Seeing Our True Nature. Conversations with Pemasiri Thera

Evgeniya Kolesnikova

I came across the Buddha’s teachings after trying to work with various Western and oriental philosophies, psychologies, and even esotericism. I was amazed by the beauty and perfection of the Dhamma, with its scope for exploration and absence of dogma – and a heart-warming promise of unconditional liberation. Gautama Buddha revealed the truth about vanity, emptiness and the pointlessness of everything mundane. It was like sweet nectar pouring into my heart. I had found answers to eternal questions about the suffering that riddles the deluded mind, lost as it is in endless illusions of its own creation.

For a few years, I studied the Dhamma on my own and attended various lectures on Buddhism in Moscow. Ultimately, I found I wanted to immerse myself in meditation and find a teacher who could help me do that, because it appeared that following the Buddha’s path could be a straightforward and joyous process under the guidance of a knowledgeable mentor. All one need do was diligently follow his advice.

The decision to write a book came about a year and a half after my first meeting with the Sri Lankan teacher Pemasiri Thera. He is the abbot of ”Kanduboda Sumathipala Na Himi Senasun Arana”, a meditation centre near the city of Colombo. Bhante Pemasiri has trained thousands of yogis from all over the world and is a legend in his own country, where he is held to be a successor of the renowned Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw.

Bhante Pemasiri balks at any fuss around his own reputation. He almost never does media interviews and will not permit his meditation centre even to have a website, brushing aside any concerns that a low public profile could make it look more like an exclusive club than the open, international centre for Buddhist practice that it is.

However, I thought it would be utterly unfair not to share with others what I learned from this teacher. Although there are many personal stories in this book, it has not been my intent to write Bhante’s biography. The stories are simply a backdrop for revisiting what the Buddha himself said,
so much of which nowadays has been buried in a succession of distortions, conjectures, mysticism and empty ritual. I have tried to capture, in words, the very core of His instructions for the development of mind, meditation and the attainment of true calm.

Bhante agreed to do a series of interviews with me and I must say that, as a journalist and philologist, they proved to be the hardest I had ever conducted. A good interview is always a bit of a provocation: you start with praise, inquiring gently, and then you come out with the harder questions and look for the reaction. Even subjects experienced in the interview process can still be thrown off and reveal their true feelings through their facial expressions, their eyes, and tone of voice.

Pemasiri Thera was different. He answered questions without hesitation. He was so calm and composed, it was impossible to catch him out or knock him off balance. He bears a sharp and impeccable sense of humour and has a phenomenal memory, recalling what he said and when he said it, many years back. And he will never say too much. Ordinary people can often be very attached to their own persona, constantly making self-references.

Even when they hold something back, it can all be part of an effort to create intrigue and garner attention. Not Pemasiri Thera, who is delighted not by attention and fame, but by solitude. However, if he sees that a person sincerely wants to learn the Dhamma and to clear his mind, he will do everything he can to help him.

Bhante welcomes people regardless of their ethnicity, gender, education or social status; he is adored by politicians, pop stars, businessmen, and ordinary Sri Lankan villagers. One might see him having a cup of tea in the company of a science professor, a police inspector, or a rural grandmother.

He is equally patient and kind with everyone. What are the kinds of things Bhante’s students say about him? ”I have completely transformed”, ”I behave and act totally differently than before meeting Pemasiri Thera”, ”Only now do I understand what it was meant in the suttas”.

Many of those who became loyal students first had come to him with serious personal problems: deeply depressed after divorce or illness; grieving the loss of loved ones or property; with drug addictions; or with suicidal thoughts, having lost all faith and the desire to live. Despite their varied backgrounds, these people were united in their unlimited gratitude to this teacher, who has devoted his life to helping those who come to him. Pemasiri Thera speaks fluent Pali, the language the Buddha spoke.

Therefore, I have used quite a few Pali terms. I hope the elegance of Pali, in combination with the English translation, has succeeded in preserving the true meaning of Bhante’s instructions, which should help the readers of this text understand the essence of his lectures and will give answers to many questions worrying them.

I express sincere gratitude to everyone who helped me in writing this book – Anil Barnas, Artashes Ghazaryan, George and Natasha Lyapkin, Konstantin Komochkin, mechi Nadezhda, David Young, Tatyana Shkolna.

Be happy.