Centenary of the Siri Vajiraramaya Dhamma School


The Dhamma School of the Siri Vajiraramaya Temple in Bambalapitiya was started on August 18, 1918 and thus a centennial year of commemorative events this year. For anything to succeed a good start is a great boost. This is what happened in Dhamma education at Siri Vajiraramaya Dhamma School with erudite and committed monks in charge so it reached its century and will go on for a century and more ahead.

I mention specially the exhibition mounted by the students of the Dhamma School given leadership by its Principal - Ven Meegoda Sukitha Thera - to be held on March 29, 30 and 31 in the temple premises. Titled Viduru Vidasna it is a window to the history of Buddhism in our land; our culture and the lives and services rendered by our national heroes. Visiting the exhibition, I dare say is imperative for all Buddhists living in Colombo and its suburbs as it will, multi-dimensionally, trace the history of the Dhamma School and thus the Vajiraramaya Temple and the monks who have been of this temple and spread Buddhism not only in Sri Lanka but all over the globe. Kutis or spaces within the exhibition will present artifacts, biographical data, photographs and writings of Mahatheras who resided in the Vajiraramaya such as Ven Pelane Vajiranana (1878-1955), Ven Narada (1898-1983), Ven Piyadassi (1914-1998) and Ven Madihe Pannaseeha (1913-2003). Ven Ampitiye Rahula Mahathera, now 105 years old, was once the Principal of the Dhamma school. The Patron of the Dhamma School is the current Viharadhipati of Siri Vajiraramaya Temple, the Ven Tirukunamale Ananda Mahathera.

It was Pelane Vajiranana Mahanayake Thera (formerly Don Andris Tudawe Pandita Gunawardene ) who, agreeing to an invitation by the Dhamma Samagama formed in 1880 of Buddhists living in Bambalapitiya, took residence in the one room with basic facilities adjoining a hall for bana preaching. This was the origin of the Vajiraramaya in 1901, which today is one of the foremost viharas in the island. It is now a large complex of the buduge, bana hall, ancient spreading bo tree and dagoba, large library and residences for several monks in a truly beautiful compound with flowering trees and bushes, enhanced by a palpably evident air of serenity.

Ven Meegoda Sukitha Thera, with Ven Vajiraramaye Nanasiha Thera (formerly Olcott Gunasekera) present, narrated the history of the Dhamma School to me, intrinsically entwined with the history of Buddhism in colonial Ceylon, and thereafter in independent Sri Lanka.

He emphasized the fact that the Vajiraramaya Temple came into being while the British were the firmly established colonial rulers of the country. After a severe period of religious and national suppression under Portuguese colonizers, the Dutch and British followed and were not unduly vicious against Buddhism and Buddhists. Brave rallying voices were heard; debates held; Buddhist principles propagated such as teetotalism and members of the Sangha and lay persons engaged in the resurgence of Buddhism in the land. Mentioned were Sri Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera, Anagarika Dharmapala, Col. Henry Steele Olcott, Valisinghe Harischandra, P de S Kularatne, G P Malalasekera and Arthur V Dias, who did much to awaken both religious fervor and national pride of Sinhala Buddhists. Then, soon after the first World War, and in the midst of ever spreading missionary schools, education in English and active proselytism, the Siri Vajiraramaya Daham Pasala was inaugurated. Many distinguished persons had their religious instruction in the school or by individual monks; to name but a few - J R Jayewardene, Dudley Senanayake, Bernard Soysa, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Chandrika Bandaranaike.

English instructions were given by Ven Narada Thera and Piyadassi Thera. When Ven Dickwella Mahinda Thera who was in charge of the school went on dhammaduta work to Germany, Mr Sirimevan Piyasinghe became Principal.

Ven Madihe Pannaseeha Thera and Ven Ampitiye Rahula Thera, senior monks at Vajiraramaya, in 1959 felt the need to open up a larger institution which could educate and train a greater number of student monks –samaneras. They opened up the Dharmayatana at Maharagama, reminiscent of sangha dwellings within parks and in nature at the time of the Buddha. This vast institution has its own Dhamma School started in 1970 by Ven Ampitiye Rahula Thera which now counts 7,000 students and 350 teachers. A pupil of Most Venerable Madihe Pannaseeha Mahanayaka Thera, Ven Hakmana Sumanasiri Thera, is the present Principal. Branch schools under the guidance of the Maharagama Dharmayatana were opened in Kandy, Trincomalee, Matara, Kurunegala and Ratnapura. Over 8,000 Dhamma schools dot the land with over 80% Buddhist children attending. The Vajiraramaya Dhamma School has a student population of 2,000 which figure remains more or less constant with 120 teachers as of now. Syllabuses are wide spectrumed with inclusion of knowing the past and recognizing Sri Lanka as a unique country with a recorded history of over 2,500 years. Children are familiarized with great personalities like Devanampiya Tissa, Viharamahadevi, Dutugamunu, Parakrama Bahu the Great who had made Sri Lanka known to the external world as the Isle of Righteousness and the Granary of the East. Children learn they are the lawful inheritors of a rich Buddhist culture and civilization. Nature has given bountifully to Sri Lanka making it a veritable paradise on earth. But it seems to be our nation has lost its way. Dhamma schools particularly, play an important role in course correction.

Shift in emphasis of
what is taught and how

Needless to say, the vision of the dhamma schools is to inculcate Buddhist principles as advocated by the Buddha and of course teach Buddhism. The government has set forth a syllabus but as Ven Meegoda Sukitha Thera said, while its core units are retained at Vajiraramaya Dhamma School, it is enhanced to suit the students as indicated above – most from Colombo and being educated in elite schools with English being popular, if not the medium of instruction.

Also, emphasis was shifted slightly from theoretical instruction of the basic tenets of Buddhism to better prepare students for mental and emotional hazards and demands of the 21st century where consumerism prevails causing insatiable needs and greed and resultant unsatisfactoriness. Students may be well off and all their basic needs met very adequately but they are not emotionally prepared for travails posed by modern living. Thus sati dhamma-pasala is emphasized: mindfulness and not competitiveness; satisfaction not greed.

Ven Tirukunamale Ananda Mahanayaka Thera directed a new path of teaching for the smaller children and thus Ven Vajiraramaye Nanasiha Thera introduced religious teaching to kids through art, drama, videos and similar teaching aids; weaning them away from too much competitiveness and examinations. The inculcation aimed at is a liking to attend Dhamma classes on Sundays so it becomes a pleasant, looked-forward-to weekly event. Thus the child will gladly continue attending Dhamma School.

The Vajiraramaya Dhamma School is made up of four sections: Grades 1 and 2 –Kids; Grades 3,4,5 – Primary; Grades 6 through 9 – Junior; and 10 through 12 - Senior. The first two grades of the Primary Section were separated to from a new section, called the Lama or Kids’ section with a sectional head. With special care and attention of the teaching staff, the little ones will be given a head-start in life. Classes are also conducted in English.

Kalana pilisandara - counseling - is accommodated where children and parents are provided the facility to discuss freely but confidentially personal and other matters. Teachers of the Dhamma School were given a special training for this.

The focus of the centenary celebrations is: "Sadahama savimuth paramparawak minis daham saru Sri Lankawak" – "Sri Lanka with a generation of principled people with humane qualities."

The exhibition is not to be missed.

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