U.S. Buddhism Leader Havanpola Ratanasara Dies
Friday, June 2, 2000
Havanpola Ratanasara Dies
ELAINE WOO, Times Staff Writer
Havanpola Ratanasara, a monk who strove to build
an American style of Buddhism and led Buddhists, Catholics
and other denominations in interfaith dialogues, has died.
80, Ratanasara was believed to be the oldest Buddhist monk
in Southern California. He suffered from diabetes and heart
problems and died in his sleep last Friday surrounded by monks
in his apartment at the International Buddhist Meditation
Center in Los Angeles.
founded the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California,
an effort to unite Buddhists of disparate ethnic backgrounds
leading exponent of a "united Buddhism in America," he was
a co-founder of the American Buddhist Congress and served
as executive president until 1999. He also led efforts to
ordain women as Buddhist monks. "He was the glue in the Buddhist
community in Southern California," said the Rev. Kusala (Thich
Tam-Thien), a Buddhist chaplain for the University Religious
Conference at UCLA. "He was so concerned about getting people
together and talking. . . . It's a rare combination to find
a scholar-monk . . . with a political bent who could really
change the community he lived in."
was a native of Sri Lanka who immigrated to the United States
in 1980 and became a U.S. citizen. After undergraduate work
in Sri Lanka, he earned a master's degree at Columbia University
and a PhD in education at the University of London. In addition
to holding university positions in Sri Lanka, he was a United
Nations delegate for that country in 1957.
the United States, Ratanasara began to ponder how Buddhists
could join the mainstream of American society. Largely because
of immigration, the nation has the largest variety of Buddhist
traditions in the world, but Ratanasara saw differences of
language and culture as major obstacles to unity within American
Buddhism as well as to dialogue with other faiths. "How can
we become Americanized, yet hold to the core of Buddhism?
How can we develop an American Buddhism, which will be vital
and appropriate to this society and still retain our individual,
unique traditions?" Ratanasara asked in an interview several
1987, he and the Rev. Karl Springer, an American-born Buddhist
leader, led efforts to organize the American Buddhist Congress.
The national body, which weighs in on national debates from
a Buddhist perspective, represents members of many Buddhist
traditions, including Thai, Chinese, Korean, Sri Lankan, Tibetan,
Vietnamese and Cambodian, as well as American-born converts.
are 3 million to 5 million Buddhists in the United States,
about 500,000 of whom reside in Southern California.
served as Buddhist representative to Pope John Paul II during
the pontiff's visit to Los Angeles in 1987. He also was co-founder
of the Los Angeles Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue, a program pioneered
by the local Buddhist council and the Catholic archdiocese,
and a past vice president of the Interreligious Council of
past president of the Buddhist Sangha Council of Los Angeles,
which he organized in 1979, Ratanasara directed the most widely
representative regional Buddhist council in the country.
1988, Ratanasara and his colleagues took a bold step by ordaining
a Thai woman. The action revived a practice that had died
out centuries ago in Ratanasara's Theravada Buddhist tradition,
which is mainly practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and
than 150 monks and worshipers came to view Ratanasara's body
Wednesday at the Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood. "He was
like a father. He taught me to be a good monk," said one of
the mourners, the Venerable Havanpola Shanti, a nephew of
the Buddhist leader. Ratanasara is survived by four nephews
in the United States.
service will be held at the temple at 3 p.m. Saturday. After
cremation, some of Ratanasara's ashes will be taken to temples
in Sri Lanka.
founded schools in Sri Lanka, including Buddhist Studies International.
Contributions to support Buddhist Studies International can
be sent c/o the Venerable Havanpola Shanti, 933 S. New Hampshire
Ave., Los Angeles 90006.
writer Roberto J. Manzano contributed to this story.