The Contemporary relevance of the legacy of Anagarika Dharmapala and its contribution to the spread of Buddhism


 Keynote address delivered

On the occasion of the


90th Anniversary of the London Buddhist Vihara


The 152nd birth anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala


On 17th September 2016 at the London Buddhist Vihara






Sugeeshwara Gunaratna

Deputy High Commissioner

Sri Lanka High Commission, London




Ven. Bogoda Seelawimala Nayaka Thero, Chief Sanganayake of Great Britain,

Venerable members of the clergy

Distinguished guests,

Ladies & Gentlemen,


I am most humbled and privileged by this invitation to deliver the keynote address on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the London Buddhist Vihara.  Today, September 17, 2016 marks exactly 152 years since the birth of one of Sri Lanka’s greatest sons and the founder of this Vihara.


My first memory of Anagarika Dharmapala was a family account by my father and other elders.  This was a story of some family members, including my father, going to India in the mid-60s to escort back to Sri Lanka a close relative who had fallen ill. His name was Devapriya Valisinha, the then General-Secretary of the Maha Bodhi Society and the Chief disciple of Anagarika Dharmapala.  Thereafter, it was in school that I learnt of the heroic efforts of Anagarika Dharmapala in resuscitating Sinhala Nationalism and Buddhist identity at a time when the people in Sri Lanka through colonial subjugation were afraid and somewhat embarrassed to call themselves Sinhala or Buddhists.


We have heard of the words “බුද්ධ ගයාව බේරා ගනිව්!” (Save Buddhagaya), the clarion call of Anagarika Dharmapala.  We have heard of his enormous efforts of sacrifice in resuscitating the venues of Buddhist worship in India and help India re-discover its Buddhist heritage.  We have heard of his efforts in rekindling anti-colonial sentiment and rejuvenating Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness in Sri Lanka. However, this Vihara is living testimony to something much more. It is testimony to the fact that the influence of the life and work of Anagarika Dharmapala goes much beyond the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka.


When Anagarika Dharmapala was born in 1864, the teachings of the Buddha were largely unknown beyond the traditionally Buddhist countries of Asia.  Moreover, Buddhism and its traditions were virtually forgotten in the land of its birth along with the dereliction and destruction of Buddhist places of worship. Buddhists in Sri Lanka were subject to many forms of harassment and discrimination at the hands of the then colonial administrators. Anagarika Dharmapala, through his sheer dedication and indefatigable efforts, not only restored Buddhist places of worship in India, and led a Buddhist revival in his home country but propagated the sublime message of the Buddha far beyond the confines of Asia and into the countries of the west. Today in the west, there are a number of institutions dedicated to the teaching and practice of the Dhamma. Mindfulness meditation has become the new vogue among those seeking a way out of the stress and anxieties of modern life as well as those realizing the futility of attempts at endless indulgence of sensory pleasures. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs based on Buddhist practices are gaining wide acceptance as exemplified in the seminal work of Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts titled ‘Full Catastrophe Living.’ Mindfulness based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) techniques have been developed by three scientists from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Toronto to help those suffering from depression build resilience. The UK Parliamentary Committee on Mindfulness declared in its report of October 2015 that “Mindfulness is one of the most promising prevention strategies and is regarded as popular and non-stigmatising, unlike some other mental health interventions.” The report also declares that 72% of GPs want to refer patients to mindfulness courses on the NHS although access to courses remains an issue. Buddhist meditators have been declared by researchers who analysed their brain activity as the happiest people on earth. The term ‘happiest man alive’ was made famous by Matthieu Ricard, a French scientist turned Tibetan Buddhist monk who subjected himself to tests on brain activity conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and scored significantly higher than the average of hundreds of other volunteers. Fritjof Capra in his books ‘Tao of Physics’ and ‘The Turning Point’ talks of the connections between Eastern mysticism and modern physics and calls for a more coherent, holistic and ecological approach to dealing with contemporary issues respecting the harmonious inter-relationship between us and nature.


