WESAK 1981

On stage at the first Wesak Celebration (May 15, 1981) at Nathan Philips Square, Toronto City Hall, are, in the centre, Sensei Tsunoda, Bhante Dhammika, Bhante Punnaji and Sensei Fujikawa. To the far right is a representative of the Vietnamese Community who put up the painting of the Buddha in the background. To the very left is Suwanda H J Sugunasiri, Founding Coordinator of the Buddhist Federation of Toronto.

Toronto celebrates WESAK 2012

Devotees making an offering of flowers,

hand to hand in a human chain.
The Ontario Legislature is in the background.

Supermoon day, May 5, 2012,  was super for  the 100 or more Buddhists who assembled on the Ontario Legislature grounds to celebrate Wesak for the 32nd year in Toronto. Sponsored by the Buddhist Council of Canada, the 4 by 8 foot Torana with a full-size face of the Buddha was unveiled by the youngest members of the audience. Saadhu saadhu saadhu! Good it is, Good it is, Good it is!

While the Buddha’s Triple event of Birth, Enlightenment and Parinibbana 'Final Demise' comes to be celebrated in many a temple across Canada, what was special about this event was that it was a pan-Buddhist celebration.

Reflecting this panorama from across the Canadian Buddhist spectrum was the Buddha Påjà with leadership from five temples, Theravada to Zen. It  began with the Opening homage to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, followed by the Five Training Principle (aka Precepts), administered by Bhante Ahangama Rathanasiri of the Toronto Mahavihara. This was followed by an offering of flowers and incense, passed along hand to hand in a human chain, with the Sangha members placing them at the altar. The leadership came from Bhante U Kawwida of the Burmese Mahadhammika Temple.

The Bathing of the Baby Buddha was a new experience for many, a ceremony based in the story of the future Buddha taking seven steps,  upon his birth,  each  received by a lotus, as explained by Thich nu Tinh Quang of the Little Heron Zen Hermitage in Hamilton, Ontario. As  the devotees lined up to personally bathe the Baby Buddha, following the Sangha members, it was a dynamic chanting of the Heart Sutra to gong music that sent vibrations through the air. It was led by Sensei Taigen Henderson of the Toronto Zen Centre, ably assisted  by 10 or more members of his congregation.

Assisted by Thich nu Quang, it was 11 year old Kusal Bellana who led the congregation in the Buddha’s Golden Chain of Love “that stretches around the world”, undertaking to “think pure and beautiful thoughts… and deeds”, knowing that “on what I do now depends not only my happiness but also that of the others.”  Following it was the Four Vows, another Mahayana practice,  to liberate “all beings” and attain “The Great Way of the Buddha”.

It was now the turn of Bhante Abhisampanno, from the UK, visiting Toronto for the opening of the Buddh Vihar and  the Dr Ambedkar Centre,  to lead the congregation  in the Transfer of Merit (pu¤¤ànumodanà) and “Pleading forgiveness”.

If the beginning of the one hour ceremony was the Processional of the Sangha,  it was the Unity Song following it that set the ball rolling towards a quiet and spiritual  camaraderie among the devotees dressed in a range of colours, from all white to other. The words rang,

Roll along, roll along
Roll the Dhamma wheel.
Let us all Buddhists unite
to roll the Dhamma wheel.

The words come from Ven. Bhante Punnaji, now a leading residential light in Malaysia, but formerly of the Toronto Mahavihara,  and originally sung by the Buddhist Toronto musician, Brent Titcombe.

A final act of piety was the Padakkhinà, with the devotees led by the ordained Sangha, doing three circumbulations around the Torana, with shoulder to the right,  to the words of saadhu saadhu saadhu and chanting.

Upon the conclusion of the Buddha Påjà was a Dhamma Dana ‘gift of Dhamma’, an article by Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri, “Fetus in the Buddha's Conditioned Co-origination Formula”? (also available on www.buddhistcouncil.ca).

Devotees engaged in a Buddha Vandana
‘Homage to the Buddha’

Presenting the BeADonor.ca Program of the Trillium Gift of Life Network of the Ontario Government, he invited the community to consider organ donation, given many a patient awaiting such a gift,   appealing to the Buddha’s Teachings of Mettà ‘lovingkindness’, Karunà ‘compassion’,  Anicca  ‘impermanance’ and Anatta  ‘asoulity’.   

