briefly tell what they thought about the techniques and whether they could use them in day-to-day life as well as in a relaxed environment such as at home or in a Centre like Nilambe. Everyone shared his or her experiences about how thinking associated with emotions from the past could become an unnecessary burden in everyday life. The positive aspects of objective thinking and planning and the importance of being in the present were also discussed. From time to time, when it was necessary to explain and open people up to underlying processes and the subtleties of the mind, Godwin told us of some of his own experiences. Sometimes he quoted parallel descriptions found in Buddhist and other spiritual texts. Whatever he said, his every word and every gesture conveyed the fact that everything he said came from an experiential source rather than from an intellectual process. It was interesting to observe that everyone could relate to what he said through their own background and experiences in life. This inner learning process which I started with Godwin continues in my life even today.
I spent one or two days at the Centre with my friend. I became a frequent visitor to the Centre in the weeks and months that followed. During these visits I gradually learnt what a busy person Godwin was. During one subsequent visit, when we were chatting about things related to meditation, I learnt that he had been invited to conduct sessions and discussions in a number of countries in Europe. The invitations had come from universities, colleges, social organizations and other community organizations. In addition he had been invited to participate in some group discussions with professionals in fields such as psychiatry, psychology and various schools of alternative medicine.
When I inquired about his private schedule he humbly told me that he was going to be away for about 6 months and invited me to come and stay in the Centre and further explore the techniques which I had been practising. He suggested a number of things for me to experiment with, such as whether it is really difficult to live in the present moment, whether and how far we can let go of our negative emotions associated with the past as well as daydreaming about the future, and whether there is a positive and objective way to deal with psychological wounds which we have created through our past relationships.
He also mentioned the names of a couple of frequent visitors to the Centre and told me to discuss, practice and work with them on these things. Two of the names he mentioned to me were Harilal Wickramaratne and Upul Gamage, who is now the Chief Administrator and Resident Teacher of the Nilambe Centre. The association which thus began between Godwin and I grew into a lifelong relationship which lasted almost two decades, until his passing in March 2000.
A few years later, around 1985, Harilal Wickramaratne encouraged Godwin to form a discussion and a practice group at his residence in Kandy. Godwin accepted this invitation. The group met every Tuesday. Godwin travelled from Nilambe to Kandy each week to conduct the sessions and guide the discussions. One thing that really impressed me during these discussions was Godwin's open-minded approach to meditation and his handling of day-to-day situations and human relationships. The main topic or theme most of the evenings was the application of mindful meditation to real life situations. The group consisted of people from different age groups and backgrounds, such as teachers, students, doctors, nurses, businessmen and other professionals. People regularly brought their relatives and friends. Some parents attended the sessions with their children. The discussions which Godwin initiated in this way continue even today in different forms and in different places in Sri Lanka and abroad. The people who were regulars at these earlier meetings have now created their own small groups in their own communities, workplaces, schools, and so forth.
The people who gathered at the Nilambe Meditation Centre as far back as the early eighties branched out into different activities in their social lives as time went on. But one thing remained with them. That was the application of the insights and understandings which they achieved through the light of meditation to their personal as well as their social lives. The people whom I met there came from different walks of life, different educational levels, different professions, different schools of thought and different religions and faiths. Everyone gathered to discuss life experiences and issues with each other and how mindful meditation could be applied in different situations to gain understanding about these situations and qualitatively change one's responses to them.
Godwin was not only a facilitator in this process. His deeper understanding of the phenomena of life provided the necessary guidance in this exploration to many of those present. Some other facets of Godwin's life that became clear to me during these meetings were that meditation was not something external to his life. The essence of it was present within him wherever he went, whatever he said and whatever he did throughout his life. A great and deep awareness was present in his whole personality in all life situations, whether he was attending a birth, attending to last minute arrangements for a foreign trip, visiting a patient, or attending the funeral of someone close to him. He had a deep sense of alertness towards both external events and his own thought processes regarding them. In this respect he was not only a teacher or a guide but also always a student and an experimenter.
