ISLAND HERMITAGE. The Island Hermitage is a Theravaada Buddhist monastery in the "Forest Dwelling" (araññavâsî) tradition. It was founded in 1911 by the venerable Nyanatiloka Mahaathera as a secluded place to live the life of a monk, study and meditate in the Buddhist tradition. Currently, in 1992, Venerable Anuragoda Piyaratana Mahaathera is the chief monk in residence, while the incumbent Venerable Vajirârâma Siridhamma Maháthera lives in Kandy.
The Island Hermitage is located in Ratgama Lake, a salt-water lagoon about two kilometers from the coast near Dodanduwa, Sri Lanka. It is 105 kilometers south of Sir Lanka's principal city, Colombo, and about 12 kilometers north of the provincial capital, Galle.
The hermitage actually consists of two islands: Polgasduwa and Metiduwa (or Meddeduwa). They are low, wooded islands with a shady park like atmosphere, no more than a few hundred meters across in any direction and now connected by a short causeway of earth, mangroves and bricks. Polgasduwa (Coconut Island) was the original site. As the hermitage grew, Metiduwa (Clay Island) or Meddeduwa (Middle Island) also became part of the hermitage.
The Island Hermitage was the first centre of Theravaada Buddhist study and practice set up by and for Westerners. Its many prominent residents, monks and laymen, have progressed from Buddhist studies and Pali translations to actual meditation practice, from merely hearing and knowing about Buddhism to actually living and experiencing the Dhamma. Thus the Island Hermitage forms an essential link with Theravaada Buddhism in the West.
The history of the Island Hermitage starts with the saintly and scholarly Venerable Nyanatiloka Mahaathera. Born on February 19, 1878 in Wiesbaden, Germany, Anton Walter Florus Gueth traveled to India with the hope of learning more about Buddhism. From India he proceeded to Sri Lanka and then Burma. He was greatly influenced by Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya, the first Britisch Buddhist monk who kindled in him a desire for ordination. After ordination as a novice in 1903, he received full ordination (upasampadaa) in 1904 from Venerable U Kumara Mahaathera. Thus, he became the first Buddhist monk of German origin.
Ven. Nyanatiloka returned to Sri Lanka in 1905 where he continued his studies and practice of meditation in a small island off the southern coast near Matara. There he also received his first students. Over the next few years, he visited Burma, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and North Africa spreading the Dhamma. He also lived in Lausanne, Switzerland in a small house, built by a Swiss engineer, Monsieur Bergier. In this first Buddhist Monastery in Switzerland, he conferred the pabbajja ordination as a novice on European soil to a German named Bartel Bauer who assumed the name Venerable Kondanno.
Ven. Kondanno then went to Sri Lanka and, while traveling by train, noticed a little island in a lagoon near the village of Dodanduwa. He then informed Ven. Nyanatiloka, who had also returned to Sri Lanka, about the island. When Ven. Nyanatiloka saw the uninhabited island it appealed to him at once. On this island of Polgasduwa was established the Island Hermitage on July 9, 1911, when five simple wooden huts (kuti) built by lay supporters were formally occupied.
Among the early Western residents were the Venerables Vappo (who died in 1960 after spending much of his monk's life at the Island Hermitage), Mahanama, Assaji and Bhaddiya. The founder daayaka or lay supporter was William Mendis Wijesekera. He and other lay supporters from around Dodanduwa conveyed alms food and other requisites to the hermitage by boat every morning. As the hermitage gained a reputation as the abode of pious Western monks, hundreds of devotees were attracted on full moon (poya) days. Even Western visitors started arriving, including Alexandra David-Neel, the French Tibetan Buddhist, and Paul Dahlke, the German Buddhist writer, in 1912. In 1913 a daanasaala (refectory) was constructed.
It was not until 1914, however, that the Island Hermitage at Polgasduwa actually came into the legal possession of the Sangha, having been bought and donated with money from Ven. Nyanatiloka's Swiss supporter, Monsieur Bergier. Since that time, though interrupted by two world wars, Western as well as Sinhalese monks and laymen have lived, studied, practiced, and spread the Dhamma from the Island Hermitage.