Thich nu Tinh Quang spoke about the Daughters of the Buddha (Sakyadhita) Canada, which  she represents on the Buddhist Council of Canada  Mr Karunaratna Paranavitana, the Consul-General for Sri Lanka in Toronto, and Bryan Levman, Secretary  of the Buddhist Council of Canada  thanked everyone for their presence and commitment.

It was now time for refreshments, provided by the Consulate as well as by  the community.

The presence of young people was a particular encouragement at a time when more and more of the younger generation are seen to be getting away from temples, not understanding the mumbo-jumbo in the heritage languages, and / or attracted by the secular life of the education they receive.

At 15 Celsius, the weather was a perfect balance of the receding cold of the winter and the emerging warm air  of the Spring,   the sun smiling on the devotees until it was time to depart with expectations of a wider participation and a larger gathering next year.

Saadhu saadhu saadhu!


Buddhist Council of Canada Revived

This is to bring to the attention of the Canadian Buddhist community as well as the Canadian
public that Buddhist Council of Canada has now been revived after a dormancy of more than
a quarter century. The Objects of the Council are as follows:
  • To promote the Buddhadhamma according to the traditions of all the Schools of Buddhism.
  • To promote co-operation among Buddhist Communities
    in Canada and elsewhere.
  • To promote social harmony, economic prosperity,
    political stability and cultural vibrancy of Canada.
  • To promote the personal and social well-being & happiness of all Canadians.
  • To contribute towards a multicultural Canada
    through the application of Buddhist Principles.

(2011) The first public engagement of the newly revived Buddhist Council of Canada was the raising of a Torana (symbol) on the south lawn of the Queen's Park (Ontario Legislature grounds) to commemorate the 2600 year of WESAK – the triple celebration of the Buddha's Birth, Enlightenment and Parinibbana.

Plans are afoot to seek the approval to have the event celebrated on the Legislature grounds in 2012 for seven days, symbolizing the seven weeks spent by the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree upon Enlightenment.


Buddhist Council of Canada: A Brief History

By Suwanda H J Sugunasiri (President)

It was in the Fall of 1980 that the Buddhists of Toronto came together for the first time. This was in response to a call by the World Conference on Religion for Peace (a Japanese initiative), to participate in an Interfaith Dialogue. Fujikawa Sensei, the Minister of the Japanese Buddhist Church (at 918 Bathurst Street, just north of Bloor) was a member of the WCRP, as was Dr. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri, who had just earned a doctorate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. WCRP was part of the activity of the Christian Ecumenical Centre located at 10 Madison Ave. off Bloor Street.

In those early years, there were a small number of Buddhist centres in Toronto, but only two or three Buddhist outfits known to the two organizers. The Toronto Buddhist Church, at 918 Bathurst Street (dating back to 1946, the first location being at 134 Huron St. (Watada, 1996: 289)), of course, was the first. Then there was the Sau Fu Temple (est. 1967), at 100 Southhill Rd, Don Mills, a house-turned-temple, headed by Ven. Sing Hung Fa-Shih, along with his brother-monk, Ven. Sing Chen, both of whom had arrived from Hong Kong. Then there was the Toronto Mahavihara (est. 1978), the Theravada Temple of the Sinhala Buddhists, located at 3495 Kingston Road, whose founder, Ven. Piyananda, had already moved on to Wash. DC, leaving the Temple in the hands of newcomer Bhantes Dhammika and Punnaji. While the last two temples were known to Sugunasiri, the surprise was the Zen Buddhist Temple at 46 Gwynne Avenue, established in the  late 1970’s by  Samu Sunim, who had come from Montreal (Sugunasiri, 2008:19). A later discovery was the Tibetan Gaden Chöling (1981), headed by Zasep Tulku Rinpoche at 637 Christie St <1>.

But unknown to the organizers, there had been other centres operating in the area at the time: Namgyal Rinpoche’s Dharma Centre of Canada, which had started perhaps as early as 1966; the Toronto Dharmadhatu, which had been established by Ven. Chogyam Trungpa while on a visit to Toronto in 1970; and Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche’s group, Kampo Gangra Drubgyudling, which had been formed in 1971 and officially incorporated in 1972 <2>.

