Sunday Dhamma School History
The West End Buddhist Centre Dhamma Program: Then and Now
By Himale Wijesundara
The old hall quickly fills with voices, young and old, as parents and children spill through the entrances on either side of the stage at the front. Old bird-cage style lamps adorn the ceilings while the wooden floors creak below the busy feet. The children’s sleepy eyes fill with joy as they meet with their classmates. Some children cling to their parents, who are beginning to take their place around the edge of the hall. Folding tables have been set up in groups around the edge of the hall, and a series of blue mats lay on the floor near the stage like a jigsaw puzzle. At the foot of the stage sits a table covered in white linens, supporting the serene, all-knowing, golden figure of our Great Teacher, the Lord Buddha.
The children are dressed in pure white, except for the red and white emblem on the front of their shirts. This emblem is the head of a graceful swan, emerging from the center of a maple leaf. The swan, a reflection of purity, symbolizes the students, while the maple leaf symbolizes their Canadian heritage. The swan holds an Ola Leaf Book which represents Buddhist doctrine. A curved banner below the emblem displays the words “Sacitta Pariyodapanam,” which translates as “For the purification of one’s own mind.”
For nine months each year, the West End Buddhist Dhamma Program holds its classes on three Sundays each month. Despite several changes in venues over the years, the devotion, ambition, and routines of the administration, teachers, parents, and students have remained the same. When the students enter the Clarke Memorial Hall at 161 Lakeshore Road West in Mississauga, they know exactly what to do. Bustling with anticipation, a group of children crowd around a folding table reaching for their oil lamps, incense, and candles. Within a matter of minutes they are lined up bearing flowers, candles, and incense for their weekly procession around the edges of the hall, making their devotion to the Buddha. Every week they partake in a Buddha Puja followed by a brief meditation session which calms and conditions their mind for the Dhamma lessons to come.
The West End Buddhist Centre Dhamma Program is the largest Dhamma Program in North America. It is hard to imagine its humble inception over eighteen years ago in a small Mississauga apartment. Assisted by Viharadhipathi Ven. Kulugammana Dhammawasa Nayaka Thera and Co-founded by the Ven. Dr. Madawala Punnaji Mahathera and the Ven. Brahmanagama Muditha Mahathera, the first Dhamma Program classes consisted of a handful of children taught by Ven. Mudhitha Mahathera.
The relocation of the temple to 1569 Cormack Crescent in Mississauga in 1994 was an opportunity for the growth and enhancement of the Dhamma Program. Under the compelling and dynamic guidance of the Ven. Brahmanagama Muditha Mahathera, and the help of several devoted and enthusiastic volunteers, the Dhamma School held its first age-specific classes in the basement, shrine room, and extension of the new temple. Volunteer teachers Nilmini Abeynayake and Aunty Rohini were the founding staff at the inception of the Dhamma School and later and Priya Premawardena joined the staff. With the gradual increase in the number of students, there were wonderful additions to the staff. As Ven. Bhikkhu Saranapala joined the Westend Buddhist Centre in 1994 as a resident monk, he was appointed as the director of the Dhamma School. With his dynamic leadership, Ven. Bhikkhu Saranapala, along with former Principal Priya Premawardena and Vice Principal Badra Jayaratna, teachers Nilanthi Hettige, Pushpa Samaranayake, and Aloy Perea, worked tirelessly as the Dhamma Program registration grew from a handful of students to over 80. Ven. Muditha later recruited the talent and teaching experience of Dr. Swarna Chandrasekera to establish a Dhamma Program syllabus. The syllabus, rich in detail and teaching tools, acts as the backbone of the school’s structure. For the planning and development of the syllabus, tremendous spiritual input and guidance was given by Ven. Punnaji, Ven. Muditha, Ven. Dhammavasa, and Ven. Saranapala. Mr. Aloy Perera’s assistance in this task was also invaluable.
With the help of several volunteer teachers, many of whom taught in the school system (Daham Pasal) in Sri Lanka, the enrolment and scope of the school grew further. In 2000 while senior monk, Ven. Dhammarama Mahathera was appointed as the director, Ven. Bhikkhu Saranapala became the principal of the Dhamma School.
As enrolment grew each year, the limitation of space became a growing impediment. After a vigorous search, the Dhamma School’s administrative team was faced with what seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle: finding a venue that could support over 200 students, for 2 hours each week, within a limited budget. With a great deal of perseverance, as well as the support of Ven. Kulugammana Dhammawasa Nayaka Thera, and the help of Mr. Aloy Perera, Ven. Dr. Bhante Saranapala was able to find the current home of the Dhamma Program – Rick Hanson Secondary School, Mississauga, ON, Canada.
Currently, the school accommodates well over 350 students and is still growing. Under the ambitious and inspiring leadership of Ven. Dr. Saranapala as principal, with the support of several senior teachers and others who joined later, and with great enthusiasm and dedication, the West End Buddhist Dhamma Program continues to grow. With the help of about 36 volunteer teachers, some of whom are West End Buddhist Dhamma Program Alumni, the school has remained dynamic and fruitful. The teachers meet monthly, share ideas on teaching techniques and experiences, and plan for fund-raising and end-of-year events (e.g., Dhamma Program Day, Bakhti Gee, and Sil Observation).Not only do the children benefit, but the parents also receive Dhamma education while their children are learning the Dhamma upstairs. In the basement of the same hall, the parents, while enjoying a cup of coffee, pull up their chairs, gather around, and participate in the Adult Dhamma Discussions conducted by Ven. Kassapa Mahathera and Ven. Kesbewe Wansananda Thero, two senior monks well-versed in the Tipitaka.
The scope of the West End Dhamma Teaching Program has widened greatly since its inception in December of 1992. From a small class in one room of an apartment, it has grown into a community network that educates the student as a whole, providing not only valuable lessons in morality and the exploration of one’s mind, but also hands-on opportunities to practice selflessness through the program’s connection to the Buddhist Youth Volunteers Association. By all accounts, the West End Buddhist Centre Dhamma Program shows no signs of slowing down its development. From the snacks and coffee provided by the parents and monks each week, to the sleepy-eyed students with perfect attendance, the hard-working teachers with their contagious enthusiasm, and the families that make the sometimes hour-long trip to Mississauga to bring their children to Dhamma lessons, the devotion of the community is the momentum that drives this great success story.
(Re-edited in May 2013)