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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

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Commemoration of 15th death anniversary on March 22 :

Remembering the Ven. Dr. Hammalawa Saddhatissa Thera

Ven. Dr. Hammalawa Saddhatissa Maha Thera after almost fifty years of selfless service towards the noble cause of the propagation of Buddha Dhamma in India and Europe and in the world at large, passed away fifteen years ago in London on 13 February 1990. He was one of the most erudite, articulate and pious and popular monks of our times.

He was the head of the London Buddhist Vihara and the Sanghanayake of the United Kingdom and Europe. The London Buddhist Vihara was founded in the 1920s by that great Buddhist revivalist, Anagarika Dharmapala, whose aim was a Buddhist renaissance in and beyond the confines of his own country. Anagarika Dharmapala, with the dedicated assistance and co-operation of Anagarika Devapriya Walisinha, sent the Most Ven. Parawahera Wajiragnana Thera and Venerables Dehigaspe Pannasara and Hegoda Nandasara Theras to London to break new ground in the United Kingdom and Europe as Dhammadutas. However, this Dhammaduta service fell into abeyance with the onset of the Second World War.

Thereafter, the London Buddhist Vihara was reopened in 1954. And it stood in great need of clear direction and purposeful leadership. Hence, the Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka looked up to the Ven. Saddhatissa Thera, who has already distinguished himself as a great Dhammaduta with his indefatigable service in India, to help them in this task.

The Ven. Saddhatissa Thera came to London in 1957. At that time the Vihara was the only Theravada centre in the UK and the whole of Europe. However, it was still in a rudimentary state. His charismatic personality, his breadth and depth of scholarship, his penetrating knowledge of the Buddha Dhamma and of the Pali and Sanskrit languages and his skill as an exponent of the Buddha's teaching, soon enabled him to fill his position as head of the Vihara with great distinction.

And the vihara in turn became a focal point of Buddhist learning and practice serving the religious needs of all Buddhists in the UK and Europe. It also drew the focus of attention of eminent scholars and orientalists internationally.

The vihara though a Theravada Buddhist centre encouraged discussions on the views and teachings of all Buddhist traditions and always welcomed their representatives. It also acquired a popularity among the representatives of other religions encouraged by Maha Thera's keen interest in inter-religious dialogue. The Ven. Dr. Saddhatissa Thera served the vihara as its head for nearly three decades and his name will always be associated with that of the vihara for posterity. The Ven. Maha Thera also revived the British Mahabodhi Society with the active assistance of a group of Western Buddhists giving further impetus to the spread of Buddhism.

Prior to his leaving for London, he was engaged in Dhammaduta activity in India. Impressed by his scholarship and his reputation as an exponent of the Buddha Dhamma, Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka invited him to continue the pioneering work initiated by the late Anagarika Dharmapala in the subcontinent. He committed himself to this task in a tireless and selfless manner and made himself conversant in Indian languages like Hindi, Urdu and Panjab to help him to carry the message of the Buddha to the local people.

His 12-year Dharmaduta Service in India culminated in the mass conversion at Nagpur on October 14th 1956 of over half a million members of a socially disadvantaged community led by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, an architect of the Indian Constitution.

Dr. Ambedkar was a frequent caller on the Maha Thera primarily to discuss the administration of the sangha according to the Vinayapitaka. His intention had been to draft the new Indian constitution along the lines set out in the disciplinary code for the Buddhist monks. Out of this encounter, Dr. Ambedkar gradually displayed a deeper appreciation of the Buddha and his teachings. During their talks he had revealed to the Maha Thera his desire to adopt Buddhism as his religion, and to encourage his followers to do likewise.

The Ven. Maha Thera was born at Hammalawa, a rather remote hamlet in the North Western region of the island. His father was a Ayurvedic practitioner. From a very young age, he showed a liking towards the monastic order, and was admitted into the order as a "Samanera" at the young age of twelve years.

As a young monk, he had his early education at the Sastrodaya Pirivena at Sandalankawa. Then he proceeded to Vidyodaya Pirivena, Colombo for higher studies. Here, he distinguished himself as a brilliant student and passed its final examination with honours. At about the same time, he also passed with distinction the "Pracheena" exam.

He made use of his sojourn in the sub-continent to obtain the M. A. Degree from the Benares University. Subsequently, he was made a lecturer at the same university. He obtained his PhD from the University of Edinburgh.

At various times, he held academic appointments at a number of universities. He was a visiting lecturer in Buddhist studies at the Oxford University, a lecturer in Sinhala at the University of London and Professor of Pali and Buddhism at the University of Toronto. He was also the Buddhist Chaplain at the London University.

He was one of the two vice presidents of the Pali Text Society of Great Britain.

And he served the society with commitment as an expositor, translator and editor of the Pali texts. His translation of the Sutta Nipata and the editing of the Pali texts of the Tripitaka are of particular importance in this regard.

The Ven. Maha Thera had been a prolific writer and his writing had ranged over Buddhism, Sri Lankan history and culture, Sinhala language and literature, Pali language and literature and national issues. His work consists of newspaper articles to scholarly monographs published in many countries over a period of four decades.

This article is not complete. I believe, unless I mention the name of Maha Thera's pupil and "Upasthayake", Rev. Galayaye Piyadassi Thera. It was Rev. Piyadassi who so devotedly attended to the Maha Thera, when his health, during his last year or two, was in a rather poor state.

Rev. Piyadassi was so inspired by Maha Thera's service to humanity, he realised it his duty to establish an institution to continue Maha Thera's service for the benefit of posterity. Hence, the Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre at Kingsbury in London. The institution has blossomed out into a centre famous for its Buddhist religious activities and Buddhist learning and research. It also provides facilities for children's education and social and cultural activities.

It is with gratitude I recall the inspiring advice and kindly guidance my family and I always received from the Maha Thera, and the blessings he often bestowed on us during my student days in London and our subsequent stay there. This advice and guidance has stood me in good stead even to this day and has inspired me in moments of need.

I like to conclude this article quoting what Russell Webb, a former associate of Maha Thera, had written of him. "To meet the Venerable Dr. Saddhatissa is to enter into a calming atmosphere, where a basic kindly spirit, devoid of material considerations, manifests itself.

A serenity and warmth of feeling are ever displayed which must surely characterise the inner detachment of someone far advanced on the path of enlightenment."

The fifteenth anniversary of the passing away of the Maha Thera will be commemorated on March 22nd 2005 at the BMICH. And a stamp will be issued in his honour on this day.

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