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Venerable Narada Maha Thera
A Buddhist Missionary Par Excellence

Olcott Gunasekera

"My mission abroad was never to proselytize but merely to present the teachings of the Buddha to those who are interested. I found numerous such persons. To those who believed in God, I said, if you are convinced of God and if it is beneficial, by all means you may believe in him. But for my part, I told them that I could do better without depending on him."

These words of Ven. Narada Maha Thera (Ceylon Daily News- 21.12.1966) showed the same spirit, even after 2500 years after the parinibbana of the Buddha, of the following utterance of the Buddha. "Aparuta tesam amatassa dvara ye sotavanto pamuncantu saddham Vihimsa sanni pagunam na bhasim - Dhammam panitam manujesu brahme" ti (Mahapadana Sutta, Digha Nikaya) - "Open are the doors to the deathless those who have ears repose trust".

The Buddha during his 45 years after Enlightenment travelled the length and breath of North India beating the 'drum of deathlessness' (amata dundubhim) so that intelligent beings could listen to the teaching and become followers of the Buddha by reposing trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.

Early Days

Ven. Narada lived for 85 years. He was born on July 14, 1898 to Kalonis Perera (father) and Pabilina de Silva (mother) who were living in Kotahena. It was a Christian environment but the influence of Anagarika Dharmapala, who was vehemently criticizing the Sinhala people for slavishly giving Christian names to their children, was visible in that the name given to the new born was Sumanapala. He had his secondary education at St. Benedict's College, Kotahena. His learning ability and his excellent ways drew the attention of the padres, especially Father James, who once had remarked that young Sumanapala was most suitable to be a cleric of the Catholic Church. His familiarity with Christian rituals and his deep knowledge of Christianity stood in good stead when he travelled in the West as a Buddhist missionary.

Period of Preparation

The First World War was ending in 1918 and the suffering and carnage a war brings may have influenced young Sumanapala who was reaching the age of 18 years. His uncle was a dayaka at Vajiraramaya and this brought Sumanapala into contact with the Most Venerable Pelene Vajiragnana Maha Nayaka Thera. The Maha Nayaka Thera had the ability to spot talent and on his 18th birthday Sumanapala was ordained at Vajiraramaya taking the name 'Narada'. Two years later he gained his higher ordination or upasampada.

Ven. Narada could not have had a better teacher to learn the Buddha Dhamma than the Most Venerable Pelene Vajiragnana Maha Nayaka Thera. As an external student, he studied Ethics and Philosophy at the University College, Colombo, where he was able to associate closely with Ven. Rambukwelle Siddhartha Thera, an oriental scholar monk of repute. At the Vajiraramaya, he also met Dr. Cassius Perera (later Ven. Kassapa) and together they started the Servants of Buddha Society in 1921. Alec Robertson, who later was a President of this Society, wrote as follows to the Narada Felicitation Volume (1979), 'As a young and promising monk of only 21 years of age, he (Ven. Narada) showed exceptional intellectual prowess matched by an equal degree of spiritual fervour. With the mature guidance and advice of Dr. Cassius Perera he mastered the English language and in course of time became an eloquent and convincing speaker who captivated the minds of the English educated Buddhists with his sermons which were characterized by their clarity and discernment.' Ven. Narada also had the companionship of that soft spoken and talented English monk, Ven. Metteyya, who was residing at the Vajiraramaya.

First visit abroad

Ven. Narada was 31 years old when he made his first debut in the international world. Due to the untiring effort of Anagarika Dharmapala the Mulagandakuti Vihara at Sarnath, India was completed in 1929 and there was an invitation to the maha sangha to participate at the opening ceremony. Sri Lanka's delegation, which included Ven. Narada, was led by Ven. Kahawe Ratanasara Nayaka Thera, the head of the Vidyodaya Pirivena. It was fortuitous that it fell on the shoulders of Ven. Narada to conduct all proceedings at this historic function. The opening was attended by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru whom Ven. Narada met for the first time.

