From Sri Lanka to Tanzania, South Africa to Utah: religion professor Wijitha Bandara’s biography is a bona fide Buddhist diaspora.
Bandara was born in Sri Lanka. At age 11, he was enrolled in a monastery by his father, following the traditional Buddhist practice of accumulating merit by bringing a child to the local monastic community. There, he practiced lovingkindness meditation, studied Buddhist scriptures, and learned English and other languages in order to be able to spread the dharma. After 16 years in the monastery, he relocated to Tanzania, where he worked at a center for the Buddhist minority community that was spreading the dharma by outreach to the poor. After moving again, this time to South Africa to teach an array of Buddhist traditions at a Buddhist university, he decided to shed his monk’s robes and landed in the United States, where he completed a PhD in the history of religions at the University of Virginia.
Today, as a husband, father, and professor of world religions at Salt Lake Community College, Utah, Bandara brings the spirit of the monastery into the university, dialoguing with Mormon missionary students on their journeys as evangelists and cultivating the patient disposition and inclusive perspective suitable for a Buddhist monk-turned-layman-turned-scholar.
–Matt Gesicki, Editorial Intern
You enrolled in the monastery in Sri Lanka at age 11. What was your experience engaging with Buddhism so rigorously at such a young age? It was difficult. In my case, since my mother died when I was very young, my father thought it would be good for me to be received by a temple to become a monk. In Buddhist history, in the 3rd century BCE during the era of King Ashoka, the idea of donating a child to the Buddhist monastery as a meritorious act became more prominent: it was an act of merit not only for yourself but also for future generations to achieve nirvana. This idea became rooted in Sri Lankan Buddhist culture.
So, yes, I was 11 years old when I was sent to the monastery. And at the beginning I didn’t enjoy it because I was still a child. In terms of rigorous practices, we had to get up at 5:45 a.m., and we were engaged in chores throughout the whole day, including our studies. For awhile our temple didn’t have that much money—people didn’t donate much to us—so we had to be careful with food, and we had to work hard doing things like chopping firewood and scraping coconut.
Looking back, though, I understand how helpful these tasks were, especially now that I am married and a father. On the one hand, you are so irritated about getting up early in the morning. On the other hand, these practices help you realize that it is not only you who are engaged in the tasks, but the people around you, too. You’re not isolated; instead you become part of that society, part of the life of supporting the monastery. It’s good meditation, too. That’s what all of the work was really for—to make meditation part of daily life.
The monastery also helped me find my calling to be a kind person. My father was a very good Buddhist and a very kind person. He never ate anything without giving the first portion to someone else—he’d take it and put it outside for anyone, even a dog or a cat. It was because of his influence that I learned lovingkindness meditation. I remember when I was young, 12 or 13 years old, the monastery lights would be turned off by 9:30. So at night I would sit on my bed cross-legged and meditate with lovingkindness for hours and hours. The monks would ask me, “Why are you so pleasant?” Probably because of the meditation.
You departed for Tanzania at age 27, after 16 years at the monastery. Why? In Sri Lanka, the purpose of our Buddhist center was to be trained for religious mission. My teacher had already passed away by then, but his whole idea was to teach Buddhist monks from a young age how to read Sanskrit in order to study the Buddhist scriptures, and how to speak English, Tamil, and other languages in order to go on mission to other countries and explain Buddhist teachings. I had this idea of the Buddhist mission rooted in my mind, but the Tanzanian journey ended up being different. One of my friends lived in Tanzania as a monk, and we met while at university in Sri Lanka. He was the one who invited me to Tanzania.
What was different about a Tanzanian monastery from a Sri Lankan monastery? Tanzania is not a Buddhist country, and it was strange for me at first. Wearing my robes in the capital city, Dodoma, people would look at me and ask, “Who are you?” I would say, “I’m a Buddhist monk.” And then: “What does a Buddhist monk do?” I faced many questions. When they heard that I was a Buddhist monk, they frequently thought of kungfu films, and thought that I knew kungfu.
When I went to Tanzania is also when I realized that the reach of colonialism is long. The temple itself was established in 1915, when colonialism was still in effect. There were about 500 Sri Lankan Buddhist families who joined together and started a Buddhist association. With the association, the temple started a nursery to teach reading and writing to the children of the poor. So our work there had nothing to do with religion at first. We had many volunteer teachers, men and women, mostly Indian devotees, who supported our Buddhist temple in this non-Buddhist country. Later we had meditation groups and dialogues about the fundamental questions of Buddhist teachings.
Can you say more about your observation that the reach of colonialism is long? As a monk, I felt more aware of similarities in attitudes toward certain aspects of life among cultures. What I learned from being here in America is that we don’t have as supportive communities. It’s very rare here—if someone cries in the middle of the night, no one comes and helps. But in a society that has been under colonialism, I think people always have an attitude of collaboration—a human quality that I found so similar in Tanzania and Sri Lanka. I think it’s a direct result of colonialism: the need to work together as a community under collective strife. It gives me some kind of motivation, some kind of comfort to be in a society like that.
Eventually you taught Buddhism in South Africa while still being part of a monastic community. What led you out of the monastery and into study at the University of Virginia? Two groups of monks exist in a monastery. One group focuses on ritual: monks who will be sent out to other Buddhist centers, who perform rituals and own temples. The other group focuses on study, completing Buddhist education in their monastery and going on to the university. I love to study; since I was 13, I was involved in the tedious work of reading Buddhist scriptures and philosophy. Sometimes I disturbed my teachers with questions I would ask that they could not answer. How do you become who you become in the next life? How does Buddhism explain this? Questions like this were haunting my mind. I was so curious to learn.
On top of that, I really did not like performing rituals, especially funereal rituals. When you go to a funeral in a Buddhist society like Sri Lanka’s, the dead bodies are out in the open, and the monks are asked to sit next to the bodies and do the rituals. I was quite emotional when I was younger—actually, I think I’m still emotional—and it was hard for me not to cry in that situation. So I could not do these rituals. I wanted badly to leave and become a layperson.
Motivated by this desire, I worked hard when I was applying to the University of Virginia—some of whose scholars I had met in Tanzania—and was accepted. From childhood I had been taught to study Buddhist texts and to translate them, which I loved, and at the university I was able to do that.
Now you teach college students at Salt Lake Community College. What is it like to teach Buddhism in a predominantly Mormon region? Before teaching here I was at Utah State University, where about 90 percent of my students were Mormon, either about to go on mission or returning from mission. Since I have firsthand experience with a kind of mission, they love to talk with me. From their missionary experience, they believe that rejection is a good lesson in growing up, and they see in monastic practices the same learning from rejection. We have lovely discussion on subjects like this, in classes especially.
Now I teach not just Buddhism but all the religions, so I am in a situation where I cannot exclude any one religion when I teach. When you exclude, you develop feelings of anxiety, rejection, and anger. So instead of excluding anything, I ask my students to look at patterns of religion. These patterns—whether we’re looking at Buddhism, Mormonism, Catholicism, or Islam—are very similar. And once you develop a sensitivity toward these patterns, you begin to come up with an idea of how religions work. My teaching method is to open the eyes of my students toward other religions.
What is the monastic “residue” in your method of teaching? Are there still monastic qualities in how you engage with students and lead the environment? In Buddhist monastic practice, you learn again and again how to be patient. Patience borne out of love and kindness is so important in this kind of dialogue. Patience comes out of the practice of meditation, and the purpose of meditation is to have the patience to observe yourself. When I teach, I let the students speak first, to engage in dialogue with the patterns they see. That is part of the monastic training that I learned.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters