Anagarika Dharmapala's First Visit to Japan


by Dr. Sarath Amunugama

Newspapers have reported that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe concluded his speech to the Japanese Parliament with a stanza from Buddhist scriptures. This no doubt evokes memories of J.R.Jayewardene’s speech in San Francisco after the Second World War when he referred to the Buddha’s saying that "Hatred does not cease with hatred : Hatred can only cease through love". Sri Lanka was the only country that did not demand reparations from Japan; a gesture which has not been forgotten by the Japanese.

J.R. Jayewardene and Dudley Senanayake were two young politicians who had admired Japan as the only ‘Asian World Power’ at that time. Historians have referred to their secret meeting with the Japanese Consul in Colombo during the late thirties which had drawn the ire of D.S. Senanayake who was busy trying to convince the British colonialists of the loyalty of Ceylonese and their right to greater devolution of power under Dominion Status. At that time there was no call among our leaders for full Independence.

Both J.R. Jayewardene and Dudley Senanayake would have been aware of the links established by the Theosophical Society and the Mahabodhi Society of Anagarika Dharmapala with the Buddhists of Japan. (Jayewardene and Senanayake were in fact members of the B.T.S. as was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike). The leader of the B.T.S. was D.B. Jayatilleke who was, initially at any rate, the close ally of the Senanayakes.

The connection between Japan and Dharmapala was established through the Theosophical Society of which the latter became a devoted follower even as a teenager. It was much later that he became the avowed enemy of the Theosophical Society (T.S.) and Colonel Olcott. After the Meiji restoration Japan opened its doors to the west. A consequence of this opening to the west was the influx of Christian Missionaries, particularly from the United States. China and Japan became the happy hunting grounds of American Missionaries whose proselytizing propaganda helped considerably in denigrating in the west of the traditional cultures and religions of the two countries.

A group of young Japanese nationalist Buddhists who were opposed to the missionary onslaught became interested in the Theosophical Society, which had its origins in New York, as a countervailing organization. By this time the T.S. had established itself in India and Ceylon and its publications were available in Japan.

The founders of the T.S., Madame Blavatsky and Col. Olcott, had established contact with Sinhala Buddhist leaders from their New York headquarters, even before they set sail for India in late 1878. They had come across a pamphlet published in London and Boston in 1877 entitled "Buddhism and Christianity, Face to Face" which described the Panadura debate between the representatives of Buddhism, led by Migettuwatte Gunananda, and the Christian Missionaries. This pamphlet was based on reports on the debate supplied by a local lawyer, Edward Perera, to the Times of Ceylon. Anagarika Dharmapala described this initial encounter in the following manner: "Dr. J.M. Peebles, an American Spiritualist who was visiting Colombo at the time, observed an English Report of the controversy between the Buddhists and Christians and upon his return to the United States, showed it to Col. Henry S. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky who had organized the T.S. in New York in 1875".

With typical panache Madame Blavatsky had, from New York, sent Gunananda a presentation copy of her book Isis Unveiled. Gunananda, impressed by this response to his "international status," translated and published extracts of Blavatsky’s book in his own journal Sampath Dharsanaya, directed his relative John Robert de Silva to apply to New York for T.S. membership and persuaded his friend and the leader of Sinhala monks, Hikkaduwe Sumangala, to become an office bearer of the Theosophical Society. This was a considerable coup for the T.S. for "[Sumangala] – is recognized by European philologists as the most learned of all the representatives of his faith. His eminence as an instructor is also shown in his occupancy of the position of President of the Elu, Pali and Sanskrit College, Vidyodaya. As a preacher and expositor of the doctrine, he is no less distinguished, while his personal character is so pure and winsome that even the bigoted enemies of his religion vie with each other in praising him". [Olcott’s Diary]

The young Japanese group decided to send one of its members Noguchi to Ceylon to contact Col. Olcott and request the T.S. to "lend us this worker of social miracles, this defender of religions, this teacher of tolerance, for a little time, so that he may do for the religion of my country what he and his colleagues have done for the religion of India. He is a Buddhist of many years standing. He has helped the Buddhists of Ceylon to work for a change for the better in their religion so wonderful to behold that no one could believe it without going to that island and talking with the priests and the people".

