Sri Lanka, Japan and American Buddhism
Posted on July 25th, 2014

By Dr Janaka Goonetilleke

  The coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the Most important event of the Twentieth century.” – Arnold Toynbee –

 During the Meigi Period Japan had opened itself to the external world and was in a dilemma as to whether they would like to join the west or look towards the East. During this period many Japanese went to Europe to study oriental languages. After Kitabake, s visit to India in 1883 Japan felt she needed to know more about Buddhism, compelled by the Christian influence in Japan.

Coincidentally at this time a senior diplomat by the name of T. Hyash sec to Imperial Prince Arisongara whilst passing through Colombo met a senior govt., official and made a comment that Japan and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) were both Buddhist countries and expressed a desire to send Japanese priests to study Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Later the senior official who happened to be Maha Mudaliyar C P Bandaranayake introduced him to his nephew E. R. Gooneratne. Hyash was told that the Japanese priests were very welcome to learn Buddhism as long as they liked Sri Lanka. Banjuii Nangio, Prof. of oriental studies of Tokyo University who had studied in Europe, coordinated the programme

. The first was Shaku Kozen (arrived in 1887) who studied in Galle and then at Vidyodaya and became the first Japanese Theravada priests. He was ordained in Malwatte in 1892 and took the name Kozen Gooneratne thero . He took the name Gooneratne as a mark of respect to Mudaliyar Gooneratne.He was very much against Christianization of Buddhists during the colonial period. He became famous as he accompanied Anagarika Dharmapala to Budda Gaya . It is said that it was he who planted the Buddha Statue in the premises much against the wishes of the care taker Mahanty. He took Theravada Buddhism to Japan and established the first Theravada Temple in Yokohama.


Shaku Soen 1859-1819

The second monk was Shaku Soen who arrived in Sri Lanka 10 months later. Shaku a honourific designation originating from Sakya the clan name of Sakyamuni. He was an erudite monk ordained at the age of twelve and trained in the traditional Rinzai style by one of the most important figures in the Meiji era Imakita Kozen (1852-1892). He graduated from Keiyo University in English, Western Philosophy and Religion. Soen was the first Zen Master to arrive in America when he first came to attend the Parliament of Religeon, s in Chicago in 1893 with the likes of Anagarika Dharmapala and Swami Vivekananda. There he formed a close alliance with Paul Carus (1852-1919) who invited Shaku Soen to The United states. It was he and his protégé D T Susuki (1870-1966) who introduced the western audience to Zen Buddhism. It is no stretch of imagination to say that Shaku Soen was largely responsible for the perception of Buddhism in general in the west as a Rational and scientific philosophy in particular the ultimate of Zen of self development and experiencing reality directly, rejecting the Ritual and Theistic superstition. He also was able to address some of the misconceptions of Buddhism in the west addressed from an Abraham religious perspective in his lectures to the American audiences 1906.

Soen in Sri Lanka (1887- 1889)

His yearning for knowledge took him to Sri Lanka in1887 encouraged by his teacher Imikita Kosen to study oriental languages and to understand the state of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. On arrival he was greeted and entertained at his home Atapattu Walawwa Galle by Mudaliyar Gooneratne who was a friend, teacher, a philanthropist and his diaries in Sri Lanka gives in great detail the help and the close association he had with his sponsor. He was later introduced to the Priest Kottawe Pannagaseakera thero under whom he studied at the Ranwella Temple in Kataluwa, Galle. His ordination as a samanera as Bikhu Pannaketu was celebrated by thousands of Sinhalese with fireworks and Bakthi Geetha (Devotional songs) on May 6 1887. A Sinhalese laymen according to his diaries said that a celebration of this nature had never occurred since the British colonized the country and expressed his gratitude to Buddha, Japan – Sinhala Buddhist solidarity and finally congratulated Shaku Soen in being ordained as a samanera. Following that for the rest of his stay he wore the attire of a Theravada priest as a mark of respect to the Buddhists of Sri Lanka. Thus the emotional Buddhists connections were set between the Japanese and Sri Lankan Buddhists. It was this emotional connection I believe that made J R Jayawardenas speech in Honolululu in 1945 at the Peace conference acceptable to the people of Sri Lanka. If not it would have been words in the wilderness. Thus the Japan Sri Lankan connections did not start with J R Jayawardena but much before that. Unfortunately politics and geopolitics have taken over from human relationships and to a degree both Sri Lankans and the Japanese have been denied that history.

