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Godwin, Dear Friend, Dear Teacher
by Deepal Sooriyaarachchi
Meditation is "Knowing the mind, shaping the mind and freeing the mind"
- Godwin Samararatne (quoting Ven Nyanaponika)
"I did not get my visa, Deepal" These were the first words of Godwin when I met him last. It was at Harilal's house while he was convalescing from his serious illness after returning from South Africa in 2000. He was referring so lightly to the 48 hours he had been unconscious in hospital. Unfortunately for us he got his visa a couple of weeks later leaving only the memories of this gentle human being. To those who knew Godwin this ability to look at life so lightly was nothing unusual.
I first met Godwin in August 1984. His brother, Hector, had arranged for me to spend the night at Godwin's house at Peradeniya so that I could take the bus to go to Colombo the following morning. Godwin offered his room to me and it had barely any space as the whole place was filled with books.
"Deepal, we are having a meditation programme, would you like to join?" Godwin asked. Having said yes we went to Lewella where he was conducting a guided meditation programme. First he allowed us to practice anapanasati meditation, or meditation on the in-breath and out-breath. It was not easy. Even before the out-breath was over my mind was somewhere else. Though I sat for meditation hoping to have a soothing, tranquil experience, it was frustrating.
After some time Godwin asked us to share our experiences in a discussion. Next he advised us to watch our thoughts and notice how thoughts come and go. Well, when I started looking at my mind to observe thoughts, nothing came to the surface. So without much effort my mind became silent and tranquil. Godwin advised us to have no expectations about how the meditation should be, and it just happened. I felt this was obviously a very useful piece of advice.
Godwin de-mystified meditation, he removed the "branding" of meditation. That is why he appealed to such a large cross-section of people, from traditional local Buddhists to the wider world of truth seekers across the globe. There were many who would come all the way to Nilambe from far away lands, just to see Godwin. I knew one such young lady from Germany called Sabine. Every year she would come to see him and spend a week or two at Nilambe.
Godwin had helped her to free herself from the pains she had from her childhood memories, and she was ever so grateful to him for that. I can imagine how Godwin would have told her, " ... so also please realize that meditation is not always about having pleasant positive experiences. Actually unpleasant experiences do not create any problems for us unless we identify ourselves with them. The real challenge we have is learning how to work with these unpleasant experiences, how to work with physical pain, how to work with mental pain. This is much more important than simply experiencing pleasant positive experiences".
Godwin was so selfless. He never wanted to become "the Guru". He was so humble. Once I visited the BPS auditorium where Godwin was giving a talk. He saw me and asked me to sit closer to him at the front. After speaking a little he introduced me to the audience and asked me to speak, and I remember speaking on the Paramitas - the ten perfections. Such actions are possible only by someone who has seen for sure the emptiness of the ego, the transient nature of self.
My friend Upul kept asking me to write about Godwin or speak about him, but when I recalled things I realize that I had only a handful of encounters with Godwin, but the impact he has had on me is so profound. In that way he is such a great kalyana-mitta, or 'noble friend'. One of his qualities was that he had such a wonderful sense of humour. Once, after a short stay at Nilambe, my wife and I visited his room before leaving. He asked my wife: "Sunethra, did you miss your husband, having to stay away from him the last few days." "Not at all," said my wife. "Deepal, the coming colours are not good," Godwin said, with his usual boundless laughter. (This is a colloquial expression that means things look gloomy for the future.)
Once he was visiting his brother who was staying with his son who lived a few blocks away from me and he dropped in to see me. That day happened to be our wedding anniversary and we were overjoyed to have him as a visitor on this special day. When we told that to Godwin he said "I don't know whether it is good for I am a confirmed bachelor," and out came the laughter.
At Nilambe he used to lead Dhamma discussions in the evenings. Some of these discussions were thought-provoking, depending on the questions that came up. Once he suggested that we talk about meditation. Having suggested the topic, as usual he sat with his eyes closed and hands across his chest and tucked into the sleeves of his shirt. The meditators, too, sat in silence. The time passed by and the candles burnt down, but no one asked any questions, nor did Godwin speak. At the end of the session he said: "Wasn't it a very good discussion on meditation?"
