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Ven. Aggamaha panditha Madihe Pagnaseeha Mahanayaka Thero Memorial Museum - Maharagama
The Vajirarama Tradition

Ven Pelene Mahanayaka Thera and the Vajirarama Traditio

By Professor Asanga Tilakaratne

This year (2009) Vajiraramaya, Bambalapitiya completes its one hundred years of service to the Sasana. The monastery enters into its second century with the able leadership of the Venerable Tirikunamale Ananda Anu-nayaka Thera, a pupil of the late Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera. It is appropriate that we reflect on the path of trodden by the Vajirarama monks at this memorable juncture of the history of the monastery.

 

The silent revolution brought about by the Venerable Pelene Vajiranana Mahanayaka Thera, with Vajiraramaya as its base, may be described as ‘the Vajirarama tradition’. One might even feel that to say that one single Vihara provided the base for a revolution in the Sasana is an exaggeration. What in fact happened was rather a renewal of the ancient tradition than inauguration of one anew. But the ancient and correct tradition was long lost to the society that many felt the act of renewing the ancient tradition to be an introduction of a new tradition.

Renewal of the ancient tradition as well as the determination of what is right in the face of the new changes in society are two outstanding features of the Mahanayaka Thera’s service to the Sasana. The unique feature of the latter activity was the amalgamation of modernity with antiquity. In other words, within the Vajirarama tradition both antiquity and modernity co-existed harmoniously. The aim of this paper is to make an overview of the Vajirarama tradition, or the 'Vajirarama mark' of the contemporary Sasana.

Beginnings

The Venerable Pelene Mahanayaka Thera, born in Pelena near Matara received initial entrance to the monkhood from the Most Venerable Veragampita Siri Revata Thera, came to Colombo in order to attend well-known Vidyodaya Pirivena for his higher studies. In 1900 he completed his Pirivena studies with distinction, and started living at the place called ‘dharma-sala’ - a building the people in the surrounding area had built for their religious functions, which later became ‘Vajiraramaya'. This was in 1901, and the only available room in the building was reserved for Vajiranana Maha Thera and the rest of the monks had make-shift rooms with partitions made using robes. The monastery with these simple beginnings became Vajirarama proper when Muhandiram P.J. Kulatilake built the library with two rooms and donated it to the Sangha. This happened in 1909.

Vajirarama monks

The graceful public behaviour of the Pelene Mahanayaka Thera and his pupils was winning the hearts of people not only in Colombo but also outside of Colombo. Gradually the monastery became the centre of religious activities in Colombo. Pelene Mahanayaka Thera did not send his pupils outside for their studies. He attended to this need of his pupils by himself, aided at times by some visiting erudite monks. Gradually a group of young and energetic monks endowed with knowledge and vision emerged from Vajirarama. Some of these monks were known both nationally and internationally, and among them were the following great Theras: Narada , Madihe Pannasiha, Mahanama, Piyadassi, Denipitiye Sumanasiri, Rohana, Metteyya, Ampitiye Rahula, Soma, Kheminda, Valgama Sugatananda, Vipassi, Urugamuve Senananda, Gunasiri, Kassapa, Siridhamma, and Nanamoli and Nanavira who were English nationals. There were also others like Kapugama Sumanawansa Thera and Veligama Nanaratana Thera who spent their formative years at Vajirarama under the guidance of Pelene Mahanayaka Thera.

This group of monks of Vajiraramaya became outstanding among the Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka from their graceful public demeanour as well as from their knowledge of the Dhamma and their skill in its communication. It must be reiterated that under the able guidance of Pelene Mahanayaka Thera the ancient monastic tradition of Sri Lanka received a new leaf of life. A prominent feature of this group of monks was their refine public conduct.