In his diaries he has confirmed the difficulties he encountered such as language, eating with the fingers and ablution. He lamented the subjugation of the native Buddhists by British colonialism that even taxed each coconut tree. Coming from a very educated background he found the Sinhala priests to be not that well educated which allowed the more educated Christian priest to convert the Buddhists. He also was critical of the local priests who were very concerned about the Vinaya/Rule of priest hood but did not Endeavour self-development in the form of meditation, which the Zen Buddhists emphasize. He must of course be forgiven as he did not probably realize that the colonial government took over all temple lands thus pauperizing the temples and that 70 years before they destroyed the Buddhists libraries and temples and killed every boy over the age of 16 years who belong to the aristocracy after the 1818 riots that in no doubt at least partly contributed to this lack of intellectuality amongst the Buddhist priest hood at that time.

His final conclusions of his stay in South Asia

Whilst in Sri Lanka he wrote one of the earliest books on south Asian Buddhism in Japanese (Sienan no Bukkyo), which was published in the year 1889. He was weary of the status of Buddhists in Asia and felt they were very vulnerable to conversion to Christianity but felt within the establishment of the theosophical society that there would be growth on the religion in the west.

To nurture the spread of Buddhism he urged Northern and Southern clerics to actively propagate the religion in the west.

Spread of Buddhism

If relicosity was the mechanism of spread of Buddhism in ancient times, Dharma Dutha or Buddhist evangelism was the means of spread of Buddhism in the 20th century. Today it is the Internet. He considered the Mahayana format in Japan as a step in the development of Buddhism from the Theravada Buddhism in South Asia as it spread around the globe. Western Buddhism in that sense is another step in the progress of Buddhism.

Zen Buddhism for the Americans

In 1906 he wrote the first book on Zen in English SERMONS OF A BUDDHIST ABBOT’ published by Carus press open court. Two of those sermons were delivered in Washington in 1906. The first lecture was what is Buddhism. He used the occasion to refute some of the interpretations by Orientalists whom he considered prejudiced against the doctrine. Some of his observations are

a)    He refuted the divisions of Buddhism from Hinayana to Mahayana but considered them a stepping-stone in the progress of the philosophy. He refuted the theory that religious beliefs are fixed but emphasized that the Human mind kept unfolding and that it will continue until a clearer consciousness develops as to its own nature, origin and destiny.

b)    He considered Buddhism to be free of sentimentality in its yearning for the truth. Buddhism thus was saved from the wantonness of imagination and the irrationality of affection. He said love was not love unless it is purified in the mill of spiritual insight and intellectual discrimination. The lack of sentimentality and the seeking of truth in Buddhism he felt would allow a rational assessment by both intellectuals and scientists.

c)    He said Buddhism recognized the multitudinous and the reality phenomena. Thus, as we live it he said it was true and not a dream. He rejected the western interpretation of the emptiness of life and annihilation in Buddhism.

d)    The recognition of oneness and that god according to Buddhism was with in our self. That is the Buddha nature with in all human beings.

e)    The aim of Buddhism was to dispel the clouds of ignorance and to make the sun of enlightment. Buddhist ethics he said was simple. Stop doing anything wrong and promote goodness.


In his second lecture he spoke about Buddhism and Oriental culture. What is interesting of course his interpretation of Buddhists at war? It is best expressed in his response to Tolstoy who advocated Peace in Japanese Russian war. This again refutes the western theory that Buddhism is a passive religion.

In 1904, the Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote Shaku to join him in denouncing the war. Shaku refused, concluding that “…sometimes killing and war becomes necessary to defend the values and harmony of any innocent country, race or individual.” (Quoted in Victoria, 1997). War, he said should never be an ego trip but it was necessary in once Endeavour to seek the truth.

Science and western Buddhism

In Soens language western Buddhism is a step in the development of the philosophy. The greatest contribution of western Buddhism is that it has scientifically analyzed and researched the philosophy that has made it acceptable to the intellectuals in the 21st century and has made in roads into its utilization in Medicine, Education and Spiritual upliftment of humanity.

Neuro Science and Buddhism

Despite doubts, neurology and neuroscience do not appear to profoundly contradict Buddhist thought. Neuroscience tells us the thing we take as our unified mind is an illusion that our mind is not unified and can barely be said to exist” at all. Our feeling of unity and control is a post-hoc confabulation and is easily fractured into separate parts. As revealed by scientific inquiry, what we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain that our pre-scientific language struggles to find meaning.

Buddhists say pretty much the same thing. They believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’  One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing.

In an impermanent changing world there is no place for egoism as the future is only an illusion. A very basic belief in Buddhism.