Ven. Nyanatiloka served as the first abbot of the Island Hermitage from its inception in 1911 until his death on May 28, 1957. During his tenure, the Island Hermitage grew into the most significant and vibrant centre for the study, practice and spread of Theravaada Buddhism for the Western world. Many famous and lesser known monks were ordained or spent their time at the Island Hermitage. Hundreds of laymen stayed at the hermitage, and thousands of lay men and women visited and supported the hermitage. Thousands more read the
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writings of or heard the Dhamma from the Island Hermitage's residents. Therefore, it is possible here to give only a sketch of the significant persons and events after the Island Hermitage was founded.
In 1914, two young Tibetans, brothers of the scholar Kaji Sandup, arrived at the Island Hermitage and took Theravaada ordination. The younger brother stayed on in Sri Lanka and, under the name of Mahinda, became a famous poet in the Sinhalese language, with his poems still included in Sinhalese school books.
Likewise in 1914, a young Sinhalese, Rajasinghe, was ordained a novice at the age of 14 with the name of Nyanaloka. He grew up to become a monk of true nobility of character and appearance. Ever helpful, he was deeply devoted
to his revered teacher, nursing him in times of illness, attending to all administrative tasks of the hermitage and guiding the first steps into monk hood of young Western entrants who called him their "Sangha Mother". After Ven. Nyanatiloka's death in 1957, he succeeded him as the abbot of the Island Hermitage until his death in 1976.
On the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the German monks were first permitted to stay at the Island Hermitage under surveillance. However, after four months, they were taken into civil internment in Sri Lanka and then sent to Australia. When Ven. Nyanatiloka was finally able to return to Sri Lanka in 1926, he found his beloved Island Hermitage in utter ruin and had to rebuild it all anew.
Soon new huts were being built for the newcomers who started to arrive again from all over the world. A few of the better known residents during this period between the wars can be mentioned here.
In 1928, E.L.Hoffmann, who became Lama Anagarika Govinda, came and lived for some time at the Island Hermitage, studying Pali. A very dedicated German monk, Nyanadhara, was ordained and lived at the Hermitage until he died on a trip to Burma in 1935.
Another earnestly striving monk was Nyanasisi, who received ordination in 1937 together with the German Jew Siegmund Feniger, who is still living as the Venerable Nyanaponika Mahaathera. The Venerable Nyanasisi passed away in 1950. The Ven. Nyanaponika became the closest disciple of Ven. Nyanatiloka, the editor of his works, and his literary heir.
The Venerable Nyanasatta Mahaathera of Czechoslovakia was orained in 1939. Shortly after his ordination, he went to Bandarawela where he established the Verdant Hermitage. He had several publications in Esperanto as well as English to his credit. He returned to the Island Hermitage in 1981 for the last few years of his life and passed away there in 1984.
Probably the most important Sri Lankan monk to come to live at the Island Hermitage during this time was the Venerable Soma Mahaathera who returned to Sri Lanka in 1937 after his ordination in Burma in 1936. He was born Victor Pulle of Roman Catholic parents on December 23, 1898 and died on February 23, 1960.
Although primarily known for his scholarly works, in his later years the Ven. Soma's thoughts turned more to poetry.
As soon as the restoration of the Island Hermitage was completed and it was making rapid progress the Second World War broke out in 1939. The Ven. Nyanatiloka and his German disciples were again interned in camps first in Sri Lanka and then in India. They were allowed to return in 1946.
This time, on Ven. Nyanatiloka's return, he found the Island Hermitage in a well preserved and even improved condition, thanks to his devoted Sinhalese disciple, the Venerable Nyanaloka Mahaathera, who had looked after the place well, despite the great difficulties he had to contend with during the long war years.
The hermitage was officially enlarged after World War II to include the adjacent small island of Metiduwa (Meddeduwa) which had been used for some time, but was now acquired and donated by Lady Evadne de Silva, a long time supporter of Ven. Nyanatiloka.
