Centre Bouddhique International

Le Bourget - France

 Samadhi Bouddha Statue - Anuradhapura - Sri Lanka  IV-Ve Siècle


Beginnings of a Great Sinhalese Patriot




Among the few well-to-do families which through all vicissitudes stood firmly and fearlessly on the side of their ancestral faith was the Hewavitarne family of Matara in South Ceylon. Hewavitarne Dingiri Appuhamy, the first member of this family with whom we are concerned, belonged to the large and respected ‘goigama’ or cultivator class. He had two sons, both of whom exhibited the same devotion to the Dhamma as their father. One of them became a Bhikkhu known as Hittatiye Atthadassi Thera and occupied the incumbency of Hittatiya Raja Mahavihara. His teacher, Mirisse Revata Thera, was fourth in pupillary succession from the Sangharaja Saranankara, the greatest name in eighteenth century Ceylon Buddhism. The other son, Don Carolis Hewavitarne, migrated to Colombo, established there a furniture-manufacturing business in the Pettah area, and married the daughter of a Colombo businessman, Andris Perera Dharmagunawardene, who had donated a piece of land at Maligakanda, erected on it the first Pirivena or Buddhist monastic college in Ceylon, and brought a monk from the remote village of Hikkaduwa to be its principal.


Since then the names of the Vidyodaya Pirivena and Hikkaduwa Siri Sumangala Maha Nayaka Thera have passed, inseparably united, into the history of world Buddhism. Through the halls of this great institution of Buddhist learning, unrivalled throughout the length and breadth of Ceylon, have passed monks from Burma, Siam, India, Japan and China, and the memory of the great Buddhist scholar, mathematician and expert in comparative religion who for so many decades guided its destinies, is revered wherever the Dhamma taught in the Pali Scriptures is known. Both Don Carolis and his young wife Mallika ardently desired a son, and when they knew that a child would be born to them their joy was great indeed. But although they both desired a son, the reasons for which they desired him were by no means the same: Mudaliyar Hewavitarne thought of a successor in the family business, while his wife dreamed of a bhikkhu who would guide the erring footsteps of the Sinhala people back to the Noble Eightfold Path from which they had so long been led astray.


Every morning before sunrise the young bride, who was not yet out of her teens, would gather a trayful of sweet-smelling five-petalled temple flowers and offer them, together with coconut-oil lamps and incense, at the feet of the Buddha-image in the family shrine, praying to the devas that she might bear a son who would rekindle the lamp of the Dhamma in a darkened land. Every evening, too, she would lie prostrate in supplication before the silent image, which was a wooden replica of one of the great stone Buddhas of Anuradhapura, the ancient city whose very name awakes in every Sinhala heart an unutterably deep nostalgia for the temporal and spiritual glories of long ago.


Who knows what subtle spiritual emanations from the liberated minds of old passed through that image and penetrated the receptive mind of the Sinhala maiden, steeping the lotus of her aspiration in the dews of kindliness and peace, and purifying her heart and mind until they were a fit receptacle for the Great Being who was to accomplish what even in her wildest dreams she had scarcely dared to hope for. As her time drew near, Bhikkhus were invited to the house, and on the full moon nights of three successive months the air was filled with the vibrations of the sacred Pali texts, as from dusk to dawn they chanted from the holy books. Then, on the night of September 17th, in the Pettah district of Colombo, where the national religion and culture had fallen to the lowest pitch of degeneration, there came, as though to strike the evil at its very heart, the birth of Dharmapala like a vivid flash of lightning from a black and stormy sky.


Young David Hewavitarne, as he was named, grew up in an atmosphere of traditional Sinhala piety. Every day, morning and evening, he would kneel in the shrine with his father and mother, take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, promise to observe the Five Precepts and chant the verses of worship with which millions of people have for five and twenty centuries expressed their gratitude to, and adoration of, Him who showed humanity for the first time the Way to Nirvana. Nor was the practical application of the Dhamma forgotten, for sweetly and reasonably his mother would point out to him any infringement of the precepts, and gently chide him into the careful observance of them all.


