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Asoka Weeraratna - pioneer in developing post-war Sri Lanka-German ties

By Senaka Weeraratna, Asian Tribune, Oct 8, 2008

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Germany celebrated her national day on October 3. The Germany Embassy marked the occasion with a reception recalling the names of pioneering spirits who had contributed towards strengthening the links between Sri Lanka and Germany, at a leading hotel in Colombo on October 7.

<< Thero.Ven. Nyanaponika Thera is seen handing over a Buddha Statue and an Ola Leaf Book containing Buddhist scriptures to Mr. Asoka Weeraratna ( Hony. Secretary, German Dharmaduta Society) at the Ratmalana Airport on 20th February 1953 prior to Mr. Weeraratna's departure to Germany on a Dharmaduta Mission. In the centre of the picture is Ven. Akuretiye Amarawansa Thero.

The Berlin Buddhist Vihâra ("Das Buddhistisches Haus") is now the most striking symbol of interaction between the German and Sri Lankan cultures and a source of pride and inspiration for people of both countries. It is the key centre in the dissemination, learning and practice of Theravâda Buddhism in Germany and other continental European countries.

Of the many and varied figures who have left their indelible mark in making Das Buddhistische Haus in Berlin – Frohnau, the beacon for the propagation of Theravada Buddhism in Germany during the last eighty four years, two outstanding figures rise high above the rest.

They are Dr. Paul Dahlke, founder of Das Buddhistische Haus and one of the ' most efficient and able pens' for the Buddhist cause in Europe, and Asoka Weeraratna, founder of the German Dharmaduta Society and indefatigable Buddhist missionary who pioneered the establishment of the first Buddhist Vihara in continental Europe and the entry of the Venerable members of the Maha Sangha to propagate Buddhism in Germany and other European countries on a continuing footing. Both these figures further contributed in their own distinctive ways in opening new vistas for the strengthening of links between the people and the cultures of Germany and Sri Lanka.

This article focuses briefly on the contribution of Asoka Weeraratna to the propagation of Buddhism in Germany. He is destined to be ranked in history as one of the notable figures of Sri Lanka's post-independence Buddhist resurgence. He will be remembered for three monumental contributions that he made to the cause of Buddhism. They are:

1) The Founding of the German Dharmaduta Society in 1952 (initially known as the Lanka Dhammaduta Society) with the principal aim of propagating Buddhism in Germany and other Western countries,

2) The establishment of the Berlin Buddhist Vihara in Germany ( in 1957 ) with resident monks, drawn mainly from Sri Lanka, and

3) The founding of one of Sri Lanka's finest Buddhist Forest Monasteries i.e. The Mitirigala Nissarana Vanaya ( Mitirigala Forest Hermitage ) in 1967

All three achievements were substantial undertakings that captured the imagination and spirit of the Buddhist public in the 1950's and 1960's and made Asoka Weeraratna a household name.

Asoka Weeraratna was born on 12th December, 1918 as the youngest son of P.J.Weeraratna, the proprietor of a reputed jewellery establishment in Galle. He was named Alfred by his parents who followed the general trend in colonial Sri Lanka in naming their children after members of the British Royalty. In his adult life he renounced the name Alfred and adopted the name Asoka – an apt name for the Buddhist Dharmaduta work he was to undertake later. He attended Mahinda College, Galle. (a leading Buddhist School in South Sri Lanka).

Upon the death of his father, both Asoka and his elder brother, Dharmasena became partners of the family business. In 1948 they re-located their business to Colombo. The business expanded rapidly after they had diversified it to become importers and dealers in Swiss watches. Asoka made a number of business trips to Europe in the 1950's and imported a range of well-known Swiss watches such as Paul Buhre, Boilat, Henry Sandoz, Roamer and Enicar, and the German pen ' Reform '. In the late fifties, P.J.Weeraratna and Sons became the largest importers of Swiss watches to Sri Lanka and a leading business establishment in the country.

Though Asoka energetically developed the family business as it was the source of his income, his main interest lay in work associated with the dissemination of the Buddha Dhamma and strict cultivation of the spiritual life through meditation and abstinence. In fact the life he led, it could be said, was fashioned in response to two fundamental questions that he would have asked himself, very early in his adult life:

a) What is the life worth leading?, and

b) How can one best serve the Buddha Sasana?

