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Why I became a Buddhist

 The text of a lecture delivered by the late Mr. A. E. Buultjens B.A. Cantab. On 25th March 1899 at the Buddhist Headquarters, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Why I, though born and educated as a Christian, gave up my belief in Christianity.

Why I became a Buddhist rather than a Muhammedan or a Hindu?

I was born of Christian parents, amidst Christian surroundings and influences and associations. At that time the Christians of Matara, about 400 in number were divided into denominations, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian or Dutch Reformed Church, Wesleyan and Church of England.

Hence at about the age of one year, I was reported to have been duly taken to the Church of England by an admiring circle of relations and their friends and there handed over to the tender mercies of the Rev. Abraham Dias - a gentleman who is Sinhalese by nationality though rejoicing under a Hebrew and Portuguese name.

I am told that at his hands I duly received the rite of Baptism, a sign of the cross on my infant forehead with water, and thus I was stamped with the hallmark or rather the watermark of a Christian. Tradition dose not say whether I objected to this treatment by infant struggles and kicks, but I am inclined to think I protested by setting up a continuous scream and howling.

Till the age of 14 I remember I was under the tuition chiefly of Mr. R. H. Leembruggen, now government Inspector of Schools and of the Rev. J. Stevenson -Lyle. I recall these influences of early life, because the impression of that tender age often follows us through our life. The child is often father of the man.

Now Mr. Leembruggen was not a churchgoer, and was reported, in the family conversations of the time, to be an avowed free thinker and agnostic. He did not, I must say, at any time talk to the boys against the Church. But his example has had a great effect upon my mind - for all his school boys held him in the greatest awe and veneration as a strict disciplinarian of my other tutor, "Father" Lyle as he generally was known, I can recall strict high Churchman or Ritualist, and during the 6 months I was boarding with him, he impressed upon my mind the extreme importance of minutely following the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, of fasting on Saints days, of dully attending "matins" and "evensong" daily in his private chapel.

He was so pleased with my proficiency that on Prize day he presented me with a Book of Common Prayer and an imitation of Christ. "Father" Lyle was a man of strong determination, but somewhat impetuous.

He lived a life of self-denial and self-sacrifice. He was suspected at that time as a Jesuit agent of the Pope of Rome. A great controversy was going on in the Diocesan Gazette between the High Church and Low Church parties.

My father was a staunch opponent of the lighted candles, wafers and other innovations of "Father" Lyle and the High Church party. The opposition used to meet in my father's office for discussion and for indicating attacks upon the Ritualists in the Diocesan Gazette.

As a boy I used to listen in silence in a corner of the room to these discussions, and a spectacle of a Church divided against itself must have had a most edifying effect on my mind!

Shortly after Father Lyle seceded from his allegiance to the Bishop of Colombo and the Church of England, and "perverted" to the Church of Rome. With Father Lyle went Father Ogilvie and Father Duthy away from the Anglican to the Roman faith.

When I think today of the number of clergymen who helped to mould my mind, I am surprised that I am not occupying the pulpit of a church to defend the faith of the Church.

Rev. William Henley took me in hand in conjunction with Father Lyle. He was then fresh from England, and plain Mr. Henley, a schoolmaster. Of religion he taught me little, but I thank him for making me proficient in Latin Grammar and in the game of chess.

From the age 14 to 19 I was brought under the shadow, and influence of the Cathedral of St. Thomas' College, during the regime of Rev. Warden F. E. Miller and Sub-Wardens Rev. T. F. Faulkner and Rev. H. Meyrick. During these 6 years besides being thought the subjects required for the Calcutta and Cambridge Local Examinations, we were carefully drilled in an intellectual knowledge of the Book of Common Prayer and the several books of the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, together with a critical acquaintance with the commentaries and the original Greek of Gospels.

I devoted myself to these studies and obtained so great a proficiency that the first year I topped the list in the examination for the whole upper school and obtained the much-coveted Bishop's prize.

At this time, what with having been the first from St. Thomas' to pass the Cambridge Local - both Junior and Senior - and having passed in the Calcutta entrance in the First Class - I became the prime favourite with Warden Miller. During all these 6 years, according to the rules of the college for Boarders, every boarder is obliged to attend College chapel morning and evening, every day.

I had already some 3 years previous to 1884 - a year important in my life - received the rite of confirmation, or the laying on of the Bishop of Colombo on my head, as a token of my being confirmed as a member of the Church of England. And right here let me say that I do not acquiesce in the compulsory baptism performed on me "by pastors and masters" when I was a legal "infant". I denounce the practice and rebel against it as an infringement of the rights of the children.

I have started the foregoing by way of introduction, to explain the remote conditions and circumstances, which ultimately led to the position I took up later when I gave up my belief in Christianity. It was at St. Thomas' College itself that I received the first hint, that I entertained the first passing doubt, about the truth of Christianity.

It was to a book found in the library of St. Thomas' College that I attribute the first faint suspicion that what clergymen say, and the church teaches, is open to question. It was by reading this book that my faith in the creation and in a Creator received its first shock. The very foundation of the creed built on Faith was almost shattered by the sledgehammer arguments contained in the materialistic work I refer to - Dr. Buchner's "Matter and Force".

The book was ransacked from the mouldy and dusty shelves of the College library - and given to me by senior fellow student, Mr. J. R. Molligoda, now a distinguished and keen minded lawyer of Kegalle. We argued long and for several days upon the atheistic and deistic views of the universe.

I was a hot champion of Deism then, but my opponent was ever ready with calm retorts and replies. I was about 19 years old then, and from that time I was naturally opposed to authority and disposed to rebel against what people accept as gospel truth upon mere blind belief.

If I was at that time to analysed the state of my mind at the period under review - when I was between 19 and 21 years of age - I should say I still was a Christian, but gradually drifting away - or shall I call it, advancing from Christianity to Materialism.

In 1884 I won the University Scholarship of £ 150 a year tenable for 4 years open to the whole island and thus obtained a triumph for Warden Miller and St. Thomas' College.

I left for England and entered St. John's College, Cambridge University. While here, I met men of all shades of opinion, devout and staunch churchmen, Embryo clergymen sowing their wild oats while preparing for the Theological tripos to become full fledged Ministers of the Word of God, divinity students who were then being thought that the Bible was not an inspired book literally, but a historical account of the Israelites.

This was the advanced school of the Church, which changed its front to meet the onslaughts of Agnostics and Freethinkers. I met also a select number of Englishmen, who were avowed agnostics, and admirers of Huxley and Bradlaugh. The controversy of the former with Gladstone was then being waged in the columns of the exercised over the account of the creation in the Bible.

I had previously read up Physical Geography and Geology and obtained the mark of distinction in the former at the Senior Level. My mind was therefore prepared to accept the Nebular Theory of the formation of the world, and to give up forever the Christian theory of a 6 days' creation. Of course, Christian commentators and apologists of the biblical narrative interpret "day" as a period of time, but this was merely forced upon them in these latter days, after geological scientists proved beyond doubt that the world assumed its present condition after millions of years of natural phenomena.

A study of the strata of the earth, its fossils, the action of the seas, and volcanoes and rivers in moulding and shaping the earth helps greatly in modifying, if not completely altering, a belief in the Genesis of the Bible. Having once become convinced that God did not, as related in the Bible, create the world, I gave up one by one the fond and cherished beliefs of my childhood. It was a serious question to me only those who have experience in their hearts the throes of agony, which must be endured, alone and in silence, when they are compelled upon sincere conviction to give up beliefs, which they have hugged to their bosoms, know the pain when it becomes necessary to wrench those beliefs away from heart and mind. One by one every cherished faith was destroyed. I began to argue to myself: if the world was created by a merciful and infinite Being of tender compassion, why did he create a hell and a Devil. God creates everything. Why did a good God create Evil? Why did he create Pain and Misery?

The hospitals are filled, throughout the world, with disease, with sickening forms of leprosy. Christians say it is a punishment to them. Nonsense! Why should infants be born, some blind, some deaf, others with one leg, or one arm, and others idiotic? Why are thousands slain by a just God by volcanoes, by bubonic plague, by famine? If God were all-powerful and all merciful, he could easily have made the world without a devil, a hell and pain. But I suppose an ignorant man might say that the devil was made for the special purpose of tempting Mohammedans, Hindus, Agnostics and Buddhists and hell was made to put them in.

I regret to say that there are some Christians so bigoted as to think so. They rely upon the passage in the New Testament, which condemns all disbelievers and heretics for eternal damnation in hell!

While on subject of the creator, I may say that I received yesterday a letter evidently written by a Christian, requesting me to refute certain arguments against Buddhism contained in 8 pamphlets written some in English and rest in Sinhala, which he sent me. I replied that I would not have time today to reply to anti-Buddhist tracts which I had not yet read but that I hope at a future opportunity to give a lecture on "A reply to attack on Buddhism by Christian pamphleteers.

Today I shall touch upon one point mentioned in one pamphlet issued by the Christian Literature Society. The anonymous pamphleteer of "Buddha and his Religion" says at page 23: The existence of a Creator may be shown in the following way: Whenever we see order and means intended to accomplish some end, we are certain that they must have originated by the action of an intelligent being, and construction that we infer that it must have had a maker, who knew what it was for and designed its use. The different parts could not have formed themselves and come together. If the watch could have been so wonderfully constructed that it would produce other watches, this would duly increase our idea of the wisdom of its maker. The world we live is far more wonderfully formed than any watch - Therefore it had a Creator!

I am familiar with this argument. It is known among Freethinkers as Paley's Watch Argument of Design in nature. If a watchmaker makes bad watches, we call him a bad watchmaker. There is in this world on every side monstrosities, evil things, wild beasts, in the animal world, thorns and brambles in the vegetable world and poison, disease and insanity, misery and pain - A bad watch has a bad watchmaker, for no good person will create evil things.

Moreover the watchmaker makes his watch of wheels, hairspring, dial, hands and case; he puts together previously existing materials. He dose not act in the manner of a prestidigitator making the world out of nothing, for as the phrase goes ex nihilo nihil fit, out of nothing, nothing is made. Even supposing the possibility of a creation of the universe out of nothing, simply by an act of volition by an Omnipotent Being, it is a reasonable query to put: what was the creator doing before he made the sun and the moon and stars, birds if the air, and the fishes of the sea? He must have been existing in chaos doing nothing.

To proceed from this digression. Having given up my belief in a Personal Creator - an anthropomorphic God - I gave up prayer and belief in the Immaculate Conception of Christ - whom I regard as a divine and holy man. I refused to believe in the doctrine of vicarious sacrifice, which teaches that through the death of Christ we must receive pardon.

I also gave up belief in the doctrine of forgiveness of sins; for if there be no God, who will forgive sins? I would no longer believe in the abominable doctrine of eternal damnation in hell where shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Having thus given up intellectual assent to the teachings of Christianity, I considered whether I was to remain as many do, a nominal and outward Christian, or whether it was not more honourable not to act a lie? Was I to say that I was no longer a Christian, or was I to remain silent? I preferred to speak out. I was not alone in my agnostic views - several university men, Englishmen, especially those who were studying for the Moral Science and Natural Science Triposes, and some who were going in for the Law thought as I did.

I therefore determined to bring matters to a crisis, There was a rule in Cambridge that man should attend College Chapel at least five times a week. I gave up attending Chapel, and I was sent for by the Dean of the College. I believe his name was Dean Maitland - a liberal minded, tolerant and sympathetic man. I had an hour's talk with him. The following is the purport of his conversation:

"Good morning"!

"Good morning Sir".

"I hope you will be more regular at Chapel in future. Good morning!"

