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‘I have work to do in bringing the peace of the Buddha westward’

by Kumar Wethasinghe, The Sunday Times, Sept 17, 2011

Anagarika Dharmapala’s 147th birth anniversary fell on September 17

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- From time to time the nation pays tribute to its past heroes, for their benevolent contributions and immense sacrifices made towards national upliftment. Ven. Anagarika Dharmapala is one such personality to be commemorated for his services to a Sri Lankan nation and to humanity at large.

Don David Hewavitharana was born to a wealthy and renowned Sri Lankan family on September 17, 147 years ago. Since his early teens he aspired to apply the doctrine of the Buddha to elevate the suffering humanity and went on to become the Anagarika Dharmapala.

David Hewavitharana aged six, was admitted to a Roman Catholic school, since the Buddhist temple schools at the time were forcibly shut down by the British colonial government. Later he was sent to an Anglican boarding school. Anagarika said, “I was taught very little history and arithmetic but pored over Bible lessons from morning till evening.”

Intelligent and conscientious he pursued his studies with diligence, in spite of several incidents where his reluctance to forsake Buddhist principles brought him in to conflict with missionary authorities ending his school career in 1883.

As he was reaching the prime of youth, the Maha Sangha under the patronage of the scholarly monk, the most Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayake Thera and great debator monk Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera, had been involved in five historical debates (Pancha Maha Vaada), to resurrect Buddhist religious rights and national heritage.

In 1875 Dr J.M. Peebles, a visiting American spiritualist, carried a full report of the debates to the US. Col. Henry Steele Olcott and Madame H.P. Blavatsky, who were engaged in theosophical work in America at the time were deeply impressed by the philosophical arguments contained in the report. They visited Galle in 1880. They were received by the Ven. Sumangala Nayake Thera. After observing “Panchaseela”, they both vowed to dedicate themselves to salvage our nation and successfully established a Buddhist National Education Scheme in Sri Lanka.

A schoolboy of 17 then, Anagarika, awaited their arrival. Owing to his family influence, his Buddhist principles remained unshaken. He resolved to become an Anagarika (a homeless celibate and seeker of truth). Srimathi Mallika Hewavitharana and Muhandiram Don Carolis Hewavitharana, his parents supported him in his endeavour.

When Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky revisited Sri Lanka, enroute to India in 1884, Anagarika had already expressed to Madame Blavatsky his desire to study theosophy and occultism from Himalyan spiritualists.

His father and elders objected but Madame Blavatsky persuaded them to give their consent. Once in Adyar in India, she also convinced the young Anagarika, that rather than studying theosophy and occultism, learning the Pali language would enhance his future aspirations.

Having returned from Adyar, the Anagarika joined the Department of Education as a junior clerk. In 1886, when Col. Olcott returned to Sri Lanka with C.W. Leadbeater, to launch a National Educational Fund, Anagarika took three months leave to join their campaign.

Meanwhile the British government released the results of the general clerical service examination, indicating that Anagarika had obtained a pass with extraordinary distinctions. However, he opted to send in his letter of resignation and devote his time for the cause of humanity.

Anagarika accompanied Col. Olcott, to all distant corners of the country and reawakened his dormant countrymen with his vibrant preaching and fluent oratory. His words and deeds inspired his listeners. Gradually, his forthrightness and fearlessness, no to mention his charismatic personality won the hearts of many thousands all over the world. He became a friend of Indian national leaders including Saratchandra Das Rajendra Prasad, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, Western intellectuals Annie Besant and Sir Edwin Arnold.

After his first visits to Adyar (Madras) in 1884, the Anagarika revisited India, on a pilgrimage to Buddha Gaya in 1891. “When I beheld the sacred Bo tree, an offshoot of the original tree under which the ‘Sakya Muni’, gained enlightenment, I had the same winged peace of mind as the humblest pilgrim.” Nevertheless, on seeing the religious discrimination and the distortions done to the Buddhist carvings of the ancient stupa nearby, by Hindu Mahants, he was highly perturbed. He resolved to stay on there instead of returning to Sri Lanka, and vowed to agitate for the liberation of Buddha Gaya. Initially he built a Dharmasala and pilgrims’ rest in 1901.

Accordingly, on May 31, 1891, the Maha Bodhi Society (MBS), was established to rescue the holy Buddhist places and revive the Buddha Dhamma, in the land of its origin.

