I - The Background

1. An Untapped Source of Historical Information

[xiii] Much against the advice of his departmental superiors and amidst many administrative obstacles placed in his way by them, the young and enthusiastic Member-Secretary of the Historical Manuscripts Commission – Amarawaṁsa Dewarāja – undertook, nearly two decades ago, a self-imposed assignment, whose significance was not very clear to many people at that time. He ransacked the temple libraries and private collections for letters and documents which, he was convinced, could add to our knowledge and understanding of the socio-political and cultural evolution of Sri Lanka in recent times. He was particularly interested in ascertaining the role of number of leading scholar-monks, who, during the last one hundred years, had contributed not only to the renaissance of Sinhala Buddhist culture within the shores of our Island but, equally importantly, to the promotion of the development of Buddhist and Oriental studies abroad.

The Saṅgha of Sri Lanka has been renowned for this dual function throughout our history. The Saṅgha had, in each epoch, produced some of the greatest national heroes and their service had been in a triple role of scholar-missionary-educator. Would this be true of the monks of the recent past, Dewarāja wished to find out.

He was very pleased with what he found. But all he could do was to have the vast collection of private letters carefully photocopied, neatly bound in chronological order and placed in the National Archives with the hope that some researchers would find in them historically useful information. These documents have been often referred to in several scholarly articles such as Harischandra de Silva’s contribution to සංස්කෘති {Saṁskti} Ed. note: The name of a journal published in Sri Lanka. on Waskaḍuwa Śrī Subhūti Nāyaka Thera, which was written with the help of this [xiv] material. But Dewarāja, now the Director of National Archives, was not content that his efforts were being put into adequate use. During one of his visits to Paris, he gave expression to his disappointment, adding further that, as time passed on, a new problem was likely to arise in Sri Lanka: namely, the number of persons with the requisite skills in the several languages involved and the understanding and appreciation of the National Revival Movement of the last century as well as the inclination and training for this kind of work was rapidly decreasing specially as science, technology and other modern disciplines attracted the best of students.

Dewarāja’s statement was an earnest and fervent plea for immediate help. With little forethought on the magnitude of the task, I volunteered to make a preliminary study of the material. In this decision, I was greatly encouraged by the enormous satisfaction which I drew from putting together in two volumes the writings of Anagārika Dharmapāla. ධර්මපාල ලිපි {Dharmapāla Lipi} published by the Ministry of Social Services and Cultural Affairs on 17 January 1965 (xiv and 348 pages) and RETURN TO RIGHTEOUSNESS published by the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs on 17 September 1965 (LXXXIV and 875 pages) Colombo, Sri Lanka. It was a task in which Dewarāja, among others, had been a great help.

2. The Theme and the Title

I spent several weeks during my home leave in 1979 in the National Archives and waded through the mass of photocopies before I could identify a theme under which a representative sample of letters could be presented. As I read the letters addressed to our monks by the renowned Western Orientalists of the calibre of Childers, Fausböll, Rhys Davids, Oldenberg, Rost, Müller, Minayeff, Hardy, Warren, Geiger, Lanman, Sir Edwin Arnold, etc., I could perceive the extent to which a number of Sri Lankan Buddhist monks served as kingpins of the rising movement of Oriental studies in the West. Accordingly, I selected those letters which could be presented under the theme: “Sri Lankan Support to Pioneering Western Orientalists”. While this wording appeared [xv] quite satisfactory as a statement of the underlying theme, it did not sound good enough as the title of a book. I had been thinking in vain for a better name. Many suggestions came from colleagues and friends; but none was really satisfactory.

It was while editing Viggo Fausböll’s letter of 14 March 1877 to Venerable Waskaḍuwe Śrī Subhūti Nāyaka Thera that I found a most apt and meaningful title. In this letter, the great Danish Pali scholar, famous for his edition of the Jātakas, was more or less apologising to the Venerable Thera for frequent demands made on his time and learning. In explanation, he said,

“We, Europeans, must, of course, stand in need of such help as we are so far from the living fountains of Buddhism and so scantily furnished with materials.”

Thus in his mind - and certainly in those of his contemporaries in the West - the learned monks of Sri Lanka were the living fountains of Buddhism. Their guidance and assistance were indispensable to these scholars in unravelling the mysteries locked in the Oriental classics.

The wisdom of the East was one of the most far-reaching discoveries which the Western scholars had made in the nineteenth century. They were, no doubt, greatly impressed. They needed to study the languages in which this wisdom was couched. India had preserved the tradition of Sanskrit learning. But for Pali and Buddhism, the help had to come from Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan monks were, veritably the living fountains of Buddhism.

