Dr. Ananda W P Guruge – the ‘Smiling Brown’ Kalyana Mitta: A Personal Tribute
Posted on August 24th, 2014

Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri (writing from Canada)  Courtesy Island

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It was with a deep sense of loss that I read two emails the day following the passing away of Prof. Ananda W P Guruge. On the move always in the service of Buddha Dhamma, he died on the move, traveling, as reported. Way to go, my respected friend! When he writes to me about his travels here, there and everywhere, I once thought of inviting him to take it easy. I may even have said so when told of how once he had to be taken off a plane and rushed to emergency. But then I thought what difference it would make where and when one dies as long as one is on the way to doing something one loves and with good intent. And that is to serve the Dhamma, by speaking on or writing about it, when and wherever he’s called upon. So I’m happy he’s gone the way he enjoyed most. The Buddha was on the go surely when he passed into the Parinibbana experience.

My personal association with the Professor has not been long – only since about 2002 when my wife and I had the occasion to visit him in Los Angeles, at the Hsi Lai University where he was Academic Dean. I was meeting him to talk about Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies (Canada) which I had just founded (2000). Since then we had become, you could say, close friends, if communicating with frequency is a criterion. Short as our association has been, he is possibly the Sri Lankan with whom I’ve had the most email correspondence. So my comments will be as mostly gleamed from this.

Prof. Guruge’s parents must have had a special reason, maybe two, to name him Ananda.

The second – I’ll come to the first, is that he is indeed Ananda as best captured in his last name. Guruge literally means ‘of the House of Guru’, i.e., Teacher, Respected Elder, etc. If he was of the House of the Respected Elder, it is no secret that he was, in fact, the very house itself! As was Ven. Ananda, called the Dhammabhandagarika ‘Teasurer of the Dhamma’. Prof. Guruge was the walking Encyclopedia of Buddhism I would turn to for a clarification or other. And his latest favour was to kindly write a Foreword to my book, Arahant Mahinda – Redactor of the Buddhapujava in Sinhala Buddhism (2012). So if Guruge was a name by inheritance, i.e., by word of mouth so to speak, indeed he made it a name by deed, adding Ananda for good measure.

But our friendship was not only on matters academic. And this brings us to the first reason for his parents to pick the name Ananda for the infant boy – the ‘happy one’. But how do I know he was the happy one? Easy. He was always all smiles! A natural smile on the face can only come from a happy heart, and happy mind. And I can speak to it from my relationship with him.

One indicator of his happy mind was his willingness to give a helping hand. I’d asked for some information. Not having it in his files, he would direct me to someone who had, with the request to help me “.. to get the UN Resolution passed a few years back recognizing VESAK? He is planning to get Canada to pass a similar resolution.”, this a work in progress.

Compassion (karuna) at work.

And then there is his humility. An article submitted to the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, I’d returned it with some severe editing, and apologies. But his response? “I am never offended by people who pay serious attention to my work. You are one of them and I value your comments and suggestions. I am a life-long learner and ever grateful to anyone who helps me in the process.”

Equanimity (upekkha) at work

Another was the constant encouragement I received in my work here in Canada. As if being members of a mutual appreciation society of two, this is how   Prof. Guruge expresses his happiness reading  a chapter  in Wild Geese: Buddhism in Canada. It was on my work of three decades in Canadian Buddhism, written by two Canadian professors, Victor Hori and Janet McLellan: “I am so very impressed with the service you have rendered to Buddhism  in Canada and you deserve the comprehensive article describing what   you have selflessly achieved…..I am really proud of you …… looking  back on what you have achieved  for Sri Lanka and   Buddhism……Congratulations and best wishes for the continuation of the  wonderful work.” Appreciative joy (mudita) at work.

On another score, he writes, on something I’d written relating to him: “What is included is quite correct and I am glad that you find  a place for me in your life. It is a great source of joy to me ….”

Friendliness (metta) at work!

Our friendship extends to literature as well. I’d written to him to say I’d read his novel, SERENDIPITY OF ANDREW GEORGE. Then I receive this email: “I enclose a review of the latest part of the Trilogy.” My novel, Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey sent to him, he wrote, “I read your novel and enjoyed the way you dealt with the theme. I will write my impressions when I am a bit free.” Apparently, M?ra, the Lord of Death, had other plans!

It was with great happiness that I saw honour rushing to him from here, there and everywhere. But would not honour received in the homeland context beat them all for the Lanka lover in him? A highlight might have been the invitation to deliver the ‘2011 D A Rajapaksa oration’ (24th November, 2011, at the main Auditorium at Temple trees). “This is the only function in Sri Lanka where His Excellency sits with the audience while the Orator and only a handful of others sit at the Head Table…. Attendance is by invitation and includes Foreign Diplomats, Ministers, MPs, Academics and many other dignitaries. It also includes ordinary people who were represented by Late Mr. D.A.Rajapaksa and are being represented now by his son.” The previous year, “it was attended by about 1000 persons.”

This, then, is how I remember my beautiful friend, kalyana mitta. Always with a smile, always willing to give a hand. Does not the smile speak volumes for the four Sublime Abodes (brahmaviharana) – metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha? So he was not just a student, and scholar, of Buddhism, but a living embodiment of what it means to live a Buddhist life.

When we last communicated, I was happy to hear that Mr Sirisumana Godage was bringing out all of his works, including his diaries.

If this piece has much of me as of him, there is an explanation. While kindness (karuna), friendliness (metta), etc. are certainly qualities of a mind, it is always expressible only in relation to somebody. And in this case, I happen to be the lucky one at the receiving end, which is why I appear on stage in a minor role. I’m sure there’re others out there, and hope they’ll speak up. This, my dear Readers, is also oral history – not available anywhere else. It was in our personal relationship, primarily through email communication, that I saw the best in him. If still I have erred, for airing personal communication, I do sincerely apologize, and can only thank you for your concern about my samsara. But I will continue to count on my good intentions, remembering the Buddha’s words, ‘Intent I say is kamma’. But I do hope that the message of the piece is not lost – to bring out goodness by way of an example for all of us.

A character in one of the Guruge novels sees in the Sinhala people the Smiling Brown. So it is with humility I say that I had the good fortune of having this wonderful Smiling Brown kalyana mitta of the stature and spiritual happiness of Prof. Guruge.

Respected friend, my thoughts are with you then that you’ll enjoy a respite from the calamities and the dukkha of living in the human world, and be born in Tusita Heaven, for all the merits you’ve earned; or higher, with the cultivated Sublime Abodes working for you. But it is, however, my confident hope that, in quick time, you’ll work out your way towards that supreme goal of Nibb?na!

Bon voyage samsarique, to connect to your French, dear Smiling Brown kalyana mitta!

(Buddhist scholar and Engaged Buddhist activist, Suwanda H J Sugunasiri is a Fulbright scholar. He may be contacted at [email protected] .)

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