Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thero passed away in St. Petersburg on 12th December 2003 after a heart attack. Born on 24th April 1948, Venerable Soma was in his 56th year. He was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1974 at the age of 26.
Prior to being ordained Venerable Soma had been engaged in business, but had worked closely with the Siri Vajiragnana Dharmayathanaya as a student leader and lay preacher. His teachers were the most Venerable Madihe Pannaseeha Maha Nayaka Thero and Venerable Ampitiye Rahula Thero. His love and veneration for his teachers was exceeded only by his deep and abiding veneration of Lord Buddha.
Educated at Isipathana Vidyalaya, formerly Greenlands College, Venerable Soma, in lay life known as Somaratna played Rugby for the school.
Venerable Soma first visited Australia in 1986, when he came on an invitation from the Buddhist temple at Richmond, where he stayed for a period of three months. Venerable Soma realised that Mahayana practices had a strong foothold in Australia and felt that there was a need for a Vihara where Theravada practices could be followed correctly. When he returned to Australia in 1989, Venerable Soma established the first Sinhala Vihara in Melbourne. This was known as the Melbourne Sri Lankan Buddhist Vihara and was situated at Regent Street in Springvale. In 1993, he moved away from the Melbourne Sri Lankan Buddhist Vihara and established Buddhist Vihara Victoria at 21 Rich Street, Noble Park. Later, this Vihara was moved to Berwick and is called the Sakyamuni Sambuddha Vihara.
Venerable Soma was a farsighted person and his vision was to pave the way to establishing a centre of Buddhist philosophy in Australia. Sakyamuni Sambudddha Vihara was established with the intention of becoming a Buddhist Education, Research and Information Centre for scholars of the Dhamma and to cater to all those who were interested in the study and practice of the Dhamma.
In 1996 he returned to Sri Lanka after seven years in Australia. This was intended to be a short stay to revitalise his spiritual development and to be at the side of his father who had suffered a stroke. The stay was extended as his father became more gravely ill and his presence was required to comfort his mother who was also ailing. While in Sri Lanka Venerable Soma became aware that Buddhists and the Dhamma were increasingly under siege from various outside influences that threatened to distort the word of Lord Buddha and destroy Buddhism. He was moved by the plight of the rural people, especially those living in areas under threat from terrorist attacks, who were undergoing great hardship and suffering and had no one to turn to for help.When Venerable Soma returned to Australia for a short visit, he launched a campaign to raise funds to reconstruct several tanks in these areas so that the villagers could engage in their traditional occupation of agriculture and be assured that they would not want for food. To support and sustain the villagers, he organised the local Buddhist monks at the village Viharas to move more closely with the people and help them in various ways.
On his return to Sri Lanka he was also appalled to note that alcoholism was rife in the country. He immediately began a campaign to open the eyes of the nation, especially the younger generation to the depravities of drink.
He also carried out a campaign to root out misconceptions entertained by all Buddhists with regard to the worship of Hindu deities practiced by Buddhists, and especially the practice of having Hindu Kovils as an integral part of a Buddhist Vihara. He also campaigned against the bringing in of Sai Baba worship into Buddhism. These campaigns were not against those who held beliefs in other religions. His campaign was against engaging in these practices and beliefs and identifying them with the Buddha’s teachings. His message was that as Buddhists, we did not need to turn to any “higher power”, as the Buddha had shown the way to peace, prosperity and contentment through the Dhamma.
Venerable Soma Thero Venerable Soma was a great man. His greatness lay in the fact that he was not afraid to speak out where he saw a wrong. If someone engaged in practices that were contrary to the teachings of Lord Buddha, he was not slow to point this out at the same time explaining what practices should be followed. Many people have followed his advice and have profited from this. He worked tirelessly in Sri Lanka to awaken the nation, especially the younger generation, to the Dhamma. He travelled far and wide and everywhere he went his sermons were well attended. His sermons were generally held in a Vihara so that everyone who wished to could attend. Even the few sermons he conducted in private houses attracted large crowds some coming out of curiosity to see the Monk who, single handed, had succeeded in waking up a nation not only appealing to Buddhists, but also to many who were non-Buddhists but who were wise enough to understand the truth of his words.
