Cuban Buddhism with a Canada Connection

Buddhism around the World Buddhism in Canada Sangha Theravada Toronto

We just received a press release about Cuban Buddhism with a Canada Connection! This is remarkable news, made all the more auspicious by the inclusion of notice that our dear friend, Professor Suwanda Sugunasiri, known to so many in Canada for his tireless efforts to promote the Dhamma, has taken monastic vows as part of the Cuba initiative. Once again, he is showing us the path of an exemplary life.

Here is the text of the press release:

PRESS RELEASE (April 08, 2018)

Toronto Mahavihara, 3898 Kingston Rd, Scarborough, Ontario


History was made on April 07, 2018 on Cuban soil when 25 or so Cubans, out of a head count of 75 or so attending, came to be initiated into Buddhism in capital city Havana. This is the first known formal introduction of Buddhism to Cuba. The initiation was conducted by Bhante Mihita of Canada, in the presence of three senior Bhikkhus who graced the occasion – Venerables Wimalabuddhi and Ratanasiri of the Toronto Mahavihara and Ajahn Punnadhammo of the Arrow River Forest Hermitage, of Thunder Bay, Ontario, who had made the visit to Cuba for the occasion. The Sangha members were seated in chairs draped in white.

The initiation was part of the program of Encuentro 2018, an annual event held in Havana. The Buddhist initiative, under the title “Living Buddhism”, itself was made up of two parts – Living Buddhism I- Sangha and Living Buddhism II – Lay. The initiation comprised of Homage to the Buddha (Namaskaraya), Taking Refuge in the three Gems – Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha (Tisarana) and the Five Training Principles – (Pancasila). Prior to inviting the Cuban participants to repeat after, an explanation was given of the three-step process, as well as the meaning of the Pali words. Following the initiation, each of the new Buddhists paid obeisance to the Buddha three times, and then to each of the Sangha members. While some, including a 100 year old lady, did the five-point touch (pasanga pihituva), as demonstrated, others paid homage standing.

Incense sticks and candle light, passed along hand to hand of the newcomers, were offered to a one-foot, all white, siting Buddha gracing a table draped in a white cloth. The Homage was followed by a small scale Buddhapuja, conducted by Ven. Wimalabuddhi, in Pali, as the new initiates, standing, clasped their palms chest high.

Everyone now seated, the meaning of the Buddhapuja was explained, when there was a brief Question and Answer period. The initiation ended with the distribution of a few copies of books on Buddhism in Spanish translation. One was an Introduction to Buddhism, and the other a translation of the Digha Nikaya.

Asked during the Question period how they could get in touch with one or more of the Bhantes, a concensus emerged for two meetings with Bhante Mihita on Monday, April 9, at a Park (Parques Amandares), at 10 am and 5 pm.

If that gives an overview of the second item of the Program, the first item was a presentation by the three Sangha members - Venerables Wimalabuddhi, Ratanasiri and Ajahn Punnadhammo, speaking on the topic, “My Life as a Monk”.

As pre-planned, this part of the program included a surprise, another historic event - the ordination of a Buddhist monk, perhaps the first on Cuban soil. From the speeches of the Sangha, the audience will have got an understanding of the life of a Buddhist monk. But how does one become a monk in the first place? The ordination was intended to provide a model for any Cuban(s) who may, in the future, wish to get ordained. The well-known Canadian Buddhist spokesman for decades, and scholar, Prof. Suwanda H. J. Sugunasiri, of Toronto, Canada, taking the vows of a Buddhist monk in the presence of the three monks, emerged as Bhante Mihita. At 82, he may perhaps be counted as among the oldest to be initiated into the Sanghahood. The vows were conducted by Ven Ratanasiri, acting for Bhante Madawela Punnaji as ‘Dhamma advisor’ (Upajjhaya), with Ven. Wimalabuddhi as ‘Teacher’ (Acariya).

Among the laity facilitating the total event was the Cuban Eloisa Hernandez, who also served as interpreter. Helping in translation from Sinhala to Spanish was Lalith Rohana Samarajeeva, a long time Cuban resident of Sri Lankan origin, his Cuban wife, too, in attendance. Helping in general were Suren Fernando and Ramya Weligodapola, who had flown in from Canada for the special occasion, bringing with them the Buddha statue as well as a few books on Buddhism in Spanish translation.

While the initiation was an unpublished item of the Program, an announcement had been made the day before that the opportunity to become a Buddhist would be available the next day. This was following a presentation by Prof. Sugunasiri, invited for Encuentro 2018 Program held at Theatro Mello. Titled ‘Buddhadhamma as Science in Praxis’, he sought to show how the Buddha’s discoveries of reality as they had come to be were arrived at empirically, i.e., after the fact, and not speculatively or mythologically. If that was the Science, applying them to help minimize suffering in sentient beings was the praxis.

The presentation ended by outlining 10 or more features of Cuban society compatible with the Teachings of the Buddha, such as e.g., individual freedom, gender parity, social harmony, a caring government offering free education, health and a basic food ration, etc. The compatibility was to be visually captured at the event by placing the Cuban flag, made up of a design and three stripes - red, white and blue, beside the Buddhist flag of five colour stripes – red, white and blue plus yellow and orange.

Another practical inroad was planting the idea of dana ‘alms-giving’ in the Cuban mind. Understandably, tourists are a primary source of income for the Cuban economy, and the people not being all that well off, offering anything free for non-locals may be something that may be too much to expect. However, the idea planted, it is with great merit to them that alms for the Sangha were offered by Cubans of different strata. Interestingly, the first to offer was a Catholic priest, followed by two professors and an interpreter. If these were personally known ones, at least seven of the new initiates were to join ranks as well

The total program was the brainchild of Prof. Sugunasiri, this being his third initiative to facilitate Cuban society benefiting from the wisdom and the compassion of the Buddha. The earliest were four seminars on Buddhism given at the University of Havana in 2010, and the second, six Seminars, given in 2017, the last being on meditation, when, heeding a suggestion, over 40 participants came dressed in white. Outside of the university, he was to lead 7 sessions of meditation –in parks, a theatre, and a catholic church in the town which provided the context for Ernest Hemingway’s well-known novel, Old man and the sea.

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