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One who understood the pains of the oppressed

2 years ago

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It is with profound sadness that I am writing a few lines about Ven. Baddegama Samitha Thera, firstly as a person who hails from the adjoining village of that of Ven. Samitha Thera and secondly as a person who very well understood his hopes and aspirations of life from his young days. I am thankful to the eminent contributors for the excerpts about Ven. Samitha Thera that helped enrich the article. Born on 4 September 1952, Ven. Samitha Thera entered the clergy in September 1965, with the blessings of his teacher Rt. Ven. Ganegama Saranankara Nayake Thera (1908-1989). As a young samanera, Ven. Samitha Thera spent long hours at Baddegama Sri Ratnasara Pirivena. He was successful in mastering his studies on Tripitaka, history of other religions, and philosophy during his period as a samanera. Being a non-Buddhist myself, there were many an occasion where we deliberated finding similarities in our learnings. Ethical, intellectual, and spiritual perfection were some of the favoured topics of our discussions. It was during these young days as a samanera that he showed signs of going above his role as a Buddhist monk, paying attention to the needy. It was during this time he initiated and gave leadership to several youth movements to be deployed for the common good of the poor. In 1975, he joined hands with the late Dr. N.M. Perera, Colvin R. De Silva, Leslie Gunawardana, and Bernard Soysa to support the campaign of welcoming the Marxist leaders as a key speaker at every gathering. In 1976, he entered the Vidyalankara University to study Buddhism and Christian culture. In 1977, an incident took place between university students and a band of thugs that entered the university premises to control student leaders..About 400-500 university students gathered, stoning the thugs who went on a rampage with some road construction material and the saga ended with the death of one of the thugs. As Ven. Samitha Thera was a student leader, he was arrested and jailed. Later, as there was no evidence, he was released. This event cost him dearly as he lost his studentship at the university. Thereafter he gained admission to Lancaster University in the UK to study world religions and the development of the Third World. Having returned to Sri Lanka after the completion of his studies, he contested the general election in 2001 and entered Parliament as the first representative from the Buddhist clergy. His in-depth knowledge in Buddhist and Marxist philosophies helped him lead parliamentary debates in an independent, non-politically biased direction and to serve the people who counted on him for help. He believed in equality and coexistence among different religions and communities and always worked towards reconciliation. During the 2004 tsunami, he rendered a yeoman’s service to families who were victims of the train derailment in Telwatta, Hikkaduwa. He personally took part in digging graves and burying these innocent victims, conducting the religious rights at the funerals. He believed in educating less fortunate young children as a way of alleviating poverty. This was proven by his efforts in bringing bus loads of children to the International Book Exhibition that was held annually in Colombo as well as by many other acts of similar nature. Ven. Samitha Thera had a special place in his heart for the elderly poor who are being victimised for no fault of theirs and children with exceptional abilities and physical deficiencies. He considered looking after such persons as his special responsibility and set up care centres for them by getting support from local and overseas individuals and institutions. He led a simple life. He never had the comfort of a ceiling or a tiled floor in the room where he lived in his temple, nor did he have even a fan in his room. Instead, he believed in being among the poor and destitute who suffered without those amenities. His final task was making considerable efforts to educate the people to avoid the dangers of Covid and he was compelled to spend time with them, teaching the need for social distancing, following other health guidelines, etc. He made it a point to visit the families of victims who were cremated under quarantine regulations to carry out religious observances. However, none of us could believe when we heard the saddening news that he became a victim of the same pandemic. On a personal note from our young days, the late Ven. Samitha Thera was closely attached to our family; he was a brother to us. When we, being Catholics, had the final rights for our late mother and late brother Vasantha at St. Anthony’s Church in Ganegama, Baddegama, he obtained special permission from the church and delivered the eulogies from the church altar – a rare gesture accorded by the Catholic Church to a member of the clergy of another religion. Today, we are grieved by the loss of a dear brother who cared for us and stood by us right through his life. May his soul rest in peace. May he attain supreme bliss of nirvana!

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