Mind in a muddle? Go 'om' for lunch

by Jennifer Green, The Ottawa Citizen, August 20, 2008

The road to inner peace is often a long one, but a new Buddhist community is offering a noon-hour shortcut, Jennifer Green writes.

Ottawa, Canada -- The first lunch hour, one person showed up. The second day, nobody came.

The Buddhist community on Heron Road isn't discouraged, though. With the help of their new monk, Bhanthe Muditha, the Jayawardenaramaya Temple hopes to attract seniors, stressed-out householders and employees for meditation to Theravadha Buddhist chants. In other words, they want to attract everyone. They even have a Sunday school.

"We are not converting anyone," says Bhanthe, or abbot, Muditha. "Our only message is to see your inside become more peaceful."

It is difficult to keep the mind empty and think about loving kindness. First you start with positive thoughts about yourself, then widen the circle: your family, your neighbourhood, the environment, and finally the universe. "It's not a matter of words, but deep powerful feelings."

Their one client so far was a woman who spotted a small notice in the Citizen. She arrived at the tiny converted bungalow at 1481 Heron Rd. saying she needed inner peace. She went away very happy, the abbot said.

"You'll get results in 10 days," he says. "Your peace, others also take."

The lunchtime sessions from noon to 1 on Tuesdays and Thursdays are open to anyone, although they are aimed at frazzled workers. Seniors are invited from 2 to 3 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesdays of August, September and October. (That's Aug. 27, Sept. 10 and 24, and Oct. 8 and 22.) They will also hold an outdoor meditation at Strathcona Park from 9 until 11 a.m. this Sunday. All are free.

"Ancient Asian Wellness Practice focused on Meditation is a form of Mental Detoxification," the group's ad says. "If you are experiencing constant physical pain such as headaches, muscle pain, heart burn or gastric distress, these are a very good barometer for measuring your emotional health and stress."

The little temple, a converted brick bungalow tucked between a school and a federal government building, might seem an unlikely place for outreach. But the globetrotting new abbot has expanded horizons throughout his career in Los Angeles, Toronto, Detroit and now Ottawa.

His parents pledged him as a Buddhist monk at birth in Sri Lanka 56 years ago. At 16, he entered the monastery, adopted his monastic name, Muditha ("appreciative joy"), shaved his head and donned the mustard robes, the autumn hues of renunciation.

About 20 years ago, a colleague invited him to come to California. "Our temple was in Hollywood," he laughs. "I knew many celebrities. Directors used to come to meditate."

He stayed in the hermitage, so U.S. culture wasn't too much of a shock -- except for the freeway.

"Even I don't know what happened," he says now, a little sheepish about the car accident that made him quit driving forever. While he was negotiating the road, his passenger clenched his stomach, saying he felt ill. In the abbot's attempts to deal with the ailing man, a truck rear-ended the car, pushing it into another car. There were no injuries, but the repairs were expensive. "From that day, I gave up."

In 1994, he moved to Toronto to help establish the West End Vihada in Mississauga, now one of the busiest in the world, he says, with about 2,000 people and 350 children in the Sunday school.

From there, he went to Detroit, where his assistant, Jinananda ("pleasure of the Buddha") joined him from Sri Lanka. Now they are here to lead the Ottawa group, a small congregation of about 40 families, mostly Sri Lankan.

The two men live at the small bungalow, waking up each day about 5:30 a.m. They meditate until 8 a.m., often with members of the "hilda," or temple. Then they have a small breakfast of soup and bread or porridge, whatever the congregation has dropped off that day.

They attend to the day's business until their main meal of rice and curry at noon. Afterward, the abbot goes for a meditative walk near the temple, for about 40 minutes, walking back and forth, focusing just on walking, trying to keep a clear mind. There will be nothing further to eat until the next day.

In the evening, they will again chant and meditate with the community at 7:30 p.m.

No TV? No newspapers? No movies?

"Don't think this is a boring life," he says. "We don't have time to do that and we don't need to do that. The people do everything for us and are expecting something from us. We have to receive respectfully."

If the monks do go out to restaurant, it's usually at the invitation of a congregant whose turn it is to feed them but doesn't know how to cook.

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