Editorials by Sangharakshita

 
 

Our Founder's Birthday

This editorial first appeared in The Maha Bodhi, August 1954

on September 17th we celebrate the 80th Birth Anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala (Ven. Siri Devamitta Dhammapala), Founder of the Maha Bodhi Society, pioneer of Buddhist revival in India, and the greatest Buddhist missionary of modern times.

Born in the Pettah district of Colombo, of deeply religious parents, during the darkest days of Ceylon Buddhism, Don David Hewavitarne (as he was called) soon began to exhibit those striking traits of character which made him, in the days of his maturity, truly 'a lion among men'. He was hardly in his 'teens when he refused to attend St. Thomas's public school, a Christian missionary institution at which he was then being educated, on the occasion of the Thrice-Sacred Vaisakha Purnima. The Warden of the school, to whom it was unthinkable that a Christian institution should grant a student leave for the celebration of a 'heathen' festival, thrashed him soundly for his independent behaviour. But for Dharmapala, then and throughout his life, there could be no compromise. For three more years he stayed away from school on Vaisakha Purnima, and for three more years he received the same punishment.

While still in his 'teens Dharmapala came under the influence of Mme. H. P. Blavatsky and Col. H. S. Olcott, Founders of the Theosophical Society, who had come to Ceylon in 1880. The first Europeans publicly to declare their faith in Buddhism by taking the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, their triumphal tour from Galle to Colombo was the occasion of an outbreak of popular religious enthusiasm. Buddhism, long crushed beneath the heel of the missionaries, began to raise its head again. Hundreds of educated Sinhalese joined the Society, among them Dharmapala, who at this period was consumed by an intense thirst for spiritual experience through the practice of yoga. It is a sad commentary on the depths to which Ceylon Buddhism had sunk - or rather, into which it had been thrust - by the end of the nineteenth century, that in the whole country he could not find a single bhikkhu capable of instructing him in the traditional methods of concentration and meditation. Accompanying Mme. Blavatsky to Adyar in 1884, he was advised by her not to take up the study of occultism, but to study Pali, where all he needed could be found, and to work for the good of humanity.

It was not until 1891, however, when for the first time he visited Buddha Gaya, where the Lord Buddha attained Supreme Enlightenment, that Dharmapala Hewavitarne, then in his twenty-ninth year, found his life-work. His diary relates: 'As soon as I touched with my forehead the Vajrasana a sudden impulse came to my mind. It prompted me to stop here and take care of this sacred spot - so sacred that nothing in the world is equal to this place where Prince Sakya Sinha gained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree'. Not many months had passed before he discovered that the rehabilitation of Buddha Gaya was not such an easy task as he had supposed. Certain vested interests stood in the way, and the task of frustrating their attempts to check the movement he had inaugurated was one which consumed the greater part of his energies for more than a quarter of a century. The Anagarika soon realised that he could not hope to restore Buddha Gaya to a semblance at least of its former glory without the sympathy and co-operation of the Indian public, and this sympathy and co-operation, it was clear, could proceed only from a knowledge of the principles of Buddhism and an appreciation of the greatness of the Buddhist contribution to Indian culture and civilization. The restoration of Buddha Gaya was only part of the more comprehensive work of reviving Buddhism in the land of its birth. It is therefore as a pioneer of Buddhist revival in India that the Anagarika is chiefly remembered today, and whatever the condition of the Maha Bodhi Temple at Buddha Gaya may be - and with the virtual collapse of the Managing Committee appointed by the Bihar Government it is far from satisfactory even now - his acheivement in creating in the minds of educated Indians a clearer and more vivid awareness of the unique greatness of Buddhism rests on unshakeable foundations.

But though the major part of Anagarika Dharmapala's tremendous energy was expended for the revival of Buddhism in India, it would be a mistake to assume that his interests and activities could be limited to any one country or continent. Not only upon India, but upon Ceylon, and upon the Buddhist movements in Europe and America, he left indelibly the imprint of his spiritual genius and missionary zeal. He was the first Buddhist preacher of modern times to girdle the globe with the Message of the Master. His outlook was international. He towered above differences of sect and nationality, and created by the labours of four decades an international and non-sectarian Buddhist organization which still vibrates with the energy imparted to it by the personality of the Founder.

The picture which Anagarika Dharmapala's life presents to us is indeed a noble and inspiring one. Unflagging in his efforts to propagate the Dharma, fearless in the advocacy of Truth, unsparing in his condemnation of vice and hypocrisy wherever he found them; spotlessly pure in his life; burning with unquenchable enthusiasm for the sacred cause to which he had dedicated every beat of his heart and every breath of his nostrils; overflowing with maitri for the poor and oppressed; filled with a compassion that was almost agony for the misery and wretchedness of human life; striving and struggling every day of his life for moral and spiritual perfection, - until his death in 1933 Anagarika Dharmapala indeed bestrode the Buddhist world 'like a Colossus'. His words rolled like thunder over the somnolent heads of his co-religionists and roused them from the sleep of ages. For nearly fifty years his actions were series of lightning flashes which illumined the darkness of Buddhist Asia. His fiery spirit felt that one life was all too short for the accomplishment of the great task which he had set himself, and before he died he vowed that he would be reborn twenty-five times for the propagation of the Lord Buddha's Dharma. May his aspirations be fulfilled! Meanwhile, the work lies in our hands, and as we celebrate the Birth Anniversary of one of the noblest souls that have ever walked this earth, let us all, members and friends of the organization which he founded, and for which he sacrificed so much, resolve that we shall best carry on his work by following his example.

No celebration of Anagarika Dharmapala's Birthday would be complete without an equally grateful remembrance of his great patroness, Mrs. Mary E. Foster of Honolulu, and he himself directed that her Birthday should be celebrated at the same time as his own. Without the unparallelled benefactions of this large-hearted lady, whose donations totalled no less than one million rupees, it is doubtful whether even the Anagarika could have accomplished for Buddhism as much as he did. On September 17th, therefore, we honour them both, and hope that the remembrance of their lives may stimulate all Buddhists and all friends of Buddhism to noble endeavours.