U.S. Buddhism Leader Havanpola Ratanasara Dies
Friday, June 2, 2000

U.S. Buddhism Leader
Havanpola Ratanasara Dies

By ELAINE WOO, Times Staff Writer


The Venerable 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.

At 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.

Ratanasara founded the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California, an effort to unite Buddhists of disparate ethnic backgrounds and traditions.

A 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."

Ratanasara 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.

In 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 years ago.

In 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.

There are 3 million to 5 million Buddhists in the United States, about 500,000 of whom reside in Southern California.

Ratanasara 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 Southern California.

As 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.

In 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 Cambodia.

More 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.

A 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.

Ratanasara 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.

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Staff writer Roberto J. Manzano contributed to this story.