Washington DC, USA – When people think of Washington, DC, they imagine many things, but Buddhism is probably not very high on that list. However, the Washington area is home to a thriving Buddhist community, has been for decades. American cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco might seem like more likely candidates for the Buddhist capital of the United States, but we in the nation’s capital know that our region’s history with Buddhism is equally a rich and deep. The Washington Buddhist Vihara, where I stayed when I first arrived in Washington has a young monk more than 35 years ago, is in fact the oldest Theravada Buddhist monastery in North America. There were only a few Buddhist groups in Washington, mostly transplants from larger, more established groups on the West Coast when the Vihara was founded in 1965. Now, however, the area boasts temples and practice groups of almost every Buddhist sect and culture. We have large traditional style temples with dozens of resident monks. We have small in-home sitting groups lead by dedicated individuals. We have immigrant temples preserving generations of Buddhist practice and tradition. We have communities of practitioners made up entirely of first-generation converts to Buddhism. And we have an even large community of people who, even though they might not call themselves Buddhist at all, are still great friends and supporters of Buddhism.
Bringing all these different communities together, however, is a challenge. Even though we are all united by a common faith in the Buddha’s teachings, we all do so in different ways. Even among Theravada Buddhists, we can find many differences. At my own temple, the Maryland Buddhist Vihara in Wheaton, MD, the resident monks and lay devotees are predominantly Sri Lankan, and thus we follow Sri Lankan customs and traditions. A short drive away, there is a Thai temple, Wat Thai DC, that follows Thai customs and traditions. Even though both of these temples belong to the Theravada tradition, when I visit the Thai temple, or when one of the monks from the Thai community visits my temple, the differences can be amazing. Even when we chant in the Pali language, we do things a little differently—even though the words we chant might be the same, the pronunciation, rhythm, and tempo are often different. The same is true when I visit the other Theravada temples in our area. Within an hour’s drive of my temple there are Theravada temples representing communities from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Bangladesh, and Vietnam—all the countries that have a significant Theravada population. You can imagine how many varieties there must be.
When we move to beyond just the Theravada tradition, there are even more varieties. I am also a frequent guest at a nearby Vietnamese temple, Chua Vien An. Like the Thai temple, many things are familiar there—the images of the Buddha, the devotion of the lay people, the dedication of the ordained sangha. But there are also many differences. As a Mahayana temple, there are images of Guan Yin and other bodhisattvas that aren’t commonly found in Theravada temples. Instead of Pali, the chanting is done in Vietnamese. And, of course, similar differences can be found in our area’s many Mahayana temples. Within the same hour’s drive from the Maryland Buddhist Vihara, we can find groups that follow Vietnamese, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and even Mongolian traditions. We are truly blessed with a great diversity of Buddhism!
At no time of the year is this more apparent than during Vesak, the celebration of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and parinibbana in the month of May.In Washington, we have hosted a joint celebration of Vesak every year since 1986. This allows us a time to come together and celebrate our common teacher, the Lord Buddha, while also giving us an opportunity to highlight our diversity and learn about our differences. One of my favorite parts of International Vesak is the multi-language homage to the Buddha. On the morning of our Vesak ceremony, we invite monks and lay people of every tradition we have in attendance to come and chant in their own languages. We often have more than a dozen languages represented. Even though we cannot understand the words, we all understand the sentiment of what is being chanting. And this, I believe, is the best way to build a diverse Buddhist community in the West. By celebrating what makes us different as well as what makes us the same.
Building a diverse community is not always easy. At my own temple, for example, we have two distinct communities: our Sri Lankan lay community and our meditation group. Although there are some exceptions, these two groups usually remain distinct. The Wednesday night meditators do not frequently attend our Sunday evening puja, just as those who attend the Sunday evening puja are not usually among those who come to sit and meditate on Wednesday. But both of these groups are vital the life of our temple, and they both contribute to in in immeasurable ways. During the life of the Lord Buddha, it was clear that there was not just one kind of Buddhist follower—there were bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, as well as male and female lay followers. These many followers came from diverse backgrounds, from royal princes to isolated outcasts, and yet they all came together to learn and practice the Buddha’s noble path. So too, as well build Buddhist community in places like Washington, DC, should we focus on unity and diversity. There are many Buddhists here, but we are all children of the same Buddha.
Bhante Upartana was first ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1966 and received high ordination in 1974 under the Most Ven. Bhante Henepola Gunaratana Nayaka Thera and Most Ven. Bhante Muruddiniye Ratanapala Maha Thera in Sri Lanka. Bhante Uparatana was a teacher at Vidhya Lankara Piriwana in Keleniye and graduated from Keleniye University in 1980. Bhante came to the United States in 1982, as an assistant to Bhante Gunaratana at the Washington Buddhist Vihara in Washington, DC. After graduating from the University of the District of Columbia, he became the Buddhist Chaplain of the American University in 1989, a position he holds to this day. Bhante Uparatana has established three temples in the United States: the Maryland Buddhist Vihara in Wheaton, MD; the Austin Buddhist Vihara in Pflugerville, TX; and the Austin Buddhist Center in Delvalley, TX. In 2003, the Kandy Malwatta Chapter honored his service to Buddhists in the United States with conferrment of the title Chief Judiciary Monk of the United States. Currently, he serves as the president and chief monk of the Maryland Buddhist Vihara in Wheaton, MD and as a member of the Board of Advisors to the International Buddhist Committee of Washington, DC. Bhante also teaches Sinhalese language and culture to U.S. diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute.
Most Venerable Katugastota Uparatana Nayaka Thera
Chief Judiciary Monk of the United States, President and Chief Monk of the Maryland Buddhist Vihara in Wheaton, MD, Member of the Board of Advisors to the International Buddhist Committee of Washington, DC, USA.