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An Encounter with the Unknown:
The Difficulties of a Theravada Monk in the United States
<March, 1994>
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A talk by Ven. Walpola Piyananda

In 1983, Anagarika Dharmapala, the great Sri Lankan pioneer in the revival and expansion of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and in its native land of India, was the first Theravada Buddhist to set foot in the United States. While the depth of the impression he made has been recorded for posterity in great detail, in fact, there were few consequences of his visit. The United States was not really for Buddhism or Buddhists.

Little by little Buddhist communities grew, mainly of immigrant Asians, but Buddhism had little effect on society. After World WarⅡ, there were Theravada monks who came to United States, yet America was as much a mystery to Therava monks as Buddhism was to Americans.

A Personal Introduction to the U.S.A.
While I had a formal education and many years of experience in my native Sri Lanka before coming to the United States, I must confess I was as mystified as any when I arrived in the United States. It was at the invitation of the Gold Mountain Monastery in Northern California that I came to the United States, arriving in San Francisco for the bicentennial celebration day, July 4, 1976. After a couple of weeks, an American friend of mine helped me to relocate at the International Buddhist Meditation center in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles certainly wasn't made for Theravada village monks! When I first arrived, food was quite a problem. Of course I had no money, and no notion of cooking for myself. I went on pindapat, and only avoided dying of hunger because I found some local Thai who were Rather happy to feed the strange monk who spoke no language they knew.

My initial experiences were trying and embarrassing: I was mistaken for a Hari Krishna street person; I was spat on, laughed at, and verbally abused. My ignorance of U.S. culture and geography led me to arrive in Chicago on Christmas Day wearing only my traditional civara and sandals. Fortunately, I learn fast!

Cultural and societal problems were almost overwhelming. The Sri Lankans here, though they had immigrated to the United States of their own free will and knew they were not in Sri Lanka, expected an ideal, perfect village monk. They didn't want to see a monk wearing shoes, socks, or sweaters. They couldn't bear to see a monk even shaking hands with women. This was difficult as in dealing with Americans if I refused to shake hands, people took offense.

The conflict between trying to live up to somebody's idea of what a monk should be, and trying to bring the essence of my beliefs to the United States, finally led to a break up with the first temple I was associated with. That temple, frankly, was run by lay people who wanted to have a monk fit their image. The tight group which controlled the first temple wanted nothing to do with any who weren't Sinhalese Buddhists. This meant they didn't want to work with, and didn't want me to work with Thais, Cambodians, or other Sri Lankans such as Tamils. Finally, I was led to start a temple, with my colleague Ven. Pannila Ananda and Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara, who was on sabbatical from his post in Sri Lanka at that time. We were encouraged by more rationally thinking Sri Lankans as well as by the considerable number of other Asians and Americans whom I had come to know by that time.

Theravada Buddhism Meets America
I constantly faced the challenge of meeting the social customs of the United States head on, dealing with things which did not seem to coincide with the letter of the Vinaya, our Buddhist monastic code of discipline. I needed to drive, as Los Angeles is virtually uninhabitable if you can't get around, and it certainly makes a monk useless if he cannot reach his community. In addition, I studied at several universities and was myself often invited to give talks to groups which were not necessarily Buddhist. This often meant shaking hands with all in attendance, regardless of sex. I had to take a rational attitude towards the application of my discipline to the social realities of life here. This theme would spread to other areas of my life too.

In American we were faced with another new reality: not only did we have Christians and Jews all around us, we found ourselves faced with something equally unique: a plurality of Buddhist groups, Theravada and Mahayana Thai, Cambodian, Burmese, Lao, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Tibetan. We came into contact with groups like the Japanese Jodo Shinshu, which is staffed by lay ministers, as well as with new traditions like that started by the Vietnamese pioneering monk Ven. Dr. Thich Thien An. It suddenly became necessary to overcome linguistic, ethnic, national, and denominational difference and find common group as Buddhists, for the good of all our communities. A lot of pioneering work in this area has been done by the Founder-President of the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California, Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara. The key has been learning to give and take with other groups and social realities of the United States, while still keeping our own practice within the Theravade tradition.

Theravada Buddhism: Integrating Itself Into America
Encouraged by the warm reception we have had over the past fifteen years, we have seen the need to overcome restrictions which were clearly cultural, and have found the courage to help our understanding of Buddhism become part of late 20th century America.

