Learning amidst tradition and modernity

Hiranthi Fernando visits the oldest existing pirivena in the country, Ratmalana’s Paramadhamma Chethiya

It has all the trappings of a modern office - telephones, fax machine and computer. Yet seated within, Ven Madapatha Dhammasara Thera, the 7th Chief Incumbent of the Paramadhamma Chethiya Pirivena and Viharaya focussed on upholding the traditions laid down by his predecessors in instructing student monks in the Buddhist doctrine.

The Paramadhamma Chethiya Pirivena in Ratmalana, which celebrated its 150th Anniversary in 1992, is said to be the oldest existing pirivena in the country. While the old building stands proudly in the centre, newer constructions have come up around it as the need arose. Tradition and modernity find a happy blend, each in its place.
Chief Incumbent Ven Dhammasara Thera

Tracing the pirivena’s proud history, Ven Dhammasara Thera said it was first started by Ven. Walane Sri Siddhartha Thera, who in 1841 gathered together a few students in a small room to teach them the ‘Buddha Dhamma’. Soon the numbers had swelled to 17. Several of these students went on to achieve great heights among the Buddhist clergy.

One of Ven Siddhartha’s students, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, was responsible for the opening of the Vidyodaya Pirivena in 1973. Two years later, another former student, Ven Ratmalane Dhammaloka Thera inaugurated the Vidyalankara Pirivena in Peliyagoda. Yet another student Ven Koggala Pandit Thera was the Editor of the Sinhala newspaper ‘Lakmini Pahana’, when it was first published in 1862.

In next to no time, the student body had swelled to over 100 and with the pirivena requiring more space, a group of Dayakas of the temple purchased four adjoining plots of land and gifted them to the pirivena. A residential block with three rows of rooms around a central garden and a lecture hall including a library, were constructed and opened in the same year. This old lecture hall is still standing.

The next step was the opening of a library in 1856, with a month of pirith and procession carrying the ola leaf books. This has become an annual event in the pirivena. A large number of valuable ola leaf books wrapped in cloth are carefully preserved in an antique cupboard in the original building, reserved for special research needs.

Among the valuable antiques at the pirivena is an old Buddha statue, 6 ½ feet tall, made during the reign of King Dutugemunu that is believed to contain sacred relics. The statue had been brought to the pirivena in 1890, from Kamburulena in the Kurunegala district. When Sing Dung Mi Bai, a queen from Burma, visited in 1892, she had this ancient statue gilded in gold.
The old temple building
Student monks learning the Dhamma

In the old building are several other antiques, which have been presented to the Chief Priests. Two antique carved vases and two ebony chairs had been gifted to the Chief Priest by Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Himi in 1873, after he opened Vidyodaya. A glass cabinet contains a bottle of water from a well that Lord Buddha drank from in Jethavanaramaya in India, old coins, and stones from significant Buddhist sites. Also on the premises, which spreads over a five acre property, are two stone inscriptions done by the first Chief Incumbent Ven. Walane Sri Siddhartha Thera, before he passed away in 1868.

The pirivena has seen its share of foreign royalty. King Ung Baung Nibo Sowa Waji, of Cambodia, who visited in 1893, laid the foundation stone for the ‘Dharma salawa’, which was his contribution to the pirivena. Four of his ministers attended the opening ceremony in 1895. A stone inscription by this king is displayed on the wall of this hall. It is here that the student monks gather for their lectures and examinations.

The Bodhi tree on the premises is over a hundred years old. Close to the tree is a Viharaya in Thai style, built by devotees from Thailand in 1980 which has at its entrance a moonstone, a duplicate of the original moonstone in Anuradhapura. Several other buildings have been constructed at various times, through the initiative of the chief priests.

A two-storey cultural building came up in 1975 and in 1979, former minister Lalith Athulathmudali had laid the foundation stone for a new residential block to replace the old rooms. Mr. Athulathmudali had connections with the pirivena, since the days of his grandfather, who donated the wood for one of the buildings. A meditation hall, a two-storey international library and a dining hall, have also been added on in recent times.
Guilded in gold: The ancient statue

The pirivena now has about 60 rooms, with accommodation for 120 student monks. A row of rooms above a seminar hall is available for foreign visitors to the pirivena. Many of these improvements were carried when Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasara Thera was at the helm.

At another recent addition - an air-conditioned sound-proof recording studio with modern equipment, sermons, pirith and religious songs are recorded for broadcast over radio and TV at this studio. Across the road from the main pirivena, is a Buddhist Art Centre, where Buddha statues are made on order. A pre-school and week-end ‘Daham Pasala’ are also conducted at the pirivena, in addition to the education of student monks.

Maintaining the old building however has been a problem for Ven. Dhammasara thera, as it comes under the Archaeological Department. They no longer get a grant for the pirivena and have to depend on benefactors.

Meanwhile classes are conducted in both the pirivena (Pracheena) system teaching Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhala and Buddhism as well as the standard education system. Ven. Dhammasara Thera explains that in the pirivena system, there are three levels with an exam at the end of each level. Those who complete the senior level obtain ‘Pracheena Pandit’ status.

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