How did you come to Buddhism?
I am from birth! My family has included monks and nuns for generations. This is often the case in Sri Lanka, where Theravada Buddhism is deeply rooted. From kindergarten, I went every Sunday to the Dhamma School, attached to the monastery, which taught Buddhism to children. At ten, I knew I wanted to become a monk. I joined the temple in my village, where my master Mahagma Somarathana Thero taught me Buddhism in the Pali language, the original language of Buddha.
You are responsible for the Maha Body Society of India in Bodhgaya. This very important institution of Theravada is also the largest Buddhist society in the country. How did you get here?
I first visited India in 2005 at an MBSI congress in Sarnath, where I taught until 2015 when the Society gave me the branch in Delhi. I was then secretary general, responsible for logistics, reception of monks, programs, organization, external activities and our hospital… Then, in 2019, I was appointed to the same position here in Bodh-Gaya, where Buddhists from all over the world flock to meditate on the tree where Siddhartha Gautama reached awakening.
What is the object of the Maha Bodi?
First, to teach Buddhism in Pali, to federate the Indian sangha of Theravada Buddhists and to preserve the country's important Buddhist heritage. But, in Bodh-Gaya, with the influx of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, we do many other things: sightseeing in the places where the Buddha lived, teachings with different great masters, cultural performances during Buddhist festivities and accommodation with 25 rooms. We also have a school and a hospital for the poorest.
The Maha Bodi defends the Theravada tradition: what are the key principles of this so-called most "original" Buddhist current? What distinguishes it, for example, from Mahayana?
Theravada is considered to be the ancient and original Buddhism. This school emphasizes wisdom or deep understanding, whereas Mahayana places greater emphasis on loving-kindness, compassion and emptiness with its famous phrase "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form". In Theravada, everyone relies only on themselves to progress on the path. The main thing is to control one's mind and this essentially involves the development of wisdom through meditative practice, partly based on the observation of oneself, one's thoughts, one's breathing. In the Mahayana, we can help ourselves with means such as sounds (bell, drum, various musical instruments), prayers, mantras, mandalas. It is a Buddhism that is more involved in society and turned towards others, more in action.
Wisdom is linked to the notion of the Arhat in the Theravada and to that of the Bodhisattva in the Mahayana: what differentiates them?
For the Theravada, the Wisdom, the awakened Being is the one who has freed himself from all his defilements and has reached nirvana. For the Mahayana, he is the one who has vowed to stay in the world to help all living beings to get rid of suffering. In the Theravada, we also have this notion of Bodhisattva, but it is rather seen as a state of being “awakened” before achieving perfect awakening.
Why is meditative practice so essential in Theravada?
We believe that only the assiduous practice of meditation can allow us to access understanding and enlightenment. Theravada is very demanding and would almost require a monastic commitment to fully practice. Because, in this tradition, it is only by following the strict rules dictated by the Buddha (277 for monks, 311 for nuns) that man can hope to achieve liberation. In the Mahayana, only 10 rules are strict. This central place of meditation sometimes results in us being seen by other Buddhist currents as being too turned towards ourselves, towards an interior and contemplative world.
“For the Theravada, the Wisdom, the awakened Being is the one who has freed himself from all his defilements and has reached nirvana. For the Mahayana, he is the one who has vowed to stay in the world to help all living beings to get rid of suffering. »
The Maha Bodhi Society of India was created in 1891 with the aim of reviving Buddhism, at half mast in its native land of India: what is it today?
When the Venerable Anagarika Dhamapala, Sri Lankan, founded the MBSI in 1891, it had been eight centuries since Buddhism had almost disappeared from India. Thanks to his action, he began to grow again: 1% of Indians to date. The MBSI was at the origin with Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution, of the conversion to Buddhism of the Hindu Dalits (the untouchables in the caste system) and the Muslims, which allowed them to escape discrimination of newly independent Hindu India in 1947. The MBSI has spread the practice of meditation and the teachings a lot by opening several centers in India, offering lectures, the visit of great masters and many other activities.
Are more Indians practicing Buddhism?
Today, even if they are Hindus, more and more people practice Buddhism and a majority chooses Theravada. Their religion recognizes the Buddha as the 9th avatar of their god Vishnu. He is for them a great spiritual master. The Buddhist symbol of the Wheel of Law is also in the center of the Indian flag. Since I have been in charge of the MBSI centres, every year I have seen an increasing number of Indians of all generations come to the teachings and meditation sessions. It is most encouraging. We are going to intensify our actions, because making Indians aware of Buddhism means reconnecting them to their cultural and spiritual roots.