Sugunasiri, Suwanda H. J.

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Sugunasiri, Suwanda H. J.

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Suwanda Hennedi Jayasumana Sugunasiri, who initially went by Suwanda Hennedi Sugunasiri Jayasumana Silva until 1964, was born in Tangalle, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on 10 March 1936. His parents were S. H. Sauris Silva, an educator who was revered for reviving traditional dancing in Sri Lanka. He was educated at Ananda College, Colombo where his extra-curricular activities included playing cricket, serving as a lance-sergeant of the junior cadet platoon. In addition to being on the senior cadet platoon, he was a member of the Literary Union and the Buddhist Brotherhood. In July 1955 he began working for the Ceylonese government, first as a clerk in the Ministry of Education. In November 1957 he was appointed to the post of Sinhala translator in the Department of Information. From March 1960 to January 1962, he was a labour officer in the Department of Labour, moving on to become an assistant assessor in the Department of Inland Revenue from which he resigned in February 1964 to study literature full time.

He continued to develop his cultural interests, being active in literary circles and writing for Ceylonese newspapers, and acting in plays occasionally. He was a member of the Arts Council of Ceylon and an organizer of the Buddhist Scientific Society. To enhance his education he read widely and earned, in 1959 through self-study, a BA degree from the University of London (second class), specializing in Pali, Sanskrit and Sinhala languages.

In 1962 Sugunasiri enrolled in the Master’s program at Vidyalankara University (now the University of Kelanyia) where he studied literature and Sinhalese culture. For a year (1963-1964) under the pseudonym Madhupa (‘honey-sucker’), he wrote a column on art and culture for Sinhala daily, Dawasa. He also wrote feature articles in other journals and presented programs on Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation. In 1963 he married Swarna Bellana, a graduate of the University of Ceylon (now the University of Peradeniya). They eventually had two children, Shalin Manuja and Preeti Tamara, both of whom went into law.

In 1964 Mr. Sugunasiri was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, tenable at the University of Pennsylvania for one year. He left Vidyalankara University without completing his degree and headed to Philadelphia to study linguistics. Swarna and their son joined him a year later. The renewal of his United States Government Scholarship for the summer of 1965 enabled him to go to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he continued to do graduate research and continue work on his Master’s thesis. At the end of the summer he obtained permission to stay until September 1966, without funding. That was then extended for another year, during which his wife supported him by working at an office. He completed his MA in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania at the end of 1966. In July of 1967 he received a visa extension until late August to enable him and his wife to attend an International Student Camp in California. They purchased a car which enabled Swarna to learn how to drive, and in it they crossed the Detroit River to Canada as landed immigrants on 1 September 1967.

Professor Sugunasiri got a job as a research assistant at the Toronto Board of Education for one year before taking an English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching position at the Humber College of Applied Arts and Technology, where he remained until 1971. That year he received his Master of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). During this time, Swarna earned a second degree (BEd, University of Toronto, 1974) and teacher training certificate which led to a thirty-year teaching career in teaching English as a Second Language in the York Board of Education. When she retired in 1998, she was head of ESL at Weston Collegiate Institute.

The family then returned to Sri Lanka for two years, where Professor Sugunasiri lectured in Buddhist psychology, linguistics and second language psychology in the Faculty of Education at the University of Sri Lanka. Back in Canada, with his wife as the breadwinner for five years, Suwanda enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Toronto, earning his PhD from OISE in 1978. This was followed by an MA in Buddhism and the scientific study of religion in 1992, also from the U of T. He was also a founder of the OISE International Students’ Association in 1974, chaired UNICEF Mississauga in 1977-1978, and was founding president (1978-1980) of Samskruti Cultural Circle (Sri Lankan Canadian).

From 1980 to 1988, Professor Sugunasiri’s principal employment was as a secondary school teacher (ESL and English) with the Toronto Board of Education, first at Danforth Collegiate and then at the Jones Avenue Adult New Canadian Centre. He also held two positions at OISE: research officer in its Department of Adult Education, 1977-1981; and instructor in multiculturalism in its Department of Sociology, 1980-1982.

Later, at the Faculty of Education, he was summer instructor in multiculturalism and English linguistics from 1989 to 1991, and adjunct faculty in interfaith studies at the Toronto School of Theology from 1989 to 1993. In 1992, he became a research associate/sessional lecturer in interfaith studies in the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College. This position was upgraded in 1999 to Adjunct Professor. At Trinity he organized in 1993 and 1994 a series of “Seminars on Buddhism” and chaired a conference, “Buddhism after patriarchy” in 1995. In 1993 he also began instructing in Buddhism at the School of Continuing Studies. His involvement with teaching at the University of Toronto continued until 2008.

