|Friday, 26 December 2003|
Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thera - Viharadhipathi of the Melbourne Buddhist Vihara:
Architect, Builder an Financial Planner
by Sarath Kroon
Venerable Soma Thera was a controversy among the Sri Lankan expatriates in Australia as much as he was in Sri Lanka. He fearlessly challenged authority and the establishment when he saw wrong. His strength arose from his righteousness. His mission in Australia was to uphold the unadulterated and pristine form of Buddhism as he saw it.
He was threatened with eviction and deportation from Australia when he refused to tow the line of those who sponsored him. He refused to be bought over by those influential and who wield power among his community in Australia.
He wanted to run the temple himself as he saw it fit according to the precepts and virtues of Dhamma. It was indeed a difficult role and he was prepared for it right from the very inception. In the end, before he died, he had succeeded.
long felt need
In the recent past, a long felt need of the Sri Lankan community in Australia was the lack of a permanent place of Buddhist worship. Ven. Soma Thera was invited to Australia for a lengthy stay in the year 1989 to fill in this vacuum.
He laid the first foundation stone and established the first Theravada Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in the immediate suburb of Metropolitan Melbourne in 1989. He disseminated among the Sri Lankan laity from a permanent abode in Springvale, the Buddha's Precepts and the path to be followed through Dhamma.
In less than a year, with the help of his Dayaka's, he had established Sunday Daham pasal and training programmes for the young, a shrineroom for worship, a library, venues for ata-sil and pinkamas, imparting the social, cultural values of Sri Lanka, in its best tradition and authenticity, just as much as the services offered by a reputed temple in Sri Lanka.
Unlike some other Asian communities, Sri Lankans were mostly wage earners with no wealthy businessmen among its community. Only few patronized temples, compared to the numbers present.
Money was hard to come by to expand activities of the temple of the Venerable Thera. But within the first few years, he had contributed all the money he received on being invited on alms and together with those collected from other venues such as food fairs organized by the laity, he was able to reduce the financial mortgages of the temple considerably.
He addressed the laity by their first name which meant that he could recognize them anytime anywhere, even though the numbers he associated closely may have been considerable. He seldom used the titles attached to them. For him what mattered most was their commitment to spiritual development and not how materially well off they are.
He wanted to run the temple himself, as he saw it fit, in its best tradition. This had an adverse effect on those who sponsored him, as there was a conflict of interest. The temple was purely a place for Dhamma and obviously it's the Sangha who knew how to run it.
The Thera had planned his future in accepting the invitation and was not in anyway prepared to go back abruptly until he had accomplished his objectives in coming abroad.
In the year 1993, he was able to move into a residence in nearby Noble Park, arranged by some of his devotees'. They recognized the genius, the inherent ability and the commitment to Dhamma the Thera possessed and encouraged him and provided him the opportunity to disseminate such knowledge.
He accepted what was offered to him and here he became the Viharadhipathy of the Buddhist Vihara, Victoria. On its inaugural day he addressed the large number of devotees present, amidst other invited guests from temples in Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand and Malaysia who were his close colleagues.
His message was that the entire membership were in the Dayaka Sabha and would enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other, in day-to-day running of the temple. That the names and posts such as Vice Presidents, Treasurers, Committee members and the like, were for the sake of fulfilling requirements in Law for registering the temple and for auditing purposes.
Thereafter everyone had to stand up and take an oath to uphold the five Precepts of the Sasana, the virtues of seela and to endeavor, a firm resolve to acquire the ultimate bliss of Nirvana, the requirements for membership in the Dayake Sabha.
In less than two years the Dayakas were able to pay off the entire mortgage and the residence became a fully owned Sri Lankan temple. In addition, his organizing ability, administration and prudential financial management led the dayakas to succeed in purchasing another block of five acre prime land in Berwick on mortgage. Less than an hours drive from the City of Melbourne. Where he intended to construct the Sakya Sambuddha Vihara, which was his mission to accomplish in accepting his visit to Australia.
He had imagination and possessed an extreme ability for innovation. He always had something exceptional. The routine food fair of course is known among many as a fund raising activity. But he invented different ideas which soon spread across to other temples.
He would draw up a huge plan of the Vihara layout in schematic form, frame and hang that on the wall, in the temple. He would split each floor of that layout into many hundreds of one inch square building blocks. Then seek donations from the community for purchase of these blocks for some dollar value.
One can purchase either one or as many, which would be coloured to show that a donation has been received for construction of that part of the building, invoking merit on the contributor.
On the day of laying the foundation of the Sakya Sambuddha Vihara, he similarly purchased several hundreds of bricks which were stacked close to a pegged out layout on the ground, which formed the actual construction area such as the library.
At the auspicious time of laying the foundation stone for the main Vihara which Ven. Piyadassi Thera laid on the 28th of August 1995, each and every member present was given an opportunity to participate by laying a foundation stone at any selected location of his or her choice within the pegged out area on the ground by purchasing and placing any number of bricks in that confined area.
This was how he did the impossible. Purchasing and construction costs of buildings in Australia ran to several lakhs of Dollars. The paltry sum collected monthly as membership fees was hardly enough even to maintain the temple and for electricity, gas and water consumption.