When finally the first community meeting was called, in a room at OISE (where Sugunasiri was by then a Project Officer), it was a pleasant surprise to see a group of nearly 75 individuals in attendance. In addition to the temple communities identified above, there were members of the Vietnamese and Ambedkar communities.

Attending the Interfaith Dialogue Service organized by the United Church of Canada at the Bloor United Church at Bloor and Huron, it was the decision of the Buddhist group to continue to meet. Thus was born the Toronto Buddhist Federation, registered under the Corporations Act. Sugunasiri was elected the Founding Coordinator. The name changed to Buddhist Federation of Toronto to highlight ‘Buddhist’ in the Telephone Directory, it was to hold the first WESAK in May 1981. Buoyed by the camaraderie developed in making the first WESAK a roaring success, with a 1000 attending (as reported in the Toronto Sun with a picture), the Buddhist community continued to meet formally at the Toronto Buddhist Church at 918 Bathurst, and began to develop a cooperation among themselves, by being invited to and visiting each other’s activities. John Negru stepped in as Coordinator for three years after Sugunasiri, before passing the role on to Dr Vansen Lee.

By 1985, a challenge for the religious communities of Canada was thrown by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunication Commission – to set up an Interfaith TV Network. Prof. Stanley Fefferman, Professor of English at York University, and a member of Dharmadhatu, had come to be the Coordinator of the Buddhist Federation of Toronto [BFT] by that point. The call by the CRTC was for a National level media outlet, but the BFT was a local organization. Recognizing the need to have a Buddhist voice at the national level, an informal meeting held at the Dharmadhatu, attended by Fefferman, John Negru and Sugunasiri, a decision was made to form a Canada-wide organization. The transition was smooth when the BFT was legally changed to Buddhist Council of Canada (1985), and Prof. Fefferman became its first President.

The Objectives continued to be the same:

  1. To promote the Buddhadhamma according to the traditions of all the Schools of Buddhism; and
  2. To promote co-operation among Buddhist Communities in Canada and elsewhere.

The Toronto collectivity now came to be the ‘Toronto Chapter’ of the BCC, with membership of both being practically the same and John Negru acting as Toronto Coordinator.

The new national level status of the Buddhist organization now giving the needed legal authority, Prof Fefferman joined other interfaith members – Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Zoroastrian – traveling around the country to convince the communities of the need for a multifaith TV station and to earn their support. The goal of the mission was accomplished with Vision TV going on air. Fefferman subsequently moved on, with Sugunasiri invited to step into the President role.

With the new President traveling across the country, the next few years saw several chapters coming into existence in locations such as Ajax, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, St. John’s, Vancouver and Windsor. It also resulted in the first (and only) Congress of the Buddhist Council of Canada to be held in Toronto (1989), with the participation of the following delegates:

Dr. Stephen Aung (Edmonton)

Mr. Louis Cormier (Montreal)

Dr. Vansen Lee (Toronto)

Prof. Lakshman Marasingha (Windsor)

Ms. Kristin Penn (Vancouver)

Mr. Mongkhol Salyajivin (Aurora)

Rev. Jhampa Shaneman (Vancouver Island)

Mr. Evans Silva (Ottawa)

Mr. Peter Volz (Halifax)

By this time, the street address of BCC had moved to the Hong Fa Temple at 1330 Bloor Street West, courtesy Sing Hung Fa-shi of the Cham Shan Temple (formerly Sau Fu). Under the energetic editorship of Glen Mullin, a BCC Journal also flourished during this period <3>.
Soon the BCC leadership reins were to go to the hands of Rev. Jhampa Shaneman, of Victoria, who sought to continue the national momentum. But maintaining a national level interest by the Buddhists came to be increasingly challenging as the 1980s came to a close. The Buddhist presence in Canada had come to be increasingly different from when the Buddhists of Toronto first came together in 1981:

  • The membership was getting larger.
  • The financial base was getting to be stronger.
  • More Teachers immigrated from their home countries to take leadership roles in their Canadian communities.
  • More members of the community came to be English-speaking.

Earlier, coming together was the only way both Buddhism and each group could earn the respect of Canada and Canadians. With little or no English within the community, a collectivity provided a voice and outreach. But not any more. Gradually, not only were the Buddhists no longer unsung, unrecognized and unrespected by the wider Canadian community, but also not unwealthy meant that they did not need any other Buddhist community to survive either.