When Venerable Soma spoke out he did so frankly and fearlessly. He did not believe in sugar coating unpalatable truths in order to spare the feelings of individuals. His forthrightness may offended some, but those who had the wisdom understood his message without ambiguity. Those who did not wish to hear the truth, found refuge in taking offence and finding fault with the Thero. In all his work, his inspiration was always Lord Buddha.
His deep and abiding veneration of Lord Buddha was evident in his words. His knowledge of the Dhamma was profound and was reflected in the many books he wrote. His final book was completed the night before his untimely passing away.
One of the most remembered of his qualities was his service to the sick. Whenever he learned of someone being in hospital or being very ill, he would make all efforts to be at the sick persons bedside to comfort the family and the sick person by chanting pirith and with encouraging words. If someone had lost a dear one, The Thero would speak words of comfort to help the person come to terms with his or her loss.
Venerable Soma had the courage of his convictions and would face any adverse situation strong in his belief that since his actions were just and righteous, he would win through. This courage helped him to face the darkest period of his life during the late eighties and early nineties in Australia. Many were the calumnies thrown at him during this time, but he forbore to answer those who maligned him. Realising that he could not be destroyed in this manner, one by one his critics were silenced or reduced to carrying out whispering campaigns, which more often than not could not be sustained due to lack of interest. Once his fame began to spread in Sri Lanka and many people came to know Venerable Soma, those who sought to discredit him found it was even harder to get people interested in what they had to say against him.
Being an outgoing person, Venerable Soma was one of the prime movers in the Interfaith group which was very active in the Greater Dandenong area. Realising the importance of networking, Venerable Soma set about building a network of contacts in the Springvale, later the Greater Dandenong Council, and also with the politicians of the area, at both the federal and state levels. Such was the strength of the ties his network that invitations sent out to participate in the Katthina ceremony, were always accepted and it was not unusual to have at least 20 to 25 people from the interfaith group, the council and federal and state MPs attending these functions. He also made appearances on ABC television as a panellist in discussions on theological matters to give the Buddhist point of view.
He was also consulted when Sri Lankans wished to establish a Vihara. He travelled to many cities in Australia to advice devotees on these matters. His advice was always to keep in mind that any Vihara should be open to anyone who wished to learn about and practice the Dhamma, and should not have a narrow focus as only catering to the needs of Sri Lankans. However, it was also necessary to ensure that the pristine Dhamma was followed and the traditions of Theravada practices were followed. He also helped in the establishment of the Sinhala School at Brunswick, which today boasts nearly 200 students.
Buddhist monks from the Vietnamese and Cambodian communities had become his close friends. Following his advice, they have within a short period constructed their Viharas and are close to completing these projects.
The contribution made by Venerable Soma to Buddhists the world over cannot be quantified. Through his frequent travels to many countries, he sought to teach the pristine words of the Buddha Dhamma to those who had forgotten or had never been given this valuable wisdom. He never sought self aggrandisement, whatever steps he took, was in keeping with his motive of furthering the good of the Buddha Sasana. His efforts in Sri Lanka had the effect of bringing to the fore several younger monks who found a champion in Venerable Soma. He gave them the courage to come forward and work for the betterment of the Sasana, which they had been unable to do, as they received no encouragement from the senior monks who had up to then been silent.
Sri Lanka has lost a son who loved his motherland dearly. The people have lost a leader who helped them to be aware of their great Buddhist heritage and made them realise their capability as a nation. Buddists around the world have lost a teacher who taught them how to make the Buddha Dhamma a part of their life and not limit it to something precious tucked away and limited to a temple.
As dayakas of the Vihara that Venerable Soma established, we should uphold Buddhist values in the way he showed us through example and precept, making sure that our actions are always in keeping with the Dhamma. This is the way in which we can alway honour our Soma Hamuduruwo.
In five years Venerable Soma achieved much more than many people achieve in a lifetime.