Thursday, 2 February 2012

BONO BHANTE'S PARINIRVANA By Chakma Raja Devasish Roy-Wangza

Many of you are perhaps aware of the parinirvana of our most revered guru, Ven'ble Sadhanananda Mahathera (Bono Bhante), at Square Hospital, Dhaka on 30 January, 2012 at 2-57 pm. I had written earlier about the Bhante's treatment. Now I wish to share with you some snapshots of the last day of this great teacher's life and the main events of the following day, including the motor journey from Dhaka to Rangamati.


The medical practitioners, nurses, technical and administrative officials and staff, took the utmost care of the Bhante. Buddhists of Dhaka, Chittagong and the Hill Tracts had donated generously to pay for the helicopter ride, medical expenses and travel arrangements. The Bhante's visiting disciples were housed and fed. The Upaska-Upasika Parishad members worked day and night to arrange logistics, as did Buddhist residents of Dhaka. Hundreds of people thronged the reception area, paying homage to the Bhante's disciples, discussing among themselves, and even joining a brief sutra session led by the visiting monks, while several non-Buddhists folded their hands in solidarity and respect.
Most Highest Holiness Ven. Sadhanananda Mahathera (Bono Bhante)

As the last moments were approaching, it was decided that some of the close disciples of the Bhante should be present, chanting sutras. Some of us joined them later, in the Intensive Care Unit room, bowing to the remains of the greatest Buddhist teacher of the country in centuries. A few monks wept silently. The more senior ones kept their composure, exercising equanimity (upekkha). The Upasaka-Upasika Parishad's Senior Vice-President, Gautam Dewan, a few senior monks and I had to go away to my Dhaka home, nearby in Dhanmondi, to discuss plans on where and how to keep vigil for the night, and to take our guru's remains to Rangamati, the next day. Meanwhile, the devotees' crowds had swelled at the hospital, spilling on to the front entrance and the main road, as we were told later. The indulgence and patience of the hospital authorities and other patients were more than commendable. It was the perfect example of karuna (related to Metta, Mudita and Upekkha of the Four Brahma Viharas or Sublime Abodes).

Of course, we could have planned all the details of the post-Parinirvana arrangements beforehand, but didn't do so. On the one hand, no one, including the bhikkhus (monks), had any experience of dealing with the remains of an enlightened being, an Arahat or Sravaka Buddha. On the other hand, some of us were perhaps subconsciously following the common practice of not preparing for undesirable events - in this case the Parinirvana of the Bhante, that we hoped would not happen - lest its incidence be hastened by our conduct!), despite medical opinion to the contrary.

The consensual opinion of the senior monks, Parishad members and some of the upasakas-upasikas present, was to keep the remains in the hospital morgue - which was refrigerated - and to take them to a field (larger than any monastery ground in Dhaka) the following day, so that devotees and followers could pay their last respects to their Kalyanamitta (kolyanmitro). A few monks and several lay buddhists kept vigil outside the mortuary room. Some took much-needed rest, after having spent several nights with little or no sleep.


The Bhante's remains were brought in a refrigerated van a little after eight in the morning to a field to the southwest of Kolabagan Bus Station. The Bhante's remains were taken out and laid on a raised dias roofed by a marquee, flanked by disciples of the Bhante and monks from the Kamalapur and Sakyamuni monasteries in the city. An estimated three to five thousand people filled up the field, coming single-file to offer flowers and do homage. This included Barua and hill (Jumma) Buddhists staying in Dhaka and Jumma employees of garments and other factories in Savar. The Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina and the Leader of the Opposition, Begum Khaleda Zia, sent representatives with wreathes. Around 1030 am or so the remains were taken to Square Hospital, for treatment, to help preserve them. 


A little before 1 pm, the motorcade, containing about ten cars, started towards Rangamati, and reached around 1 am, the following day (1 February). We did not encounter a single road jam, and none of the vehicles had engine trouble. An unprecedented experience for many. I have travelled on this highway scores of times, including with police escort, but I don't recall a single instance of travelling jam-free.

Several people noticed this and remarked upon it. Prior to departure, those gathered in the front of the hospital and in the underground car park paid their last homage. Women outnumbered men; several of them broke out into tears or tried to stifle them. Led by a police escort vehicle, the motorcade included several of the Bhante's disciples in different cars, the CHT Affairs State Minister, Dipankar Talukdar, MP, and the Parishad's Senior Vice President, Gautam Dewan, with whom I shared a car.