And with this he was going to dismiss me, as other men who cut Chapel were waiting to see the Dean. But I was determined to continue the interview.

"If you please Sir, I wish to talk with you about Chapel".

"Yes, what is it. Sit down".

I took a set.

"I don't like to attend compulsory Chapel. It dose me no good".

"Very well, I excuse you in future from doing so".

Having obtained leave keep away from chapel, on the ground that compulsory attendance at a Christian worship did me no good, I was willing to terminate the interview.

Not so the good Dean, who next addressed me not as Dean, exercising disciplinary authority over a college student, but a minister of Christ's church sympathetically endeavouring to guide back into the fold sheep which, in his view, was wondering astray.

"Now tell me if you have any further reasons why you do not wish to attend chapel".

"I would gladly speak out my mind, if in my position at College I would not suffer thereby".

"No I assure you that whatever you say will not go beyond me".

"Then Sir, I do not wish to shock your mind with my infidel and agnostic views".

"However much it may grieve me, it is my duty to hear your doubts, and try to set them at rest. In the course of a Clergymen's life, he has to meet with men with varying opinions, and it is his duty to guide them aright to God".

"I do not believe in everything written in the Bible, I do not believe in an eternal damnation in Hell and most of all I can not believe in a Creator".

"You have been reading Huxley and Bradlaugh?"

"Yes Sir, and I no longer believe in the Inspirations of the Bible, nor the Immaculate Conception, nor in the vicarious atonement nor even in the Divinity of Christ".

"I am grieved to hear this, Have you tried Prayer? God helps those who pray to him with faith and sincerity".

"Yes, I have been earnestly praying, but for sometime since my belief in God is lost, reason mocks at my faith and says that prayer in a non existent Creator is useless".

"Then I would ask you to consider the Christian family, what peace, what happiness is in the Christian Home! Have you not looked at it in the light?"

"Yes Sir, I can quite conceive that there is happiness in the Christian Home, where the moral teachings of Christ are followed. But I come from a Buddhist country, where Buddhist home would be just as happy, if the moral precepts of Buddha were observed. It would be same in a Hindu or Mohammedan Home, if the believers in those faiths followed the rules of their religion".

The above was, as far as I remember the gist of our conversation. The kind Dean talked with me for nearly an hour and at the end gave me book by Dr. Wace to read over carefully and to come to him again. I read the book, but it was unsatisfactory, for it started with the assumption of an Omniscient Creative God - which was just the very difficulty I felt of conception. In returning the book I stated that it did not meet my case, and so that matter dropped.

Henceforth I was an avowed Agnostic. But this made no difference to me socially in England, and though I had some agnostic friends especially among the Moral Nature Science men, yet the theological men who, knew my infidel views, did not "cut" me, and some of my best friends are now clergymen of the Church of England.

An amusing incident followed when it got about that the Dean excused me from chapel in future. A man of another college went up to the Dean and asked leave to keep away from chapel, because he did not believe in God. Said the Dean: "I will give you 24 hours either to find your God, or to find another college".

In common with a large number of Christians in Ceylon, I had been brought up in the belief that wickedness and crimes prevailed only, or especially, among the Buddhist or other "heathens", but that in Christian England crime was comparatively absent.

This was an argument from the practical aspect to Christianity. I do not know whether this impression prevalent in Ceylon was created by Missionaries, but I saw practical effects of Christianity among Christians in Christian lands.

I need not dilate the extreme wealth side by side with the grovelling debasement, poverty and misery with the East end of London. The object lesson of nighly dgbaucheries of hopeless drunkenness in the gin places, of the homeless and starving thousands, of the piteous cries of government, and the public demonstrations of dissatisfied socialists, all this was a picture I shall never forget.

Thousands of men, women and children have been huddled together at night, homeless, roofless, making their beds on the bare, grass-less snow-covered ground, with non to help them.

Could such things be in Christian England? The Bible says, "Sell all that thou hast and give to the poor". But amidst the squalor, misery and poverty of the Christian fellowmen, I saw the great body of the Christian Bishops and clergy complacently enjoying the luxuries of life.

Immense wealth was also spent upon grand churches, like the Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul's, while there was no money to feed starving poor. I witnessed the public send off young, zealous and enthusiastic preachers of the Gospel to China, to Africa and to India, in the midst of the plaudits and prayers of righteous Christian assemblies convoked by the Missionary Societies.

It seemed to me that practical Christianity was a mockery, for with the export of missionaries and Bibles, there was a far larger export of bottles and bullets, the one to kill the mind, the other the body. And all this from a town where, more than in any other place in the world, thousands of Christian women nightly sold themselves in open street prostitution.

I remember one occasion, when one of our leading Ceylon's lawyers, then on a visit to the modern Babylon, could scarcely believe his eyes when he first saw the stream of well dressed streetwalkers opposite the theatre at midnight. He wept to find that such things could be in Christian England.

The social evil is not confined to London alone, but is rampant and shows no signs of abatement in all larger Christian towns, notably at Liverpool, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and New Yolk. Universal love, friendliness, loving kindness, or however we choose to call it, is a firm ethical basis for human life beyond the confines of any religion, though

Just as a misunderstanding prevails in the East as to the vileness of man in ''heathen'' lands alone, and his virtue in Christian countries of the west, so is there a misunderstanding in the West as to the trials and troubles of missionaries sent to the ''heathen''.

I had to frequently assure educated and intelligent people in English that it was not considered a delicacy here when a roast missionary was served at dinner!

There were people still who believed that Ceylon was a cannibal island, and that missionaries have hard time from tigers, elephants, crocodiles and snakes. Evidently these stories were circulated to magnify the self-sacrifice of missionaries and help to fill the coffers of the Gospel Societies.

I pass on now to the time of my return to Ceylon. I had not been to a church for two hears for devotional purposes. The University Sermons I occasionally listened to, when preachers of note came to Cambridge, and their discourses were eloquent and interesting, and being unaccompanied by ceremonial ritual were attended by men of all shades of Ceylonese. For two years I had not attended a church except some in Holland and the Notre Dame in Paris for architectural beauty. Therefore when a few Sundays had passed in Matara without my accompanying my brothers and sisters to church, my mother enquired the reason of ungodliness in thus keeping away from the House of God.

I replied that the whole world was the house of God, and not only a particular building with four walls and roof. I was then looked upon as peculiar and strange, and she judged that something was evidently wrong with my upper storey, a doctor should be sent for to cure me - not as a medical doctor - but a doctor of divinity.

Accordingly one morning, the Rev. F.D. Edirisinghe came to see me. After preliminaries the following conversation ensued:

''How is it that I did not see you in church after you arrival?''

''May I inquire whether church going is essential for salvation?''

''Yes, you take part in the services, in prayers and in hearing sermons''.

"I prefer to read sermons in stones and good in everything''.

''But your father and all your people have been going to church''.

''Yes, so have I at the rate of twice a day, every day for six years at St. Thomas' College Cathedral. That would make a total, leaving off holidays of nearly 3600 church goings. Plus five times a week for one year at Cambridge, about 200. Grand Total 3800. If church going was sufficient I consider I have done my share to qualify for Heaven and I may be excused for the rest of my life''.

''But surely are you not a Christian?''

''Well, if you ask my opinion, I am not. Do you want me to believe in Noah's Ark and Jonah in the Whale's belly and several other fables?''

At this stage my mother, who was present at the interview, retired in disgust leaving the reverend gentleman and myself to a nice discussion, and so that interview terminated soon after.

It became noised about that an infidel was let loose on society at Matara, and I became a marked man-mod some said. Then some Buddhist friends met me, and enquired whether I would see a Bhikkhu on the subject of Buddhism. I consented and so in the company of Mohandiram De Saram Siriwardene and others I had a long talk with Bedigamd Ratnapala Unnanse at Weliweriya Pansala.

I learnt from him that Buddhism agreed with the agnostic view I held on the subjects of the Creator and creation, and that Buddhism does not want belief in Personal God. I learnt that the Christian doctrine of Soul was replaced by the doctrine of the Five Skandas, and that I need no longer believe in new souls being created by an omnipotent God for new-born infants, some of which ere to suffer eternal damnation in a hell created by the self-same God. I learnt from him the doctrine of karma, which, while contradicting the Christian theory of forgiveness of sins, satisfactorily explains the inequalities of life. The Doctrine of karma which, while contradicting the Christian theory of forgiveness of sins, satisfactorily explains the inequalities of life. The doctrine of karma, while doing away with the belief in the efficacy of prayer, teaches that man reaps the consequences of his own deeds, and must work out his own salvation.

In explaining what Christianity could not satisfactorily tell me, how the lunatic asylums are filled with the insane, how leper asylums and hospitals are filled with the diseased. Karma explained in a reasonable manner that every cause must have an effect, and that this great law rules in the moral world. I had several interviews with the monks and the more I learnt about Buddhism, the more did- I remain convinced of its truth. Why should we suffer at Adam's sin?

Karma teaches we suffer for our own mistakes. Why should we get pardoned by Christ's atonement? We must ourselves step by step, life after life, strive to reach the goal. Why should we believe in a soul manufacturer above, we are what we make ourselves to be.

How could a God, who is merciful and just, and who taught ''forgive your enemies'' have created a Hell and Devil? We make ourselves god or devils, and we make for ourselves a hell upon earth.

Buddhism agreed with Science in that force and matter are eternal and indestructible and taught law and order without a God, and transformation without creation. Especially was I stuck with the truth of the simple but profound teachings of anicca, dukkha, anatta, change, suffering, and non-ego.

Christianity is faith religion, Agnosticism a negation, Buddhism goes beyond Agnosticism in the affirmation of the Law of Karma, of Reincarnation and of Nirvana. Christianity in the ages past disgraced the teachings of Christ by wars, especially the Crusades, and by the tortures of the Inquisition, the rack thumbscrew and the flames.

Agnosticism was unorganised and until recently did not carry out in its name a philanthropic programme. It is only within recent years that agnostics have become propagandists, and taken active steps for the sake of humanity.

Buddhism has on the whole been free from leading and encouraging a wholesome persecution, and in the light of past centuries we know its only weapon has been appeal to reason and argument. Moreover Christianity is fetishism and unphilosophic. Agnosticism is destructive of Christianity without being mainly constructive. But Buddhism is analytic and philosophical while being humanitarian and practical. Christianity merely teaches a form of morality, without touching the domain of mental science.

But Buddhism besides being a moral, is in its higher aspect essentially a mental and spiritual philosophy. I felt that Agnosticism -as a mere negation - was unsatisfactory not only on who moral plane as guide in life, but also on the mental plane in the explanation of the problems whence we come, whither are we going?

The reasons stated above explain why I became a Buddhist. It was because I was conscientiously convinces of the truth of Buddhism. I asked myself reverently in the silence on the heart whether I was to declare myself a Buddhist or not.

At the time, in 1888, Buddhists were looked down upon, even more than they are now, by the more enlightened, or rather more civilised, society people who were Christians. The Buddhists were numbered among the more ignorant and lower classes. I know that social ostracism would follow, as it did.

So one day in 1888, I went with the above named Buddhist gentleman and others to the temple on the full mood day, and publicly declared myself a Buddhist by reciting the Tisarana and the Panca Sila.

As long as I was a Freethinker, I had been tolerated in Christian Society which merely regarded me as an eccentric, but When in 1888 I became an avowed Buddhist, I was looked upon as worse than a lunatic. And this was not strange, for Christianity was respectability and Buddhism was the religion of the ''ignorant natives''.

