Short stories, Travel and Health Information
I first met Sergeant Nimal at the time I started working at the old Military Hospital in Colombo.
I was then a young army doctor just graduated from the Sri Lanka Military Academy, with a Captain’s stars on my epaulettes and plenty of training under my belt – but with virtually no experience or understanding of how the real world functioned.
Sergeant Nimal on the other hand had been an army medic for many years – and what he did not know about grapevines and networking and military administration was not worth knowing. He certainly knew more about running a medical centre than I did, despite my rank and qualifications – but what was important was that he knew how to tell me what to do without letting me feel that he was telling me what to do. During those first few years in the army I was able to learn a great deal from Sergeant Nimal’s wisdom and experience.
Every morning when I turned up at the medical centre at eight o’clock he would be there. Standing briskly to attention he would snap off a regulation salute, greet me with a formal “G’morning, Sir!” and get me organised with the morning’s work. It would be true to say that most of what I learned about practical military medicine I picked up from Nimal.
As time went by our paths diverged and we both went on to other postings and promotions. We would meet however from time to time, when he would still greet me with a respectful salute before we got down to exchanging news and views. It was always nice to see him, because I never forgot how he had helped me in my younger days.
Shortly before I myself left the army he came to see me to ask me for a reference because he too was about to retire after 22 years in the army and wanted to apply for a job in one of the Gulf states, as most of our retiring military medical staff were wont to do in those days. I gave him a glowing reference, for which he was most grateful – and a few months later I received a letter from him informing me that he had been selected to be in charge of one of the Police medical centres in that country.
Time flew by, and a couple of years passed by before I saw him again, when he came to visit me on his return from the Gulf. He still had a military bearing – and although we were both now civilians and no longer separated by rank, he still addressed me as ‘Sir’. He told me that he was going to retire to his wife’s home town down south, where he could live comfortably on his army pension and Middle East earnings.
We continued to keep in touch after that, still exchanging Christmas and Wesak cards every year even after I moved to Australia. One year however instead of the customary card, I received a letter addressed in his familiar neat handwriting. The letter began ‘Sir, I am sorry for not informing you earlier of my decision to become a Buddhist monk. I was ordained last month and am now residing at this monastery in…’
The letter was signed, not as his letters usually were ‘Yours respectfully, Nimal’ but ‘With blessings and loving kindness to you and your family, Ven. Dhammarakhita’
I decided that I had to visit my old friend to pay my respects – so a few months later when I visited Sri Lanka I drove down south with my father to the ancient monastery at which he was residing – a picturesque rural haven amid rice fields and coconut trees. Originally established by the ancient Sinhalese kings, this monastery has been home to Buddhist monks for nigh on a thousand years. One felts a sense of quite serenity and timeless peace as one entered the place.
We waited patiently outside Ven. Dhammarakhita’s dwelling until the saffron robed monk came out. He still had a military bearing – but now his head was shaved and he was clad in saffron robes. When he saw me he looked down and smiled. I knelt, placed my palms together and respectfully made obeisance to him, and after he had sat down on his chair I sat on a mat at his feet.
How times and relationships change. Once upon a time he would salute me and call me ‘Sir’; now I was bowing down to him and addressing him as ‘Venerable Sir’. In days gone by I would be teaching him about medications and how to prepare a patient for operation; now he was preaching to me about meditation and how to prepare myself for death.
As human beings our roles and relationships in life are subject to so much change as the years go by.
I have realised over the years that all life is subject to change. Our own lives are so impermanent, and truly there is nothing permanent in this world.
Except, perhaps, the illusion of permanence.
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