This realization and interest in the western world in Buddhism as well as other practices of the shramana tradition such as yoga, stems from a realization that while we are perhaps the most physically comfortable humans ever, human well-being and satisfaction have eluded us. It stems from a realization that there is something fundamentally wrong with our yard-sticks of success. As such, we live in times of great contradictions. We try to create world peace without creating peaceful human beings. We talk of environmental sustainability after measuring our success by our ability to consume more from the environment. Space and time have constricted due to the communications gadgets we use and our transportation capabilities but we have less time for each other. Our education systems are geared to garner knowledge of this world and to use a multitude of gadgets to exploit it but still, hardly do we know the most sophisticated gadget on this planet- the human mind. While we have been successful at discriminating and analysing, we have been less successful at seeing the world in a holistic manner. It is this progressive realization that there is something fundamentally wrong in our approach in creating well-being coupled with the improved levels of access to the teachings of the shramana tradition, that many in the west are beginning to explore alternatives with renewed interest in the teachings of the Buddha.


The beginning of this modern interest in Buddhism can be traced back to the work of Anagarika Dharmapala, the Mahabodhi Society and the Theosophical Society. Its origins lie in the great debates that took place in Sri Lanka in the 1860s between the Buddhist and Christian sides, culminating in the Panadura debate of 1873 and its translation into English. This translation was read by an American, Col. Henry Steel Olcott of the Theosophical Society who came to Sri Lanka in 1880 along with Madame Blavatsky, both of whom had by then acquired a degree of fame in the western world through the work of the Theosophical Society. Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky joining forces with a young Anagarika Dharmapala added the greatest fillip to the Buddhist revivalist movement. Thereafter, Anagarika Dharmapala set up the Mahabodhi Society in 1891 to fight for the restoration of Buddhist shrines in India including Buddha Gaya. Anagarika Dharmapala’s addresses, as the only Theravada Buddhist representative, to the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago formed an important part of its deliberations. The significance of this conference is captured by C.F.Rassweiler in his work The World Congress of Religions at the World Columbian Exposition and reads as follows:

 “This great religious gathering never possible before in the history of the world nor even now perhaps, possible anywhere else than in the great ‘city by the unsalted sea,’ was inaugurated in the Art palace on Monday September 11, 1893, and continued for eighteen days. All nations, tribes and tongues assembled in the Hall of Columbus. The orient and the occident clasped hands. From ‘India’s coral strand’ from Japan and China clad in robes of white, and red and orange, the oriental priests mingled with the sober-clad representatives of the West, to explore paths leading to religious harmony and the well-being of all man-kind. An extraordinary cordiality prevailed as delegates clasped their hands warmly in spite of being perfect strangers. The cosmopolitan representatives from all over the world gave the four thousand spectators a spectacular picture never seen before on earth. From Sri Lanka the representative was H.Dharmapala.”


This Conference, which was an important conference in the 19th century which contributed to the revival and resuscitation of western interest in ancient religions, was skilfully used by Anagarika Dharmapala to gain international acceptance of his movement.  His lecture entitled ‘The World’s Debt to the Buddha’ attracted the attention of the intellectual elite in the west. Another important lecture was on the topic “Theosophy: Its relation to Eastern Religions.” His influence on the deliberations is captured in the St. Louis Observer of September 21, 1893.


“With his black curly locks thrown back from his broad brow, his keen, clear eyes fixed upon the audience, his long brown fingers emphasizing 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 civilized world.” The Chicago Journal commenting on his role at the Conference stated that “Contempt and pity for the oriental religions have given way to respect and admiration.”


It was also on his way back from Chicago that Anagarika Dharmapala met Mary Foster, the descendent of a Hawaiian King, and to whom the Buddhist world owes a great debt of gratitude for her magnanimity to the propagation of the Dhamma, for many Buddhist institutions in India and Sri Lanka as well as the London Buddhist Vihara, were built with her money. Thus, the first building of the Vihara in Ealing was rightly called ‘Foster House.’


