Buddhism has been accepted as the fastest growing religion in Australia with more and more Australians showing an increasing interest, particularly in meditation. Forest monasteries have been established in the major cities for both the clergy and the laity to practise meditation in a peaceful atmosphere.
Not often does a Buddhist monk gets invited to a wedding. It is a rare happening. When Venerable Kovida of the Katoomba forest hermitage in Sydney received an invitation to a wedding, he was a little puzzled. “What am I expected to do,” he wondered. “We want you to come and chant ‘pirith’ and bless the couple,” he was told.
An Australian couple who had embraced Buddhism was getting married. They were keen to get blessed the “Buddhist way”. The Thera obliged and joined the guests at the garden wedding. He distributed the printed text and they all accompanied the monk in the chanting.
Kovida Thera, who moved over from his temple in Kirulapone a few years back, is the resident monk at the Katoomba Aranyaya – the oldest Buddhist vihara in Australia situated in the cool climes of the Blue Mountains, one of the country’s most popular tourist centres around 100 km west of Sydney. Tourists throng to Echo Point to see the famous rock formation, the Three Sisters. According to Aboriginal legend, the Three Sisters was created when three sisters who had broken marriage laws by meeting three young men from another tribe were turned into stone by the tribal witch doctor!
Set amidst a quiet forest area, the temple basically serves as a meditation centre. “There are devotees who have been regularly coming over for the past 25 to 30 years. More and more Australians are getting interested in Buddhism and the numbers embracing Buddhism increase by the year,” Kovida Thera who hails from Kudagala near Elpitiya, says.
A 20-day meditation retreat was in progress when we visited the temple with the ‘dana’ on a Wednesday. Strict silence is observed in order not to disturb the meditators who occupy the meditation hall a little away from the alms hall. The participants are advised to refrain from talking to one another and they maintain silence (referred to as ‘noble silence’) except at Dhamma discussions. The monk guides them in their meditation and one to one discussions are held when specific issues are resolved. Experienced lay teachers too conduct classes.
There is one long (20-day) retreat during the year – in January to coincide with Duruthu full moon. Three seven-day retreats are also held – the autumn retreat in April, winter retreat in July and spring retreat in October. “The response to these is most encouraging. Devotees reserve their places months ahead, the monk says. No fee is charged. Meals are also provided free. With the participants observing ‘ata sil’, their meals are confined to the morning and afternoon ‘dana’. Sri Lankan and Australian ‘dayakas’ bring the ‘dana’ regularly according to a roster prepared at the beginning of the year. In fact, there is a waiting list to get a place.
The batch of 14 participants – 12 Australians and two Sri Lankans – was a mix of young and old, male and female. At ‘dana’ time, they walked in to the alms hall following the monks. We served them just as we did the monks and one of them offered us merit at the end of the ‘dana’.
Kovida Thera has planned a full programme of activities for the year. In addition to the daily one hour services – one in the morning and the other in the evening – a three- hour meditation class is held every Sunday morning with two-day meditation retreats every full moon Poya. He also conducts special programmes for school and university students.The annual Katina pinkama is an event eagerly looked forward to by the Sri Lankan community. Usually a few families get together in planning the ‘pinkama’. Monks are invited from nearby Sri Lankan and Thai temples. The task of conducting the main ceremony of accepting the Katina robe is done by a senior monk. Venerable Dhammagaveshi Thera from Lankaramaya performed this function at last year’s ceremony.
“While ours is essentially a meditation centre, we don’t ignore the requests, particularly by the Sri Lankan Buddhists, to assist them in attending to religious activities they have been used to back at home,” Kovida Thera stresses.