Sri Lanka’s admirable Buddhist missionary achievements in the West: Anagarika & Asoka offer role models to emulate
Posted on May 31st, 2015

Shenali D. Waduge

As the Buddhist public in Sri Lanka begin to close ranks to meet the challenges facing the continuity and preservation of the Buddhist ethos and heritage in the light of planned incursions, it is good to take stock of the admirable services rendered by Sinhala Buddhists who have carried the torch of Buddhism and ignited it on foreign shores. Anagarika Dharmapala and Asoka Weeraratna are two such leading pioneers among many others who should be gratefully remembered for helping spread Buddhism on western shores. Their legacy must be publicly acknowledged and continued to draw inspiration of fellow Buddhists.

Poson Poya marks the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC. Poson commemorates the occasion of King Devanampiyatissa embracing Buddhism after listening to the Dhamma preached by Arahat Mahinda. Buddhism came to Sri Lanka by royal invitation and all kings/queens thereafter ruled the nation according to the dasa raja dhamma.

anagarikadharmapalaAnagarika Dharmapala 1864 – 1933

vensiridevamitta

Anagarika Dharmapala as Ven. Siri Devamitta Dharmapala ( circa 1931)

asokaweeraratne

Asoka Weeraratna  ( circa 1956) (1918 – 1999 )

venmitirigalafhamma

Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanisanthi (circa  – August 1972)

The similarities between Anagarika and Asoka are striking. Both were from wealthy backgrounds. Both renounced their birth names that had a foreign and colonial orientation. Anagarika Dharmapala was originally Don David Hewavitharana while Asoka Weeraratna was originally Alfred Weeraratna. They both realized the need to take Buddhism beyond the shores to satisfy a growing hunger for an alternate spirituality among people in the West. In other words, a spirituality that gave high prominence to peace and non – violence. They pioneered the establishment of Buddhist Viharas in Europe. Anagarika founded the London Buddhist Vihara in 1926 while Asoka Weeraratna opened a new chapter for the spread of Buddhism in Germany and Europe by establishing the Berlin Buddhist Vihara in Dr. Paul Dahlke’s Das Buddhistische Haus in 1957 with monks from Sri Lanka stationed on a long term footing to spread the Dhamma. This was the first Theravada Buddhist Vihara in Germany and continental Europe.

Anagarika Dharmapala is gratefully remembered by the  Buddhist public for saving the Mahabodhi Temple in Buddha Gaya while Asoka Weeraratna in establishing the Mitirigala Nissarana Vanaya, a forest hermitage to enable Buddhist yogi monks to meditate in peace, helped revive one of  Buddhism’s most supportive and protective structures, namely meditation.

Both Anagarika Dharmapala and Asoka Weeraratna entered the order of the Sangha by renouncing their lay life – Anagarika at the age of 66 ( becoming known as Ven. Devamitta Dharmapala) and Asoka at the age of 53 years ( becoming known as Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanisanthi). This was the supreme example of letting go and going forth (pabajja) the essence of what Buddhism was all about and the most difficult hurdle for lay people who are materially well endowed to clear. It is this factor more than anything else that distinguishes these savants of Buddhism from many others who have in their own ways and in different disciplines contributed to the advancement of Buddhism and Buddhist teachings worldwide.

Today, years after their demise what these icons have left behind continues to be the embodiment of what Sri Lanka can further explore and requires many more such Anagarika’s and Asoka’s to be born in Sri Lanka and take the flame of Buddhist missionary work beyond the shores of Sri Lanka to enable people in other parts of the world to realize the essence of what the journey of truth and life is all about.

On this Poson Poya Day (June 2) let us therefore while acknowledging the indebtedness of this country to both Emperor Dharma Asoka and Arahant Mahinda for bestowing on us the greatest gift i.e. gift of the dhamma, also take time to remember with gratitude the icons drawn from our own local traditions and heritage who bravely took on the challenge of going overseas to propagate Buddhism.