As much as he excelled in his ability as a prudent Financier, he was a great Administrator and a Planner. His ability on networking saw distinguished guests at his pinkamas and poojas, such as Federal and State Ministers, Mayors and Councilors, priests from other religions in addition to a variety of Asian and other Western monks.
He sat on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV Studios presenting his Buddhist point of view which were broadcasted throughout Australia on programmes that brought in other interfaith groups. He was a leader and a good comrade among his Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai and Malaysian community of monks and was seen often enjoying in their company sharing their own Experiences.
The fact that he was undoubtedly the best Architect, Builder and the Engineer, I ever came across, without ever entering such a school for qualifications and training, was confirmed by the fact that on many an occasion he would grasp immediately the technicalities involved in the tasks at hand and takeover them to a successful completion. Maybe better than we could have done ourselves, with the long trail of letters after our name, as qualifications.
As I crossed over the small bridge that provided access to the Sakya Sambuddha Vihara for his 7th day bana and alms giving ceremony, it brought me vivid memories of the Thera. Of me holding the levels instrument, our Architect from the very end of the boundary on the 5 acre block signaling the Thera, waving his hands as to where he should precisely hold the staff.
He often would be on the survey team and would know to clear my line of sight for viewing through the Level or the Electronic Survey Instrument that sends a beam across and would give me less trouble and more confidence than finding another without experience.
Once on the Noble Park Temple, to obtain the Planning Permit, the Council required the construction of a car park with ten bays within the premises. I had designed and drawn plans for with Council approval and now requiring the construction to Council Standards had called quotations from Contractors who began to visit site one by one.
The Thera was present at each occasion and after a while would explain to the Contractor what was required of him. I would watch him in amazement while he continues the tasks to its final completion. Not only he got the required concrete slab with the reinforcement constructed with the associated drainage according to Australian Standards but he had saved some money and got the gate too extended which I would have required more money for.
He would grasp the technicalities and the aspects of Project Management and the Australian worker would be very happy obliging him maybe with further free service.
The Infrastructure Plans for Council approval on the Sakyamuni Sambuddha Vihara project was drawn by me, using the latest version of AutoCAD Software with meticulous care. The old method of hand drawn plans had gradually got replaced with electronic computer aided design and drafting. On the day I showed my plans to the Thera, he was not happy.
He said something seem to lack as it failed to portray our heritage similar to plans that were found on ancient scriptures of the Kings who erected monuments during our glorious past.
That was how he perceived the construction of the Sakyamuni Sambuddha Vihara, his last contribution to Dhamma in Australia.
He thrived to achieve his best possible for the project and when it came to reverence of his great Master, the Sakyamuni Sambuddha. He took personal care and brought along with him a Statue of Buddha in lotus posture which was gold plated by one of his closest Dayakas.
The shrine room he created for the Buddha was a resurrection of the shrines created by the famous kings, which are standing monuments even today, to our glorious past. He brought a branch of the Sri Maha Bodhi under his personal care and supervision which had to be kept at the Australian Quarantine for months before being released which he planted on the land of the Sakya Sambudhha.
While serving as a place of worship radiating the pristine form of Theravada Buddhism in the southern hemisphere, he had a vision to accomplish. A Buddhist Education, Research and Information Centre to disseminate the Dhamma of the Sakyamuni Sambuddha, for Scholars world over.
He had brought along with him from Sri Lanka his teachers, Ven. Piyadassi Maha Thera, Madihe Pannaseeha Maha Thera and a whole array of reputed monks from Vajiraramaya including Thirukunamale Ananda Thera for ceremonies connected with this Project.
He laid the foundation stone for the structure of 'Sakya Sambuddha Vihare' on this land on 24th August 1995.
His life was to take a different turn of events from then on. He had to visit Sri Lanka in 1996 after 7 years in Australia to attend to his sick father who had suffered a stroke. From thereon he became increasingly concerned with the plight of Sri Lanka which was under siege from threats to destroy Buddhism.
His campaigns to open the eyes of the nation and to save the youth from the disastrous effects of drugs and alcohol. His presence in Australia became intermittent and short.
He was brought to Australia in the year 1989 to establish the first Theravada Buddhist temple for the Sri Lankan community. By the time of his death on December 2003, there were seven Sri Lankan Buddhist temples, spread across the Greater Metropolitan Melbourne, in Victoria. In addition, he received invitation to provide advice and lay the ground-work for establishment of Sri Lankan temples in other states in Australia.
Not that he was directly responsible for the spread of Buddhism across Australia. But as those Sri Lankan monks who represented these temples mentioned at their Anusasana on his seventh day alms giving at the Sakya Sambuddha Vihara , he was instrumental and pioneered this noble task.
Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thera, in his short stay in Australia, provided the impetus and set in motion a spontaneous activity that rippled across the entire Metropolis among the different Sri Lankan neighbourhoods, the need to establish their own temples.
To provide the environs that caters for the growth of Buddhism, as centers of Buddhist worship and dissemination of Buddha, Dhamma. An opportunity for the societies to bring up their younger generation with traditional, social and cultural values based on Buddhism.
Produced by Lake House