This is a guest post by Dr. Sugunasiri, with photos graciously provided by other participants…
Buddhist Literary Festival 2017
by Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri
Sept. 24. 2017 will go down in history as the first time Buddhist Literature comes to be highlighted publicly anywhere in Canada, and possibly anywhere in North America, as Wesak was in 1981 when I took the initiative in organizing it. In the publicity material, I, as Founder and Patron, had outlined the concept and goal in proposing a Buddhist Literary Festival in the following words:
As presented and explained in detail elsewhere, by Inherited Buddhist I mean one born into Buddhism. Acquired Buddhist, on the other hand, is one who comes to Buddhism in their later life. This also means, of course, that the second generation of Acquired Buddhists in the West, come to be Inherited Buddhists, though with no connection at all to any of the traditional homelands of Buddhism. The inclusion of an ethical dimension was my small contribution towards filling a hiatus in Western Buddhism that has come to embrace dimensions of Buddhism, such as e.g., Meditation, but the ethical dimension finding no or relatively little place.
The Buddhist Literary Festival was held, on an unusually hot day. For this time of the year, of 30 plus degrees, as part of the 28th Word on the Street Festival, an annual event that brings out book-lovers by the droves and the publishers looking to meet their hunger. Though it was an experiment, the Buddhist Literary Festival ended up presenting an impressive program, with participation from Buddhist practitioner authors and scholars. The program could be seen along three dimensions: Readings, Talks and Poster Tour.
So what Readings did we have? One was by Award-winning novelist Kelly Watt from her Camino Meditations: Towards jettisoning addiction. From Dr. Ranjini George and Lee Gowan, both of the Creative Writing Program of the School of Continuing Studies of the University of Toronto, we heard excerpts from their ongoing work, Love, Kannon: Our Pilgrimage to Tokyo. Prof. Peter Timmerman of York University was to read some excerpts from The Driftwood Shrine by John Gendo Wolff, Sensei. To fill a gap, and include the poetic element, I read from my two latest poetry collections, Celestian Conversations and Obama-ji.
Then there were the Talks. Peter Timmerman, an Environmental Scholar who has also been working with colleagues in Sri Lanka as well (personal knowledge), challenged us with his thoughts under the title, “Implosion: Learning to Live in a Finite World”. Dr. Bryan Levman, instructor of Advanced Pali at the University of Toronto , spoke on “Pali Buddhist Literature”. My Welcoming Address was on “Buddha launches Buddhist Literature.”
The Poster Tour was intended to introduce the visitor to dimensions of Buddhism, on the following topics:
1. Night of Buddha’s Enlightenment. 2. Buddha’s Foundational Teachings. 3. Homage to the Buddha. 4. Chief Disciples of the Buddha. 5. Buddha on Economics, Social Relations, Politics and Judiciary. 6. Meditation as Empirical and Scientific Method. 7. Buddha’s Enlightenment, Nibbana and Parinibbana.
For all our attempts, however, the attendance was poor. There was a good reason. Surprisingly, it seems to have been captured in the opening words of the concept as I had proposed. While “Buddhism is a Religion, Philosophy, Psychology and Science, … outside of the Academy, few are aware that it also has a rich literature.” As noted, it is book-lovers that make it to the Word on the Street Festival. Indeed they are also likely the least interested in matters spiritual. While Buddhism continues to be well-respected in Canada, there is a vast Canadian population out there who wants nothing to do with any religion. There was evidence from the booth right in front of ours – Jehovah’s Witness. It had no better attendance than the Buddhist Literary Festival. Given that what we were looking to share was a little-known dimension of Buddhism, even to Buddhists themselves, our challenge was even greater, and the poor attendance understandable. But then that itself is what has urged us to press ahead. While we are yet to figure out how to make the Buddhist Literary Festival more of a success the next time around, the poor attendance itself urging us forward, encouraging the new Committee of six to find strategies to introduce to Canadians – Buddhists and other, the Buddhist literary gems waiting to be discovered.