“Team Enlightenment” comes to Los Angeles

Determined to not let this happen to Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles, Bhante Piyananda makes sure that members of the younger generations not only receive a good, solid Buddhist education, but also that the children get to play key roles in the traditional celebrations and ceremonies that crop up on the calendar every year. In this way they learn to not only appreciate their cultural heritage, but also the relevance of the historic and symbolic underpinnings of Buddhist services and rituals.

l by Dr. Stephen Long

(October 19, Los Angeles, Sri Lanka Guardian) Ven. Walpola Piyananda’s philosophy in regards to Buddhism in America has always been that if we don’t train the younger generations to be good Buddhists, when the older generation is gone our temples will be empty. By the “younger generations” he means those children of Asian immigrants who were either born in America or who arrived here with their parents when they were very young. There are now more than fifty Sri Lankan Buddhist temples in North America, and countless others that were founded by monks from Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Korea, and other countries. Each of these temples was established to serve the various ethnic immigrant communities they represent – sometimes called the “baggage Buddhists.” We’ve seen some good examples of what happens when these temples focus mainly on the old folks: a long period of funerals and memorials, and then “for sale” signs in front of the temple premises. By not being creative and finding ways to attract the young folks we lose them not only to the religions of their peer groups, but also to a materialistic secular life with no religion or understanding of spirituality at all.
Determined to not let this happen to Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles, Bhante Piyananda makes sure that members of the younger generations not only receive a good, solid Buddhist education, but also that the children get to play key roles in the traditional celebrations and ceremonies that crop up on the calendar every year. In this way they learn to not only appreciate their cultural heritage, but also the relevance of the historic and symbolic underpinnings of Buddhist services and rituals.
The Kathina celebration this past weekend was no exception in regards to the roles played by the young people, and it is interesting to see how the shaping of this event evolved. First of all, Sunday Dhamma School, which has been in existence since the temple’s founding thirty-two years ago, has grown and thrived during the past year. Ven. Kalabululande Dhammajothi teaches the toddlers, Ven. Bambarawane Kalyanawansa teaches the “middles,” and I teach the older group – ages ten to seventeen (with one exception – Kavin Tennakoon, our eight-year-old “mascot,” who was given special permission to study with his brother Dhishal, age fourteen). Ven. Udagama Sumangala and Ven. Maitipe Wimilasara teach the parents while their children are in class, and as the children grew closer with one another the parents also grew closer and became good friends. As a result, eight of the children’s families decided they would jointly sponsor this year’s Kathina celebration.
The eight sponsoring families, their children, and other families and friends of the Dhamma School children worked like stevedores to get the temple in top shape, prepare the food and amenities, and produce the successful weekend event. During a seven-hour “work party” last Sunday one of the children, Pasindu Siriwardena, age twelve, looked up with a big smile when we were trimming trees together and said, “Stephen, I love working at the temple! We should do this at least every other month!” His willingness and amazingly good attitude was inspiring, to say the least. All of the children (including that of his brother Asiri’s, age sixteen) expressed the same positive feelings, which is not surprising since our senior class was named “Team Enlightenment” by one of its precocious students, and they’re actually serious about attaining this ultimate goal of all Buddhists, which they feel is within their reach if they keep up their practice. This goal is in keeping with this year’s 2,600th anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment, which inspired the team name. One of the students, Kalpa Semasinghe, age fourteen, who is an accomplished web and graphic designer, is creating a logo design for Team Enlightenment, so how could I resist promising to provide the T-shirts necessary for displaying the new logo?
