Welcome by Ven. Dr. Medagama Vajiragnana Nayaka Thera
At the 75th Anniversary Celebrations of the London Buddhist Vihara


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Ven. Dr. Medagama Vajiragnana Nayaka Thera

(Speech by Ven. Dr. Medagama Vajiragnana Nayaka Thera at the 75th Anniversary Celebrations of the London Buddhist Vihara at the Hammersmith Town Hall on 23rd, September 2001)

Most Venerable Seo Eui Hyun, Vice-President of World Buddhist Sangha Council, Your Excellency Mr. Mangala Moonasinghe, the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Britain, Mr. Clive Soley, our local Member of Parliament, Councillor Harvey. Rose and Mrs. Rose from the London Borough of Ealing Councillor Ron Browne, the Chair of the Hammersmith Council Forum and Mrs. Gladwine Browne,

We are greatly honoured to welcome here no fewer than forty distinguished monks from France, Korea, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States of America, who have travelled so far to be with us today.

Venerable monks from Buddhist Institutions in Great Britain of both Mahayana and Theravada traditions. Unfortunately Rt. Rev. Bishop of Southwark sends his apologies as he fully intended to be here but for the American disasters he couldn’t make it.

May I also welcome Mr. Brian Pearce, Director of the Inter Faith Network for the U.K. and the other distinguished representatives from Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian faiths in England, Brothers & Sisters in the Dhamma, Invoking the blessings of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha - may I welcome you all to this historic day of celebrations to mark 75 years of Theravada Buddhism in the Western World. Before I proceed further, as a mark of respect, let us stand up and observe one minute’s silence to remember the innocent victims who lost their lives so tragically two weeks ago in the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.

A minute silence is observed......

As Buddhists - we are conditioned to shun violence in every form.... It was a very sad and painful experience for me, and I am sure for all of you, to see on TV in such graphic detail wicked acts of wilful destruction perpetrated on innocent victims causing them to be trapped helplessly in two burning towers - I say this with the greatest sense of sadness as my own country, Sri Lanka too, has also experienced many tragedies caused by terrorism. I therefore, pray every day that we human beings, who occupy this world temporarily, will have the wisdom and courage to overcome such barbarism, and live peacefully by helping each other.... I understand that there were 62 different nationalities involved in the New York disaster - this shows how international this disaster is, and the problems flowing thereafter affect everybody in the world. While offering my deepest sympathies and blessings of the Triple Gem to the American people and the families of all those who perished in this and other American tragedies, I appeal to all the powerful leaders of this world to come together and work together to make this beautiful world a safer place to live in.

Coming back to our 75th Anniversary.............

Let me briefly touch on Theravada Buddhism. Three months after the demise of the Buddha, 500 monks assembled to hold what is called the First Council. All these monks had known the Buddha personally and had reached the highest levels of spiritual attainment. The council lasted six months; during this time they rehearsed all the Buddha’s teachings and agreed on the definitive version. It is this version which has been handed down to us today in an unbroken tradition lasting over 2,500 years. All these monks were "Elders" or Theras. So the result of their meeting is known as the doctrine of the elders, or Theravada. This is the origin of the term Theravada. It is the oldest or most orthodox form of Buddhism tracing its origins back to the First Council. The teachings of the Buddha were marked by a remarkable blend of clarity, simplicity and compassion - there was an emphasis on the uniqueness of the Buddha, the enlightened one, who showed the way to salvation by one’s own effort as the means to this end. The Buddha explained that the world is full of difficulties and problems, that these are caused by selfish desire, that the path to salvation lies in the renunciation of desire. The Buddha advocated a Middle Way as being the basis of a life of moderation and equipoise. It was this Buddhist Sangha tradition and doctrine that was brought to the West for the first time in 1926 by the Anagarika Dharmapala and which we continue to this day 75 years later.

Although the Buddhist philosophy was known and followed in the West by small groups of interested people, the propagation and dissemination of Buddhism itself was never done until Theravada Buddhism arrived in the West.

I now wish to enlighten you on how all this came to pass............