Christian parents and Christian College had educated me to defend the Church, to learn its respective arguments against other sectarian schismatics. Hence my lapsing to Buddhism was a ''wretched fall''

God made man, it is said and gave him brains to think, and when he thinks and reasons and becomes a Buddhist, then God damns him for thinking with the brains he gave him. But it was when, at the end of 1889, I was offered and accepted the headmastership of the Colombo Buddhist School, that the vials of wrath were poured on my head by Christians, and particularly by Christian ministers of the Church of England.

I had braved the Church, and so every Christian door was shut, every slander was open for social ostracism. I was, in their eyes, a viper and a scorpion. The first arrow of malice was shot at me by the Rev. E. F. Miller, Warden of St. Thomas' College, my old and respected tutor. The two letters from him that follow show his attitude towards me before and after I became publicly a Buddhist.

Letter A

St. Thomas' College


6th February 1888.


My dear Buultjens,

I am sorry I missed you this morning, We shall be glad to see you tomorrow afternoon at 4.30, if you care to come up to the gathering of Old Boys.

Yours affectionately,

Sgd. E. F. Miller


Letter B was in reply to a polite request enquiring for the reason who the Warden had removed my name from the panels of the Library of the College - as it was special distinction in secular school subjects that had justified the college ID putting up my name first in more than one panel.

Letter B

St Thomas' College


February 19, 1890.

My dear Buultjens,

It is, alas easy to answer your question. Your name has been removed from the panels of the Library, because you have apologised from the faith of Christ. The College was founded to maintain and spread the faith and you, having been baptised into that faith have now deserted to its enemies. Would you have me retain the name of a traitor among those whom the College delights to honour?

Yours sorrowfully,

Sgd. E. F. Miller

The characteristic Missionary- Christian act of the Warden in removing my name from the panels was approved by the Bishop of Colombo to whom I appealed. They thought to dishonour me, but they have only given public exhibition of Christian hatred and intolerance of which I hope they are proud.

In conclusion, I would like to mention a personal anecdote to illustrate how certain clegymen of the Church of England regard Buddhists. It was in connection with the Rev. Abraham Dias, the minister who baptised me in my infancy. I met him one day, after many years, at the Pettah Library, and wished him a good afternoon. He recognised me and the following dialogue ensued:

''How are you getting on?''

''Quite well Sir, thanks''.

''I hear you are at the Buddhist School''.


''Are you a Buddhist?''

''Then you will go down straight to Hell''.

''My dear Sir, are you so very cock sure of Heaven?''

Exit the reverend gentleman, tottering with old age.






Articles Index

Venerable Ajahn Sumedho in Sri Lanka

By Nan

The most appealing feature of Venerable Sumedho's discussions is his constant reference to his own learning experiences, his mistakes, how he figured things out.

Reading that sentence I find it could be misunderstood, hence it needs qualification. Ven. Sumedho's reference to his learning experiences are made in the humblest, most matter-of-fact manner, merely to illustrate a point.

That appeals to me as it must to many others, since here is a meditating monk, the head of many vihares spread in Britain, Australasia and continental Europe, conveying the fact that he is still learning, and that he had a difficult time meditating and disciplining himself at the beginning. So we relate, a bond being instantly forged between the one who succeeded and those who are still struggling.

Ajahn Sumedho is on a visit to Sri Lanka to participate in the commemorative ceremonies organised by the Sambodhi Vihara in memory of the late Most Venerable Piyadassi Mahathera. The vihara arranged for meditation discussions on the Tuesday and Wednesday of this last week. Crowds gathered to hear him; to clear their doubts about their own practice and to spend two quiet hours on the two evenings. It was inspiring seeing monks, both foreign and local, gathered in the hall of the Sambodhi Vihara which had people overflowing onto the verandahs.

Training in Thailand

In 1964, after completing his university education, a young American went to Asia, maybe in search of truth, the need arising from disillusionment with the material world. Two years later he was in north east Thailand in the forest monastery of the Venerable Ajahn Chah, renowned meditation teacher. The struggles he had coping in a far-away forest monastery, with aversions, doubts and difficulties to contend with, must surely have been great. But he persisted and was ordained a monk in the Theravada tradition, taking the name Sumedho.

One instance of rebellion, among many probably, was his watching aghast as 18 young monks rushed to wash Ajahn Chah's feet whenever the venerable returned from a visit outside the monastery. Not for me this nonsense, would have been the young, recently-robed western monk's thought. Ajahn Chah looked him in the eye compassionately as he sat stubbornly when all around him were paying obeisance to the head abbot. Finally as a test of his repugnance, he decided to join the others. That day 19 monks rushed forward to wash the head monk's feet. Surprisingly Ven Sumedho found he quite liked paying respect in this manner. That evening Ven Ajahn Chah spoke with him, completely in understanding. He continued washing the head abbot's feet with greater respect and dedication. Another learning experience had been successful.

Move to England

The English Sangha Trust, established in 1950, requested Ven Ajahn Chah to set up a meditation and training centre in Britain. The monk selected his pupil, Ajahn Sumedho, to head the project. Protests of being unprepared were not accepted. Thus a small centre was established in Hempstead in 1977, under the leadership of Ajahn Sumedho. Two years later the gift of 108 acres in the forests of West Sussex was accepted and so came to existence the Chithurst Vihara. As the years went by more and more monks, nuns and meditators came to the two viharas, Amaravati Buddhist Centre in Hemel Hempstead was extended, and continues to be expanded, to accommodate the ever growing demand. Sri Lankans who have visited Amaravati - translated: Deathless Realm - say how wonderful a place of retreat it is.

Once in a while Ven Ajahn Sumedho visits Sri Lanka and we are blessed. He believes, we presume, in the renewal of religiousness by visiting places of veneration such as the Sacred Bo Tree in Anuradhapura.

His Ideas

Great learning, mastering the Abhidharmma, studying the suttas in depth are not Ven Sumedho's prescription. What he stresses is that one must experience by constant effort and sustained practice the very essence of the Buddha's message which is that life is unsatisfactory, living dukkha, and that there is a way out: the first two Noble Truths. Then would come, slowly but surely, the realization of anicca and anatta. This fact appeals to us, those who have no formal education in Buddhism. It is self effort that is need to experientially arrive at the truth of life through the path practised and prescribed by the Great Teacher - Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha.

Thus Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice are brought to a manageable level, an appealing target since it seems reachable by the likes of those devoid of great learning and ignorant of the Abhidhamma.

Rites and rituals are not encouraged but the Ven monk did say they chant, and chanting preceded the two day's guided meditation and discussions.

Questions and Answers

Questions asked on Tuesday centred on meditation practice. "How does one proceed from samatha to vipassana? Has there to be a deliberate switching over? What deliberation, thoughts and determination should accompany the transfer."

"None" replied the venerable monk. "Let the meditation flow easily. From calm one will move to insight if one is practiced and ready; if one is relaxed, concentrated and happy".

Happiness seems to be very important to Ven Sumedho, as it should be to all of us. Buddhism can be interpreted as pessimistic and the feeling conveyed and acquired that one must move through life with sorrow and a long face. Not on your life! The Buddha was, we are given to believe, so happy and so friendly. So is Ven Sumedho, laughing loud and clear and advising we shed onerousness to be relaxed and happy with ourselves and the world around. Many of our monks too are thus. Now we talk and even share a joke with them, with due respect but on level as it were. No wiping smiles and ease off our faces when we address a monk. This is how it should be. Greater relaxed interpersonal relations between lay people and monks will mean better rapport, greater understanding of what they teach us, ultimately to our great benefit.

Ven Sumedho stressed on concentration on one's posture and breathing. Meditation is so important. Accepting through experience and realization the first Noble Truth is the initial step to getting on the Path leading to ultimate deliverance from the samsaric cycle of rebirth and suffering.

Sunday Island - 10 Dec 00






Articles Index

SWRD Bandaranaike: "Why I became a Buddhist" 

"The requests made to me to deliver and write articles on this subject have been numerous. I have been very reluctant to accede to these requests because a man's religious convictions are surely one of those very personal matters that he shrinks from exposing and parading before the public gaze. However much a man's life may be public, there are always certain hidden reserves of his mind and heart that he likes to keep to himself, which indeed it is right that he should keep to himself. But I suppose there are rare occasions when the veil may be rent from before the holy of holies, and it is in that spirit that I proceed to a dissection and analysis of the innermost workings of my mind and heart on this theme. I hope to conduct that operation in as dispassionate a manner as possible.

My parents being Christian, I was duly baptised into the Christian faith. I cannot recollect that my wishes were consulted in the matter; indeed, it is open to doubt whether at the tender age of a few weeks I would have been able to express an intelligent opinion, if I had been consulted. I went through the usual training of the average Christian child. But even at this early age I suffered from a peculiar disability. While acquiring for Christ a sort of personal affection as towards a kind elder brother to whom one could pour out one's troubles, I never was able to attain a conception of God the Father. My prayers were all really addressed to Christ: God had no real meaning for me. This trouble, far from disappearing, increased with the growth of my mental powers, until, about the time I left school, I was in sore straits. I now realised that the foundation of Christ's teaching was the love of and complete surrender of oneself to a personal God, and through the love of Him, the love of one's fellow men. Now, I was able to love Christ as a man, but I was utterly unable to accept or surrender myself to this god. But could I believe in Christ, and not believe in his God? That was my dilemma. I even gave up going to church, as I felt that in the circumstances, it would be hypocritical to do so. However, at this time I was content merely to drift without actively meeting a solution of my difficulties: my mind was not yet sufficiently mature. Desultory reading at Oxford tended to confirm, rather than dissipate my doubts. I became convinced that the idea of God was really subjective and not objective: that man created God and not God man. Added to the usual arguments that are adduced in support of this view, I was powerfully influenced by the history of the growth of the theistic idea, as I conceived it.

The rationalist view that religion originated in a fear of the unknown is, no doubt, partially true, but it is not the whole truth. We have in my view, to go to life itself for the real reason. Now it is a scientifically provable fact that life is continually devising and adopting means of protecting and fostering itself -- the sexual instinct, the protective colouring of animals, and many more examples will readily occur to the mind.

Now amongst all living things that in many ways have so much in common, it i significant that man alone possesses the religious idea. For man alone possesses a mind that apparently makes some sort of religion necessary for comfort, happiness and progress of the human race. He sees various phenomenon about him, which he cannot understand. Being gifted with imagination and a highly developed power of reasoning, he cannot rest satisfied unless he finds some kind of explanation for these things. Moreover, these phenomena, which he can neither cause, control, nor prevent, wield a great influence over his prosperity and happiness. He brings his thinking mind on the subject, and tries to devise some method to effect that control.

Lastly, as the natural tendency of man is perhaps well expressed by the saying 'home homini lupus' -- if the great powers of the human mind are brought to bear, without any check, on one's task of mutual destruction, humanity would soon disappear. Religion in some measure provides check. To sum up, human life has evolved the religious idea for its own protection and furtherance just as animals have evolved a protective colouring.

This does not mean that religious belief need necessarily be false, but that owing to the subjective element in it there is a probability that certain beliefs, at least, are false, and that we must each, individually, submit any particular belief to one's test of such reasoning powers as we possess, before accepting it. It may, of course, be urged in favour of blind faith, even on the rationalist principle, that what is important is not so much that a thing is true but the belief that it is true. And doubtless this has enabled many religions to jog along fairly comfortably hitherto. I do not consider it necessary to pursue that argument further. Let us pause now, and see how the arguments mentioned above apply to the origin and development of the theistic idea.  

Early man, seeing certain things happen about him -- the sun shining, the rain falling, etc. -- which might, in certain circumstances, be beneficial or the reverse to him, tried to discover a method of controlling them to his own advantage.  