The first group of people we saw met on the highway, that were waiting to pay their respects, was near Kachpur. Most of them were Jumma, probably employees of the garments industries in Savar and nearby places. The next group was near Comilla, mostly Baruas and some Jummas. We then stopped near the Nurjahan Restaurant near Comilla, again, mostly local Baruas and several Jummas, offering wreaths, chanting Dhamma slogans and paying homage. After this, we stopped for refreshments at the Highway Inn near Chauddagram, and even here, some devotees had gathered. Stops after that included at Feni bye-pass (Jumma students, government employees), at least two places at Miraserai (Baruas), Bhatiary (Jummas from the Chittagong EPZ), Boro Dighir Par, near the Chittagong-Rangamati highway (Jummas and Baruas), Chittagong University Gate (Jumma & Barua students), Hathazari (mostly Baruas and some Jummas), Raozan and Gohira (Baruas), Betbunia (Sialbukya; Chakma and Marma), Ghagra and Manikchari (Chakma, Marma and Tanchangya).

According to the agreed schedule, the journey was to have started at 10 am, and therefore some of the groups on the highway had been waiting from early afternoon onwards, for hours. Nightfall had crept in before we reached Miresai. At the university gate students put lighted candles on the edge of the road as a mark of respect. Several held candles, which made a great spectacle, somewhat carnival-like, yet solemn, adding a touch of warmth and security to a an atmosphere that would otherwise have seemed gloomy and desolate.

The most touching snapshots in my memory include the Chittagong University students lighting candles, old women and men with insufficiently warm clothing, in their stooping frames in the biting cold, young children chanting "sadhu" from their parents' shoulders and arms (which they might not remember as they grew up), the tear-strained faces of countless people, especially women and girls, which reminded me of orphans having recently lost their parents.

In our car, which I shared with Gautam Dewan and Parishad member, Rintu Chakma, we had to answer incessant phone calls of people requesting us to stop or seeking information on the progress of the motorcade. We were surprised at how quickly these people had acquired our cellphone numbers. Perhaps this demonstrates how people's spontaneous information networks sometimes work more efficiently than more structured ones.


At Betbunia, the motorcade was met by a stream of vehicles, including vans, pick-up trucks, "CNG" scooters and motorbikes. We counted at least 30 or so large vehicles and around 70 CNGs. The motorbike number was probably well above one hundred, including some that carried women. My son, Tribhuvan Aryadev, came in a pick-up. Some monks had come with cars and vans. From here onwards, the motorbikes led the way, somewhat slowing the journey. The highway being winding, those at the head could not see the tail of the motorcade, which stretched for a kilometre or more. The combined light from the vehicles' headlights added a moonlight atmosphere. Arches and banners had been put up at several places, including at Ghagra, Manikchari and Rangamati bearing photographs of the Bhante and Dhamma sayings.

In Rangamati town, senior monks from the Rajvana Vihar waited at the entrance of the Vocational Institute Road near College Gate. They led the motorcade on foot up to the main field of Rajvana Vihar where the annual Kathin Civar Daan and Birthday ceremonies for the Bono Bhante are held. The CNGs and motorbikes had to stop at the highway junction near Rangamati Government College.


At the Rajvana Vihar field, thousands had gathered. We joined the assembly to pay our respects to the Bhante, who lay in state at the centre, inside the refrigerated van. Senior political leaders and government officials joined in. After sutras and a sermon from a senior monk, I was asked to speak, although this was not scheduled. I spoke in Chakma, as is customary at Rajvana Vihar. Parts of the events were projected live on a large screen, perhaps the first such use of technology at the Rajvana Vihar. I urged all to maintain unity and to show their respect to the Bhante by following and practicing his teachings on Metta, non-violence and a moral way of life. I referred to the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, often recommended as a "must read" by the Bono Bhante, which focuses on the transitoriness of human life by providing examples of the decay and transformation of the flesh, bones and other parts of the human body. Much as we might be reminded of the Bono Bhante through his mortal remains, and however much we try to preserve them (which is a strong public demand and the Parishad is providing the highest priority to it), I feel that it is more important to recall his teachings as his greatest legacy and act upon them, with diligence.

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