Dhammawati: Guruma

Features Issue 65 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya

Dhammawati Guruma’s vihar in Sighal instantly reminds one of a lotus flower upon entry.

Amidst the chaos, the hustle bustle and the pollution of the city, Sigha (Bihar) Vihar stands out like a beautiful flower, rooted in the surroundings but not affected in its minimalist grandeur. There are few places and fewer people in Kathmandu that one can visit and feel instantly at peace around. Dhammawati Guruma, the most senior Bhichhu in the Newar Buddhist sect and her vihar in Sighal are such a rarity.

Entering the vihar almost feels like entering another world. At the numerous puja ceremonies that take place here, people flock to hear Dhammawati Guruma speak and tell religious stories. Everyone greets her with a bow, to which her answer is “sukhi ho” (be happy). Her mellifluous voice seems to make people forget all their troubles and find  peace within. Children and the elderly alike gather around her, hanging onto every word she utters. Her petite figure rests on a seat as all others gather on the floor around her in a room adorned with imposing idols of Lord Buddha. She smiles as she tells her stories, sharing a joke now and then to let everyone relax and let their guard down.

Her stories are all about Dharma and about the goodness that one should spread through one’s existence. She often speaks about how only goodness can beget more good things. Her stories leave people enchanted and wanting to be better people. She has devoted all her life to learning and teaching Buddha’s teachings and at the pinnacle of her life, she has come to receive all the admiration and respect she has so rightly earned.

Dhammawati Guruma was born in Patan into a Shakya family in 1934. She was named Ganesh Kumari Shakya. Growing up in a Buddhist household, she was not new to Buddhism and Lord Buddha’s teachings. By 1949, at the impressionable age of fourteen, she left for Burma. “The Ranas who ruled Nepal then, were not in favor of educating the young, much less women at that. Also traffic flow in and out of the valley was limited and heavily monitored. Restricting people from coming into the valley or anyone leaving the valley to venture out meant that no rebellious ideas infiltrated the Nepali society. But I was very lucky. I got an opportunity that many seldom do, to get an education in Burma,” says Guruma, reminiscing.

It was in Bihar that she became a monk and started to learn and practice Buddha’s teachings. Buddhism was already widespread in Burma and was an obvious influence on her. By 1963, she was back in Nepal. Newly democratized, the people lacked spiritual guidance. Dhammawati Guruma realized this at once and was there to fill the void. She established the Sigha Vihar at its present location in 1963.

The vihar’s building was rebuilt into a modern building with all necessary amenities just about three years ago. A Newar family close to the Guruma bore the entire cost of the construction as a gesture of thanks to her. The vihar can now accommodate about thirty people comfortably. It has a library of its own and a free clinic that is run by volunteers and open every Saturday. It also has a large kitchen and rooms for all its members. The nucleus of the house though, is the huge prayer room at the entrance of the building. With deep red carpeting and arresting idols of the Buddha, the room exudes holiness and purity. Even the exterior of the vihar, done in red bricks and wood-carved window frames is impressive.

“There were a very small number of people who cared to come to us during those days. People were largely ignorant of the Buddha’s teachings and of a place such as our vihar where one could get knowledge about such things,” says Dhammawati Guruma recalling the vihar’s starting days. “The practice of giving alms to the needy was something only the very well-off did and that too was a very alien concept for people. I personally started calling people to come to the vihar and listen to the teachings of the Buddha in the form of stories. As soon as people realized that the vihar meant only to help them, they started coming in flocks,” recalls the Guruma with a smile.

Guruma is a Nepali word that means teacher. The word refers to lady monks who have renounced all earthly pleasures to embrace the Buddha’s teachings. At the moment, in the Dhammawati Guruma’s vihar, there are about twenty-three gurumas that are learning and spreading the Buddha’s teachings. Besides the Buddha’s teachings, the Dhammawati rightly realized that modern education was also very important for the young gurumas at the vihar. The young gurumas now attend classes for Buddhism side by side with regular school lessons at a school nearby. Some of the gurumas have also been allowed to pursue higher education as per their wishes. These steps have helped people understand more about the religion. Besides education, the vihar is like a big household and also a hostel. Wake up time is four in the morning, and everyone has to take care of her assigned chores. After morning prayers and light meals, the young gurumas go to school while the seniors attend to appointments.