It is a commonplace of educational psychology that the influences to which a child is subjected to during its earliest years more or less determine the whole course of its subsequent development, and the biography of Dharmapala provides us with no exception to this rule. His deep and spontaneous devotion to the Buddha, his instinctive observance of the plain and simple rules of the Dhamma through the complexities and temptations of modern life, his ardent love of all that was pure and good, as well as his unsparing condemnation of whatever was unclean and evil, were undoubtedly the efflorescence of seeds which had been planted in the fertile soil of his young heart by his mother’s loving advice and his father’s austere example. The spectacle of a life such as his, so fruitful in good for the whole of humanity, should be sufficient to convince any one who might doubt the advisability of bringing up Buddhist children in a traditional atmosphere, and imparting to them from their earliest years both instruction and training in the sublime Dharma. Without that early religious training young David Hewavitarne might have grown up to wear top hat and trousers, speaking English to his family and Sinhalese to the servants, like thousands of his contemporaries, and Dharmapala, the Lion of Lanka, might never have been born, and the great difference which such a calamity would have made to India, Buddhism, and the world is now impossible for us to gauge.


It should never be forgotten that piety of the old Sinhala type was the plinth and foundation of Dharmapala’s whole character. Though well versed in his religion, he was not a scholar. Though he wrote inexhaustibly, it is not as a writer that he will be remembered. For more than forty years he worked and organised and agitated unceasingly, but not even here is the secret of his character to be discovered. Fundamentally, he was a Sinhala passionately devoted to his religion as only a Sinhala, after centuries of civil oppression and religious persecution, could have been at that time. With him religion was not an intellectual conviction but an instinct. He lived and moved and had his being in Southern Buddhism, and after centuries of stagnation, it lived and moved and had its being again in him. Herein lies the secret of his appeal to the Sinhala people. He was not a detached scholar looking down at their simple but profound piety from the outside, as it were, but flesh of their flesh, spirit of their spirit, feeling as they felt and believing as they believed. In him all that was good in the national character was raised to a higher degree than they had dreamed was possible in modern times, and seeing him they saw and recognised themselves not only as they had been of old but as they yet might be again.


The child of Mallika Hewavitarne’s dreams was now five years old, and the time had come when the already ardently devout current of his temperament was to be impinged upon by influences which would give to it a definite direction, and obstacles which would serve only to increase its natural impetuosity and inherent momentum. His first contact with the world which lay outside the charmed circle of family life, where the influence of the Dhamma permeated everything like a sweet and subtle perfume, came when he was sent to a school where the majority of pupils were Burghers, that is to say, of mixed Dutch and Sinhala descent.


It is necessary to observe at this crucial point where, for the first time, the innate genius of David Hewavitarne came in contact with forces intrinsically hostile to all that he loved and believed in, that throughout the whole of his long life his character remained wonderfully integrated and harmonious. Whether confronted with a problem of personal conduct or business ethics, whether faced by the customs of his own beloved island or the bewilderingly unfamiliar civilisations of the West and the Far East, he stood firm and unshaken, seeing and judging all things in the clear light of the Dhamma, and doing straightforwardly and without fear or hesitation that which he knew was good and right. The suggestion that he might win a lawsuit by judicious bribery was scornfully rejected, with the characteristic comment that though the winning of the Buddha Gaya case was dearer to his heart than anything in the world he would rather lose it than resort to such detestable methods. When he saw the Niagara Falls, with their millions of tons of water thundering down every minute, he merely remarked that it was the most impressive illustration of the transitoriness of human personality that he had ever seen.


