Sri Lanka native shines as professor
When Wijitha Bandara, visiting assistant professor in the religious studies department, was ordained a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka at 12 years old, he didn’t expect to become a professor in America.
After his mother died when he was 11, Bandara’s father asked him to become a Buddhist monk based on a horoscope which predicted he would become a great scholar.
“I started reading early, from a very young age,” Bandara said.
He was the only one of his seven siblings to attain a formal education. The others maintained the family profession of farming.
“Most of my time was spent reading and in academic life,” Bandara said. “And also, of course, in rituals and monastic duties.”
Bandara lived with hundreds of monks in a monastery for many years. While he was studying, he learned to speak five languages: Sinhala, his first language, Pali, the language used in monastic rituals, English, Sanskrit and Tamil.
“I tried to learn French, but I gave up — so hard,” Bandara said.
As he grew older, he also taught others about Buddhism, both in and out of Sri Lanka.
“I was teaching in South Africa for a year,” Bandara said. “There is a Buddhist monastic college run by a Taiwan Buddhist group — what you call Mahayanist Buddhist groups — so they asked me to teach there.”
While there, he taught many students who were later ordained as monks.
Bandara decided to leave the monastic life after more than twenty years.
“I was interested in pursuing graduate studies and so on,” he said.
After he left, he was asked to follow five Buddhist precepts instead of the hundreds of rules he had to observe as a monk. Currently, Bandara claims no religion as his own.
“No one can tell me I belong to a particular religion,” Bandara said. “But my birth certificate, of course, says I am a Buddhist.”
Bandara’s background in Buddhism doesn’t stop him from understanding and appreciating all of the religions he teaches. He first became open to other religions when he took a course from a Catholic father.
“He told me how to look at other religions, how to compare other religions,” Bandara said. “So with him I studied Christianity, and that was interesting, so then I thought I should read about other religions.”
He enjoys teaching many religions, but said his favorites are Buddhism and Islam. He also enjoys studying gender roles in religious cultures.
Bandara said he tries to teach his students to be objective when they study religion.
“I ask my students, ‘Just be careful,’ you know. Look at religions as they are,” he said.
Although Bandara earned a bachelors and masters degree in Sri Lanka, he also earned another masters’ and a doctorate of philosophy at the University of Virginia. Before coming to USU, he taught both there and at University of Mary Washington.
“It’s a sort of adventure,” Bandara said. “I wanted to see how things go, to kind of try to get a different experience. This is the first time I’ve been in this area.”
Bandara’s contract at USU will end at the close of the school year and many are glad he has come. Philip Barlow, director of the religious studies program and the Arrington Professor of Mormon History and Culture, contracted Bandara in order to fill a visiting assistant professor position while they redefined the position of REDD Chair of Religious Studies.
“Of the candidates who applied for that position, we found Dr. Bandara stood out in particular as one of the strongest candidates,” Barlow said. “We got to know him and admire his agility and intelligence and gracefulness in responding to questions and thought patterns about how he would go about his work here.”12
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