The method he found was magic. Later, as he grew in power and security, and began to realise his own superiority to the other living things around him, he probably argued in this way: "There are many things that I can do that animals, for instance, cannot do. I can build a substantial house to protect myself form the elements. I can fashion weapons, I can till and cultivate fields. But there are certain things that even I cannot do. I cannot make the sun to shine or the rain to fall. These things, therefore, must be done by some being superior to myself, and as man is the greatest living things I know, they must be done by beings like myself, but with superior powers."  

That, I should imagine, was the age of polytheism. Later, still, with the development of the village community and city state, the conception of an ordered State of the Gods arose. An example is Homeric theology, with the idea of a chief and chieftains of the community, the blacksmith and other artisans and so on. The final stage was the conception of a single omnipotent Being. But here too, it is significant, as Bernard Shaw points out in his Black Girl, that this being gradually develops, in the Bible itself, from a wrathful, jealous, tyrannical God to one who, in the gospels is all merciful and all loving.

The theists may, of course, urge that those various ideas are in due to a struggle on the part of man to discover the truth which gradually revealed itself till the final all-illuminating revelation. The first difficulty about this argument is this: what proof have we that our present conception is the truth, that it is any more true than its progenitor, Polytheism.  

Secondly, the fact that mankind's conception of God seems to have changed with his environment and state of culture and civilization is too remarkable to be a mere coincidence. For my part, I am overwhelmingly convinced, for the reasons mentioned, that man has created God for his own purposes.  

When I reached this point in my thinking, three courses were open to me. I might, as some Christians do, have salved my conscience by twisting Christian doctrine to suit my conscience point of view, and continued nominally to call myself one. I was too honest with myself to do that. Another alternative was to declare myself rationalist. This I was unable to do for the following reason. Although I could not believe in a personal God, I did believe in some kind of continuance, a struggle, evolution towards a final goal. Just as higher bodily powers have evolved from lower ones thorough millions of years, there surely is a similar evolution of the spirit of life-essence, or whatever one likes to call it. The history of mankind itself, the painful and laborious struggle, forwards and upwards, out of the dark abyss towards the sun-lit heights above through aeons of time, leads me to this belief. All I can say is that I personally was convinced of this continuance. Thus, while disbelieving what is the foundation of the theistic religions, the existence of God, I believed in a vital ingredient of all religions, the fact of some continuance.  

My third course was to find a religion that satisfied my needs. Buddhism alone has been able fully to do so. Its doctrine that there is no need for man to depend on the will of God, whose favour he had to seek and whose wrath he had to fear; that man must work out his salvation himself, appealed irresitibly to my own mentality. Similarly, the continuance and evolution contemplated in the Dhamma exactly coincided with my own views.

Although these are the most important, there are certain other reasons that attracted me to Buddhism. It will have been observed that although I could not love a God, I could love a man, and the Lord Buddha was just a man, like the rest of us. Indeed, he was very human; how touching is his reluctance to look upon his newborn son, once his great resolve was made, lest the infant might close his little fist about his heart-strings and pull him back.  

Again, Gotama's approach to his problem had a strong appeal for me. All the fine spirits throughout history have been conscious of the sorrow that lies forever at the heart of the world. If I may mention two names at random, Virgil was conscious of it, and so was Hans Christian Anderson who, by a strange irony, wrote stories for the delectation of children, for, as George Gissing says of him, beautifully, "Every page is touched with the tears of things, every line, melodious with sadness."  

Gotama realised the fundamental truth of the existence of this sorrow, and the ultimate goal as its removal. In expounding his doctrine for this purpose, He makes no extravagant claims on our faith, but wishes every teaching to be tested by the reasoning of each of us, before acceptance. It is only left for me to say that the Buddha Dhamma has emerged triumphant form the test of my reasoning.

I have now torn the veil from before the holy of holies of my mind. If those, who peer inside, see anything there of profit or help to themselves, I shall consider myself amply rewarded."

Sunday Leader - 6 May 2001






Articles Index

A meditator and her dogs

By Nan

This lady I write about is perceptive, extra perceptive and very much in the Dhamma. She has now given up most connections with the world and lives in a small annexe overlooking the river Mahaveli, a couple miles from city of Kandy in Sri Lanka, built to her by a generous couple. She is most times alone since the benefactor couple visits very rarely. She is content, and that is obvious.

The lady had been a university lecturer and came with her husband to Sri Lanka. Once her husband died, she become progressively more reclusive until now she shuns the buzz of ordinary life and meditates and lives a life of contentment, with her dogs. A daily help cooks and does the minding of the annexe, while an old faithful tends the garden - a wonderful mix of flowers and leafy plants stretching right down to the river. During the sudden curfews of JVP times, this man had swum across the river - then in spate-fearing she had no food in the house. His loyalty is because she is so good to him, and caring.

Unusual Initiation

Her interest in meditation was psychic. Her husband and she had been touring India when they both felt impelled to visit a certain place, unknown to them but suddenly heard of, They went there and felt immediately comfortable, as if they'd lived in the place together. The lady sat in the shade to rest awhile and soon was in an absorbed state of concentration. Her first experience in meditation, immediately leading her to a jhanic state. Her husband and she had been interested in Buddhism, but intellectually, having read widely. Now they were convinced Buddhism had the answers to the unsatisfactoriness of the life and the tedious multitude of rebirths.

She lives alone, as I said. This however in not the truth since she is completely surrounded and even dominated by her dogs. They have been thrust upon her - strays and rejects dumped at her gate, the dumpers knowing full well she'd take them in and give them a good home. She says they are the last she will keep. "I cannot continue this attachment. I am old and I cannot take responsibility for others. These four may die before me. Even otherwise they can survive - I have provided for them."

She is prepared for death and says it matters nothing when and where, even how and of what she dies. She wants, as all of us do, a quick release from this samsaric existence to the next, which will bring her closer to ending it all.

Reborn and Reunited

One dog has a history. The lady says she is a former pet reborn and come back to her. Suzi was a lovely dog whose greatest pleasure in life was watching squirrels. She'd sit quiet and sphinx-like observing the squirrels playing around in the garden of the flat she lived in then. Suzi died and a couple of months later the lady moved to the present place above the river. Reptiles, birds, lizards and even wild boar are seen in her garden, but strangely no squirrels. One day, returning from Udawattakelle where she'd gone to meet the Ven. Nanaponika Thera, she had a black dog bounding towards her. Her mind instantly went back to Suzi and for a second she hallucinated it was Suzi that was tearing towards her. Soon enough she realized this was a pup so like Suzi.

She took it home, of course, and named it Kelle since she'd found her there. The three she already had took the newcomer very willingly to the menage.

The rebirth conjecture was confirmed one day. The lady found Kelle on the ground - silent, barely breathing, lying very low and looking up. Two squirrels were on the roof and running along the edge and there was Kelle gazing at the creatures, as Suzi was wanted to do. People too mistook Kelle for Suzi; even the vet.

We spent two days in the house attached to the lady's annexe and had frequent visitations of the four dogs. Rosie was Licker to me. She was shaggy with long hair and made a beeline to each of us. If we were seated she'd conveniently lick our faces and hands; if we were standing she'd stand on her hind legs and stretch up to do her licking. She never took no for an answer and never guessed our reclining backwards was to save us from her hyperactive tongue.

The dogs protected her, the lady said. They were always with her and slept together in her twin bed. If she was not feeling well, they'll loll around, silent and concerned with extra licks from Rosie and nuzzles from others. When recovered they'd tug at her to take them for their walk down the hill or along the road.

One day they'd heard one of the dogs howling in pain. Soon enough Kelle came along in an urgent hurry and tugged at the lady's hands. She knew the dog wanted her to follow her and was soon led to Tina caught in a trap set for wild boar. She and the gardener manage to set Tina free.

It was Rosie who tugged at the gardener next. Led by the dog he found another trap concealed in the thicket by the river bank.

The lady's theory is that the four dogs are definitely in the samsaric cycle of births and deaths and would be born to a human life to work out their deliverance. Past karma or even good karma made by them would surface to lead them at death to a human womb. These dogs seem to have the good karma to have a shorter spell of rebirths in the animal world.

I remember the venerable monk from Singapore who used to visit Sri Lanka some years ago, saying a human would not and could not born in the animal kingdom at a very low level-worms etc. He said the lowest we could go to was to a mammal birth - dog, cow, elephant, etc. Stories however abound of ancestors born as toads or cobras who proprietarily stay close to the house they dearly loved. Coincidental or reborn owners come back to protect the property they loved too much and clung to?

The samsaric cycle works according to set rules - one's karmic force determining the next birth. Often it seems inexplicable but there is an underlying order, most definitely. You reap as you sow. Otherwise how explain an American woman's odyssey to Sri Lanka and Buddhism.

She has been sent as a very young girl to a Christian Sunday school. The teacher had given the class 24 scripture verses to learn and promised a gift for each verse learnt. The girl being extra ambitious and precocious, had learnt all 24 verses. She recited them the next Sunday and expected the promised reward; 24 gifts. She wasn't given even one! Disillusionment was instantaneous, bitter and ever lasting. Her parents tried getting her into Roman Catholicism, with another disappointment for the young girl. She found Buddhism totally rational, totally acceptable, and totally satisfying. She is in the Dhamma and has lived it for the last 15 years. 

Who knows death of beings

And birth in all aspects

No bonds - well gone -all knowing

Him will I call a Brahamin 


The Island - 27 June 99






Articles Index

Canadian monk's way for peace of mind

by Kirthi Abeyesekera

In the backyard of a Toronto home, a Canadian, Theravada Buddhist monk sits cross-legged on the grass. Before him, is his alms-bowl. With a gavel, he gently taps the bowl, chanting, 'Ohm; Ohm.' A chorus of voices responds; 'Ohm, Ohm.' Then, for 15 minutes, they close their eyes in meditation - and all is still. Punnadhammo Bhikku, as he is known, is on a visit to Toronto from his forest hermitage in Thunder Bay, some one thousand miles away. He's here to conduct a week's, live-in, intensive Meditation Retreat at the Sri Lankan, Westend Buddhist Centre. On the eve of the retreat, a group of Canadian devotees are hosting this welcome for one who has forsaken the faith of his forefathers and eschewed the mundane. The Bhikkhu's 'daval cane' has been a bowl of soup and a slice of pizza. The meditation done, he asks the small group to relax.

'The Emptiness of the World' is the theme of a brief talk to this compact circle. "It is the mind that creates the world," There is no self, he tells the group born as believers in an immortal soul. He exhorts them: "Don't be seduced by external attractions. It's easy to lose oneself in the world." Then, he has a little time for me.

The venerable Bhikkhu was born Michael Dominjmyj to Catholic parents. At 13, he lost his mother. From early days he sought answers to questions that were baffling him. He majored in history. Out of university, he didn't know what to do with his life. "There was no turning point in my life," he says. "I always had a rebellious mind." Hitchhiking one day, an American woman, Ruth stopped to talk with him. "Come with me," she told him. "I'll show you the way." And off they drove to Thunder Bay. There, another Canadian, Eric James Bell, a former Canadian Air Forces Officer, had been ordained as Bhikkhu Kema Ananda. He was living in a log cabin in solitary retreat. A small group of people, attracted to the Buddhist Teaching, had supported Kema Ananda in setting up a meditation centre. Among the early pioneers was Jennifer Rockburne. She tells me how, in the mid-70s, a few of them raised $ 5,000 to purchase 98 acres of forest land from its Swedish owner. It was bear and wildcat infested jungle. From scratch, they converted the almost non-usable log cabin into a livable 'Stewards Cabin.