Here too Dharmapala was lucky. Noguchi first arrived by steamer to Colombo and established a close relationship with young Dharmapala and his family. Dharmapala’s mentor, Hikkaduwe Sumangala, was the tutor of a Japanese monk who was to play a dominant role in Japanese Buddhism. He was Shaku Soen who represented a type of Zen Buddhism which had integrated some Hinayana beliefs. Shaku Soen, who was named Punnakettu by Sinhalese monks, typified an attempt by a small group of Japanese monks to introduce Theravada concepts to the dominant Mahayanist beliefs of the Japanese Buddhist sects. Shaku Soen was a delegate to the World Congress of religious in Chicago in 1893. He too used this visit to establish links in the U.S. for his sect. But his biggest contribution was the introduction of D.T. Suzuki to the west. Suzuki, who also befriended Dharmapala, went on to be the most famous author on Mahayana Buddhism. Dharmapala wrote about Suzuki in his diaries and referred to the fact that while the former had become a famous writer he, because of his commitments to Buddhist activism, could not write a book on Theravada Buddhism. Another of Hikkaduwe’s students was Kozen Gunaratne [The name Gunaratne was affixed as a tribute to his sponsor E.R. Gunaratne]. Two Japanese, Kozen Gunaratne and Tokuzawa, accompanied Dharmapala on his first visit to Buddhagaya.

Noguchi’s impassioned speech to the 1888 T.S. Convention yielded the anticipated response. The Convention unanimously called on Olcott to oblige. At this stage the Japanese, who had already enjoyed the hospitality of the Hewavitarnes in Colombo, made an additional request that Dharmapala too should accompany Olcott. This pleased Hikkaduwe Sumangala who wrote a friendly letter of introduction in Sanskrit to the Japanese monks who were his students. Yagirala Pannanda in his outstanding work entitled "Sri Sumangala Charitya" published in 1947 quotes several Sanskrit compositions by Sumangala’s Japanese students, in particular Kozen Gunaratne, who were proficient in Sanskrit and Pali. Sumangala played an important role exhorting Olcott and Dharmapala giving "a most eloquent and kindly discourse setting forth the magnitude of the task I had undertaken. [Olcott Diary] He referred to Dharmapala ‘as worthy of the high honour of this task and be the first Sinhalese who sets foot upon the shores of Japan". The party left for Japan in January 1889 on the ship "Djemnah"and after Singapore, Saigon, Hongkong and Shanghai reach Kobe on February 9, 1889.

Though Dharmapala had great expectations regarding the journey he fell sick en route to Japan. "[He] began to suffer rheumatic pain in his feet and limbs, and to wish himself back in warm Ceylon. (Olcott) Anyway Olcott was the star of the show and Dharmapala could only marvel at the way the "Good old man", Olcott, began to captivate the Japanese Buddhists he encountered. "On the pier ranged in a line were a number of priests of all the sects who saluted me with the exquisite politeness for which the nation is celebrated". (Olcott)

While in Kobe the duo were taken to a Tendai temple and then to Kyoto where they met a convention of monks at Chion-in Temple. Then Olcott and Dharmapala were received by the Chief Priest of Shingon sect to which Kozen Gunaratne belonged. They had a reputation as ‘Esoteric Buddhists’ of Japan and could link up with the Theosophists. But the more important encounter was with the western Honganji sect. "The sacred building was decked with the national ensign, and in compliment to me and the Ceylon Buddhists, the Buddhist symbolical flag, which the Colombo Buddhist T.S. had introduced in the island of Ceylon". The mission to Japan was a necessary precursor to Dharmapala’s intervention in Buddhagaya in January 1891. He was accompanied by two Japanese Buddhists Kozen Gunaratne and Tokuzawa to Adyar and then to Middle India. Dharmapala’s visit to Japan had convinced him of the possibility of Pan Buddhist support to reclaim the Buddhist site. His physical sufferings in Japan had convinced him that his dedication to the Buddha had to be strong enough to overcome obstacles both physical and political. The boldness of Olcott, who in typical American style, approached those who wielded power – the chief priests and even the Prime Minister Count Kuroda, whom they met on this journey, stamped a confidence in Dharmapala which was reflected in the astral messages he believed were sent to him by the Arahant of the Theosophists, Koot Hoomi.

Despite the fact that Dharmapala had great sympathy for Japan and had to incur the suspicion of the British administration as a pro-Japan Buddhist, he did not later make much headway in Japan. They were not great donors for his efforts in Buddhagaya. The most symbolic gift of the Japanese was the Buddhist image donated to him by the Shingon sect. This was taken to Buddhagaya and Dharmapala’s attempt to place it by force in the ‘Hindu’ temple just before the visit of Viceroy Elgin led to protracted litigation called ‘the Great Case’. In the end Dharmapala lost the legal battle and the image was removed to the Burmese Rest House in Gaya, the Calcutta Museum and finally the College Street Headquarters of the Mahabodhi Society in Calcutta.

The main reason for the failure of the Olcott and Dharmapala project for a unified Buddhist mission in Japan based on the cooperation of all the Buddhist sects was the Mahayana – Hinayana divide. The Japanese Mahayanist sects were too strong and conventional to heed the call of Olcott, Dharmapala and the young Japanese reformers. In the words of Avery Morrow "The three early attempts to bring Theravada Buddhism to Japan might as well have been attempted to bring it to the Sahara desert".


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