Venerable Chandaratana: from Sri Lanka to Paris, the epic of the founder of the Center Bouddhique International du Bourget

- through Sophie Solere

Published on

In 1989, the small suburban lodge housed a single Buddhist monk who had arrived from Sri Lanka. Today, the place is a Buddhist center of international stature and a community of great diversity. Interview with its founder, the Venerable Chandaratana, who considers France to be his “second native country”.

Venerable sir, when did you arrive in France and why?

I arrived in France in 1981, as an archeology student, with a one-year visa. I was 27 years old. I had worked in Sri Lanka with Doctor Roland Silva, founder of the Cultural Triangle, and it was thanks to his help that I was able to begin the journey. Roland Silva knew Professor Jean Boisselier very well, to whom he recommended me. At our first meeting, Jean Boisselier greeted me in a Buddhist manner, invited me to his home and then gave me everything I could need for my studies.

The beginning was a bit difficult, because I was taking archeology courses, but I didn't speak French well enough. So I went to Paris VIII to study French and the history of religions, and I did my master's there on "The principles ofAshoka and contemporary philosophy. Materially, the Cambodian and Vietnamese communities provided me with invaluable support for my installation and my studies by offering me accommodation solutions; they also made administrative procedures easier for me.

At the time, I also benefited from the assistance of the Sri Lankan ambassador to UNESCO. All this being interspersed with a stay in England, where I had to spend some time before being able to renew my visa.

Did you already have the idea of ​​creating a Buddhist center or, at least, of teaching Buddhism?

I had come in the first place to study archaeology, but at the time, the Sri Lankan community wanted a monastery to practice. In 1984, the Dhammachakka Buddhist Association was founded in Ermont to create the first Sri Lankan temple in the country. I stayed there for two years serving the local community. At the same time, I went to the Sorbonne to do my doctorate with Professor Michel Hulin, on the “Ideological debate between Christians and Buddhists in Sri Lanka in the XNUMXth century”. I made a trip to the United States to consult some of the necessary documentation there. I passed my DEA and finally didn't go any further, but I met a lot of people and in particular a lot of French people interested in Buddhism.

I then left Ermont, whose community wished to remain centered very exclusively on the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka. For my part, I saw the need for an opening.

In 1986, the International Buddhist Association was founded. The vice-president, now a centenarian, has helped us enormously. I consider her as my French grandmother. Another Frenchman, a devout Buddhist, then allowed me to move into an apartment he had, in the 1987th arrondissement of Paris, to pursue religious activities there. In XNUMX we began publishing what is now our journal, Sambodhi, in the form of a modest pamphlet.

Can you remind us of the very beginnings of the Center Bouddhique International du Bourget?

A typical small suburban house was purchased in 1988, rue Firmin Bourgeois in Le Bourget. There was land at the back, on which a wooden building was then built to transform the whole into a temple capable of accommodating monks and lay faithful. The Sri Lankan and Laotian communities played an essential role, in particular six Sri Lankan families who stood as joint guarantors to obtain the granting of a loan intended for the purchase of the pavilion and the land. The house first housed Venerable Tawalama Dhammika and myself from January 1989. The International Buddhist Center was officially inaugurated on September 17, 1989 with the blessing of Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maithri Mahanayaka, in the presence of the Ambassador of Sri Lanka at the time. Then we expanded little by little to reach the current state, the original small pavilions and a very beautiful sustainable building built with the help of the faithful, on two levels at the back, in a garden.

Were you alone at the time?

Yes. Venerable Tawalama Dhammika (who currently directs the International Buddhist Center in Geneva) was with me from January 1989 and the first monk invited by the Center was Venerable Indaratana, master of the Venerable Dhammika. He had brought a Bodhi tree, thus establishing an essential tradition of our center: the annual gift of a Bodhi tree to Buddhist communities throughout France. We then invited other monks, from Sri Lanka and other Asian countries, but also French monks.

“I explain the practice of metta, kindness, my listeners are usually interested, but everything changes when it comes to practice, because they always want a result right away. The Buddha's teaching is a way of life; you have to be patient to understand it and live it. »

We quickly did and continue to do a huge job of teaching, supporting communities and disseminating through translation, publications – more than thirty books and the journal Sambodhi which has been expanded with special editions. In addition to the ceremonies that we organize at the Center, we also participate in many celebrations uniting the communities of the different Buddhist schools.

The lay community today is very diverse, with people coming from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, France, etc. Has it always been this way or has the diversification taken place over time?

At first, we only had French people and a Vietnamese! I have always wanted to open a center that is very open and not closed in on itself, with one tradition exclusively.

What was the reaction of residents and local authorities during your installation?

When I arrived at Le Bourget, there were four apartments in the building opposite, with four French families. No one had ever seen a Buddhist monk. They weren't hostile, but worried, reserved. Then they approached us to the point of becoming the engine of real estate purchases! They attended the inauguration of the Center and participated in the celebrations. The community has also been at the side of these families, who have become friends, in the good and bad times of life. The mayor in office when we moved in, André Cadot, was very nice and gave us a lot of support. He lived on the same street!

A memory of special moments in the history of the temple and the community?

The visit of Venerable Ananda Maitreya in 1989. His teachings were recorded and still today we listen to them again and still learn something from them. The arrival of the mayor for his first visit to the center in 1993. And, of course, the nun's annual party Sanghamitta, during which we donate a Bodhi tree to a community. This tradition has become so popular that there is now a waiting list!

How do you see the future of the Centre?

I'm not attached to anything, I wanted to leave, but it takes someone to carry on. I would like it to be a Frenchman, who has sufficient knowledge of Buddhism and could take over. But French people who become monks generally want to leave and settle in Asia. The problem is also the impatience of Westerners, who want immediate results. But I trust it will come...

To broaden our point, how do you see the help that Buddhism can bring to the men and women of the XNUMXst century, in Western societies confronted with all the current problems?

All the problems encountered today are caused by our attachment. Most people I meet get scared if you talk to them about death. I always explain that death is not the end, but is situated in a continuity. This is a big problem in French society. I explain the practice of metta, kindness, my listeners are usually interested, but everything changes when it comes to putting it into practice, because they always want a result right away. The Buddha's teaching is a way of life; you have to be patient to understand it and live it.

What advice can you give to both Buddhists and non-Buddhists to live peacefully on a daily basis, particularly in the current crisis?

There are four important things in the Buddha's teaching that can contribute to helping humanity achieve peace. These are the Four Sublime States: 'metta', benevolent kindness – 'karuna', compassion – 'mudita', sympathetic joy and 'upekkha', equanimity. It is not easy to practice, but it is satisfying to see metta develop in the form, for example, of associations for the well-being of animals. Man must realize that he is not the only sentient living being in the world. All problems are caused by desire; it is necessary to eliminate the desire, it is the most difficult.

I would also like to say thank you to the French people who helped me a lot and gave me a lot. France, where I arrived at the age of 27, is my second native country.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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