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Asoka Weeraratna – Pioneer in developing post- war Sri Lanka – German ties

C0ntinued from December 14

War weary Germans failing to find answers to their personal and their country’s political problems, in their own Western religious traditions, without resorting to violence, were anxiously seeking to experiment with moral and ethical ideas emanating from the East.

About the same time in post-independent Sri Lanka, Lankans for the first time after 450 years of colonial rule were beginning to dream of new vistas unfettered by the restrictions of the foreign dominated past. They were acquiring a new sense of historical destiny and a growing confidence that they were capable of playing a larger role in world affairs than hitherto was thought possible. Taking Buddhism to the West was one of these ambitious ideas which fired the energy and imagination of the public, particularly that of the Buddhist Sangha.

It was the convergence of these factors i.e. the upsurge in interest ‘ to look towards the East ’ of the Germans and ‘take Buddhism to the West ’ spirit of the Sri Lankans that led to the events that were to follow.

Founding of the Lanka Dhammaduta Society

On his return from West Germany and convinced of the potential for growth of Buddhism in that country, Asoka Weeraratna founded the Lanka Dhammaduta Society, on September 21, 1952 which was later re-named the German Dharmaduta Society on May 8, 1957. The idea of forming this Society was conceived by Asoka when visiting Europe in 1951. Ven. Ñânatiloka Mahâthera, the well known German Scholar monk was the first Patron of the Society. In 1953, Asoka Weeraratna, who was by this time the Honorary Secretary of the Society, paid a second visit to Germany and conducted a survey of Buddhist activities in that country.

On this trip Asoka travelled widely all over Germany, meeting leaders of Buddhist organizations in various German cities and enlisting their support for the cause of establishing the Buddha Sasana in Germany. He was also asked to inspect a suitable site for a Buddhist Centre and Vihara, and a Settlement for lay Buddhists and Upasakas.

Asoka visited a series of German cities and towns i.e. Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, Stuttgart, Bremen, Frankfurt, Bonn, Cologne among others. In Hamburg, he met Dr. Helmut Palmie, President of the Hamburg Buddhist Society. Dr. Palmie was a Pali Scholar and an ardent Buddhist. Dr. Palmie convened a special meeting of the Hamburg Buddhist Society on 10th March, 1953, on the occasion of Asoka’s visit. About 200 German Buddhists attended the meeting which Asoka addressed. Asoka presented an ola-leaf book on the Buddha Dhamma to Dr. Palmie as a token of good will from the Lanka Dhammaduta Society.

In Munich, Asoka met Dr. Von Meng, the President of the Munich Buddhist Society and attended a meeting of this Society. Asoka presented a small Buddha statue to Dr. Von Meng. This Society published a monthly journal devoted to the propagation of Buddhism called ‘Indische Welt’ (or ‘Indian World‘).

In Berlin, there were two Buddhist Societies in 1953. One was called ‘Gessellschaft Fur Freunde Des Buddhismus’ or ‘Society of the Friends of Buddhism’. Herr. F. Knobloch led this Society. The other Society was called ‘Buddhistche Gemeinde’ Herr Lionel Stutzer was the head of this Society. Asoka attended a meeting of this Society held at Stutzer’s house. In Berlin, Asoka also met Dr. K. Schmidt, a Pali Scholar and lecturer on Buddhism.

On his return to Sri Lanka in early May 1953, Asoka Weeraratna prepared a report under the heading ‘Buddhism in Germany’ giving his impressions of his visit to Germany and the details of his meetings with German Buddhists. This Report was subsequently published by the Society in both English and Sinhala and thousands of copies were distributed to the public all over the country.

German Outlook on Buddhism

In this Report, Asoka Weeraratna says:

"The general outlook of Germans has greatly changed after the war. The bitter experiences of two great wars have taught them but one lesson, that "All conditioned things are impermanent". If you stop to ask about the past war, a German would have nothing else to add but the words ‘Alles kaput‘, which mean ‘All destroyed’.

Buddhism with its elucidation of the Four Noble Truths and the Three Signs of ‘Impermanence, Suffering and Soul-lessness’ as the characteristic feature of all things, has appeared to them as the most perfect teaching ever made known to mankind’.

