Rolling the dhamma wheel in Cuba
Posted on April 28th, 2018

History was made on April 07, 2018 on Cuban soil when 25 or so Cubans, out of a head count of 75 or so attending, came to be initiated into Buddhism in capital city Havana. Held at the Museo Nacional de BellasArtes, Edificio de Arte Cubana, Sala de Audiovisuales (Audiovisual room …..of the National Museum), this is the first known formal introduction of Buddhism to Cuba. The initiation was conducted by Bhante Mihita of Canada, in the presence of three senior Bhikkhus from Canada who graced the occasion – Venerables Wimalabuddhi and Ratanasiri (Sinhala tradition) of the Toronto Mahavihara and Ajahn Punnadhammo (Thai tradition) of the Arrow River Forest Hermitage, of Thunder Bay, Ontario. The Sangha members, seated in chairs draped in white, had made the visit to Cuba for the occasion.


Section of the crowd at the event

The initiation was part of the program of Encuentro 2018, an annual event held in Havana. It was under the title ‘Living Buddhism’, itself made up of two parts: ‘Living Buddhism I- Sangha’ and ‘Living Buddhism II – Lay’. As per the Proposal submitted from Canada, the objective of the Lay activity read as follows:

Objectives of the Program “Living Buddhism: Lay”

In Western society, the exclusive focus in relation to Buddhism is on Meditation, towards individual liberation. While liberation indeed needs to be everyone’s goal, it is an unrealistic expectation when it comes to the average ‘individual in family/community/society’. The ‘Living Buddhism – Lay’ Program is intended to introduce, to one and all, how to live a Buddhist life, in a mundane family and social living setting, bringing personal and social happiness, good health and healthy long life. The moral life encouraged and lived on a daily basis is intended to be conducive to an eventual goal of liberation, in this life or another, the moral life lived in this life being the very steps towards Nibbana.

Living the Buddhist life begins by having Trust in the Buddha, by no means through blind faith, but in a ‘reasoned trust’ – that the Dhamma brings happiness, health and long life, to the individual, family, community, society and world. The proposed Program, then, is to initiate interested participants to take Refuge in the three Gems – Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, and undertake to live by the ‘Five Training Principles of self-discipline’ (Pancasila) – abstention from taking life, stealing, sexual misconduct, wrongful language and misconduct in liquor and drugs.

But once initiated, how does one continue to cultivate self-discipline on an ongoing basis in our busy lives? This explains the second component – Homage to the Buddha (Buddhapuja). Practicing Homage on a daily basis, individually and/or in a whole family setting, keeping us reminded of the Pancasila, is a sure-fire way of helping to keep the religious fires going, with the practical gains of happiness and a healthy long life individually, with resulting family and social cohesion and professional success – in politics, economy, academy, fine arts, media, etc. While the compassionate Buddha would want nothing less of his followers than ending one’s Dukkha ‘suffering’, the pragmatist in him also offers spiritual protection. The third component of the proposed Program, Paritta chanting, then speaks to this, when the Sangha members will chant some Suttas (Discourses), in an authentic, musical but calming, ‘Intonational Speaking’ (sarabhanna) style, in order to calmingly bring spiritual blessings to every citizen and the country at large.

Opening this Part II, the initiation comprised of Homage to the Buddha (Namaskaraya), Taking Refuge in the three Gems – Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha (Tisarana) and the Five Training Principles – (Pancasila). In a pedagogical exercise, the lines were broken down into word segments to make the repeating easy for the initiates. Prior to inviting the participants to repeat after, an explanation was given of the three-step process, as well as the meaning of the Pali words. Following the initiation, each of the new Buddhists paid obeisance to the Buddha three times, and then to each of the Sangha members. While some, including a 100-year old lady, did the five-point touch (pasangapihituva), as demonstrated, others paid homage standing.

Incense sticks and candlelight, passed along hand to hand of the newcomers, were offered to a one-foot, all white, sitting Buddha gracing a table draped in a white cloth. The Homage was followed by a small scale Buddhapuja, conducted by Ven. Wimalabuddhi, in Pali, as the new initiates, standing, clasped their palms chest high. Time constraints did not allow a Paritta chanting.

Everyone now seated in their chairs by the end of the event, the meaning of the Buddhapujawas explained, when there was a brief Question and Answer period. The initiation ended with the distribution of a few copies of books on Buddhism in Spanish translation. One was an Introduction to Buddhism, and the other a translation of the Digha Nikaya.

Asked during the Question period how they could get in touch with one or more of the Bhantes, a concensus emerged for two meetings with Bhante Mihita on Monday, April 9, at a Park (Parque Almendares), at 10 am and 5 pm.

