VIENNESE EXPERIENCE AND BUDDHIST DEVOUTNESS IN AUSTRIA
Posted on October 9th, 2014

Dr. Tilak Fernando

LIFE ABROAD – Part 99
Sepala Munasinghe at a concert in Vienna

Mr. Hilary Abeyratne need not have confined himself to the job of a teacher with meagre emoluments. With his school background of student from the age of eight, Head Prefect, Ryde Gold medalist for Best All-round boy in his period, cricket Lion and family background, he could have got the best position in any blue chip company of his time. But he humbled himself to be of value to Trinity and for that, countless Trinitians have stood in obeisance” (Sharm de Alwis).

‘Hilary Abeyratne should have been the Principal of Trinity College, Kandy, except the fact that his marriage to a Catholic pretty girl (Pelpola) made the Board of Governors take a puerile and a dogmatic decision to veto him, despite he being an Anglican as well as an old Trinitian’! Sepala Munasinghe, an old Trinitian, and an avid reader of ‘Life Abroad Column,’ who makes his own experiences known intermittently, reminisces so. Sepala Munasinghe spent most of his working life in the UK as a Barrister attached to the Middle Temple Chambers at Essex Court.

He recalls Willie Hensman, along with Hilary Abeyratne, teaching History at Trinity. They seemed to have had different techniques of teaching where Hilary Abeyratne taught European history interposing lessons with his personal experiences, whilst Hensman confined strictly to the script – Codrington, Prof. G. C. Mendis, and the Mahavamsa.

Germanic interest

Ephrems was a blind piano tuner with whom Hensman had developed a close association. This resulted in Ephrems to gift his collection of 78-rpm classical records to Hensman; ultimately it helped Hensman to persuade Sepala Munasinghe to captivate in music. Finally Sepala Munasinghe became engrossed with Strauss and Viennese Waltz.

Stimulated by the two history teachers, he developed a lifelong interest in everything Germanic with a special interest in the Austro Hungarian Empire. This urged him to visit Vienna to see and personally experience the cultural heritage of that Empire.

Once, at the entrance to the Senate House of London University, he observed a notice about ‘an arranged German Language Course for beginners at the University of Vienna for a summer vacation’. He made an impulsive decision to register for the course; soon he was on a ferry, crossing the English Channel to reach Ostend and to catch a train to Vienna.

‘The German Bundesbhan (German Railway) true to its reputation was very comfortable. The smoothness at which it moved was only matched by the tranquil nature of the way the mighty Rhine flowed as the train entered the Rhine valley.


Peace Pagoda, Vienna

The statue of Lorelei was on a rock at a narrow part of the river; legend has it that many shipwrecks have stood witness to Lorelei’s beauty due to sailors being distracted and hitting the rocks at this spot’. Passing Mainz and Koblenz with many well manicured German vineyards on the river banks make this one of the most picturesque train journeys to experience.

New surroundings

University authorities arranged Sepala’s accommodation with an Austrian family together with an American student, John, from Harvard. John and Sepala walked daily to the University, crossing the Danube on a bridge, which connected the Prater area to the main road leading to the Uni. So, this was what Strauss composed about the river that was blue”, says Sepala – not much evidence of blue!

The Austrian family was attentive, warmhearted but did not speak a word of English. The University authorities purposely arranged that way, as it was the most effective approach for students who did not speak a word of Deutsch to practice their German. Sepala Munasinghe still remembers the family’s name, but he confesses its best to avoid it being printed in English as it begins with F and ends in a satiric ending (.. ing)!

Once the ice was broken, Sepala realised that John was a member of the American family who once started the famous Singer sewing machine Company. John’s father had given him a list of addresses of restaurants in Vienna and John invited Sepala to join him to visit them. He did at first, but soon realised that he could not match the financial resources of the Singer Sewing Machine Company at John’s disposal with his resources from a then nationalised Omnibus Company in Ceylon! He later discovered a restaurant called OK” underneath the by-pass, near the State Opera where he used to enjoy the most delicious Hungarian goulash!

Café Sacher

Prater area was a deprived part of the city at that time. Most of the posh restaurants and bars were more in Kätnerstrasse area and Vortivkirche. When John and Sepala visited coffee bars occasionally in the evenings in such posh areas, they discovered and enjoyed Sacher torte in the original place at Café Sacher, which was directly opposite the famous Vienna State Opera House.

