Just days before he sat down for this interview, the Ven. Karma Jiga felt something in his chest flutter. The sensation was a familiar one, recognizable from years spent struggling with a heart ailment. Only this time he was up in the hills in Nuwara Eliya and it was late at night.
Ven Karma Jiga: Advocating the use of meditation in secular way.
“There was no one around, I was in the middle of nowhere, I couldn’t get any transport and so I decided to go and sit outside and watch the sunrise,” he says in a soft Scottish burr. He meditated through the following hours until he could be taken to the military hospital near Haputale where he spent the next two days recovering.
Such near death experiences appear not to faze him. “I have passed away and come back now four or five times,” he says, “I know what happens.” He describes seeing firefly-like glowing embers, then differently coloured lights that lead into one that is dazzling and all encompassing. Inevitably the experiences have a lingering effect: “it helps me relate to other people in a more kind way. I have an experience which very few people have. Most people, they are afraid, I don’t have that fear.”
In fact, the Ven. Jiga has a wide array of experiences to draw from that allow him to better understand the challenges faced by an interestingly diverse group of people – from drug addicts and prisoners to people struggling with disabilities and life curtailing illnesses. To them he teaches meditation as a way of engaging with and ultimately rising above their fear and suffering.
It has been over 30 years since he embraced Buddhist philosophy and he is now a respected Dharma teacher who is based in Scotland but lectures regularly in Sri Lanka. He describes himself as a “socially engaged Buddhist.” He has worked with major government and non-government organisations in the UK including local government in Scotland, the National Health Service, Schools and Higher Education Institutes as well as the UK Prison Service.
“So for me, my way of my looking at things is that we have a duty to ourselves spiritually but at the same time we have a moral duty to help those in the need,” he says, explaining though that he believes charity must be empowering – for instance teaching skills that ensure an individual’s independence but are also useful within the community at large.
Turning contemplative, he says that he hopes as the chairman of Nilupul they will be able to establish projects that will help people still struggling to recover from the long conflict. “The idea is quite simple. Just to help people who need help.”
Born in Scotland, he first remembers becoming interested in spiritual questions as a four-year-old watching his elder sister tussle with Down’s Syndrome. “I was questioning, questioning, questioning, all the time,” he says. While his sister’s condition “was a strain on the family, at the same time it was a great learning. Her demeanour was loving and happy but at the same time the physical was not so good at all – there was a happy person inside a dysfunctional body.”
As his questions multiplied, he studied Christianity and Hinduism in his teenage years; simultaneously he pursued an academic career, studying engineering before shifting to music, where his skill as a percussionist earned him a ticket to travel abroad. “By the time I was 21 I had travelled throughout Europe and I chose to return home to revaluate things.” It was as that time that he first encountered Buddhism.
A follower of Vajrayana Buddhism, he says he understood early that his practice had two facets: the ritual side and the practical side. “Even when I was in the monastery I ran parts of the monastery and had secular duties all the time,” he says. While in retreat he also learned how to sculpt Buddha statues and decorate a temple. “Being an engineer, I was able to do all of this,” he says. “I was also trained in the music.” When asked about the need to detach from the world in pursuit of his own enlightenment, he says bluntly: “I’m not really too concerned about that – I have spent many years in retreat and many years meditating. I’ve been trained in both, so I know the ritual side of my tradition and I know the secular side and so there’s no space that I feel uncomfortable in.”
This includes the confines of a prison. The parallels to him are clear: “When we go in to retreat, we are enclosed we don’t have contact with the outside world… Going through that process yourself helps you understand how difficult it is for someone who is incarcerated. You personally put yourself in prison to look into your own mind and all the issues that it brings up.” Ven. Jiga is a great advocate of meditation practice, insisting that it can be used in a secular way. “What I found was that once I understood the method of meditation I could apply it to anything. The main learning was that the meditation is whatever you’re engaged in at the time. It could be religious, or it could be teaching someone how to deal with pain, talking to them about how to manage their mental state so that it doesn’t overwhelm them.”
He learnt this the hard way when he had an accident that crushed his legs. Still a healthy, young man, he would eventually heal but the agony at the time was debilitating. “I couldn’t walk but I still had the use of my legs. I had to go to the medical people and when I went to them, I said, ‘Would it be possible rather than giving me painkillers and drugs for me to use my meditation as a clinical thing to help me deal with this pain?’ and my doctor said, ‘I would love you to try.’” Ven. Jiga did and it was among the most transformative experiences of his life, one he describes as extraordinarily rewarding. Now, he seeks to share the joys of meditation with others in need.
Nilupul: Healing through mindfulness-based activities
The Nilupul Foundation is a charity committed to improving the health of communities and disadvantaged groups, in Scotland and overseas, through the provision of mindfulness-based activities. Nilupul Foundation works both independently and in partnership with local government, statutory organisations, charities and volunteer groups.
Nilupul Sri Lanka is committed to benefiting disadvantaged children and young people, through the provision of a new Lessons For Life Institute and Community Learning Hub, a facility to be built in southern Sri Lanka. Providing basic educational tuition and vocational skills training for those suffering disability and hardship, it will also offer employment and community credit union services.
Among several programmes planned for 2013 is a Mindfulness-Based Recovery Programme for 200 adults in recovery from addiction which will be conducted in collaboration with the Ministry of Prison Reforms and Rehabilitation.
Ensuring things runs smoothly in Sri Lanka will be Nilupuli Andrahennadi (Director, Nilupul Sri Lanka) and Kumanga Andrahennadi, MA (Director, Nilupul Foundation UK & Sri Lanka).
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 5 May, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pic by M.D. Nissanka