Mesa Buddhist center to hold ceremony rarely done in West

by Srianthi Perera, The Arizona Republic, Nov. 12, 2010

Mesa, Arizona (USA) -- A Buddhist ceremony rarely performed in the Western world is scheduled to take place in Mesa on Saturday.

The Arizona International Buddhist Meditation Center will hold the Atavisi Buddha Puja, a devotional ceremony to pay homage to the 28 Buddhas in this eon. An eon in Buddhism is a countless, but not infinite, period of time.

"The goal of the ceremony is to generate as much merit as possible to free ourselves from suffering," said the Venerable Ananda, principle monk.

The Ven. Ananda said the ceremony creates an atmos- phere of tranquility, which leads to a calm mind that in turn generates positive thoughts that could continue in their daily lives.

Buddhists believe all living beings are subject to an endless cycle of births and deaths, as well as suffering in various forms.

The ultimate goal is to purify the mind. That leads to liberation from this cycle by attaining nirvana, a freeing of the spiritual self from attachment to worldly things. Venerating, and observing the teachings of Buddhas, as well as meditation are two ways followers try to achieve nirvana.

Saturday's ceremony involves venerating 28 past Buddhas with flowers, lighted oil lamps, incense and other offerings and acknowledging their exceptional qualities and contributions.

The ceremony is rarely done outside Sri Lanka.

Ten Buddhist monks, most from temples in California, Las Vegas and Oregon, will preside. The service is open to the public.

"I consider it a great opportunity to be able to participate in this," said Chamath Abhayagunawardhana of Chandler. "In North America, there aren't many Buddhist temples."

Abhayagunawardhana said that even though the ceremony is held occasionally in Sri Lanka, his native land, he never had an opportunity to attend one there.

According to teachings, Buddhas in the past have spent countless numbers of lives striving to develop the qualities that helped them attain ultimate realization or Buddhahood. Having attained it, the Buddhas discover the true nature of existence and explain it to the world.

"We pay respect to all the great qualities that Buddhas have perfected over such a long time and use them to guide our lives," said Abhayagunawardhana, an engineer.

"It's extremely difficult to develop a full understanding of existence as it really is without the teaching of a Buddha, due to defilements in our minds. Hence, we express our gratitude for showing us the way to train our minds towards this goal."

The concept of acknowledging the 28 Buddhas is prevalent in countries that practice Theravada Buddhism such as Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia.

Shane Wilson, who conducts meditation classes at the Mesa center, said that Westerners who practice Buddhism in America don't embrace ceremonies or rituals. Instead, they practice meditation and read the dhamma, or Buddhist teachings.

"A lot of times, they don't quite understand the rituals," he said. "People are interested, but they think it's more of a cultural thing rather than religion. I don't think that's a reason to stay away from it."

Wilson - a Buddhist for 15 years, who has lived in Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country - noted that Americans often crave the cultural experiences they find in foreign travel.

"There are cultural experiences right in their backyard. If more people can understand and take part in that, it would be good," he said.