Thus this volume came to be called “FROM THE LIVING FOUNTAINS OF BUDDHISM.”

3. Structure and Synopsis

After a careful examination of the material chosen for this Volume and several experiments in organization of the presentation, I decided on the format of three books, each with several parts.

BOOK ONE deals with the contacts, both Western and Eastern, which Venerable Waskaḍuwe Śrī Subhūti Nāyaka Thera had established. This Nāyaka Thera’s temple at Waskaḍuwa had been, [xvi] for over fifty years, the most active hub of a far-flung world-wide network of pioneering Oriental scholars. Foreign letters addressed to him between 1861 and 1914 highlight the kind of wide-ranging activities he had undertaken; getting rare manuscripts copied, compared and collated; researching materials to answer knotty problems posed by well-known scholars; keeping tab on the development of Buddhist and Oriental learning in various parts of the world; meeting, for scholarly discussions, a host of visiting scholars and dignitaries; and conducting regular classes for both national and foreign students. But that was not all. As a monk, the Nāyaka Thera had to play the traditional role of a religious leader. This aspect of his life, too, is vividly portrayed by these letters. Both due to the wealth of material and the intrinsic importance of the Nāyaka Thera’s contribution, this Book is both voluminous and informative.

BOOK TWO is devoted to an equally productive figure in Sri Lankan scholarship - Ven. Polwatte Buddhadatta Mahānāyaka Thera. A remarkable man of letters, he inherited and maintained the traditions of Aggārāmaya in Polwatte, Ambalangoḍa which had developed into a centre of international Buddhist studies during the time of his illustrious teacher. In fact, Ven. Buddhadatta’s efforts made this temple the successor to Abhinavārāmaya of Waskaḍuwa as the new hub of a network of Western Orientalists. The letters, presented in this Volume are restricted to his dealings with Dr. (Mrs.) Rhys Davids and Wilhelm Geiger. They show the extent to which the Venerable Mahānāyaka Thera contributed to the publication programme of the Pali Text Society of London and to the work of Geiger on Sri Lankan Chronicles.

BOOK THREE is a kind of miscellanea. The unifying theme is the support which the Saṅgha provided to the Buddhist Revival Movement. Colonel Henry Steele Olcott’s association with the Saṅgha is brought out in a number of very valuable letters to Ven. Doḍanduwe Śrī Piyaratana Tissa Mahānāyaka Thera and several others. The correspondence between Sir Edwin Arnold, the reputed author of the poem: The Light of Asia, and Venerable Weligama Śrī Sumaṅgala Nāyaka Thera provides significant information on the beginnings of the Buddhist efforts to regain the [xvii] control and maintenance of Buddhist Shrines in India. The last part is devoted to Venerable C. Alutgama Seelakkhandha Nāyaka Thera, whose role as a collaborator of the leaders of the Buddhist Revival Movement was further enhanced by the fame he won in the Indian sub-continent as a Sanskrit poet.

4. Leading Lights of the Golden Age of Buddhist and Oriental Scholarship

Thus this Volume directs our attention to the contribution of several leading lights of the Buddhist Saṅgha of the last one hundred years. Prominent among them are Ven. Waskaḍuwe Śrī Subhūti, Ven. Polwatte Śrī Buddhadatta, Ven. Doḍanduwe Śrī Piyaratana Tissa, Ven. Weligama Śrī Sumaṅgala and Ven. Alutgama Śrī Seelakkhandha. Referred to very frequently in these letters are the distinguished contemporaries of Ven. Subhūti and Ven. Piyaratana Tissa, i.e. Hikkaḍuwe Śrī Sumaṅgala Nāyaka Thera, Ven. Mohottiwatte (or Migettuwatte) Guṇānanda Thera and Ven. Yātrāmulle Śrī Dhammārāma Thera. A large collection of their letters remains to be edited and presented and these are almost entirely in Sinhala.

That the last century saw, in Sri Lanka, a spectacular reawakening in Buddhist and Oriental studies is patent. It is remarkable that there were so many centres of learning in which devoted monks of great erudition pursued such tasks as collating and editing manuscripts, translating into Sinhala with scholarly exegetical commentaries a large number of Pali and Sanskrit texts, making in-depth studies of Sanskrit and Pali systems of grammar and logic and undertaking ambitious publication programmes.

The period reflected by the material, namely 1861-1942, can, quite justifiably, be termed a golden age of Buddhist and Oriental scholarship in Sri Lanka. The motivation for this intellectual activity came from different directions.

