A Sri Lankan monk arrived at Hong Kong airport at midnight in September 2015, with nothing but the address of a Chinese Buddhist temple in Yuen Long. He hailed a taxi and arrived at the temple at 2 a.m.
Less than three years on, the Venerable Sumiththa Thero has set up a Buddhist cultural center for the 2,000-3,000 Sri Lankans in the city and has applied to build a full-fledged temple here, like one at home.
“For the moment, we have registered as a society under the society ordinance of HK. We have applied for 20,000 square feet of land to the Home Affairs Bureau,” he said in an interview.
“They are processing our application. At their request, we have applied to register as a charitable organization. Most suitable would be a site near a forest. We need to build a hall for 300-400 people, plus a residential cottage, kitchen and space for traditional dancing and drumming. We would get architects and carpenters from home, perhaps for free.
“Sri Lankan monks in Hong Kong could stay in the temple. I hope to include there a small museum, to impart knowledge of Sri Lankan culture and history.”
The community has a long history here. Some came in the 1970s. Some of them are doctors, professors, business people and other professionals; around 60 work for HSBC. Others are domestic workers.
“Over 70 percent have stayed more than 10 years,” Thero said. “Many of them have permanent residence and plan to stay.”
Before his arrival, the community had no permanent monk, only those studying at the University of Hong Kong. He too arrived with a one-year student visa for a Master of Buddhist Studies at HKU.
He was residential monk at the Golden Temple in Dambulla, a World Heritage site 72 kilometers north of Kandy in central Sri Lanka; it has over 20 monks.
During his year of study, he gave talks at religious festivals; the community asked him to stay on. “I met Sri Lankan children who did not know of our culture. I started a class to teach them this culture and Buddhist principles because they have right to know about their culture and religion.”
So after he completed the course, he set up a Sri Lankan Buddhist Cultural Center, with contributions from 220 members, and rented space in a residential building in Prince Edward in December 2016.
In March 2017, they moved the center to its current location, on the third floor of a mixed commercial/residential building in Sheung Heung Road (上鄉路), To Kwa Wan. The rent is HK$15,000 a month.
There they hold religious ceremonies and classes in meditation, Theravada Buddhist studies, ethics and discussions, Buddhist counseling and Sri Lankan cultural events. They organize annual blood donation campaigns with the Hong Kong Red Cross and give free food at events.
“Each month we have an inter-faith dialogue with the imams from mosques, Sikh leaders and Christian scholars,” he said. “We now have around 700 members.”
Since the space is too small for large events, like celebrating the Buddha’s birthday on May 27, they are hiring a hall at a nearby Po Leung Kuk Lam Man Chan English Primary School.
“We are open every day. As well as Sri Lankans, Chinese, Westerners, Indians and Malaysians come here to pray. Over 90 percent come here and engage with pure hearts. Some have committed faults and mistakes and ask for guidance.”
His aim is to have the temple built, up and running within five years and then return to Sri Lanka, to be replaced by another monk willing to take over.
“It must be a permanent place. Then I can hand over. I cannot leave now, while we are in the middle of this project,” he said.
Sri Lankans practice the Theravada form of Buddhism. Believers in Tibet and Mongolia follow the Vajrayana school; those in China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and Japan follow the Mahayana school. As a Theravadan monk, Thero, who is 36, is not allowed to marry.
“Buddhism is atheist,” he said. “The refuge is in you. You are the Master. You have all powers in you. You are your own savior. You can destroy yourself or you can build a great noble character in you. If you behave badly, you will destroy yourself. If you behave in a good way, it will lead you and others to the happiness. You can be a light to the world.”
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