"There was no running water and no electricity," says Rockburne. "There still isn't. There's no telephone even today." The closest city is 50 miles away. "Through floods and fires, and a fatal accident, we built the place." Their objective was to create the right environment for meditation. She herself lived at the centre for 12 years. They named it the 'Arrow River Community Centre,' after the river that flows by. Rockburne quotes Ven. Kema Ananda as saying that preaching the 'Dhamma' is like selling water by a stream. "It's there all the time. One must know when and how to use it."

It is to this Community Centre that the young University Graduate and his new-found American friend, Ruth, drove to. They came under the guidance of their spiritual leader, Kema Ananda, described by Ven. Punnadhammo as "not primarily intellectual, but a dynamic personality." Rockburne says he was "a brilliant teacher and a gentle disciplinarian. His teaching was demonstrative of his love of the Dhamma and the Sangha." During the years 1985 to 89, Dominjmyj visited the Centre "off end on." He spent several months in study and meditation. In 1989, he went into solitary retreat for a year. "At the end, I was no longer interested in the lay life," he told me. He went to Thailand where the "Forest Tradition of meditation is more vibrant than in Sri Lanka." In 1990, he became a 'Samanera' The following year, at age of 36, he received ordination as 'Punnadhammo Bhikkhu'.

His only sibling, Marianne, says, "No, I have not lost a brother. I have gained something new." The mother of two teenage daughters and a son, Marianne adds, "We are very proud of him." In l995, Ven. Punnadhammo returned to Canada, hearing that Ven. Kema Ananda was gravely ill. The following year, the ailing founder of the Arrow River Community Centre passed away, and Ven. Punnadhammo became its Chief Incumbent, the only full time monk in residence

"We now have limited accommodation at the Centre," says Ven. Punnadhammo. "Seven is a crowd." His robes are of a dull brown shade, in the tradition of our Vajiraramaya monks, Narada, Madihe Pannasiha and Piyadassi. Mostly alone with the jungle and the beasts for company, he has a lay aide, "since the 'Vinaya' does not allow a monk to store food."

"Westerners are interested in Buddhism because of its emphasis on meditation - purification of the mind," says Ven. Punnadhammo who spends his time at the Centre in meditation and study. His family who do not call themselves Buddhists are interested in meditation. In the summer he teaches at retreats - 'Kuti,' as they say in Thailand.

He says that over the last 20 years, he's seen a growing interest in Buddhism in the Western world, particularly in the last decade. All over the world, the big threat is materialism and consumerism.

"But the pendulum swings," says Ven. Punnadhammo. "People will soon find out how hollow the material world is.The realization will be, more in the West than in the East." He says we need more educated monks to carry the Teaching, because there is a thirst for 'intellectual religion.'

Ven. Punnadhammo, now 44, is a columnist for 'The Toronto Star' Religion Page. Recently, he wrote: "If we look around the world today, it is hard not to fall into despair about human nature. Greed, selfishness and violence seem to rule unchallenged. Whereever we look, we see crime, corruption in high places, poverty and homelessness in the midst of plenty".

The Island - 4 Oct 99






Articles Index

Dr. Paul Dahlke championed the cause of Buddhism in Europe

"If Buddhism did not exist, it would have to be invented because Buddhism alone provided the teaching which was capable of offering complete consumation to the mental life of human kind," said Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi quoting Dr. Paul Dahlke in the introduction to his book 'Buddhism and its place in the mental life of mankind'.

The reason why Buddhism fulfils such an essential role is because in Dahlke's own words 'Buddhism is the key to understanding the nature of actuality or reality' added Bhikkhu Bodhi in a talk delivered at a function dealing with the release, by the German Dharmaduta Society, of a re-print of Dr. Dahlke's popular book 'Was ist Buddhismus und was will er?' (What is Buddhism and What is its objective?), held at the Mahaveli Centre Auditorium, Colombo on April 28, 2001.

This re-print was financed entirely by the Sandadi Hennadi Badde Liyanage Trust, founded by Anagarika Dharmapriya Mahinda (formerly known as Mr. Nelson H. Soysa), a founder Trustee and Vice President of the German Dharmaduta Society. The re-print was undertaken by the GDS to meet a popular demand in Germany for this valuable book, which was no longer available in bookshops. Copies of the re-print were presented to the Chief Guest, Mr. Leel Gunesekera, (who deputised for Mr. Monty Gopallawa, Minister of Cultural Affairs), Mr. Michael Fuchs (a representative of the German Ambassador), Ven. Bellana Gnanawimala Mahanayake Thero, and Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi. Dr. Granville Dharmawardena, President of the German Dharamaduta Society presided. The proceedings commenced with the administering of Pansil by Ven. Bellana Gnanawimala Mahanayake Thero. The Ambassador from Myanmar, U. Khin Maung Lay and Mr. Raja Collure, Member of Parliament, were among the distinguished gathering.

Bhikkhu Bodhi continuing said that Dr. Dahlke upon embracing Buddhism in Ceylon in 1900, had decided to devote his efforts and energy to the spread of Buddhism in Europe. He saw that within the framework of modern thought the Buddha Dhamma was the sole solution to the problems facing human kind. He intended to make the Buddhist teachings known through using all of his faculties to the spread of the Dhamma. Between 1900-1914, Dr. Dahlke had made eight trips to Ceylon and studied Pali under well-known Buddhist scholars such as Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Maha Nayake Thera, Ven. Suriyagoda Sri Sumangala Thera and Pandit Wagiswara.

Dr. Dahlke was a prolific writer. He together with Georg Grimm (a Judge in Bavaria and the author of the widely read book 'The Doctrine of the Buddha - the Religion of Reason') dominated the German Buddhist scene at the beginning of the 20th century.

Dahlke's first book was 'Buddhist Essays' (1903). It covers a great range of topics though not united by a single theme. Dahlke also authored 'Buddhism and Science'. However it was Dr. Dahlke's last book 'Buddhism and its place in the mental life of mankind' (published in 1924 ), that he considered as the consumation of his exposition of Buddhism. It was the culmination of his 30 years of reflection, study and meditation on the Dhamma.

In this book Dahlke had set himself the ambitious goal of defining the place of Buddhism in relation to the mental life of human kind. Dahlke saw his task as somewhat parallel to the work of the Buddha, who in the Brahmajala Sutta, surveyed all the contemporary modes of Indian thought in order to define in an expressway the manner in which his own teaching differed from and could be distinguished from all the other contemporary schools of thought, observed Bhikkhu Bodhi.

Dahlke had realised that studying and writing on Buddhism alone were not enough. More steps had to be taken in order to practise Buddhism and to promote Buddhist teaching. Therefore Dahlke decided to found a Buddhist Community right in the heart of Germany. Dahlke acquired a plot of land in the Berlin suburb of Frohnau in 1919 and proceeded to construct 'Das Buddhistische Haus' which he completed in 1924. Life in these premises was meant to be a half way house between leading a lay life and life in a monastery. 'Das Buddhistische Haus' served as the centre of German Buddhism from 1924-1928. It attracted numerous people including a ten-day visit by Anagarika Dharmapala (in 1925). Dahlke died in 1928. The German Dharmaduta Society, founded by Asoka Weeraratna in 1952, purchased these premises from the heirs of Dr. Dahlke in 1957, and converted the premises into a Buddhist Vihara, with resident monks drawn from Sri Lanka and other countries. The Berlin Vihara now ensures a Theravada Buddhist presence in the centre of continental Europe and serves as a focal point for the spread of the Buddha's teachings in the West.

Dr. Granville Dharmawardena in his welcoming address referred to the keen and growing interest being shown by German philosophers and scientists in the study of Buddhism, and quoted Albert Einstein who said 'No religion will survive the knowledge generated by modern science, except Buddhism'. Dr. Dharmawardena also lauded the vision of Asoka Weeraratna who saw the potential for Buddhism in Europe, particularly in Germany as early as 1952, the year in which the GDS was founded. Dr. Dharmawardena added that the early fifties witnessed the emergence of Quantum Mechanics, which had a shattering effect on the traditional belief systems in the West. These developments that led western people to question the tenets of their faith co-incided remarkably with the initiatives taken by Asoka Weeraratna and the German Dharmaduta Society to spread the Dhamma in the West and provide an alternative spiritual path to disillusioned Europeans, observed Dr. Dharmawardena.

Mr. H. Vincent Soysa, Vice President of the GDS and elder brother of Anagarika Dharmapriya Mahinda, speaking next outlined in detail the life and the contributions made towards the spread of Buddhism by his brother, Anagarika Dharmapriya Mahinda (formerly known as Mr. H. Nelson Soysa). Upon becoming an Anagarika he had become a strict vegetarian and teetotaller. He gave his whole-hearted support to Asoka Weeraratna and the GDS to send a Buddhist Mission to Germany. He became a Trustee and Vice President of the GDS.

He made a substantial contribution to the One Million Rupee Trust Fund of the GDS that was inaugurated in September 1954. Upon completing his Buddhist Dharmaduta work in Germany, Anagarika Mahinda took on new challenges. He decided to spread the teachings of the Buddha in Africa. He chose Tanzania as his first stop. Unfortunately Tanzania treated him like a spy and put him in jail. The intervention of two senior Sri Lankan Government Officials led to his release from prison. On his return to Sri Lanka he confined his Buddhist activities to meditation as the period of his incarceration in Tanzania had affected his health. Dharmapriya established a Trust by the name of Sandadi Hennadi Badde Liyanage Family Trust out of his personal assets for the propagation of the Buddha Dhamma. He passed away on 5th June, 1986.

Next, Professor Jayadeva Tilakasiri, Vice President and a founder member of the GDS, traced the history of the GDS and his close association with Asoka Weeraratna since his childhood days at Mahinda College, Galle. Even as a student, Asoka Weeraratna had adopted a contemplative life, and cultivated a great ability to concentrate and dedicate himself to the task ahead.

His total commitment to Buddhism, initially as a Dharmaduta worker engaged in spreading the Dhamma abroad, and later as a promoter of putting into effective practice the teachings of the Buddha, led to the collapse of his family business, P. J. Weeraratna & Sons, Maradana. Nevertheless his work in founding the German Dharmaduta Society (1952), the Berlin Buddhist Vihara (1957), and the Mitirigala Forest Hermitage (1968) remains as excellent memorials to his vision, energy and service to the cause of Buddhism.

Professor Tilakasiri further said that the GDS has a very great task ahead of them. It was not good enough to send monks having knowledge only of Buddhism to Germany. Germans are very discerning. They question a lot, argue and ask why they should embrace Buddhism. To answer their queries, the monks must be competent not only in teaching the Dhamma, but also must be proficient in other fields of study, such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, comparative religion and other modern systems of thought. Further the trained monks, apart from being models of 'Buddhism in practice' must be capable of adjusting themselves to the different conditions in Europe, observed Professor Tilakasiri.

Mr. Senaka Weeraratna, Hony. Secretary, GDS in his Vote of Thanks said that the GDS was pursuing a great tradition that was inaugurated at the time of the Buddha 2500 years ago i.e., to spread the Dhamma. The gift of the Dhamma excels all other gifts, and the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka has repeated this saying several times in his rock inscriptions.

Mr. Weeraratna said that the GDS was privileged to administer Dr. Paul Dahlke's 'Das Buddhistische Haus' as a Buddhist Vihara. Mr. Weeraratna added that Dr. Dahlke was also a pioneer in establishing Buddhist cultural ties between Germany and Sri Lanka, and it was necessary for the present generation to continue to strengthen these links between the two countries.

