Buddhist center celebrates Christmas with ceremony

By Tom Yerace, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 22, 2008

Pittsburgh, PA (USA) -- The Christmas tree with multicolored lights in one corner seemed out of place with the large white Buddha statue positioned along opposite wall.

But according to Bhante Pemaratana, a monk at the Buddhist temple along Route 908 in Natrona, the values and philosophies each represent have much in common.

That was the purpose of a service and luncheon Sunday at the Buddhist temple, a converted house where the statue and tree shared the main room.

About 50 to 60 people attended the event.

"Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country but we have a very large Christian population and a large Muslim populations, so we celebrated Christian holidays, we celebrated Muslim holidays," said Ramesh Santanam of Pittsburgh, a Sri Lanka native and former Valley News Dispatch reporter.

Ed Ostack, 62, of Indiana Township was raised a Catholic but became acquainted with Buddhism when he was stationed in Thailand with the Air Force. He does not see Buddhist beliefs and the teachings of Christ as exclusive of one another.

"By and large it is all about kindness," Ostack said. "These are some of the kindest, most compassionate people you'd ever want to meet."

"Everything in Buddhism is based on you," said Josh Hudson of Butler, saying that Buddhism is centered on realized truth in regard to one's self as a opposed to a revealed truth from God.

"In Buddhism, it's you forgive yourself as opposed to looking for God to forgive you," Hudson said. "When you start doing this seriously, it becomes difficult to justify not doing more (to help others),"

The Bhante, a term equivalent to "reverend," led those assembled through the Vandana, the daily Buddhist devotions. They include five precepts which call for abstaining from things such as killing, sexual misconduct, lying, taking drugs and alcohol, and stealing.

Then, in observance of the celebration of Jesus Christ's birth, he discussed how Christ's teachings can be appreciated through Buddhism. He said Christ and his teachings have had a "great impact on human history."

"Within us we all have a kind of animal nature --- anger, violence, greed," Bhante Pemaratana said. "Within us we also have human nature, the ability to behave responsibly , to behave morally."

He said religions help people overcome weaknesses that defile their lives. He said the purpose of Buddhism is to tackle those defilements and thus alleviate human suffering.

"The Buddhists say those who respect others will be shown respect; those who show mercy will receive mercy," Pemaratana said. "The world is a mirror, so we can see the connection here.

"If you want to instruct others, establish yourself first. That is the teaching of Jesus Christ and that is the teachings of the Buddhists."

He recalled Christ's Sermon on the Mount, when he told the crowd before him that they are the "light of the world" and to allow their light to shine through.

"To encourage people to be the light of the world is to be an inspiration to others," Pemaratana said.

"If you know Buddhism and are a Christian, you can be a good Christian," he explained. "If you are a Buddhist and know the teachings of Jesus Christ, you can be a good Buddhist."