Public demeanour

At a time when even the leading members of the Sangha were not unanimous about the proper public conduct of the monks, Pelene Mahanayaka Thera did yeoman service by bringing into life through his own example and that of his pupils, the correct method of conduct appropriate for the Sangha. It is a known fact that the organization of the Sangha of Sri Lanka suffered a setback both morally and educationally with the arrival of colonialism in the country in the 16th century. It is said that people around Kandy did not know the meaning of a monk going from house to house on 'pindapatha' with his alms-bowl at mid-day when Asarana-sarana Saranankara Thera first did so. This was in the middle of 1700’s or in the 18th century. Thanks to the efforts of the Sangharaja Thera, the Sasana of the country started thriving. This, however, was not effective everywhere owing to human weaknesses of some of the members of the Sangha themselves. The Vajirarama tradition initiated by Pelene Mahanayaka Thera can be described as a crystallization of the movement initiated by the Venerable Sangharaja.

The monks of Vajirarama were outstanding among their counterparts. There was a clear difference in them in so far as their external behaviour was concerned. The visible difference was indicative of a deeper internal transformation. Pelene Mahanayaka Thera was known for his attention for details when it came to proper monastic conduct. While the basic Patimokkha rules (adi-brahmacariyaka-sila) received utmost care, the precepts associated with good conduct (abhisamacarika-sila) too were given equal emphasis. The result was that the monks of Vajirarama were easily identified in a group by their splendid external conduct. What follows are some unique features found in this group of monks:

(i) shaving both head and beard together;

(ii) using the alms-bowl for eating and carrying it along with them in their journeys as a requisite of a monk; and

(iii) abstaining from robes with glairing colours, and using robes dyed with natural colours made by boiling root of jak trees and bark of banyan trees.

The colour of the robe of the Vajirarama monks was quite visible. This unique colour of the robe came to be known as the ‘Vajirarama-colour’, and the dye made by incorporating this colour was known ‘vajirarama-dye’. It is correct to say that the Vajirarama monks set the standard for monks in this country. Following the instruction of the Buddha that his disciples should have a way of conduct different from that of others (anno me akappo karaniyo) the members of the Vajirarama tradition distinguished themselves always from the rest of the monks.

Tradition and Modernity

The pupils of Pelene Vajiranana Mahanayaka Thera were not only well-disciplined but also were well educated and articulated. Although these monks did not receive the traditional Pirivena education, they had mastered the Dhamma and gained other forms of knowledge from Pelene Mahanayaka Thera, and from some other erudite monks who were resident of Vajirarama and also by their own efforts. Two things need to be mentioned here. One is the competence this group of monks had in order to present the teaching of the Buddha as applicable to the contemporary society. The other is the ability they possessed to communicate the teaching of the Buddha in English. Some of the students of Pelene Mahanayaka Thera such as Narada, Piyadassi, Soma, and Kheminda Theras had this latter ability already when they entered the Sangha. Some others had acquired it once they came to Vajirarama. This language tool enabled them to have easy access to other forms of knowledge such as science, philosophy and world literature. The library of Vajiraramaya was at that time one of the best modern libraries in Colombo with a large collection of Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhala and Burmese texts and in particular, English books on Buddhism as well as on other subjects. It was also open for visiting researchers.

Venerable Narada and Venerable Piyadassi were pioneers among the modern-day dharmadutas who took the message of the Buddha to the West. In addition, Venerable Narada was the first to take the Theravada tradition to South East Asian countries like Vietnam and Indonesia. Bhikkhus Soma and Kheminda translated the Vimuttimagga from a Chinese text into English (for the Pali version had not yet been discovered). The two English monks, Nanamoli and Nanawira did a great service by presenting Dhamma in English as well as by translating Pali texts into English. In particular, the former translated many Pali texts into English including the Visuddhimagga of Budhaghosa. The first Theravada Buddhist centre in the North America (Washington Buddhist Vihara) was established in 1964 under the guidance of the Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera.

At a time when learning English by a monk was perceived as a sign of decadence, Pelene Mahanayaka Thera, otherwise a firm upholder of the tradition, showed remarkable openness for this skill. Among the Vajirarama monks, the knowledge of English which was a feature of modernity was balanced by strict adherence to the tradition of the Dhamma and the Vinaya. Both modernity and tradition found harmonious existence.