The growing mood of confrontation between the Buddhists and Christians, reflected in the religious controversies of Baddegama (1863), Warāgoda (1865), Liyangemulle (1866), Gampola (1871) and Pānadure (1873), was one of them. Equally strong as a motivational factor was the fascination with which an eager [xviii] intelligentsia in the world received and appreciated the discoveries which were being made in literature, art and architecture, philosophy and religion of the East. The awareness that a great cultural heritage had to be shared with the world was firmly established and the national scholars recognized their task to be that of informants, interpreters and facilitators of learning.

It is paradoxical in the context of the Sri Lankan renaissance movement that the intellectual activity remained, for many decades, totally unrelated to any political struggle for national independence or even self-rule. On the contrary, we find the early scholars to be not only intimate friends of the British administrators but very loyal subjects of the British throne, sparing no efforts in seeking the patronage of the rulers. As would be illustrated in due course, some of them waxed eloquent in the medium of Pali and Sanskrit poetry to eulogize the British royalty, sometimes, even causing embarrassment to those British collaborators in national revival efforts. Historically, the Buddhist Saṅgha depended on royal patronage. It is possible that, in their perception, the British royalty replaced the kings and princes of Sri Lanka as patrons of the Saṅgha. The search for royal patronage might have also been the motivation for the contacts which the leading monks attempted to establish with royal households of Burma, Thailand and Japan.

There were some scholars of the time (for example, James d‘Alwis) whose motivation came from the thought that the form and content of the classical works of literature could be simulated in effectively ushering in a Christian literary tradition.

Whatever be the motivation, the scholars of the period prove themselves to be serious men with an exceptionally high perception and an abiding interest in presenting to the world whatever they discovered in the national literary and cultural heritage.

The fact that a receptive world-wide network of scholars awaited these discoveries most enthusiastically was, indeed, a great encouragement. Thus the era of cultural discovery and dissemination in the recent history of Sri Lanka presents itself as a fascinating subject for study. An important objective of this publication, therefore, is to assist in the analysis of the salient characteristics of this unusually complex epoch. [xix]

5. The Need to Fill Lacunae in our Knowledge of National Figures

In 1965, writing on Anagārika Dharmapāla, I had to focus attention on the importance of publishing the writings of our national heroes. I said:

“In a country, which honours her national heroes of olden days in diverse ways and pays them the highest compliment of being regarded as models worthy of emulation, one would expect a continuing awareness of the need to maintain records of the thoughts, deeds and achievements of her recent heroes and to preserve for posterity their homes and belongings. One would, at least, expect to see well-written biographies and collections of letters and writings of such persons. Though recently several national heroes of modern times were commemorated by the erection of their statues in the capital and elsewhere, the nation is kept informed of their services and their claims to greatness only by short articles in the local press which appear usually on their death anniversaries. The result of such half-hearted attempts to keep the memory of our national heroes alive is all too evident whenever public meetings are held in their honour. One is often disappointed to find that men, whose services to the nation had been invaluable and whose efforts had made millions happy and prosperous, are remembered by only a diminishing group of people who had been close to them or are bound by family ties. This, indeed, is not a happy state of affairs. As an old saying goes, a nation can be called a living nation only as long as it honours its dead. A nation as a whole must take a keen interest in the lives and achievements of its great men and women, for this is not merely an act of gratitude but also an investment of a priceless character. It is a nation’s gratitude to its past heroes which inspire the living to dedicate their lives to the benefit and well-being of mankind.” Return to Righteousness (ed. Ananda W. P. Guruge) Colombo 1965 pp. xvii–xviii. [xx]

The great scholar-monks of the last hundred years are, indeed, national heroes, worthy of being commemorated and emulated. But we know so little of what they did, thought, felt and even recorded as their messages to posterity.

During the celebration of Buddha Jayanti, the 2500th Anniversary of the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, in 1954–1956, several of these national heroes were identified to be honoured with memorials such as statues, libraries, monuments. Two of the scholar-monks, whose correspondence is treated in this Volume, were in the list: namely Ven. Waskaḍuwe Śrī Subhūti and Ven. Weligama Śrī Sumaṅgala. I recall, with profound shame, that my personal knowledge of the contribution of these monks was so meagre that I could hardly write a few lines on them in justification of the honour we had decided to confer on them. To my aid came Ven. Polwatte Buddhadatta, who was a very active member of the Lanka Bauddha Mandalaya (The Buddhist Council of Ceylon). It was with the material that he supplied that I was able to get two short articles written on them. This much for our knowledge of the services of our national heroes!

Since then I have earnestly advocated the importance of documenting the life and work of great men to whom the nation has to be grateful for services rendered. Hence I undertook the preparation of this Volume as an expression of my own appreciation of what these scholars had achieved through dint of dedicated hard work. It has been a most gratifying experience for me to have learnt so much about their lives and to be able to pay my homage to them in a tangible form.