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Teacher, Friend, Nobody
by Upul Gamage
(Meditation Teacher and successor to Godwin at Nilambe Meditation Center)
I first met Godwin when I used to visit Kandy Library as a schoolboy in the 1970s. He was an assistant librarian at that time and he was so kind, always smiling. Sometimes he organised seminars for us and games at the end of the year to help develop our intelligence and speaking skills. One year I was the winner and got a book as a gift from him. But I learnt from Godwin that the greatest gift I can obtain is not from reading books or by not talking, but comes from reading myself when I am being silent.
After high school I started to practise meditation and staying in monasteries. As a teenager I was so radical because the traditional practice was doing rituals and expecting Nibbana in the time of the next Buddha. I thought: "Why do I have to wait many life times to achieve enlightenment in the future Buddha's time?" Therefore when I heard that there was a spiritual person who had a well-developed mind I used to visit them with big expectations, only to return with big disappointments.
The traditional preachings and books didn't feed my spiritual needs, so I started to read teachings from living masters from other countries as well. I was very impressed by J. K. Krishnamurti because he said "The present moment is more than enough to see reality." I thought he was an enlightened person because of the way he presented his teachings.
There was an Australian monk living in one of Peradeniya University's bungalows and I used to visit him to get spiritual nutrition. One day I asked him about Krishnamurti and whether he was enlightened. He replied that Krishnamurti "knows a lot about the human mind, but sometimes he gets angry and sometimes when people ask questions he replies in an angry way."
Then I asked: "Dear venerable sir, did you ever meet anybody who did not get angry?" He said: "Yes, there is a person who never gets angry." I was so excited and asked: "Where is that person?" "In Sri Lanka," he replied. "Which area?" I asked. "In Kandy," he answered. Then I was so happy and thought: "Now I know what to do, and whom to follow."
"Venerable sir, please tell me, who is this enlightened person?" I asked. Then he opened one of his photo albums and pointed at one of the photographs. I said "How can it be? He is a librarian, an ordinary person." "Yes, but he is always calm and quiet, nobody can make him angry. Upul, if you are searching for a spiritual person, go and meet him."
Now by that time in 1985, following his mother's death, Godwin had given up his job and gone to the Nilambe Meditation Centre to help the meditators there. So when I went there to meet him, he recognised me after 10 years and asked me what I was now doing. I told him that I was trying to meditate and was also teaching monks at the Subodharama monks' training centre near where I lived. I then invited him to visit Subodharama to teach meditation and he came many times. There were monks there from several countries and all of them were so impressed by Godwin and his friendly approach. He came many times to Subodharama and conducted guided meditations and discussions over-night.
I used to go and meet other meditation masters and long term meditators. They were nice, but after the meetings I had a headache. All of them seemed to have as their favourite question: "How long did you meditate? What are your achievements?" I replied by saying: "Nothing, I just meditate." Then they started to speak about the 1st stage, 2nd stage, 3rd stage and the 4th stage, "and when you meditate you can see this colour, this picture ... " But I told them that I saw no colours and because of this I felt a lot of stress. But Godwin did not ask such questions, not even once in the entire time I was with him at Nilambe. He just encouraged me to continue to enjoy the practice, to be in the present moment, and to let go of any attachments to being someone else. I was so relaxed and so comfortable with him.
I also noticed that whatever he taught us, that was the way he lived. His entire life was a teaching; therefore he needed very few words to explain even deep Dhamma. He was very simple as well. Sometimes we used to go to other centres to conduct meditation retreats and sometimes we might have to stay over-night. I was taking my big travelling bag, but Godwin would just go as he was. People would ask: "Godwin, where are your clothes and personal things?" Then he'd put his hand in one of his trouser pockets and take out his rolled up sarong and show it to everyone like a magician. Then they'd ask: "Godwin, is that all?" "No," he said and took his toothbrush from his other pocket and showed it to everyone. He told them that was all he needed. And that was true.
