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The first ever English medium Encyclopedia of Buddhism

by Dr. W.G. Weeraratne, Lanka Daily News, May 16, 2007

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Completion of 2500 years of the Buddhist Era (Buddha Jayanti) fell in Vesak 1956. To commemorate this unique event Buddhists all-over the world drew up programmes to celebrate the occasion in a fitting manner.

The Buddhists of Myanmar (Burma) under the leadership of premier U-Nu, decided to hold the sixth Buddhist convention (Chattha Sangayana) in Myanmar to revise and cleanse the Pali Tipitaka (The Buddhist canon).

Elaborate arrangements were made by the government of Myanmar for this purpose. A massive Meeting Hall was put up with State funds to accommodate the many thousands of Buddhist clergy and lay Buddhist scholars and leaders and other dignitaries who were invited from other Theravada Buddhist countries to participate in this grand historic event.

A team of many erudite Buddhist bhikkhus and lay Buddhist scholars conversant with all aspects of Buddha Dhamma and its culture represented Sri Lanka in this convention.

The Sri Lankan delegation was led by Professor Emeritus G.P. Malalasekera, the world acclaimed Buddhist scholar and national leader. The convention continued for nearly two years and the whole Tipitaka was carefully rehearsed and cleansed.

India, where Buddhism was born and nurtured, joined in this unique celebration by volunteering to perform three grand tasks.

The first of them was to re-edit and print many Buddhist Sanskrit works composed by reputed ancient Indian seers and scholars.

The second of them was to publish book titled '2500 years of Buddhism' under the editorship of Professor P.V. Bapath, on many facets of Buddhism and its culture, containing scholarly articles written by reputed Indian scholars.

The third was to publish a large book of photographs with descriptive notes of temples the Buddha and Bodhisattva statues, Buddhist shrines, Buddhist art, Buddhist sculptures and paintings culled from many countries where Buddhism and its culture spread, during a long period of time.

The book was titled 'The Way of the Buddha'. The indian Prime Minister at the time, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, who was a great admirer of the Buddha and his teachings, personally inspired and gave leadership to these activities.

Sri Lanka which has been acclaimed as the centre of Thervada Buddhism in the world, volunteered to undertake three major activities as its contribution to the Buddha Jayanti Celebrations.

The first of them was to translate into Sinhala the Buddhist Canon (Tripitaka) which was first brought to Sri Lanka by Arahant Mahinda Thera in the 3rd Century B.C........ and subsequently written down in ola leaf books at Aluvihara in Matale in the 1st Century B.C.... The translation was to go under the appellation 'Buddha Jayanti Tipitaka Grantha Malava'. The translation was to be handled by a panel of highly experienced and qualified Buddhist monks.

The second of them was to compile a comprehensive general Encyclopedia in Sinhala.

Professor emeritus D.E. Hettiarachchi, the most experienced and highly qualified Professor of Sinhala at the time, was entrusted with the planning and execution of the project.

The third of them was to compile a comprehensive Encyclopedia of Buddhism in the English medium, to cover the complete range of Buddhism, its expansion and its development from its inception up to date. The veteran and highly qualified Buddhist Scholar and national leader at the time.

Professor Emeritus Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera was selected to plan this Encyclopedia and execute the project. He was also the pioneer Editor-in-Chief. In the preface Professor Malalasekera wrote to the 'Volume of specimen articles' released in 1957, he says; "Buddhism covers a vast expanse, both of time and space.

The Encyclopedia aims at giving a comprehensive account of the origins of this world-religion and developments that have taken place during a period of twenty five centuries.

To deal with Buddhism is to deal with a whole civilization, in fact, a whole series of civilizations, which have influenced the lives of myriads of human beings in many lands.

A satisfactory treatment of the subject should, thus, include information about the doctrines of Buddhism and their growth, the story of their spread and expansion, accounts of the numerous Buddhist Schools and Sects, their origins and subsequent ramifications, descriptions of Buddhist rites and ceremonies as found in many lands, the history of the fine arts-painting and sculpture, architecture, music, dance and drama - under the influence of Buddhism, in various countries; details of Buddhist shrines and places of pilgrimage and of the vast literatures connected with Buddhism which developed in many languages, both ancient and modern, and biographies of persons who, in the course of Buddhist history, played important parts. Even so, the list of topics would not be exhausted".

The office of the Encyclopedia of Buddhism was set up in Colombo during the latter part of the year 1955. Towards the end of that year the office was transferred to the University of Peradeniya.

The Peradeniya University atmosphere was very congenial for the compilation of the Encyclopedia of Buddhism.

The Peradeniya academic staff at that time consisted of many professors and lecturers who were experts in Pali, Sanskrit, Indian Philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, Western philosophy, Archaeology, Indian and Ceylon history and many allied fields of study.

The Peradeniya library at that time was equipped with valuable books on Buddhism, Buddhist Philosophy, Western and Indian philosophies, art and architecture and many more invaluable books on allied subjects and internationally recognized journals and periodicals in the allied subjects that are indispensable for the compilation of the needed articles for the Encyclopedia of Buddhism.

The Encyclopedia of Buddhism has been planed to be completed in eight volumes and an Index volume. Each Encyclopedia volume is to contain approximately 800 printed pages. For the convenience of printing the Encyclopedia of Buddhism is released in Fascicles, each Fascicle to consist of around 200 pages. Four such fascicles from one Encyclopedia Volume.

I have been associated with the Encyclopedia of Buddhism project, as an assistant Editor, since 1960. To add a personal note, I happened to belong to Professor Malalasekera's last batch of students at the Peradeniya University, who specialized in Pali and Buddhist studies.

In 1987 I was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Buddhism, with an extremely depleted internal editorial staff. In spite of the many obstacles I had to dabble with, from 1987 up to date, I was able to complete and release 14 fascicles of the Encyclopedia of Buddhism.

The total number of fascicles released so far stands at 28, which comprise 7 Buddhist Encyclopedia Volumes. To complete the project we have to compile and print the remaining four fascicles of Volume VIII and the index Volume.

The first fascicle of Volume VIII is now in the process of being printed and we expect to release it by the end of June 2007.

About 90% of articles for the last 3 fascicles are also complete now. We are working with a well-planned schedule to complete the project by the end of the year 2008.

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The writer is Editor-in-Chief of Encyclopaedia of Buddhism



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