Buddhist Council of Canada – the definitive history

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Various people have written about the Buddhist Council of Canada, which operated in the 1980s, but none have given a definitive account of the who, what, where, when, why and how of it. Now Suwanda Sugunasiri has written a comprehensive history which has been edited and revised by John Negru and Stanley Fefferman. Since those three were central figures in the BCC, this is as complete and accurate as it could possibly be. We hope it will be of some value to scholars, inspiring to those who may wish to extend arms of friendship amongst Canada’s burgeoning Buddhist communities, and clarifying some of the misconceptions of the past.

A Brief History of the Buddhist Council of Canada

It was in the Fall of 1980 that the Buddhists of Toronto came together for the first time. This was in response to a call by the World Conference on Religion for Peace (a Japanese initiative), to participate in an Interfaith Dialogue. Fujikawa Sensei, the Minister of the Japanese Buddhist Church (at 918 Bathurst Street, just north of Bloor) was a member of the WCRP, as was Dr. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri, who had just earned a doctorate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. WCRP was part of the activity of the Christian Ecumenical Centre located at 10 Madison Ave. off Bloor Street.

In those early years, there were a small number of Buddhist centres in Toronto, but only two or three Buddhist outfits known to the two organizers. The Buddhist Church, at 134 Huron St., of course, was the first, going back to 1946 (Watada, 1996: 289). Then there was the Sau Fu Temple (est. 1967), at 100 Southhill Rd, Don Mills, a house-turned-temple, headed by Ven. Sing Hung Fa-Shih, along with his brother-monk, Ven. Sing Chen, both of whom had arrived from Hong Kong. Then there was the Toronto Mahavihara (est. 1978), the Theravada Temple of the Sinhala Buddhists, located at 3495 Kingston Road, whose founder, Ven. Piyananda, had already moved on to Wash. DC, leaving the Temple in the hands of newcomers like Bhantes Dhammika and Punnaji. While the last two temples were known to Sugunasiri, the surprise was the Zen Buddhist Temple (est. late 1970’s) of Samu Sunim, at 46 Gwynne Avenue, who had come from Montreal (Sugunasiri, 2008:19). A later discovery was the Tibetan Gaden Chöling (1981), headed by Zasep Tulku Rinpoche at 637 Christie St[1].

Other centres operating in the area at the time, but unknown to the organizers, were: Namgyal Rinpoche’s Dharma Centre of Canada, which started perhaps as early as 1966; the the Toronto Dharmadhatu, which Ven. Chogyam Trungpa established while on a visit to Toronto in 1970; and Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche’s group, Kampo Gangra Drubgyudling, which had formed in 1971 and officially incorporated in 1972.[2]

When finally the first community meeting was called, in a room at OISE (where Sugunasiri was by then a Project Officer), it was a pleasant surprise to see a group of nearly 75 individuals in attendance. In addition to the temple communities identified above, there were members of the Vietnamese and Ambedkar communities.

Attending the Interfaith Dialogue Service organized by the United Church of Canada at the Bloor United Church at Bloor and Huron, it was the decision of the Buddhist group to continue to meet. Thus was born the Toronto Buddhist Federation, registered under the Corporations Act. Sugunasiri was elected the Founding Coordinator. The name changed to Buddhist Federation of Toronto to highlight ‘Buddhist’ in the Telephone Directory, it was to hold the first WESAK in May 1981. Buoyed by the camaraderie developed in making the first WESAK a roaring success, with a 1000 attending (as reported in the Toronto Sun with a picture [add pix here]), the Buddhist community continued to meet formally at the Toronto Buddhist Church at 918 Bathurst, and began to develop a cooperation among themselves, by being invited to and visiting each other’s activities. John Negru stepped in as Coordinator for three years after Sugunasiri, before passing the role on to Dr Vansen Lee.

By 1985, a challenge for the religious communities of Canada was created by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunication Commission – to set up an Interfaith TV Network. Prof. Stanley Fefferman, Professor of English at York University, and a member of Dharmadhatu, had come to be the Coordinator by that point. The call by the CRTC was for a National level media outlet, but the Buddhist Federation of Toronto was a local organization. Recognizing the need to have a Buddhist voice at the national level, an informal meeting held at the Dharmadhatu, attended by Prof. Fefferman, John Negru and Sugunasiri, a decision was made to form a Canada-wide organization. The transition was smooth when the BFT was legally changed to Buddhist Council of Canada (1985), and Prof. Fefferman became its first President.

The Objectives continued to be the same:

1. To promote the Buddhadhamma according to the traditions of all the Schools of Buddhism; and
2. To promote co-operation among Buddhist Communities in Canada and elsewhere.

The Toronto collectivity now came to be the ‘Toronto Chapter’ of the BCC, with membership of both being practically the same and John Negru acting as Toronto Coordinator.

The new national level status of the Buddhist organization now giving the needed legal authority, Prof Fefferman joined other interfaith members – Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Zoroastrian – traveling around the country to convince the communities of the need for a multifaith TV station and to earn their support. The goal of the mission was accomplished with Vision TV going on air. Fefferman subsequently moved on, with Sugunasiri invited to step into the President role.

