A vision yet to be fulfilled: Remembering Ananda Mivanapalana

Lanka Daily News, April 7, 2007

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- In April 1953, a dream dissolved into nothingness when Ananda Mivanapalana breathed his last with tragic suddenness. His last murmured words “peace”, both harked back to his unfulfilled vision of the Shanthi Valley School and signalled the Buddhist equanimity with which he faced the inevitable.

To understand the man and his vision we must go back to his roots and the fervour of Buddhist consciousness that centred round Ananda College in the first few decades of the last century. H.D. Albert (as he was originally named) was an exceptionally bright schoolboy of humble origins, from a little village off Horana. As a schoolboy, intoxicated with the nationalist ferment of Ananda, he boldly discarded his English name and renamed himself Ananda (after his beloved school) Mivanapalana (after his little village).

Mivanapalana was a brilliant student and carried away so many prizes that, one year he had to hire a rickshaw to carry the load home. He was an avid reader all his life. His well-thumbed prize books, carrying Ananda’s proud crest, now adorn the bookshelves of his children.

When Mivanapalana completed his schooling he continued in Ananda as a teacher. He belonged to an enthusiastic band of young teachers and students, who inspired by the charismatic Kularatne, renounced Western clothes and proudly adopted Arya Sinhala dress. In this group were G.P. Malalasekara, D.T. Devendra, W.E. Fernando and D.C. Lawris who wore it all their lives as a badge of national pride and distinction.

While yet a teacher Mivanapalana qualified as a lawyer. Early on he battled the hidebound, black-coated legal establishment and won the right to appear before the bench in Arya Sinhala dress – the very first lawyer to do so.

Mivanapalana was a very successful lawyer who developed an unrivalled expertise and a wide practice in transport and insurance law. He pioneered the establishment of the General Insurance Co., among the first wholly Ceylonese insurance firms. Many successful insurance executives and entrepreneurs began their careers under his tutelage. Characteristically, his company head office was in the Olcott Building of the Buddhist Theosophical Society.

Mivanapalana was closely associated with Malalasekera in the foundation and activities of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, the first Buddhist organisation in colonial Ceylon with all-island scope. Its annual conferences held in provincial centres were important public occasions which focused on vital issues that concerned the entire Buddhist community, providing a forum for grassroots participation. In 1952 the ACBC called the very first major international gathering of Buddhists which established the World Fellowship of Buddhists. Mivanapalana was one of its founding fathers.

In the early 1940’s the course of his life was changed by an extraordinary personality Henry Van Zeyst, an intensely spiritual young Dutchman, who had left a Jesuit monastery and come to Ceylon in his search for Buddhism, Van Zeyst entered the Sangha as Bhikku Dhammapala. Mivanapalana became his foremost acolyte.

The partnership of Dhammapala and Mivanapalana made a tremendous impression on Buddhist schoolchildren in the mid-1940’s. Dhammapala spoke to them in simple English, brilliant with human cameos and an impish humour that made Buddhism real and meaningful to the young. Their partnership, and the fervent enthusiasm they inspired among their following of schoolchildren, inspired the formation of the All Ceylon Buddhist Students’ Union (ACBSU) – run by students themselves. For many years it was a lively, vital and vocal organisation with its own journal (BEES) and enthusiastic conventions, playing an activist role in Buddhist schools. It is significant that many who began as ACBSU student leaders rose to prominence in the wider world – Dr. W.M. Tilakaratne, Dr. H.S.S. Nissanka, Stanley Tilakaratne, Dr. Vinnie Vitharana, Dr. Siri Gunasinghe, Asoka Devendra and the late Dr. K.H.M. Sumathipala and Henry Dissanayake.

Education was Mivanapalana’s other great love. He was an exponent of both mental and physical education. He was an enthusiast of physical culture, devoted to “pumping iron” decades before it became today’s fad, and even found the time to head the All Ceylon Weight Lifters’ Association and organise Indo-Ceylon championships.

Brilliant student though he had been, Mivanapalana did not trust the formal education imparted in schools. He was convinced by the books of the radical educationalist A.S. Neill who believed in freeing the potential of children from the fetters of examinations. His own children were never admitted to school until they wanted to go themselves. They had the run of his vast library, the conversation of his many friends and the opportunity of travelling widely in their homeland and India. They have all gone on to lead successful and fulfilled lives – thus proving the validity of Mivanapalana’s convictions.

Mivanapalana’s personal generosity knew no bounds. It was as widespread as it was unobtrusive.

While in India, Mivanapalana was impressed by the non-formal and holistic education imparted in the Theosophical Schools at Adyar and the beautiful mountains of Rishi Valley. They aimed to develop the child’s personality without compulsion and to impart knowledge without the sharp spur of competitiveness. He returned to Ceylon determined to replicate these institutions in an inspiring location. He purchased a vast extent of wooded hills and valleys in Rangala, remote from urban centres, and established the foundation of a self-sustaining education community, staffed by idealistic youths serving both village children and others bold enough to hike the hills in order to awaken their consciousness and latent abilities within the community of “Shanthi Valley”, as Mivanapalana named it.

This wonderful dream was never to be fulfilled.