For us in Sri Lanka today, as we continue to engage in the task of post conflict nation-building, the work of Anagarika Dharmapala holds special meaning. The Buddhist revivalist movement he created laid the foundations for Sri Lanka’s independence from colonial subjugation and instilled a strong sense of patriotism and nationalism in our people. He abhorred violence and always sought to create men of character in keeping with Buddhist principles. The institutions he founded and the Buddhist schools that he pioneered continue to mould generations of patriotic citizens who have stood by and helped the nation overcome many formidable challenges.


It is worthwhile to remember that more often than not, when we contemplate how modern societies overcame injustices and progressed, it is evident that successes were in large part due to the ability to appeal to a universal sense of humanity, justice and tolerance reaching beyond the confines of one’s core audience, while standing firm on one’s foundations. This gave these movements a moral high ground above their detractors as evident in the endeavours of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Similarly, Anagarika Dharmapala with his formidable intellect and ability to decipher vexed philosophical questions with clarity was able to attract and sustain the support of non-Buddhist leaders, both in India and the West. Formidable scholars and spiritual leaders of the day such as Sir Edwin Arnold, Swami Vivekananda, Dr. Kalidas Nag, Rahul Sanskrtyayana and others as well as the leaders of the Indian independence movement assisted the Buddhist revivalist movement begun by Anagarika Dharmapala.


The German born British scholar Max Muller, in a letter to Anagarika Dharmapala dated January 17, 1899 states that

“I was always pleased to belong to a society to which you belong.  You have been and are doing such good work, that I hope you may be successful in your college in Colombo. Though I am not a Buddhist, I can join in many of your prayers, and I consider revival of Buddhist morality a great blessing for the great mass of people in Ceylon and India also.”


Ladies and Gentlemen,

My speech would not be complete if I do not elaborate a little on the work of Anagarika Dharmapala’s Chief Disciple, Brahmachari Devapriya Valisinha, about whom I mentioned at the beginning of my speech.


The Shakespearan adage from the ‘Twelfth Night’ – Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them – divides the great in this world into three categories.  Yet there are also those who fulfil the conditions of greatness in the literary sense of the word, but do not seek the limelight nor bask in its glory.  On occasion, limelight finds them for brief flirtatious moments.  But for the most part, the story of history is confined to the leaders.  The steady workhorses who help build the legacy of a pioneer have to be content with being a detail. Devapriya Valisinha was one such son of Sri Lanka who was the loyal disciple behind the success of Anagarika Dharmapala’s missionary efforts.  Having been involved with the work of the Mahabodhi Society since the 1920s, Devapriya Valisinha took on the burden after the passing away of his teacher in 1933, and continued the struggle to save Buddhagaya. When the ashes of Anagarika Dharmapala were taken to Ceylon by Devapriya Valisinha and Raja Hewavitharne, it is reported that a crowd of around 50,000 gathered at Maligakanda. Valisinha inspired the entire audience to take a pledge that they would not rest until Buddha Gaya was restored to Buddhists as a tribute to the memory of Anagarika Dharmapala.  The Indian National Congress had appointed a Committee headed by Dr.Rajendra Prasad, who later became the first President of India, to look into the ‘Bodh Gaya question.’ Devapriya Valisinha often represented Anagarika Dharmapala as a member of this committee and also helped write certain parts of this report. It was based on the recommendation of this committee that the Bihar State Parliament in 1949 adopted the Bodhgaya Temple Management Act which deemed that the site would be managed by a body consisting of 4 Buddhists, 4 Hindus and the district magistrate of Gaya. This is the arrangement that remains to date. Devapriya Valisinha’s involvement in the restoration of the Mulagandhakuti Vihara in Sarnath- the site of the first sermon; his continuous perseverance to bring back the relics of Arahant Sariputta and Arahant Moggallana from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for enshrinement  in India (which happened in 1949); his association with the likes of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, thus influencing the Dalit Buddhist movement, as well as his lifelong contribution to the work of the Mahabodhi Society are well documented in the journals of the Mahabodhi Society. I personally am privy to a large body of letters written by Anagarika Dharmapala to Devapriya Valisinha which were in the possession of my family. These letters, the content of which has been elaborated by Professor Wishwa Warnapala and P.R.Jayasinghe in the Sinhala book ‘අන‍ගාරික ධර්මපාල සහ දේවපිුය වලිසිංහ’ (Anagarika Dharmapala and Devapriya Valisinha), shows the depth of the trust and confidence placed by Anagarika Dharmapala in Devapriya Valisinha and the close relationship between these two great men. It was therefore no wonder that Valisinha, since the passing away of Ven.Devamitta Dharmapala in 1933, until his death in 1968, carried forward the work of the Mahabodhi Society as its General-Secretary.


