When Kokkavita Wipulasara was 13 and living In Sri Lanka, he knew he wanted to be a monk. But his parents thought their child, the eldest of four, was too young. Because he could not join the monastery against his parents' wishes, Wipulasara, now 57, gave them a choice: "If you don't take me to temple, I won't go to school."
As a novice, Wipulasara would wake every day at an early hour, clean the monastery and take lessons in Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts. More study and meditation filled the rest of the day, interrupted only by the main meal at lunchtime. Weekends were busier; the monks would perform funerals and bless new homes, which required 12 hours of chanting through the night. On Sunday, services opened with a chant and meditation and then a lesson led by one of the laywomen of the class.
Years later, Wipulasara's weekends are no less packed. Now, though, he ministers to a small congregation of Sri Lankans and Westerners who meditate with him in a small temple southeast of Tampa, sparsely decorated except for two shrines to Buddha.
Every Friday he leads meditation for Westerners; every Saturday, a dhamma, or morals class, in Pali for Sri Lankan children. Special ceremonies, such as the birthday of Buddha (this year on May 5), keep the temple full. During the week, the monks have a routine of meditation, chanting and chores like housekeeping and gardening. In Asia, laymen would donate food and other items, but here Wipulasara has to do his own errands — so he has learned to drive.
Wipulasara, who believes he was a monk in a previous life, always wanted to see the world beyond Sri Lanka. Fifteen years ago he got the opportunity when a senior monk in Berkeley, Calif., invited him to the U.S. Five years later, Wipulasara was assigned to Tampa, where a community of Sri Lankans was growing without a temple of their own. The Florida Buddhist Vihara, Inc. is now home to two other monks.
In 1997, he formed the nonprofit Florida Buddhist Vihara, Inc. and leased a small apartment in Carrollwood in which he lived as well as led worship. The space soon became too crowded, and he traded the apartment for a trailer on an acre and a half of land in North Tampa before finding a permanent spot east of the bay off Maydell Road.
Wipulasara's temple is one of several Theravada temples in the U.S. Of the three Buddhist traditions, Theravada sticks most strictly to the canons of Buddhism written down about 400 years after the death of Indian Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as Buddha, or fully enlightened one. He died around 480 B.C.E., and the canons are valued as his direct teachings.
Buddhist culture came to this country within the last 30 to 40 years, and the High Priest is glad to see that Americans are adopting Buddhist practices, such as meditation, for physical and mental well-being. Meditation is a great way to handle anger and reduce stress, he believes, therefore reducing stress-related illness.
"Our minds are like wildlife, goes here and there. With meditation practice, it becomes very easy to control. Anger makes everything worse. The wars in the world are from anger."
He describes a theoretical married couple having an argument about where to go to dinner. "It's easy for husband and wife to get angry at nonsense. Get fired up. But if we can control ourselves, let it go, that can solve problems."
Even five minutes of meditative thought at the start of the day and before bed is very helpful. "People have very busy, stressful lives. A little practice will help them to do things smoothly."
Despite the fact that Theravada is based upon 2,600-year-old traditions unchanged throughout the centuries, a major principle of Buddhism is impermanence, which has allowed it to adapt to the ever-changing ways of life, culture and society.
The monks' robes are a case in point. Though they follow the same design that has been used for 2,600 years, the Florida monks have modified the look: They've added a shirt underneath, so as to fit in a little better in a crowd. The robes' burnt orange or bright yellow colors represent the changing color of leaves as they fall away. "Everybody is getting older, dying. It's not a pessimistic thought, but understanding reality. A life without fear or worry."
He's asked how the average person can maintain this sense of calm in a time of crisis, when it seems the world is coming apart at the seams.
"There is bad in society, always has been," he answers. "But there are so many ways to do good, to make life smoother. We have to start from the self."
For each Curiouser profile, I ask the subject to tell me whose life her or she is curious about; the answer determines the person I'll be talking to next. The Venerable Kokkavita Wipulasara told me he's curious about the life of an animal rights activist. In the next Curiouser, I find out.