This week sees an important holiday for a fifth of the world’s population, namely Buddhists, who will be marking the anniversary of the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha on May 17. Some in the Czech Republic will be celebrating the day as well, and that will be thanks to a large part to Bhante Wimala, a Sri Lankan monk based in the United States who started the Czech Republic’s first two Buddhist centres, the Samadhi Meditation Centre near Mělník and the Lotus Centre in Prague. In Today’s One on One Christian Falvey speaks with Bhante Wimala about his work in the Czech Republic and the messages of Buddhism.
“I was sent to the temple at 13 years old, I was ordained as a novice monk at 14. I have been in Prague now for almost 17 years. Just after the fall of communism I was invited to go to Russia. On my way, a friend invited me to speak to a small group of Buddhists in the Czech Republic who had not met a Buddhist monk at the time, so they were very excited. So when I came here I met a lot of young people who were very curious, enthusiastic, and dedicated, so I thought it would be worthwhile to try to do something in the Czech Republic.”
So you felt there was a larger response to Buddhism and to your message than elsewhere in the world where you’ve been?
“Not necessarily larger, but the kind of people who were interested and practicing on their own were young people, mostly in their twenties or their late teens, so it is so nice to see young people who are interested in learning about spirituality and dedicating their lives to broadening their perspective and searching for deeper truths in life.”
The question often arises whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion. What is your view on that question, and how do the Czechs you’ve met who are involved with Buddhism take it?
“Buddhism from my personal point of view is psychotherapy; Buddhism is a psychology. The heart of Buddhism is about training the mind, guiding the mind, transforming the mind, nurturing the mind. So in that sense it is psychotherapy. We talk about general unhappiness and misery in life and the cause of that unhappiness, misery and pain in life, and how we can grow beyond it, and become a happier, more joyful person, and at the same time walk a path that leads us to understand the deeper truths of life, of existence. So it’s all about inner work, mental transformation.”
And the religious aspect?
“It is there. Because of temples, priests, monks, chanting, rituals… All these things are there, but when you go back to the original teachings of the Buddha and the heart of Buddhism, and what Buddha taught, it is definitely psychology/psychotherapy. The religious aspect is there, philosophy is there, but they are only peripheral part of Buddhism as a whole.”
You’re celebrating the birthday of the Buddha now; what does that mean to you personally and how will you be celebrating it in the Czech Republic?
“Yes, on May 17 we are celebrating the 2600 anniversary of the enlightenment of the Buddha – when he achieved awakening. We call it the day of enlightenment. So, to me, I think the greatest gift that anybody can give to the world is wisdom, and the message of compassion and love, and the message of spiritual transformation. So in that sense, it is the most spiritual holy day, or important day for me, personally. And that is also true for many Buddhists around the world; Buddhists are celebrating the day of enlightenment – which we call Vesak - all over the world in many different ways: joyful ceremonies, retreats, meditations classes, study groups and so on. So it is an important day for most all Buddhists.”
Obviously there are not many Czech Buddhist monks, so what do you think Czechs who attend your centre and come to your lectures take most out of your message?
“Well, when you think about Czech Buddhists, there are all kinds, Tibetan Buddhists and Zen Czech Buddhists. I come from a particular tradition called Theravada Buddhist. So there are Theravada monks in the Czech Republic – I know four at least – and there are Theravada nuns, women who have received ordination. So it is slowly, surely spreading. And I think local people are becoming monks and nuns, and slowly many organisations are beginning to spread, even in remote regions of the Czech Republic. So I think the message will continue to grow in the Czech Republic. What it will become is very difficult to predict.”
From what you’ve learned of the Czech Republic and its people over the last 17 years, are there specific things in which you think Buddhism can particularly help here?
“I think one aspect that I have noticed is communal relationships based on trust, understanding, light-heartedness, that is something in which they need to continue to grow. Because one aspect that I see often is mistrust, and it seems to create a lot of unnecessary conflicts. So that could be one aspect. And the other thing is – whether Czech or anybody, any human being – I think when they learn to become more self-aware they can overcome the weaknesses they have developed as part of their childhood experiences or social environment. So my hope is that people will turn more to meditation and self-refection and self-exploration, cultivate self-awareness, so that they will be able to understand what their weaknesses are, and face themselves in a more thoughtful, more respectful way, so they can understand the source of their own discomfort or weaknesses or unacceptable behaviour or chaotic thinking. When they begin to slowly cultivate peace, I think they will see the importance of becoming less selfish and less self-centred, because selfishness is a very painful place to be. But since it is based on biological and emotional forces, if we do not guide it mentally, then a selfish person can live in a very dark and painful place. For our own happiness and emotional well-being, we need to get out of that dark place, and cultivate our ability to become unselfish – in other words more caring and more loving, and more giving. And this I think is something that hopefully will happen as they learn Buddhism.”
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