Diversity in the composition of students and lecturers is one of the strengths underlying the foundation of the Centre of Buddhist Studies: local Hong Kongers, China, South and Southeast Asia, Europe, Canada, Cuba and the U.S. amongst others. The monastic members come from the main Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan. Theravada has been well represented in the past by a group of monastics from Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country but in fact has a thriving Buddhist community in the Chittagong Plains and the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Recently the Centre accepted its first monk, Ven. Buddhavamsa, from Rakhine State in Myanmar, another Theravada country. He is bright eyed with a mischievous whisper of a moustache just beginning to show above his upper lip. He became a novice at 12 years old and was fully ordained at 20. His reasons for becoming a monk follow a similar pattern as with many other monastics: personal familiarity with monks in daily life, a devotion to the study of Buddhist scriptures after listening to Dhamma talks, and a personal request to go forth into homelessness from his master.
Until 16, Ven. Buddhavamsa remained in his home town in Rakhine State studying Buddhist Pali texts before moving to Yangon to study English and Buddhist Scriptures. Upon being awarded a scholarship from Chiangmai University, he moved to Thailand for his further studies. He participated in a Buddhist Empowerment program in 2010 and completed his BA in Buddhist Studies at Mahachulalongkorn University in Ayutthaya in 2014.
Looking where to go next for his Masters, Ven. Buddhavamsa settled on the Centre of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong because of its “good reputation . . . would be a challenge for my studies at HKU . . . a chance to learn something else and meet different people from different backgrounds.”
Reminiscing about the programme, courses, professors, and classmates, Ven. Buddhavamsa had this to say: Buddhism and Society and Early Buddhism stood out, the former for its emphasis on cultural issues and the importance of ethics. He was also impressed by the professors’ detailed explanations and he found his classmates to be “friendly and helpful, studied very hard, and inspired me a lot.”
Referring to his learning experiences in Myanmar, Thailand, and Hong Kong: in Myanmar it was the traditional way, by rote and memorization – “no need to understand much”. Thailand provided a more gradual academic approach while in Hong Kong the approach is purely academic.
I asked him about his experience as a Theravada monk in Thailand and Hong Kong. The only thing he had to adjust to in Thailand was the necessity of wearing Thai monastic robes and shaving off his eyebrows. (In Myanmar, monks do not have to remove all facial hair). Sometimes he has felt “strange” in Hong Kong because it follows the Mahayana tradition and awareness of the differences found in Theravada is not well known by the local population. One time in a 7 Eleven he bought a lunch containing meat and the sales staff found this odd for a Buddhist monk, in the Theravada tradition there is no such dietary restriction. Another time a HKU student not recognising his Theravada robe asked whether or not he was a Buddhist.
Ven. Buddhavamsa has a two pronged approach to his future: academic and professional. He has decided to pursue doctoral studies at the Centre of Buddhist Studies in either ethics or doctrinal studies. He intends to return to Myanmar to teach English, Buddhist Studies and meditation to part time students at the temple in Rathedaung. He will also work with a group, the Youth Education and Development Foundation which gives financial support to high school students. “I want to dedicate my life to teaching and supporting students in need.