On Sunday 28 September, I had the pleasure of joining about 1,000 people in commemorating the early origins of the British Sangha, when most notably in 1908 Ven. Ananda Metteya (lay name Charles Henry Allan Bennet), a fully ordained bhikkhu, took up residence in a home in London.
The Sri Lankan community had been commemorating his efforts for many years, but it was only a couple of weeks ago that I heard about it. Not knowing much about Allan Bennet's life, I started reading the Wikipedia article and the links that led off, especially the moving biography by Elizabeth Harris. I realised that this was a very significant commemoration so I felt I ought to attend and yesterday I duly made my way, reading about Ven. Ananda Metteya and his work on the train.
This event was organised by the World Buddhist Foundation, a UK registered charity, based at the Kingsbury Vihara, under the management of Ven. Galayaye Piyadassi MBE. The Foundation aims to advance the Buddhist religion through education and training and religious activities right across society.
The celebration took place in Brent Town Hall, an area I had never visited (I've not been to Wembley stadium!) The event had 3 parts, starting with an exhibition on Ven. Ananda Metteya and the pioneers of Buddhism in the UK, together with some nice pictures from Sri Lanka (of course :-) I think anyone interested in the early history would have been fascinated by the various books, leaflets, letters and other items that were circulating a century or more ago. It was evident that a lot of effort had been put into even just gathering these items.
Next door there was in progress in the mid-afternoon the second component, which was a workshop, which I only hovered near for a few minutes, having arrived some time after it had started. It was good to see different traditions represented and in constructive dialogue, from SE Asian Sangha members to Western Buddhists, though the time allocated was short. Perhaps the Londoners have set up regular gatherings to continue the process?
The main session was in the evening and it was quite a spectacle! To herald the arrival of distinguised guests (included several MPs) there was the blowing of the conch and beating of drums followed by a procession of VIPs. The evening was honoured by several speechs from very senior monks, particularly by the Most Venerable Udugama Sri Buddharakkhita Ratanapalabhidana, the Supreme Patriarch of the Siyam Nikaya, Sri Lanka. (I take it that is the Supreme Patriarch for the country), who also invited all those who wished to take the 5 precepts. For one quite senior in years, his chanting rang clear and strong!
Many monastic speakers were magnanimous in honouring Ven. Ananda Metteya and there was also a video of his life, played to the sweet accompaniment of 'Claire de Lune,' highlighting the Sri Lankan connection, especially how he and a close friend Dr. Cassius Pereira, had supported Ven. Nyanaponika in his work. Two keynotes from Profs. Richard Gombrich and Ananda Guruge pondered the significance of 100 years of Buddhism in the UK, particularly as regards the scholarly heritage. There were also numerous tributes and homages through music and dance. Contributions came from SE Asia - e.g. Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand - but also families from Amaravati (Hemel Hempstead) sang three songs, all very harmoniously.
As we sat there, volunteers came round with bottles of water, sandwich boxes and cups of tea - service in situ!
I think the efforts of the Sri Lankan community are really praiseworthy - they have preserved and commemorated the Western Buddhist history in a very respectful and honourable way. One of the speakers observed that the media often pick up these kinds of Buddhist events if there is a famous personality involved - or else not such good news! In any case, I hope that their efforts on this occasion receive very broad and positive coverage irrespective of fame.
Our temple sent along Ven. Sarttra Thirapanyo, one of our bhikkhus from Wat Phra Dhammakaya (UK) (who has come here to teach meditation :-) and I think it may have conveyed to him a flavour of how things have been developing here. Actually, Thailand and Sri Lanka have long maintained mutually helpful relations - indeed the main Wat in Thailand has already been closely involved with Sangha organisations in Sri Lanka and this led to a special Universal Peace award for the Abbot, Ven. Dhammajayo Bhikkhu.
So best wishes for the next 100 years and beyond!