In 2004 I attended an event in Anurādhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, that proved to be one of the highlights of my monastic life.
I had known Ven. Kiribathgoda Gnānananda since shortly after I ordained, as at that time he was living in a sister temple to the one I ordained in myself. His recordings of Satipaṭṭhānasutta and other discourses were like underground treasures that circulated via rough cassette copies in the monastic world at that time.
Later he started to become more famous amongst the lay people also, until around the year 1999 he started his own monastery which he called Mahamevnawa, after the place where Ven Mahinda, who established Buddhism in Sri Lanka, had spent his first Rains Retreat.
By 2004 he had dozens of monasteries organised under his guidance and hundreds of monastic followers, and had started a publication branch to produce books, CDs and DVDs, giving translations from the discourses and his own teachings.
Part of the reason for his success was his undoubted charisma as a teacher and the message of a return to the original teachings, but also the fact that he managed to demystify what had become rituals, like the taking of refuges, and the chanting of protection discourses, by presenting them in both Pali and Sinhala.
In 2004 he was scheduled to give a pre-Vesak all-day programme near the Bodhi Tree in Anurādhapura at which around 200,000 people were expected to attend. Now normally I am a solitary monk and do not like big events, but I was so taken with the Venerable that together with a group of monastic friends we decided to go.
We actually arrived the night before, and having no accomadation available we hung around the pilgrimage site until dawn. We were by no means alone as thousands of others were in a similar position and were camped out all around. The programme didn’t begin until around 8.00am.
Now Venerable Gnānananda can hold an audience’s attention without any effort, and so it was that day too. Whether administering the precepts, giving a Dhamma talk, telling an ancient story, leading the chanting or guiding people in meditation he had the full attention of the people attending.
The highlight for me at least was when he led the crowd in loving-kindness meditation for around 45 minutes, now it is one thing to do mettā meditation by oneself, and a very different thing to be doing it with 200,000 other people, the atmosphere was so pure and strong, it made a deep impression on me that remains to this day.
That particular event was not recorded as far as I know, but Ven Gnānananda gives similar events in Sri Lanka around Vesak time every year. I heard from a monastic friend that the events these days attract over 1,000,000 people.
Here is a recording of one from 2009, which was held at the Somawati Stupa near Polonnaruwa, the capital of Lanka during the Late Medieval period. This video only captures the pūjā, but I hope it gives some idea of what these occasions are like. Be warned that at the beginning is a short introduction in Sinhala, before the chanting starts.
I hope one day to return to Sri Lanka and have the opportunity to attend another session.
if this video is no longer available please leave a comment so I can update the page