I think there were several reasons for so many people from different countries being attracted by Godwin's way of teaching meditation. One was because he was not teaching a "religion" and was not teaching theories. Therefore most people felt very comfortable with him because it did not matter what framework of ideas they came with. He didn't make arguments against the beliefs of others and didn't make any complications in the meditators' minds. His teachings were so simple, so practical, and so understandable.
Once there was a Dutch meditator at Nilambe who was a scholar. He would put forward very complicated arguments during the evening discussions, but Godwin's simple answer was usually: "Buddhism doesn't speak of such things." Then that meditator began to learn Pali so that he could argue with Godwin using the language of the Buddhist scriptures.
One evening he asked: "Godwin, Buddhism says that our mind is conditioned. But you said that if we meditate we can go beyond all the conditions. How does that happen? How can the conditioned mind become the unconditioned mind?"
He asked that question very loudly and with an argumentative tone, and he may have thought that he was putting a very deep question and that Godwin could not answer it. But Godwin replied in his usual calm and kind manner: "The conditioned means that the mind is suffering but the unconditioned mind means that the mind is not suffering. So if you meditate then your mind is not suffering, that is all." That was the man's last question; after that he did not make any more arguments, stopped learning Pali and concentrated on meditation.
Another reason for people being attracted to Godwin's way of teaching meditation was that he knew how to calm people down when they had arguments and conflicts, especially about spiritual ideas. Once Godwin and two friends were waiting for a bus near the stream that flows through the Peradeniya campus after participating in a seminar at the University. They could here the sound of the nearby stream and one of the two friends said that the sound was very beneficial for meditation. But the other friend said that it was good, but only for concentration meditation, not for vipassana (insight) meditation. Then the first friend started to argue with that saying: "No, you can do vipassana with this sound of the water stream." So this argument went on and on while they were waiting for the bus.
They were unable to come to agreement about the matter so finally they decided to ask Godwin what he thought. "In the hearing is only the hearing," was his gentle response. Then a deep silence was there because the argument had been much louder than the sound of the water in the stream.
Another reason for Godwin's popularity was his manner of teaching. He didn't give long discourses; instead his talks were short and simple, but very direct and practical, because a few words can be enough to entirely change one's life. Near the Nilambe centre is a place where water comes from the ground which Godwin used to call the "well" and which he liked to visit to bathe. There is a popular and well-known Sri Lankan spiritual teacher who was once staying at Nilambe. This teacher later told me that one day he decided to join Godwin on his visit to the well to wash his face. When they got to the well the teacher was very disappointed because it was just a small place where water came out of ground into a little depression. He told me that he said to Godwin: "Dear Mr Godwin, we can make a beautiful pond here," and went on to describe his plan: "We can build a concrete wall here ... " etc.
Godwin then gently said to him: "Sir, you don't need any projects to wash. You came here to wash your face, which you can do without having to make any projects." The spiritual teacher told me that it was the best teaching that he had ever had.
Godwin also had unlimited kindness and most of the time he knew what people's problems were before they described them. So often he was able to give a solution before any help was asked for. Once we had one of our regular meditators staying at Nilambe and when Godwin came back from Kandy he put something in the man's top pocket. The man looked at it and saw that it was quite a lot of money. Now he had financial problems and had been unable to get any help from anybody. Then he had come to Nilambe to try to reduce his worries, but he hadn't spoken to Godwin about his financial problems. The money Godwin had given him was exactly the right amount that he needed. He didn't know how Godwin knew about his situation as he hadn't told him about it.
Another quality of Godwin's was that he wasn't pompous and had the ability to laugh at himself. Once we had a young cook working at the centre who was very aware of his own poverty. He thought that all the foreigners who came to Nilambe were enjoying life because he thought they were rich. He was therefore looking for work abroad, but as he had little education he could not fulfil his dream. At that time we needed to replace our coir carpets in the meditation hall and one German meditator offered to pay for new ones. The estimated cost of that was 1,000 Rupees and that surprised the meditator as he said in Germany the cost would be the equivalent of 100,000 Rupees.
