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1956 - A Year of National and Religious Awakening

By Senaka Weeraratna, The Buddhist Channel, May 25, 2011

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Buddhism has been the most powerful single factor in the development of Sri Lanka’s civilization. For more than 2, 300 years, Sri Lanka developed and projected a country image that was predominantly Buddhist.

Though this pre-disposition was held back during the period of 450 years of western colonial rule, no sooner an opportunity arose after the grant of independence in 1948, the majority of the people again turned to Buddhism as expressive of their national identity and gave a mandate to a newly elected Government to restore Buddhism to its rightful place and make it an unifying and integrative force in the nation.

The commemoration of the 2600th Sambuddathwa Jayanthi this year revives memories of the Buddha Jayanthi that was commemorated in 1956, on the occasion of the 2500th anniversary of the Parinibbana of the Buddha. The event was commemorated by Buddhists all over the world. It was also a year of great national and religious awakening – a turning point in our history.

Buddhist Commission Report

Though the movement of the Buddhist revival began in the late 19th century & gathered momentum in the first half of the 20th century, it was in the immediate post – independence period that Buddhist leaders such as Professor Gunapala Malalasekera and L.H. Mettananda saw an opportunity to remedy the historical injustices done to the Buddhists under three western colonial powers, through the establishment of a Buddhist Commission of Inquiry.

When they proposed a State appointed Buddhist Commission to inquire into the grave injustices caused to the Buddhists, the then Prime Minister Mr. D.S. Senanayake, at first agreed to accede to the request and subsequently balked, saying that it would be a violation of the Soulbury Constitution.

With hardly any other choice left they decided to appoint a Commission of Inquiry on their own to probe into the continuing system of education and other areas that denied Buddhists their rightful place. The All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC) established a Buddhist Committee of Inquiry on April 2, 1954. It became popularly known as the `Buddhist Commission’.  It held its sittings throughout the length
and breadth of the country.

In addition to Prof. Malalasekera and L.H. Mettananda, the Committee comprised the Ven. Abanwelle Siddhartha, Ven. Haliyale Sumanatissa, Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, Ven. Polonnaruwe Vimaladhamma, Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha, Ven. Henpitagedera Gnanaseeha, P.de S. Kularatne, Dr.Tennekoon Wimalananda and D.C. Wijewardena. The Report was finally presented to the Maha Sangha and the general public at a Meeting held at Ananda College on February 4, 1956.

Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the leader of the MEP (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) made a public declaration that he would implement the Committee’s proposals, if the MEP was elected to power at the forthcoming General Election in April 1956. In contrast, Sir John Kotalawala’s UNP government was found dragging its feet over the Committee’s proposals. This stance of Bandaranaike led to the Maha Sangha coming out openly in large numbers to back the MEP. Under the banner of the Eksath Bhikkshu Peramuna, Buddhist monks campaigned from house to house in support of Bandaranaike who also championed the cause of the ‘Pancha Maha Balavegaya’ (comprising Sangha, Veda, Guru, Govi, Kamkaru). The MEP swept the polls. UNP was reduced to a low 8 seats in the House. The electoral result was a watershed in the country’s history.

An abridged English version of the Report was published under the title, ‘The Betrayal of Buddhism’, which sets out in detail both the injustices suffered by the Buddhists and the remedies, particularly in the education sphere. The Schools Takeover in the early sixties was an outcome of the recommendations made in the Buddhist Commission Report.

Buddha Jayanthi in Sri Lanka

The Buddha Jayanthi in 1956 was celebrated with great enthusiasm and religious fervor.  Energetic individuals and organizations had begun preparations several years before 1956 to mark the occasion with landmark events.

Professor Gunapala Malalasekera, President of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress devised plans to mobilize the international Buddhist community. Distinguished invitees from several foreign countries and Sri Lanka, attending its inaugural meeting held in Colombo in 1950 decided to form themselves into the World Fellowship of Buddhists.

Asoka Weeraratna founded the Lanka Dhammaduta Society on Sept. 21, 1952 (later re-named in 1957 as the German Dharmaduta Society) which had a number of objectives, the principal one being to send a Buddhist Mission to Germany in 1956 to co-incide with the universal Buddha Jayanthi celebrations.