First visit to West Germany

On his first business visit to West Germany in 1951 the young Asoka came across many people who had lost their families – lost their wealth – lost almost everything. It left in him a deep impression. At the time the widespread sentiment all over Germany was "kaput, kaput, alles kaput (finished, finished, everything is finished)." Asoka also realized the growing thirst in that country, which was slowly recovering from total devastation in the Second World War, for an alternative moral and spiritual philosophy, that placed a very high emphasis on peace and non-violence.

War weary Germans failing to find answers to their personal and their country's political problems, in their own Western religious traditions, without resorting to violence, were anxiously seeking to experiment with moral and ethical ideas emanating from the East.

About the same time in post-independent Sri Lanka, Lankans for the first time after 450 years of colonial rule were beginning to dream of new vistas unfettered by the restrictions of the foreign dominated past. They were acquiring a new sense of historical destiny and a growing confidence that they were capable of playing a larger role in world affairs than hitherto was thought possible. Taking Buddhism to the West was one of these ambitious ideas which fired the energy and imagination of the public, particularly that of the Buddhist Sangha.

It was the convergence of these factors i.e. the upsurge in interest ' to look towards the East ' of the Germans and 'take Buddhism to the West ' spirit of the Sri Lankans that led to the events that were to follow.

Founding of the Lanka Dhammaduta Society

On his return from West Germany and convinced of the potential for growth of Buddhism in that country, Asoka Weeraratna founded the Lanka Dhammaduta Society, on September 21, 1952 which was later re-named the German Dharmaduta Society on May 8, 1957. The idea of forming this Society was conceived by Asoka when visiting Europe in 1951. Ven. Ñânatiloka Mahâthera, the well known German Scholar monk was the first Patron of the Society.

In 1953, Asoka Weeraratna, who was by this time the Honorary Secretary of the Society, paid a second visit to Germany and conducted a survey of Buddhist activities in that country.
On this trip Asoka travelled widely all over Germany, meeting leaders of Buddhist organizations in various German cities and enlisting their support for the cause of establishing the Buddha Sasana in Germany. He was also asked to inspect a suitable site for a Buddhist Centre and Vihara, and a Settlement for lay Buddhists and Upasakas.

Asoka visited a series of German cities and towns i.e. Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, Stuttgart, Bremen, Frankfurt, Bonn, Cologne among others. In Hamburg, he met Dr. Helmut Palmie, President of the Hamburg Buddhist Society. Dr. Palmie was a Pali Scholar and an ardent Buddhist. Dr. Palmie convened a special meeting of the Hamburg Buddhist Society on 10th March, 1953, on the occasion of Asoka's visit. About 200 German Buddhists attended the meeting which Asoka addressed. Asoka presented an ola-leaf book on the Buddha Dhamma to Dr. Palmie as a token of good will from the Lanka Dhammaduta Society.

In Munich, Asoka met Dr. Von Meng, the President of the Munich Buddhist Society and attended a meeting of this Society. Asoka presented a small Buddha statue to Dr. Von Meng. This Society published a monthly journal devoted to the propagation of Buddhism called ' Indische Welt ' (or ' Indian World ').

In Berlin, there were two Buddhist Societies in 1953. One was called ' Gessellschaft Fur Freunde Des Buddhismus ' or 'Society of the Friends of Buddhism '. Herr. F. Knobloch led this Society. The other Society was called ' Buddhistche Gemeinde ' Herr Lionel Stutzer was the head of this Society. Asoka attended a meeting of this Society held at Stutzer's house. In Berlin, Asoka also met Dr. K. Schmidt, a Pali Scholar and lecturer on Buddhism.

On his return to Sri Lanka in early May 1953, Asoka Weeraratna prepared a report under the heading ' Buddhism in Germany ' giving his impressions of his visit to Germany and the details of his meetings with German Buddhists. This Report was subsequently published by the Society in both English and Sinhala and thousands of copies were distributed to the public all over the country.

German Outlook on Buddhism

In this Report, Asoka Weeraratna says:

" The general outlook of Germans has greatly changed after the war. The bitter experiences of two great wars have taught them but one lesson, that " All conditioned things are impermanent ". If you stop to ask about the past war, a German would have nothing else to add but the words ' Alles kaput ', which mean ' All destroyed '.

Buddhism with its elucidation of the Four Noble Truths and the Three Signs of ' Impermanence, Suffering and Soul-lessness ' as the characteristic feature of all things, has appeared to them as the most perfect teaching ever made known to mankind '.