So long and deeply had he meditated upon the truths of the Dhamma that they had become part of his character, so that to think, speak and act in accordance with them was natural to him. But in spite of its inherent nobility, perhaps even because of it, such a character must sooner or later come into conflict with the cowardly conventions and mean hypocrisies of the world, so that it is perhaps inevitable that the life of a man like Dharmapala should be one unceasing battle against injustice, untruth and unrighteousness in every conceivable form. Naturally, the conflict did not begin until several years after the period with which we are now concerned, but it is interesting to note that even at this time questions rose to his lips which his mother could not always answer, and which his father thought better repressed by the exercise of paternal authority.
Although he never experienced any diminution of his affection for the religious traditions of his family, he could not help becoming aware that those traditions were by no means universally accepted, nor refrain from trying to find some explanation for this difference.
Gradually his childish mind came to understand that the world was divided into Buddhists like his mother and father who loved the Dhamma, and Christians like his school teachers who hated it and were seeking to destroy it; but already he knew on which side of the gulf which lay between the two parties he stood, and for whom it was his duty to do battle. But in these early years he gave no indication of the attitude he was insensibly adopting, and even when, at the age of six, he joined the Pettah Catholic School (later St, Mary’s School), and was one day asked to kneel down and kiss the ring of the visiting Bishop Hilarion Sillani, he obediently did so, probably without fully understanding the significance of the act.


The next school which David Hewavitarne attended was a Sinhalese private school, where he remained for two years, leaving at the age of ten. “The first lesson was taught”, writes Bhikkhu Devamitta Dhammapala (Reminiscences of my Early Life, Maha Bodhi Journal Vol. 41, Nos. 5 & 6, p. 152), “according to the old Sinhalese custom of offering betel to his teacher and making obeisance to him.” He also writes of the teacher that be was a strict disciplinarian who impressed upon his pupil’s tender mind the necessity of keeping everything clean and using plenty of water to keep the body physically pure. The lesson appears to have been well learned, for till the end of his life Dharmapala was almost fanatically particular about the cleanliness and tidiness of the objects of his personal use and of his surroundings.


In the Sinhalese school he had to go through all the Sinhala books which were taught in the temples of Ceylon, with the result that he obtained a thorough grounding in the language and literature of his native land. On leaving the Sinhalese private school he was admitted to the lowest form of St. Benedict’s Institute, where among his teachers were Brothers August, Daniel, Joshua and Cassion, several of whom he knew personally during the two years which he spent at the school. Every half hour the class had to repeat a short prayer in praise of the Virgin Mary, and on Thursdays the boy had to attend a special class conducted by a Brother as he was a Buddhist. On feast days he used to decorate the college chapel with sweet-smelling blossoms culled from the flowering trees of his father’s garden, the family by this time having moved from Pettah to a new house in Kotahena, then a place of green paddy fields and graceful palms.


It was only to be expected that one day a reverend father should ask the lad why he should not become a Catholic, and in later years Dharmapala himself commented that it was strange that, at a time when the power of Catholicism was so strong in Colombo, he did not become one. Moreover he made the illuminating remark that the influence of his parents and grandparents was largely responsible for keeping him within the Buddhist fold. This contains a reference not only to his participation in the ritual of daily worship, his regular visits to the Kotahena Temple in the company of his mother, or the Jataka stories which he read aloud in the cool of the evening, for there was another religious experience which engraved upon his mind an impression perhaps deeper than that left by any of these.


In his ninth year he was initiated into the Brahmacharya vow by his father at the temple, and advised to be contented with whatever he got to eat, and to sleep but little. The impression left by this experience was permanent, and in later years the Anagarika or ‘homeless one’, as he then called himself, was accustomed to satisfy his hunger with whatever food he received, and to sleep only two or three hours at night. It behoves us to remember, in this connection, that in spite of his devastatingly energetic career of practical activities and achievements, Dharmapala’s temperament had a pronouncedly ascetic side which was no less characteristic of the man as a whole. He loved solitude, meditation and study, and if these do not occupy a more prominent position in his biography the fact is due not to his own lack of inclination for them, but to the circumstances of the times in which he lived, when the task of rousing the Buddhist world from its centuries-long slumber was the one which made the most imperative demand upon the resources of his genius. In May 1876 he was asked by the school authorities to leave St. Benedict’s, and although we are not informed of the circumstances which led to this request, it is not difficult, in view of the subsequent events of his career, to make a fairly accurate guess at what they were.


