Born in Kandy, Sri Lanka (the country’s second largest city) in 1967, Sujatha was the youngest of two children. As a child, he knew he wanted to become a Buddhist monk at a very early age. Initially, his parents (who were both Buddhists) were not entirely thrilled about the idea for their young son. However, Sujatha persevered and eventually persuaded them this was his true desire, and when he turned 11, his parents finally granted him permission to enter the monastery.
Soon afterwards, Sujatha entered the Subodharama International Monk Training Center in Kandy. This temple is a part of the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. Theravada is regarded among its practitioners as the lineage closest to the original form of Buddhism. It was brought to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) in 250 BCE, and is now widespread through many other Southeast Asian countries including India, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Kampuchea (Cambodia). As a novice monk, Sujatha trained under the school’s ordination teacher, the Venerable Dhammawasa Thero.
Compared to their American counterparts, life for a young boy in a Buddhist monastery is quite rigidly structured. At Subodharama, the young monks were expected to rise at 4 a.m. and make tea for all the other members of the temple before beginning their chanting and meditation practice at 5 a.m. Only two meals a day were served at the temple: breakfast and a large lunch. After breakfast, the boys studied the Buddhist scriptures, followed by more chanting and study time. At 11 a.m., they showered and laundered their robes. Lunch was followed by five hours of study in the classroom, and at 5 p.m. it was time for a second round of temple cleaning. This was followed by more meditation and chanting, and then another round of study time. Bed-time for the young monks came at 9:30 or 10 p.m.
In addition to their study and meditation, the young monks were also expected to go into town and do alms collections. For this, they would carry bowls into which the townspeople donated food for the temple.
Sujatha says the most important thing he learned at the monastery was “how to get along successfully with other people anywhere in the world.” As a result of the rigorous training he completed in the monastery, he believes it is “much easier to handle other people (and their various issues and personalities) when you’ve learned how to handle your own.”
Following his graduation, Sujatha served as a teacher at Subodharama for 2 years. In 1993, he left Sri Lanka for Brisbane, Australia, where he taught meditation and Buddhism at the Sri Lankarama Buddhist Monastery. Four years later, he was asked by one of his former teachers, the Venerable Mudtha Thero, to join him in the United States. Sujatha accepted the invitation and soon relocated to the Midwest, where he helped establish the Great Lakes Buddhist Vihara in Southfield, Michigan.
After obtaining his permanent residency in the US five years later, Sujatha decided it was time to do something different. Although he enjoyed spending time with the Sri Lankan community in the US, he wanted to do something to help his fellow Americans, who always seemed “vaguely dissatisfied despite their many possessions and high standard of living” and to be “constantly striving after the next best thing.”
At this point, Sujatha began sending out exploratory emails and got in touch with several of the Unitarian Churches in the US. In particular, he began communicating with the Congregational Unitarian Church of Woodstock, who invited him to visit McHenry County. When he came to visit IL, Sujatha also toured McHenry County College and said he felt “really good and happy” there. He decided McHenry County was a good place for him to be, and moved here not long afterwards.
After enrolling as a student at McHenry County College (MCC), where Sujatha is currently pursuing a degree in psychology, he was approached by Rev. Dan Larsen of the Unitarian Church in Woodstock to start a meditation class. Sujatha agreed, and in January of 2003 he began teaching meditation classes both at MCC and at the church in Woodstock, and thus the Blue Lotus Temple was born.
Sujatha believes his job here in McHenry County is not only teaching meditation, but also “teaching people how to be happy.” He says his primary goal is to help people apply the teachings of Buddhism into their everyday lives. According to Sujatha, “the core essence of all the Buddhist teachings is the same; but how things are done, and the ways people are guided, is different.” To illustrate this with an analogy, he explains, “We can get into the ocean in different ways, or from different places, but it’s still the same ocean.”
Sujatha says that he “believes in change, rather than tradition,” particularly when dealing with life in our fast-paced Western society. His approach to teaching is easy-going rather than dogmatic, and he makes every attempt to explain things to an American audience so that even absolute beginners can understand how to practice meditation, and how to apply the spiritual teachings to their own daily lives.
“I hope to help people here by teaching them to see their jobs and work as a form of spiritual practice,” he says. “Then they can learn to enjoy whatever they are doing in the moment, instead of always worrying about the future or the past. That’s the most important thing.”
Sujatha further explains “for monks, meditation is a very different practice than for regular people living in a community”. Since monks spend most of their time in a cloistered environment away from the rest of society, they do not face many of the same challenges as other people who must contend with family and relationship stresses, along with the intense pressures that career and daily life often entail.
Fortunately for Westerners, Sujatha maintains that one’s daily life can become an excellent form of meditation, if you can learn to view your whole life as a form of spiritual practice. In this way, whenever we are faced with difficult situations in our daily lives, we can learn to retrain our minds and become “mindful” of our feelings and emotions, and learn to practice kindness, compassion, and patience instead of anger, vengefulness, and intolerance. In this way, not only do we become more peaceful, ourselves, but we also become more positive influences on the world around us.
As the spiritual leader of the Blue Lotus Temple, Sujatha believes he is here to “prepare the field for other people, who — when they achieve happiness — will hopefully plant the seeds and do the rest.” He is also hopeful that members of the group will be able to create the possibilities for establishing a permanent home for the Blue Lotus Temple in McHenry County. Meanwhile, the Congregational Unitarian Church of Woodstock has been extremely kind in sharing their space for the Temple’s practice.
Sujatha says the biggest challenge he faces here in the US is in learning to communicate clearly with such a different culture from the one in which he was raised. “I can use a word that means one thing in my culture, and it might mean something completely different here in the US. So communication can be tough at times,” he admits. “But at this point, I feel like I now understand about 80% of US culture, so things are getting much better!”
There is still the occasional culture clash. For example, at a meditation retreat he hosted in Harvard, IL, Sujatha was approached by two college students during a break. The young women expressed their surprise at seeing Sujatha wearing a watch, along with the traditional saffron robe. Quite surprised by their questions, himself, Sujatha chuckled and gently explained that the watch was a gift from his mother back in Sri Lanka, and that he likes to wear it to remind him of her. The students then explained that their confusion was most likely based on erroneous impressions of how a Catholic monk (or nun) is expected to behave, and that these ideas may have biased their view of Sujatha as a Buddhist monk. Since there aren’t that many Buddhist monks currently residing in the US, the students realized they didn’t have any frame of reference for dealing with one. This encounter caused Sujatha to consider some further cross-cultural issues. “I have a sense that some [American] people might worry that it would be difficult to interact with a Buddhist monk,” he admits. So to help overcome that issue, Sujatha tries to keep his teaching style very “informal and easy going.” Furthermore, he says he also always tries to “respect the US’s own culture first and foremost, and then teach meditation in a way that people here can better understand.”
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