In these post-war years, the Island Hermitage also started the Island Hermitage Publications with the purpose of making known works principally by Ven. Nyanatiloka and his pupils on the authentic teachings of the Buddha. They published Ven. Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary and Ven. Nyanaponika's Abhidhamma Studies in 1949.
Also in 1949, two Englishmen arrived at the Island Hermitage and received ordination as Bhikkhus in 1950. Osbert Moore who became Venerable Ñanamoli and Harold Musson who became Venerable Ñanavira met as English army officers during World War II, at which time their interest in Buddhism began. They shared a flat in London after the war and then came to Sri Lanka together to become monks. Each was a genuine monk embodying the virtues extolled by the Buddha. The Ven. Ñanamoli became a great scholar and translator of some of the most difficult Pali texts of Theravaada Buddhism and died suddenly two weeks after Ven. Soma, who had given him unfailing assistance in Pali. Ven. Ñanavira left the Island Hermitage in 1957 to live in solitude in a small hut in Bundala, where he died in 1965.
In 1951, Ven. Nyanatiloka and Ven. Nyanaponika were invited from the Island Hermitage to Burma by the Burmese Government to discuss preparations for the Sixth Buddhist Synod. They both returned to Burma to
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participate in the opening ceremony in 1954 as the first and only Western Bhikkhu members of a Buddhist Synod. However, Ven. Nyanaponika hat to go alone for the closing ceremony, due to Ven. Nyanatiloka's increasing ill health.
From late 1951 until he peacefully passed away in Colombo 1957, Ven. Nyanatiloka spent most of his time at the Forest Hermitage in Kandy. After an official state funeral at Independence Square in Colombo, his ashes were brought back to the Island Hermitage and interred near his kuti with a monument on which is engraved the famous stanza of Assaji which had brought Venerable Saariputta to the Dhamma:
"Of things that proceed from a cause,
Their cause the Tathaagata proclaimed;
And also their cessation.
Thus taught the Great Sage."
The Ven. Nyanaponika also moved to the Forest Hermitage in Kandy in 1952 and still lives there. Among his various services to the cause of Dhamma, the most outstanding has been the establishment of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy which is now one of the major institutions in the world disseminating the message of the Buddha to 85 countries through its publications, entitled the "Wheel Publications" and the "Bodhi Leaves", as well as numerous full-size books.
Ven. Nyanaloka took over officially as the second abbot in 1957 and served in this capacity until his own death on February 22, 1976. Although he was not a prolific translator and writer like his predecessor, the Island Hermitage, under his leadership, continued attracting both monks and laymen. A few notable names from the pages of the Visitors' Book are: I.B.Horner, former president of the Pali Text Society; Aung San, first president of Burma; Paul Debes, German meditation teacher; and R.D.Laing, British psychiatrist. As can also be seen from the Visitors' Book, Ven. Nyanaloka opened the hermitage to tourists, thus exposing many people from around the world to Theravaada Buddhism and the life of forest monks.
Another resident and visitor was the British Buddhist writer Francis Story or Anagarika Sugatananda. He had met the Venerables Nyanatiloka and Nyanaponika at the Sixth Buddhist Synod. His ashes and memorial stone are just behind Ven. Nyanatiloka's. Two other memorial stones complete the Island Hermitage's small burial ground: one for the Venerables Nyanaloka, Soma, Ñanamoli and Nyanavipula with the inscription "Meetings End in Partings" and the other for a Brahmacari S. Osowski born August 20, 1913 and died December 17, 1963.
Since February 25, 1976, the Venerable Anuragoda Piyaratana Mahathera has served as the third abbot or chief monk in residence at the Island Hermitage. Under him, the Island Hermitage, like other monasteries in the Forest Monk tradition, has been helping to preserve a little of the earth's remaining tropical rain forests in the face of the mounting pressures of the modern world.
