On March 21st, 2018, Global Ministries’ Mission Dialogue Forum invited Ven. Panamwela Wajirabuddhi Thero, the Abbot of Georgia Buddhist Vihara in Lithonia, to offer an educational session for our staff on the basic teachings and expansion of Buddhism.
He was born in Sri Lanka and wanted to engage in mission work in the US. After completing his education in Sri Lanka and Thailand, Wajirabudhhi Thero came to the United States of America in 1994 and stayed with the Cambodian community in Los Angeles for a few years. He learned Cambodian culture and language.
In 1999 Ven. P. Wajirabuddhi moved to Atlanta, Georgia and in June 2000 established the Georgia Buddhist Vihara. He is currently a regular visiting instructor to the Emory Buddhist Club, Emory University. He impressed Global Ministries as a well-read teacher in global issues and as a promoter of the teachings of the Buddha for world peace, global compassion and community harmony. He has engaged in this work while also taking care of his Sri Lankan Buddhist community in metro Atlanta, which is primarily of the Theravada tradition. The monk said all religions should engage in dialogue with the other religious traditions for peace and common good.
There are about 500 million Buddhists in the world today belonging to the three major branches of contemporary Buddhism. These branches are Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Vajrayana Buddhism. Some consider Vajrayana part of Mahayana.
Unlike in Christianity there are no baptismal membership rolls maintained in Buddhism, though it is estimated that the Buddhist population in the America reaches as high as 3.5 to 4 million. ("Reflections on Buddhist Demographics in America: An Initial Report on the First American Buddhist Census," by J. Gordon Melton and Constance Jones. A paper presented at the conference of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture meeting in Washington, DC, April 2-4, 2009). California stands out as a state that has the most Buddhist centers, with approximately 650.
Compassion – The Heart of Buddhism
Ven. Wajirabuddhi Thero highlighted the core aspects in the Buddha’s teachings: Metta, Karuna, Mudita, and Upekkha (in Pali language). Metta is understood as “Loving Kindness”, Karuna is “Compassion”, Mudita is “Sympathetic Joy” (or vicarious joy, the opposite of jealousy), and Upekkha is “Equanimity”. Together, these are called the “Brahma vihara bhavana” which occupy a central position in the field of personal heart-mind formation in Buddhism.
Karuna (Compassion) is characterized as promoting the removal of others' suffering. Its function is manifested as kindness. Its proximate cause is seeing helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. It succeeds when it makes cruelty subside, and it fails when it gives rise to sorrow.
We could engage in a comparative exploration of ‘compassion’ (Metta and Karuna) in Buddhism with Christian teaching of ‘love’ (Agape). This learning is of critical contemporary importance and might help us engage in a common struggle for Peace in the world today. Christians can most certainly work with Buddhists in developing interfaith friendships for a more compassionate world.
Four Noble Truths
Ven. Wajirabuddhi Thero also summarized The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism in the simplest terms as:
1. The truth of the existence of suffering/dissatisfaction in life (Dukkha Sathya)
2. The truth of the origin for suffering/dissatisfaction in life (Dukka Samudaya Sathya)
3. The truth of the cessation of suffering/dissatisfaction in life (Dukka Nirodha Sathya)
4. The truth of the path to cessation of the origin to suffering/dissatisfaction in life (Dukka nirodha gamini patipada Magga Sathya)
Given that suffering is a core concern in Christian mission, there is a fine opportunity for Christians to engage in comparative reflection here. Christians often reflect on two basic issues related to suffering: why do righteous people suffer, and how are we to reduce suffering in the world (including things like hunger, poverty, victims of violence and injustice, refugees etc.). Buddhist concern for extending loving kindness to all living beings posts a real and relevant challenge to Christians in the missional context of today’s environmental crisis.
My Buddhist Pilgrimage
As a Methodist, my journey of learning about Buddhism started with having a wonderful relationship with my Buddhist friends in my childhood school. It was a dialogue of life - meeting people from sister faiths in the market place, on the playground, on train and bus, and in the city. But my real educational encounter as an adult started through my ministerial formation at the Theological College of Lanka, Sri Lanka, where a Buddhist monk from a nearby temple served as a visiting faculty member.
It was in 1990 that I first met Ven. Bullumulle Sumanarathana Thero as my guru in Buddhist philosophy at the Theological College of Lanka. He had a very broad understanding of Christianity and the Bible and so was able to communicate with the young seminarians who were preparing for the ministry and mission in Sri Lanka and beyond. Ven. Sumanarathana Thero was honored for his long-standing service to the ecumenical Theological College of Lanka for fulfilling 30 years of ministry in 2014. At that time, I was blessed to be the Principal of the college.
Students who studied Buddhism in the seminary also had the opportunity to visit the temple very often, and to build long lasting missional friendships not only with the monks but also with the Buddhists who live in villages around the college.
As a Methodist who grew up in a primarily Buddhist cultural context, I have experienced growth in my own faith through these encounters, which have helped in my missional praxis and witness in an increasingly pluralistic world. My relations with Buddhism and other sister faiths has been a journey that has strengthened my own faith and my commitment. So many of my friends join me to testify that these relationships have resulted in producing both interfaith friendships for a better world and spiritual growth within ourselves.
Towards New Missiological Insights
Modern Christians should encounter people of sister faiths with the attitude of developing a greater understanding, harmony, and building peace in the society where God’s mission takes place, the world where God has called the Church to serve. Catholic Theologian Hans Küng wrote:
“No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions” Hans Küng, Islam, Past Present & Future (Oxford: One-world Publications, 2007), p. xxiii.
In the traditional missiology, Christians tell Buddhists “who Christ is.” But in new the missiology framework, my Buddhist neighbor tells me who Christ is for them. Thereby the uniqueness of Christ is understood in a fresh way by encountering the Buddhist other.
Global mission is not exclusive to Christianity. Historically, Buddhists have many more years (nearly 2500 years) of experience in world mission than Christians, so it is humbling to learn from our Buddhist friends about their missional experiences of Buddhism’s contextualization and how it resiliently stood up to challenges over time.
The other challenge would be for Christians and Buddhists to compassionately journey together and work for peace, justice, and the integrity of creation.
“A person is not called wise because he talks and talks again; but if he is peaceful, loving, and fearless, then he is in truth called wise.”
“Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.”
― Gautama Buddha, The Dhammapada