Buddhist organizations urged the Government to celebrate the Buddha Jayanthi as a national event and defer the holding of the General Elections in 1956. On the 23rd of May, 1956 being the Vesak full-moon day, the Buddhists in Sri Lanka and other parts of the world celebrated the Buddha Jayanthi.

The Government undertook numerous activities in commemoration of the Buddha Jayanthi. They included the appointment of a Committee comprising leading Buddhist monks and laymen to advise the Government on all matters relating to the Buddha Jayanthi celebrations, making arrangements to translate the Tripitaka into Sinhala and compile an Encyclopaedia of Buddhism in English as well as one in Sinhala,  to compile other books dealing with the biography of the Buddha, his
teachings and the history of Buddhism, the issue of  Four (4) commemorative Postage Stamps to mark the event, the completion of the renovation of the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy before the Buddha Jayanthi, offering assistance for the reconstruction of the Mahiyangana Thupa, were among the other undertakings pledged by the Govt.

Buddhist Mission to Germany

At a Public Meeting held at Ananda College, Colombo on May 30, 1953 the findings of a survey carried out by Asoka Weeraratna on the current state of Buddhist activities in Germany and the prospects for sending a Buddhist Mission to Germany before the Buddha Jayanthi celebrations in 1956, were discussed. Hon. C.W.W. Kannangara, Minister of Local Government presided at the Meeting.

Mr. Asoka Weeraratna explained the object of the meeting and presented a detailed account of his survey of the present state of Buddhism in Germany made during his recent visit. He pointed out the importance of Germany and the unique contribution it has made towards the enrichment of European thought, culture and science. He stated that Germany was the pulse of the European continent, and that the largest number of Theravada Buddhists of Europe was at present i.e. 1953, found in Germany.

The Meeting adopted a Resolution urging the Lanka Dhammaduta Society to take immediate steps to send a Buddhist Mission to Germany before 1956 in order to commemorate the Buddha Jayanthi and further that the Society should take immediate steps to establish a permanent Buddhist Centre in Germany comprising a Vihara, Preaching Hall, Library, and Settlement for Upasakas.

Hon. C.W.W. Kannangara, Minister of Local Government, speaking from the Chair said that he had known the Hon. Secretary of the Society, Mr. Asoka Weeraratna from his boyhood and that he could vouch for his integrity. The Hon. Minister added that the Society was going to serve one of the greatest causes of Buddhism launched after the Great Emperor Asoka of India. He therefore urged that all Buddhists should back the Society in every way in order to help it to establish the Buddhasasana firmly in Germany before the Buddha Jayanthi of 1956.

Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Maha Thera added that one of the greatest services that one can do to the Sasana is to help the Society to establish the Buddhist Dispensation in Europe with Germany as its center.

On August 7, 1956 a few months after he became Prime Minister, Hon. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike declared open the new Headquarters and the Training Centre of the Lanka Dhammaduta Society (later renamed as the German Dharmaduta Society) at 417, Bullers Road (later re - named as Bauddhaloka Mawatha), Colombo 07. He said that Buddhism could be spread only on Buddhistic principles whether in this country or outside.  He further said that the Mission to Germany was a very wise one because a number of people in the West were interested in the Buddha’s teachings. The Mission would give them an opportunity to study the religion and also spread the Dhamma themselves. He concluded by saying that if there was any assistance the Government could give the Society, it would not hesitate (Ceylon Daily News – August 8, 1956).

On June 15, 1957 the first Sri Lankan Buddhist Mission to Germany sponsored by the German Dharmaduta Society and comprising Ven. Soma, Ven. Kheminda and Ven. Vinita from the Vajiraramaya, left for Germany. They were joined by Asoka Weeraratna, two weeks later in Berlin. Shortly afterwards the Venerable monks took up residence in Dr. Paul Dahlke’s Das Buddhistiche Haus. In December 1957, Mr. Asoka Weeraratna (Trustee) who had spent nearly six months in Germany at his own expense to ensure that the Venerable monks were settled in properly at Das Buddhistiche Haus and programmes prepared for their Dharmaduta work, negotiated and purchased from the heirs of Dr. Dahlke, the Das Buddhistische Haus on behalf of the Trustees of the German Dharmaduta
Society, which included, Hon. Dudley Senanayake, Mr. Henry Amarasuriya, Dr. P.B. Fernando and Mr. Nelson Soysa.  Das Buddhistische Haus was thereafter converted into a Buddhist Vihara by the GDS through considerable renovation and placement of Dharmaduta monks on a long term footing.