Successful Missions of Ven. Narada Maha Thera

During Ven. Narada's fifty years of missionary work, which ended with his demise on October 20, 1983, he had visited all continents, except the Antarctica. In many of the countries he was the first Theravada Buddhist monk to have set foot in recent times. Due to the work of oriental studies' societies like the Pali Text Society and the Royal Asiatic Societies, the excavations of Buddhist sites by eminent archaeologists like Sir Aurel Stein and Cunningham, and the missionary work of persons like Anagarika Dharmapala, there was much interest both in the West and the East to know more of Theravada Buddhism.

Ven. Narada Maha Thera fitted this bill very well. He had the erudition and the serenity, the gentleness and piety, and above all a perfect command of the English language to put across the most abstruse teachings of the Buddha in a simple, eloquent and persuasive manner. Some of his books like the English translation of the Dhammapada and Buddhism in a Nutshell had been translated to several languages and at times preceded his visits. Because of his publications there was an eagerness to see him in person and, hence, he was able to command the respect of the audience. Furthermore, his compassion was all pervasive, and because of his vegetarian ways, his special love for children and his amiable demeanour and countenance he was able to reach the hearts of everyone.


His most successful missions in Asia were in Indonesia, Nepal, Singapore, and Vietnam. His first visit to Indonesia was in 1934 when he carried a bo-sapling from the sacred bodhi tree in Anuradhapura and planted it in the precincts of the famous Borobudur temple. He is remembered as the first Theravada bhikkhu to have set foot in Indonesia in a thousand years. During his mission in June 1959 to participate in the Vesak festivities in Borobudur, he ordained 2 Chinese, 2 Indonesian and 2 Balanese persons and established a sima for the conduct of vinaya acts of monks. When he revisited Borobudur in 1969, which was his 4th visit, he was overjoyed when he saw that the bo-sapling planted by him 35 years ago had 'grown and matured into a huge tree covering a vast area around the Borobudur shrine'. It also symbolised the establishment of the Theravada Buddhist tradition in Indonesia. In March 1982 Ven. Narada conducted his 12th dhammaduta mission to Indonesia and the year later he was again in Indonesia to officiate at the Poson festivities. That happened to be his last mission because he passed away soon after his return.

Ven. Narada Maha Thera considered Vietnam as his second home. In some of his missions he stayed for over one year counselling and serving the people. He has undertaken over 17 dhammaduta missions to Vietnam. In 1966 after his 6th mission he was asked whether he has a special liking for Vietnam and his reply bespeaks for himself as a true Buddhist missionary. "I regard the whole world as my motherland, all people as my brothers and sisters. I prefer to work in Vietnam because the Vietnamese Buddhists are badly in need of voluntary religious workers to propagate the Buddha's message."

He had many successes in Vietnam. At the Jetavana Vihara [*] in Saigon the Vesak celebrations were jointly organised by the entire Buddhist community belonging to all sects because of his leadership. In 1969 he opened a Buddhist school with a full curriculum. In 1973 the foundation stone for a Buddhist hall and library was laid. In 1974 for the first time an all night pirit ceremony was held in Vietnam at the Jetavana Vihara following Sinhala tradition. The Sakyamuni Vihara [*], situated about 100 miles away from Saigon, was the centrepiece of his missionary work in Vietnam. All the elements of a Sinhala Buddhist temple and the architectural traditions of Sri Lanka were featured. He would not have minded if he were to pass away there.

To Nepal he led over six dhammaduta missions. The most notable was the mission in 1946, when he led a delegation consisting of Ven. Piyadassi, Ven. Amitananda of Nepal, who was residing at the Vajiraramaya, Prof. M. D. Ratnasuriya and Prof. M. B. Ariyapala to meet with the King of Nepal. His mission was to obtain a royal decree for the return of the Theravada monks who were exiled to India. He was not only successful to get royal pardon but also was able to get the day of Vesak declared a public holiday. Ven Narada Maha Thera was highly respected by the Nepalese royalty and this helped in the firm establishment of the Theravada sangha in Nepal. The ties between the Nepalese and the Sihala sangha have since grown from strength to strength.