With his interest in Strauss music, he frequented during his free time Stadtpark (City Park) in Vienna where there was (still is) a magnificent statue of Johann Strauss. Tourists to Vienna would be there in great numbers to see and photograph it. During summer a live band in attendance near it played Strauss waltzes (Jazz) and Polka dances. Sepala used to sit on a bench nearby and enjoy the music whilst looking at all the girls!!

After the Hungarian revolution in 1956, many Hungarian refugees had moved in to Vienna by the summer in 1959. The Prater area being famous for funfair had the prominent giant Ferris wheel erected, which was featured in the film Third Man”. Those Hungarian refugees frequented many dubious looking bars in the area and some Hungarian females used to haunt such bars for a life of easy virtue offering Internacional Liebe” (International ‘love’)!

Austrian culture

Sepala soon realised that the language course was not directed at only learning Deutsche, but also designed to offer the students a taste of Austrian culture in many of its facets. Pupils were taken to see the magnificent castles, churches and museums such as Hofburg, Schönbrunn, Belvedere, Vortivekirche, and Karlskirche. Some evenings they spent at concerts either in the Auditorium of the Uni or at the Wien Musikverrein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic, where the famous New Year concerts were held. During the summer the Vienna State Opera performed at the Salzburg Festival.

During such cultural programs students were exposed to the brewed new wine at the Heuringer (Wine tavern) near Vienna, with three professors in attendance. Prior to ingesting wine, students were asked to raise their glasses in a toast according to their national custom before drinking alcohol. The Professors said Gruß Got” and Prost” to begin with, and followed by Cheers”, Skol” etc. However, when it came to Sepala’s turn he was perplexed and simply blurted out Jayawewa”; to this day that phrase has wedged in his mind and he uses it often in many other contexts as well. The writer observes that in every email he receives from Sepala Munasinghe, the normal English word Regards” or Cheers” is substituted with ‘Jayaweva’!


Buddhist Centre at the Vienna Zentralfriedhoof

Sepala Munasinghe feels that all his Viennese experiences cannot be concluded without making reference to a person of great importance who inspired him and left him a huge impression of what good one can do with perseverance. In this respect Most Venerable the late Hamallawa Saddhatissa, Chief Incumbent of the London Buddhist Vihara, had given the name of Fritz Hungerleider, the President of the Vienna Buddhist Society and his contact details prior to his departure from London.

When Sepala met with him in Vienna, he had ushered Sepala out to lunch at a Balkan Restaurant and enquired whether his palate was used to chili hot food for which he had bravely nodded his head, but when the dish appeared on the table, although it looked innocuous enough, he says, he had never tasted such hot food (dynamite) as the Balkan dish, despite being brought up eating his mother’s Miris malu”.

Fritz Hungerleider was a devout Buddhist and spent his entire life in propagating the ‘Dhamma’ in Europe and, in particular, in Austria. It was mostly to his efforts and devotion that Buddhism has become an officially recognised religion in Austria since 1983.

The study of Buddhism is available to schoolchildren in all nine federal regions of the Austrian Republic as part of the syllabus. There is now a Buddhist segment in the City of Vienna’s main cemetery with a stupa (dome) like entrance to it. There is also a Peace Pagoda built in the riverbanks of the Danube. There are Buddhist Societies now in Salzburg, Graz in addition to many in Vienna. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has visited Austria three times, the last being in 2002 in Graz to speak on Kalachakra for World Peace”.

Sepala Munasinghe says: My attraction to Austria is many fold; the one that has impressed me most is that the original Empire was not built on the backs of the toil and sufferings of huge native populations in other countries, as had been done by other, now defunct Colonial Empires”.

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One Response to “VIENNESE EXPERIENCE AND BUDDHIST DEVOUTNESS IN AUSTRIA”

  1. Nimal Says:

    Tilak
    Nice to read about Hillary A and to know the Pelpola his wife.I knew both of them well and I wonder if it was the Pelpola from Gampola or the ones that lived in Hill st Kandy?.Good memories.Is he still alive if so if he could remember the tragic end of Erick Pammunuwa and it happened sadly in front of me,think in 1956?

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