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Sri Lanka and Cambodia Join Hands to Empower Buddhist Communities

Sobitha-Sirisens

By Janaka Perera

This article is the 30th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate. Click here for previous series.

COLOMBO (IDN) – Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena was the Chief Guest at the ceremonial opening of the Buddha Shrine of the International Cambodian Buddhist Centre in Kaduwela near Colombo on March 9 marking a new chapter in reviving ancient Buddhist links with Cambodia.

The event was Co-Chaired by the Most Venerable Napana Pemasiri Mahanayaka Thera, Chief Sangha Patron of the Sri Lanka Ramanna Maha Nikaya and the Most Venerable Am Lim Heng Maha Nayaka Thera, Deputy Sangharaja of Cambodia. To mark this event alms giving was held for 5000 monks.

The Buddhist Centre, a symbol of Sri Lanka-Cambodia Buddhist relationship, provides residential facilities for Cambodian Buddhist monks, in a Cambodian and Sri Lankan environment, pursuing their primary, secondary and tertiary education in Sri Lanka.

The Centre was constructed under the patronage of Venerable Dr. Omalpe Sobitha Mahathera, Chief Sangahanayake of the Southern Province who is also the President of the Sri Bodhiraja Foundation, which is one of the leading “Engaged Buddhist” institutions in Sri Lanka.

Ven. Dr. Sobitha has worked in Cambodia in 1998 as a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) consultant to help train Buddhist monks in community development work. At the time, Cambodia was just beginning to recover from the brutal years of Pol Pot Khmer Rough rule when Buddhism was almost wiped out from the kingdom and thousands of Buddhist monks were either killed or disrobed.

"By the time I started working in that country, Cambodian society was beginning to show gradual improvement. I felt a deep sympathy for their plight, which brought tears to my eyes. The feeling of pain upon hearing their suffering was almost unbearable,” Ven. Dr Sobitha told Lotus News Features recalling his experience there 20 years ago. “All this compelled me to discuss with our friends on what we should do to raise the living standards of these innocent people."

The centre has been specially designed to enhance the Sri Lankan –Cambodian historical relationship. Its architecture displays the depth of Cambodian arts and crafts and Buddhist traditions nurtured by genuine Buddhist life-styles. This centre attracts the world-wide Khmer community for its beauty and opportunity to experience Cambodian Culture in Sri Lanka.

"My attention was drawn in meetings with Cambodian monks on implementing a practical program best suited for that society rather than working on paper about environmental conservation,” said Ven. Dr Sobitha. “I pointed out that there were two main factors – internal and external – in making the program a success. My emphasis was on formulating policies based on the Buddha Dhamma (Buddhist teachings), which covered these two vital aspects. Correctly identifying these was the only way to rehabilitate Cambodian society, I stressed."

During his stint as a UNDP consultant, Ven. Dr Sobitha who was already providing community services from his temple in Embilipitiya in southern Sri Lanka to poor communities in the region, realized the extent of the decline of Cambodia’s moral and social values, resulting from the mass murderer Pol Pot’s monstrous Khmer Rouge’s rule (1975-1979) was involved in over a  violent attempt to build an ‘exemplary communist society’.

During the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign of terror, the entire Cambodian society had been turned upside down. The biggest damage was done to the Buddhist social, moral and cultural values.

Temples, monasteries and Dhamma halls were used as poultry and pig farms where animal slaughter occurred daily. Buddha statutes, which until then were objects of veneration were used as objects of target practice for training youth in the use of firearms. Monks who disobeyed the Khmer Rouge’s orders were killed in their thousands. Hundreds and thousands of other Bhikkhus disrobed unable to bear the humiliation and harassment any longer.

Ven. Dr Sobitha recalls that Dale Russell Gilles, the officer in charge of the UNDP in Cambodia, Sri Bodhiraja Foundation

understood his concerns about Cambodian Buddhism, but he was on the alert against the risks they might face in the course of his work. During that time, another Sri Lankan Buddhist Dr Hema Goonatileka was working with the help of a German foundation to empower Cambodian nuns, who were mainly grandmothers, to do community counselling work.

“We had to pay extra attention to the dubious agendas of NGOs and the multinational companies which were like a Mafia. Both had established themselves well in that country,” recalls Ven. Dr Sobitha. He also adds that Christian evangelists were fishing in troubled waters with great success in Cambodia. “Their crafty strategy was such that they were using Bhikkhus (monks) too for their religious expansionism. I have seen these evangelists using even Buddhist temple buildings for this purpose."

In addition, he saw that NGOs were dominating social services and social development work there. Which can be seen in every country where the State’s administration is weak. Most of these NGOs were led by aggressive Christian evangelists. Poverty and ignorance have given these proselytizing groups a grand opportunity to do what they want.

“Buddhist voluntary social service organizations had ceased to exist," explained Ven. Dr Sobitha. "We decided it would be more worthwhile if Cambodian monks can be given training from a very young age Accordingly we held an interview and selected several young boys who met our criteria."

It was this deep realization that prompted Ven. Dr Sobitha to undertake this project of training young Cambodian monks (samaneras) in Sri Lanka for the revival of Buddhism in Cambodia.

Today the centre here is able to comfortably accommodate 100 Cambodian monks at a time. The first two storey sanghawasa (monks’ quarters) of the centre was opened on November 25, 2013 by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. This institute and residing monks provide a service for the ‘David Rodrigo’ Child Development Centre, which is operated at this temple premises.

The construction of the centre was made possible with the generous contributions from the late Indrawathie Rodrigo (who donated the large property) and Khmer devotees from Cambodia and other countries. Their contributions were facilitated by Ven. Dhammavipassana Mun Say and other Cambodian monks.

Ven. Dr Sobitha has received a lot of support and encouragement from other senior monks and rich Buddhists in both Sri Lanka and Cambodia for his attempts to help Cambodia to build its Buddhist institutions and especially to train monks to do community development work to empower poor Buddhist communities, so that they will not fall prey to proselytizing forces. [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 March 2019]

Photo (top): President Sirisena talking to Ven. Dr Omalphe Sobitha at the ceremony on March 9, 2019. Credit: Sri Bodhiraja Foundation.

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