Public Meeting at Ananda College, Colombo on May 30, 1953

The main purpose of this meeting held at Ananda College was to make public the findings of the survey carried out by Asoka Weeraratna on the current state of Buddhist activities in Germany and the prospects for a Buddhist Mission to Germany before the Buddha Jayanthi celebrations in 1956, and to embark on a membership drive.

Hon. Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara, Minister of Local Government presided at the Meeting, which was largely attended and comprised a very representative gathering of leading Buddhists.

Mr. Asoka Weeraratna in welcoming those present explained the object of the meeting and presented a detailed account of his survey of the present state of Buddhism in Germany made during his recent visit. He pointed out the importance of Germany and the unique contribution it has made towards the enrichment of European thought, culture and science. He stated that Germany was the pulse of the European continent, and that the largest number of Theravada Buddhists of Europe was at present found in Germany.

At the end of Asoka’s detailed presentation, Hon. C. W. W. Kannangara moved the following Motion:

"This House is of the opinion that the public of Ceylon should fully support the efforts of the Lanka Dhammaduta Society for the establishment of the Sambuddhasasana in Germany and propagate Buddhism in Europe "

Ven. Pandit D. Revata Thera seconded the Motion, which was unanimously adopted by the House.

Next, Mr. C. D. A. Gunawardena moved the following Motion:

"This House is of the opinion that the Lanka Dhammaduta Society should take immediate steps to send a Buddhist Mission to Germany before 1956 in order to commemorate the 2500th year of the birth of the Buddha and further that the Society should take immediate steps to establish a permanent Buddhist Centre in Germany comprising a Vihara, Preaching Hall, Library, and Settlement for Upasakas". Ven. Pandit Akuretiye Amarawansa Thero seconded the Motion, which was unanimously adopted by the House. Ven. Baddegama Piyaratana Maha Nayake Thera, Principal of Vidyodaya Pirivena, Ven. Kirivattaduwa Pannasara Nayaka Thera, Principal of Vidyalankara Pirivena, Ven. Nyanatiloka Maha Thera (the German monk) and Mudaliyar P. D. Ratnatunga and Mr. H. L. Caldera all spoke in support of the work of the Society and the great importance of sending a Buddhist Mission to Germany before the Buddha Jayanthi celebrations in B.E. 2500 (1956 AD).

Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Maha Thera added that one of the greatest services that one can do to the Sasana is to help the Society to establish the Buddhist Dispensation in Europe with Germany as its center.

Hon. C. W. W. Kannangara, Minister of Local Government, speaking from the Chair said that he had known the Hon. Secretary of the Society, Mr. Asoka Weeraratna from his boyhood and that he could vouch for his integrity. The Hon. Minister added that the Society was going to serve one of the greatest causes of Buddhism launched after the Great Emperor Asoka of India. He therefore urged that all Buddhists should back the Society in every way in order to help it to establish the Buddhasasana firmly in Germany before the Buddha Jayanthi of 1956.

Friedrich Moller

One significant outcome of Asoka Weeraratna’s visit to Germany in 1953 was the recruitment of Friedrich Moller, a teacher of Rackow College, Hamburg to engage in Buddhist propagation work. The Society paid for the passage of. Moller, who arrived in Sri Lanka on the 5th of June, 1953. He became an Upasaka and was placed at the Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa. Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera instructed him. Moller was the first German trainee of the Society. It was originally intended to train Moller in Dhammaduta work for two and a half years and then make Moller a member of the first Buddhist Mission to Germany that was planned to leave Sri Lanka in 1956 (the year of the Buddha Jayanti). However he preferred to remain in Sri Lanka upon completing his period of training and receiving ordination under the name of Bhikkhu Nyanawimala. A pious monk, he was later known as Ven. Polgasduwe Nyanawimala Maha Thera. He passed away in October 2005.

The Million Rupee Trust Fund

With great determination and energy, Asoka Weeraratna launched in 1954 under the auspices of the Society a ‘Million Rupee Trust Fund’ for the permanent establishment of the Buddha Sasana in Germany, as Arahant Mahinda had done it in Sri Lanka, and appealed to the public for contributions. The Million Rupee Trust Fund was inaugurated at a Public Meeting held at the Colombo Town Hall on September 6, 1954. Mr. Dudley Senanayake, the former Prime Minister presided at this Meeting. The Board of Trustees of this Trust Fund comprised the following persons:

1. Dudley Senanayake Former Prime Minister

2. H. H. Basnayake, Q.C. Attorney – General

3. H. W. Amarasuriya Proprietary Planter

4. H. Nelson H. Soysa Proctor S.C.

5. Asoka Weeraratna Merchant

Asoka Weeraratna contributed a sum of Rs. 25, 000 (Twenty Five Thousand Rupees) from his own personal funds to this Trust Fund at the Inauguration of this Fund. This was in addition to the Rs. 1,000 (On Thousand Rupees) he had contributed to the Society on the day of its formation i.e. September 21, 1952.

