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Great Buddhists of the 20th Century

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by Sangharakshita

... which happens by the way to the chronological order, that is to say, the order in which they were born, though not the order in which they died. All except the last, that is to say Edward Conze, were born actually not in the 20th, but in the 19th century, but all five did most, if not all, of their important and significant work for Buddhism in the 20th century. So they can be quite legitimately regarded as being Great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century. Now in speaking about them, I'm not going to give you too much biographical detail. I'm not going to tell you what they had for breakfast for instance, I'm only going to give sufficient biographical information as will enable us to understand their significance, their importance, their meaning, for us today, at the end of the 20th century. 20th century that is to say of the Christian era, this isn't our Buddhist 20th century ­ we must never forget that. Perhaps I should add a word or two about that.

Nowadays of course we hear quite a bit about celebrating the end of the millenium. But it's not our millenium. I mean Buddhists ­ I remember it very well in 56, 57 in India ­ we celebrated the 2500th anniversary of Buddhism, the 2500th anniversary of the Parinirvana. So it's not our 2000 anniversary, not our second millenium, and we mustn't forget that, and I suggest that when the Year 2000 comes we as Buddhists find something else to celebrate.

(LOUD LAUGHTER & CLAPPING) Anyway, that is just by the way.

So let's come to our first great Buddhist of the 20th century, Anagarika Dharmapala. I have a slight feeling that I'm rather bringing coals to Newcastle here; some of you at least must have heard quite a lot about Anagarika Dharmapala already in the course of your visits to this Vihara. He was born in Colombo, Ceylon ­ of course it's now Sri Lanka, but in his day it was still Ceylon, so as Ceylon I'll refer to it ­ he was born there in 1864, and he died in Sarnath, India, in 1933, that is to say he died there in India just 11 years before I myself arrived in India. So, the time that separates us isn't really too great. And I've mentioned that I had some personal contact with all of these five Gbo, and you may therefore be wondering how I managed to have any personal contact with Dharmapala, because he died in '33 in India, I arrived in India in '44 so how was that? But, yes, I could say that I did have personal contact with Dharmapala. I can even say that I lived with Dharmapala for several weeks. Not literally of course, but metaphorically, and that was when I wrote my short biography of Dharmapala which was in 1952. I wrote it in connection with the Maha Bodhi Society's diamond jubilee.

And I was provided on that occasion with quite a lot of material about Dharmapala, and in particular I was able to read many volumes of the Dharmapala diaries. He kept all through his life, almost from his schooldays, a quite voluminous diary, and I had stacks and stacks of these diaries made available to me, and I went through them in the course of writing this biographical sketch. But I'll have something more to say about that a little later on.

Meanwhile, let us get back to the beginning. Dharmapala was born in Colombo in 1864. He was born into a pious middle-class Buddhist family. His father was the proprietor of a furniture manufacturing business. From the time when he was five until the time that he was eight, and again from ten to eighteen, Dharmapala attended a series of Christian schools both Catholic and Protestant. Now some of you may be wondering, well, why Christian schools? Wasn't his family Buddhist, wasn't he a Buddhist, parents in fact were very pious Buddhists, so why should Dharmapala ­ the future Lion of Lanka was he was called ­ go to this whole series of Christian schools? Well, there was a reason for that, which was that at that time ­ 60s, 70s of the last century ­ all the higher education in Ceylon was in the hands of the Christian missionaries. Since 1802, Ceylon had been a British colony, and between 1505 and 1796, large parts of the island had been ruled first by the Portuguese, and then by the Dutch.