Godwin's approach appealed to people like us who are busy lay-people for he always introduced meditation as a part of life not apart from it. For instance, he used to say " ... at the end of each day it is very good practice to take your mind back and find out how you spent the day. Find out moments when you were conscious, when you were aware, and the moments when you were like a machine. Also, just find out how many times you were angry and also find out times when you were not angry - this is very important. When you do this kind of reviewing, some times you'll be surprised what a good person you have been. This kind of reflection, this kind of reviewing, can bring about a self-transformation in a very natural way because you learn to see more and more inwards rather than outwards".
Godwin used to emphasise the importance of becoming aware of the good moments of the day when the mind was free from agitation and defilements rather than focusing on the negatives, thereby giving them so much importance. This definitely gives one so much confidence to continue on the journey.
About loving kindness meditation he said: "It helps us to forgive ourselves, as I said earlier, to accept our humanness, and when we learn to accept our humanness then we learn to accept the humanness of others. So it helps us to be friendly with ourselves and be friendly to others." Godwin used to bring out loving kindness as an integral part of the practice. He invited meditators to be friendly with their body, thoughts, pains, experiences, and with memories that evoked unpleasant sensations."So in using loving kindness you relate to the anger in an entirely different way. Rather than beating yourself, rather than giving yourself a minus, rather than suffering and feeling guilty, in a very friendly gentle way, as I have been saying so often, you will find out: 'How did I get angry?' So then we can learn from that anger and we can use that anger for spiritual growth." This is how Godwin defined being friendly. How simple. How profound. He also encouraged us very much to be friendly to the breath. Comparing the breath to a friend made it such a different experience.
Once I asked Godwin how to deepen my meditation. His simple answer was to just keep observing my mind. He always wanted us to look at meditation as a practice, that is, to experience the journey, rather than think about the destination. In his efforts to make meditation a part of life he used to say: "Whether you are at home, whether you are travelling in a car, whether you are in a place of work, just to know, just to be aware of what is going through your mind and body from moment to moment as far as possible. It is the only way to integrate meditation with our daily life."
The Nilambe time-table is very much a reflection of Godwin's wish to practice meditation as an integral part of daily life. In a way the schedule seems so easy to follow, with hardly the regimental approach that some other centres have. But in that freedom itself lies the responsibility for meditators to make their stay at Nilambe worthwhile. The period of working meditation is a significant experience to lay-persons who have to integrate meditation into life itself.
He encouraged meditators to use every experience in life to practice meditation and thereby to learn. Once, when there was loud noise going on outside during one of the meditation sessions, Godwin said: "Let us listen to that sound. Try to listen to it as if for the first time; otherwise we will consider it as a noise, we will consider it as a disturbance and we might get angry. Then we will suffer as a result of that outside noise. So when we learn to make that the object of meditation we find we can learn from any situation, any experience in life."
Godwin once quoted Ven Nyanaponika who described meditation as "knowing the mind, shaping the mind and freeing the mind." Explaining this very powerful introduction he went on to say: "Knowing the mind is understanding how the mind is working. If we do not know our mind we are really just like machines. Therefore it is extremely important to know and understand how our minds work."
In another occasion Godwin said "Meditation is learning to achieve a mind that is free. So the importance of meditation is learning to achieve a mind that is free, a mind that is happy, a mind that is peaceful, a mind that has loving kindness."
That is exactly what we experienced whenever we had the opportunity to interact with him closely: a person who had a mind that was free, happy, peaceful and that had loving kindness.
Let me end with a diary note I once made at Nilambe:
A smile so pure
that comes from the heart.
At the end of the meditation session
I open my eyes
to see you seated
at the edge of your seat
with your arms folded
across your chest.
In the evening after the offerings
I hear you say
"Mindfully have your tea."
You were seated stretched out
with your mug of tea
on the side and
the tea is already cold.
Pausing in between words
with so much humour
The joy of someone who was free
from a big ego,
someone who was poor in spirit.
Goodbye dear friend, dear teacher.
Colombo, Sri Lanka