Even as a cub the Lion of Lanka had sharp claws. The next two years of young Hewavitarne’s life were passed in the aggressively-missionary atmosphere of the Christian Boarding School, an Anglican (C. M. S.) institution situated at Kotte, a place six or seven miles from Colombo. Here he was daily forced to attend service at 6-30 a.m. in the Church, where the Rev. R. T, Dowbiggin would recite the prayers and read a text from the Bible. Religious instruction by no means ended here, however. In class he had to recite some verses from Genesis or Matthew, and lurid light is shed on the intensive missionary methods of the day by the fact that he had hardly entered his teens when he knew by heart Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, all four gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles.


The boarding master of the school was fond of liquor, and used to take delight in shooting the small birds which alighted on the trees. These revolting practices were against the teaching of mindfulness and compassion which he had learned in this own home and the boy, already beginning to think independently, could not reconcile himself with such barbarous behaviour. An incident which occurred at this period must have made his sensitive mind more keenly aware than ever of the gulf which lay between Christian missionary fanaticism on the one hand and Buddhist wisdom and tolerance on the other, and surely added fresh fuel to the already smouldering fires of revolt. One Sunday he was quietly reading a pamphlet on the Four Noble Truths when the same master came up to him and, true to missionary tradition, demanded the offending work from him and had it flung out of the room.


Another incident which happened at this time gives us a valuable glimpse of a trait strikingly characteristic of Dharmapala during his whole life. A class-mate died, and the teacher invited the students to gather round the dead body and join in the prayers which were to be offered. As David Hewavitarne looked first at the uneasy faces about him, and then at the corpse which lay so still on the bed, there came to him in a blinding flash of illumination the thought that prayer is born of fear, and at once his whole being revolted against the idea of being afraid of anything. In this dramatic manner he achieved that complete freedom from fear which was ever one of his most striking qualities, and entered into possession of that dauntless courage which is one of the surest signs of spiritual mastery.


Curiously enough, by continual reading of the Bible young Hewavitarne had acquired a fondness for the sonorous cadences of the Authorised Version, and even neglected his class studies in order to indulge his passion for the rhythmic beauty of its Jacobean diction. He did not read uncritically, however, and even at that early age his nimble wits were able to formulate questions which perplexed and irritated his teachers. The climax of his criticisms was reached when he drew a picture of a monkey and wrote underneath it ‘Jesus Christ,’ for which piece of juvenile impudence he was threatened with expulsion from the school. Of course, according to Buddhist teaching it was wrong of him to have offended Christian sentiment in this way; but we must remember that it was hardly possible for a boy of his age, intellectually undeveloped as he was, to express his opinions in any other manner.


Even in his later writings we find page after page of vigorous anti-Christian invective which appears strangely un-Buddhistic, until we remember how utterly unscrupulous, cunning and implacable the forces of missionary fanaticism then were, and how terrible was the ignorant hatred with which they assailed and sought to destroy the Dharma. When the young biblical critic eventually did leave the school it was not because the authorities found his presence embarrassing, but because the food he had to eat was, as he informs us himself, “horrible,” so that his father had to remove him when he saw how lean the youth had become.


Then followed two months rest at home, after which, in September 1878, he attended St. Thomass Collegiate School, an Anglican institution in North Colombo. It was not long before his uncompromising championship of his ancestral Dhamma brought him into conflict with the rigid discipline of the school. Warden Miller, the head of the institution, was a pedagogue of the old type, firmly believing and unflinchingly practising the maxim “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” The students of St. Thomass were certainly neither spared nor spoiled, and so great was the awe in which the stern disciplinarian was held that the sound of his step in the corridor was enough to send a shiver of terrified anticipation through a hundred youthful hearts.
Great must have been the astonishment of this dreadful figure when, one fine May morning, a slim young Sinhala appeared before him in his study, and after explaining that the day was sacred to the Birth, Enlightenment and Death of the Buddha, whom he revered as the Founder of his religion, boldly asked for permission to spend the day at home in worship and other religious observances. Recovering from his astonishment, Warden Miller explained in his sternest tones that the day was not a school holiday, and that as the head of an Anglican public school he did not feel justified in granting a holiday merely for the observance of a Buddhist festival. Whereupon David Hewavitarne picked up his umbrella and his books, and without another word walked out of school for the day.