The Million Rupee Trust Fund

With great determination and energy, Asoka Weeraratna launched in 1954 under the auspices of the Society a ' Million Rupee Trust Fund ' for the permanent establishment of the Buddha Sasana in Germany, as Arahant Mahinda had done it in Sri Lanka, and appealed to the public for contributions. The Million Rupee Trust Fund was inaugurated at a Public Meeting held at the Colombo Town Hall on September 6, 1954. Mr. Dudley Senanayake, the former Prime Minister presided at this Meeting. The Board of Trustees of this Trust Fund comprised the following persons:

  1. Dudley Senanayake Former Prime Minister
  2. H.H. Basnayake, Q.C. Attorney – General
  3. H.W. Amarasuriya Proprietary Planter
  4. H.Nelson H. Soysa Proctor S.C.
  5. Asoka Weeraratna Merchant

Asoka Weeraratna contributed a sum of Rs. 25, 000 (Twenty Five Thousand Rupees) from his own personal funds to this Trust Fund at the Inauguration of this Fund. This was in addition to the Rs. 1,000 (One Thousand Rupees) he had contributed to the Society on the day of its formation i.e. September 21, 1952.

The Collection of Funds

With growing public support the Society soon won the recognition and encouragement of the State and the Government declared the 'Million Rupee Fund' an Approved Charity. Among the many benefactors who contributed to this Fund, particular mention must be made of Dr. Walther Schmidt, a German Buddhist, who left a valuable legacy of DM 550.000 to the Society upon his death in 1957.

In 1955 the Government granted to the Society an acre of vacant crown land in Bullers Road, Colombo on a 99 year old lease. In August 1956, Hon. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Prime Minister, declared open at a ceremonial public meeting, amidst a large gathering, the newly built Headquarters and Training Centre of the Society at 417, Bullers Road (Bauddhaloka Mawatha), Colombo 7 consisting of a two-storeyed dormitory of 14 rooms, an Assembly Hall, Office and Library, built at a cost of Rs. 125.000.

First Buddhist Mission to Germany

The Society sponsored the first Buddhist Mission to Germany, which left the Colombo Harbour by ship 'SS Orantes ' on June 15th, 1957. The three monks in this historic mission comprised Ven. Soma, Ven. Kheminda and Ven. Vinîta. They were all recruited from the Vajiraramaya Temple, Bambalapitiya. They were accompanied by W.J. Oliver Soysa, a close associate of the Vajiraramaya monks. Dharmapriya Mahinda (formerly known as Nelson Soysa) a Vice-President of the GDS had left for Germany earlier. Asoka Weeraratna joined the Mission in Berlin having flown in from Colombo.

The purchase of "Das Buddhistische Haus"

One of Asoka Weeraratna's most significant contributions to the spread of Buddhism in the Germany was the critical role that he played in the purchase of "Das Buddhistische Haus" built by Dr. Paul Dahlke. This Buddhist Haus was considered the Center of German Buddhism during Dr. Dahlke's time.

Asoka Weeraratna personally negotiated with the nephew of the late Dr. Paul Dahlke and overcame several obstacles that stood in the way of the purchase of 'Das Buddhistische Haus'. Asoka bought the property in 1957 on behalf of and in the names of the five Trustees of the German Dharmaduta Society. Asoka had to personally visit at his own expense the owners of Das Buddhistische Haus who lived in an island called ' Sylt'(near Denmark), in the extreme north of West Germany (over 500 km. from Berlin) to negotiate the transfer of the land.

Asoka spent nearly six (6) months in Germany in 1957 ( from June to December ) at his own personal expense attending to various matters connected with the purchase of 'Das Buddhistische Haus' and the settling in of the first Buddhist Mission of three monks comprising Ven. Soma Thera, Ven. Kheminda and Ven. Vinita Thera. 'Das Buddhistische Haus' was subsequently converted into a Buddhist Vihâra, by the German Dharmaduta Society by providing residential and other necessary institutional facilities to Buddhist Dharmaduta monks drawn mainly from Sri Lanka.

Since 1957 there has been a stream of Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka and other countries, taking up residence in the Berlin Buddhist Vihâra. Of these dedicated monks, special mention must be made of Ven. Athurugiriye Ñânavimala Mahâthera who served as the Vihâradhipati of the Berlin Vihâra for a period of 15 years (1966-1981).

