A tribute to Godwin Samararatne

by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Lanka Daily news, Mac 23, 2010

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- March 22nd 2010 marks 10 years since the passing away of Godwin Samararatne. Godwin was the first meditation teacher at the world-renowned Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre near Kandy and was one of Sri Lanka’s most highly regarded lay meditation and Dhamma teachers in recent decades.

The eminent American monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi, has written the following words in appreciation of Godwin.

“As a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, Sri Lanka has secured its place in the international Buddhist arena primarily through its distinguished monastic order, which has included some of the most erudite and eloquent monks of the modern world.

However, in addition to its monks, Sri Lanka can also boast of a corps of outstanding lay Buddhist teachers who have achieved international renown as scholars, thinkers, preachers, and spiritual guides.

Among these are Anagarika Dharmapala, who spearheaded the Buddhist revival in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the Buddhist scholars G.P. Malalasekera, O.H. de A. Wijesekera and Lily De Silva; the philosophers K.N. Jayatilleke, David Kalupahana, Y. Karunadasa, and P.D. Premasiri; and the social activist and proponent of peace, A.T. Ariyaratne, founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement.

Belonging to this same current of eminent lay teachers was a quiet, thoughtful, and serene resident of Kandy named Godwin Samararatne, with whom I had the fortune to be closely associated during my twenty-three years living in Sri Lanka.

I first met Godwin within two months of my arrival in Sri Lanka, in late 1972, when I was visiting the great German elder Ven. Nyanaponika at the Forest Hermitage.

At the time, Godwin was working as librarian at the Kandy Municipal Library, but his keen interest in Buddhism, psychology, and human spirituality often drew him to the Forest Hermitage to borrow books and discuss ideas with Ven. Nyanaponika.

For close to twenty years, Godwin had been the resident teacher at the Nilambe Meditation Centre in the lovely Sri Lankan hill country.

He had also taught meditation at the Lewella and Visakha Meditation Centres (two affiliates of Nilambe), in Kandy itself at the University of Peradeniya, at private homes, and at the Buddhist Publication Society. But Godwin did not belong to Sri Lanka alone.

He belonged to the whole world, and he was loved and esteemed by people around the globe. Thousands of people from many lands came to Nilambe to practise under his guidance, and they also invited him to their own countries to conduct meditation courses and retreats.

Thus for over two decades Godwin had become an international Buddhist figure, constantly in demand in countries ranging from Europe to Singapore and Hong Kong. He was also a regular visitor to South Africa, where he conducted his last meditation retreat just months before his death.

What was so impressive about Godwin was not what he did but what he was. I can say that Godwin was above all a truly selfless person, and it was this utter selflessness of the man that accounts for the impact he had on the lives of so many people. I use the word “selflessness” to describe Godwin in two interrelated senses.

First, he was selfless in the sense that he seemed to have almost no inner gravitational force of a self around which his personal life revolved: no pride, no ambition, no personal projects aimed at self-aggrandizement.

He was humble and non-assertive, not in an artificial self-demeaning way, but as if he had no awareness of a self to be effaced. Hence as a meditation teacher he could be utterly transparent, without any trips of his own to lay on his students.

This inward “emptiness” enabled Godwin to be selfless in the second sense: as one who always gave first consideration to the welfare of others.

He empathized with others and shared their concerns as vividly as if they were his own.

In this respect, Godwin embodied the twin Buddhist virtues of loving-kindness and compassion, metta and karuna.

Even without many words, his dignified presence conveyed a quietude and calm that spoke eloquently for the power of inner goodness, for its capacity to reach out to others and heal their anxiety and distress.

It was this deep quietude and almost tangible kindness that drew thousands of people to Godwin and encouraged them to welcome him into their lives. The trust they placed in him was well deposited, for in an age when so many popular “gurus” have gained notoriety for their unscrupulous behaviour, he never exploited the confidence and goodwill of his pupils.

Though Godwin taught the practice of Buddhist meditation, particularly the “way of mindfulness,” he did not try to propagate “Buddhism” as a doctrine or religious faith, much less as part of an exotic cultural package. His inspiration came from the Dhamma as a path of inner transformation whose effectiveness stemmed primarily from its ability to promote self-knowledge and self-purification.

He saw the practice of meditation as a way to help people help themselves, to understand themselves better and change themselves for the better. He emphasized that Buddhist meditation is not a way of withdrawing from everyday life, but of living everyday life mindfully, with awareness and clear comprehension, and he taught people how to apply the Dhamma to the knottiest problems of their personal lives.

By not binding the practice of meditation to the traditional religious framework of Buddhism, Godwin was able to reach out and speak to people of the most diverse backgrounds. For him there were no essential, unbridgeable differences between human beings.

He saw people everywhere as just human beings beset by suffering and searching for happiness, and he offered the Buddha’s practice of mindfulness as an experiential discipline leading to genuine peace of heart. Hence he could teach people from such different backgrounds - Western, Asian, and African; Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim; Sri Lankan Theravadins and Chinese Mahayanists - and all could respond readily to his guidance.

If it was not for a chronic liver condition that he had patiently endured for years, with hardly a word of complaint, Godwin might well have lived on to actively teach the way of mindfulness for at least another decade.

But this was not to be, for in late February of the year 2000, almost immediately upon his return from a teaching engagement in South Africa, his illness deteriorated and a month later claimed his precious life.”

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