[APPRECIATIONS - (13-01-2020)]

Ven. Kurunegoda Piyatissa Maha Nayake Thera

An erudite bhikku

New York Buddhist Vihara Chief Incumbent Ven. Kurunegoda Piyatissa Maha Thera, passed away on October 11, 2019, after serving people around the world for over 78 years in his 91-year life.

Ven. Piyatissa Nayake Thera was born in the Kurunegoda village in Polgahawela, on December 28, 1928. He was ordained in 1941 and received higher ordination in 1950. He obtained two BA degrees: one from the Vidyodaya University, and another with honours from the University of London. He also obtained an MA from the Temple University, PA.

He taught at various pirivenas and schools, including Ananda College, Colombo, before he moved to the London Vihara in 1972. He came to New York in 1981; he wrote several books in Sinhala and English. The thera was the President of the Sri Lanka Sangha Council, Vice-President of the World Sangha Council of North America, Executive Committee Member of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, and a faculty member of the New School University in Manhattan, NY.

He was instrumental in getting the UN to commemorate Vesak and the initiative to have the Thripitaka declared as a national heritage in the UNESCO's Memory of the World Register. Buddhists all over the world have lost one of their most venerable monks, and here I would like to share just a few of the ways he deeply impacted my community and me, as I’m sure he did for so many communities around the world.

I had the immense pleasure of studying under Ven. Piyatissa Nayake Thera at Ananda College. In the 1980s, I was a graduate student in Pittsburgh, and my wife and I visited the NY Buddhist temple. His memory was so sharp: even after about 10 years, he recognised me, immediately. One piece of advice he gave me that day still reverberates in my mind; even to this day, I use his words to advise my students. He told me to obtain knowledge from USA and use it well in a way that would benefit us, without causing any harm to the States.

In 1992, I was a faculty member at the Georgia State University and also the graduate director of the Physics programme. We used to invite the ven. thera for Thanksgiving to our houses. He enjoyed talking about Buddhism with adults and children alike. He had a profound influence on our children during his stay and gifted them books, including the Illustrated Dhammapada by Ven. Weragoda Sarada Maha Thera. My wife read a story from that Dhammapada daily to our children before going to bed, and years later, they still remember the teachings.

Ven. Piyatissa Nayake Thera tried hard to follow even minor rules. He once told me that his teacher was much more spiritual than him. The ven. thera was one of the most spiritual monks I had ever seen; for him to say something like that showed his incredible humility, which is another lesson that he taught me.

The ven. thera participated in the opening ceremony of the Georgia Buddhist Vihara in Atlanta in 2000. As we walked towards the entrance, he suddenly asked me to bring him a fallen leaf. He wanted to prevent the ants from accidentally being trampled on the path to the temple (as they were gathered around some crumbs). Knowing well that without the thought of killing, no demerits would be accumulated, he still wanted to save the ants from an accidental death, and save the children from an ant bite while saving the environment as well. That is how attentive he was even during a casual walk. Following this advice could greatly reduce so much suffering due to a lack of attention.

Ven. Piyatissa Nayake Thera visited us on my father’s 25th death anniversary. As I saw him at the airport, I realised how weak he was at the time and told him that he should have told me his condition. But he just smiled. Another patron had told the priest that he should have declined, given his condition. He had said, “It’s Unil’s father’s 25th death anniversary...how can I refuse? I have known him as a child, and this is the only favour he has asked of me!”

If we help others when they’re in need, irrespective of what comforts one has to forgo, what a beautiful society we would have today.

Once, I asked him how I could explain Nirvana to a non-traditional Buddhist. Within a detailed discussion, one question, I still remember. When the water flows from a river to the sea (once it is mixed), can you show where the river water is? Just because you cannot separate, can you say that there is no water from the river in the sea? Just like that, Nirvana exists, even though we may not yet be able to pinpoint it. Thinking back on discussions like these from over a dozen years ago, I’m reminded of the ven. thera’s ability to explain deep and complex concepts using clear examples that would resonate with us for years to come.