With the new President traveling across the country, the next few years saw several chapters coming into existence in locations such as Ajax, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, St. John’s, Vancouver and Windsor. It also resulted in the first (and only) Congress of the Buddhist Council of Canada to be held in Toronto (1989), with the participation of the following delegates:
Dr. Stephen Aung Edmonton
Mr. Louis Cormier Montreal
Dr. Vansen Lee Toronto
Prof. Lakshman Marasingha Windsor
Ms. Kristin Penn Vancouver
Mr. Mongkhol Salyajivin Aurora
Rev. Jhampa Shaneman Vancouver Island
Mr. Evans Silva Ottawa
Mr. Peter Volz Halifax

By this time, the street address of BCC had moved to the Hong Fa Temple at 1330 Bloor Street West, courtesy Sing Hung Fa-shi of the Cham Shan Temple (formerly Sau Fu). Under the energetic editorship of Glen Mullin, a BCC Journal also flourished during this period. (For copies of the program of the BCC Congress and for the first two issues of the journal, 1987 and 1988, visit http://www.sumeru-books.com/ephemera/).

Soon the BCC leadership reins were to go to the hands of Rev. Jhampa Shaneman, of Victoria, who sought to continue the national momentum. But maintaining a national level interest by the Buddhists came to be increasingly challenging as the 1980s came to a close. The Buddhist presence in Canada had come to be increasingly different from when the Buddhists of Toronto first came together in 1981:

  • The membership was getting larger.
  • The financial base was getting to be stronger.
  • More Teachers immigrated from their home countries to take leadership roles in their Canadian communities.
  • More members of the community came to be English-speaking.

Earlier, coming together was the only way both Buddhism and each group could earn the respect of Canada. With little or no English within the community, a collectivity provided a voice and outreach. But not any more. Gradually, not only were the Buddhists no longer unsung, unrecognized and unrespected by the wider Canadian community, but also not being unwealthy meant that they did not need any other Buddhist community to survive either.

An early reason of enthusiasm for the Buddhists to come together could also said to have been the novelty of meeting face to face the Buddhists of other countries and other schools of Buddhism. The novelty had faded off over time.

As individual communities became stronger, with a regular calendar of liturgical events, the incentive to hold an annual joint Wesak celebration, as the BCC had done, became less relevant.

Further, the larger the congregation came to be of a given temple, the Sangha leadership also came to be that much busier. They came to be called on to serve the spiritual needs – conducting death rituals, holding regular services, weekly or monthly, etc., but also torespond to the unending personal calls – family disputes, raising children, drunkenness, etc. This meant that the Sangha had less and less time to respond to invitations to participate in the events of other temples. As an inevitable corollary, any initiative to reach out to other Buddhist communities also came to be numbed.

This in turn served as a condition for an increasing inward-looking tendency. An outcome of this was an emerging one-upmanship. In its life of 2600 years, Buddhism had come to grow into different branches, along with doctrinal differences, in different regions of Asia (South and Southeast Asia – e.g., Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Kampuchea, Laos) and East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, etc.). Different manifestations of Buddhism came to emerge even within individual countries, as e.g., in historical India and contemporary Vietnam (where both Mahayana and Theravada practice exists side by side, as in ancient Sri Lanka (Mahavihara and Abhayagiri)).

In coming together as Buddhists in 1981, everyone seemed to have come to respect the differences, allowing them to work together. But thanks to the conditions such as outlined above, each temple and community came to see themselves as the centre of the Canadian Buddhist universe. This can be said to have been exacerbated in no small measure by the divisive force of multiculturalism that seems to encourage the retention of individual differences over the common elements.

The result of all these conditions can be said to be a waning of interest to work together. The formation of the Sangha Council of Southern Ontario may have been the last nail in the coffin. Begun under the leadership of Yangil Sunim of Nine Mountains Zen Gate (Dae Kak Sa), it appears that the Sangha seemed bent on wresting the leadership that had been in lay hands up to that point. This, of course, can be seen as returning to the roots; in the home country context, religious leadership came primarily from the ordained Sangha.

The major activity of the SCSO was to organize a Peace March, in the month of June. Better weather conditions and Sangha leadership ensured high participation by the community. There was clearly not enough energy in the community to organize two major events one after the other, one in May and another in June. Thus, after less than a decade since its first roaring success, the common Buddhist activity of WESAK died out. The Toronto Buddhist Federation re-formed as a lay organization to address local concerns and new community development initiatives, with Michael Kerr as Coordinator.

Thus the Buddhist Council of Canada can be said to have entered a period of hibernation, with Sugunasiri continuing to act as de jure President, receiving communication from the government as well as other institutions. And so it was until the Buddhist Council of Canada was revived in 2010, at the initiative of three people: Sugunasiri as President, Dr Veronique Ramses as Vice President, and Bryan Levman as Secretary. The first activity engaged in by the newly emergent Council was to set up a Torana at Queen’s Park in May 2011, in celebration of WESAK, commemorating the ushering in of the 2600th year of the Buddha ‘s Enlightenment.


[1] See Sugunasiri (Ed.) 2008, for the life stories of Punnaji, Samu Sunim and Zasep Tulku Rinpoche.

[2] Stanley Fefferman was on the board of directors of Kampo Gangra at its incorporation.

 

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