By Venerable Parambe Sirinivasa
New York Buddhist Vihara, New York, USA.
(Translated by Hema Senanayake)
A human being destined to be a great Buddhist missionary was born on December 29, 1928, in the small village of Kurunegoda, in the Kegalle district, Sri Lanka. At the age of 13 he was ordained into a religion that taught “there is a cause for everything that has ever come into existence or will come into existence and must cease to exist when the cause ceases to be.” That religion is Buddhism and that great human being is the chief incumbent monk of the New York Buddhist Vihara, the most Venerable Kurunegoda Piyatissa Thera.
When he was a young novice monk he was a good student and had the utmost respect for his teachers. After monastic education he became a teacher himself at the age of 23 in 1951. He was a teacher at the Bodhigupta Pirivena in Denagamuwa, Polgahawela, thereafter he was the Deputy Principal at the Sri Guneswara Pirivena in Hunupitiya, in Colombo, after which he became the Deputy Principal at the Government Central College in Polgahawela and a teacher at Ananda College, Colombo. When he taught, he did it with a passion. Even after many years of ending his teaching career he was able to recall the names of almost all of his students; a testimony to the closeness he had with his students.
During his teaching career, at government schools, each Friday after school, he visited his Pirivena in Polgahawela, to spend the weekend. On such visits, his immediate instinct was to meet young novice monks or “samaneras” residing in the temple. I am humbled to be one of those novices. He was eager to inquire about the well-being of these novices. He was especially interested in ensuring they received a good monastic education, which was an essential element to be a great Buddhist monk.
"Despite the many individuals he has met he was never arrogant or proud. Instead he is equally delighted to meet anyone regardless of their status in society. In fact he is detached from attachments including prestige which is a pristine Buddhist value"
What makes a great Buddhist monk? In “Pali” language the Buddha said, “viyaktho visharado bahustrutho dhammanu dhammapatipanno”; which means that a good monk must be wise, well-disciplined, learned in terms of reading, listening, writing, meditating and must live according to the Dhamma or according to the Buddha’s teachings. The hallmark of such a person is that he or she earns respect from people of all backgrounds. Venerable Kurunegoda Piyatissa Thera is a great monk as was defined by the Buddha.
It is this undeniable character of Venerable Kurunegoda Piyatissa Thera that granted him the honour of being invited by Queen Elisabeth, meeting with the then U.S. president Clinton in the White House, and being respected by many more statesmen from other nations. His Holiness Dalai Lama extended a courtesy visit to meet with Venerable Kurunegoda Piyatissa Thera. Despite the many individuals he has met he was never arrogant or proud. Instead he is equally delighted to meet anyone regardless of their status in society. In fact he is detached from attachments including prestige which is a pristine Buddhist value.
Due to whatever reason he has been inspired to be a great Buddhist missionary. The Buddha advised monks thus: “Monks go forth, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit, and happiness of human and divine beings.”
The Buddha’s message of love and compassion opened the hearts of the people and they willingly accepted the teachings, thereby helping Buddhism to become a world religion. Buddhist missionaries were invited by the independent countries which welcomed them with due respect. On one such occasion our Venerable monk was invited to the United Kingdom in 1972.
Residing at the London Buddhist temple, he got the opportunity to introduce Buddhist philosophy to the students of many public schools in accordance with the educational policy of the British government. Many institutions such as Cambridge University, Oxford University, Manchester University, Lancaster University, Nottingham University, London University, and other Buddhist Associations, churches and synagogues invited him frequently to deliver speeches and to teach Buddhist meditation. Then he moved to New York City to the United States in 1981 on an invitation made by the American Sri Lanka Buddhist Association. The initial place of worship was set up in a rented apartment of 650 square feet. Within years he had the honour to initiate the building of an architecturally designed large temple in the Queens County of New York. This temple was inaugurated in the year 2000.
He knew that books played a big role in Buddhist missionary work therefore as part of his missionary work, he wrote many books about Buddhism in English. He translated 250 of what is known as “Jathaka Stories” into English. Those stories relate core Buddhist values especially for young children.
Sometimes, when I look at our chief incumbent monk, I feel like I see a “Bodhisattva.” A Bodhisattva is a person who is well on the way to becoming a Buddha. A Bodhisattva has unparalleled good qualities such as patience, generosity and compassion. I begin to think that if anybody wants to see a Bodhisattva, perhaps he or she could do so by associating or studying the life of our chief incumbent monk the Most Venerable Kurunegoda Piyatissa Thera. He is now in the twilight of his life and is well taken care of by residential monks in New York Buddhist Vihara. I will end this brief note by mentioning the traditional solemn words of appreciation by saying, Sadhu! Sadhu!! Sadhu!!!