Reflecting on Walpola Sri Rahula Mahathera: A Quest for the Ideal Theravada Bhikkhu
Asanga Tilakaratne, Asanga Tilakaratne, PhD
Professor of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Colombo
Each Theravada bhikkhu is a representative of the Theravada Sangha. Although, in this sense, all bhikkhus are bhikkhus with no difference among them, some naturally stand out. Walpola Sri Rahula Mahathera who passed away seventeen years ago in1997 is one such. He stood out in many respects, and made a long lasting impression on the Sangha organization. Rahula Thera’s life and work need to be studied deeply in order to understand the path of the Sri Lanka Sangha in the last century, and, thereby, historical continuities and discontinuities. One may agree with him or may not – but one cannot bypass him easily. The present paper is not meant to be a general study of this multi-faceted personality. Rather it will focus on his life as a Buddhist monk and its implications on the Sangha as a body and as individual members.
As a prelude to this discussion, I will study the life of Rahula Thera with special stress on his formative years and his early political activism. Subsequently I will discuss my main theme, a quest for the ideal Theravada bhikkhu, keeping WR as its basis. In concluding remarks, I will try to connect this discussion to the present context of Sri Lanka Buddhism.
Walpola Sri Rahula: Formative Years
Walpola Rahula Mahathera was born in 1907 at Walpola, a village in the southern province of Sri Lanka, as the youngest in a family of ten. At the age of thirteen he was admitted to the Sangha at the village monastery and was given the name: Walpola Dhammadassi, which he changed to Walpola Rahula after about eight years. The first decisive influence Rahula Thera’s life came when he was entrusted for further studies to Paragoda Sumanasara, a monk not only with vast learning, but also with a deep commitment to follow the monastic life to its fullest. In his seriousness to follow the Vinaya to reach the ideal he strived for, Paragoda Sumanasara Thera was very different from the larger majority of his contemporaries: He strove to follow all Vinaya rules without violating any and to practice, in addition, austere practices, which are known in the tradition as dhutanga. Realizing the difficulty in following the Vinaya to its fullest, Sumanasara made a very bold decision to relinquish his higher admission (upasampada) and revert to novice-hood (samanera), which meant coming down in his stature among the Sangha. Not stopping at that, he and his students including young Rahula left the life in the monastery with relative comforts to forest and assumed an ascetic life. Rejection of modern comfort and assuming a simple life with minimum needs was the hallmark of this way of life. Accordingly, the group existed on alms food, wore rag robes, used coconut shells for cups, and did not handle money. Consequently the group became known sarcastically as ‘coconut-shell nikaya’ (polkatu nikaya). Meanwhile, led by his perfectionism which earlier made him to give up higher admission, Sumanasara decided to become a ‘layman’. Having become a layman he still lived a celibate life guiding his monastic pupils. Sumanasara’s moral perfectionism and idealism seem have had a great influence on Rahula Thera in his formative years. The articles he wrote to Sinahla Jathiya, then a well known Sinhala news paper, were mainly on monastic vinaya issues, a clear influence of his mentor.
After several years of this ‘ascetic’ life Rahula Thera moved to Colombo, already with a name as a controversial writer. He wanted to pursue studies, and with financial support from his brother Victor Hettigoda, he went to India with the hope of entering a centre of higher learning. This effort proved to be unsuccessful due to various reasons including his ill health, and Rahula Thera returned to Sri Lanka and embarked on education almost on his own with guidance from some friends, noteworthy among whom were Mr. S. Thangaraja, a teacher at St. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia for mathematics and science, and Mr. D.S. Gunasekera, a warden of Nalanda College, for English. Apart from a few months of schooling at his village school, Rahula Thera had never had any formal education until he was admitted to Ceylon University College where Professor G.P. Malalasekera was his teacher and mentor. It is during this time that Rahula Thera came to associate with N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardhana and S.A. Wickramasinghe, future political leaders of the country, and also got opportunities to meet such eminent international figures as Mahatma Gandhi, who was visiting Sri Lanka, Rabindranath Tagore who came to lay the foundation stone for Sri Palee College, Horana, and J. Krishnamurti who arrived in Colombo to deliver a series of lectures.
A Controversial Period: Critique of Religion and Political Activism
An important milestone of this formative period of Rahula Thera was the series of tracts he wrote under the common title ‘satyodaya’ (the dawn of truth) on various issues related to Buddhist practice by ordinary people as well as that of the Buddhist monks, and distributing them free. These tracts were written during December 1933 and September 1934 (1 ). The ideas expressed in these tracts were the text book examples of critical thinking, particularly on matters of religion, in this case, Buddhism, which was the religion of the larger majority of the people of the country and consequently was very sensitive matter to touch. In these tracts Rahula Thera demonstrated with sharp critical acumen how some of the very popular Buddhist practices were in contradiction with the basic philosophy of the Buddha. Among the practices that came under Rahula Thera’s attack were offering food as Buddha-puja, the caste discrimination in the Sangha and offering what is erroneously called ‘dharma-puja’ to the preachers of the Dhamma which is tantamount to making a payment for the service they rendered. Rahula Thera argued vehemently against these practices and showed how such practices violated the philosophy of the Buddha. In addition, he questioned the practice inviting gods to listen to the Dhamma (devatha aradhanava), the concept of ‘poya’ day as a special day, popular perception and practice of offering ‘sanghika dana’, collecting money in the name of the Triple Gem, and doing meritorious deeds expecting future results. Continue reading Reflecting on Walpola Sri Rahula Mahathera: A Quest for the Ideal Theravada Bhikkhu→