As I write this report in the middle of the year, I remain physically cut off from Sri Lanka, however, much action continues to keep Tara Lanka projects going. And the Sri Lankan community connection is thriving in Bendigo, Australia.
Read on for more about the last 6 months.
Visit to Australia Doesn’t Go As Planned
At the end of December 2019, I returned to Melbourne to help my daughter while she gave birth to her first child. I aimed to go on to attend a retreat being given by Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Bendigo. A big celebration had been scheduled for the planting of the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi sapling that had been flown to Australia from Sri Lanka for the occasion. It was undergoing quarantine in preparation for planting in the Sri Lanka Shrine in the grounds of the Great Stupa in Bendigo.
Little did I suspect how monumental the concept of quarantine was to become all across the world in 2020. Suddenly, all plans were no plans. Everything was cancelled, and I could no longer return to Sri Lanka, so I bunkered down at Atisha Centre.
These months of being in Australia have given me an insight into what it is to be without a base and to be constantly worrying about outstaying one’s welcome. My plight is nothing compared to so many people who are homeless around the world, and I am incredibly grateful to those who have generously housed me when I needed it. Nonetheless, this experience made me very grateful to Venerable Tsapel for her initiative to establish Machig Labron Nunnery within the grounds of the Stupa. So far, we have four nuns on bare ground in caravans and various rooms. Until the completion of temporary accommodation and eventually the Nunnery itself, we are without suitable housing — a long-standing problem. I am committed to supporting Venerable Tsapel to establish the Nunnery.
Credits: (and a million thanks)
Doc Wight sells paintings and rents out a room in his house and donates all the proceeds to Tara Lanka. Rosalie Giffoniello runs a number of schools for the poor in Kolkata (Calcutta) and being from the US, needs a respite each year and comes to Kandy for that. She pays half the rent on the flat although she only uses her room for a few months each year. Rosalie also supports me in many other ways with advice, contacts and leads that greatly benefit Tara Lanka. Marie Fowler covers the rest of the rent by running a yoga class in Melbourne. My work could not continue without that help and the extra support that I get from Christine Bohle, Hal and Sue Young, Robyn Ryan, Elvira Kurti, Stephanie McGrane, Ching Soo, Sally Dudgeon, Darrah Long and others who help me in all different ways. Sarah New never hesitates to put me up and feed me whenever Brighton is my only refuge. Ingrid Liebrand and Lynette Luther have always been there for me since the beginning and still help whenever it’s required.
In the images above, you can see the bare cabin which is currently being fitted out with furniture and cabinets donated by various generous supporters. The bottom right photo shows Geshe Rabten blessing the cabins on site.
In my time here it has been wonderful to be able to take teachings and have the opportunity to practice together with other nuns in a Sangha group. However I have had the burden of paying rent. That is, until Christine stepped in to pay it for me but I couldn’t let her do that endlessly. Luckily, the nuns invited me to buy one of the mobile cabins that were being built as temporary accommodation. I couldn’t afford that either until my daughter generously came forward. The cabin gives me some security to know that I will have somewhere stable to live in whenever I visit Australia.
Credits: (and a million thanks)
Christine Bohle has been generously paying for my accommodation at Atisha Centre otherwise I would have had difficult conditions to live through the winter. My daughter advanced thousands of dollars out of her savings, for the construction. I hope to be able to pay her back in this life time.
Jaala Freeman and a group of her friends made a donation to help the four nuns to set up. Marie Pianne is helping me with the fit-out of my cabin.
Weekly Online International Sessions
Thanks to Nadeesh Jayasinghe for instigating this… from Bendigo I have also been holding weekly Dharma discussions over Skype for some young people in Sri Lanka, Germany and Canada. The need for contemporary women and men to have a supportive listener and spiritual counsel is obvious; the group initiated weekly discussions where I offer a Buddhist perspective on life’s many challenges. These sessions have encouraged me to delve more deeply into making the Dharma relevant to different people.
Let’s go back to Sri Lanka for a moment so I can fill you in on the end of 2019.
Elephant Conflict: Golden Light Sutra Recitation in the Jungle
In Sri Lankan villages, elephants often die through brutal human design. When I investigated elephant-human conflict, it became clear that politics dominate this conflict. Poor villagers live in the elephant corridor, where elephants migrate annually in search of food and water. Villagers lose crops and sometimes lives, and they retaliate by trapping or shooting animals. Philip Price and his local partner, who have done a lot of work to save elephants all across Asia, arranged an opportunity for me to visit the village at Reswehera and do the Golden Light Sutra purification practice. Reswehera is an ancient Mahayana temple built in 307BC-267BC situated in the jungle in the north western province. The temple is well known for its two Buddha statues, one carved in a rock and the other inside the temple. The historical significance of the site is illustrated by the fact that it has its own “bo tree” grown from a branch of the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi. Many stories emerge when you speak to the old villagers. For example, visitors report hearing the drum beats of a puja inside the jungle, and there is a cave said to spontaneously produce healing nectar — but then, Sri Lanka is a land of many such stories.