The Lankaramaya established by the Ven. Thera with the assistance of the Sri Lankan Buddhist Community along with the Sima for ecclesiastical acts was the first Theravada temple in Singapore. From Vietnam the Ven. Thera visited the neighbouring countries on dhammaduta work. Missions to Cambodia and Laos (1959) are recorded. Ven Narada Maha Thera was accorded the title of Sadhu Maha by the Sangharaja and the King of Laos during his visit in recognition of his services to the Sasana in the countries of Indochina. Prior to his mission to Laos, the Ven. Thera, who travelled to Rangoon by ship, flew to Peking (now Beijing), China (24.07.1959) accompanied by Ven. Dhammaruci, a Chinese monk who was studying in Sri Lanka. He took with him Buddha relics and presented them to Chao Pu-Chu, the Vice President, and General Secretary of the Buddhist Association of China.


On the invitation of the President of the Buddhist Society of New South Wales the Ven. Thera visited Sydney in March 1955. As there was no temple at the time he stayed in the house of Mr. Berkley, the President of the Society. A few years earlier Mr. Berkley has met Ven. Narada Maha Thera in Colombo and had become a Buddhist. He spent three months in Australia engaged in dhammaduta work.


Ven. Maha Thera's visit to Africa was in 1947. Before his goodwill mission a farewell was accorded to him by the Colombo YMBA on March 24, 1947. The invitation was from Mr. D. A. S. Nanayakkara of the Tanzania Colony Civil Service as the President of the Dar-es-Salam YMBA. This goodwill mission, which lasted 40 days, took him to Mombasa, Dar-es-Salam, Zanzibar, and Nairobi. Commenting on this mission he said, "During my stay I emphasized the need for Christian neighbourliness, Muslim brotherhood, Hindu oneness, and Buddhist maitree."


During his visit to the USA in 1959, he was invited by the Sri Lanka's Ambassador, Mr. R. S. S. Gunewardena and the Burmese Ambassador U. Win to spend the vassana in Washington. He declined because of his other engagements in Europe. A public lecture was given by him at the Washington Memorial. The Ven. Maha Thera was honoured by the Humanist Award given by the Roiscrucian Society. He wrote an article to the Roiscrucian digest of July 1959, with the title 'A Plea for Peace and Disarmament'. His thinking is summarised by his concluding lines. "One Western poet sang 'East is East and West is West. The twain shall never meet'.

"With all humility it may be said,
East is East and West is West.
The twain will ever meet.
Not in peace, but in love
For all in peace to live"


The first dhammaduta mission of the Ven. Maha Thera to England was in June 1949. He delivered a lecture at China House and Mr. Christmas Humphreys presided at the meeting. In 1954, he revisited England at the invitation of Sir Cyril Soysa to be the head of the first Buddhist Vihara in London, located at Kensington. He left after 6 months. In 1956 he was invited by the World Congress of Faiths, Switzerland to deliver a talk on 'The Buddhist View of the Contemporary Situation'. After a visit of Ven. Narada Maha Thera a Buddhist Society was formed in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1957. On his return he had engagements in Holland, Rome, Greece and Egypt. In 1963, the Ven. Thera visited Germany and France.

Ven. Narada Maha Thera Museum

Ven. Narada Maha Thera is undoubtedly one of the greatest Buddhist missionaries of the 20th century. The Times Collection of paper cuttings, maintained at the National Archives, was the main source for this article, besides other secondary sources. But it is extremely scrappy with many voids. It will be useful in tracing the history of the spread of Buddhism in the world to reconstruct a chronological record of the many dhammaduta missions of Ven. Narada Maha Thera. There were intentions to set up a Narada Thera Museum at the Vajiraramaya temple (Ceylon Daily News - 17.12.83). Later events indicate that it has been only wishful thinking. A project of this nature should draw the attention of all concerned Buddhists, especially those who are associated with the Vajiraramaya Temple.


[*] "Jetavana Vihara": Chua Ky-Vien, Quan 3, Saigon; "Sakyamuni Vihara": Thich-Ca Phat Dai, Vung Tau.


Source: "The Island", Sri Lanka, Sunday 03 August 2003, http://www.island.lk

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