Fifty Years Away From Lanka & Counting: Part IV: ‘Sugunasiri helped shape the development of Buddhism in this country’ (Canada)
Posted on February 1st, 2015

By Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri, writing from Canada

Getting my PhD was first on the agenda upon return to Canada. Helping dig a canal in Lanka was inspirational enough. Why was there suffering in the world? So I chose to work on national development, organizing my thesis along the paradigm of the Four Noble Truths. My thesis, Humanistic Nationism: a Language- and Ideology-based Model of Development for Post-Colonial Nations, 1978 <http://hdl.handle.net/1807/4325> was called “extraordinary”, not by one, but two Examiners.

A few years later (1992), I would earn my third Master’s – in ‘the Scientific Study of Religion’, specializing in Buddhism. Resulting from it was my paper, “Whole Body, not Heart, the Seat of Consciousness: the Buddha’s View,” Philosophy East and West <https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/4320>. Ven. Buddhaghosa’s view (in the Visuddhimagga) was that Consciousness was in the heart. In my paper, I trace his view to the Upanishads.

But perhaps I’ve done a bit more in the field of Buddhism in Canada. Ask the Canadian Professors Victor Hori and Janet McLellan. Writing a Chapter in Wild Geese: Buddhism in Canada, 2010 (McGill-Queen’s U Press), they say ‘Sugunasiri helped shape the development of Buddhism in this country’ (p. 378).

I did? OK, if you say so.

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Wesak

I remember one early initiative – bringing the Buddhists together for the first time in Canada in 1980. In one stroke, what the Buddhist texts and cultures had put asunder, under questionable labels Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, Christian Canada had ironically helped put together! Imagine our happiness when the next year saw Wesak at City Hall, under a 30 ft banner of the Buddha, put up by the Vietnamese Buddhists. Said to be the first anywhere in North America, it was attended by a thousand people in pouring rain! Auspicious, wouldn’t you say? Elected Founding Coordinator of the newly formed Buddhist Federation of Toronto, I’d proposed the event, introducing the term Wesak to Canada. Since then, the event has been held, in one form or another, over the years.

2005 was special in this connection. Commemorating 100 Years of Buddhism in Canada (first Japanese Buddhist ‘Church’ established in 1905), we had the Buddhist flag heralded on the grounds at Queen’s Park, home to the Ontario government. This was another Canadian first (see photo) – raising the Buddhist flag on public soil.

Helping form the Buddhist Council of Canada in 1985, I was now traveling across Canada as President – to organize Chapters of BCC. Later, we held the first Buddhist Congress with participation of Regional Representatives. Part of the event was another first ever, and only – Canada-wide Wesak telecast over the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), me addressing my fellow Canadians in French. Did you say broken French? Nah!

Remember the old adage, ‘A good community worker is one that works her/himself out of a job’? So, finding the now expanding Buddhist community too dependent on me, I would step down as President. But alas, thanks to some Buddhist competition, BCC was not to last long. But, dormant for 25 years, I was to revive it in 2010. (See www.buddhistcouncil.ca for some recent activities.)

Buddhism in the Media

Wesak 1981 was a hit and now I was looking for a wider audience. Well, whaddaya know… Soon Buddhism was on candid camera – on a Community TV channel. We knew that the word had gotten around when invitations poured in. Now I was the face of the emerging winsome Buddhism in the Canadian media – TV, Radio and Print. On open-line TV and Radio, I would explain Buddhism to callers.

Invited to present Buddhism on an Evangelical TV program, it was, sorry, no holds barred: “God is a fiction of the human imagination”! Ahem! It zoomed into Christian homes across Canada. But on another TV appearance, I implored Canadians to light up from the rooftops to celebrate the birth of Lord Jesus. This was when Johnny-come-lately minorities, bringing their cultural baggage with them, were objecting to celebrating Christmas. I pointedly asked, “Isn’t it thanks to Christians that we’re all here?”

Becoming a Columnist on Buddhism at the Toronto Star (1990’s), I would deal with the bioethical issues of the day – abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, cloning, meditation, etc. (see https://www.academia.edu/ 8970828). One of my most popular columns was on the four letter word, when many a reader wrote to me in disgust of the emerging trend. Writing my columns in the Saturday Star, with a million readers across the country, I knew I was being read. It was the correspondence. Even my university colleagues were reading me.

Buddhist-Christian Dialogue, with the United Church of Canada, helped me open windows to a wider intellectual presence. Buddhists and Christians meditating together was energizing.

At a Buddhist-Jewish Dialogue held at a Synagogue, a Rabbi made no secret of why he was there. To plug a hole! More and more Jews were becoming Buddhists. He wanted to see just why.

Invited to be on an Ad Hoc Interfaith Committee on the Canadian Constitution, I wrote a Preamble, accommodating both God-believers and non-believers, including atheists. Hijacked by vested interests, and excluded in the final version, the Toronto Star gave me front page coverage, under the banner headline, ‘Buddhist protests ‘God’ in Constitution Preamble’. I wrote a Letter to the Editor that I wasn’t against God, but only wanted other Canadians included.

