Revivalist of Buddhist liturgy

By Srimega Wijeratne, The Sunday Times, May 10, 2009

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- In his short period of 20 years as a member of the Buddhist clergy, Ven. Panadure Ariyadhamma Thera brought about a virtual revolution in Buddhist worship by developing a unique Buddhist liturgy which has lasted up to date.

<< Ven. Panadure Ariyadhamma Thera

He was responsible for popularizing Ata Visi Buddha Puja in modern times. The puja is the expression of gratitude to the Buddha and the Pipal tree that provided shelter for the attainment of Enlightenment. Sri Lankan Buddhists inherited the purported tradition when the right Branch of the original Bodhi tree was brought to Sri Lanka and planted as the Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura.

Ven. Ariyadhamma Thera composed the new liturgy of the worship of the Buddha puja. He referred to his Buddha puja as the Ata Visi Buddha Puja following the ancient Buddhist tradition of worshipping the 28 Buddhas who appeared in the past.

His sonorous Buddha puja performed mostly in the evenings with the Gilan Pasa composed of both Pali and Sinhala renderings was often a prelude to a learned Dhamma recital. The complete religious process took two to three hours and attracted thousands of devotees.

The most significant feature of the Ariyadhamma phenomenon from the early days was that large numbers of young people flocked to listen to the new Buddhist liturgy recited in his unique mellifluous voice. Tele-preaching was not widely available at that time and Ven. Ariyadhamma Thera resorted to radio preaching only on rare occasions. However, as a contemporary scholar described, "The Ven. Ariyadhamma conducted such series of Buddha pujas successfully in Divulapitiya, Kandana, Negombo, Chilaw, Nuwara Eliya, Matale and Galle. At Matale in 1977 a crowd of between 50,000 to 60,00 gathered. At Galle in 1978, the month long series drew crowds which the police finally estimated as 100,000". Ven. Ariyadhamma Thera selected themes that brought solace to the restless minds of the youth.

Even though he was the Chief Incumbent of Sri Sangha Bodhi Vihara at Gregory's Road, he dwelt in many temples as he did not want to develop an attachment even to one temple as 'my temple'.

Ven. Ariyadhamma Thera was born on June 21, 1940 in the village of Nalluruwa, Panadura, and named Buddhadasa Fernando. As the son of Buddhist parents, W.S. Fernando and Neli Fernando, he had his primary education at Nalluruwa Sri Sivali School and later at the Cyril Jansz College, Panadura and the famous Horana Vidyartha Pirivena. His avid keenness on Buddhist thought received a fateful boost when he was selected as a clerk at the Anuradhapura Preservation Board. He spent his spare time under the shadow of the Sri Maha Bodhi and Ruwanweli Seya in Anuradhapura.

His total immersion in the Buddhist sites of Anuradhapura and Mihintale impacted deeply on him. Right throughout his short life, he never failed to visit the Sri Mahabodhi in Anuradhapura and the Kaludiya Pokuna in Mihintale on regular meditational retreats.

In Anuradhapura, Buddhadasa Fernando decided to join the Buddhist order and on December 22, 1966, he was ordained at Kalapaluwawa Thapovanaya by Ven Kahatapitiya Sumangala Thera. The tradition and style of Ven. Ariyadhamma Thera when conducting Buddha puja were inimitable. However, a disturbing trend of interpolating Bodhi puja (worship of Bo-tree in place of the Ata Visi Buddha Puja) started to spread among the Buddhist worshippers, thus distorting the religious liturgy of Ven. Ariyadhamma Thera. He was not happy about the development as the Bodhi puja was performed more to bring worldly merit and avoid ill luck than attaining the bliss of emancipation.

Ven. Panadure Ariyadhamma Thera’s unexpected early death on May 27, 1986 at the age of 45 deprived the Buddhists here of a great exponent of the Dhamma. His mortal relics were enshrined in a small thupa at the Sambodhi Vihara at Gregory's Road after his death. But the thupa has been removed from the original place twice and been found discarded in an inaccessible corner of the outhouse of the temple. In my view this is an insult to the life of a great young Buddhist priest born to our generation whose memory should guide present-day Buddhists.

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