Top: Sangha and villagers pray in front of outdoor carved Buddha.
Below: Reswehera temple, Reciting GLS in specially constructed net tent, Elephant information, Nuns in procession, Villagers preparing meals, Volunteers giving free therapy to villagers.
It was an honour to be invited to do a blessing for the local people in the heart of this human-elephant conflict zone. On the day, an impressive crowd – including six female sangha members and four monks – attended the recitation. It was the first time local sangha joined a public Mahayana sutra recitation. Many of the Tara Lanka group in Colombo helped with financial assistance and also participated, and the locals prepared a substantial feast of unusual local specialities to feed the visitors. We came away with deep respect for the young head monk of the village, who was very open, encouraging and inspiring to work with. A different monk traveled three hours to lead the opening prayers for the event. We were invited to come back to bless a new temple in a different location at another time.
Credits: (and a million thanks)
Madawa Gamage went to the village and organised everything ahead of time. He was one of the volunteers who filmed everything in two significant events at the end of last year (youtube link). Charaka Wijethunga for bringing the people who came from Kandy for the Anuradapura event and people from Colombo who came to Reswehera. Specially Dilrukshi Dias and Mrs Jayanthi Daluwatta.
Driving back in the dark after the event, we drove into a major pothole and had an accident that caused severe damage to the vehicle. We all walked away physically okay, but in shock and wondering how we survived. The hindrances kept coming: the next morning I was bitten by a dog, and after we decided to catch the train back to Colombo to avoid any more driving risks, the train was cancelled. We eventually made it back to Colombo in time for me to get to the airport and catch a flight to Australia via Kuala Lumpur. In KL I experienced the warm hospitality of Oi Loon Lee, who sponsored a visit to the chiropractor so I could get myself put back together again.
Jimmi Neal Gives Teachings in Colombo
Dharamsala resident, Jimmi Neal, regularly leads Tara retreats and Lam Rim teachings in many FPMT centres. I met him in the Delhi Tushita centre before I was ordained, and he was very kind, filling me in on aspects of future ordained life and offering his support.
In December 2019 he visited Sri Lanka and offered to do a teaching. An enthusiastic group gathered in Colombo and Jimmi gave an introduction to the Lam Rim and Tara practice. The students appreciated his valuable explanations. I am hoping more FPMT teachers will visit and add to the knowledge of this small but committed group in Sri Lanka.
Credits: (and a million thanks)
Dinusha Wickramesekera and Malintha Perera looked after Jimmi Neal and are ever willing to support Tara Lanka activities through participation, offerings and their dedicated practice.
Sapling from Sri Maha Bodhi Tree Reaches Bendigo Australia
A community of local Sri Lankans has built a warm connection with the Great Stupa over the past few years, and a piece of land at the Stupa was offered for a Sri Lankan-style shrine.The community applied to have a branch from the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradapura brought to Bendigo to be planted on their site. Amazingly, their wish was fulfilled.
I was very honoured to formally accept the Bodhi tree branch at the Sri Maha Bodhi temple on behalf of the Great Stupa. Amid great pomp and ceremony, the sacred sapling was paraded in front of over 100 attendees, including senior monks and dignitaries (even the First Secretary from the Australian High Commission!). A group of 60 people recited the Heart Sutra in Sinhalese. It was an historic moment for Buddhism in Sri Lanka: never before in our lifetime have Mahayana prayers been recited openly in the presence of local monks.
1000 Australian Sri Lankans were to visit the Stupa during the retreat and participate in the handover to Rinpoche. There was to be a formal ceremony for the planting of the new Bodhi tree at its new home. A group of Sri Lankan monks were to fly to Bendigo for the event, and the chief monk of the Sri Maha Bodhi temple planned to officially invite Rinpoche to Sri Lanka after handing over the sapling.
Given COVID-19, all that now feels like a dream. New plans for a new reality are needed. There is now a more modest plan to build a stone wall around the Bodhi tree and to gradually build the rest of the Sri Lankan shrine over time. This tremendous project of building a Sri Lankan Theravadan shrine within the grounds of a Tibetan Mahayana Stupa is an impressive act. It is symbolic of the unity within diverse Buddhist traditions. Click link to view the brochure: Bodhi Dhamma Vihara Bendigo
Pujas and Recitations Continue in My Absence
During the height of Covid-19 in Sri Lanka, Professor Gunathilaka has led weekly Golden Light Sutra recitations and has completed over 250 recitations in total.
Monthly Medicine Buddha puja is held by Piyasiri Kularathna, who has become a devoted practitioner since attending Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s MB retreat in Malaysia.
Translations of His Holiness’ teachings into Sinhalese
The respected Tibetan Buddhist scholar, Dr Alexander Berzin (left), contacted me looking for someone outstanding to translate public teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama into Sinhalese. I was able to put him in touch with Dr Bertram Liyanage, who was introduced to the Nalanda tradition when he studied Buddhist logic at Pune University. As a result of this introduction, Dr Liyanage has already completed many Sinhalese translations in this project that is still ongoing. You will find them on Dr Berzin’s well-known website at www.studybuddhism.com — where you can also read teachings in 32 other languages.