A strong supporter of multiculturalism, he worked closely with the Multicultural History Society of Ontario where, amongst other activities and beginning in 1978, he conducted a large number of interviews with immigrants from Sri Lanka. He served as an executive member of the Ontario Advisory Council on Multiculturalism and Citizenship from 1983 to 1988. For a time, he set himself up as a multicultural consultant, eventually under the shingles “Intercultural Associates” and “Buddhist Counselling and Consulting Services”. In 1991-1992 he served on the Interfaith Ad Hoc Committee on the Canadian Constitution. He promoted the idea of a Canadian anthology of multicultural literature. In later years he became critical of the divisive force of multiculturalism as it applied to the minority experience in Canada. He was a member of the Ontario Provincial Interfaith Committee on Chaplaincy, served on the board of governors of the World Interfaith Education Association from 1989 to 1991, and was governor of the North American Interfaith Network from 1990 to 1993). He was also an initiator and member of a number of groups and organizations that promoted dialogue between Buddhists, Christians, and Jews. Professor Sugunasiri also sought to promote Canada, especially amongst new Canadians. One way he did this was to join the Ontario Canada Day Committee in 1988, where he chaired its non-profit and cultural communities sub-committee.

Buddhism is central to Professor Sugunasiri’s being and he has actively promoted Buddhist projects in Toronto and the wider Canadian community generally. He was the founding co-ordinator of the Toronto Buddhist Federation that was formed in 1979 as an umbrella organization of the Buddhist groups in Toronto. In 1980 it gathered more than 1,500 Buddhists for the celebration of Wesak, the most important festival in the Buddhist calendar, with which he was involved for many years. It is said to be the first intra-Buddhist Wesak in North America. In October 1983 the Federation agreed to change its name to the Buddhist Council of Canada, which was formally used from April 1984. Professor Sugunasiri served as its president until 1991 when the organization collapsed after he stepped down. The Council was superseded by the Buddhist Communities of Greater Toronto (1990-1994) and, in 1995, by the Sangha Council of Ontario.

In 2010, Dr. Sugunasiri and several others reconstituted the Buddhist Council of Canada. He served as president and was very active in promoting the annual Wesak celebrations. He also curated an exhibition, “Windows to Buddhism in the Academy”, which was mounted in the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto in July and August 2013.

In the late 1990s Professor Sugunasiri also began to realize his dream of creating a college for Buddhist studies. He founded the Toronto (later Nalanda) College of Buddhist Studies, in 1999, serving as president (1999 -2001), secretary (1999-2000), and chair of its Board of Governors (2001 to 2008). He also taught at the College. From 2000 to 2002 he was an instructor in Buddhism at the Learning Annex, which offered live and on-line educational courses and workshops (it folded in 2007).

In addition to these activities, Professor Sugunasiri was a prolific writer, both at the popular level and in educational and Buddhist circles. He began early, in Sri Lanka, first to various publications and then as a columnist for Dawasa [‘Day’] from 1962 to 1964. In Canada, he wrote articles and pieces for the “Opinion” column in the Toronto Star and Saturday Magazine, from 1987 to 1994. He penned a column from the Buddhist perspective in the “Religious” section of that paper from 1996 to 1998. At the same time, he contributing articles and wrote letters-to-the-editor to the Globe and Mail and other papers. His contributions included discussions, mostly from a Buddhist perspective, on multiculturalism, citizenship, religious holidays, abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, the sexual abuse of children, and advancing the roles of women in society.

He has written, edited or translated over 15 books, written chapters in books, articles in refereed journals and more in non-refereed ones. From 1987 to 2011, he provided information for The Multifaith Calendar and also for calendars produced by other organizations. He has presented papers at numerous conferences, and has appeared frequently on Canadian radio and television, beginning with Radio Ceylon in 1960. With the advent of Utube, he found another outlet for his ideas.

Professor Sugunasiri’s cultural interests also resulted in dancing in ballets and acting in Sinhalese plays in Sri Lanka and Canada (some of which he produced and directed) and, early in his life, in ballets.

In 2015 Professor Sugunasiri and his wife sold their six-bedroom house at 3 Ardmore Crescent in Toronto where they had lived since 1986, and downsized. Professor Sugunasiri had dreamed of becoming a monk for many years, but did not do so until after his wife died in 2017. He now goes by the name Bhikkhu Mihita.

He is featured in Canadian Who’s Who, Canada at the Millennium, in Wild geese : Buddhism in Canada, edited by John S. Harding, Victor Sōgen Hori and Alexander Soucy (2010), June Callwood’s ‘National Treasure’ (TV), ‘To Canada with love’ (film), among others.


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Sugunasiri, Swara (d. 2017)

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Sugunasiri, Swara

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Sugunasiri, Suwanda H. J.

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Sugunasiri, Swarna (d. 2017)

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Sugunasiri, Swarna

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Sugunasiri, Suwanda H. J.

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