Bhante Seelawimala and the Institute of Buddhist Studies

By Rev. David Matsumoto

During the past twenty-five years, the Venerable Madawala Seelawimala, known to most people simply as “Bhante,” has been instrumental in introducing the three treasures of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha to a vast number of persons in the Western world. As one of the principal members of the Institute of Buddhist Studies educational and religious community since 1976, Bhante Seelawimala has been a true teacher and good friend in the Dhamma to all who have met him. Without question, his wise guidance and wholesome influence have impacted not only his students at IBS, but also many Buddhists and non-Buddhists throughout northern California and North America.

Bhante’s life

Bhante Seelawimala was born to a respected family in Kurunegala District, Sri Lanka in 1947. His father, Mr. Tikiri Bandara Ratnayake, and his mother, Mrs. Swarnalatha Briatice Balasooriya Kumarihamy, gave him the name Lional Bandara Ratnayake at his birth. He grew up, with his three sisters, as the only boy in the family. His father died when he was five years old. His mother, who was a capable and prominent woman in the district, was able to raise the children without difficulty.

Bhante’s mother, who is well educated in the Buddha Dhamma, saw signs of a monk in her young son, and found that he was seriously interested in becoming a monk. She contacted the Venerable Master (Achariya) Hendiyagala Seelarathana of the Ancient Cave Temple in Sri Lanka, who was respected as the most capable Dharma teacher at the country at the time. After examining the child’s personality, the Venerable Master agreed to ordain him as a novice monk one day after his 10th birthday. The young monk received the Dharma name Seelawimala, which incorporates a portion of the name of his Master, Seelarathana. Young Bhante Seelawimala became his master’s first disciple.

When he had strictly trained the young monk for one year, and after deep consideration, Venerable Master Seelarathana decided to give his disciple a non-traditional education. Although young ordained monks always study with other young monks at schools specially designed for monks, Bhante’s master wanted to send him to regular school to study with lay children. Since this was an unusual practice in the educational system in Sri Lanka, it was a controversial idea. However, after many serious meetings, Maliyadeva Boy’s College, the most prestigious school in the North Western Province in Sri Lanka, finally agreed to accept him as the only monk to become a regular student. Venerable Master (Dr.) Dickwela Piyananda, who later established the first Theravada Temple in America (in Washington, D.C.) in 1967, was the Vice Principle of the school at the time. He was also one of the best Dhamma friends of Ven. Master Seelarathana. Venerable Piyananda was also was instrumental in admitting the young monk to a public school. He also accepted position of the spiritual mentor (upajjhaya) to the young novice monk. From that time on, the eleven-year-old monk grew up under the direct supervision of these two great masters. Throughout primary school and high school he was the most well-known and well-loved student of the school. He received the highest honor from the school by being appointed the editor of the annual College Magazine.

In 1966 he entered the University of Sri Lanka, Peradeniya, through Maliyadeva Boy’s College. While majoring in Buddhist Philosophy at the University, he received full ordination in 1968 at the Malwatta Chapter of Syamopali Maha Nikaya in Kandy. Immediately after graduation, Bhante joined the teaching staff at the Bhikkhu Training Center at Maharagama, Sri Lanka, and served on the Editing Board of the Tripitaka Encyclopedia published by the Sasana Sevaka Society, Colombo. During this period, he closely associated the Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Maha Nayake Thera of the Amarapura Maha Nikaya.

In 1972 the Wijayawardhane Trust offered him a scholarship to the University of Sri Lanka to learn to teach Buddhism in English, so that in particular he might be able to teach the Dhamma in the West. An excellent student, Bhante Seelawimala completed his Master’s Degree in Buddhist Philosophy in 1974 at the University of Sri Lanka, Peradeniya. It was at that time that Bhante’s teacher, Venerable Dr. Dickwela Piyananda, introduced Bhante to his close friend, Rev. Kenryu Tsuji, the Bishop of Buddhist Churches of America, who was visiting Sri Lanka at the time. In 1976, Rev. Tsuji, as the president of the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS) in Berkeley, invited Bhante to join the Institute to teach Early Buddhism.

Bhante’s influence on ministers in the Buddhist Churches of America

The Institute of Buddhist Studies has served as the vehicle for the training and education of ministers for the Buddhist Churches of America for nearly forty-years. As an overseas district of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha of Kyoto, Japan, the BCA, its temples and ministers seek to transmit the teachings of Jodo Shinshu, a Japanese form of Pure Land Buddhism. Bishop Tsuji, however, recognized that the BCA could not properly fulfill its mission of spreading the Buddha’s teaching in America if its ministers were not fully aware of all aspects of the Buddhist tradition, especially the fundamental Dhamma embodied by Early Buddhism.

Thus, Bhante Seelawimala was invited to play a vital role in the religious education of future BCA ministers and in the effort to effectively disseminate the Dhamma in America. Both he and Reverend Haruyoshi Kusada, the director of IBS from 1964 until 1983, were to become major influences in the religious development of dozens of ministers within the Buddhist Churches of America. In his classes, Bhante has always been able to present the teachings of the Buddha in a way that is truly understandable to persons born and educated in America. Bhante’s classes always begin with a detailed explication of the suttas, which are presented in both Pali and English. He then focuses on terms and concepts, which are essential to an understanding of the Buddha’s intent. Bhante’s unique talent lies in his then being able to re-phrase the original sutta passages, often through the use of practical examples and illustrations. In this way, Bhante is able to allow students not only to grasp the logic and rationality of the Buddha’s teachings, but also to gain a glimpse of its immediate reality.

