Senerat Wijayasundara - a great Buddhist scholar | Sunday Observer

Senerat Wijayasundara - a great Buddhist scholar

24 October, 2021

October 9, 2021 is the first death anniversary of Senerat Wijayasundara, a great Buddhist scholar, socialist, free thinker and above all, a true human being. I came to know SW when I joined Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Colombo, in 1979 where he worked as a member of its editorial board.

SW continued to work at Encyclopaedia of Buddhism till his retirement. Before joining EB he taught Philosophy initially at the Peradeniya University and subsequently at the university of Kelaniya.

Born in Galle and having had his school education at St. Aloysius College, Galle, SW joined Peradeniya University in 1959 where he studied Pali and Buddhist studies under such eminent teachers as N. A. Jayawickrama and Jotiya Dhirasekera and Philosophy under K. N. Jayatilleke, and as a result, he was one among few scholars who had mastery over both Buddhist and Western philosophies.

For his Master of Philosophy degree SW did a research on the philosophy of the Atthaka and Parayana chapters of the Suttanipata, one of the fifteen texts belonging to the Kuddaka-nikaya of the Pali canon. Later in 2012 this research was published as ‘The Buddhist thought revealed in the Atthaka and Parayana Chapters of the Suttanipata’ (in Sinhala). Next year this book was awarded the best Buddhist academic work by the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC) at its annual Buddhist Literary Festival.

Immense respect

SW had an immense respect for Professor K.N. Jayatilleke as his teacher of Philosophy. In 2008 SW translated into Sinhala the celebrated work of Jayatilleke, his lectures on Buddhist jurisprudence delivered in the Hague in 1967 (“Principles of International Law in Buddhist Doctrine”). This work – Budusamaya Saha Antarjatika Neethiya - which SW did as a mark of respect for his teacher was published by the Department of Cultural Affairs of Sri Lanka.

SW’s scholarly contribution is substantial. He wrote on various aspects of Buddhist studies such as Buddhism and economics and Buddhism and Marxism. His support for the reintroduction of the Bhikkhuni Sasana in Sri Lanka was very strong. He wrote on this theme to Buddhist journals and newspapers, and delivered lectures in support of Higher ordination for women. The paper he published in The Buddhist (YMBA Borella) in 1984, “The Revival of the Order of Buddhist Nuns,” won admiration of readers at home and abroad. SW justified his position not only from Buddhist doctrinal and Vinaya points of view but also with reference to women’s rights to practice of religion. A selection of his academic writings in Sinhala and English have been compiled and published as an anthology by Yodhakandiye Ariyawansa Thera, one of his many students, under the title Dr. Senerat Wijayasundara: Philosophy, Culture and Counseling (Godage and Brothers, Maradana, 2018).

Academic interest

SW was an admirer of socialism, and he believed that a society moulded according to the principles of socialism would be quite in harmony with the teachings of the Buddha. In his paper titled “Economics in Buddhist Perspective” and in several other papers in Sinhala SW highlighted how Buddhist and Socialist perspectives of economics and social justice do not contradict each other. In addition to his academic interest in Buddhism and Socialism, as the Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka Buddhist Congress, headed by Mapalagama Vipulasara Maha Thera, SW actively worked to promote relations between Buddhists in Sri Lanka and in such socialist countries as Russia and Mongolia.

SW was a highly sought after teacher in Buddhist studies. He taught Buddhist studies for nine years in Vidyalankara (later Kelaniya) University before he joined Encyclopaedia of Buddhism and continued even after at Vidyodaya (later Sri JayEwardenepura) University and at Buddhist and Pali University from its beginning. After his retirement from Encyclopaedia, SW expanded his teaching career to Buddhist colleges in England, Malaysia and Singapore. His last academic assignment was to serve as the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Nagananda International College, Manelwatta, Kelaniya.

His services to the nation and to the Buddhist scholarship was recognised by the State, the Maha Sangha and the public. In 2012 the Ministry of Cultural Affairs awarded him ‘Kala Bhushana,’ and the Kotte Chapter of the Syamopalivansa Maha Nikaya recognised him as ‘Saddharma Visharada.’

SW was a Buddhist academic and scholar of very high calibre. He disseminated his knowledge without reservations, and he enjoyed doing so. Personally I have gained much from his sound scholarship and solid friendship like many who came to associate with him. One of his last public functions was to attend the inauguration of my collected works at the BMICH, September 2020.

Even with limited capacity to move around, he made it a point to join this event exemplifying his magnanimity and true friendship. No doubt, his passing is a loss to the Buddhist academic world. But it is even a bigger loss to Ratna, Nelum and Sobha, his beloved wife and two daughters, and to his extended family with many cousin brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, with whose love SW was blessed till his last moment.

May his samsaric journey be short and sweet!

Asanga Tilakaratne
Editor-in-Chief, Encyclopaedia of Buddhism & Emeritus
Professor of Buddhist Studies, University of Colombo.