If that gives an overview of the Pat II of the Program, Part I was a presentation by the three Venerables, speaking on the topic, “My Life as a Monk”. The objective of this Panel, as per the Proposal, read as follows:

Objectives of the Panel Presentation under “Living Buddhism: Sangha”

The Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha constitute the ‘Triple Gem’ in Buddhism. The Buddha is the first Gem, having discovered the reality of the world and helping Sentient Beings to minimize their Dukkha ‘suffering’. Dhamma ‘Teachings’ is the second ‘Gem’, as recorded in the Tripitaka ‘Three Baskets’. The Sangha, the Buddha’s Disciples, both male and female, earn the honour of being the third ‘Gem’, because

a. they are the very epitome of the ideal life as per the Buddha’s Teachings, governed as they are by a rigorous code of conduct. Living a simple life, with no personal possessions, they depend on the community for their food.

b. they also play the critical role of bringing the Dhamma to the public, and are the society’s guide to the understanding of reality, facilitating everyday happiness and good health, spiritual cultivation and eventual Liberation (Nibbana).

However, while they serve the public, their life is an extremely private one. The purpose of the Panel, then, is to provide that extremely rare opportunity to learn about the life of a monk, in the words of the Sangha members themselves. The makeup of the Panel seeks to reflect the geo-ethnocultural diversity of the Sangha membership in Theravada, the oldest Buddhist tradition of over two millennia.

The ethnocultural diversity at the event, however,was not as wide as had been expected. The Sangha complement was to be made up of two others -Ven. Buddharakkhita (Sinhala tradition) of Uganda, the first African monk, and Ven. Nandisena (Burmese tradition) of Mexico of the first and only Theravada Centre in Latin America, had made all arrangements to make the visit when unexpectedly, they had to withdraw.

As pre-planned, this part of the program included a surprise, another historic event – the ordination of a Buddhist monk, again perhaps the first on Cuban soil. From the speeches of the Sangha, the audience will have got an understanding of the life of a Buddhist monk. But how does one become a monk in the first place? The ordination was intended to provide a model for any Cuban who may, in the future, wish to be a Buddhist monk. Indeed the model for introducing the ordination was Arahant Mahinda when he came with his lay nephew Bhanduka, but ordained him on Tambapanni soil (as it was then called) after allowing King Devanampiyatissa to ascertain that indeed these were humans and there was no reason for concern. And it was to allay any concerns Cubans may have about being ordained that encouraged the inclusion of the ordination.

At the end of the process, taking the vows of a Samanera (novitiate) monk in the presence of the three elders, me, Professor Sugunasiri – the long-time Buddhist spokesman in Canada, emerged as Bhante Mihita. The ordination at 82 years of age may perhaps be counted as a case among the oldest to be initiated into the Sanghahood.

Helping critically in the total program was the Canadian couple Suren Fernando and Ramya Weligodapola who had flown in for the special occasion, bringing with them as well the one-foot or so all-white sitting Buddha statue, and some books on Buddhism in Spanish. Translation from Sinhala to Spanish was done by Lalith Rohana Samarajeeva, a Cuban resident of Sri Lankan origin and his Cuban wife. Kind support for the total program came from the Sri Lankan Ambassador A. L. Ratnapala.

While the initiation was an unpublished item of the Program, an announcement had been made the day before that the opportunity to become a Buddhist would be available the next day. This was following a presentation by me, while still a layman the day before, invited for Encuentro 2018 Program held at Theatro Mello. Titled ‘Buddha dhamma as Science in Praxis’, it sought to show how the Buddha’s discoveries of reality as they had come to be were arrived at empirically, i.e., after the fact, and not speculatively or mythologically. If that was the Science, applying them to help minimize suffering in sentient beings was the praxis.

The presentation, made in Spanish drawing upon a translated text, also gave a historical account of Prince Siddhartha leaving the household life and ending up first as an Arahant, and then as Buddha, introducing in the process, the key figures in his life – mother Mahamaya, father King Suddhodana, nursing mom Mahapajapati Gotami, wife Yasodhara and son Rahula. His principal Teachings – Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, etc. introduced, outlined were also his Teachings on economic and social living. Explaining the second Noble Truth – the elimination of suffering, the self-discipline of the Five Training Principles (Pancasila) was shown to be the route to managing the Thirsts of sentient beings. While pointing out that it is meditation that would be the route to the total elimination of attachments and clingings (tanha and upadana), ie Nibbana, the point was stressed how, in the Buddha’s Teachings, it only comes after the practice of dana ‘generosity’ and sila ‘self-discipline’. The presentation ended by outlining 10 or more features of Cuban society compatible with the Teachings of the Buddha, such as e.g., individual freedom, gender parity, social harmony, spiritual harmony, cleanliness, a caring government offering free education, health and a basic food ration, etc. The compatibility was to be visually captured at the event by placing the Cuban flag, made up of two stripes – blue and white, with a star on a red background, beside the Buddhist flag of five colour stripes –blue, white and red, plus yellow and orange.

