The dancers showed off in a final, long performance that stopped our forward motion in the hot sun on a bridge over the Mahaweli River. Mike Fronzcak, Bhante’s best friend, turned to me and said, “Mary, this is THE bridge.”
He was talking about a story from our teacher’s childhood, when Bhante Sujatha threatened to throw himself off a bridge if his parents didn’t let him become a monk. Our teacher tells this story in his famously charming way, making it seem like a child’s tale. As I stood on that bridge, which was far higher than I imagined, it hit me. If someone jumped, they wouldn’t have a chance of surviving. That far away, water slams into a body like concrete.
Heenbanda and Lalitha wanted their child to stay safe, at home. It would be difficult for anyone to allow their young child to move into the rigors of monastic life, which include no eating after noon and hours of chanting and meditation every day.
But Bhante was relentless, asking over and over in every possible way, for years, “Can I please be a monk? Can I? Please?” He promised not to fight with his sister, to help his mother cook dinner, to chant every day, to milk the most stubborn of family dairy cows and even to stop complaining about being hungry, which he did almost as much as he asked to be a monk.
Our stubborn teacher eventually won this battle. Heenbanda told his beautiful wife that he was giving his approval after he realized he had taught his Chudi Putha(precious little son) the power of relentless focus all too well.
As the father, Heenbanda commands respect in his family. Sri Lankan children bow to to their parents on a regular basis, and wives see obedience to their husbands as a privilege. The entire family, including Lalitha, kept quiet about their grief, and accepted their patriarch’s choice.
Bhante Sujatha stayed at the Subhodarama Temple for the traditional first 3 weeks, and then came home for a final family gathering before his ordination ceremony the following day. It was at this gathering that Heenbanda told Bhante that he would not allow him to ordain, unless his son made a lifetime promise.
“You cannot come back here. You will not dishonor your mother or your teachers. You will not disrobe. You cannot live here again. You will follow the guidance of your teachers. Do you understand this?”
Our teacher, who missed his mom so much during his first stay at the temple that he cried himself to sleep every night, did not even hesitate. Lalitha stifled a sob as her little son answered.
“Daddy, I really want to be a monk. I want to be ordained.”
When Bhante was 12, he asked his father for a small desk, and a chair. He had to study frequently in the evenings at the temple, required to learn Sanskrit, Pali, Sinhala, and English, and he didn’t like sitting on the floor to read and write. Heenbanda asked his brother to craft the desk, and they brought it together to the temple. Bhante Sujatha, affectionately nicknamed the little monk, was beside himself with excitement when he saw the desk. Bhante Dhamawassa smiled as he told Heenbanda and his brother that the little monk would not be allowed to accept their gift.
“My student cannot accept this desk. He has not received my approval. I will not allow it. It will interfere with his training.” Heenbanda did not argue. He smiled back at Bhante Dhamawassa, and admonished his son. The desk was a major carpentry project for the little monk’s uncle, who graciously accepted the return without protest. Heenbanda was not a frequent meditator. He taught the dhamma to his son through a lifetime of strict respect for Buddhist teachings and traditions.
Bhante’s monastic teachers are often credited for his success and rightly so. But in this last walk in his current role, they did not walk beside him, offering the shade of a bright yellow umbrella.
That honor was granted to his father.
Amidst all the pomp and circumstance, it is important to note that Bhante Sujatha opened the next chapter of his life with his dad by his side. Heenbanda provided the shade of a father’s unconditional support and love as he carried that umbrella, only to arrive at the temple door and say goodbye to his Chudi Putha, again.
When I practice, I can allow the inspiration of this devout father and his only son to guide me closer and closer to the path that leads to nibbana.
In a wonderful post script, Heenbanda’s father won ten thousand dollars in the lottery shortly after the ceremony. Karma. Surrounding us everywhere on this trip. Shading us in faith. Never noticed it so much.