Buddhism in the Academy

Although I had been knee deep in Socially Engaged Buddhism, none of my four degrees (BA, MA, MEd, PhD) was on Buddhism. So it was that I’d enrolled in my third Master’s Program. Degree earned, I opened a third front – taking Buddhism to the Academy. I was now organizing Seminars and Conferences on Buddhism at Trinity College, University of Toronto, where I was on the Faculty of Divinity. The presentations varied from topical subjects (as e.g., Buddhism and Science, Women in Buddhism, Poverty in the Pali Canon, Buddhism in North America, Tibetan Medicine, etc.) to audiovisual presentations – Journeys to Sacred Buddhist Landscapes. I made a presentation on, surprise surprise, the ancient Anuradhapura Buddhist civilization. The Conferences were on ‘Buddhism After Patriarchy’ and on ‘Kierkegaard and Upaya in Mahayana Buddhism’.

Founding Editor of Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, I’ve just published the tenth issue.

However, my boldest academic venture was outside of the University – founding Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies (Canada) (2000), which, alas, now lies in a state of disrepair. The motto was ‘Cultivating a Community of Better Human Beings’. The Founder’s personal vision was, after the Buddha: “I do as I say; I say as I do”. Nalanda offered first a Certificate in Buddhist Studies. Meditation was mandatory but offered no credit.

Even today, while there are an increasing number of academic courses on Buddhism, no Canadian University offers a Program of Buddhist studies. I had developed a 4-year curriculum for a B A (Hons.) in Buddhadharma Studies, now wearing my educator hat. Approved by both evaluating committees set up by the quasi-government Provincial Educational Quality Assessment Board, it was recommended for approval. But the Minister thought otherwise. Consent declined!

So what? Nalanda gave me the opportunity to become a designer. Of what? An academic robe, using the five colours of the Buddhist flag (see photo). Now wasn’t that worth all the trouble that went into building a foundation for Buddhist studies in Canada?

Stepping down from Nalanda in 2008, I would give Canada an intellectual gift: a Vision for Buddhist Education in Canada.

A more recent initiative was my Four Lectures on Buddhism at the University of Havana, Cuba (2010). An early presentation that caught world attention was on the Buddhist view of the dead body, at an International Conference of Doctors and other Medical Practitioners. <https://www.academia.edu/7511257/The_Buddhist_View_Concerning_the_Dead_Body>. Many were the letters of inquiry I received, mostly from East European scholars.

Buddhism at Hotels!

But it was not at Nalanda I had the first opportunity to teach Buddhism to Canadians. There were first the Continuing Education courses at the University of Toronto and other private institutions. Church and Community Halls, and Hotel lounges provided other space. Among the course-takers were Executives, Media personalities, Teachers, working men in jeans and working women in high heels and mini skirts …

Mindfulness Meditation is a hit in North America today. But not then. What my adult students liked most was the ‘acknowledge and return’ technique of the Satipatthana Meditation, the Buddha’s ‘one-way street to nibbana’ (ekayano maggo). Car horns, air/heat conditioner humming, memories of good food or good times had, an itch to scratch, the urge to move, the monkey mind – whatever it is, not going after, not pushing away, but just acknowledge and return – to watching the breath. Busybodies doing meditation for the first time in particular were happy to get a reprieve from the day’s stresses.

Any good sculptors?

In their chapter in Wild Geese: Buddhism in Canada, 2010, Professors Hori of McGill University and McLellan of Wilfred Laurier University write: “Sugunasiri’s life .. is an example of how one man has dedicated his life to Buddhism.” (p. 378). I’m said to hold a lotus to the rock until it takes root. Would you allow me some happiness, then, to say that I have seen not just the roots, but the flowering of the rock itself! Could there be more happiness than seeing the results of one’s work in one’s own lifetime?

Featured in Canadian Who’s Who, I am a ‘National Treasure’ on Vision TV – not so much for my work on Buddhism, but on a whole host of others, including Literature, Canadian and Sri Lankan (see http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2013/05/05/mon01.asp).

I know you’re all good sculptors. So can you now kindly show me the shape of Buddhism in Canada I’ve said to have helped develop? Thanks. Ain’t it pretty! But, hey, let’s not get carried away here. I was only turning the ignition key. It was the other conditions that made it all happen. So don’t put all the blame on me! Thank you.

But thank you Canada, for the opportunity to spread my wings…. Now that the secret is out, tell me, did I need Canada or did Canada need me? Both or neither? You be the judge.

And I hope I’ve helped energize your Metta ‘friendliness’ and Karuna ‘compassion’, reading my escapades, in four parts. Won’t you then kindly let me stop? Thank you.

Wishing you the best in health and happiness!

(US Fulbright Scholar, Buddhist Scholar, Buddhist Fieldworker, poet and novelist, Prof. Sugunasiri’s latest breakthrough research is on the Agganna Sutta (http://dhammawheel.com/ viewtopic.php?f=14&t=21993.) in which the Buddha unfolds the universe, found to be compatible with the western scientific view. in Canadian Buddhism. He  is featured in Wild Geese: Buddhism in Canada, 2010 (Eds: John Harding, Victor Hori & Alex Soucy, McGill-Queen’s U Press) for his leadership of over three decades and on https://buddhistfictionblog.wordpress.com for his “extraordinary first novel”, Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, available at Vijita Yapa.)

(Part I (“On my Fulbright: a Bahubootaya at Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, USA!”) appeared on Dec. 7, 2014, Part II (“First Humanities Fulbright Scholar”) on Dec. 21, and Part III (“A Second Degree for Swarna and a ‘Re-entry Casualty’”) on Jan. 3, 2015.)

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