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One dharma, many languages

At a 600-year-old Buddhist school, many languages are spoken with the goal of spreading a message to as many people as possible.

13.11.2018  |  

Putta perumaan pobittaar karunei Darmam ampu….’

The recitation of religious verses in Tamil can be heard from a classroom at the Maha Pirivena of Asgiri Maha Vihara chapter of Siyam Maha Nikaya. The Tamil words are spoken by a novice Buddhist monk, who explains Buddhism in Tamil, as if it is his mother tongue.

Odaanam orunaalum wendaam….’

Oruwarayum pollaanku sella wendaam…’

The students chant in Tamil in unison. Their Tamil instructor, Vimala John, is a 54-year-old woman and a Catholic.

“I have the opportunity to teach the Tamil language to Buddhist monks, as I have a knowledge of English,” says John. “If I knew only Tamil, how could I teach Tamil to Buddhist monks who speak Sinhala?”

Vimala John, a Catholic teacher of Tamil

“A teacher friend of mine brought me to meet the chief monk of the Pirivena. When said that I am Tamil and a Catholic, the Buddhist monk said it didn’t matter. ‘If you can teach Tamil well, that’s enough,’ he said. I have kept the trust he placed in me. The Buddhist monks are writing and explaining Buddhism in Tamil quite well.”

Multilingualism to spread the dharma

Asgiri Maha Pirivena, about six centuries old, is one of the leading educational institutions in the country, with more than four hundred students in attendance. Buddhist monks from many countries including Cambodia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam and Laos and study here in English. All Buddhist monks also study Tamil.

Chief monk Narangpanawe Ananda Thera

“Since 1996 Buddhism has been taught in English at this Pirivena and about five years ago we started to teach Tamil,” said chief monk Narangpanawe Ananda Thera.

“The Buddha said Buddhist monks must visit villages and preach his dharma to the world with compassion. Today’s world is full of conflict. More than ever, the need for the true teachings of religious leaders is being felt.

“Knowledge of other languages is needed to propagate the dharma. If a Buddhist monk is not conversant in English, Buddhism cannot be spread in the world. Similarly, we cannot speak to Tamil people in the North if we do not have a knowledge of Tamil,” said Thera.