150th BIRTH ANNIVERSARY OF
the Founder of the London Buddhist Vihara
Dharmapala (17 September 1864 - 29 April 1933) was a leading figure in
Buddhism in the twentieth century. He was a pioneer in the revival of
Buddhism in India after it had been virtually extinct there for several
centuries, and he was the first Buddhist in modern times to preach the
Dharma in three continents: Asia, North America, and Europe.
Anagarika Dharmapala's Achievement
Much has been written about the Anagarika Dharmapala, and the main events of his career have often been reviewed in these columns. Now that twenty-eight years have passed since his death perhaps it is time for us to take a broader view and try to ascertain the place of his achievement in Buddhist history. In this connection five considerations are of outstanding importance.
Firstly, his life and work represent, so far as the Buddhist world is concerned, the first reactions of the age-old spiritual traditions of the East against the industrial civilization of the modern West. This civilization, if it can truly be called such, was mainly imposed by force, the trader, the Christian missionary and the political adventurer each playing a part. In some places, such as Ceylon, where Dharmapala was born, the indigenous religion and culture had been crushed for centuries and when Portuguese ferocity, Dutch brutality and British indifference had done their worst precious few traces of them were left. Against conditions such as these Dharmapala protested with the whole force of his being and at every level of existence. Even in the schoolroom he rebelled against Christianity. He was vehemently patriotic. Year in and year out he urged his fellow-countrymen to give up vicious foreign habits such as that of drink. But his reaction was positive, not merely negative. He also stood above all for the revival of Buddhism.
Secondly, he stood not merely for the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon, where it had been weakened for centuries, but for its renaissance in India, where it had been dead for a millennium. This was indeed an astounding idea, and one which could have occurred only to a man of exceptional spiritual vision and outstanding courage. To revive in the land of its birth a religion that had been dead there for a thousand years! 'The impracticable dream of a young idealist!' scoffed his contemporaries. But undeterred Dharmapala set to work, fought vigorously to rescue Buddhgaya, reclaimed the sacred places, established centres, and kept up a continuous stream of propaganda with the result that before his death he was able to plant, and see beginning to sprout, the seed that is now fast growing into a noble tree.
Thirdly, Dharmapala sought to focus on the renaissance of Buddhism in India, and particularly on the legally complicated but morally simple question of the Maha Bodhi Temple at Buddhgaya, the attention of the entire Buddhist world. In other words, he tried to foster a sense of common purpose, - and as a corollary thereof to formulate a plan of united action, - among all followers of the Buddha. Thus he was the father of the various movements which, since his passing away, have insisted on the oneness of the Buddhist world and sought to promote mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation between its various parts.
Fourthly, Dharmapala's interests and activities were not limited to the Buddhist countries of Asia and to India but overspread the whole earth. As far as we know, he was the first who, in his own words, girdled the globe with the Message of the Master. His historic appearance at the World's Parliament of Religions, Chicago, in 1893 is described elsewhere in this issue. He traversed the greater part of Europe and the U.S.A preaching the Dharma. The Journal he started found, and continues to find its way, to every continent. He was the first Buddhist missionary ever to take the whole world for his parish.
Fifthly, the missionary was for the longest and most active part of his care not a monk but a layman - technically an Anagarika, one who, without receiving monastic ordination, devoted himself to the life of a celibate full-time worker for Buddhism. This marks another innovation. Since the inception of the Sasana the chief custodians of the Dharma, the missionaries and the teachers, had with hardly any exception been monks. Dharmapala's advent and example mark the beginning of a new tendency, not indeed to minimise in any way the role of the Sangha, but rather to encourage an increased participation in active Buddhist work by the laity.
five considerations by no means do justice to an exceptionally many-sided
career of one of the most remarkable Buddhist personalities of recent
times. But as we remember him on his birth anniversary this month they
may help us to appreciate the magnitude of his achievement and also to
understand its place in Buddhist history.