We are coming up on a very important day in the Buddhist history of the U.S. and Canada, namely the 73rd birthday of Ven. Madawala Seelawimala, ‘Bhante Seela’. While he has concentrated most of his efforts in Northern California, he is a key figure in the development and appreciation of Theravada Buddhism in North America. His life has been productive, so to join in the celebration of the joyous event of his birthday, we would like to tell a little about his life.
Born in the Kurunegala District in 1947 Lional Bandara Ratnayake grew up as the only boy in the family with three sisters. His parents were Tikiri Bandara Ratnayake and Swarnalatha Briatice Balasooriya Kumarihamy.
Unfortunately his father passed away when young Lional was only five years old, but his mother raised the children with no difficulty.
As a result of Bishop Tsuji’s foresight, Bhante Seelawimala would come to play a major role in the religious training of many Buddhist Church of America ministers
Ven. Madawala Seelawimala
Bhante’s mother, herself well educated in Dhamma, saw that her son was seriously interested in becoming a monk. So she contacted Ven. Acariya Hendiyagala Seelarathana of the Ancient Cave Temple. After examining the young boy’s personality, the venerable master agreed to ordain him immediately after his tenth birthday, giving him the name Seelawimala. The young novice became his first disciple.
After a year of strict training and careful consideration, Ven. Seelarathana decided to send the young disciple to a regular school with lay children, rather than to a traditional monk training schools. While it was challenged as a controversial idea, finally Maliyadeva Boy’s College, the most prestigious in the North Western province of Sri Lanka, agreed to accept him as the only monk in the school. Ven Dr. Dickwela Piyananda, later the founder of the first Theravada temple in the U.S., in Washington D.C., was a close friend of Ven. Seelarathana, and facilitated Bhante’s entrance into the school as well as becoming his upajjhaya. For the next several years young Bhante Seela enjoyed the direct supervision of two great masters, and in fact became the outstanding student at the school, earning highest honors.
Bhante’s classes in Buddhist history and doctrine, and Life and Teachings of the Buddha, are immensely popular and attended by Zen Buddhists, Pure Land Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and others who all have been enriched by studying with Bhante Seela.
Later in 1966 he entered the University of Sri Lanka, Peradeniya, majoring in Buddhist philosophy. In 1968, he took higher ordination in Kandy, and subsequently joined the teaching staff of the Bhikkhu Training Centre at Maharagama. He also served on the editing board of the Tripitaka Encyclopedia, published by the Sasana Sevaka Society, Colombo. During this period he became associated with Ven. Madihe Paññasiha Maha Nayake Thera of the Amapura Maha Nikaya.
In 1972 the Wijayawardhane Trust offered him a scholarship to the University of Sri Lanka to qualify to teach Buddhism in English and thus teach Dhamma in the West. This had a tremendous impact on his life (and the lives off those who know him in the U.S. and Canada!). In 1974 Bhante completed his Master’s in Buddhist Philosophy, and at this time Ven. Dr. Dickwela Piyananda introduced Bhante Seela to a close friend of his, Rev. Kenryu Tsuji, Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America and president of the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS) in Berkeley, California, who was visiting Sri Lanka. While Bishop Tsuji represents a major branch of Jodo Shinshu Pure Land Buddhism of Japan, he realised that to spread Buddha’s teaching in America, he needed to ensure his ministers were well versed in the historical development of Buddhism, especially the fundamental Dhamma of
As a result of Bishop Tsuji’s foresight, Bhante Seelawimala would come to play a major role in the religious training of many Buddhist Church of America ministers. Bhante has the unique ability to present Gautama Buddha’s teachings in a way that they can be easily understood by people educated in North America. He has taught the suttas in both Pali and English, explained important concepts, and thus helped his students understand the principles of Buddha’s earliest teachings and understand their application today. He engages and discusses with students, helping them expand their own understanding and go beyond sectarianism. This has actually helped them understand their own tradition better, seen in the context of the historical development and expansion of Buddhism over more than two millenia.
Bhante Seela has included many ministerial students in the various religious services he has performs at IBS, and has given them the opportunity to know many of the most esteemed teachers. Some of them in early years were able to meet Ven. Ananda Maitreya, who spent his final years at Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara until he passed away well past the age of 100.
In the 1980’s, the IBS joined the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, thus giving access to Buddhism scholarship to students of major Christian and Jewish traditions. Bhante has been able to share the Dhamma with many more non-Buddhist as well as Buddhist graduate students. Bhante’s classes in Buddhist history and doctrine, and Life and Teachings of the Buddha, are immensely popular and attended by Zen Buddhists, Pure Land Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and others who all have been enriched by studying with Bhante Seela. Bhante has also spoken to many lay Buddhist in Northern California and elsewhere, helping them deepen
Bhante has been involved in the establishment and operation of three Viharas that opened in the late 20th century, first in Toronto, then in Vancouver, and subsequently in Sacramento. As Bhante was once the only Theravada monk in northern California, he was often called on to provide personal help to lay people of various Buddhist traditions. While there are now more monks, Bhante is still often consulted for personal help.
In addition to this whirland of activity, Bhante has been the Abbot of the Ancient Cave temple since his master passed away in 1984. He has assigned monks to run the temple day to day, and he visits whenever he has the opportunity.
And, finally, Bhante Seela has been my close friend and Dhamma brother for many decades. We have both benefitted from our long association.
It is hard to summarise the vast and ongoing contributions of Bhante Seela around the world. As a scholar, teacher, spiritual advisor, and friend, he has continued to help countless Buddhists and others who have had the good fortune to know him. We wish him the happiest and healthiest of birthdays, and look forward to learning Dhamma from him for years to come.
Happy Birthday, Bhante Seela!