Spreading the practice of Dhamma to the West

By D. C. Ranatunga, Sunday Times, June 7, 2007

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Exactly fifty years ago on June 15, 1957 three scholar monks from Vajiraramaya set off on a Dharmaduta mission. Leading the delegation was Venerable Soma Thera. The other two monks were Venerable Kheminda Thera and Venerable Vinitha Thera. They formed the first Dharmaduta mission to Germany. While monks were visiting foreign countries to propagate Buddhism, this mission was different. They were the first to go to Europe on a permanent footing and establish the Buddha Sasana there.

It was the fulfilment of the main objective of the German Dharmaduta Society formed on the initiative of Asoka Weeraratne five years earlier. Then known as 'Lanka Dharmaduta Society', it was dedicated towards spreading the message of the Buddha in Germany and other Western countries. The highly respected Ven. Nyanatiloka Maha Thera who had come to Sri Lanka from Germany in 1903 and made this his spiritual home, confessed that his great wish was to give his mother country "the best I possessed i.e. the Dhamma". He worked hard to achieve this "in the firm conviction that the Dhamma will take root in my home country" and predicted a great future there. The Dharmaduta mission paved the way towards it.

A young businessman dealing in jewellery and Swiss wrist watches, Asoka Weeraratne was on his first business visit to Germany in 1951. The country was slowly recovering from the devastation of the Second World War. War-weary Germans were looking for an alternative moral and spiritual philosophy that placed a high emphasis on peace and non-violence. They looked to the East for solace. Buddhism fitted in to what they were looking for.

Two years later Asoka Weeraratne, as Honorary Secretary of the Society, visited Germany and did a survey of Buddhist activities, preparing the groundwork to establish and maintain a Bhikkhu tradition in Germany providing them with the necessary infrastructure to lead a religious life according to the rules laid down by the Buddha. Having established the Society's headquarters and training centre in Colombo, preparations were made to send the first Dharmaduta mission to Germany.

In 1957 the Society was able to purchase Das Buddhistische Haus, the Centre of German Buddhism built by Paul Dahlke, a well-known German Buddhist scholar around 1924. Situated on a six-acre block of land in a lovely Berlin suburb known as Frohnau, it was converted into a Buddhist Vihara providing residential facilities for the Maha Sangha who would visit Germany for the Dharmaduta work.

Over the past fifty years, the Berlin Vihara has attracted visitors from many different backgrounds and enjoyed the facilities provided to learn the Dhamma. There are regular visitors who attend lectures, discussions and sermons on Buddhism. Then there are seekers who wish to know what constitutes Buddhism as well as visitors who are purely interested in meditation. Researchers visit the Vihara to make use of the collection of Buddhist and Pali books for their studies and tourists interested in the history and architecture of the place. Schoolchildren in the age group of 10-18 years form another group who visit the Vihara.

"All these categories find the serene and peaceful atmosphere in the temple and the calm of the well laid out garden a refreshing experience," says Tissa Weeraratne, the Trustee managing the Berlin Vihara. "The more serious visitor sees the natural environment as ideal for meditation and development of spiritual insights in a city with a reputation for busy activity."

Having firmly established the Berlin Vihara, Asoka Weeraratne ventured out to establish the Mitirigala Forest Hermitage creating an ideal place for meditation and self-discipline. Both foreign and local monks interested in meditation find the forest hermitage a perfect location to practise meditation. He himself donned robes as Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanisanthi Thera and spent a peaceful life in a 'kuti' as a 'vana vasi' – monk living in the forest. He passed away on July 2, 1999 at the age of 80.

Since the establishment of the Berlin Vihara many temples have come up in Germany as well as other European countries. Amongst the many Tibetan and Mahayana temples, the Berlin Vihara remains a centre of Theravada Buddhism catering to the needs of those interested in the Theravada tradition.

"We continue to send monks from Sri Lanka and at any given moment we have at least two monks residing there," says Senaka Weeraratne, Secretary of the German Dharmaduta Society. Dikwelle Seelasumana Thera and Velichchiye Dhammavijaya Thera presently manage the Vihara. Vesak draws a large number of devotees to the temple when a full programme is carried out. Buddhist delegations regularly visit the temple.

Three years before the Buddha Jayanthi, Venerable Nyanatiloka wrote that he wished to see "as a happy culmination of my life if Vesak1956, i.e. the year 2500, will see a well-established mission in Germany which will not fail to have a far-reaching influence on the other Western countries too." His wish has been fulfilled.