And the result was that Buddhism and Buddhist culture at the time of Dharmapala's birth were at a very low ebb in Ceylon. In fact, well you'll hardly believe this, but in fact it was officially not possible to be a Buddhist at all, not officially. Children born of Buddhist parents had to be taken for registration, registration of the birth, to a church, either a Catholic church or a Protestant church, and there they would be given a Christian name, otherwise legally- speaking, they would be illegitimate and not able to inherit property. And this law which had been in force for such a long time was not repealed until 1884. So such were the circumstances into which Dharmapala was born. That's why he had to go to a whole series of Christian schools, and in fact be given ­ when he was taken after his birth, to the church ­ a Christian name. His name was David. He wasn't called Dharmapala originally, he was called David, out of the Bible of course for those who don't know your Bible (LAUGHTER), and ­ well a lot of people don't these days ­ and he was known as David Hevadidharma [???] ­ I hope I've pronounced that correctly ­ David Hevaditarne, the latter being his family name. So going along to these Christian schools, colleges, he had to learn huge chunks of the Bible by heart. It's really astonishing how much of the Bible he knew by heart, because later on the Christians might have wished that they hadn't taught him so much about the Bible (LAUGHTER) because he turned it against them. But he knew by heart when he was still in his teens, four complete books of the Old Testament. All four Gospels ­ Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John ­ and the Acts of the Apostles. He knew them all by heart when he was in his early teens.

But Dharmapala did not lose his faith in Buddhism, somehow he picked up quite a bit of Buddhism from his home, from his parents, and he used to get into quite a bit of trouble, even as a young teenager, for arguing with his Christian teachers. Well, all young ­ I was going to say young men ­ yes, young men, not so much young women apparently, all young men are a bit argumentative, teenagers are a bit argumentative, I think I was as a teenager. But Dharmapala seems to have been unusually argumentative, and he was very fond of pointing out inconsistencies of Christian doctrine, and arguing with his Christian teachers about those inconsistencies. Not only that, as you know the great holiday, the great festival, for Buddhists, the greatest of the year, is Wesak. In Dharmapala's time of course, it wasn't a public holiday, Christmas was a public holiday, Easter was a public holiday in Ceylon, but not Wesak. As a youngster, when he was about 13 or 14, Dharmapala thought "well, I'm a Buddhist. I ought to celebrate Wesak, or to have the day off from school." So, what did he do? He went straight to the headmaster, the Christian headmaster, and said "I'm a Buddhist. I'd like to have tomorrow off from school, because it's Wesak and I want to celebrate". Well, the headmaster said no, not surprisingly. So what did Dharmapala do? He just took his umbrella, and he walked out of the school and he didn't come back the next day, and he celebrated Wesak.

When he did go back to school, what happened? He got a very sound thrashing from the headmaster for daring to play hooky and go and celebrate Wesak. And this happened three years running. Three years running he asked for permission to take Wesak off, was refused, took it anyway, and was thrashed when he went back to school. So, this gives you some idea how obstinate and determined he was even as a very young teenager.

And there's another incident from his schooldays, which is perhaps even more significant. He tells us in some memoires that he wrote later on in life, that it so happened that one of his school fellows had died. Apparently the body was laid out, the corpse was laid out somewhere in the school, perhaps in the Assembly Hall, and the teachers they invited the students to gather round the dead body, and offer up prayers. So Dharmapala was also there, he did join them. As he looked around, he asked himself a question: "Why are they praying?... why are they praying?" And he looked at the faces of his school fellows, he looked at the faces of the teachers, and he saw that they were all afraid, he saw that they were all afraid of death, and that's why they were praying. And he had a sort of realization that prayer, petitionary prayer, is born of fear. And from that day forth he had no temptation to pray in that sort of way. But one mustn't think that Dharmapala was a rather uppish, argumentative teenager, he was actually a rather idealistic, dreamy sort of person, and he was very fond of poetry. You can imagine that going to these missionary schools, he obtained a very good command of English and he read very widely, and always did read very widely in English literature. And at that time he was very fond of English poetry, and especially he was fond of the poetry of Keats and Shelley, particularly I think Shelley ­ he read it constantly. He had not only a sort of dreamy idealistic streak, he also had quite marked mystical and ascetic tendancies.

However, things were changing even in colonial Ceylon, and the tide was about to turn for Buddhism or at least to begin to turn. In 1880 Theosophy arrived in Ceylon. It arrived in the persons of Madam Blativasky, and Colonel Alcott [SPELLING???]. They'd founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, and they were both very sympathetic to Buddhism or at least to what they understood of Buddhism. And after their arrival in Ceylon in 1875, they both publically declared themselves Buddhists, and they publicly took the Refuges and Precepts from a prominent Sinhalese bhikku, and this created a ...

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