Face to Face With Ven.Galayaye Piyadassi M.B.E 2003
Ven. Piyadassi stands out as a monk who has determination, courage and steadfastness in whatever he embarks on. His hospitality, kindness and enchanting personality have helped hundreds of ‘destitute’ Sri Lankans in London in terms of advice, board and lodging in a characteristic Buddhist temple environment. Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre depicts a twin village temple in Sri Lanka where people feel very comfortable and homely - needless to say with the archetypal Sri Lankan hospitality (refreshments at any time) available.
Q. Congratulations Venerable Sir, on receiving Her Majesty’s MBE award for your service to community, which was significantly announced when you were holding the Poson Poya religious ceremony at The SSIBC. As Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe when in London recently said, I quote: ‘It’s not only a great honour for Buddhism but for the whole of Sri Lanka’ as you became the first Buddhist monk to receive an MBE honour from the Queen of England. How do you feel about it ?
A. More than an achievement for me personally I consider it as a recognition for the community work we did embracing all communities and faiths. I am particularly thankful to the Dayaka Pirisa (devotees) who were behind me always and assisted me in every endeavor thus making my projects work effectively.
Q. Prior to this award you received The Citizenship Award from the Mayor of Brent. What was that in connection with?
A. There are 99 ethnic groups in Brent who speak one hundred and eleven languages. We work with organisations such as Brent Ethnic Minority User, Brent Muti-faith, Brent Interfaith; Brent Association for Voluntary Action and Brent Youth and Community Service Council, an umbrella organization that has over 300 affiliated groups. Mr. Wimal de Silva, the Secretary of our Cultural foundation for the last two years has been liaising with the above-mentioned organisations in all aspects of community work. Mr. Silva has been the Secretary of the Brent Youth and Community Service Council for seven years prior to becoming its vice President and made a valuable contribution. The Citizenship Award was conferred to me in recognition with the service to the community in the London Borough of Brent.
Q. You have been honoured with few more awards in the past as well, would you like to mention them?
A. I received the Hindu Council, London Special Award (Swami Vivekananda Celebrations) in 1993, The Television Film and Media Community Award 1996, Philosopher’s Award for Missionary Work (Don Good Buddhist Jun Bud College, South Korea) in 2001 and The Mayor of London’s Certificate for making an outstanding contribution to life in London in 2003.
Q What is the significance of using the name Saddhatissa for your International Buddhist Centre?
A. (Being exceedingly emotional and posing on and off & wiping silent tears from his eyes) Ven. Hammalawa Saddhatissa was my sponsor to come to the UK and guru subsequently. I am indebted to him for what I am today and for all what I have achieved so far. At the beginning we called our abode ‘the International Buddhist Centre’. After one and half months of our moving to this building Ven. Saddhatissa thero came to live with us, but unfortunately he was able to spend here only two nights and suddenly passed away. So I decided to call it The Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre purely to remember him and as a mark of great respect and gratitude.
Q. At what age did you take up robes and what made you decide to be a Buddhist monk?
A. At the age of 14 I joined the Sandalanka Sasthrodya Pirivena where I read Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit. After passing ‘O’ and ‘A’ level examinations I was inclined to become a Buddhist monk but due to objections from my family I could not do so. However, I had to make my own decision when I became 20 years old. I was ordained at The Hettipola Girathalana Purana Maha Vihara against the wishes of my parents even at that time. After my ordination I studied at the Maligakanda Vidyodaya Pirivena and was successful in the Pracheena Panditha examination (Pandit, Oriental Examination) and Doctor in Buddhist Scriptures (Tripitakacharya). Subsequently I read for Bachelor of Arts (Hons) and Master of Arts degrees at the University of Kelaniya.
Q. Are you pursing any more studies in the UK?
A. In 1994 I obtained The Training Certificate in Youth Work from the Brunel University UK. At present I am engaged in research work on ‘the Influence of Theravada Buddhism’ in the UK.
Q. How did teachings of the late Ven. Hamallawa Saddatissa Maha thero influence your spiritual life?
A. Actually Venerable Hamallawa Saddatissa gave me all the guidance and advice after coming over to the UK. But before I came over, I had been a lecturer at Hunupitiye Gangaramaya, Peliyagoda Vidyalankara Pirivena, and Sangaraja Pirivena of Malwatta Chapter, under Ven. Sirimalwatte Ananda Maha Nayake thero
Q. What are some of the services rendered through the Sri Lanka Educational, Cultural and Welfare Foundation?
A. We commenced our cultural activities in 1987 at the height of communal tension in Sri Lanka by organising the first Sinhala and Tamil New Year Celebrations in the UK to bring together the belligerent Sinhala and Tamil communities together. We have been running a Saturday school for students between the ages 3- 16 for 90 percent of students who are born in the UK. We teach them Sinhala, Buddhism, poetry recital, oriental dancing etc., free of charge. For the last 13 years we have been holding the Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations, which is the most popular and the biggest cultural event for Sri Lankan expatriates in the UK. We invited the Sri Lankan Dance Ensemble to the UK and had them perform in London and Birmingham as well as through the BBC television. A very special project under the patronage of the MudithaFoundation was set up in Sri Lankaas the first ever Buddhist Delinquents Home and Home for orphaned children (terrorist victims).
