Oral Histories

Interview of Bhante Walpola Piyananda

Immigrant from Sri Lanka. Buddhist monk in the Sri Lankan Theravada tradition, abbot of the Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, and author of a number of books on the experience of being a Buddhist monk living in the West.
Many Branches, One Root: Buddhist Traditions in the Los Angeles Area
Asian American History
Biographical Note:
Immigrant from Sri Lanka. Buddhist monk in the Sri Lankan Theravada tradition, abbot of the Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, and author of a number of books on the experience of being a Buddhist monk living in the West.
Cline, Alex
Piyananda, Bhante Walpola
Persons Present:
Piyananda and Cline.
Place Conducted:
Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, series coordinator, UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research; musician; member, Order of Interbeing, Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, ordained 2009 by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. Piyananda was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content but made no changes.
5.25 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The Many Branches, One Root series traces the histories and practices of a range of Buddhist traditions and communities in the greater Los Angeles area. Beginning in the early twentieth century, a succession of Buddhist traditions have put down roots in Los Angeles, each one providing spiritual support and a sense of community for the tradition’s immigrant population. By the late twentieth century many of those traditions had extended their reach beyond their original ethnic base to include an American-born, often largely Anglo, constituency. The series seeks to document the ethnic and immigrant roots of these traditions, as well as the changes that have resulted as traditions have accommodated to an American context. Series participants included monks, nuns, and lay people from Buddhist traditions from Japan, China, Tibet, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam and a mixture of immigrants and American-born practitioners.
Family background and early life in Sri Lanka— Early interest in sitting meditation and Buddhist experiences— Siblings’ non-monastic pursuits— Parents’ Buddhist background and role in village— Becoming a monk at age twelve and teaching Sunday school at sixteen— Initial rebuke of ordination— Scholarship to Calcutta University— Studying in Calcutta and working with Mother Teresa— Relocation to City of 10,000 Buddhas and meeting Master Hsuan Hua— Studying Christianity at Northwestern University and relocation to Chicago— Working with Buddhist teachers at International Buddhist Meditation Center (IBMC) in L.A.— Appreciation of U.S.
Impressions of IBMC and Dr. Thich Thien-An— Relationships at IBMC— Negative reactions to receiving alms in public— Teaching Sri Lankan Buddhist children at IBMC— Working with and respect from Dr. George Bond at Northwestern— Befriending Sri Lankans in Chicago— Adapting Methodist ministry system for Buddhist tradition— Invited to head a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in L.A.— Abuse from young people in Chicago who think Piyananda is a Hare Krishna devotee— Challenges of starting an inclusive Sri Lankan mediation center in L.A.— Personal attacks from “Dhamma Protector”— Support from other Buddhist traditions angers Sri Lankan community— Leaves temple and founds Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara— Success of vihara and choice of English as primary language— Purchase of buildings on Crenshaw and Washington— Dr. Thien-An’s death.
L.A. Sri Lankan and Thai communities' support for Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara— Interfaith activities, including Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue— Relationships with local Buddhist communities— Misconception that Buddhist symbol resembles swastika— Studying Mahayana traditions— Initial conflicts with Korean American Christians in vihara’s neighborhood— Expanding vihara’s buildings— Training Sri Lankan monks in English and American culture— Changes in traditional Theravada behavior— Issues of mental illness among American practitioners— Beginning to fully ordain nuns— Open-mindedness of current monastic sangha— Stages of commitment required for those who want to go deeper into the practice of Buddhism.
The history of Buddhism in America and pre-Buddhist Americans— Increased numbers of Southeast Asian refugees leads to increase in popularity of Dalai Lama— Foundation of Insight Meditation Society and S.N Goenka’s vipassana retreats— Buddhist influence on Unitarians and other religious traditions— Unexpected psychedelic experience at IBMC— Americans know more about Buddhism but are struggling to live it— Types of Buddhists in the U.S.— Buddhism as a reaction to greed and technological attachment— Optimism for children of Buddhist Sri Lankan immigrants— Ordaining lay members of vihara— English services to reach younger generations— Balancing vihara’s different needs— Non-Asians' expectation of paying for Buddhist services— Widespread acceptance of Buddhism in L.A.