German Dharmaduta Society

The Island - 20 May 01






Articles Index

Colonel Henry Steele Olcott

A pioneer in the field of Buddhist Education

by D. P. B. Ellepola

Colonel Olcott passed away peacefully on February 17th 1917 at the headquarters of the Buddhist Theosophical Society in Adyar in India, having bid farewell to Sri Lanka for the last time on December 8th 1906. He had spent a good part of his precious life in the service of Buddhist education. His untiring effort in this field is unparalleled in our recent past.

An American by birth, he served his motherland in various ways. After the secondary education, he entered the Columbia University where he graduated in agriculture. He served in the American army for some time, to be soon promoted to the rank of Colonel. Though a born Christian, Olcott seems to have developed the ideals of free thinking. In addition to being an agriculturist he was a lawyer by profession. None of these pursuits had pleased him. Never did he let his martial rank usurp his liberal and free thought. His conviction was that "no religion is higher than truth." His philosophy was a combination of the good teachings in all religions. This led to his thoughts which ultimately centred around the teaching of the Buddha. In 1875 he together with Madame Blavatsky Society which did research into the core of all religions. This study brought them to India in 1878, and subsequently in 1880 he arrived in Sri Lanka where he embraced Buddhism. It must not be forgotten that the news of the famous Panadura debate in 1873 had greatly influenced Col. Olcott as well as other Theosophists in the Western world. This historical debate was between Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda and a group of Christian priests. 

However the arrival in Sri Lanka of Col. H.S. Olcott was again a turning point in his eventful life. He did not remain passive. He was perhaps born for a purpose. His objective was to revive and uplift the cause of Buddhism and everything that was affiliated to it. He saw how Buddhist education had been neglected over the years of colonial rule. He also saw how the education of Buddhist children was left in the hands of evangelists whose sole idea was the destruction of Buddhism. Col. Olcott realised the pathetic situation the Buddhists were placed in, and also the impediments confronted by them. Together with Venerable Theras such as Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Migettuwatte Gunananda and Dodanduwe Piyaratne he set to work. The Maha Sangha gave him courage and moral support.  

Harischandra gave him the impetus. He was thus able to achive his goal.

Col. H.S. Olcott firmly believed that the education of Buddhist children should be in the hands of the Buddhists. At the time of his arrival there were 805 Christian schools but only two Buddhist schools, and every Buddhist schools, and every Buddhist parent was forced to send their children to non-Buddhist schools. In 1880, Col. Olcott started the Buddhist Theosophical Society of Sri Lanka and commenced the opening of Sunday Dhamma schools. The first of these was begun in February, 1881 in Maliban Street, the premises of the Buddhist Theosophical Society. At the same time another Dhamma school was started at Vijayananda Pirivena in Galle. In this manner Dhamma Schools sprang up in every nook and corner of the Island. They served as an incentive to all Buddhist children, who were eager to practice the Buddhist way of life.

Colonel Olcott travelled far and wide into all parts of the country. It was young Anagarika Dharmapala who translated his speeches. He held meetings, discussions and delivered speeches encouraging the people to be of service towards the Buddhist cause. The Buddhist Theosophical Society and other Buddhist organisations. Buddhist leaders in the calibre of D. B. Jayatilaka went all out to help the establishment of Buddhist schools. Col. Olcott spent much time and energy and even his own money freely and generously for this venture. In 1881 he inaugurated "The Buddhist Educational fund" for establishment of Buddhist schools. As a result the Buddhist Theosophical Society was able to open up many Buddhist schools in the main cities. Thuzs Ananda College was started in 1886, to be followed by other Buddhist public schools such as Mahinda of Galle, Dharmaraja of Kandy and Maliyadeva of Kurunegala. Simultaneously with the help of women philanthropists such as Annie Besant, Marie Museus Higgins and Mrs. Jeramias Dias, many Buddhist girl schools were opened up which function properly to this day.

As a result of Col. Olcotts agitation, in 1885 vesak day was declared a public holiday. He was also among those who designed the Buddhist flag now accepted by the entire Buddhist world. The right of Buddhist to conduct ceremonies and processions was legalised by his efforts. He was also responsible to get the approval of separate registers for birth, marriages and deaths of Buddhists.

His services were vast and varied. Even if we set aside all other matters, his services to Buddhist Education is incomparable. He had always advocated unity among Buddhists at all times and under any circumstances. This should be an eye opener to the Sinhala Buddhist of today.

His parting words in his diary remind us of a man who truly loved mother Lanka. "Ah! Lovely Lanka, how does thy sweet image rise before me, as I write the story of my experience among thy dusky children, of my success in warming their hearts revere their incomparable religion and its Noblest Founder. Happy the Kamma that brought me to thy shores.

The Isalnd - 6 March 2001






Articles Index

Col. Olcott - The great Buddhist revivalist

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe

"Oh! lovely Lanka, Gem of the Summer Seas. How doth thy sweet image rise before me, as I recount my experience among thy children, of my success in warming their hearts to revere their incomparable religion and its holiest Founder. Happy the karma which brought me to the shores."- Col. H. S. Olcott.

One of the most memorable events in the history of the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and its recovery from the onslaughts of Colonial rule and Christian missionary activities, since the coming of the Portuguese in 1505, was the arrival in the island of Col. Henry Steele Olcott (1832-1907), on May 18, 1880. From that time, he worked hard for the cause of Buddhism and Buddhist education, when 375 years of foreign rule had sapped its vitality.

Col. Olcott was born on August 1. 1832 and his parents were Wycliff Olcott and his wife Alice Steele. They were Roman Catholics and leaving their homeland (England) had migrated to the United States soon after marriage and settled down at Orange, New Jersey. In his career in life, Col. Olcott was first an agricultural scientist, then he got enlisted as an army officer and thereafter, he practised as a lawyer.

In 1875, Col Olcott founded the Theosophical Society in New York and spent most of his time devoted to spirituality. Theosophy is a name applied to various systems of 'divine power', but in particular to the doctrine enunciated by the Theosophical Society, based on the Hindu principles of 'karma' (actions volitional) and rebirth as is corollary and Nirvana as the goal of the aspirant Buddhist.  

Col. Olcott who had already embraced Buddhism while in New York, publicly avowed his conversion, a week after arrival in the island, by reciting 'pancaseela' (the five moral vows of abstinence in Buddhism, from killing, lying, sexual misconduct, falsehood and drinking intoxicants), before the Ven. Akmeemana Dhammarama Nayake Thera of the Vijayananda Temple in Galle, which event served as a symbolic identification of himself among the local Buddhist population. Thereafter, he looked into the sad plight of the Buddhist community, to make an astute diagnosis as to how the situation could be revived.

What made Col. Olcott to become a Buddhist convert, was the publication 'Panadura Vadaya' (the Great Panadura Controversy), which received international recognition as 'The Great Debate on Buddhism and Christianity Face to Face! The Debate was held on August 26, 1873, on a block of land called Dombagahawatta, belonging to P. Jeramis Dias, a wealthy and prominent Buddhist in Panadura and he allowed to use his land for the purpose, situated a little away from the Rankot Vihara. He also agreed to defray all expenditure incurred on the Debate.


This spot is now demarcated by a fence with the statue of the dynamic orator, Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, who participated in the Debate on behalf of the Buddhists. Rev. David de Silva spoke on behalf of the Christians. The outcome of the Debate was the result of a speech made by the Methodist priest, at the Wesley Church in Panadura, on June 12, 1873, against Buddhism. The Debate ended peacefully with loss to the Christians, which played an important part in the history of Buddhism under the British sovereignty.

The then Editor of the Times of Ceylon, had the Debate translated into English by one Edmund Perera and having published it, gave a copy to Dr. J. M. Peebles, the American spiritualist, who happened to be in Colombo at the time. The Editor John Cooper took a great interest in the Debate and he, perhaps, thought that it should be given international publicity. Dr. Peebles, on his return to the United States showed it to Col. Olcott, whom he knew before as a Roman Catholic.

Col. Olcott, after reading the Debate, was so impressed, that he wrote to Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera and the Most Ven. Hikkaduwe Siri Sumangala Nayake Thera, who took a keen interest in the Debate, that in the interest of the universal brotherhood , he had founded the Theosophical Society, inspired by oriental philosophies, and that he would come to Sri Lanka to help the Buddhists to regain their lost heritage and to resuscitate Buddhism that was at an ebb.

The Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) was established in Sri Lanka, on June 17, 1880, which campaigned to educate Buddhist children in the English medium, a privilege exclusively enjoyed by Christian children attending missionary schools, most of which were conducted by the Christian clergy. In 1822, the Church Missionary Society was founded to spread the Christian doctrine among the 'heathen' population through education media. Col. Olcott became aware that thousands of boys had been converted to denominational Christianity, though not directly, but through the missionary propaganda, especially in schools.

The Buddhists, until 1870, had their own schools to teach Sinhala in temples throughout the island, but the Colonial government did not want that Buddhist boys should be taught English in missionary schools funded by missionary societies. In 1870, and Education Act was passed and temple schools became taboo to Christian children.


Col. Olcott, for the first time after the destruction of Buddhism in India, convened a meeting of delegates of the Buddhists of Burma (now Myanmar), Chittagong, Sri Lanka and Japan, to consider what steps should be taken for the propagation of Buddhism in those countries. With his initiative, the Maha Bodhi Society was established on May 31, 1891, in India (known as the Buddhagaya Maha Bodhi Society) and Col. Olcott was elected Chief Adviser and Director, unanimously.

As the awakener of a nation out of long slumber, as the crusader who campaigned to regain its due place to Buddhism, as the agitator who caused the Colonial government of the day, to declare the Vesak fullmoon day as a statutory holiday in Sri Lanka, as the designer of the now internationally famous Buddhist flag and as the founder of national educational institutions, such as Ananda College in Colombo in 1886, the Mahinda College in Galle in 1892 and the Dharmaraja College in Kandy in 1887, Col. Olcott's service towards Buddhism and education was manifold.

Col. Olcott was a man of many parts. he devoted his early life to the service of his country. He founded agricultural schools in the United States and is recognised as the founder of the present system of national agricultural education in the United States. Hiss goal was for the service of mankind and to awake them from the sloth of despondency. During his first sojourn in the island, there were only nine post-primary schools conducted by the Buddhists as against 642 Christian Missionary Schools.

When we speak of Col. Olcott, we cannot omit to mention the name of the Russian-born Helena Petronova Blavatsky, who was also a Theosophist who accompanied Col. Olcott to Sri Lanka. They both started the Theosophical Society in New York and worked for the spiritual progression of the converted community.

Col. Olcott's last visit to Sri Lanka was on November 24, 1906. On February 17,1907, he passed away at 7.15 a.m., at the Headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar in India. A statue of this great personality stands opposite the Fort Railway Station, remarkable for his bushy beard.

Sunday Observer - 17 Feb 02






Articles Index

The necessity for promoting Buddhism in Europe - by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi 

As Sri Lankans we are fortunate, indeed, to have as the crowning glory of our cultural heritage, a great religion and a subtle philosophy that has inestimable value and relevance to those living beyond our shores.

There are many in the West who pine for that spiritual and metaphysical wherewithal-rooted in Buddhist values-that gives completeness to lives spent in seeming ease and comfort. This is no smug declaration of moral superiority: it is the Buddhist Message that is proudly proffered, not the example of the unfortunate people who live in this ancient land. A people who, in this age of confusion and misfortune, are being sorely tested by a miscellany of dire challenges that threaten its very survival.

