THE FOUNDER OF THE LONDON BUDDHIST VIHARA
MAHA BODHI SOCIETY
Just over a century ago there was born a man destined to burn with a desire to spur the people of Sri Lanka with a deep sense of patriotism, nationalism and service. His enthusiasm and tireless efforts made him drive his human frame to lengths beyond common human endurance and in a noble life dedicated to national and religious causes, he has left inspiration for his compatriots who live today. That noble personality was none other than Anagarika Dharmapala, a distinguished son of Lanka, who saw the plight his people had fallen into - their religion neglected, their lives dispirited and drifting into something alien and unnatural.
Born on 17th September 1864 to a rich and influential family in Colombo, in accordance with the custom of the day the child was named Don David. He was the son of H. Don Carolis, the founder of a furniture shop and Mallika Hewavitarne.
From his young days David's ideas were fashioned in conformity to the Buddhist way of life and very soon he came under the influence of two great Buddhist leaders of the time, Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera and Migettuwatte Sri Gunananda Thera and as a result of this he developed a great attachment to the Buddhist monks. In one of his articles Dharmapala states :
"In contrast to my wine-drinking, meat-eating and pleasure-loving missionary teachers, the Bhikkhus were meek and abstemious. I loved their company and would sit quietly in a corner and listen to their wise discourse, even when it was far above my head."
In 1880 as a boy of 16 years he chanced to meet Colonel Olcott and Madam Blavatsky as a result of which meeting he was drawn to a life of religious dedication. In 1884, much against the wishes of his father, Dharmapala was taken by Madam Blavatsky to Adyar. Later returning from India he resided at the Theosophical Society Headquarters.
In 1886 when Colonel Olcott and C.W. Leadbeater came to Sri Lanka to collect funds for the Buddhist Education Fund Dharmapala was a junior clerk who had already acquired a sound knowledge of English, Sinhalese and Pali and, in addition, had mastered the Buddhist scriptures. Soon he joined Colonel Olcott and Leadbeater in their campaign for Buddhist schools.
He renounced the wealth, position and comforts of a home life, adopted the name Anagarika (homeless) and garbed in the simple attire of a Buddhist devotee he became a religious propagandist.
His tours of Ceylon's (now Sri Lanka) remote villages made him understand the handicaps the local villagers were forced to experience without proper roads and houses, schools and hospitals. Shortly he was convinced of the fact that the greatness of a nation depended solely on the happiness and contentment of the rural folk and he dreamed of the day when Ceylon would emerge as an independent nation and bring back to life the religion and pristine glory of the Sinhala race.
Anagarika Dharmapala's services to Buddhism were many. The most outstanding thing in his life was the active part he played to resuscitate Buddhism in Ceylon and the contribution to the nationalist movement. He campaigned for these worthy causes amidst tremendous difficulties.
He first made his name internationally when he attended the World Parliament of Religion held in Chicago in 1893. Being erudite with his knowledge of the Dhamma he won many converts. A pen-portrait of Anagarika Dharmapala published in the American Journal, St. Louis Observer, on his memorable address to the Congress of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 states:
"With black curly locks thrown from his broad brow, his clean, clear eyes fixed upon the audience, his long, brown fingers emphasising the utterances of his vibrant voice he looked the very image of a propagandist, and one trembled to know that such a figure stood at the head of the movement to consolidate all the disciples of Buddha and to spread the light of Asia throughout the world".
Anagarika Dharmapala, whose foremost thoughts were the love for his country and religion, had a truly international outlook as well. In fact he was a colossus that spurned the barriers of race, creed and nationality. His activities were not confined to his land of birth only; he inspired men and events of other countries as well. His untiring struggles in India to obtain Buddha Gaya for the Buddhists is an outstanding example which shows that his principles transcended barriers of race and nationality. He went about his onerous tasks with a great missionary zeal and all that he uttered came from a sincere heart with a burning patriotism and religious fervour.
He was fearless in manner, independent in spirit and his dynamic personality beamed forth radiant energy which permeated through both national and international audiences. Wherever he went large crowds assembled and listened to him with wrapt attention. His vibrant voice resonated throughout the country and inspired the listeners with its magical effect. His silver-tongued oratory transcended throughout the country calling for Buddhist resurgence, Buddhist unity and national awareness.
He was in the fore-front of national and Buddhist movements for 47 years. He founded the Maha Bodhi Society on 31st May, 1891. His weekly publication, Sinhala Bauddhaya, was a powerful organ of Buddhist opinion which guided and inspired the nation's religious and national campaigns. Besides these he addressed thousands of meetings and published numerous articles in national and international journals. Whenever he wrote he was very forceful. Anagarika Dharmapala's personal correspondence shows his real form - warm and genial in friendship and devastatingly critical as well.
He was always clamouring for independence and repeatedly criticised the imperialists. Anagarika Dharmapala always held lofty ideas on religious tolerance and he often remarked:
"Religion is a thing of the heart, and it is beyond the power of man to go into the heart of other people. To oppress a human being for his inner conviction is diabolical."
He had first visited England en route to America where he visited Edwin Arnold, the author of 'Light of Asia'. Having experienced such great influence from the British, and as at the time London was considered the 'centre of the world', Anagarika Dharmapala was determined to set up a Vihara with resident monks from Ceylon to share the great joys of the Dhamma with the English people.
He had met Mrs. Mary Foster whilst travelling to Honolulu and this lady became his main benefactor. She financed the setting up of 'Foster House' in Ealing which was the very first missionary vihara to be founded outside the Asian continent. The London Buddhist Vihara was opened in 1926. Very soon afterwards it moved to a more central, larger premises at Gloucester Road where it continued until the Second World War. During the war the house was requisitioned, the monks having returned to Ceylon. In 1955 the Vihara was reopened with the help of many Sinhalese, in Ovington Square, Knightsbridge. Amongst many monks resident there was the famous author Ven. Narada. Ven. Dr. H. Saddhatissa became Head of Vihara in 1958 and on the expiry of the lease, the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust purchased a new home for the Vihara at 5 Heathfield Gardens in Chiswick, West London. These premises opened on 24th April 1964. Early in 1985, Ven. Saddhatissa relinquished his administrative responsibilities for various reasons and Ven. Dr. Medagama Vajiragnana was officially appointed Head of the Vihara by the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust. Under the guidance of Ven. M. Vajiragnana, the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust purchased a spacious property and moved the Vihara to its present location in The Avenue, Chiswick on 21st May, 1994.
Anagarika Dharmapala worked tirelessly to create many charitable institutions, maintaining hospitals, schools and foundations for spreading Buddhism and helping all in need. He started publishing the splendid Buddhist journal "The Mahabodhi" in1891. To continue his mission for future generations he established the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust in 1930. During that year he ordained as monk.
Anagarika Dharmapala's service is of much historical significance both to India and Sri Lanka and even today we are guided by some of his mature views. He died at Sarnath in 1933 and his last words were "Let me be reborn. I would like to be born again twenty-five times to spread Lord Buddha's Dhamma." His was a life of rich dedication which every human being should strive to emulate.
By Andrew Scott (Sri Lanka) The Maha Bodhi, Apr- Jun, 1981, p. 129