There are many aspects of neuro science that can be used in the evaluation of Buddhism. Social, cultural, meditative etc which gives us an idea of the inherent nature of the brain, the ways of development of the brain, which helps us to understand other races, cultures etc. all very closely connected to the philosophy.

Social Brain

The neo cerebrum or the Big Brain has been developed over millions of years because of social activity and its related phenomena. Hence called the Social Brain. Any social activity related to the service of others is rewarded by a sense of elation and stimulation of the inferior parietal lobe. Human well-being is closely connected with the animal kingdom and the environment this is the oneness of Hinduism and the Buddha nature in Buddhism that encompasses the whole universe. This is expressed as a sutra the Paticca samupadaya or the sutra of Dependent Origination. (Scientifically it is the electromagnetic force that repels the electrons in adjacent atoms that connect all the atoms of the universe). The cultural distinction is what creates the Asian Brain that Tensing Okkakura and Rabindranath Tagore spoke about as opposed to a European brain confirmed by the Michigan trial.

As opposed to the Social Brain is the Primitive brain the center of flight and fright that is stimulated when governed by greed, hate and delusion. This is the source of stress so common in the present society. Nature punishes greed but the greedy cannot perceive that as he is completely enamored by the never-ending want. This in Buddhism is due to ignorance.

Plastic Brain

Quite contrary to the western belief until recently, that the Brain does not grow, the people in the East believed that mindfulness and concentration of meditation could develop once wisdom and hence the brain centers. Today we believe in the mind Brain Mind cycle which can change the structure of the Brain. Buddhist Practice and developing an integrative model of mental health is well documented in the Laboratory of affective neuro science at the university of Wisconsin. In UCLA one talks about Mind Sight a programme to resculpture the Brain stimulating growth Areas crucial for mental health.

How did the Buddha get it so right 2500 years ago?

Most probably Empiricism. The impermanent nature is so visible in the environment be it wind, Trees etc If one is to look at nature what Buddha said was always there around us. More one looks at Buddhism the more you think how wisdom the ultimate in Buddhism can guide once life.


Conclusion- what can Buddhism offer the west

There are distinct differences between the cultural brains of the western mind and the eastern mind. Brought up in the Abrahamic religious faith the social needs is assessed be it social justice or Democracy is out side the realm of the individual. If men with Greed, Hate and Delusion control these institutions the institutions will fail because self interests over rides the benefit for the many. This is the present predicament of the west, the repercussions of which range from violent societies, to wars especially in the middle east, unfair wealth distribution 1% owning 75% of the wealth of the world, environmental degradation etc which are a few of the many problems created. This is fast becoming the source of social destabilization of the whole world and the end of civilization as we see it.

In Buddhism and most Asian philosophies the truth is considered to be with in one self. Self-realization and self-development are the mechanics of achievement of progress. Men of character, compassion morality are the aim of the philosophy. These men could bring a sense of balance to these institutions of social Justice and Democracy that is clearly lacking.

Down side of the new found Research

This new information on the Brain mind Brain cycle in the wrong hands could be used for control of humanity. The answer to that risk is the need for every one to be aware of that possibility. I probably is not untrue to say that is already a mechanism in place in the present world order. According to Buddhism the answer is wisdom and avoidance of ignorance.

Kalama Sutra or the Sutra of Independent Thought

When Buddha visited the village Kesaputra where the Kalama people lived he was posed the question There are so many Samanera, s who visits us and gives us sermons they all say that they speak the Truth. Sire whom do we believe? Buddha replied Believe no one Kalama’s, not tradition, not what I say The truth he said is what you believe as long as it is compassionate, does not harm any body and the intellectuals agree he said that was the truth.

That is the first time in the history of `religion’s that individualism was given a pride of place. It is the thoughts that run this world and since individual thoughts differ, societies can only progress if their actions are for the benefit of the many and that can be achieved only if men with morality, compassion are at the helm of these institutions. To achieve that, self-development and self-realization of the individual is absolutely necessary.

Neuro -scientific explanation

There are 1.8 trillion cells in the brain, 800 billion nerve cells. Each nerve cell is stimulated 5000 times per second and results in 8-10 electric impulses to the next neuron. It is these electric stimuli that create thoughts, which run   this world. Under these circumstances the probability of two people thinking the same is almost nil. Hence every person has a thought process that is different from the other. The only way all the people could agree is if it is for the benefit of the many. This is humanism and this is a reflection of the Buddha with in us all.


One Response to “Sri Lanka, Japan and American Buddhism”

  1. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    I could not find any documentation of the destruction of Buddhist temples or libraries by the British. where can I find that information.

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