AGAMPODI PAULUS DE ZOYSA was born on April 5 1890 in his mother’s family home, situated in the coastal village of Randombe, near Ambalangoda in the Southern province. His father was from Hegalle, Kosgoda. When he was 11, his parents died in an epidemic; he was brought up by his grandmother, and supported by maternal uncles, some of whom were clerks in government service. One of the uncles who influenced him was Bhikku Randombe Suddharmalankara.
De Zoysa had his first lessons in the nearby historic temple, the Maha Samudraramaya, and later attended the Wesleyan school in Randombe and Mahinda College, Galle, where he came under the influence of its principal the famous Theosophist and Pali scholar F.L. Woodward. Moving on to Wesley College, Colombo, de Zoysa was not only a good student but also a keen cricketer, artist and actor. He taught for a time at Ananda College, and after attending a teachers’ training college he was appointed art master at Royal College. Being adventurous in spirit, he decided to go to Britain in 1921 for further studies although he lacked the resources. But with the help of his uncles, he was able to meet the initial cost.
De Zoysa had to rely on his own efforts to support himself in London. He was a born teacher and soon became a popular coach to overseas students especially in Mathematics and Latin. He was appointed examiner in Sinhala to the Universities of London and Cambridge. He did an external London degree, and in 1927 was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn. In 1929, he obtained a Ph.D. in Anthropology at London University. His dissertation was on "Observances and Customs in Sinhalese Villages" which he completed with the under the guidance of world renowned anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. During this time he was also active in the Buddhist movement in London, addressing meetings in Hyde Park, as well as visiting Ireland and New York where he lectured on Buddhism.
While in London he married Eleanor Hutton of Durham, who was from a socialist, secular family, and interested in Buddhism. They had one child, Visakha Kumari. Their wide circle of friends included British artists as well as students from Africa, India and Malaysia, and Sri Lankans studying in Britain, most notably the Buddhist reformer Dr. E.W. Adhikaram and Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe, the future Left leader.
After long years in Britain de Zoysa returned to Sri Lanka in 1934. He was greeted by a large crowd of friends, relatives and former pupils. De Zoysa began the struggle to earn a living at the Bar and became known as a poor man’s lawyer, while his wife taught music at Ananda Balika. It was however, public service that attracted him, and when he decided to contest Colombo South in 1936, many good friends rallied round to help in his campaign. Against all odds, Dr. de Zoysa won the election on a platform of social reform, and was in the State Council until 1947, intervening on a large number of issues. Many of them were controversial: these included his support for the Malayali workers in Colombo who were threatened with deportation; his opposition to the death penalty; his unsuccessful sponsorship of anti-dowry legislation; and his suggestion (later withdrawn) that brothels be legalized for the duration of the Second World War when there were foreign troops stationed in Sri Lanka. Another cause he championed was that of Bhikku Walpola Rahula and the politically active bhikkus of the Vidyalankara Pirivena , Kelaniya, who were under attack.
De Zoysa served in the Education Committee of the Council, and was deeply interested in promoting a better system of State education from the elementary school upwards. He was also a Municipal Councillor for several years, taking up local issues and campaigning to improve the city’s amenities.
In 1939 Dr. de Zoysa, who was always enthusiastic to branch out, bought a printing press, and produced a series of books in Sinhala on educational subjects, and edited a weekly paper, the Dharmasamaya. Then he began his ambitious work, the translation of the whole Tripitaka into simple Sinhala so that a larger public could read and understand Buddhist teachings. The project took over 20 years, and with help from Buddhist scholars, he produced 48 volumes. Dr. de Zoysa started on a concise edition of the Tripitika which he hoped to compress into about ten volumes, but he only got as far as the first two books — the Digha Nikaya and the Majjhima Nikaya, before his death.
Besides his magnum opus - the Tripitaka translations - he compiled and printed in 1948, a English-Sinhala Dictionary and helped by his wife, produced a cheaper concise edition for students. In the following year his Sinhala-English Dictionary in two volumes appeared. A second enlarged edition of this was published in three volumes. These dictionaries were of immense value at a time when language policies were changing. The printing of the Tripitaka and dictionaries was done at his small press, the Dharmasamaya in Maradana.
Dr. A.P. de Zoysa did not join any political party, but all his life supported social change. He led a frugal life, following a simple healthy diet, walked a lot, and travelled by bus to the State Council. He spoke of Buddhism as a liberating, universal philosophy— denouncing superstition, astrology and auspicious times as non-Buddhist practices. After de Zoysa’s death aged 78 on May 26th 1968, Dr. G.P. Malalasekera lauded his "simplicity in life and dedication to work" calling him "a man with rare integrity, great courage, perseverance and powers of endurance".
Premakumara De Silva,
University of Colombo