In Kathmandu more than anywhere else, it’s common practice to call on the gurumas to recite prayers and bring a sense of peace at events varying from birth and death to the beginning of a new business venture or even before settling into a new house. This practice of calling on the gurumas at such events is supposed to ward off evil spirits and create  positive vibes amongst the concerned. The gurumas together with the family who called upon them, chant Buddhist hymns as they hold a single holy thread.

Upon request, the Guruma often tells relevant stories too. In return the family offers them alms and small gifts such as towels and household items. These practices have led to more people getting to know the Guruma and requests for her presence at such events keeps the Guruma busy these days. One can simply call her at her vihar’s number and get in touch with her to request for her presence beforehand.

Of her earlier days in Burma, she remembers that she had a very stable and peaceful life in school despite the ongoing instability of Burmese politics. Dhammawati was introduced to one of the most prominent and world renowned protestors of the Burmese government, Ang Sang Su Kyi and Su Kyi’s parents while in Burma. The friendship and goodwill remained. Years later, when Ang Sang Su Kyi came to Nepal, it was in the Dhammawati’s vihar that she sought solace.

“During the time she stayed here, she made herself very useful. She would give English classes to the young monks who can now speak the language fluently. The entire six months she spent at the vihar as her husband traveled as an ambassador to different countries, she helped around the vihar in whatever way she could. She even donated some rare books that we still use.” Guruma adds with a kind smile, “After that, whenever I went to Burma, she would inevitably find out and call me, and I would stay at her place.  Later on however, the senior monks at the vihar in Burma advised  against it. She was very actively protesting against the then Burmese government and it was not in the vihar’s best interests to have a monk visiting in Su Kyi’s premises.”

But her relations with politicians and having ministers and the like honor her, has not changed her. She remains down to earth and even more passionate about her work at the vihar. She says that the aim of the vihar is to produce educated and smart gurumas who can spread the good word about the teachings of the Buddha in the country. But word about her has already spread at home and abroad. In Burma, a monk who also happens to be a writer, documented the Guruma’s travels from Kathmandu to Burma largely on foot, into a popular book. The book originally in the Burmese language has been translated into Nepali and Newari too. Copies seem to run out fast, as the book with its simple language and warm tales of the Guruma’s arduous journey is appealing to readers of all ages. In Nepali, the book is titled, “Snehi Chhori” which means loved daughter. It documents how she walked, took a bus and even took a ride on a truck traveling through Bhimphedi, Birgunj, Kushinagar, Assam and Nagaland to finally reach her destination. It was in the forests of Nagaland that she met young Chinese women who because of the belief in Chinese society that small feet signified prosperity and beauty, wore shoes no bigger than an adult’s fist size. The bones crushed into the inhumane size of the tiny shoe would not even resemble a foot.

One of the main activities at the vihar is when young girls who would rather not take part in a Gufa ceremony are brought to live the life of a monk for twelve days. These young girls are assigned tasks too and follow every rule that is applicable to the other Gurumas. But the duration of their stay at the vihar has been shortened with young girls today finding it harder to live in the vihar. About this, the Guruma has her own views. She finds faults with the education system and the kind of values that should be but are not taught at home to young children today.

Her work as a disciple of the Buddha’s teachings have taken her around the world to such places as America, Thailand, Japan, Canada, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. At functions in all these countries, she talks to the people in Nepali which is then translated into English by a translator who travels with her.. Her travels have also exposed the Dhammawati Guruma to modern life and fresh ideas. She despises the fact that her beautiful city is in such a mess, both pollution wise and politically. The lack of discipline amongst people who feel free to throw rubbish out of their windows, disrespect places of worship and refuse to change their ways, disturbs her. “In Burma, the police fines anyone who pollutes public places. They can be fined for even spitting in public. That is probably why most streets in Burma are so clean compared to the streets in Nepal,” says the Guruma, her eyes twinkling with experience and knowledge.

Dhammawati Guruma and her vihar at Sighal are both shining examples of the kind of difference that a single person can make. It also speaks volumes about the kind of impression that an individual’s honest attempt has on society and the kind of long lasting results it obtains. The fact that the vihar manages to run on money collected from donations offered by her devotees speaks volumes about the simple lifestyle of the gurumas.  A  visit to her vihar or attending one of her prayer and story telling sessions is certainly very good for the soul.

For details: 4259466