In Theravada tradition, which represents the earliest extant tradition in Buddhism, due to social circumstances, the Bhikkhuni(Nuns) order became extinct. Due to legalistic interpretation of texts, it was determined to be impossible to ordain nuns, and so women in Theravada countries have had their opportunities to participate in religion somewhat limited for the past many centuries. In Northern, Mahayana traditions, the tradition of nuns has lived on strong. This led many forward thinking Theravada leaders to look into the possibility of re-initiating the order of nuns. According to early texts, this would be permissible, but was given, at best, reluctant support by high ranking Sangha members(monks) in Sri Lanka or other Theravada countries.

Yet the leading Theravada monks in the United States, including Ven. Dr. Ratanasara of our Vihara, Ven. Dr. Henepola Gunaratana, and Ven. Kurunegoda Piyatissa, all came out in favor of ordination of women and encouraged us to continue. At our temple as well as at the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, where Ven. Gunaratana is abbot, samaneri(women novices) have been ordained. It is a first step, but not yet a complete success. There have been great financial difficulties, because, according to tradition, bhikkhunis should be housed in their own monastery. There has as yet not been money(or enough people to staff it) for this endeavor. At any rate, the ice has been broken, and it is just a matter of time before Theravadans no longer have to make excuses for the position of women in the organized religion. The Buddha fully respected the capacities of all human beings, and we follow in his footsteps to the best of our abilities.

There have been other innovations, in keeping with the social needs of America. One was the simple matter of creating a marriage ceremony which would satisfy Western tastes and legal requirements yet keep a Buddhist flavor. We now have a very simple but sincere ceremony which marries couples American style, in a Buddhist context.

An important problem we face for the future is how Americans will come to direct Buddhism in this country. Buddhism is still quite Asian, and is usually directed by Asians. The ordination of Americans in the Theravada tradition is not easy because of the financial burden and responsibilities facing most Americans and because the monastic tradition is foreign to most Americans. We have faced this by introducing a three-tiered Buddhist lay training system. The first is "upasaka", essentially any person who takes the five basic Buddhist precepts not to take life, not to take what is not ours, not to commit sexual misconduct, not to lie or hurt others with our speech, and not to use substances which prevent clear thinking. This exists in all Buddhist traditions.

Next is the Dhammacari, which was introduced by Sangharakkhita of the Western Buddhist Order. He had been ordained in India under the auspices of Dharmapala and the Maha Bodhi Society. This includes a few more precepts.

The most innovative is the Bodhicari, which we have introduced specially. The Bodhicari takes 12 precepts, including the first three as above, plus abstention from lying, tale-bearing, harsh speech, and idle chatter; abstention from intoxicants; abstention from wrong livelihood; intention to live every moment with loving-kindness towards all living beings; intention not to revile the three treasures of the Buddha, his teachings, and his disciples; and the intention to practice the ten perfections with compassion and skill. The Bodhicari is in effect a Buddhist minister. We hope to give more responsibility and authority to those holding this ordination in the future.

As we mentioned initially, Anagarika Dharmapala planted seeds of Theravada here one hundred years ago, but no roots grow from this immediate effort. However, since 1965, with the founding of the first Theravada Vihara, temple, in the United States, the Washington Buddhist Vihara, the progress has been positive.

There are now over 200 Theravada centers in North America, including about a dozen Sri Lankan centers, with the others being principally Thai, Cambodian, and Laotian, plus other traditions. Most of the 200 centers really appeal mostly to their ethnic community, with the exceptions of Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles, and the Bhavana Society in West Virginia. In addition, Ven. Madawala Seelawimala serves as an important link to Jodo Shinshu and other Mahayana traditions as the official Theravada teacher at the Jodo Shinshu seminary in Berkeley, California. As for Dharma Vijaya and the Bhavana Society, the latter is mostly an education and meditation center for Americans, whereas Dharma Vijaya is a "full service" temple, providing all its services for a variety of communities including Sinhalese, other Sri Lankan, Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, and Americans. We also have some participants from traditionally Mahayana countries like Japan, Korea, and China.

It's been a long time since I arrived just in time for the "rocket's red glare" on Independence Day 1976, and since I discovered what cold really is, that Christmas Day in Chicago. Yet the time has flown by. We have put all our efforts into making Buddhism a part of America, helping members to profit from it and others to understand it. Yet there is a long way to go. I hope this little talk contributes some to your understanding. In the spirit of the World Parliament of Religions, and in memory of Anagarika Dharmapala, I would like to conclude with a short Buddhist blessing:

May the sufferers be free suffering, may the sick be free from illness,
May the grieving be free from grief, may all be well and happy.
----
Dukkhappatta ca niddukkha, bhayappatta ca nibbhaya Sokappatta ca nissoka, hontu sabbepi panino.


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