Dr Liyanage (right) is a Sanskrit scholar, fluent in Sinhalese, Pali and English, and has recently started learning Tibetan at Maitripa College USA in a program taught by Dr Bill McGhee. With fluency in so many languages, Dr Liyanage may be the missing link in building a bridge between the Theravada and Mahayana lineages. I pray.
Once the Sinhalese translations project is completed, the Great Stupa in Bendigo will organise a public launch either online or in person. I am praying this endeavor will encourage greater awareness of the common ground between Mahayana and Theravada traditions, reduce misunderstandings and increase harmony.
Common Ground: Translating “Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhism”
In my quest to answer the many questions I get asked regarding the validity of Mahayana Buddhism, it’s important to find confirmation of their link in the Pali canon. Recently, I discovered a book written by an eminent Theravadan scholar, Venerable Analayo, a German national who was ordained in Sri Lanka. He has produced many works that promote respectful attitudes within Buddhism. His book Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhism, which references the Pali canon, contains useful historical and doctrinal perspectives as well as his own observations.
Bhante Kusala, a current PhD student at Harvard has previous experience translating Venerable Analayo’s books into Sinhalese. He has kindly promised to work on this translation towards the end of this year. My gratitude to Dr Venerable Miriswatte Wimalagnana, head of the Pali and Buddhist Studies Post-Graduate Institute; Venerable Bhikkuni Dhammadinnaa, who was extremely generous in providing the rights for this translation; and Bhante Kusala, who has been open and ever willing to support my endeavours. I am confident Bhante will do a fabulous job.
Renovations and Other Developments at the Girls’ Shelter
Support for the shelter has continued while I have been in Australia. Many visiting yoga teachers from different countries visited the shelter and taught yoga last year. Sri Yoga Shala yoga studio and Tapovanam yoga ashram are two local establishments that are also supporting the shelter.
Credits: (and a million thanks)
Marie Fowler has visited twice to provide hands-on training, and for the past 5 years has supported programs in the girl’s shelter by funding the costs through her online website which can be found here. Rosalie Giffoniello sponsored traditional drumming lessons. Dr Tyagi pays school fees plus extra tuition fees so that three girls can attend a private school. And, Tikiri Tennekoon, who not only tutors the girls but also looks after management details.
Before leaving Sri Lanka, I organised a large group of 12 volunteers from Hairloom & Co, a hairdressing chain in London, to come and help out (see their work above). The group have had a huge impact, painting and decorating the young mums and babies’ accommodation and the recreation areas which were in great need of repair. Thank you to Dilini De Zylva for the introduction to Maerece and her Hairloom & Co team, who have transformed the living environment of the girls and staff. Having an active team on location ‘til the end of April while the shelter was in lockdown was tremendously uplifting for the morale of the girls. There are future plans for ongoing support and partnership.
After some months of limited activity at the shelter, we have now resumed our regular maths and, English, plus sewing classes taught by a professional teacher from Singer sewing school.
Above: Tikiri teaching the girls maths. Sewing machine class and repairs. Traude giving gifts to the shelter. Divananda Ma in a challenging yoga pose
Two girls passed their Year 10 exams, a considerable achievement for these girls who can now go on to learn a vocational skill. Tikiri, my commited support on the ground, recently returned to teach the girls and told me with great delight that one girl pulled her up for not coming sooner! We have waited to see this kind of interest and confidence from these girls for a long time. There is growing interest and commitment that we hadn’t seen there before.
I am looking forward to having a computer at the shelter. It will allow the girls to have counselling, study, communication and easy contact with all the supporters from around the world who will be able to watch their progress and stay in contact.
The impact of extreme levels of domestic violence and childhood abuse is evident in some of the girls. Abuse is widespread in Sri Lankan society. To address this larger need, awareness and training on the effects and treatment of trauma is crucial. I was fortunate to do a 16-week Trauma Informed Mindfulness course. This opportunity came from Lorina Adame, the trauma informed yoga teacher who visited the girls last year.
Working Against Trauma
An exciting development during my time in Australia is that a former refugee to Australia who is now a Melbourne academic and Buddhist mindfulness practitioner is keen to raise awareness in Sri Lanka about trauma. I am very impressed with her skills and what she has to offer and am now looking for an organisation in Sri Lanka to partner with her institution in Melbourne. Do you have any contacts in mental health organisations in Sri Lanka? Please email me if you have any leads. firstname.lastname@example.org
There are a number of projects that depend on your support. If you would like further information on Tara Lanka future projects please email me.
I deeply thank the many friends —whether I have mentioned you by name or not— who support my simple efforts to bring some joy to a few lives and to bring Buddhist traditions together. So many people have already contributed along the way and I am filled with deep gratitude. In these very grueling times I hope you are getting lots of love and support wherever you are.
May the triple gem bless you.