A particular service was rendered by the Vajirarama monks by taking the teaching of the Buddha to the urban intelligentsia of the country who were mostly Buddhist only by name not for their fault alone. The Dhamma was covered with a thick crust of tradition and was not accessible to those who had modern education. In order to carry the Dhamma to this group of people the Vajirarama monks had to ‘liberate’ Buddhism from mostly archaic phraseology and outdated modes of presentation. These monks were capable of explaining the Dhamma in a logical and scientific language familiar to the educated of the country. Clean and simple physical surroundings of Vajirarama may have provided an extra incentive for these urban Buddhists to restart visiting monasteries.

New trends in Dhamma-communication

Although the monastic tradition of Sri Lanka was known in the ancient world for its very high standards of knowledge in the Dhamma (pariyatti), starting from the colonial period this seems to have deteriorated rapidly. One example that characterized this unfortunate condition is what is known as ‘pin vakyaya’ (statement of merit) recited at the conclusion of a meritorious deed (usually at a dana -- an alms giving to the monks). This was to be remembered and recited out of memory at the end of meritorious deed, a device meant for those who did not have enough knowledge and ability to utter a few words on their own by way of thanking the donors. It was symbolic that the monks at Vajiraramaya rejected this practice for they had the ability to attend to lay people’s religious needs without resorting to reciting formulae prepared by others.

The Vajirarama tradition is responsible for introducing a new structure for the Dhamma sermons. Traditionally the preaching of the Dhamma had turned out to be an all-night affair in which finally a larger majority of people would end up falling asleep in the vicinity where the sermon took place. This was unacceptable not only because it took too much time but because listening to the Dhamma only to acquire merits did not serve the purpose of listening in order to practice.

The Dhamma sermons of one hour duration was an innovation by Vajirarama monks. The introduction of radio in the early last century too was instrumental for this change. The first Dhamma sermon through the radio was preached by Pelene Mahanayaka Thera. This was a new experience for the Buddhist public in the country, and one hour duration too was new to the people. At this early stage it is mostly the Vajirarama monks who conducted Dhamma sermons through radio. The full moon day sermon was the monopoly of Pelene Mahanayaka Thera during this early period. The Dhamma sermons of one hour duration organized according to a definite topic was an innovation for which we are indebted to the Vajirarama tradition.

In addition to this change in the structure, style and the content of Dhamma sermons, the practice of conducting the Poya-day religious observances according to a definite time-table too was popularized by Vajiraramaya. Before the full moon day was made a public holiday, the monks at Vajiraramaya conducted day-long programs of sil-observance on every last Saturday of the month. The practice started from Vajiraramaya gradually spread all over the country.

Conclusion

It is clear that the Vajirarama tradition has played a crucial role in defining the Buddhist monk and in shaping the Buddhist religious practice of contemporary Sri Lanka. As I stressed at the beginning of this discussion, the Vajirarama tradition has to be understood as renewing an ancient tradition than introducing a new one. Accordingly, the appearance of a properly dressed monk with simultaneously shaven head and beard and pleasant demeanour is not a new tradition. It is how the early Buddhist tradition would define a monk. Likewise the Vajirarama tradition laid emphasis on such practices as the recital of the Patimokkha on Poya days, consuming uncooked food containing seeds only after the donors make such food ‘appropriate’ (kappiya), not accepting money, and using language appropriate to the Sangha, to the daily monastic life. It is clear that the Vajirarama tradition has set a precedence in bringing these age-old traditions into contemporary monastic life.

The Vajirarama tradition has been open to modern technology with which the Dhamma was communicated to the contemporary society, and also it has found ways and means of interpreting and presenting through new similes and metaphors the teachings of the Buddha to suit the needs of the modern world.

The contribution made by the Vajirarama tradition to the upliftment of the Buddhist religiousness in the contemporary Sri Lanka in particular and in the world in general is worth carrying to the future. It is hoped that one will not have to talk about this phenomenon in the past tense. The path cleared by the Venerable Pelene Vajiranana MahanayakaThera and the group of his illustrious disciples should serve as the path not only for the posterity of the Vajirarama tradition but also for the entirety of Sangha in the Theravada world.

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