An associated success in introducing Buddhism to Cuban soil was planting the seed of the idea of dana ‘alms-giving’ in the Cuban mind. Understandably, tourists are a primary source of income for the Cuban economy, and the people not being so well off, offering anything free for non-locals may be something that may be too much to expect. However, the idea planted, it is with great merit to them that alms for the Sangha were offered by Cubans of different strata. Interestingly, the first to offer was a Catholic priest, followed by two professors and our interpreter. If these were personally known ones, five of the of the new initiates were to join ranks as well in offering alms to sustain the Sangha for two weeks. To repeat, I had emphasized, in my Seminars at the University of Havana in 2017 as well as in my Encuentro 2018 presentation, how meditationis not the first,as many a western teacher might put it, but the last in the series Dana, Sila, Bhavana.

The total program in 2018 being my brainchild, this was my third contribution towards helping Cubans benefit from the wisdom and the compassion of the Buddha. During the earlier two initiatives, I had had the occasion to give, by invitation, four Seminars on Buddhism at the University of Havana, in 2010 and six seminars last year (2017). But what I found to be of great interest was that the University Seminar six was on meditation, 40 participants coming dressed in white, heeding a call. Part of my 2017 visit was additionally leading eight groups in meditation, outside of the university – in a Theatre, parks, Roman Catholic Church, etc.

The following ‘Personal Reflection’, ending the Proposal, speaks to my interest in the Cuban project:

I am happy to be able to make my humble contribution towards a successful Encuentro 2018. It is my expectation that the proposed program will help the Cuban people to gain a healthy understanding of the Buddha dhamma, i.e., the Buddha’s Teachings, as well as Buddhism in practice. My confident hope and conviction is also that there may result, over time, a spiritual revolution that will help bring about a happy, healthy and contended Cuban people, towards continuing political stability, social harmony and world peace. But equally important could be an economic prosperity, not along the lines of unbridled Capitalism, but along the Principles of Buddhist Economics, promotive and supportive of a continuing social equity and social justice as in contemporary Cuban society.

However, it may be of some passing interest that it was none of these lofty ideals that first took me to Cuba in my lay family life. It was the sun, the warm waters and the rolling waves of the Varadero beach, over 10 years ago. Driving to Havana in a rented car, it was mere curiosity that took us to the University of Havana. But going around the campus of the 100 or so year old historic university, none did we meet who spoke English. And then, almost when we were leaving, somebody pointed out to a Professor who was about to get into his car to leave. Catching him in quick time, and introducing myself as a Buddhist scholar, it was to my amazement that he said that without Buddhism, we can’t understand the world! He was also to say that there were Cuban psychologists who were interested in Buddhism. Right then and there emerged my interest in introducing Buddha dhamma to Cuba. All of the initiatives as outlined above, then, can be said to have been conditioned by that chance meeting, although I would like to say that it was conditioned by some unknown force, better, kammic hand.

(Bhante Mihita is the former Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri, of Toronto, Canada, author of Dhamma Aboard Evolution, (on the Aganna Sutta), Arahant Mahinda – Redactor of the Buddhapuja in Sinhala Buddhism and Triune Mind, Triune Brain. His current research is on Gandhabba, the third partner in conception. His novel, Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey (online) seeks to capture a country of Buddhist praxis in all its history back from contemporary times.)

2 Responses to “Rolling the dhamma wheel in Cuba”

  1. Nihal Perera Says:

    We wish Bhante Mihita a very successful priesthood.

    We also hope he will concentrate mainly on spreading the Dhamma, and serve the Buddhist community in Toronto, rather than talking about his personal and academic achievements which he used to do when he was teaching at the U of T.

    Becoming a priest means giving up all the worldly attachments and desires, including one’s ego.

  2. Ancient Sinhalaya Says:

    Today in this scientific age people (honest only) all over the world understand only Buddhism passes the science test
    with flying colours while all other religions fail miserably. Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution completely destroyed
    the creator god myth. Then his book The Tree of Life explained how all these different species came to being just like
    Lord Buddha explained over 2,500 years ago. Today all the scientific community plus honest people accept the Theory
    to be 100% true. What’s more Christianity’s last 5 commandments are Buddhism’s five precepts. One has to reember
    Buddhism was founded 543 years prior to Christianity. Further more, NASA’s missions have destroyed the existence
    of a creator god myth completely. Today all honest people know the earth size is a grain of sand in the vast vast
    universe where the distances are measured in light years (light travels at speed of 186,000 miles per second) and
    no scientist knows where the edges are. A god creating such a vast place can only be fiction!

    One might ask if the Theory of Evolution is true, no more evolution. Lord Buddha explained that too. You could say
    evolution is like 0,,,,,,,,,,1; started from nothing 3000 million years ago and evolved and evolved. 1 being the humans
    and ,,,,,, are all other species. Lord Buddha explained you are reborn and could be 1 or below. But if you escape
    being reborn that’s the end of birth cycle for that human by attaining nirvana. Makes perfect sense. It’s all science.
    Buddhism and science are one and the same!

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