Subsequently he started the English journal “Maha Bodhi”, followed by the ‘Sinhala Bauddhya’ newspaper which became his weapon of offence and defence to champion his cause. Mr. Burrows, chairman of the World Parliament of Religions, in acknowledgement of the MB journal, extended an invitation for a Buddhist delegate to attend the World Religious Congress in Chicago, in September 1893. In the absence of a competent candidate, Anagarika then aged 29 years, undertook the challenge himself to address the congress. So impressive was he, he was appointed a member of the Advisory Council of the World Religious Parliament.

He revisited USA twice, in 1902 and 1925, each time delivering a series of lectures in Chicago, San Francisco, etc. In 1891, he gave his maiden English lecture in Calcutta. The following year an MBS branch, was inaugurated there. On September 28, 1899, the Madras branch of the MBS was ceremonially inaugurated. Addressing a gathering Anagarika had said he did not want educated men to retire to forests and waste their lives in speculation but wanted them to sacrifice their luxuries for the happiness and enlightenment of the masses.

His mission and vision was not confined to one country or one nation. Beginning from 1893, he travelled to Rangoon, London, Chicago, San Francisco, Honolulu, Japan, Shanghai, Bangkok, Holland, Denmark etc.

While in London he stayed with his lifelong friend Sir Edwin Arnold, the renowned author of the “Light of Asia”, and made acquaintance with Madam Annie Besant. Anagarika first met the blessed philanthropist Madam Mary Foster Robinson, at Honolulu in 1893. She listened to Anagarika’s preaching and generously donated her wealth for the propagation and promotion of the Buddha Dhamma.

Thus Anagarika, was able to establish and maintain the British Buddhist mission at Ealing, London, purchased at a cost of sterling pounds 2600, in 1920, and a land in Calcutta for a permanent MBS Centre. In Sri Lanka, Anagarika, built a school at Rajagiriya. Besides the “Mary Foster Robinson Fund”, was founded with a capital of 1500 U.S. dollars and the Mary Foster Memorial Free Hospital established in 1914. During the same visit Anagarika dedicated his family’s house and property for the Mallika Santhagara.

The imperial colonial rulers of the day fearing the emergence of a powerful leadership in him, confined him to jail for seven long years despite his constant announcements, “I have to be active, activity means agitation according to constitutional methods”.

The opening of the MBS branches in Saranath and Calcutta as well as the construction and completion of the Mulagandhakuty Vihara and the Dharamrajika Vihara were two crowning achievements of Anagarika, during his last days. The sacred relics of the Sakya Muni Buddha, were enshrined at both viharas under the patronage of British Governors.

He explained his mission in life thus:

“Two thousand five hundred years ago Lord Buddha began His Mission to save the world from sorrow. For 200 years the Bhikkus confined their labours to India only. In the 236th year of the Parinirvana of the Holy One the Bhikkhus crossed the frontiers and went to distant lands to preach the good law. 2234 years ago the son of the great emperor Asoka and his daughter princess Sanghamitta went over to my country – Ceylon – and established Buddhism, planting also a branch of the sacred Bo-tree of Buddhagaya. The tree and the good law are still flourishing in the beautiful island, and I have come to this land of a noble people to tell them of the sweet things which the Blessed One taught them 2500 years ago.

“Since my nineteenth year I have tried to lead the pure life as taught by the compassionate Buddha and I have found great solace in the efforts I have made. I have been a world wanderer for forty years with no place to call my own, with one only desire – to be selfless and to work for the welfare of all beings.”
Dr. Ananda Guruge’s centenary volume “Return to Righteousness” discloses a fascinating account of the mission and vision of the Anagarika. The commemorative message issued by the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake is most significant.

“The Anagarika’s services to his country were many. But the two outstanding services he rendered were to resuscitate Buddhism and Sinhalese culture in Ceylon at a time when over 300 years of foreign domination had sapped their vitality. His other outstanding contribution was an unswerving loyalty to the nationalist movement and the nationalist cause. Anagarika Dharmapala worked and campaigned to further these great causes amidst many difficulties. It was a period when Buddhism and the national culture had perhaps reached their lowest ebb. Buddhist schools were almost non-existent. Pirivena education had suffered from centuries of neglect.