Another marvellous aspect of his teaching was the way he used his own experiences, anecdotes, stories, and quotations to illustrate the application of meditation in everyday life and ways of overcoming challenges associated with doing so. He never neglected to discuss and emphasize the problems associated with using meditation in a society where the majority are unaware of the importance of meditation. Some days he spent hours discussing the traps, pitfalls and escapism associated with meditation. He always encouraged us to investigate these things. Both highly educated people and persons with limited formal education were comfortable with his approach and responded to his words and guidance in a favourable manner.
One evening in the early nineties a few of our friends met at a place in Kandy to give a farewell dinner to Godwin and to wish him the best prior to his going abroad to teach for an extended period. This was just after the country had undergone a period of terror and violence. At the time Godwin was becoming busier than ever. The demand for him both locally and abroad was becoming increasingly great. He was not used to having such a busy official schedule. But his desire to help his fellow human beings was great and he adjusted to the increasing demands on his time little by little. He spent certain days of the week at Nilambe. Other days he spent teaching and meeting regular groups in Kandy and the surrounding area. Sometimes he went to schools located in very remote areas to conduct discussions and retreats at the invitation of teachers and student societies. At other times he visited the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital where he offered his services as a counsellor to the medical team at the psychiatric ward.
During the dinner Godwin came up with an idea to create a contunuing dialogue regarding the burning issues in the country and whether there was a way of handling these issues in the light of the Dhamma and meditation. This idea became very popular among our close circle of friends. As a result of this, we developed a series of lectures, discussions and dialogues which we presented in public halls in Kandy, in the University of Peradeniya and at private homes on a very regular basis. We invited a lot of specialists and experts in different fields, living in the country as well as sometimes from abroad, to these meetings. We discussed spirituality and its relationship to social and economic development, ecology, education, aesthetics, health and human relationships, the therapeutic aspects of meditation, alternative therapies, issues and problems associated with violence, and many more psychological and social themes.
Dr. Kithsiri Herath and Bertie Seneviratne, two close friends of both Godwin and myself, acted as pillars in organizing and coordinating these events. More than anything else this gave my friends and myself a chance to interact with Godwin very closely and to feel his deep concern for other human beings. Godwin worked with other groups of people to implement support services for the ill, vocational training programmes for youth, educational programmes for the disadvantaged, and much more. It was sometimes difficult to imagine how he managed these things while being the Resident Teacher of Nilambe and undertaking a large number of teaching assignments abroad. The Nilambe Centre had only three or four guestrooms for short and long-term residents at the beginning of eighties. He managed to expand it by adding more guest rooms and some additional facilities for bigger groups to practice meditation. His kalyana mittas (Dhamma friends) and the committee members of the Nilambe Meditation Centre offered generous support to him in achieving these ends.
Another important and unforgettable quality of Godwin was his generosity. He was one of the most generous people I have ever met in my life. Every time he went abroad he brought at least a small gift for every single person he knew. Sometimes he brought things for people whom he did not even know. Yet I cannot remember any occasion when he brought anything for himself, other than a large number of books and other resources he purchased for the Nilambe Meditation Centre. Thousands of people still visit and make use of the Centre he built up over the years during his life at Nilambe.
Without any exaggeration, Godwin was a great and beautiful person who brought insight to this world every moment he lived. I personally feel it is extremely important for us to remember and reflect upon Godwin and the things he did during his 68 years on this planet. This will help us to understand the deeper dimensions of human life and provide an example of the kind of a life one should lead during this short span of existence. He was an embodiment of the Buddhist way of life. He led his life totally for the benefit of himself and for the benefit of others. He accomplished the Buddhist ideals of generosity, compassion and wisdom.
Although he did not expect any praise or honour for what he did, I was personally disappointed that he was not recognized and given the honour he deserved inside Sri Lanka when he was widely recognized and respected abroad. People living on the other side of the planet frequently visited Sri Lanka to learn, discuss and practice meditation under his guidance. The main reason for this lack of recognition in his native country may have been the simple and self-effacing life he led. But I was immensely pleased when he was honoured as a distinguished Old Boy by the Arts Foundation of the Dharmaraja College, where he had received his complete education in Kandy from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, in the latter part of 1999 for his contribution to the culture and tradition of the country and for his services to humanity, six months prior to his passing away.
May he attain Nibbana within the shortest possible span of time.