The Island Hermitage still safeguards the original environment and ecology of the area, except for the snakes, which have disappeared since the arrival of a family of mongooses in 1986. In fact, the trees are now much older and bigger, providing an umbrella for the life teeming in the shade beneath their branches. It would be necessary to be an expert in plants, animals and insects to be able to name all the types of life at the hermitage, but anyone quickly notices the coconut, mangrove, bamboo, jak fruit, papaya, jasmine, hibiscus and other native trees, bushes, ferns, vines, flowers and weeds, along with the multitude of birds, bats, iguanas and monitors, mongooses, centipeds, snails, mosquitoes, ants, and all the other small and large life forms of the tropical rain forest.
As part of maintaining the natural beauty and ecology of the Island Hermitage and the Forest Monk tradition, tourists are no longer allowed to simply drop in at the hermitage. Now, visitors need to write in advance to receive personal invitations which permit them to arrive by Island Hermitage boats for a day visit or a longer stay.
Also due to Ven. Piyaratana's and the Island Hermitage's efforts, Ratgama Lake and its islands were declared a natural reserve where fishing is no longer allowed since a visit in 1986 by the then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa. The few boats that now paddle slowly and quietly on the lake only ferry people and supplies to and from the islands.
At present, the only intrusion from the outside world are occasional loudspeakers blaring from nearby villages along the lake's shore. Otherwise, the Island Hermitage is still a true natural refuge where men live in harmony with nature and life is very similar to what it was when the hermitage was founded in 1911.
Although there have not been any great scholar monks in residence in recent years, the Island Hermitage does still have one further great asset for those inclined to study: a well stocked library with a fairly full collection of Pali texts in Roman Script and English translations of the Buddhist scriptures.
At present, there are only a few Western monks at the Island Hermitage --- perhaps only one or two at any given time --- who take care of themselves in their quest to learn and practice the Dhamma. There are also usually two or three Sinhalese monks, three to five foreign and Sinhalese novices and one or two laymen in residence. Two or three caretakers cum boatmen also live at the hermitage.
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Nine kutis or huts, including one under construction, a siimaa, an unused vihaara, and a meditation hall are spread over Polgasduwa. There is also the small burial ground with four memorial stones near Ven. Nyanatiloka's kuti on Polgasduwa. Five kutis, a boat house and a former colonial mansion now serving as the vihaara, daanasaalaa (refectory), kitchen and library are situated on Metiduwa. The kutis are simple but adequate, well screened to protect against mosquitoes, and fairly well spaced for privacy. Some have attached toilets and walkwaays, but most have no electricity. There are several wells and toilets also scattered on the paths around the islands.
The daily routine includes voluntary group sitting in the meditation hall from 5.30 to 5.30 AM and from 8.30 to 9.30 PM. Breakfast is at 6.00 AM and the main meal at 11.00AM. Food is still brought by lay supporters from around the lake each morning. If lay supporters are present at the main meal, the Ven. Piyaratana administers the Three Refuges and Five Precepts followed by a Dhamma talk. There is gilanpasa, usually a cup of tea served around 6.30 p.m. Otherwise, time is spent studying and practicing the Dhamma in the quiet and seclusion of the Forest Monk tradition.
Recently, Ratgama Lake's third island, Parappuduwa (Pebble Island), which had been leased to Ven. Nyanaloka during World War II but used only as a no-man's-land and cremation ground for Island Hermitage monks, became "Nun's Island" for women following the ten precepts and to study and practice the Dhamma. Although the Nun's Island has no official connection with the Island Hermitage, the Committee of the Parappuduwa Nun's Island and Meditation Centre gained its inspiration from the Island Hermitage and, after constructing buildings, opened the Nun's Island on September 9, 1984. Thus, the Island Hermitage continues to influence and inspire others to study and live the Buddha's teachings in close harmony with nature as envisioned by its founders in 1911.*
*This article was compiled by Island Hermitage residents from materials in the Island Hermitage library. Assistance rendered by Ven. Ñaanasanta and Mr. Mark Bullock to obtain this article is much appreciated. E-in-C.
PUBLISHED BY THE GOVERNMENT OF SRI LANKA.
PRINTED AT THE STATE PRINTING CORPORATION, SRI LANKA.