It must also be said that in 1928, Valisinha came to London with 3 Bhikkhus sacrificing his post-graduate studies in Kolkata and remained in England for two years. His primary work undertaken, as per the vision of Anagarika Dharmapala to gift the Dhamma to the British, was the establishment of the British Maha Bodhi Society and to lay the London Buddhist Vihara on a firm footing. These three Buddhist monks whom Valisinha accompanied – Ven. Paravahara Vajiragnana, Ven. Dehigaspe Pannasara and Ven. Hagoda Nandasara- were the first Buddhist monks of the London Buddhist Vihara.


Ladies and Gentlemen

It is primarily through the service rendered in the  propagation of the message of The Buddha to the entire world that the influence of Anagarika Dharmapala continues to be remembered in the world today in countries such as the United Kingdom and elsewhere.  And it is this light of the Dhamma that continues to be lit by institutions such as the London Buddhist Vihara, the oldest Theravada Buddhist temple in the western hemisphere, as well as generations of Venerable Theros and laymen who continue to keep alive the flame of this unique treasure trove of knowledge and practice on the mind-body, its cyclical existence, impermanent nature of its functioning, and the method to cease it. This spirit is captured by Anagarika Dharmapala in a speech delivered in New York:


“When the early Buddhist Bhikkus went forth to distant lands to preach the Good Law they went relying on the power of Righteousness, and they were prepared to face death at the hands of the people to whom they preached the sweet law of Righteousness, peace, happiness and love. China, Burma, Ceylon, Siam, Japan, Tibet and other distant lands were brought under the Good Law of the Compassionate One not with the help of gunboats but by the power of love of self-sacrificing Bhikkus.”


Given the current interest in Buddhist practices in the west including in Britain, the foresight and wisdom of Anagarika Dharmapala is captured in a letter written by him in 1926 expressing his intention to introduce the Dhamma to the English people,


“There are thousands of liberal-minded, educated Englishmen to whom the Doctrine of the Aryans must be preached….The English are a great race, and as such they must not be allowed to die of spiritual inanition. The English should be made to hear the Arya Dharma of the Great Teacher of the Sākya race.”


He wrote in his diary on 1st January 1926 as he sailed the Atlantic from the United States to England:


“May the Sāsana be established in England. Thirteen hundred years ago, the Roman Clergy established the Catholic Church in England. In the 16th century Henry VIII established the Protestant Church. Why should not England also have the Aryan Religion of the Sākya Prince?”


Today there are around 54 Buddhist temples here in the UK, over half of which are of Sri Lankan origin. It is a great source of satisfaction that the London Buddhist Vihara as the pioneer institution continues to spread the ‘Light of Asia’ in this land. As the London Buddhist Vihara completes 90 years of its existence, let me conclude by wishing the current generation of Venerable Theros in the Vihara the courage of one’s convictions and the strength of the triple gem in carrying out one’s saffron duty of disseminating the luminous rays of the Dhamma in this land.


Thank you.




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