Few things give the venerable Upali Sramon as much joy as sharing a thought-provoking sutra.
"If I've heard a very good discourse or sutra, I can't help but tell it to others," he smiles. "It's all there in the Buddhist literature; it's so profound, but it's also so practical. You can take any word from Buddha's teaching and apply it to your life."
For this Theravada Buddhist monk-scholar from Bangladesh, the practical application of spiritual and religious teaching is crucial for a full, meaningful existence. Part of what he is discovering during his year at the CSWR is what draws others to Buddhism and how the practical techniques inherent in Buddhism can be beneficial to all.
"I am quite curious, and that is why I like having more interaction with Western people, with American people," Sramon says. "Among my friends here, one of the first questions I ask is: 'What made you come to Buddhism?' "
As he becomes more aware of the lifestyles and the subtleties of the different problems people face here, and as others share their stories with him, he is experiencing an even greater appreciation of the teachings and practices of his own tradition: "No matter where a person is from, no matter what he calls himself, what his identity, he will benefit."
As important as enriching his own understanding of the Buddhist teachings is, even more vital is doing what he can to preserve the cultural and religious heritage of his native, "traditional" Buddhist community.
It is for this reason that Sramon came to HDS as a Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Scholar, through an effort of the Buddhist Ministry Initiative that brings Asian students trained in Buddhist history and traditions to the Divinity School for a year of study.
Today, although Buddhists are a tiny minority in the predominantly Muslim Bangladesh (less than one percent of the country's total population), in Chittagong and in the Chittagong hill tracts region, where most of the country's one million Buddhists live, they make up a sizable percentage of the ethnically diverse hill population.
"There are different Buddhist tribes," he explains. "We are called the Barua Buddhists. Bengali is my mother tongue. Other Buddhists in the area are closer in language family and ethnicity to the Tibeto-Burman families, such as the Arakan Buddhists of Myanmar or the Chakma tribe."
The presence of Buddhism in the region may date back to the time of Gautama Buddha, although, Sramon notes, there is no extant record of this. "However, Bengal is mentioned in the Pali literature a few times," he says, citing the example of the monk-poet Vangisa, “the venerable master of words,” who came from ancient Bengal, or Vanga.
"Later commentators have written about him. He was one of the proficient, impromptu poets: the Buddha used to give a sermon, and Vangisa would write verse on the spot, summarizing the sermon."
Buddhism flourished in Bengal especially during the Pala period (750–1174 ce), when a Buddhist dynasty ruled Bengal. "It was at that time that Bengal and Tibet had a very close connection," he explains. "Many Bengal masters from different parts of present-day Bangladesh went to Tibet and spread Buddhism there."
Buddhism in Bengal endured, despite the vicissitudes of later history. After the decline of the Pala Empire, Sramon explains, “Buddhism was never again the religion of the kings of Bengal. There were Hindu dynasties, then Jain kings took over, and later on the Muslim rulers arrived." Of the early Buddhist temples, not much remains but ruins, and the many libraries, too, he says, are “nothing more than burnt ashes.”
Today's Bengali Buddhist scholars and monks are struggling to retrieve their own cultural and scholarly history. To do so, they must look to international scholars and centers of learning, both for models of academic practice and to regain knowledge of their past from extant Tibetan sources and records left by early Chinese pilgrims who traveled to India in the fourth to seventh centuries ce.
"First what we need in our country are people who know how things happen academically, who know how things should be done, how institutions should be maintained," he says. Then, there need to be centers to learn the Buddhist languages—such as Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan. "Many of the great philosophers in Tibetan Buddhism came from Bengal, but we can't read what they have written. Bengal has a proud history, but our people don't know about it."
Sramon studied in Sri Lanka for 10 years. He received a BA from the University of Peradeniya, specializing in Sanskrit, and an MA in Buddhist studies from the Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy. He spent six months at Göttingen University in Germany on an Erasmus Mundus scholarship, studying religion and Indian history. Now, at HDS, he is immersing himself in Tibetan language and Tibetan religions and Buddhist arts of ministry.
As he explains it: "Our academic studies are not so well developed, because there is no support for Buddhist studies in Bangladesh, as there is in Sri Lanka. In order to understand Buddhism or to practice it well, we need to have proper access to the literature and then a proper system of study."
Some scholars and monks are trying to establish formal Buddhist studies programs at the universities in Dhaka and Chittagong, but, he admits, "in order to gain a little bit of ground for Buddhism you have to fight a lot."
Sramon clearly sees the advantage to looking at one's tradition through new eyes.
"I like to use the analogy of the pond," he says. "You are born and bred in the pond, so you don't see it very well, you are just in the middle of it. Even if you are thirsty, you don't see the value of the water. But, if you are coming to the pond from a great distance, having crossed a great desert, you know the value of water. You see it from all different angles, from a greater perspective, and you find a way to get into the pond and have clean water."
The challenge for him and others from traditionally Buddhist societies, he says, "is that we are so deeply immersed in the pond that we don't see it holistically. We grow up in the pond, die in the pond, we don't see its distinctness as anything special."
His experiences at the CSWR are helping him to see the pond and all its riches with new eyes.
—by Kathryn Dodgson
This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of CSWR Today.