Beginning with the London and Berlin Buddhist Viharas, a stream of Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka and other countries, have taken up residence in several Buddhist Viharas in the West.  They have braved the cold winters of Europe and the innumerable difficulties that prevail in Western countries, particularly for Buddhist monks from Asia. These monks together with dedicated Buddhist lay people from Sri Lanka and other Asian countries have contributed substantially to dispel centuries old negative impressions about Buddhism in the Western consciousness, and have given solace to a large number of Europeans seeking a philosophy that places a high emphasis on self- reliance, non – violence and loving kindness to all living beings. It is a remarkable achievement.

3 Responses to “Sri Lanka’s admirable Buddhist missionary achievements in the West: Anagarika & Asoka offer role models to emulate”

  1. Nimal Says:

    For your information.Anagrika Darmapala had his education and many other Budhist leaders had their education in the first know school built by the colonials in the island in 1822 where the past tyrants kept the population in ignorance that made it easy to control. Collage in question is the Christian Collage kotte which is been run down by our politicians with new name. All our leaders know is to change the name boards.

  2. Independent Says:

    Today Meetirigala Nissarana Vanaya, which was established by late Asoka thrive as a key institution which spearhead mindfulness and vipassana meditation teaching to Buddhist all over the world. The current incumbent Chief Preceptor, Most Venerable Uda Eriyagama Dhammajiva Maha Thero is conducting retreats doing a great service.

  3. samurai Says:

    Shenali Waduge’s article impliedly names Asoka Weeraratna as the ‘ Deveni Dharmapala’ ( Dharmapala the Second). This is not the first time that such a accolade has been bestowed on Asoka Weeraratna.

    About 12 years ago the late Ven. Bellana Gnanawimala Maha Nayaka Thero, Maha Nayake of the Kotte Kalyana Samagri Dharma Maha Sangha Sabha, while chairing a meeting commemorating the death Anniversary of Asoka Weeraratna, said as follows:

    “ When one reviews the life and contributions of Asoka Weeraratna to the Buddha Sasana spanning several continents, and the immense sacrifices made with great effort and labour in his lay life for the spread of Buddhism in the West, there is only one other name that stands above Asoka Weeraratna in this respect, and that name is Anagarika Dharmapala ”.

    The similarities between the life stories of Anagarika Dharmapala and Asoka Weeraratna are far greater than between, say, Anagarika Dharmapala and any other Buddhist personage in the contemporary history of Sri Lanka. Though several illustrious figures in the likes of Dr. G. P. Malalasekera, L.H. Mettananda, Cyril de Zoysa, H.W. Amarasuriya, P.De S. Kularatne, Sir D. B. Jayatillake, W.A. De Silva, Dr. Ananda Guruge etc. shine in the history books for their Buddhist scholarship and immense contributions to Buddhist education, an important element of ‘ let go ‘ (‘Nekkhamma’ translated as renunciation) is lacking in their life stories. Unlike Anagarika and Asoka, they found themselves struck to their lay lives (for very good reasons ) until their dying day.

    There are several distinguished Buddhist monks who have adorned the history books with their monumental contributions to many spheres of Buddhism. In respect to Dharmaduta work in recent times, the names of Ven. Narada, Ven. Piyadassi, Ven. Madihe Pannasiha Nayake Thera ( founded the Washington Buddhist Vihara in 1964), and Ven.Dr.K.Sri Dhammananda Thera, the former chief prelate of Malaysia and Singapore, come to mind. However, unlike in the case of Anagarika Dharmapala and Asoka Weeraratna, not much is known of any significant contribution they had made to Buddhism during their lay life.

    The purpose of this comment is not to decry or dilute the noteworthy contributions made to the revival and advancement of Buddhism in various disciplines by people be they the Maha Sangha or lay persons, but to elucidate the point made by Shenali Waduge in her thought provoking article that the life stories ( ‘ charitha katha’ ) of Anagarika Dharmapala and Asoka Weeraratna have far greater striking parallels that cannot be easily matched comparatively speaking between the lives of Anagarika Dharmapala and say any other Buddhist celebrity.

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