Buddha Jayanthi in India

The Buddha Jayanti in 1956 attracted the attention of almost the entire world as several countries such as India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka put into effect elaborate programs to celebrate the event.

The Government of India celebrated the event as one of great cultural significance for the country. Though born in Lumbini, Nepal, the Buddha delivered his Dhamma discourses mostly in India. A high-powered Committee was appointed with Indian Vice-President Dr. S. Radhakrishnan as Chairman and the chief ministers of several states as members, to make the arrangements.  Public funds were made available for the celebrations, which included public meetings, exhibitions of Buddhist art, the visits of foreign Buddhist scholars, the publication of forty volumes of the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures) in Pali and Sanskrit, the issue of commemorative Buddha Jayanthi postage stamps, and the erection of a monument in New Delhi to mark the event.

Sixth Buddhist Council in Rangoon in 1954

The Sixth Buddhist Council (Chattha Sangayana or sixth synod) was opened in Rangoon on May 17, 1954.  It was sponsored by the Burmese Government under Prime Minister U Nu. A Maha Pasana Guha Cave, a great artificial cave built from the ground up and completed in 1952, served as the gathering place, much like India’s Rajgiri’s Sattaparni Cave that had housed the First Council immediately after the passing away of the Buddha.

Like the preceding councils, its chief objective was to recite, affirm and preserve the genuine wording of the Vinaya, Suttas and Abhidhamma -the ‘pariyatti’ —as related by the Buddha and his principal disciples. This Council was unique in that the 2,500 learned Theravada monks who participated came from eight countries - Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, India and Nepal - unlike previous councils which had included monks from the host countries only.

Ven. Nyanatiloka and Ven. Nyanaponika, two German monks, then residing in Sri Lanka, also figured prominently in the Sixth Buddhist Council. Scholar-monks of Sri Lanka played a significant role and the general editor with overall authority was a Sri Lankan who had settled down in Myanmar.

Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw, the renowned Burmese Theravada Buddhist monk and meditation master who had a significant impact on the teaching of Vipassana (Insight) meditation in the West and throughout Asia, was a questioner and final editor at this Sixth Buddhist Council.

The complete traditional recitation of the Theravada Canon at this Council took two years, from 1954 to 1956. The Council closed on the full moon day of May 1956, exactly two and a half millennia after the Buddha attained Parinibbana. The version of the Tripitaka which the Sixth Buddhist Council produced is recognized as being true to the pristine teachings of Gautama the Buddha and the most authoritative rendering of them to date.

Perspective

Today, Buddhism has a greater appeal in the West due to an increasing number of people in these countries showing a preference for a philosophy and ethical system that places a high emphasis on peace, non – violence and compassion towards all sentient beings. This is the way forward in the dissemination and practice of Buddhism throughout the world.

In Asia, it is feasible for countries with pre-dominant Buddhist populations to consider developing closer ties with each other in the spheres of economic, cultural, and trade and investment. Further we see at the international level a large number of countries forming alliances or groups on the basis of regional proximity, common cultural heritage or common religion. In this context it is worthwhile to consider the formation of a ‘Block of Buddhist Nations’ in the international arena which is not confined purely to celebrate the International Day of Vesak or such similar occasions. It should be more than a loose knit group meeting purely for fellowship on festive occasions. This group needs to be concretised to enable, say, a 'League of Buddhist Nations' to surface and thereafter  to act collectively as and when required to influence global deliberations and decision making at various international councils and fora with Buddhist terms of reference and thinking.

During the last five hundred years or so, since the beginning of the western colonial era, the governance and steering of world happenings was very much in the hands of powerful euro-centric western nations using their mono religio- cultural framework as terms of reference in policy making. That era is now coming to a close. The rise of Asia is the buzz word today. The economic resurgence of China and India will also witness the growth in the global influence of Sino – Indic
civilizations. Buddhism is well - integrated and deep seated in both the Chinese and Indian cultures.

The year of commemoration of the 2600th anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment (Sri Sambuddathwa Jayanthi) is an appropriate time to give careful thought to this idea of the formation of a League of Buddhist Nations in the international arena. As at the UN on the International Day of Vesak (May 16, 2011), Sri Lanka may well take the initiative in this regard.



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