Editorials by Sangharakshita

 
 

Two Great Lives

Lives of great men all remind us/ We can make our lives sublime,/ And, departing, leave behind us/ Footprints in the sands of time .

These noble lines by the poet Longfellow are particularly apt to come into our minds this month, for on September 17th we celebrate the Birth Anniversary of one to whom their application is so fitting that they might have been specially written for him - Anagarika Dharmapala. Some men there are, no doubt, who lead sublime lives - lives of humble virtue and obscure self-abnegation - without being able to leave even a single footprint on the sands of time: their names are 'writ in water'. Others, on the contrary, even though their lives are far from sublime somehow succeed in leaving very large footprints indeed.

Anagarika Dharmapala was one of the rare souls to whom it is given to do both. None of those who knew him personally - hundreds of them are still alive today - ever doubted that the life he led was a sublime one, and the same impression is conveyed even by the bare facts of his career, as chronicled for instance in the Society's publication Anagarika Dharmapala: A Biographical Sketch.

Such an impression is in a sense only natural, for it is well known that the Anagarika's mission was inspired by the sublimest of all ideals - that of the self-sacrificing and compassionate Bodhisattva. While it would be an exaggeration to claim that we may find exemplified in his biography all the Ten Perfections which are to be practised by those who aspire to Supreme Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, it is no more than the truth that many of them are exemplified. Morality (sila), Renunciation (nekkhama), Energy (viriya), Truthfulness (sacca), Resolution (adhitthana), and Love (metta) - to draw from the list in its Theravada formulation - could all be illustrated again and again from his biography, and the practise of these six Perfections is enough, surely, to set the stamp of sublimity on any life.

 

That the Anagarika Dharmapala left footprints in the sands of time is a fact of which we are particularly reminded in this, the 2500th Buddha Jayanti year, for it is the fruits of his tremendous labours that we are now enjoying. Though even without him and his work the historical importance of Buddhism would have received scholarly recognition in this country, especially after Independence, it is doubtful whether a movement of popular revival would ever have developed. But speculations are unprofitable. Undeniably and indisputably Anagarika Dharmapala is the man who put Buddhism back onto the map of India. As such he has a permanent place both in the history of Buddhism and the history of India. This is surely a 'footprint' large and deep enough to satisfy even the most captious of critics.

No remembrance of the Anagarika's Birth Anniversary would be complete without a corresponding commemoration of his friend and benefactress the inexhaustibly bountiful Mrs. Mary E. Foster, whose own Birth Anniversary falls, by a remarkable 'coincidence', on September 21st. Though even without the backing of his 'foster mother' as she became after his own mother's death, the Anagarika's career would have exhibited the same moral grandeur it is doubtful whether it would have been so rich in concrete material achievement. As we observed on a previous occasion, no man can make bricks without straw: it was Mrs. Foster's humble but indispensible function to provide the 'straw' for the bricks with which a large part of the edifice of Buddhist revival in India was built. Consequently we remember her whenever we remember her 'foster son', and with the same gratitude. She made her life sublime simply through Giving (dana), the first of the Ten Perfections. Hence she too has left 'footprints' - scarcely indistinguishable from those of the Anagarika himself.

As the first two lines of Longfellow's quatrain insist, the lives of great men - and great women - are a reminder that we can make our lives sublime. Remembrance is only a means to imitation. We should not merely commemorate the Birth Anniversaries of the Anagarika Dharmapala and Mrs. Mary E. Foster: we should find in the story of their lives inspiration for our own. Now, more than ever, does the great work of Buddhist revival call, especially here in India, for the active cooperation of all Buddhists and friends of Buddhism. If we are unable ourselves to work actively for the propagation of the Dharma we should at least encourage and support individuals and organisations who do. Either the Anagarika Dharmapala or Mrs. Mary E. Foster should be our ideal. To the extent to which we succeed in following their inspiring example our own lives will become sublime and we too shall leave footprints on the sands of Buddhist history.