Discussing Dhamma Trips with Usitha Ranatunge

By Mahika Panditha

I feel like over the past one and a half years, coming up to two years – we have all been thrust into an environment that has forced us to confront what we really want. Personally, I am a firm believer of doing what makes you happy, whatever that may be. Speaking to Usitha Ranatunge over the past week was eye-opening and quite frankly, super refreshing. He is a MBBS undergraduate with the goal of guiding people down a path of happiness. He has a series on Instagram called “Dhamma Trips” which we touch on later in this piece, and I highly recommend that you all check it out. I do not want to give too much away so let’s get right into it. 


Hey Usitha, glad to have you on this week’s cover. Why don’t you tell our readers a bit about you before we get into the details? 

My entire life, I’ve only been interested in one thing. Finding real happiness. Early on it seemed to me that the adults had it wrong. The successful ones who I personally knew, with the big house, expensive car, seemed unhappy. The rest were still figuring it out to get there, but for what? I was convinced the gold they wore so proudly was just plain plastic. Everything school and parents sold me as valuable and worth pursuing, I was extremely suspicious of. I respected my teachers and parents, even believed them at the time, however I can confidently say almost all of them were wrong. 


You’re a med student. What made you want to pursue a career in the medical field?

I am a terrible med student. The only reason I joined was the constant pressure from my family. I was 17 at the time and had no direction. I have no real passion for what I do. I will most definitely not practice if I complete this degree. 


Are you enjoying it, and what has been one of your favourite memories thus far?

Apart from the academic aspect, university life was pretty good for the most part. The friends I met along the way, the trips, and the good times were really enjoyable. I have no regrets joining medicine. If I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t know. 


Any advice for youngsters looking to study medicine?

Do it! If that is where your passion lies. Do it for sure. It’s by no means an easy field, but I have a lot of respect for some people in this profession. They have dedicated their lives to serving others and they’re good people at heart. But I believe, in almost any profession you can find such people, those are qualities you may inherently have within you or you will have to develop along the way. There are always rotten eggs in any field! Haha!

My advice to anyone who is having a lot of second thoughts about starting this degree is to visit a hospital setup and talk to some of the medical students. Really explore the life of a doctor and what it is about. I had a wrong idea what this profession was until I started my clinical training. I instantly knew this was not for me. The busy schedule with constant work is a big no no. Be smarter than I was and make it a point to explore yourself deeper now itself. Only you can truly know your priorities. No one can make decisions on behalf of you, simply because they can never truly know who you are. They are making an assumption based on their own priorities. Investigate if this particular profession can give you what you are looking for. You may mess up in your decision but that’s okay, that’s what life is. 


Now, let’s talk about Dhamma Trips. How would you describe it to a first-time viewer?

I created Dhamma Trips because I wanted to present the teachings of the Buddha in a new practical way. Sri Lanka has a traditional and cultural way of presenting these teachings and my goal was to break free of it.


Why did you want to break free of it?

Because the teachings have no frame. Perhaps the cultural labels were put on the teachings at the time to reach more people. But times are changing, we don’t have to be stuck to any kind of model. Especially if this traditional model is bringing out more harm than good. The Buddhism we learnt in school to be good people in society is not the teachings of the Buddha, good values are aspired to in almost every human society. The real teachings point to something deeper, a practical way to ending all negativity and all suffering. Is real happiness and freedom possible? What must be done to get there?


How did you come up with the idea?

It seems to me now, that most of us are “tripping”. People on marijuana use this word: “Bro that’s a trip,” when you have these kinds of crazy but deep thoughts.

We are tripping while sober too, everyone is. But we don’t know it’s a trip. People are so lost in it that we get angry, jealous, depressed, all these are negative emotions. 

It’s not God or the Buddha who can save us, but we ourselves have an important task to do, if we want real peace. We have to understand why we trip on these things. Eventually our own realisation is what will set us free.

The dhamma trip sold by the Buddha is in itself a model, like the Niels Bohr model of the atom. That’s not the atom but it’s a very close explanation. In the same way the Patichasamupadaya or the Dhamma when we first understand it, for the most part we understand it as a model. Eventually after investigating it further and further you come to a point where you “realise” it, this is beyond that model. Beyond every model, this is Nibbana. 

This is not another trippy theory. It is a very practical thing. Perhaps what I am saying seems too deep, but for anyone resonating with these things, as you go along this path of investigation, both life and our minds will start to make more and more sense.


What do you discuss in the Dhamma Trip videos?

I explain how to approach practical scenarios and how to understand them and yourself better. How we can reach real peace amidst all the chaos. The chaos can be your nine-to-five job, your midlife crisis, or those difficult people who constantly get on your nerves. Only temporary peace is found when you run away from your problems; real peace is found within your problems.

The movement into real peace is the most important choice you alone must make. I can explain with or without Buddhist nomenclature, you can switch to whatever is comfortable. There is a Discord server and YouTube channel with more resources and other teachers too. People are free to explore and find what they resonate with.


Do you have to be a Buddhist to understand them?

Absolutely not! Your gender, sexuality, race, religion, history does not matter one bit when it comes to this path. Absolutely everyone is welcome! It is grounded in being real with yourself and open-minded thinking!


Isn’t it difficult letting go of attachments? 

If your ideal for letting go is a monk, think again. Monks are another model. The letting go that Buddha taught is within. You can still laugh with your loved ones, have a fancy car, and still be free of your attachments. This might seem controversial but it’s true. The Buddha didn’t tell us to live a poor bachelor’s life, he taught something much deeper. 

We let go of attachments not because it’s an ideal to strive for, we let go of them when we see the problem with them. At the moment, although you may be able to logically see the problem with your attachments, you inquietly believe there is something valuable there. This path is one of genuine investigation, where you eventually see more and more clearly what is really going on. When you really see the problem, you won’t have to let go, the letting go happens.


What kind of content can we look forward to in the future?

I want to reach out to people who are going through difficult times in their life. They may have tried meditation, medication, or therapy. I want to explore and see if this kind of teaching can be of aid to them. In no way am I saying we must stop medication. However, this can serve as an alternate avenue people can explore. I know people who have resonated with this path and have their life turned upside down for the better! 


If you could say one thing to the whole world, what would it be?

Nibbana is not to be found in the quiet forests in the mountains given by some wise old monk. I’ve visited those places and stayed there for months. I found nothing valuable, that’s just another model. Nibbana is here and now, exactly where you are. Most of you are much closer than you think. Don’t change anything, just change your CCTV cameras from looking outside to looking within. The dhamma can guide you to understand why you were so distant from real peace. If one is honest to oneself, courageous to accept our mistakes, and decide to end this madness, it is possible! 


Where do you hope to be in the next five years?

Reaching out and helping as many people as I can. I am not going to be a practising doctor, I realised that a long time ago. Western medicine for the most part puts a temporary plaster on every problem. While at times this step is crucial and I respect everyone in this profession, to me there is a more fundamental problem which needs to be immediately addressed. I’ve searched for it my entire life and I found the answers. If you have the same problem, genuinely give what I’m saying a try and see for yourself if it works! 


Is there really a solution to anger, stress and all these negative emotions?

Absolutely! But you don’t have to take my word for it! Look for yourself and see! When the leaves are sick, we have been applying medicine to the branches, while we should have been applying them to the root. A proper root cause analysis should be done. The tools to dig up the soil and get to the roots have been hidden for a while! But they are available now, if one is willing to use them. 

Good luck to all of you!


Photos © Maseek Mahfal, Adhitha Ranatunge