Journey to Mindfulness

1. Small Treasure

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Small Treasure

img I WAS BORN on the seventh of December 1927, in Henepola, Ceylon. Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, is a teardrop-shaped island off the southeast coast of India. It is a beautiful place of lushly forested mountains, rice paddies, and farms of rubber plants and tea trees.

In the late 1920s, the tiny village of Henepola was home to about forty families. The village was not accessible by road, and it had no school, police station, post office, shops, or restaurants. It consisted entirely of a cluster of huts and the nearby Buddhist temple, our only public gathering place. No one in Henepola had electricity or running water, but there was a small river that ran through our village. The nearest large town was a three-mile walk on a narrow dirt path that wound through groves of coconut trees and tea estates, and the nearest other village was a half mile away.

People from my country have only to hear my ordained name, Henepola Gunaratana, to know where I was born. The Sinhalese custom is for a monk to receive a new name at ordination: The surname has spiritual meaning, and the first name is that of his birthplace.

When I was a boy, Ceylon was a British colony valued for its spices, tea, rubber, and precious gems, as well as for its strategic location on the silk trading route between Europe and China. Most of the country’s 1.5 million people were farmers, and my family was no exception. We grew rice, coconuts, coffee, and other crops on small plots of land, sometimes our own, sometimes rented from British estates.

Nearly everyone in our village was poor14, desperately poor. But our Theravada Buddhist belief system gave us unshakable confidence in life. According to kamma, the law of cause and effect, current circumstances are the result of past actions. More importantly, future circumstances will be the result of our current actions. Therefore, we believed it was best to try hard and carry on, regardless of the difficulties in our lives.

Buddhism, in fact, permeates my earliest memories. Our entire village’s anchor was the temple. People went there to visit the monks and ask them to chant suttas, or Buddhist discourses, for nearly every event: weddings, birthdays, serious illnesses, and deaths. The monks served as teachers, preachers, and advisors, sometimes even as physicians. People also enjoyed simply chatting with the monks at any hour of day or night. The temple was always open.

Four times a month — on the full moon, the new moon, and each quarter moon — people typically spent a twenty-four-hour period at the temple. It was rather freeform. Some people sat down to meditate; others did walking meditation or stood near the sacred Bodhi tree, reciting scriptures. Monks and laypeople took turns delivering sermons in the preaching hall, where people sat or reclined on the cool concrete floor. I remember as a child, I’d doze off in my mother’s lap during those sermons.

My mother’s name was Herat Mudiyanselage Lokumenike. Her first and middle names mean “person of the highest (or golden) class,” and her last name means “large gem.” In Ceylon at that time, women kept their maiden names when they married. My father’s name was Ekanayaka Mudiyanselage Puncibanda. Translated roughly, his first and middle names mean “a person of high class,” and his last name means “treasure.” It was simply coincidence that my mother’s middle name, which she inherited from her father, was the same middle name as her husband’s.

I was the second youngest of seven children. My mother was thirty-seven when she gave birth to me, and I had two older brothers and three older sisters. One of those sisters was so much older that she15 had married and left home before I was even born. Two girls were born after me, but one died as an infant. My birth was attended by a midwife, who received a measure of rice and a coconut for her trouble. I came into this world at home in a dimly lit hut with no windows. While my mother was in labor, she alternately squatted and lay on a mat made of palm fronds spread over the floor. As was the custom, the midwife tied a rope to the roof beam; it hung down over my mother’s mat so that she could pull on it as a distraction when the pain became unbearable. She delivered all eight of her children that way.

Two weeks after my birth, when it looked likely I was hearty enough to survive, my father went to visit the chief of a nearby village. All births and deaths had to be officially registered with a local chief, but Henepola was too small to have its own chief, so my father walked a half mile to the nearest village, Dehideniya. There, he told the chief the name he had given his third son: Ekanayaka Mudiyanselage Ukkubanda.

Ukku means small and banda means treasure. It’s a fond name adults use to refer tenderly to a baby. Often the name, even though it’s used for an infant, would remain into adulthood.

As I got older, though, my parents decided to call me Kudabanda, which means something like “small boy.” That made sense, I suppose, because I was the last boy in the family. But I never asked them why they called me that instead of my legal name.

My father built our house himself. It was maybe thirty by forty feet. The roof was made of straw, dried fronds from coconut trees, and scraps of tin. The walls were made of mud, reinforced with strips of bamboo. Along the front and back of the house were open verandas, with walls that were made of mud on the lower half and a wooden lattice on the upper half.

