By Nellie Nakitende
Although initially Buddhism was a faith expressed mainly in Asian countries like China, Japan, India, Thailand and others, it has since found its way in Uganda, where several followers have embraced it.
ExposedUganda.com reporter Nellie Nakitende had an interaction with one of the Buddhist priests in Uganda, Buddharakkhita, who revealed how Buddhism came to the Pearl of Africa and here are excerpts from the interaction.
Buddharakkhita, who was born Steven Jemba Kabogozza, is the founder and Abbot of the Uganda Buddhist Centre and temple, and author of Planting Dalai Lama Seeds: The Emergence of Buddhism in Africa.
Born and raised a Catholic, Buddharakkhita converted to Buddhism in 1990 while studying in India, and has been teaching mindfulness meditation in Africa since 2005.
As the first Ugandan Buddhist monk, the most venerable Bhante Bhikkhu Buddharakkhita says his ambition is to train 54 novices, one for every African nation.
“I’m teaching Theravada Buddhism with African flavour to ensure people understand the Lord Buddha and don’t see it as something weird, foreign and Asian,” he says.
“The cultural and political leaders in Africa haven’t embraced this religion and philosophy of Buddhism. I don’t know if there is really any president, cultural leader or king in Uganda, and Africa, who has fully embraced Buddhism. If there is anyone who could do so, Buddhism would grow very fast,” says the 53-year-old from his hillside centre overlooking Lake Victoria in Garuga, about 25 miles (40km) south of the capital, Kampala.
“I’m looking at meditation practice and how it can heal intergeneration trauma,” he notes.
Buddharakkhita, who has since entrenched the Buddhist faith in Tooro Kingdom and recently visited Omukama Oyo Kabamba Iguru to explain to all that Buddhism entails, adds that; “Most people are traumatised. We have colonial hangovers and a lot of stuff is going on. Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar have no historical background of colonising African countries. If they had colonised us, they would have established Buddhism long ago. Those western countries that came and colonised us established hospitals, schools and introduced their religions.”
He explained that: “The first Buddhists came to Africa in 1925 and were brought by British people to build the East African railway in Tanzania. They stayed around, built one of the oldest temples and formed a single state Buddhist association.”
“We lack African monks who are well trained to teach and be torch bearers. In Uganda we are only two monks in a country of over 40 million people, Buddharakkhita goes on to elaborate, noting that; “I have a lifetime project to train a minimum of 54 monks in the next five years, so I send each to the 54 African countries to teach and spread the message.”
“I had an opportunity to study business at the University of Punjab in India. I always wanted to study business because of our family business background. Most of my relatives are involved in building and construction. My dream was to become a chief accountant.”
“But, after meeting the monks, I said: ‘Wow, these people are so peaceful.’ I really got attracted to them. I got very close to these monks and they became my only friends.
So the business turned into Buddhism. I found out that Buddhism brings more peace than business. But the two actually now go together.”
A monk for 18 years, Buddharakkhita’s training took him from India to the USA and Brazil before he finally returned to Uganda and established the Buddhist centre in 2005.
“The years have been a mix of challenges, humbling and blessing. Sometimes I felt a little bit of regret. But the challenges have taught me a lot about myself, human beings, wisdom and more determination to keep going,” he says.
“I have to make sure I teach to remove the misconception about Buddhism. People think Buddhism is Asian and Chinese, attached with Kung Fu, Taekwondo and Karate and not belonging or relevant to Africa, which is not true,” Buddharakkhita asserts.
He believes helping in the transformation of society, which is lacking peace, to a society which is happy. He engages in humanitarian, women and youth empowerment activities to uplift the people’s economic standards.
He has introduced a peace school, which provides education and clean water in the community around the Buddhist temple he established.
“At least 1,500 people are touched with our projects and I am trying to propagate the culture of peace,” Buddharakkhita explains.
In general, his role is basically teaching Buddhism through meditation, doing humanitarian activities that can help promote it, researching how Buddhism can be best introduced in the context of African culture, and publishing books so that this new tradition can be known in Uganda.
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