Editorials by Sangharakshita


The Anniversaries of Anagarika Dharmapala and Mrs. Mary E. Foster

This editorial first appeared in The Maha Bodhi, September 1958

The date of Sept. 17th is memorable for the Buddhist World as on that day is celebrated the birth in 1864 of a baby who was destined to rouse the followers of the Dhamma from the apathy into which they had fallen during the last century and to light a candle whose flame has since been growing steadily, bearing witness to the life of a man who can only be called 'Great' whether with reference to his work, his character or his Being.

But a flame cannot spread or even maintain itself without fuel on which to feed, and this date is doubly worthy of remembrance in that it also marks the anniversary of the person who fed the flame. In the world today little can be accomplished without money and few personalities are so self-sufficient that they pursue their activities without a single word of encouragement from others. Mrs. Mary Foster, it was, who fed the fuel to the flame which Anagarika Dharmapala had lighted so that it continued to leap upwards and gain in strength as it was fanned by the breezes of adversity. She also gave her moral support and her birthday, being separated by only three days from that of the man she cherished and assisted in every way in her power, is remembered with his, for without her he would never have been able to accomplish all he did.

The product of typical English schooling received in his native island of Ceylon, Dharmapala showed early that he could not be compelled by persuasion or fear of punishment to conform to standards with which he did not agree. He evolved his own convictions at an early age, not uninfluenced by the pious Buddhist upbringing given him by his parents with whom he performed the puja daily while at school he was taught the Christian religion and took part in the routine Christian observances.


Before he had left school he came under the influence of that famous person Madame Blavatsky and her partner Col. Olcott. He felt then that in such Secret Knowledge as she professed to impart and powers that she claimed to have, there was an opportunity for him to advance his Search for Truth and for Spiritual Experience beyond that which either worship of the Buddha or of the Christ had, as yet, been able to give him. He joined the Theosophical Society that they had lately formed, his own grandfather standing sponsor for him.

A mysteriously inspired message was the match that set the spark alight:

'The only refuge for him who aspires to true perfection is in the Buddha alone.'

From that moment Buddhism as a religion and way of life held him and eventually even replaced his occult aspirations. But while still working for the Theosophical Society, he began to pay attention to the state of his own land where the Buddhist religion had sunk so far from anything resembling what the founder had taught that it seemed as if, ere long, it would die out altogether and fade into the religion inculcated by Christian missionaries or beaten into a form of Hinduism.

The Theosophical Society with Col. Olcott and Mr. Leadbeater at its head, worked also to resuscitate Buddhism at this period Dharmapala identified the interests of the two systems and toured with the two men in missionary zeal. As he toured he observed his own people had not only strayed from their hereditary faith but also from their own national customs and were adopting the language, dress and habits of the West.

In 1887 he toured Japan by invitation, during which he and Olcott took part in functions which were designed to try and unite the branches of Buddhism that had for so long diverged from the main tree. But Dharmapala was ill and Olcott left him in hospital in Kyoto with rheumatic fever, to which hospital, therefore, there came a ceaseless flow of Buddhists of all professions, who had heard of the unflagging zeal of this young Sinhalese on behalf of the revival of their religion.

But of all his travels and of all the places he visited, none excelled in importance or portent Bodh-Gaya, which was to be the arena for a titanic struggle between the zealot who wished to rescue that holy of holies from the unworthy Hindu who held it despite the fact that it had no connection whatever with the beliefs or history of Hindu religion and was to Buddhists what Gennesareth was to Christians or Mecca to Moslems.

The struggle has been well recounted elsewhere (in Anagarika Dharmapala: A Biographical Sketch, by Bhikshu Sangharakshita) and suffice it here to say that it showed the tenacity and courage of this remarkable man, courage that was not only moral but physical as well, for his opponents did not stop short of violence to prevent the transference of the decaying temple to its rightful owners. The fact that he showed all the characteristics of the bulldog which, once it has its teeth firmly fixed will not let go for blows or cajolery, is responsible for the opportunity every Buddhist now has to make pilgrimage to Bodh-Gaya, worship in the Temple in his traditional manner and contemplate under the Bodhi Tree, at least once in a life time.

But the struggle, that was protracted for 30 years, left its mark upon the man physically. By the time a foot-hold in Bodh-Gaya was won he was a sick man though his life was by no means nearing its end. He continued to work unceasingly, touring America to try to raise an interest in Buddhism. London, Rome and many other places saw this strange Eastern figure in flowing robes with long hair and flashing eyes which were of abnormal depth and seemed to penetrate the person on whom they were fixed, who spoke with such whole-hearted conviction that he must have moved many by the sincerity of his passion.

During this period, too, he founded the Maha Bodhi Society and published the first of its journals. He had also started a journal in England entitled The British Buddhist and, having by now severed connections with the Theosophical Society which had sadly degenerated after Mme. Blavatsky's death, he interested himself to such an extent in the economic situation of his own Ceylon and the progress of his people there, that he founded schools and colleges and introduced modern machinery and methods and imported persons who could teach them to the Sinhalese.

He died in 1933, after receiving his higher ordination a few months before, for he wished to be a full member of the holy Order after a lifetime of devotion which had left no opportunity of doing so before. For this devotion, for his clear-sightedness and singleness of purpose and courage and determination, we honour his anniversary this day and could do no better than be inspired by his example to follow it even if we cannot attain to his stature. It is only by the lives of her few great men that the world is vindicated and humanity justified.