Next morning the young rebel received not only a wrathful reprimand for his insubordination but also a few of Warden Miller’s best cane-strokes on the seat of his trousers. This painful and humiliating experience did not, however, prevent him from repeating the escapade on the two remaining Wesak Days which occurred during his career at St. Thomass and on both occasions the same punishment was meted out to him as before. His fellow students did not know whether to be amused at his impudence or to admire his courage, and Christian friends confided to him that they would not willingly have risked one of Warden Miller’s thrashings for the doubtful privilege of observing Christmas Day.


But the mantle of destiny had already fallen upon his youthful shoulders, and even in his middle teens he must have been aware of the gulf of difference which lay between his own burning enthusiasm for the Dhamma and the dreamy adolescent indifference of his fellows. Not that this feeling of difference isolated him from his companions, or prevented him from making a number of friends. On the contrary, the circle of his friendship was always wide, and at a time when caste differences were keenly felt, even in Buddhist Lanka, it included boys of every class and community.


He loved to relate how the Buddha had admitted even a scavenger, that most despised member of orthodox Hindu society, into the noble brotherhood of the Sangha, and how in accordance with His Teaching even brahmin Buddhist converts had to bow their heads in worship at his feet. His friendships were not, however, of that sentimental kind so common in public schools. He made friends chiefly in order to have the pleasure of arguing with them, and he argued in order to taste the still sweeter pleasure of polemical victory. For the spirit of controversy was already rampant in him, and it is said that at this period he was unhappy if he could not disagree for the day. The favourite object of his attack were, of course, the dogmas of orthodox Christianity, and many were the occasions on which he gleefully confused and bewildered the minds of his opponents.


To a Kandyan Buddhist schoolfellow who, weakly succumbing to the persuasions of the missionaries, had said that he supposed there must be a First Cause, the budding debater posed the question, “Did God make a First Cause?” “God is the First Cause”, glibly replied his friend. “Then who made God?” came the next question. The Kandyan, now thoroughly out of his depth, stammered that he supposed God must have made himself. This was the opportunity for which Dharmapala had been eagerly waiting. “Then God must be a Buddhist,” he retorted triumphantly. “Every Buddhist is a result of his past karma. Besides, every man makes himself. Every man is a potential God. But even man, who was his own first cause, did not create the world. Gods and men can create themselves, but they can’t create others.”


On the following Sunday the Kandyan went to Sunday School armed with a question from Dharmapala. “If ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is a commandment, why did the Crusades ever take place, Sir?” The Sinhala padre, whose mind had probably not been troubled by such a question before, replied rather naively that they had been inspired from heaven. When the answer was carried back to Dharmapala, who no longer attended Sunday School, he was ready with his usual unanswerable objection. “Every war is an inspiration for Christians. Why should God inspire people to break his own commandments?”


The first rumblings of that great thunder of denunciation against sham religion and false philosophy which was to burst in later years from his lips were already beginning to make themselves heard, and it is an ironical fact that the biblical knowledge which he was to use with such deadly effect was fostered and developed by the missionaries themselves, who could never have imagined that they were thereby placing in the hands of their pupil the instruments of their own discomfiture. When the Sinhala padre who taught his religious class, attracted by the boy’s intelligence and no doubt mindful of the desirability of inducing such a promising lad to become a convert, promised him a watch if he topped his class in religious knowledge, young Hewavitarne promptly studied hard and carried off the coveted prize.
But if it was the Christian missionaries themselves who placed the weapons of debate in the hands of the youthful fighter it was a Buddhist monk who first taught him how to use them.