In 2016, we had decided to visit him. Although his physical strength was weak at the time, his mind was sharp as always; he remembered our children and the other Atlanta devotees. The ven. thera said that we all should try to get the UN to recognise Vesak as an international religious day. Even then, he was thinking about what can he could do to propagate Buddhism. Unfortunately, I could not meet him after that.

As the Buddha taught us, everything is impermanent, so this is expected. Nevertheless, I am very lucky to have been a student of such an erudite, spiritual monk. I remember Ananda College as an institution of incredible and devoted teachers, and Ven. Piyatissa Nayake Thera is a shining example of that. If I can follow at least some of his examples, I will be a better person, and I do not think I am alone in that sentiment. His teachings touched the lives of so many people, and our world was made better by his kindness and wisdom.

Ven. Kurunegoda Piyatissa Maha Nayake Thera instilled important values in young minds at various educational institutes across Sri Lanka. I am sure this included not only Ananda College, but also other institutes that benefitted immensely from him. Later in life, he broadened his focus to not only help children, but also adults, all over the world. He was a shining example of a devoted teacher and a beacon brightening the world by spreading the teachings of the Buddha in a way anyone could understand, so that we could carry those values with us to better our communities.

May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

Dr. A.G. Unil Perera, Regents’ Professor of Physics, Georgia State University


A. Sarath de Silva

Colossus in banking

Having failed to render a eulogy at his funeral, I hasten to pen this appreciation as one of the long-time subject officers of Sarath de Silva, former General Manager of the Bank of Ceylon (BOC).

My association with de Silva commenced in 1979, when I was transferred to the Agriculture Credit Division after a stint of nearly six years in the Agricultural Service Centre (ASC) branches and the Regional office of the BOC in the North-Central Province.

Quite evidently, he was the live-wire that changed the character of the conservative, commercially-oriented BOC, with the introduction of Development Banking under a Mixed Banking model; when he joined late General Manager M. Moheed, who pioneered the establishment of the island-wide ASC branch network of the BOC in the early 1970s.

Different credit channels, such as The New Comprehensive Rural Credit Scheme (NCRCS), Janasaviya, Samurdhi, and Surathura, Praja Naya Niyamaka (PNN), New Enterprise Scheme (NES), and the Ran Surekum Naya Seva scheme, come to my mind; amongst a plethora of other agricultural and self-employment credit schemes that were launched during his tenure as the Head of the Agricultural Credit Division and the Deputy General Manager of Development Banking.

De Silva's staunch commitment to uplift small farmers and priority sectors, through rural credit, made him and the BOC well-known among the locals, as well as international development banks and agencies; such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the Asia Pacific Rural Agricultural Credit Association (APRACA), which sought his expertise as a Rural Credit and Development Banking Specialist.

Having recognised at the time the need to have a feeder network of branches for deposit mobilisation, and also Low-cost Institutional Credit accessible for small farmers in the periphery, he ingeniously resisted recommendations by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to rationalise the ASC branch network and the staff of BOC under the guise of the bank’s re-structuring process.

It was a tryst of destiny that, after his tenure, as the Deputy General Manager of Development Banking, he was appointed the Deputy General Manager of Corporate Banking, ostensibly grooming him to take over the reins of the General Manager of the BOC in the latter part of the year 2000; which, by the way, was his mother’s wish when he joined the BOC in 1965 as a sub-accountant.

He possessed the rare trait of keeping his audience spellbound with his well-regulated voice and witty repartee. His deliveries to bank officers as an Associate Faculty member of the BOC’s Training Institute and outside, always won excellent evaluation ratings. He was instrumental in launching popular radio programmes such as Rata Wata Avurudu and Rata Wata Naththal, where he led the BOC team with much aplomb.

However, above all, de Silva was a great human being who preferred to move with ordinary people due to his concern for the oppressed masses. Despite being a power-house of knowledge, he was a great listener. De Silva’s sad and untimely loss as the President of the Bank of Ceylon Pensioners’ Association leaves a big void at a time when several crucial issues affecting the pensioners are under discussion.

De Silva leaves behind his beloved wife, Anoma; three loving children; and his only sister, Chithra. May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

Bernard Fernando, Retired DGM, Bank of Ceylon

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