We must overcome our current afflictions and even in our darkest hour we must have the courage not to forget the Buddhist Dhamnaduta role that our forebears carried out with such distinction in the centuries past.

It is against this background that the paper presented on July 2, 2000 by Ven Bhikkhu Bohdi (at a Public Seminar held in Colombo to commemorate the first death anniversary of Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanisanthi Thero) on the constraints and parameters ' of a Buddhist Missionary Effort rooted in the strenghts and resources of our own country must be viewed.

Although written within a brief compass, the learned analysis of the issues involved- and, the problems faced- in promoting Buddhism in the West is a didactic resource that all sincere Buddhists of this land will welcome. We need a Scholar-Monk of the calibre of Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi to guide us in a venture of this kind- both on account of the vast erudition in Buddhist matters that is his distinctive privilege and his sympathetic grasp of the Western Mind Set and its strengths and foibles that must be reckoned with in establishing a fruitful dialogue on the core values of our Buddhist faith.

In this regard, there is a 'constraint' that must be foremost in our minds- that we, as purveyors' of spiritual goods and services must, perforce, deal with a 'clientele' of great sophistication-prepared to question and test our canonical faith at a level that will match the profundity of the truths that we try to put across. It cannot be denied that the cultural chasm that separates us from the West is a formidable barrier that the would-be Buddhist Dharmaduta worker will find quite daunting even if he has truly mastered the teachings of the Compassionate One.

While it is not the intent of the writer to forestall or pre-empt what the Ven. Bhikkhu has said with such commendable lucidity in his essay, it would not be out of place to in underscore certain salient and highlights in his thinking. Firstly, there is an evolutionary dynamism that has Western Society in its inexorable grip and it is clear that a certain degree of 'tailoring' of the Buddhist message to match the sociological ground-conditions of the recipient population is a well-advised strategy.

This must not be construed as a kind of 'religious machiavellianism' that detracts from the lofty spiritualism of the message: rather, it is a practical recognition of the cultural variegation of the human race. In this connection, the seemingly insatiable demand for 'quick-fix meditative therapies' for those in the West burdened with what the French call 'tracasserie' is a considerable challenge to the Theravada tradition of our country.

Can meditative techniques and procedures be divorced from the sublime fundamentals of Buddhism that, to the orthodox, seem its irrefragable basis? More generally, is it possible to abridge or truncate the richly- varied practice of Buddhism as seen in lands such as ours to meet the needs of an 'establishment free' religion of the kind many Westerners find attractive? These are troubling problems that our best minds must resolve if we are to make headway in our Dharmaduta activities abroad.

The Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, with great perspicuity has singled out a difficulty that must be urgently addressed if we are to make significant progress in the resolution of the larger issues adverted to above: the mismatch between the kind of monastic training that our Bhikhus receive in the tradition-bound centres of learning and the intellectual sophistication required to be a useful 'messenger of the Dharma' in the West.

At this point we must reiterate a truism already mentioned- there is a stratification of attitudes and attainments in Western Society that we ignore at our peril. The refined intellects of the West need a kind of Buddhism that the hoi polloi will find disturbingly difficult. But this important class must be engaged and our very best scholar monks must be up to the task.

Do we have monks who are au fait with such fields as cognitive psychology, logic and neurophysiology? The Buddhist interpretation of 'being' and 'becoming' has attracted the attention of leading scholars in the West-Francis Varela and Susan Blackmore are well known names in this field. Clearly, we have slipped a lot in this regard. No longer do we have a K. N. Jayatilleka or a G. P. Malalasekara to speak authoritatively on the Theravada perspective in these matters that goes beyond what may be called 'formula Buddhism' the mechanical matching of Pali stanzas to any semantically significant propositional query.

The meditative and esoteric have a following that is very distinct from the 'cerebral' constituency referred to above. Indeed, it is this segment of Western society that is 'spiritually destabilized' and yearns for inspirational strength from the East. The question again is whether we in Sri Lanka can convey the Buddha's message in the idiom that these Western folk can empathise with.

The Mahayana scholars and monks have a clear advantage over the Lankan Bhikkhus in this regard in that their monastic milieu is steeped in a centuries old tradition of the arcane over the logico-ethnical. These difficulties-or-challenges-are mentioned not with the intention of dissuading the courageous but in the hope that a revolutionary restructuring of our institutes of religious training will result in a regaining of the pre-eminence that our nation once enjoyed throughout the Buddhist world.

As our texts so liminously put it, the intellectual, the moral and the meditative must be harmoniously blended in those who follow the Path and compassionately seek to share their insight with others.

It is with great sorrow that we, Sri Lankan, must confess deep pessimism on all issues raised. A house tragically in disarray cannot be a wellspring of inspiration to nations and peoples more fortunately circumstanced. Its representatives will have a hard time explaining why Buddhist lands in South and East Asia are such crucibles of misery.

It is not for us to be judgemental about our Buddhist neighbours-but in our own country the aetiology of decline is plainly evident. Unlike the fast-spreading Saviour-Cults of one sort or another, Buddhism draws strength from Enlightened Leadership- the religious exemplars that, through compassion and concern move the ordinary people to heights of religious devotion.

In this connection, there is a 'tragic symbiosis' that is the power-base of Buddhism-three groups that create a spiritual synergy that made the ancient religion of our land a living presence that gave strength and hope to all.

Firstly, there is the Secular Buddhist Leadership-the Royal House in the old days and in these degenerate times, the elected political elite. Next, there is the Maha Sangha in the role of System-Guidance-not unlike the DNA of an eukaryotic cell guarding and guiding its metabolic destiny. Finally there is the Laity, that serves as a kind of nutritive pabulum for the sustenance of the first and second.   This fanciful model serves a very limited purpose-that all three parts must be healthy for the 'florescence' of Buddhism. Alas, all three parts are in a very sick state in contemporary Sri Lanka. We have a political leadership that endeavour to deny the lead-role for Buddhism-indeed disdains it as an atavism that has no relevance in the brave new age of globalisation.

The greater mass of the laity regards the Buddhist faith as a valetudinarian concern-an end game strategy and a preparation for death. As for the Maha Sangha,it would be impious to pass strictures-suffice it to say that a reformed and re-invigorated Sangha is both our greatest need and greatest hope. Not the least of reasons why the illuminating article by the Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi should be read and digested by all who care for the future of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

The Island - 29 Dec 01






Articles Index

Sanghamitta Theri - a liberated woman

by Dr. Lorna Dewaraja

This fullmoon day of Unduvap the Buddhists of Sri Lanka honour the memory of Sanghamitta Theri who together with her brother Mahinda Thera was responsible for the establishing of Buddhism in this country 2300 years ago in the reign of Devanampiya Tissa. A significant feature is that when Mahinda Thera preached the Dhamma in Anuradhapura the most enthusiastic listeners were women; those of royal rank as well as the commoners. This remains so to this day for in any Buddhist event the women far outnumber the men.

Having listened to Mahinda Thera's sermon, Queen Anula, wife of the sub king Mahanaga, convinced of the truth of the Buddha word, informed the king of her desire to become a bhikkhuni. When this was conveyed to Mahinda Thera he pointed out that according to the rules of the Vinaya it was not permissable for him to bestow the pabbajja on women. Further he said that this could be accomplished if the king sent a message to king Asoka Maurya who ruled from Pataliputra (modern Patna) requesting him to send his daughter Sanghamitta Theri and also to bring with her a branch of the Bodhi Tree at Gaya under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

It should be mentioned that diplomatic relations had already been established between the Court of Anuradhapura and that of Pataliputra. Hence Devanampiya Tissa did not hesitate to send his minister Arittha to the Mauryan king with these two earnest requests.

The king was reluctant to send his daughter on an overseas mission but because of the insistence of Sanghamitta Theri he finally agreed. Several nuns accompanied the Theri who sailed to Sri Lanka carrying the Bo sapling, together with the Minister Arittha. This was a very courageous action on the part of Sanghamitta. In an age when rigid Brahmanic ideas regarding women were prevailing in society it was indeed an act of great courage for a woman of royal birth to embark on a hazardous voyage unaccompanied by any male member of her family. She was indeed a liberated woman to defy the challenges of a male-dominated society.

At Jambukolapattana (modern Point Pedro in Jaffna Peninsula), a multitude of devotees headed by the king and Mahinda Thera received the Theri and the Bodhi Tree. It was brought in procession to Anuradhapura, a journey which took 14 days on foot, and planted it in the Mahamegha park on a specially prepared terrace. In the words of Paul E Pieris who was not a Buddhist, "It is doubtful if any other single incident in the long story of their race has seized upon the history of the Sinhalese with such tenacity as this of the planting of the aged tree.

Like the pliant roots which find sustenance on the face of their bare rock and cleave their way through the stoutest fabric, the influence of what it represents has penetrated into the innermost being of the people till the tree itself has become almost human." The king and the people of Sri Lanka throughout 23 centuries have cherished this tree like a priceless treasure, the oldest historical tree in the world. Its hold on the people was so deep rooted that even the modern day terrorists thought that the best way to destroy the Sinhala psyche was to exterminate the Tree.

Historical evidence

Some scholars have expressed doubts on the Mahavamsa account of Sanghamitta and the historicity of the tree on the ground that there is no external evidence to corroborate the Sri Lanka tradition. Wilhelm Geiger, the german Orientalist who translated the Mahavansa into German firmly upholds the Mahavansa tradition.  

The narrative of the transplanting of the Bodhi Tree finds interesting confirmation from archaeological evidence. He says that another scholar Grundewel has shown in a very convincing way that the sculptures of the gate of the Sanchi Stupa are representations of that event.

Sanchi, it should be remembered is the childhood home of Sanghamitta and Mahinda and it is reasonable to assume that Sanghamitta's memory was revered in the place of her birth. Since the Sanchi sculptures belong to the 2nd Century BC the representation is only about 100-150 years after the coming of Sanghamitta. Hence we have near contemporary evidence on stone to corroborate the Mahavansa story of the coming of Sanghamitta. Further there is a village called Kantarodai in the Jaffna Peninsula originally known as Kadurugoda Vihara.

The entire area was preserved as an archaeological site when I visited Jaffna in 1971 and the surrounding villagers informed me that there is a strong tradition prevailing up to that day saying that Sanghamitta rested on that spot on her way to Anuradhapura. I am not aware what has happened to the archaeological site now but at that time it was scattered with pre Christian ruins and also a number of small stupas resembling the stupa at Sanchi.

It is clear that Kadurugoda Vihara developed into a hallowed spot and because of the Sanghamitta connection had brisk intercourse with Sanchi. Paul E Pieris writing in 1919 to the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society said that Kantarodai is a miniature Anuradhapura.

Besides all this evidence there is the far famed tree itself still firmly rooted in Sri Lankan soil while literary works like the Bodhivamsa, Maha Bodhivamsa, Sulu Bodhivamsa bear witness to its antiquity and sacrosanctity.

The Bhikkhuni Sasana

Sanghamitta Theri then accomplished her most important mission by ordaining Anuladevi and her retinue and established the Bhikkhuni Sasana in Sri Lanka. The charisma and impact of the founder was such that the Sri Lanka Bhikkunis were illustrious and erudite women who were internationally renowned and emulated their founder by travelling overseas to spread the Dhamma.

According to Chinese sources, they sailed to China and began a Chinese Order of Nuns which lasts to this day. They specialised in different sections of the Pali Canon and taught their specialties all over the island.

Liberation of Sri Lankan women

The arrival of Sanghamitta had a significant impact on Sri Lankan womanhood. Many visitors to Sri Lanka long before the impact of the West was ever felt have commented on the social freedom that Sri Lankan women enjoyed that there was no segregation of the sexes and that they participated in the social, religious and economic life of the community.