I told this to the young cook hoping to reduce his depression by letting him know how expensive life was in the West. But to my surprise he became more depressed. He said that Godwin was crazy. I asked him why he was saying that just because of the cost of the coir carpets. He said that Godwin was crazy because he could be selling coir carpets in Germany instead of teaching meditation.
I told Godwin what the young man had said and he laughed and laughed and laughed. He told this story many times to other people by telling them: "My friend asked me to stop teaching meditation and to start selling carpets!" So this is another reason that many people were attracted to Godwin: self-humour. He encouraged us to laugh at ourselves. It's not easy, but Godwin did it often and without any effort.
Godwin also applied meditation and the Dhamma to his own experiences in daily life. He used to visit Bodh Gaya in India every year from August to September to teach Theravada Buddhist meditation to American university students. Once he told us in a discussion about the first time he went there. He had flown to New Delhi and from there he was picked up by the program director to be taken to the train station where he would go by first class overnight express to Bodh Gaya. When he took him to the train the director said: "Dear Godwin, this train will arrive at Gaya station at 4 a.m. but it will stop there for only 2 minutes. Will you be awake at 4 a.m. to get down, or do you need an alarm clock?" Godwin said he didn't need a clock because he woke up before 4 a.m. every day.
After a few hours he became aware that another passenger was talking to him: "Dear friend, you told me that you want to get down at Gaya station." "Yes," said Godwin. "Well, now we are past the station." Godwin called the conductor, but was told that the train could not stop now and that he would have to wait until the train stopped at the next station in a few more hours. Eventually he was able to get off the train at the next stop, but had to take an ordinary train back to Gaya. This train was not first class, it had no air conditioning, no sleeping berths and people were everywhere: below him, above him, sweating, hot, smelly and crushed together. He was in trouble.
Godwin asked the people at our discussion how they thought he dealt with this and we gave many suggestions, such as loving-kindness, none-self, awareness of the breathing, etc. Godwin told us that when he looked around at the other passengers he realised that nobody was suffering like he was. Everybody was enjoying the train journey except him, so he contemplated about that. Then he realised that psychologically he was still travelling by first class express and therefore he was expecting a comfortable journey. But the other passengers didn't have that expectation so they were quite content.So he let go of his first class expectations and joined the third class group. Then he could enjoy the journey, no sweat. I asked him what happened the next time he went to Bodh Gaya and he told us that after that he remembered to take an alarm clock by letting go of his self-image as a first class meditator.
Knowing Godwin and staying there at the Nilambe Centre with him brought me many spiritual benefits. At first I had the idea that practising meditation for the spiritual benefits it brought meant that I had to sit meditating for as long as possible. Therefore I tried to sit many times per day and I tried to lengthen the time that I sat in meditation. Then I began to realise that there were some conflicts between when I was sitting and when I was not sitting. Godwin's central teaching was that there should not be any kind of duality of that sort. He said that meditation is a life-time programme. When I learnt and practised meditation in that way I began to experience peacefulness and equanimity wherever I was and with whatever I was doing.
Originally I always expected positive qualities like peacefulness, calmness, tranquillity, and so on, out of meditation. Whenever I did not experience these then I created conflicts in my mind with such thought as "I am not a good meditator," or "Other people are disturbing my meditation," and so on. Godwin advised me to let go of my attachments to gaining spiritual benefits. So now I am relaxed in most situations, it doesn't matter where I am.
Godwin always emphasised that we should try to see the Dhamma through our life experiences, not from books. Whenever we would ask questions or give answers to questions, he asked us to give practical examples. Therefore we could not play word games with him; we had to practice and experience for ourselves.
Whenever I knew that Godwin was giving a talk I used to go there if possible to listen to his wisdom, but whenever he noticed that I was there he would invite me to speak. So he trained me as a person available for the Dhamma 24 hours per day, for everybody and everywhere. So I am fortunate to have had such a beautiful meditation master, and he may have been fortunate in having such a pupil as me.
Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre,
Kandy District, Sri Lanka