Buddhist leader delivers message of peace

(From left) Minneapolis Buddhist Vihara monks, Rev. Witiyala Seewalie and Wishva Kirti; Maitipe Wimalasara of the Dharma Vijaya in Los Angeles, and Gunaratana.

The Venerable Dr. Henepola Gunaratana Mahathera, founding abbot of the Bhavana Society, a rural center to teach forest meditation within the Theravada tradition in North America, was in Minneapolis earlier this month to teach meditation and lead Dharma discussions. The renowned philosopher drew people from around the country to attend the thematic, multi-session courses and public talks on meditation.

The visit was one of the first major events at new home of the Sri Lankan Buddhist Vihara that opened in June at 3401 N. 4th Street, Minneapolis. Rev. Witiyala Seewalie hosted the visiting monk, along with the Ven K. Piyatissa, chief monk of the New York Buddhist Vihara, and Rev. Maitipe Wimalasara of the Dharma Vijaya in Los Angeles.

Ven. Gunaratana is the Chief Sangha Nayaka Thera, the highest-ranking monk of his sect in both North America. The Sri Lankan native came to America in 1968 to study for his Doctorate in Philosophy from the American University, and serve as the Honorary General Secretary of the Buddhist Vihara in Washington, D.C., the first Theravada Vihara in the country.

Gunaratana is pleased that a relatively small Sri Lankan community in Minnesota was able to establish the Vihara, but realizes that it will be difficult to sustain the temple and the monks without seeking participation from the mainstream community by providing education on Buddhism and meditation.

He said the challenges to Buddhist monks in America today are that they are largely foreign born and must work harder to reach the generations of American born children with little or no familiarity with Buddhism as it practiced daily in Asia.

“They don't recognize the monks and see them as strangers,” said Gunaratana. “They see them at the temple speaking a different languages, wearing robes with shaved heads.

“We are alien to them,” he added. “We speak a different language. The things that we teach are different, and the concepts are different. They are just like other American kids.

Monks in America today are adapting quickly to explain Buddhist teachings to children who know only English. They must compete with the other distractions of modern day America.

The problems of American society show a need for faith. Gunaratana that for the past 2,600 years, Buddhism has not caused wars and its peaceful message does not separate religious life from our ordinary lives.

“So long as you maintain peace, friendliness, compassion, charity and purity of the heart in trying to be fair to your brothers and sisters, and helping each other and treating each other with respect, honor and dignity,” he said.

“Most of the time people are trying to separate these two lives, I don't see any difference between these two,” he added.

Gunaratan was born in the rural mountainous Kandy area of central Sri Lanka in 1927. His calling came at the age of six and intensified. His father brought him to a nearby monastery at age twelve.

As a teenager, Gunaratan was sent to Dambulla, central Sri Lanka to attend a Monk school (Pirivaeane). He graduated from a Monks College in two years after excelling in academics in junior school.

Gunaratana’s first one-year mission lasted five years with the Harijanas (Untouchables) of India. Then his work in Malaysia was extended for ten years. He was to come to study for his Doctoral degree at American University in Washington D.C. while on a five year mission. His work serving as the university Buddhist chaplain and president of the Buddhist Vihara, went on to 20 years of service in the United States.

“So, all of this while I was serving them I qualified to do my work better,” he added.

By his own admission, Gunaratana was fortunate throughout his life to act independently. He conducted his duties as he saw fit, without reprimands or sanctions. This freedom, he said, provided him with the confidence and ability to become the writer, public speaker, and organizer of people and resources.

He travels light and carries a laptop to type his notes for his books and articles, and to keep in touch with his associates and colleagues around the world through email and audio files. Though he lives a life without luxuries, he was exposed to the personal computer as far back as 1977, and can talk high tech with the best of them.

In the late 1960s, he was invited to speak on Buddhism at colleges around the country. Still based in Washington, he had an idea to form a rural Vihara away from the city, where people serious about learning meditation could get away from distractions.

With the help of his meditation disciple Max Flickstein, the two embarked on a fundraising campaign that fell short of their plan to buy 190 acres of Virginia forestland.

They established the Bhavana Society (www.bhavanasociety.org) as a nonprofit organization for member that practice the 2,500 year-old precepts of Buddha Sidhatta Gotama. This second grass-roots effort led to a chance meeting with a West Virginia farmer who had 13 acres of wooded land with a stream.

They started without one penny and slowly met the goal with a core group of dedicated people. They opened in 1984 and completed the first buildings by 1988. Now there are facilities for 50 people, including seven monks and three nuns. Other monks come and go from as far as North Carolina and Canada.

From a handful of founding members, today it has become a school that trains and ordains monks, nuns and lay people to become future Dhamma and meditation teachers.

Gunaratana himself never spends more than two months at the center, and divides his time at temples around the country. He is constantly traveling, teaching and lecturing on meditation around the world.

For more information contact the Minnesota Buddhist Vihara, Inc., at 612-522-1811, online at www.mnbv.org or email mnbvusa [at] yahoo [dot] com.

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Re: Buddhist leader delivers message of peace

Thank you so much for the article about The Venerable Dr. Henepola Gunaratana Mahathera. He is the author of one of the classic books on meditation called Mindfulness in Plain English, which I highly recommend to everyone. Sri Lankan Buddhism is similar to Thai Buddhism. In fact, King Ramkhamhang of the Sukhothai kingdom sent for monks from Sri Lanka to codify the official form of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand. Later on, Sri Lanka sent for Thai monks to reestablish Buddhism in Sri Lanka. For this reason, Buddhism in Thailand is sometimes referred to as Lanka lineage, while Buddhism in Sri Lanka is sometimes referred to as Siamese lineage. We Thai people are quite lucky to have a large population in the USA. So large that there are many Thai Temples here in America which you can visit if you would like to learn more about Buddhism and Thai culture. Everyone is welcome at these temples.