It all started with the Anagarika Dharmapala, who most of you know is the pioneer who brought Theravada Buddhism to the West and founded the London Buddhist Vihara 75 years ago.... So this 75th Anniversary we are celebrating today is the culmination of three historical events - the arrival of Theravada Buddhism in the West, the founding of the London Buddhist Vihara to propagate Buddhism and the pioneering work by Dharmapala who laid the foundation for Buddhism to spread throughout the Westem World.... I am happy to say that Buddhist Viharas are now springing up in almost every country in Europe and the Americas, and I am not wrong to state Buddhist Viharas have been established in every continent of the world...........

Now to turn to our founder - the Anagarika Dharmapala.........

Born into the illustrious Hewavitarane family from the south of Sri Lanka in 1864 and educated in the capital Colombo, from a very young age Dharmapala showed a very keen interest in the Buddha Dhamma under his mother’s guidance and encouragement.

The Buddhist revival in the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century was in the hands of Dharmapala - he grasped the political implications of the Buddhist resurgence, and he never lost sight of the need to set this within the wider framework of the rise of nationalism in Asia...... Always active when it came to national matters in his native Sri Lanka, it was he who first proposed Swaraj - national independence for Sri Lanka.

He formed the Mahabodhi Society in 1891 and carried out a relentless campaign to restore to the Buddhists Buddha Gaya in India - the birthplace of Buddhism. This resulted in regaining control after a lapse of 700 years.

His great desire to bring the Dhamma to the West and establish a Buddhist Vihara with the Sangha to propagate the Dhamma was achieved on his second visit to England, where he established the first Buddhist Vihara in Ealing in the year 1926.

The Vihara then moved to Regents Park in 1928 and was there until the war years in 1941 when the Vihara’s functioning was severely disrupted and the building was requisitioned by the British Government.

I would like to pay tribute to my predecessors, in historical order, Ven. Paravahera Vajiragnana Thera, Ven, Narada Thera, Ven. Mirisse Gunasiri Thera and Ven. Dr. Hammalave Saddhatissa Thera, who were Heads of the London Buddhist Vihara.

The Vihara was again moved to Knightsbridge and subsequently in 1964 to Heathfield Gardens in Chiswick until the current premises at the Avenue in Bedford Park were purchased in 1993 by the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust and extensively refurbished to convert a historic English building into a Buddhist Vihara.

I must however state here for the record that although we have reached this point in time from the long journey begun by the Anagarika Dharmapala...... we also went through the most momentous period of our history between 1985 and 1992, when we were forced to fight for our very survival...... Thanks to the difficult and painstaking tasks undertaken by the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust represented by Mr. Ranjit Hewavitarane, we were able systematically to overcome our difficulties.

As the Sangha Nayake of Great Britain and appointed head of the London Buddhist Vihara I am very honoured to have been involved in the forefront of this momentous period with the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust and to have been able to achieve the goals set by the Anagarika Dharmapala for the Vihara.

I wish to make particular reference to the invaluable help and assistance given to the Vihara by the late President of Sri Lanka Premadasa, late President Jayewardene, President Wijetunga and the last Prime Minister, Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, including many Sri Lankan leaders and politicians of the past and present. I wish to pay a special tribute to Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasara Thera for his creation of the beautiful Buddha Statue for the Vihara.

Let me now turn to our activities at the London Buddhist Vihara.....

It is worth noting that we began our journey in Ealing in 1926 and 75 years later we have returned to the London Borough of Ealing to settle down - hopefully for good.

The Vihara is well situated for all forms of travel and we attract visitors from many different places and walks of life. We have an extensive Buddhist library and halls where we conduct meditation, Buddhist study forums, university courses in Buddhism, language classes, Sunday Dhamma classes, religious sessions, lectures, retreats, Buddhist cultural activities. All these take place according to an established weekly programme.

In addition to this, I am gratified to state that we are the only Buddhist Vihara in the United Kingdom that has world-wide exposure through the active and leading roles we play for the development of Buddhism at international conferences in almost every Buddhist country throughout the world.

As members of prestigious Inter Faith Network for the UK the Sri Lankan Sangha Sabha are honoured to represent the Buddhist faith in this country throughout the years at all official functions of Her Majesty the Queen and her government.

I would like to wind up by thanking my brother monks here today, all the guests and invitees, our supporters, well-wishers, co-ordinators and all those who have supported and contributed to the London Buddhist Vihara in the past and the present. Finally, I wish to pay tribute to the Dharmadutha Monks of the Vihara who assist me in delivering our services to the public... May I invoke the blessings of the Triple Gem on you and thank you.