Dharma Vijaya, a Buddhist Vihara for Everyone in Los Angeles

By Dr. Stephen Long, Asian Tribune, Jul 27, 2011

Los Angeles, CA (USA) -- When Ven. Walpola Piyananda founded Dharma Vijaya in 1980 he envisioned it as a busy center for disseminating the Buddha Dhamma – not just to Sri Lankans, but to the greater community of Americans as well – all races and ethnic origins included. After all, this is the purpose of dhammaduta.

This past weekend saw such a flurry of activity at the temple that it occurred to me that others might like to know of the usefulness of this establishment, and the wide range of people who use it. By the way, Ven. Piyananda is in Bodh Gaya conducting a Vas rainy season retreat; you can only imagine what the activity level is like when he is home in Los Angeles.

We are very fortunate that Ven. Howpe Somananda Nayake Thero, the abbot of Sri Mahaviharaya in Pamankada, Dehiwala, Colombo chose to spend the Vas season here in LA with us. His presence adds so much to the temple, and he is dearly loved by everyone.

Starting off the weekend on Friday evening I led the bi-weekly meditation service from 7 to 8:00 p.m. As usual, we had a mixture of Caucasian and African Americans, Sri Lankans, a Thai man, and an Indian woman. I am lucky to be a Bodhicari, an ordained Buddhist minister at Dharma Vijaya. As such, I get to participate closely with the monks in temple activities in a host of ways that serve the greater community.

On Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m., another of our Bodhicaris, Cynthia Shimazu, conducted a wedding ceremony for a young Thai lady and an American man. They chose Dharma Vijaya because they don’t speak English at the Thai temples, and the bride wanted her groom to be able to understand what was going on. Afterwards, the 30-or-so guests served dana to the venerable monks.

Saturday afternoon saw the arrival of visitors from time to time, and then one of the monks led a Bodhi Puja ceremony for a Sri Lankan family at 7:00 p.m.

Sunday morning at 7:00 a.m. there was a large breakfast dana ceremony attended by approximately 30 to 40 Sri Lankan family members. When they finished at 9:30, the monks had just enough time to prepare for another dana ceremony, this time for a large Vietnamese family from Orange County that arrived at 10:00 a.m.

From 9:00 to 11:00 a group of Korean friends used the temple’s meditation hall for their weekly Korean Buddhist services; and from 11:00 to 1:30 approximately 50 Korean Buddhists showed up for their weekly program at the Jungto Society. Dharma Vijaya rents the ground floor of the building it owns next door to the temple to this meditation and social service society.

At 12:30 our friend Kamil, a Polish-American black-belt karate instructor, taught his usual Sunday class at the temple. His half-dozen students are white and Hispanic Americans.

After karate came Sunday Dhamma School at 2:30; it usually lasts until 4:30 or 5:00. Ven. Gajanayakagama Kassapa leads the combined group in a traditional Buddha puja. Ven. Kalabululande Dhammajothi teaches the youngest children; Ven. Bambarawane Kalyanawansa teaches the middles; and I have the privilege and pleasure of teaching the oldest ones. While Dhamma School is going on Ven. Udagama Sumangala teaches the parents, who need to be acknowledged for bringing their children every Sunday – sometimes from great distances.

I must say that the children are amazingly gifted, and extremely receptive to our instruction. Try to imagine the Sri Lankan children (most were either born in the US, or they immigrated when they were toddlers) in their daily life at school where their fellow students are usually either Christian or Jewish; Hispanic, Korean, white, African-American – you name it. Every week the kids give me reports on how they practiced Metta at school, and tell about how effective loving-kindness is in dealing with their friends and families. I teach the kids in my class from Ven. Piyananda’s and my new book, “Thus We Heard: Recollections of the Life of the Buddha,” and this Sunday we were on Chapter 13. After our weekly lesson the conversation invariably wanders off into unpredictable territory, which is the result of questions the kids have about life and spirituality; I do my best to answer. I must say that I am very proud of all of them.

Back to Sunday. Two of the monks, Ven. Sumangala and Ven. Dhammajothi, had to leave right after class so they could attend a funeral service at the Pasadena temple. Afterwards, Ven. Sumangala had been asked to give the weekly Dhamma talk to members of the dayake there.

After the kids and their parents cleared out, the remaining three monks got the temple ready to hold a funeral service at 6:00 p.m. The service was for a middle-aged Hispanic man. A friend of his wife’s had attended meditation classes in Monterey Park that Ven. Piyananda occasionally holds; she was the one who recommended Dharma Vijaya as the venue for the funeral. About 60 or 70 family members and friends attended, and Ven. Kalyanawansa and I conducted the service with the assistance of Ven. Somananda and Ven. Kassapa. It was a combination of traditional Buddhist chanting, Dhamma messages, and an American Buddhist’s take on the Buddha’s views on death and kamma.

The guests held a wake in the temple kitchen, and I noticed they had brought pizzas, Mexican food, and Indian food; typical LA. It was a great experience for all concerned, and everyone finally cleared out about 9:30.

A busy weekend indeed! Like I said, it’s even busier when Ven. Piyananda is in town.