Anaragika Dharmapala: A True Visionary

Anagarika Dharmapala had the inspiration to visit the political leaders of the Buddhist countries of Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Sri Lanka.


by Ven. Aggamaha Pandita Dr. Walpola Piyananda

( September 16, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Buddhism in the 21st century is indebted to the visionary work of Anagarika Dharmapala. Visiting the temple at Bodh Gaya and the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in India he was appalled by the sorry state of those holy sites and he dedicated his life’s work to the preservation of the places where the Buddha lived and taught. He was also responsible for the establishment of the Pali Language Department at Calcutta University and he tirelessly propagated the Buddha’s teaching around the world. Anagarika Dharmapala had the ability to foresee the necessary developments to insure the health and well-being of the Dhamma in the future. He saw four that would keep the Buddhasasana strong and enable to grow.

Firstly, in our Theravada tradition, in order to fully study the teachings of the Buddha, an in-depth understanding of the Pali language is necessary. With this knowledge the deeper meanings and subtle nuances of the Buddha’s actual words are illuminated. Dharmapala realized the importance of the study of Pali when he was young. At that time there were no formal academic studies of this ancient tongue at the university level. In 1907 Dharmapala worked hard to persuade the Indian education minister Vice Chancellor Dr. Asutosh Mookerjee in Kolkata to establish the first Pali Studies Department at Calcutta University. He made arrangements for Pali scholars from Sri Lanka to staff this newly formed department. The first monk to teach in this department was Ven.
Suriyagoda Sumangala.

The Pali department educated such noteworthy Indian scholars as Dr. Nalinaksha Dutta, Dr. Sukumar Dutta, Dr. B. C. Law, Dr. B. M. Baruwa, Dr. Anukul Chandra Banarje, and Dr. Dipak Baruwa. Sri Lankan scholars were Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula, Dr. D. A. Hettiarachchi, Dr. Wimalananda Tennakoon and Dr. Siripala Leelaratne. From Calcutta University, these scholars took Pali studies to New Delhi, Varanasi, London, and Sri Lanka – and eventually to colleges and universities around the world. Many scholars benefitted from what Dharmapala established – including me, since I also studied Pali at Calcutta University when I was a young monk. Dharmapala also arranged for Indian laypeople to go to Sri Lanka to study and be ordained as monks: Rahul Sasrithayayar, Shanta Shastree and Ananda Kushalyana. The Indian monks were Ven. Bengali Buddharakkhita, Bihari Dhammarakkhita, and Jagadepa Kassapa. Sri Lankan monks were Metiwala Sagaratana, Uruwala Dhammaratana, Udakandawal Saranankara Dhammajothi were novices who went to India to study with their teachers and became monks. Dharmapala’s student, a British man, became Ven. Sangharakkhita and was the editor of the Maha Bodhi Magazine. As a Buddhist minister he later started the Western Buddhist Order in England. His ministers teach and perform many social welfare activities around the world.

Secondly, Anagarika Dharmapala had the inspiration to visit the political leaders of the Buddhist countries of Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Sri Lanka. He pleaded with them to have their children study English, science, and other subjects in schools abroad – and upon their return teach in their native lands. He advised the leaders not to allow missionaries to invade their countries and convert the young people to Christianity. He knew from experience such indoctrination would destroy Buddhist values and undermine their national culture.

Dharmapala learned this lesson from personally observing what had happened in Sri Lanka. It was a Buddhist country for nearly two thousand years where the weight of four hundred years of British colonialism and their Christian missionaries caused the Sasana to decline. At the end of the 19th century Buddhism was on the verge of extinction in Sri Lanka when Anagarika Dharmapala and his American mentor, Col. Henry S. Olcott, stepped in to save the day at the end. They traveled throughout Sri Lanka raising money to establish Buddhist schools to strengthen the peoples’ confidence in their native traditions.

Thirdly, Anagarika Dharmapala urged the re-establishment of the Bhikkhuni Order in the various Buddhist countries where it had ceased to exist; he wrote extensively of this in his published diaries. He once said, “Buddhism should utilize the services of Datasil Mata and Bhikkhunis to propagate the Dhamma, and to spread the Buddhist life around the world.” It wasn’t until decades after his death that this sage advice was taken to heart and now Theravada Bhikkhunis are thriving in the United States, Europe, and other countries of the Western world – as well as in Sri Lanka.

The contributions of bhikkhunis to the societies in which they live are numerous. They provide instruction in meditation and the Dhamma. They offer valuable social services for their local communities strengthening the bonds between Buddhist lay people and the Sangha. I am very proud that I myself had a hand in reinvigorating the custom of Bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka and transplanting it to the United States.

A story told to me by one of my teachers, Ven. Ananda Maitreya Maha Nakake Thero is an example of Anagarika Dharmapala’s innovative way to strengthen Buddhasasana. Ven. Ananda Maitreya was a teacher at Ananda College in Colombo, Sri Lanka when Dharmapala came to his room for a visit. Ven. Ananda was a sitar player, but he played in secret, knowing that music was frowned upon by the conservative elements of Buddhist society. Dharmapala saw his sitar case under the bed and asked if he played the instrument. Ven. Ananda replied sheepishly that yes, he did play it sometimes, but very poorly. Dharmapala replied, “Then you must learn to play it well! Music can be an extremely effective vehicle for propagating Buddhism. Songs with Dharma themes can be composed and performed with devotion influencing and elevating the hearts and minds of a multitude of listeners – now and in the future.”

Finally, Anagarika Dharmapala’s promotion of the healing properties of the Buddhist Dharma strengthened the Buddhasasana. One of the Buddha’s titles was the Medicine Buddha, for the help he gave to people in alleviating their pain and suffering. He and his friend, Swami Vivekananda of India attended the World Parliament of Religion in Chicago in 1888. Dharmapala and Vivekananda were invited by the Rockefeller and Foster families to visit for a healing. Vivekananda channeled energy to heal a member of the Rockefeller family. In Hawaii, Dharmapala used the energy of Metta to heal Mrs. Mary Foster, who became his benefactor.

Dharmapala knew that the Buddha used Metta to accomplish healings and understood that the energy of Metta was the most potent force in the Universe.

In summary, Buddhism wouldn’t be the same today if it wasn’t for the foresight, vision, and dedication of Anagarika Dharmapala. His ability to see beyond the present moment shaped the future course of the Sasana, and it still guides and shapes it today.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

Sri Lanka Guardian has been providing breaking news & views for the progressive community since 2007. We are independent and non-profit.