Buddhist temples and places of worship had fallen into disrepair whilst in many instances lands and other property endowed to them from ancient times had been taken away. In such an environment it was not surprising that the Buddhist clergy, too, declined. All this was to have adverse and debilitating effects on the national life and national culture because of the close and inextricable link between Buddhism and Sinhalese culture. Added to this was the preponderance of western influence which was gradually weaning away the people from their national culture and, in the process, destroying their national identity. The great achievements of the Anagarika, have to be judged in this very difficult context in which he worked.”

Following Anagarika’s address at the World Parliament of Religions, western newspapers hailed his efforts.

The New York World, (9.19.1893), Woman’s Tribune, Washington (10.9.93) wrote: “Mr. Dharmapala was one of the most interesting personages of the parliament. Always dressed in spotless white, his hair parted in the middle, and coming together in a curl at the back, his face gentle and refined, he seemed just like a familiar portrait of Jesus.”

The Journal, Chicago (9.14.1893) said,: “Contempt and pity for the oriental religions have given way to respect and admiration.”

Sentinel, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (9.12.1893) reported that, “It is beginning to be understood that Buddhism is a pure and lofty faith inculcating a strict morality, and held by men of high intelligence.”
In “The Spectator” of 30th January, 1926, under the heading “A Buddhist in Bayswater, F. Yeats-Brown, recorded his impressions of the 61-one-year-old missionary whose strength of conviction and vigour of presentation had only increased with advancing age: “Last month I heard a tall priest, dressed in the saffron robes of an Oriental ascetic, attempt to convert an American audience to Buddhism. A few days ago I saw him again in London and learned of his object in coming here. His project is to establish a Buddhist missionary centre in England.

“Before taking my seat in the Town Hall, New York, I had looked round the hall and observed that the gathering was composed chiefly of that curious type of citizen, with lofty brow but vacant eye, who seems to emerge from nowhere to form the clientele of Eastern cults. Some distinguished persons, however, were supporting the speaker on the platform, amongst them Mr. Ralph Waldo Trine, author of, “In tune with the Infinite.”

“Had any of us, I asked myself, really attained to inward harmony? Judged by outward appearance one person only in that audience of a thousand stood out as having learned the secrets of poise and peace, and that was the ’Anagarika Dharmapala, who was to address us. Certainly he looked delicate, but he seemed to hold an inner light within him, a latent fire of purpose.

“Our friend is most infirm” said the chairman “and you must excuse him if he speaks sitting down.” But when our Buddhist came to speak, he rose to the full six feet of him and brandished a walking stick at the audience. “I learned your faith in a mission school in Ceylon” he said “and one day the missionary took his gun and shot some little birds-so-and so! That made me revert to the faith of my fathers. But I have studied the Bible and revere its teachings. Your Master was poor and homeless. In all humility I claim to follow in His footsteps. I also have no money and nowhere to lay my head.

But I have a work to do in bringing the peace of the Buddha westward, and friends have provided funds for me to establish a church in London. On my way, I have stopped to tell you of the Lord Buddha, who was born a Prince and renounced his Kingdom to find, if may be, a solution to life’s mysteries. For six years he studied the Ancient Wisdom, to find at last, in the words of your Teacher, that the Kingdom of Heaven is within Man himself. There is no heaven or hell but of your own making. Discover, then, the paradise here in this body pent the heaven here and now of which Lord Buddha tells.”

And so on for an hour. Not a move or a cough from the audience. Not a tremble in those lips that thundered the denunciation of an Isaiah against our spiritual sloth, nor any hint of exhaustion in that frail frame. Here was a man with a message. He delivered it erect, composed, master of himself and his hearers, with the art of an orator and the dignity of a priest to whom the world is nothing. When he sat down there was a dead silence, followed by a burst of applause. We were moved – but not converted.”
The Anagarika’s last visit to Sri Lanka was in 1931. During that visit he founded the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust.

On his return to India Srimath Anagarika Dharmapala, entered the order of Bhikkhus, assuming the name Sri Devamitta Dharmapala. Two years afterwards in January 1933, he received his “Upasampada” (higher ordination).

On a mournful April 29, 1933 Ven. Dharmapala passed away at Isipathana. His last words were “Let me be born again, twenty five times in India to spread the Buddha Dhamma.”



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