This was Sanghamitta's legacy and the example of the bold and adventurous band of nuns she nurtured.

She was the first woman ambassador mentioned in recorded history, sent from one Head of State at the express invitation of another Head of State. Belonging to the ecclesiastical tradition of Maha Prajapati Gotami, the first Buddhist nun, she displayed the same qualities as the latter - courage and determination and not taking no for an answer.

She remained in Sri Lanka for the rest of the life working for the uplift of Sri Lankan women, far away from home, kith and kin. To Sanghamitta Theri, a woman liberated in every sense of the word, the women of Sri Lanka owe a deep debt of gratitude.

The Island - 29 Dec 01






Articles Index

Alec Robertson: quiet broadcaster of the dhamma

There are those who are of the view that Buddhism in this country is facing a crisis. On the one hand today's changing world is being swept with a materialism of the most wanton kind. Scant respect is being paid to the higher virtues of the human being. We have, as a species, abused the abundant gifts of nature, indulged in untrammelled destruction of our forests and other natural resources, thrust into extinction all manner of life forms and in the process come to a point where our own future is threatened.

Crass consumerism has engulfed our society and in striving to be better, richer and more powerful, people have resorted to untold violence. Unfortunately, it is also true that large sections of the sangha, the proverbial 'mura devathavo' of the nation, have also succumbed to these processes.

On the other hand, following the time-tested colonial strategy of using the gun and the Bible in tandem, capital's numerous and violent forays into our country are being complemented by a veritable invasion of various evangelical groups. Unethical conversions such as these have largely gone unchecked partly because the government dares not displease the powerful church-based lobbies that support such surreptitious operations disguised as charities.

There are obviously many avenues of checking these trends. A return to the fundamental tenets of the doctrine and a practise based on them, I believe, should count among the priorities in such efforts. It is in this context that the work of people like Alec Robertson stand out as shining examples that ought to be emulated.

The son of an Anglican father and a catholic mother, Alec grew up as a Buddhist after his father, who had been greatly influenced by the writings of Rev. Gnanatiloka, embraced Buddhism. His father being a station master, young Alec attended several schools. He was born in 1928 in Kandy and started his schooling at the Lady of Victories kindergarten in Moratuwa. He was at Richmond between 1938 and 1942 during the time his father was stationed at Gintota. Later, when they moved to Kalutara, his father had opted to send him to Kalutara Vidyalaya and not Holy Cross. This was during the time of the great Buddhist revival in Kalutara spearheaded by Sir Cyril de Zoysa. He also attended Sri Sumangala, Panadura and finally Prince of Wales, Moratuwa from where he sat for the SSC in 1943.

At Prince of Wales, Alec came under the influence of J. B. C. Rodrigo, aka "Jam Butter Cheese". "It was from him that I learnt Latin and English literature; even now I can quote from the English classics," he said.  

While still a student, Alec joined the "Servants of the Buddha," an organisation founded by Rev. Narada, Casius Perera and others in 1921. Located in Lauries Road, they had weekly talks on the dhamma in English. Years later, he was elected the President of this organisation which was mostly dominated by professionals. "I was the only 'commoner' to be made president," he observed. He held the post for 27 years.

He was apparently an avid reader of Buddhist literature from his early days and said that he was influenced by the books of Rev. Gnanatiloka, Rev. Gnanaponika and especially Rev. Narada's "Buddhism in a nutshell". In addition to these, Alec would meet regularly with Rev. Soma and Rev. Khema at the Vajiraramaya to discuss matters pertaining to the dhamma. These discussions would go late into the night, sometimes until about 11 pm.

Soon after the SSC, Alec had passed the General Clerical Service Exam, being placed third in the island. He was then 21. At the Viva Voce, the Acting Director of Education, a man named Arundale, had asked him about his hobbies, and Alec had said that he was keen on reading and especially Buddhism. Arundale had asked "Theosophy?" Alec, being argumentative at the time and "in search of the truth," had said Buddhism had nothing to do with theosophy, and that it was neither a religion nor a philosophy, the former being a word derived from the Latin "religre" (meaning "binding yourself to god") and the latter dealing with intellectual matters. "In Buddhism there is both theory and practise, inseparable and leading to realisation".

He was appointed to the Audit Department and made an Audit Officer. The Auditor General, Alan Smith, had apparently given the young recruits a pep talk, insisting that "we are the watchdogs of the government's exchequer". He had added that although auditing is dull and monotonous, it is nevertheless a story, a story told in numbers.

In 1956, the year of the Buddha Jayanthi, Alec had founded the Independence Square Buddhist Association, bringing together nine departments located around Independence Square. Rev. Narada and the heads of all these departments had come for the inaugural meeting. B. F. Perera had been elected the President and Alec was the first Secretary of the Association. They had organised talks and discussions, and would regularly go on pilgrimages.

His audit duties took him all over the country. Wherever he went, Alec would touch base with the Government Agent and arrange to give talks on Buddhism. He spoke in schools, hospitals, temples, pirivenas, government departments and even prisons, crafting his talk and subject to suit the particular audience.

Once he had spoken to the prisoners of Bogambara, basing his discussion on the story of Angulimala. "A young and handsome prisoner, proposed a vote of thanks. He spoke in classical Sinhala and requested that I return and speak about the seven Aryan treasures. I found out later that he was an ex-Buddhist monk, who had been found guilty of manslaughter." On another occasion, in the 1960s, after addressing the inmates of the Pallekele Open Prison Camp, during which there was pin-drop silence, he was asked if the government paid me to talk. "I said 'no,' and added that unlike the bikkhus, I was not even offered any poojas".

Alec recalled how the Rev. Mapalagama Vipulasara had taken him to the then Governor General William Gopallawa who used to observe ata sil on full moon poya days. He had presented Gopallawa with a copy of his book "Significance of the full moons in Buddhism". He had later been invited to give a talk at Queen's House. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her three children had also attended the talk, after which the late Prime Minister had asked "You say we must live in the present, but how then can you do your work?" Alec had replied, "Of course, the past influences, but we shouldn't allow it to dominate us." Gopallawa's secretary, S. J. Walpita, had told him "We invite you frequently because you don't ask for favours unlike other people".

Hector Jayasinghe of the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation, who had been at the inaugural meeting of the Independence Square Buddhist Association had been instrumental in getting Alec involved in radio. Thevis Guruge had made him a guest producer to cover Buddhist programmes. At that time the English service was mostly Christian and Western oriented, according to Alec. It was he who launched the 15 minute programme every Sunday between 5.15 and 5.30 in the evening titled "Buddhism and You".

In 1980, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) had invited him to obtain a complete release from the Audit Department and join as the "Organiser of Buddhist Programmes" since he was one of the few people who was fluent in both English and in matters pertaining to the dhamma. Alec had gone to D. B. I. P. S. Siriwardhana for advice. Siriwardhana had told him to go on secondment since "there are people there who are capable of cutting your neck". He had nevertheless opted to go on complete release.

Alec would organise discussions with people from various fields, covering topics such as Buddhism and Science, Buddhism and Democracy, Buddhism and Sex, Buddhism in the Modern World, Buddhism and the Universe, etc. He would invite eminent scholars from abroad who were attending conferences in Sri Lanka to offer their views on such topics over his programme.

At the SLBC, this indefatigable student and teacher of Buddhism was the chairman of the Buddhist Forum. People like K. N. Jayatilleke, Suddhamangala Karunaratne, and Abraham Kovoor would attend discussions organised by the Forum. 

In 1989, President Premadasa had invited him to be on the UNP National List in Parliament. "I didn't have a telephone at that time. The President's Private Secretary took me to his office and the President phoned me there and said 'Premadasa speaking here. Would you like to be made a National List member to represent the Burgher community? We want honest people like you". He had then instructed Alec, who had in 1988 been conferred the title "Deshabandu" for "meritorious services rendered to the nation," to meet Ranjan Wijeratne. Wijeratne had told him he was a very lucky man because he did not have to go through the hard grind of an election to get into parliament.

"Coming events cast their shadows," said Alec, referring to an encounter he had with Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake when he was just a student in Moratuwa. "DS was going to the prize giving at St. Sebastian's and his driver had lost his way. We were playing cricket and the driver asked us for directions. DS asked me to jump in the car and took me to the prize giving. He didn't offer any explanations about my presence. I was also 'received' along with him. I sat in the front row, wearing shorts without shoes, and quietly left after some time".

As a parliamentarian he was asked to concentrate on the Avissawella electorate which did not have a UNP member of parliament. He was asked to use his decentralised budgetary allocations for this electorate. Alec had given a Buddhist interpretation to the Janasaviya programme, based on the Vyajapajja Sutta, the sermon given to Deegajanu, focusing on the need to work hard, save for a rainy day, associate with good friends and live within one's means. He concurred with the former Governor Henry Caldecott's observation that "our people have toddy incomes and champagne life styles" and wanted to help get things back in perspective.

He served on consultative committees on the Buddha Sasana, education, cultural affairs and information in addition to his other responsibilities, and operated without any security even during the height of the violence towards the end of the eighties. "If I had security, I would have been under greater threat, I think," he said.

After Premadasa was assassinated and the new President D. B. Wijetunge sought to heal the rift within the UNP, bringing Gamini Dissanayake and others back to the party, he had been asked to resign to make room for these dissidents in parliament. Alec had refused saying "I was appointed by President Premadasa, I would make room for his wife, not for anyone else." However, just two weeks before parliament was dissolved, he had resigned in favour of Gamini Jayawickrema Perera.

Immediately after the impeachment of the President was foiled in 1993, he had been made an "Adeekshana Manthri" assigned to cover the subject of "values". Alec based his "value education" on the Maha Mangala Sutta. He recited the verse beginning with "bahu saccan cha sippancha..." and said "It is important to be well versed in both the sciences and the humanities. Both the head and the heart have to be nourished. If we concentrate on just the sciences, we will only churn out clever crooks. If only the humanities are emphasised we will have good hearted fools".

His children were educated at Royal College, Colombo. I never used any influence to get them into Royal College. I was regularly invited for talks at Royal, both by Bogoda Premaratne and L. D. H. Peiris. Mr. Peiris considered me a teacher and this is how my sons were admitted to the school.

Alec Robertson has worked tirelessly to spread the message of the Buddha. He has been a broadcaster for 45 years, lectured in various forums both in Sri Lanka and in many other countries including Malaysia, Singapore, the Maldives and once at the Sydney University where he talked on the subject of "Buddhism and Science", and written extensively on Buddhism to newspapers. His books include "Buddha: the healer incomparable," "Is Nirvana Extinction?" (revised as "Nirvana: Happiness Supreme"), and "Buddhist Attitudes to Christianity". His wife, Jayasumana, who taught at Visakha Vidyalaya, has translated his book on meditation into Sinhala.

In an era where the sasana is full of bikkhus who lived lives of comfort and convenience, we are indeed privileged as a society, to have someone like Alec Robertson touch our lives. Name recognition and a stint in parliament seems to have left him untouched as a decent human being who strives to live according to his core values of the doctrine he follows. One has only to take a side glance at the life styles of our avowed socialists and our clergy to realise that many people find it hard to bridge the gap between rhetoric and practise. Such integrity is clearly a rarity in our society.

This simple man is, I believe, a living challenge to such people. It is easy to say "May his tribe increase". The more difficult thing, I believe, is to recognise that all of us have it in us to become part of Alec Robertson's tribe. It is time we all took a walk towards the "mul daham".

Sunday Island - 10 Jun 01 






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