Q. Tell me about the World Buddhist Foundation.
A. We organized the first ever exposition of Corporeal Relics of Lord Buddha from the Wembley Conference Hall in 1996. I was responsible for the following publications: Buddhism for the new millennium, 50th Anniversary of Sri Lanka Independence, Buddhist Essays: A miscellany, Introduction to Buddhism, Nine special qualities of the Buddha, Facets of Buddhism, Life of the Buddha, Manual of Buddhism and Pali Literature in Southeast Asia (majority of these publications had been authored by the late Ven. Saddhatissa.). We also organized the UK Buddhists Day, commencing from 1996, which has become an annual event to commemorate the advent of Buddhism in the UK introduced by the first Buddhist missionary, a British National known as Ven.Ananda Metteyya.
Q. Then tell me about the Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre?
A. In 1990, we organized the first ever all-night Pirith chanting conducted from a temple outside Sri Lanka with a traditional octagonal pavilion and observing traditional customs and rituals. We have also held the first Vesak Dansala in the UK and in 1998 for the first time in Europe we released a compact disc containing Pirith Chanting by Buddhist monks of the SSIBC.
Q. When you embark on service to community do you make a distinction between religious and cultural or treat society as a whole through a wider spectrum?
A. I am a disciple of Lord Buddha, and according to his teaching I treat everyone as a human being with compassion and love and there is no room for the word discrimination in my vocabulary or project profiles. In other words, there are no barriers between ethnic background or faith and the rich and the poor.
Q. Can you elaborate more on the Muditha Foundation’s work in Sri Lanka ?
A. While I was a student in 1977, I started the Muditha Foundation in Sri Lanka in a very small scale by opening a kindergarten for young children (free of charge) with a children’s library. In 1980 the Sri Lanka Government donated a land to expand my initial project. The first building was completed in 1999 accommodating five children. Today there are 52 children belonging to all three communities. Many children go to school from here. A new building for a Vocational Centre is being erected at present at a cost of Rs.6 million. It is due to be opened in October 2003. This will increase the input of children to 100. My disciple Wilbagedara Gnanisswara thero has given up a Graduate Teacher training post to look after the welfare of these children.In addition,I was responsible in planting 5000 trees within one year to mark the National Environment Day in Sri Lanka
Q. Some cynics may pose the question that by mixing community work, interfaith activities and culture promotion , you are taking far too much on to your plate as a Buddhist monk and by having a finger in every pie you might fail in the main responsibility of functioning as a disciple of the Lord Buddha in propagating Buddhism. Is there any truth in such statements?
A. I believe in the fact that sermons alone cannot help the society but actions speak louder than words. My work is based on Buddha’s following advice: “Caratha Bhikkave Carikang Bahujana Hithaya Bahujana Sukaya” (“Go forth, O Bhikkus, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many out of compassion for the world)
Q. You seem to have remarkable organisational skills, stamina, patience and management know-how in delegating power and all your past records will undoubtedly prove it, and what more your MBE in itself stands as self- evidence. How do you do this and where do you get such inspiration and energy from , to withstand pressure and concentrate on all aspects of your responsibilities?
A. (Smiling) I don’t think about it or worry about it when I make a decision, but go about it very seriously. My intentions are pure, and once I embark on some worthy cause things seem to fall into place automatically. As I said before, I suppose spiritual energy has a role to play in it! (Smiling). Furthermore I believe in delegating and sharing my project work and responsibilities therein.
Q. A prominent Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka openly criticises Buddhists worshipping Hindu Gods and Buddhist temples having Devalas. SSIBC has a Devala too, and from what I have seen with my own eyes many devotees seek solace by visiting the Devala and performing various rituals to suit their beliefs and aspirations. What are your views on this issue?
A. This controversy has been going on for the past several centuries. It is human nature that everyone wants better things in life and at times of suffering and ill health many seek a prop, which is natural. With that motive as a backdrop , I personally don’t think by visiting a Devala will harm anyone or it will be an impediment to be a Buddhist.
Lord Buddha never denied the presence of gods as well as non-humans when Bhikkus who retreated into the woods for meditation were troubled by demons. He advised the Bhikkus to chant Karaneeya Metta Sutta and spread compassion to everyone alike. In the Mangala Sutta it isclearly stated that it was a god who arrived in the presence of the Buddha alighting the night’s darkness and asked the question: ‘ What constitutes “Managala?”
Also we must realize that intrinsic Buddhism has been influenced by other philosophies like Hinduism, which give priority of place to gods – which Buddhism clearly does not. In Ratana Sutta Buddha evokes the gods to look after the welfare of the devotees who venerate them. Buddhism is a way of life as well as a philosophy. In respect of being a way of life, it is a religion, and the pride of place it gives to the development of the mind makes it a philosophy. In Buddhism salvation has to be brought about by oneself. Gods cannot do it. The help gods grant is related to life in this world and in Buddhism it has always been customary to impart merit to gods (Punnyanumodana). Also Buddha has never imposed compulsions to anyone!
Q. Now having been awarded the MBE what would be your message to the readers of this interview?
A. Human being is the most intelligent genre with a powerful organ called the brain. One’s sole duty or the mission in life should be to be united with one’s fellow beings, live in harmony and to serve one’s society, religion and one’s country. Do not waste time engaging in gossip and tawdry tittle-tattle or judging and criticising others. Criticism is easy to make but to perform and achieve effective results is the hardest.