Every Sunday we begin our class with meditation; the older kids know how important this is. Eight-year-old Tissun Bandara came up to me one Sunday and scolded me for not including him and his younger group in the meditation, so ever since then the “middles” join the older kids in this essential Buddhist practice. Tissun’s four-year-old brother Dewdunu also wants to meditate with the older kids, but Bhante Piyananda told him he has to wait a while. During the course of many Sundays we talked a lot about keeping up the meditation practice during the week, so one Sunday eleven-year-old Samodha Rajapakse announced to the class that she, her eight-year-old sister Sanduni, and her parents do meditation and Buddha puja at home every evening at nine. Since then, three other children in the class have reported that they had succeeded in getting their families to join together in daily meditation and worship as well. This is in spite of the intensely busy Southern California schedules these families live – all of them with both parents working full-time jobs. Guess what? The children are becoming very good meditators, and their Dhamma knowledge grows by the week.
What always surprises me – and the parents – is that the children actually want to come to class – making their parents drive them every Sunday from such distant places as Long Beach, Orange County, and the San Fernando Valley. This is in spite of the fact that traffic in Metro LA is always fierce – even on weekends. I’m sure the parents would rather relax and enjoy a day off the freeways, so our gratitude to the chauffeurs knows no bounds.
When the eight families (Chandrasena; De Alwis, their son Elsala and daughter Nikini; Perera, their son Shan and daughter Ayesha; Rajapakse; Semasinghe; Somapala, son Ruchira; Tennakoon; and Hettigoda, son Justin) got together and decided to sponsor this year’s Kathina, Bhante Piyananda once again determined that their children would be front and center. Dhishal Tennakoon, age fourteen, was assigned to give the welcome speech before the pirith began on Saturday evening, and all of the children chose to sit together and meditate, focusing on absorbing the metta energy radiating from the sacred suttas of the Buddha. The kids were inspired by Ven. Dr. Madawala Seelawimala’s (abbot of the Sacramento temple) opening address – as well as by the invitation to the devas to come down and join us, which was chanted by Ven. Buddhama Dammika, a visiting monk from Phoenix, Arizona. The lengthy opening sutta was chanted by talented Ven. Gajanayakagama Kassapa, who also built the pirith mandapa. I don’t think anyone even closed their eyes on Saturday night – including the tired children who enjoyed the chance to experience a rare “sleep-over” together at the temple. All of them were on-hand bright and early Sunday to attend the pirith nul and pan (thread and water) ceremony at 6:00 a.m., and they continued happily participating throughout the long day ahead.
Bhante Piyananda assigned Samodha Rajapakse to carry the sacred relics on her head, leading the procession of her fellow students who carried the other ritual objects on their heads. Bhante Piyananda said that such an honor was traditionally reserved only for males, which might have made Samodha the first young woman in history to have been given such an honor. Bhante stressed the point that the Buddha saw no distinction between males and females in regards to their capacity for enlightenment, and we all felt that the Buddha would have approved. Afterwards, Kalpa Semasinghe gave the introductory address before presenting the Sangha Dana to forty venerable Sangha members (including two bhikkhunis) from various parts of the US and other countries, and then the Dhamma School students served the food alongside their parents and friends.
The children, their parents, friends, and members of the Dayaka witnessed the last ceremony of the day when Ven. Howpe Somananda Nayaka Thera was presented with the finished ceremonial robe. Ven. Somananda, Chief Incumbent of Sri Mahaviharaya, Pamankada, Colombo, had spent the vas rainy season retreat in Los Angeles in the absence of Bhante Piyananda who had spent it teaching and meditating with Bhante Seelawimila at Bodh Gaya, India. We will all greatly miss Bhante Somananda, Bhante Piyananda’s teacher, when he returns to Sri Lanka next week. Ven. Maitipe Wimilasara was the weekend’s master of ceremonies, and his organizational and platform skills were much appreciated by everyone. Bhante Kalyanawansa and Bhante Dhammajothi also gave important speeches during the weekend celebrations, and Cynthia Shimazu (Bodhicari Cintamani) worked tirelessly behind the scenes on programs and countless details.
Clean-up didn’t end until after 6:00 p.m. Sunday, and the children, parents, and hard-working monks of Dharma Vijaya worked cheerfully – even though I know they were totally exhausted – putting things back in order. If this past weekend is any indication of the future of Buddhism in America, we can truly look forward to happy days ahead.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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