Compared to many huts in the village, ours was spacious. It had two rooms. One was a small, dark kitchen; the other was a storage room for my father’s papers, books, and tools. The furniture was sparse, and all of it handmade, consisting of a couple of small, crude16 benches and a chair woven of beech strips. I remember my father sitting upright in that chair after meals, smoking a cigar or chewing betel nut while he told us stories or gave us lectures. My mother sat on a bench, never in Father’s chair. We children sat on the floor.

The floor was made of mud, like the walls, but every so often my mother and sisters smeared fresh cow dung over it, using their bare hands. Manure was considered a germicide, its odor the smell of freshness. We walked on that floor every day, barefoot.

There were only two beds, each a crude wooden platform topped by a cloth sack stuffed with dried coconut husks. Those “mattresses” were only a little softer than a pile of rocks. My oldest brother, Tikiribanda, slept in one bed, which was on the veranda at the front of our hut. My other brother and I slept near him, on the bare floor. The other bed, on the back veranda, was my father’s. Never once did I see my mother lying in that bed with him; she slept with my sisters on the floor. I never saw my parents kiss or hug or even have a private conversation.

Our parents did, however, share a deep devotion to Buddhism. Every morning we children woke up to the singsong chant of them reading Pali suttas. These daily recitations served as our lullaby at night, too. Before we even learned the alphabet, we could recite Pali devotional stanzas from memory, and we knew what the words kamma and rebirth meant.

Day after day my parents went about their routines without grumbling. Every morning my father went off to work in the rice paddy, or on our small rubber estate. My mother stayed home and took care of the house and us children. When my father came home, she would have a meal ready for him.

Both of my parents knew how to read and write in Sinhalese, which was a rarity in our village and in most of rural Ceylon. Because my father was literate, and was known as a man of dignity and strict moral principles, he was the most highly respected man in Henepola. The other villagers often came to him to settle their disputes. With his own family, though, my father could be a terror. Sometimes he would suddenly start fighting with my mother. I never understood why. And he17 showed his temper in a violent way. Punishment for us children was swift and painful, and sometimes he even beat my mother. When that happened, all of us hid. We were afraid that if we made a sound, his rage would turn on us.

My mother had no formal education, but she was very intelligent. She taught herself how to read and write, and she knew a lot about herbal medicine. Her intuition was powerful.

I was very close to my oldest sister, Dingiriamma. When I was almost two, she gave birth to her second child, a girl who died a couple of weeks later. Although I had already started to eat solid food, I still loved to drink milk, but our family had no cow and my mother’s milk flow had long since stopped. So, for almost a year after her baby died, Dingiriamma took me to her breast and fed me as if I were her own child. She and her husband lived in a village called Gunadaha, three miles away, and a couple of times a week, she would walk to our house and nurse me. To this day, I still consider her my second mother. We were perhaps closer to each other than to all of the other five siblings.

My mother and sisters had the job of gathering firewood for cooking fuel. In an area forested mostly with palm trees and cocoa plants, wood was scarce. Often, they had to rip dead branches off rubber trees.

Since we had no electricity, we relied on the dim light of coconut oil lamps. Sometimes, when we didn’t have enough oil for the lamps, my mother made a torch out of nuts from the kekune tree. She would remove the hard shell from ten or fifteen nuts, and then impale them on a stick. The natural oil in the nuts would burn for hours.

Although our village didn’t have running water, our family was lucky because about two hundred yards from the house, we had a private well. This well was fed by a spring that ran year-round, and although it was only about five feet deep, it was a generous six feet by four feet wide. We used the water for bathing, drinking, and washing clothes.

My mother and sisters hauled the spring water to the house in large earthen pots, which had round bellies and small mouths. I remember how water stayed so cool in those pots.

For bathing, we used primitive18 buckets made of fibrous sheaths shed by areca palm trees. Those sheaths were sometimes five feet long and three feet wide. We could fold one into a bucket shape and carry two or three gallons of water in it.

