Dr. Walpola Rahula

"He told the bhikkhus that a disciple should examine even the Tathagata (Buddha) himself, so that he (the disciple) might be fully convinced of the true value of the teacher whom he followed."



By Ven. Walpola Piyananda

In the southern part of Sri Lanka is a village called Walpola. Since I am a monk from that village, I am known as Walpola Piyananda. Much of what I have managed to accomplish in my career as monk is a direct result of a much more famous Walpola, Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula, world renowned scholar and pioneer in the expansion of Buddhism beyond its traditional homelands in Southern and Eastern Asia.

It is difficult to sum up all the ways in which Ven. Rahula influenced generations of monks, including me. Reading his Heritage of the Bhikkhu gave my whole generation of monks, a new understanding of our role in society, and gave us courage to practise a Buddhism which was both traditional and in touch with our modern society. From monastery dwellers tending our traditional properties, our generation of monks began to learn foreign languages, study secular subjects, get out into the world to help society, as Buddhist monks. We were reinvigorated by Ven. Rahula, remembering it our duty to help end suffering in the world.

In 1964, at a time when there were no Theravada temples in the United States, Ven. Rahula became the first Buddhist monk ever to hold a professorship in America, at Northwestern University. The chairman of the Study of Religious History at that prestigious university, Dr. Edmund F. Perry, wrote of the incredible attention Ven. Rahula's teaching attracted, Ven. Rahula's world famous book What the Buddha Taught, has been a staple at American universities now for over 30 years.

Ven. Rahula was later instrumental in encouraging the formation of the first Theravada temple in the United States, the Washington Vihara, against fierce opposition from traditionalists in Sri Lanka. In fact. Ven. Bope Vinita was invited to come to the U.S. to start a Theravada center. He left Sri Lanka and went to the London Buddhist Vihara on his way to America. He got a cable from the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington D.C. which was rather discouraging: "....very small resources of five Buddhist families here. I strongly advise deferment of your departure for the United States until adequate arrangements can be made for your accommodation and maintenance." However, Ven. Dr. Rahula and Professor Perry sent a telegram saying ``Welcome. Best wishes. Hoping to see you.'' With this encouragement Ven. Vinita firmly determined to come to Washington, D.C. and he finally did found the Washington Vihara, the first Theravada Buddhist temple in America.

His helpfulness even appeared in unexpected ways. A few years ago, when Sri Lanka had lost funding from the United States, Dr. Ananda Guruge, then Sri Lankan ambassador to the U.S., went to visit a congressman Fingerhut, chairman of the congressional committees overseeing the funding in question. Dr. Guruge learned that Mr. Fingerhut had studied at Northwestern, and had in fact studied under Ven. Dr. Rahula, whom he greatly admired. Dr. Guruge explained to the congressman the problem of funding for Ven. Rahula's country. Congressman Fingerhut was then instrumental in restoring the funding.

When I came to this country in 1976, Ven. Rahula arranged for me to do graduate work at Northwestern University in Comparative Religion, so that I would understand the mindset of this country, to make my own Buddhist work here most relevant and useful for this society.

With Ven. Rahula's encouragement, I was to become the first Sri Lankan monk on the West Coast of the United States. Thanks to him, I was able to bring living Theravada Buddhism to Americans who had either never heard of Buddhism, never heard of Theravada Buddhism, or had never done more than read a book about Buddhism.

With Ven. Rahula's constant support, I was able to help bring many Sri Lankan monks to the United States, who now serve in temples all over the United States and Canada. Currently, including Southeast Asian communities, there are some 500 Theravada temples in the United States. All owe a debt of gratitude to Ven. Rahula, whose initial support and constant encouragement were fundamental to the establishment and growth of the teachings of the Buddha in this country.

While we mourn passing of this irreplaceable monk, we can't be too sad, since we have the results of his work, a vibrant, living, universally known and admired Theravada Buddhism. His books, his students, his work will be a constant reminder for our generations and generations to come of this key figure in the modern development of Buddhism.

However, underscoring in essence What The Buddha Said, he writes in his book "What the Buddha Taught" (pp. 2-3), extrapolating from the Kalama Sutra how far the Buddha went: "He told the bhikkhus that a disciple should examine even the Tathagata (Buddha) himself, so that he (the disciple) might be fully convinced of the true value of the teacher whom he followed."

"Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration that 'The monk is your teacher.'"

KALAMA SUTRA Anguttara Nikaya, Tika Nipata, Mahavagga, Sutta No. 65, Verse 15

For a completely free online PDF version of Dr. Rahula's book What The Buddha Taught please click the image below:

(please click image)

Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.









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