Letter concerning The Forgotten Theravadin

by Kirthie Abeysekera

Letter concerning The Forgotten Theravadin (PDF)
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I have read with deep interest, and deeper nostalgia, Neville Jayaweera’s fond reminiscences of “The Forgotten Theravadin” (Sunday Island, Sept. 14). Neville J. is not alone in his reflections on the Western Catholic priest, Henri Van Zeijst (later changed to Zeyst) who accepted the Buddha-Teaching and received ordination as Bhikkhu Dhammapāla.

Coincidentally, like Neville J, I too was only 14 when I first met Dhammapāla, a remarkable man who was to make a tremendous impact on the Buddhist youth of the day. I was a student at Dharamaraja College, Kandy, when he was at the Udawattakele Temple. Dickwela Piyananda was a resident monk catering to the spiritual need of us hostellers. But we enjoyed visiting the “Sudu Hamuduruvo” at Udawattakele. Through his scholarly, yet simple, interpretation of the Dhamma, he weaned us away from meaningless rites and rituals and helped us understand the essentials of the Teaching.
It was not until the mid-40s however, that I came into close contact with him. I was active in the Badulla based Uva Young Men‘s Buddhist Association, and we used to invite a few English-speaking monks (very rare at the time) to the provincial capital. Among them was Dhammapāla. By that time the All Ceylon Buddhist Students’ Union, ACBSU, founded by Dhammapāla was very active. Inspired by him, the Spiritual Director, and Ananda Mivanapalana, who was to succeed him as Director of the Buddhist Students Union, affiliated to the ACBSU, and was its secretary.

It came as a shock when in 1947 Dhammapāla had suddenly left for India where he came under the influence of Krishnamurti and returned to Ceylon, a layman. I recall the letter of disappointment I sent him. His reply was characteristic of his philosophy. “Is not the cause of frustration more in yourself, rather than in the Bhikkhu who is no more?” he wrote. In a letter to the ACBSU, he explained in greater detail his reasons for leaving the monkhood, while remaining unshaken in his belief in the Teachings of the Buddha.

I had just got married to a Roman Catholic and I was keen for her to meet this learned scholar of Buddhism, comparative religion and philosophy. I invited him to Badulla. In the days when he was “Bhikkhu Dhammapāla” cars of the Buddhist VIPs would line up for him. That day, when he got off the train in a “Khaddar” verti and banian, only my good friend, Amarananda Gunapala, secretary of the Uva YMBA and l were there to welcome him. We had no cars and had planned to hire one at the railway station. When we told Van Zeyst that I lived about a mile away, he said, “Let’s walk”, and that‘s what we did.
For two weeks many young men and women, mostly in their early 20s, like myself, enjoyed the company of this wonderful man. We met daily, in debate and discussion, in my home. Van Zeyst posed provocative questions that made us ponder: What is Truth? Can we search for Truth when it is something we don’t know about? Truth is within ourselves.

Is there a God? One moment, he would prove in ten different ways that there is a God. The next moment, he would dismantle the God-Theory in ten other ways. He showed us scars on his knees – by praying on them for long lours, asking the God he then believed in to help him retain his faith as a Catholic.

During his stay at Badulla, none of his erstwhile “Dayakas” – self-acclaimed Buddhist leaders who once venerated the monk visited him. They had hitherto been paying homage to the ‘robe’ not to the man within. Those who once clamoured to offer “Dane” to Bhikkhu Dhammapāla, did not offer Henri Van Zeyst a single meal.

Among his numerous publications was “Fetters”, explaining the many chains that bind us from progressive thought.

Buddhist monks, for instance, preach on the “merits” of “dane”, while “taking” all the time, not “giving”. He found the Buddhist robe a hindrance, rather than a help. It bound him to dogma which stifles the mind. I had the great joy of publishing a few hundred copies of “Fetters” for free distribution in memory of my sister who met with an untimely death. It was van Zeyst’s two weeks in my Badulla home that helped me and many other Badulla youth to have an insight into the essential teachings of the Buddha.
On our visits in Colombo, my wife and I stayed with the Mivanapalanas in their Mount Lavinia home which was also home to van Zeyst. It was a meeting place for students of Buddhism, where I met ACBSU stalwarts such as Dr. W.M Tillekeratne and Henry Dissanayake, a latter day Parliamentarian, and many others.

In later years, I used to visit van Zeyst in Watapuluwa, picking up the threads of an era gone by. Ironically, I could not meet him at Heeloya, adjoining my own village of Dowa in Bandarawela. By that time, I had left for Canada. My last meeting with a man who I had deep respect for, was over three decades ago.

But no, he is not “The Forgotten Theravadin.” There are many who were close to him who remember the scholar of great humility, true to himself and true to others.

For my own part, I dedicated my 1995 book, “Piyadassi, The Wandering Monk” to three Buddhist monks who have been a great influence in my life – Sri Lanka’s Nārada, Czechoslovakia’s Ñāṇasatta and The Netherlands’ Dhammapāla.