Some of the more notable monks who spent more than three years in residence were:

  1. Ven. Badulla Shanthi Bhadra (1958 – 1962)
  2. Ven. Talpitiye Anuruddha (July, 1964 – April, 1967)
  3. Ven. Pandit Athurugiriye Sri Gnanawimala Maha Thera (1966 – 1981)
  4. Ven. Udugampola Wijayasoma (1968 – 1982)
  5. Ven. Shanthi Deva (German Monk) (1972 – 1977)
  6. Ven. Dikwelle Mahinda (1982 – 1991)
  7. Ven. Attanagoda Pannavisudhi (1986 – 1990)
  8. Ven. Walpola Kalyanatissa (1991 – 1994)
  9. Ven. Rambukwella Devananda (1992 – 1998)
  10. Ven. Rathmale Punnaratana (1996 – 2005)
  11. Ven. Medhayo ( Scottish Monk) ( 2003 – 2006)

They have braved the cold winters of Europe and the innumerable difficulties that prevail in Western countries, particularly for Buddhist monks from Asia. These monks together with other visiting monks and lay teachers comprising both men and women, using as their base 'Das Buddhistische Haus' have contributed in no small measure towards correcting centuries old negative impressions about Buddhism in the Western consciousness, and have given solace to a large number of Europeans seeking a philosophy that places an emphasis on self- reliance, non – violence and loving kindness to all living beings. It is an inspiring achievement.

The Berlin Vihara currently has two resident monks namely Ven. Dikwelle Seelasumana Thera and Ven. Wilachchiye Dhamma Vijaya Thera. The Vihara is being administered under the supervision of Mr. Tissa Weeraratna, Trustee and Vice- President of the German Dharmaduta Society.

A German assessment of the Contribution of the German Dharmaduta Society

In a seminal article on the state of Buddhism in Germany, Dr. Hans Wolfgang Schumann, the reputed scholar and chronicler of the history of Buddhism in Germany, states as follows:

" Another important Buddhist Centre is the " Buddhist House' founded by Paul Dahlke in Berlin – Frohnau in 1924. It survived World War II in a dilapidated condition and probably would have been auctioned and dismantled if the Ceylonese 'German Dhammaduta Society' (founded 1952) which inherited a large sum of money from a German Buddhist had not come to its rescue. The GDS purchased the house in 1958, renovated it, furnished it with additional rooms and a good library, and stationed some Ceylonese Bhikkhus (monks) there who take charge of regular lectures and meditation courses."

Refer Hans Wolfgang Schumann 'Buddhism and Buddhist Studies in Germany', Maha Bodhi Journal, Vol. 79, (February – March 1971) page 99.

Dr.Schumann further says in the concluding paragraph of the above named article as follows:

" Seen from another angle, however, Asian Buddhist mission was successful. The organizational help which Buddhist Societies in Asia, in particular Ceylon, in several critical periods have extended, has saved the flame of the Dhamma in Germany from being blown out by the storm of historical events. Isn't this for the Germans reason enough to be grateful? "

Refer Hans Wolfgang Schumann 'Buddhism and Buddhist Studies in Germany', Maha Bodhi Journal, Vol. 79, (February – March 1971) page 101

Asoka Weeraratna enters the Order of Sangha

Asoka Weeraratna resigned from the post of Secretary of the German Dharmaduta Society in 1972 having served the cause of Buddhism in that capacity for a period of nearly 20 years.

In the mid 1960s Asoka Weeraratna turned his attention to the construction of the Nissarana Vanaya Hermitage at Mitirigala, which became one of Sri Lanka's most respected meditation monasteries under the guidance of the outstanding Meditation monk Ven. Matara Sri Gnanarama Maha Thera. Asoka himself entered the Buddhist order under the name Ven. Dhammanisanthi Thera in August 1972. It is a remarkable example of renunciation of all worldly possessions given that in the 1950's and early 1960's Asoka was one of Sri Lanka's leading businessmen.

Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanisanthi Thera spent 27 years in the Sangha most of the time as a forest monk. He passed away peacefully on July 2, 1999 at the age of 80 years.

Being an ascetic monk he left detailed instructions that his funeral should reflect the fundamental Buddhist concepts – Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta. The funeral was conducted in a very simple austere manner on July 3, 1999, the day following his death, at the General Cemetery Kanatte in Colombo where his remains were cremated amidst the cries of "Buduweva" "Buduweva" from a small crowd of faithful mourners. Amongst them were a band of solemn monks from the Mitirigala Forest Hermitage.

Conclusion

The full extent of Asoka Weeraratna's input to the spread of Buddhism in Germany awaits a deeper study. However his pioneering efforts in sending the first Buddhist Mission to Germany and his involvement in establishing the first Buddhist Vihara in that country with resident monks, are indisputable and have contributed immensely to the strengthening of religious and cultural links between Sri Lanka and Germany.

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Senaka Weeraratna is the Honorary Secretary of the German Dharmaduta Society



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