No matter how clean we kept our bodies, our clothes, and our mattresses, we all suffered the agony of bed bugs. I vividly remember scratching the swollen, red places on my body where bed bugs had bitten me. Although the itching was terrible, I never thought to wish for anything else; it was just a part of life. We had mosquitoes and flies, too, but those you could combat by burning coconut husks. Bed bugs, on the other hand, were nearly impossible to get rid of. They were barely visible, and hid in the coconut husk mattresses. Even though we often washed those mattresses and dried them in the sun, the bed bugs always came back. Some people would move their mattresses away from the wall or place little tin cans of oil under each leg of their bed, but the bed bugs were determined. If they couldn’t climb up the legs of the bed, they crawled up the wall and dropped down from the ceiling like tiny kamikaze pilots.

Leeches were another problem. Whenever my brother and I went exploring, we’d come home with leeches clinging to our legs or burrowed between our toes. We would pull them off, but often their minute teeth stayed imbedded in our skin. A couple of days later, there would be open wounds where the leeches had bitten us. Sometimes blueflies laid their eggs there. Those eggs would hatch into maggots, which of course made the wounds worse.

Maybe because I was malnourished, my body didn’t have enough strength to fight the bacteria in those wounds. They would heal slowly, and badly. I still have scars on my legs.

My father had inherited several acres of land: a one-acre rubber estate, a half-acre tea plantation, a one-acre rice field, and the cleared acre on which he built our house. In addition to farming rice, tea, and rubber, my father also enjoyed gardening. In the clearing around our house, he planted bougainvillea and hibiscus. Next to the house, he19 planted a mixed hedge of jasmine and roses, which he neatly trimmed with a large knife. He also grew numerous cash crops: sweet potatoes, tapioca, beans, eggplant, okra, bitter gourds, cabbage, and coffee. However, even with that much food growing nearby, there was still never enough to feed us all.

In addition to our property, we had two water buffalo, which my father used to pull a plow across the rice paddy. Luckily, we did not have to feed the buffalo produce from our fields and gardens; they ate grass or the thorny, discarded shells of jackfruit.

My father traded his crops for dried fish, spices, sugar, salt, kerosene oil, and other supplies we couldn’t grow or make ourselves. To do his trading, he walked three miles to a town called Galagedara, where there were some shops run by Muslims and Hindu Tamils. Often he couldn’t find what he wanted; everything seemed to be in short supply.

To help support his seven hungry children, my father also did carpentry work for our neighbors. Unfortunately, people could rarely afford to pay him. Maybe it was the constant financial worries that made him so cross. He was a severe disciplinarian. He kept a stick hidden on the roof of the house and used it quickly and forcefully to punish us for any slight wrongdoing. His shout was so frightening that we would tremble when we heard it. My brother Rambanda and I knew that sound, and the stick, well. We were quite mischievous.

One of our earliest pranks was throwing stones at cows and birds. One day we saw a dog with puppies. My brother picked up a handful of stones and told me to climb a nearby tree. His plan was to harass the dog while we were safely ensconced in the tree. I told Rambanda the tree was too high to climb, that I was too small.

“Please don’t,” I begged. “She’ll bite me.”

But he was intent. He swung himself up into the tree, then started pelting the dog with stones. I ran as fast as I could, but the dog was faster. I fell down and she bit me.

When my brother and I got home, we had to explain why I was bleeding. My father beat both of us for being cruel to the dog.

Rambanda and I always seemed to be hungry20. Edible fruits or nuts we found while playing were great treats. If they were growing on someone’s property, we’d ask the property owner’s permission. If they said no, we took the fruits anyway. One day my brother and I were on our way to our family’s rubber estate. Halfway there, we passed a small field belonging to a poorer family. There were about fifty corn plants growing in that field. One plant near the road had a ripe ear of corn hanging on it. My brother looked around and saw no one, so he picked the ear and broke it in half. One piece for him, one for me: delicious!

On our way home, we passed the cornfield again. This time, for some reason, we decided to be honest. My brother went to the owner’s house and asked her for an ear of corn. The woman said there was one just next to the road, and we were welcome to it. She came out into the field to show us where it was, but when we reached the corn stalks by the road, the woman saw that the ear she intended to give us was gone. Then she noticed a small footprint in the mud. She asked my brother to place his foot in the footprint. He did, and it was a perfect fit.

We were obviously guilty, but the woman didn’t appear angry. She said, “You boys go home. I’ll bring you some more corn.”

We started off happily toward home.

When we reached our house, however, the woman was already there. She had told our father the whole story and he was waiting for us, stick in hand, angrier than I had ever seen him.

This was a doubly bad deed...

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