The Collection of Funds

With growing public support the Society soon won the recognition and encouragement of the State and the Government declared the ‘Million Rupee Fund’ an Approved Charity. Among the many benefactors who contributed to this Fund, particular mention must be made of Dr. Walther Schmidt, a German Buddhist, who left a valuable legacy of DM 550.000 to the Society upon his death in 1957.

In 1955 the Government granted to the Society an acre of vacant crown land in Bullers Road, Colombo on a 99 year old lease. In August 1956, Hon. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Prime Minister, declared open at a ceremonial public meeting, amidst a large gathering, the newly built Headquarters and Training Centre of the Society at 417, Bullers Road (Bauddhaloka Mawatha), Colombo 7 consisting of a two-storeyed dormitory of 14 rooms, an Assembly Hall, Office and Library, built at a cost of Rs. 125.000.

First Buddhist Mission to Germany

The Society sponsored the first Buddhist Mission to Germany, which left the Colombo Harbour by ship ‘SS Orantes’ on June 15th, 1957. The three monks in this historic mission comprised Ven. Soma, Ven. Kheminda and Ven. Vinîta. They were all recruited from the Vajiraramaya Temple, Bambalapitiya. They were accompanied by W. J. Oliver Soysa, a close associate of the Vajiraramaya monks. Dharmapriya Mahinda (formerly known as Nelson Soysa) a Vice-President of the GDS had left for Germany earlier. Asoka Weeraratna joined the Mission in Berlin having flown in from Colombo.

The purchase of "Das Buddhistische Haus"

One of Asoka Weeraratna’s most significant contributions to the spread of Buddhism in Germany was the critical role that he played in the purchase of "Das Buddhistische Haus" built by Dr. Paul Dahlke. This Buddhist Haus was considered the Center of German Buddhism during Dr. Dahlke’s time.

Asoka Weeraratna personally negotiated with the nephew of the late Dr. Paul Dahlke and overcame several obstacles that stood in the way of the purchase of ‘Das Buddhistische Haus’. Asoka bought the property in 1957 on behalf of and in the names of the five Trustees of the German Dharmaduta Society. Asoka had to personally visit at his own expense the owners of Das Buddhistische Haus who lived in an island called ‘Sylt’(near Denmark), in the extreme north of West Germany (over 500 km. from Berlin) to negotiate the transfer of the land.

Asoka spent nearly six (6) months in Germany in 1957 (from June to December) at his own personal expense attending to various matters connected with the purchase of ‘Das Buddhistische Haus’ and the settling in of the first Buddhist Mission of three monks comprising Ven. Soma Thera, Ven. Kheminda and Ven. Vinita Thera. ‘Das Buddhistische Haus’ was subsequently converted into a Buddhist Vihâra, by the German Dharmaduta Society by providing residential and other necessary institutional facilities to Buddhist Dharmaduta monks drawn mainly from Sri Lanka.

Since 1957 there has been a stream of Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka and other countries, taking up residence in the Berlin Buddhist Vihâra. Of these dedicated monks, special mention must be made of Ven. Athurugiriye Ñânavimala Mahâthera who served as the Vihâradhipati of the Berlin Vihâra for a period of 15 years (1966-1981).