An early reason of enthusiasm for the Buddhists to come together could also said to have been the novelty of meeting face to face the Buddhists of other countries and other schools of Buddhism. The novelty had faded off over time.

As individual communities became stronger, with a regular calendar of liturgical events, the incentive to hold an annual joint Wesak celebration, as the BCC had done, became less relevant.

Further, the larger the congregation came to be of a given temple, the Sangha leadership also came to be that much busier. They came to be called on to serve the spiritual needs – conducting death rituals, holding regular services, weekly or monthly, etc., but also to respond to the unending personal calls – family disputes, raising children, drunkenness, etc. This meant that the Sangha had less and less time to respond to invitations to participate in the events of other temples. As an inevitable corollary, any initiative to reach out to other Buddhist communities also came to be numbed.

This in turn served as a condition for an increasing inward-looking tendency. An outcome of this was an emerging one-upmanship. In its life of 2600 years, Buddhism had come to grow into different branches, along with doctrinal differences, in different regions of Asia (South and Southeast Asia – e.g., Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Kampuchea, Laos) and East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, etc.). Different manifestations of Buddhism came to emerge even within individual countries, as e.g., in historical India and contemporary Vietnam (where both Mahayana and Theravada practice exists side by side), as in ancient Sri Lanka (Mahavihara and Abhayagiri)).

In coming together as Buddhists in 1981, everyone seemed to have come to respect the differences, allowing them to work together. But thanks to the conditions such as outlined above, each temple and community came to see themselves as the centre of the Canadian Buddhist universe. This can be said to have been exacerbated in no small measure by the divisive force of multiculturalism that seems to encourage the retention of individual differences over the common elements.

The result of all these conditions can be said to be a waning of interest to work together. The formation of the Sangha Council of Southern Ontario (SCSO) may have been the last nail in the coffin. Begun under the leadership of Yangil Sunim of Nine Mountains Zen Gate (Dae Kak Sa), it appears that the Sangha seemed bent on wresting the leadership that had been in lay hands up to that point. This, of course, can be seen as returning to the roots; in the home country context, religious leadership came primarily from the ordained Sangha.

The major activity of the SCSO was to organize a Peace March, in the month of June. Better weather conditions and Sangha leadership ensured high participation by the community. There was clearly not enough energy in the community to organize two major events one after the other, one in May and another in June. Thus, after less than a decade since its first roaring success, the common Buddhist activity of WESAK died out. The Toronto Buddhist Federation re-formed as a lay organization, under the title Buddhist Communities of Greater Toronto,  to address local concerns and new community development initiatives, with Michael Kerr as Coordinator.

Thus the Buddhist Council of Canada can be said to have entered a period of hibernation, with Sugunasiri continuing to act as de jure President, receiving communication from the government as well as other institutions.

And so it was until the Buddhist Council of Canada was revived in 2010, at the initiative of three people: Prof.  Sugunasiri as President, Dr Veronique Ramses as Vice President, and Bryan Levman as Secretary. The original objectives of the Council were primarily intended for the promotion of the Canadian Buddhist community. But, with Buddhism finding an increasing acceptance in Canadian society, three more objectives came to be added, as follows:

  • To promote social harmony, economic prosperity, political stability and cultural vibrancy of Canada.
  • To promote the personal and social well-being & happiness of all Canadians.
  • To contribute towards a multicultural Canada through the application of Buddhist Principles.

The first activity engaged in by the newly emergent Council was to set up a Torana at the South lawn at Queen’s Park in May 2011, in celebration of WESAK, commemorating the ushering in of the 2600th year of the Buddha ‘s Enlightenment.

Plans are now afoot to seek the approval to have WESAK 2013 celebrated on the Legislature grounds for seven days, marking the seven weeks spent by the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree upon Enlightenment.  

<1> For the life stories of Punnaji, Samu Sunim and Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, see Sugunasiri, Suwanda H J  (Ed.), 2008, Thus Spake the Sangha: Early History of Buddhism in Toronto, Nalanda Publishing Canada.  

<2]> Personal communication from Stanley Fefferman who was on the Board of Directors of Kampo Gangra at its incorporation.

<3> For copies of the program of the BCC Congress and for the first two issues of the journal, 1987 and 1988, visit http://www.sumeru-books.com/ephemera/