Throughout the years, Bhante has insisted on demonstrating to his students that Buddhism is a living tradition. He has allowed many of his ministerial students to take part in the various religious ceremonies that he has performed at IBS, as well as in community-wide Buddhist services and in religious services performed at the homes of the devout. Through his considerable activities and connections in the religious world, Bhante has also given his IBS students opportunities to meet some of the most esteemed teachers in the world. For a few fortunate students the chance actually to meet, through Bhante’s offices, the Venerable Ananda Maitreya, the world-renown and esteemed Dhamma Master was one of the most memorable of their lives.

But, just as important, Bhante Seelawimala has been a true Dhamma friend who willingly engages in informal discussions in a variety of topics with his students. In these exchanges (which can at times become quite heated) about the Dhamma, Bhante’s students will usually find their presuppositions challenged, their questions answered, and their minds expanded as they sit sipping tea with Bhante late into the night.

Through the wise guidance of Bhante Seelawimala, BCA ministerial students have been able to become better acquainted with the uniqueness of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition. At the same time, however, they have been able to move beyond narrow sectarianism and come face-to-face with the essential and universal truth of the Buddha’s teachings.

Bhante’s influence on religious community of Northern California

In 1984, the Institute of Buddhist Studies became a part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. The GTU is a consortium of seminaries representing most of the major Christian denominations in the world. In addition, it now includes schools that represent the Buddhist and Jewish traditions, together with centers for the study of religion and natural science, women, social justice, and other areas. The GTU is also affiliated with University of California, Berkeley.

Having received from IBS the official position of Adjunct Professor for Buddhist Studies, Bhante now has the opportunity to share the Dhamma with a great many more Buddhist and non-Buddhist graduate students. In fact the audience for Bhante’s teaching has grown exponentially since 1976. His classes on Buddhist History and Doctrine, and The Life and Teachings of the Buddha, continue to be among the most popular and acclaimed of all courses within the GTU. Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Pure Land Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists, and Zen Buddhists are now among the growing legions of persons who identify themselves as the students of Bhante Seelawimala.

Bhante has also been working with the Center for Contemporary Shin Buddhist Studies at the IBS to present the Buddha’s teachings to the general populace in a way that is contemporary, non-sectarian and meaningful. Certainly, his recent participation in a series of seminars on the topic of Buddhist practice in San Jose, Sacramento, San Mateo and Salt Lake City has helped to convince many persons who heard him to take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha.

Bhante’s influence on the dissemination of the Dhamma throughout North America.

Bhante Seelawimala’s accomplishments at the Institute of Buddhist Studies have exceeded even the hopes and dreams of Bishop Tsuji, who invited Bhante to join the IBS twenty-five years ago. Yet, at the same time, it is remarkable that Bhante has also been able to spend considerable time and energy to teach the Dhamma outside the Berkeley area. During his sabbatical years, for instance, he has taught at California State University (Chico), and Hwa Fan University in Taipei, Taiwan.

In 1979, Bhante’s teacher established the first Canadian Theravada Buddhist Center in Toronto. Bhante Seelawimala was placed in charge of this Vihara (Temple) in Toronto for the first five years after its inception. During this time, he traveled often from Berkeley to Toronto, and spent most summers there. Later, in 1990, Bhante founded a Buddhist Vihara in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, with the help of the Buddhist community in the area. That temple is also steadily growing, and just celebrated its 11th anniversary. In 1996, Bhante founded yet another temple in Sacramento, which is serving the people of the north-central California area who are interested in learning and practicing the teachings of the Buddha.

When he first arrived in the US twenty-five years ago Bhante was the only Theravada monk in Northern California. As a result, for many years he spent countless hours helping individuals and families in the Sri Lankan, Cambodian and other Buddhist communities in the area. Even though today there are now a number of monks in the area, Bhante still continues to provide Buddhist persons with assistance. He also regularly visits Washington State, Organ, Arizona and Edmonton, Canada to share Dhamma with persons living there.

Bhante’s Master, the abbot of the Ancient Cave Temple passed away in May 1982. Since that time, Bhante, as the chief disciple of the Master, has held the position of abbot of that temple. The Ancient Cave Temple, which has a 2000-year history and over 100 acres of land, is one of the most important in Sri Lanka. Thus, Bhante has appointed a junior monk, whom he has groomed for the position, to lead the temple on his behalf. However, as the abbot of his temple Bhante is officially responsible about the well being of the temple and he visits the temple in Sri Lanka as often as possible.

The impact of Bhante’s life and influence.

In all of these ways, Bhante Seelawimala’s life and many activities could be said to embody the universal inter-connectedness of the Buddha’s teaching in this contemporary world. As his twenty-five years at the Institute of Buddhist Studies have demonstrated, Bhante’s mind, vision, mission and life are all without boundaries – transcending country, language, sect, religion and culture to reach all people who wish to live the Buddha Dhamma.

Everyone in the Institute of Buddhist Studies community is grateful for the richness that Bhante Seelawimala has brought to our educational program and our religious lives. We are humbled that he has given so much of himself to our institute and its students during the past twenty-five years. We find ourselves ever encouraged by him to further learn and practice the Dhamma, and spread its vital message to all beings throughout the world.