Some of the more notable monks who spent more than three years in residence were:

1) Ven. Badulla Shanthi Bhadra
(1958 – 1962)

2) Ven. Talpitiye Anuruddha
(July, 1964 – April, 1967)

3) Ven. Pandit Athurugiriye Sri Gnanawimala Maha Thera
(1966 – 1981)

4) Ven. Udugampola Wijayasoma
(1968 – 1982)

5) Ven. Shanthi Deva (German Monk) (1972 – 1977)

6) Ven. Dikwelle Mahinda (1982 – 1991)

7) Ven. Attanagoda Pannavisudhi
(1986 – 1990)

8) Ven. Walpola Kalyanatissa
(1991 – 1994)

9) Ven. Rambukwella Devananda
(1992 – 1998)

10) Ven. Rathmale Punnaratana
(1996 – 2005)

11) Ven. Medhayo (Scottish Monk) (2003 – 2006)

They have braved the cold winters of Europe and the innumerable difficulties that prevail in Western countries, particularly for Buddhist monks from Asia. These monks together with other visiting monks and lay teachers comprising both men and women, using as their base ‘Das Buddhistische Haus’ have contributed in no small measure towards correcting centuries old negative impressions about Buddhism in the Western consciousness, and have given solace to a large number of Europeans seeking a philosophy that places an emphasis on self-reliance, non – violence and loving kindness to all living beings. It is an inspiring achievement.

The Berlin Vihara currently has two resident monks namely Ven. Dikwelle Seelasumana Thera and Ven. Wilachchiye Dhamma Vijaya Thera. The Vihara is being administered under the supervision of Mr. Tissa Weeraratna, Trustee and Vice- President of the German Dharmaduta Society.

A German assessment of the Contribution of the German Dharmaduta Society

In a seminal article on the state of Buddhism in Germany, Dr. Hans Wolfgang Schumann, the reputed scholar and chronicler of the history of Buddhism in Germany, states as follows:

"Another important Buddhist Centre is the "Buddhist House" founded by Paul Dahlke in Berlin – Frohnau in 1924. It survived World War II in a dilapidated condition and probably would have been auctioned and dismantled if the Ceylonese ‘German Dhammaduta Society’ (founded 1952) which inherited a large sum of money from a German Buddhist had not come to its rescue. The GDS purchased the house in 1958, renovated it, furnished it with additional rooms and a good library, and stationed some Ceylonese Bhikkhus (monks) there who take charge of regular lectures and meditation courses."

Refer Hans Wolfgang Schumann ‘Buddhism and Buddhist Studies in Germany’, Maha Bodhi Journal, Vol. 79, (February – March 1971) page 99.

Dr. Schumann further says in the concluding paragraph of the above named article as follows:

"Seen from another angle, however, Asian Buddhist mission was successful. The organizational help which Buddhist Societies in Asia, in particular Ceylon, in several critical periods have extended, has saved the flame of the Dhamma in Germany from being blown out by the storm of historical events. Isn’t this for the Germans reason enough to be grateful?"

Refer Hans Wolfgang Schumann ‘Buddhism and Buddhist Studies in Germany’, Maha Bodhi Journal, Vol. 79, (February – March 1971) page 101

Asoka Weeraratna enters the Order of Sangha

Asoka Weeraratna resigned from the post of Secretary of the German Dharmaduta Society in 1972 having served the cause of Buddhism in that capacity for a period of nearly 20 years.

In the mid 1960s Asoka Weeraratna turned his attention to the construction of the Nissarana Vanaya Hermitage at Mitirigala, which became one of Sri Lanka’s most respected meditation monasteries under the guidance of the outstanding Meditation monk Ven. Matara Sri Gnanarama Maha Thera. Asoka himself entered the Buddhist order under the name Ven. Dhammanisanthi Thera in August 1972. It is a remarkable example of renunciation of all worldly possessions given that in the 1950’s and early 1960’s Asoka was one of Sri Lanka’s leading businessmen.

Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanisanthi Thera spent 27 years in the Sangha most of the time as a forest monk. He passed away peacefully on July 2, 1999 at the age of 80 years.

Being an ascetic monk he left detailed instructions that his funeral should reflect the fundamental Buddhist concepts – Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta. The funeral was conducted in a very simple austere manner on July 3, 1999, the day following his death, at the General Cemetery Kanatte in Colombo where his remains were cremated amidst the cries of ‘Buduweva’ ‘Buduweva’ from a small crowd of faithful mourners. Amongst them were a band of solemn monks from the Mitirigala Forest Hermitage.

Conclusion

The full extent of Asoka Weeraratna’s input to the spread of Buddhism in Germany awaits a deeper study. However his pioneering efforts in sending the first Buddhist Mission to Germany and his involvement in establishing the first Buddhist Vihara in that country with resident monks, are indisputable and have contributed immensely to the strengthening of religious and cultural links between Sri Lanka and Germany.

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