An unassuming villa in a bustling suburb of Dubai is home to the only Buddhist monastery in the United Arab Emirates, which since 2009 has become a focal point for the country’s burgeoning Buddhist population, currently estimated to number as many as half a million people.
Mahamevnawa Buddhist Monastery in the busy Dubai neighborhood of Jumeirah is something of an oasis of calm from the frenetic pace of the city outside its doors, and serves as a place of refuge and comfort for thousands of Buddhist in the emirate and further afield.
“I work as a quantity surveyor, which is very stressful,” said Sasika Ranasinghe, 34, a Sri Lankan national visiting the temple from the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi. “It is good to have a temple like this to release our stress. Our minds can get polluted—we get angry. So I come here to purify the mind.” (The National)
Clad in simple white garments, a women respectfully carries a metal bowl of water to the temple’s Bodhi tree, which she circumambulates in deep contemplation. “The Bodhi tree is a symbol of where Buddha became the enlightened one,” said 43-year-old Sri Lankan volunteer Susika Vishwanath, “It gives shelter and shade so we are repaying.” (The National)
Demographic data for the UAE is inherently fluid as a result of the country’s large expatriate community, which makes up the vast majority of the country’s residents. Islam is the official religion, with 76.9 per cent of the population identifying as Muslims, according to official census data for 2005. The UAE had an estimated population in 2018 of 9.6 million, up from 4.1 million in 2015, of which expatriates made up 88.5 per cent, while Emiratis accounted for just 11.5 per cent.
Of other religions practiced in the UAE, principally by expatriate communities, Christians represent an estimated 12.6 per cent, Hindus 6.6 per cent, and Buddhists 2 per cent, with other religions accounting for the remainder, according to the census data.
Mahamevnawa Buddhist Monastery is part of a Sri Lanka-based organization, founded in 1999 by Venerable Kiribathgoda Gnanananda Thero with the aim of benefiting all sentient beings by sharing the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. In addition to the main monastery in Polgahawela and 40 branches across Sri Lanka, the organization oversees a network of international branch temples in Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, South Korea, the UAE, the UK, and the USA.
Buddhists in UAE are largely expatriate workers from countries in Asia with large Buddhist populations, including China, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as a smaller number of engineers, company directors, and managers from countries such as China (including Hong Kong), Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.
The monastery in Dubai is open daily, but becomes particularly busy each Friday, when up to a thousand people from across the country visit to meditate, hear teachings, and make offerings. Buddhist visitors offer donations of food for the temple’s two resident monks, while the general upkeep of the monastery is sustained from private donations.
“We are away from our families, and this is the only place we can relieve our pain,” observed Sam Edirisinge, a Sri Lankan Buddhist who has been visiting the temple since it opened. “[The temple] gives us a chance to recharge our batteries.” (The National)
To maintain day-to-day operations at the monastery, Buddhist monks take turns to visit the UAE to perform pujas and give teachings. The organization’s founder Ven. Gnanananda, also visits regularly to maintain contact with the local Buddhist community.
“I am constantly amazed and truly pleased with the welcome that greets me every time I visit the UAE. It is encouraging to see hundreds of nationalities and many, many religious faiths not only co-exist in the UAE, but also thrive and grow here,” said Ven. Gnanananda, 57. “I see now that the tremendous growth that the country enjoys comes from accepting all these different faiths and nationalities. The UAE has chosen to welcome them and rejoice in them instead of taking the negative path of narrowness or rejection. The UAE has opened their hearts to us and for this, I will be eternally indebted to this country.” (Gulf News)
Such is the popularity of the temple, that a larger site is needed, and talks are already underway with the emirate’s government over the construction of a more expansive monastery, with some organizers expressing an ambition to build the largest Buddhist temple in the world, with the capacity to accommodate 10,000 people.
“There are around 150,000 [Sri Lankan] Buddhists living in the UAE and we have found acceptance here. I truly feel that the UAE takes tolerance very seriously—from the leaders of the nation, to the citizens of this country,” said Rubesh Pillai, a volunteer who manages the upkeep of Mahamevnawa Buddhist Monastery. “Let no one deceive another, nor despise anyone anywhere. Neither from anger nor ill will, should anyone wish harm to another. As a mother would risk her own life, to protect her only child, even so toward all living beings, one should cultivate boundless loving-kindness.” (Gulf News)
Exclusive: Inside the tiny Buddhist temple that serves half a million Dubai worshippers (The National)
UAE is not just tolerant, it is welcoming (Gulf News)
Getting to know Sri Lankans in the UAE (Gulf News)