Most Ven. Phalagama Somarathana Nayake Thera
B.A (Hon), SADDHAMMA JOTHIKA DHAJA, SRI SADDHAMMA VISHARADA
The chief Sangha nayake of Great Britain & The chief incumbent of London Thames Buddhist vihara, Chief Incumbent Of Gampaha, Pahalagama Vidyaravinda monastery, Udugampoala Sudharmaramaya, Kirindiwita Viwekaramaya, Akaravita Ashokaramaya, Kerawalapitiya Shanthyaramaya & Kottegoda Siriwardanaramaya, The Founder of ”Pahalagama Sri Somarathana foundation”
In 1982 it would have been an almost impossible task indeed. No one could have foreseen any prospect, whatsoever, of success of such an ambitious venture. It could not have been anything other than a figment of imagination in the Venerable’s mind because, to set up another Buddhist Temple in London, was a task simply not financially feasible, at the time, when most of the Srilankan Buddhists, on whom the Venerable was heavily dependent for support, were young families recently arrived in the United Kingdom, with considerable responsibilities of setting themselves up in the host country and to provide for children of school going age.
The single most important step towards the realisation of the Venerable’s noble intention was made possible, when he received the invitation to move out of the London Buddhist Vihara, into residential accommodation provided by Mr. Oliver and Mrs. Vipula Fernando, living in South London. This move afforded the opportunity for the Venerable to live amidst the very heart of the growing need where it was most strongly felt. Living among this Srilankan Buddhist community, the Venerable was able to gauge the true nature of the ground swell of opinion and the inadequacy, which encouraged him to bring into the open, the idea that had been gestating in his mind since his arrival in England.
It was at this juncture, that the Venerable had the good fortune, to be introduced to the Members of the Sri Lanka Association South East (UK), an organisation formed by a well intentioned and determined group of Srilankans, to promote their heritage, culture, traditions and the religion of the majority, specially among the children, in conjunction with the host community.
The availability of this ready made Srilankan community organisation, greatly enhanced the Venerable’s chances of bringing the idea into the notice of a wider audience. The SLASE (UK) had the capacity and the wherewithal to launch wide ranging campaigns, convincing enough to plant the seed of the idea, to set up a Buddhist Temple in South London.
During this period, the Venerable, continued to attend, the Sunday school for children organised by the SLASE (UK) and to take part in religious discussions, pujas, and ceremonies, on a regular basis. From this gradually evolved a small but effective nucleus of Srilankan Buddhists, who were determined, to take the next step towards the founding of a separate organisation, to promote the setting up of a Buddhist Temple. This culminated in the formation of the Thames Meditation Society, at the Meeting held in October 1982, formally adopting a Constitution, the primary aims and objects of which were to provide facilities for the study and the practise of Theravada Buddhism in the United Kingdom. It was the late Mrs. Mallika Kotinkaduwe who proposed the prefix “Thames”, to complete the name of the organisation, “Thames Meditation Society.” Dr. Dinil Wickramasooriya, was unanimously elected as the Society’s President. It must be noted, in all honesty, that without Dr. Wickramasooriya’s commitment, dedication and support, this venture would have taken very much longer, to come into fruition.
Even at this initial stage, the Venerable had the wisdom and the foresight to insist that the lay organisation, the Thames Meditation Society, to be maintained as a separate entity, from the clergy, all matters religious and spiritual, which were to remain the sole responsibility of the Head of the Thames Buddhist Vihara and the resident Venerables. Looking back over the years, it is comforting to note that this single most important ingredient, the separation of the two distinct functions, guaranteed success and the smooth running of the Society and the Vihara, due to the impeccable judgement of Venerable Pahalagama Somaratana Chief Sanga Nayaka Thera.
There were obviously many obstacles to be overcome. Obstacles were in keeping with the enormity of the task, which many pessimists dismissed as only “building castles in the air.” The Venerable being an optimist by nature, and aided by the unstinting support of the President and the Members of the Society, moved the project forward, while providing counter arguments to all the negative opinions, and relentlessly pushing everyone towards the setting up of a centre, as an interim measure. This was eventually achieved, when the Society was successful in renting a shop, in Shooters Hill, South London, as a temporary home. Although not spacious enough for the requirements, nonetheless, the premises provided the necessary facilities and more importantly, the required impetus to concentrate the minds of the devotees to focus on the task of finding a permanent home, for the Society and the Thames Buddhist Vihara.
The happiest day for the Venerable and the Members of the Thames Meditation Society, was the day it was announced that the Society had secured a long lease of the former British Legion Hall, Dulverton Road, Selsdon, Surrey, from the Local Borough Council, with planning permission for the Hall to be used as a place of religious worship. At least a substantial part of the Venerable’s ambition was thus fulfilled and a notable milestone on the road to a permanent home for the Vihara, firmly established.
The Head of the Vihara and the resident Venerables moved into three make shift rooms, squeezed into the front part of the Hall, created by temporary partitions. There was no privacy for the Venerables whatsoever. The rooms were too small to live in. Nonetheless, the accommodation was sufficient to provide both a modicum of facilities for the devotees for the conduct of religious activities and residential accommodation for the Venerables. While managing to rough it out, the Venerables continued to perform their religious duties, and to cater to the spiritual needs of the devotees, whose numbers by which time had grown beyond all expectations.
The next major step towards the fulfilment of the Venerable’s vision came when 49, Dulverton Road, the semi-detached house next-door, became available for sale. The Society secured the `first refusal` on the property and the Venerable showed his true colours, his power of persuasion, his dogged determination to succeed, his ability to enlist the support of many, to raise £ 50,000 within a period of three months, towards the purchase of the property. The house has since being used to provide the much needed residential accommodation for the resident Venerables.
The new extension to the hall, the amalgamation of the two properties with additional residential accommodation, and the refurbishment of the premises, recently completed, with funds raised by the sheer hard work of the Venerable, now has facilities to meet the requirements of the devotees of the Thames Buddhist Vihara which has now evolved to be one of the principal religious institutions in the United Kingdom.