As a country that was thrice visited by Gauthama Buddha, the majority of its population are Buddhists. But with colonial influences and Christian missionaries around the country, imparting Dhamma education was a challenge in itself. It was in this backdrop that the Bambalapitiya Sri Vajirarama Dhamma School was established back in 1918. The concept initiated by the Most Venerable Pelane Vajiragnana Maha Nayaka Thera was a stepping stone to inculcate a culture that appreciated the Dhamma. As such, under the patronage of illustrious chief prelates, the Dhamma School has continued its mission to produce citizens with a wholesome vocal, physical and mental conduct. Today over 3000 students attend the Dhamma School and it is equipped with a teaching staff of 120. Upon reaching its centenary year, the senior incumbents of the Temple are determined to continue their legacy forward as a pioneer institution to mould better citizens in the country.
The need for Dhamma-based education
Speaking to the Ven. Siri Vajiraramaye Gnānasīha Thera, who was one of the past pupils of the Dhamma School said that it started at the time when Sri Lanka was still a colony of the British. “During that time no government school taught Buddhism. This was one of the biggest challenges we faced. Thereafter the Ministry of Buddhist Affairs was established and it was their responsibility to look into Buddhism-related matters. Afterwards schools received syllabuses and books to teach Dhamma and have exams for the children. The difference in a Dhamma school based at a temple is that the students get to talk to the monks and experience something different to what they experience at school. It is not only the Dhamma that is being taught; they also get a chance to fine tune their character in a very positive way.”
‘Pubbachariya’ was a term used by Gauthama Buddha to describe early teachers who in most instances are our parents. In reference to this term, Ven. Gnānasīha Thera too emphasized the role of parents. “Parents play a big role in teaching Buddhist principles to children,” Ven. Thera said. “We have learned that our mother is the best Dhamma School. This way it is easy to convince children to follow Buddha’s teachings. With the guidance of His teachings, children won’t get misled and it has become an urgent need to make children familiar with the Dhamma. The societal trends with the introduction of technology are not satisfactory and one solution is the Dhamma.”
In today’s rat race over grades, children are battling with time. Therefore the need to attend the Dhamma School isn’t felt as children reach higher grades
In today’s rat race over grades, children are battling with time. Therefore the need to attend the Dhamma School isn’t felt as children reach higher grades. With O/L and A/L exams adding much pressure, parents too are determined to choose tuition classes over the Dhamma School. “Because of these tuition classes, the attendance is less in senior classes,” Ven. Thirikunamale Ananda Maha Nayaka Thera said with much concern. “It has become a menace today and children have too much stress. At the Dhamma School we not only teach theory but we have as many practical exercises as possible. In most instances we have observed that even though children like to come to the Dhamma School, parents are reluctant to send them. With tuition and high school exams children are being trained for a competition rather than acquiring knowledge. We are not satisfied with this trend as per our vision to impart Dhamma education to Buddhist children. Even though we started during the British rule we were able to encourage citizens to appreciate the Dhamma and impart the knowledge of moral values. Therefore in moving forward we have to continue this mission amid obstacles.”
A holistic educational experience
As children reach senior grades they are conditioned to get higher marks rather than appreciate the subject. Therefore the Dhamma School does the opposite. Here children are trained to get over this competitive mind-set. “We don’t have competitive exams at the Dhamma School,” Ven. Ananda Thera continued. “There is a quarterly paper titled ‘Viduru Pahana’ which we publish in an attempt help the students to fine tune their creativity. Since 1936 we have also been printing a monthly paper titled ‘Bauddha Lamaya’ which translates to ‘The Buddhist Child’ which is also the first children’s Dhamma-based publication. We are not happy with the fact that not even parents take an interest anymore in sending their children to the Dhamma Schools. The theme of this year’s Centenary translates to ‘A generation enriched by the Dhamma, A Sri Lanka enriched by humanity’. But we have observed that as people have limited knowledge about the Dhamma they do not expose as many humane traits. Through the Dhamma School we have a befriending programme where students can speak to any teacher. Today children have many problems but they don’t have anybody to speak to. So our teachers are trained to listen to the children and provide assistance when in need of help.”
“On Poya Days we have a separate sil campaign for students,” added Ven. Meegoda Sukitha Thera who is the current principal of the Dhamma School. “We are impressed by the interest among the young crowd. Here they are being taught to follow the traditions and it is a very child-friendly programme. But once again we have observed that a less number of seniors students attend this programme as well.”
The ‘Sati Pasala’ concept
Mindfulness has been one of the principle teachings of the Buddha. But it is a rather challenging process on the path to understand the Dhamma. According to Buddha’s teachings, the purpose of mindfulness was to end suffering. Speaking further, Ven. Gnānasīha Thera said that with the introduction of technology, children have been greatly misled. “This is why we have introduced the ‘Sati Pāsala’ programme. It translates to the ‘Mindful School’ where students are trained to think on a broader perspective. The initiators of the programme had a vision to introduce mindfulness as a wholesome life skill that will benefit students in more than just one way. They will therefore know how to communicate with teachers, family, friends and the rest of the world. Students get to listen to lectures by those who have mastered these skills. They also get to listen to Dhamma verses and be familiar with the teachings of the Buddha.”
The mission of the Dhamma School is to encourage citizens to observe the Eight Precepts on full-moon Poya Days, respect the Sangha, parents and teachers and sustain a simple lifestyle
Paving a bright future
The mission of the Dhamma School is to encourage citizens to observe the Eight Precepts on full-moon Poya Days, respect the Sangha, parents and teachers and sustain a simple lifestyle. It further encourages generations to possess restraint, good behaviour and a sound knowledge of the Dhamma. The students are encouraged to participate in meritorious activities, hospital service, helping the needy and other social work. Other projects undertaken by the Dhamma School include assisting Dhamma Schools in rural areas, distributing dry rations, clothes and books in such areas, annual blood donations and assisting needy patients among others. Under the supervision of its present Chief Prelate, the School has been restructured and a more efficient and an administrative setup is now in place. In order to ensure the smoothing functioning of its activities five units including administration, religious and social service, examinations and education, welfare and cultural affairs have been established.
The Centenary celebration will be held on August 19, 2018 at the BMICH from 2.00pm onwards in the presence of the chief prelate of the Amarapura Sangha Sabha and President Maithripala Sirisena. The keynote speech will be delivered by the University of Sri Jayawardenapura Vice Chancellor Professor Sampath Amarathunga.