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A Farewell to Dharm ...

Dr. Gunapala Dharmasiri: a Buddhist scholar, teacher, and lifelong friend

On May 8, we lost a great teacher, and I lost a lifelong friend and mentor. Dr. Gunapala Dharmasiri, retired chair of the philosophy department at the University at Peradeniya, was affectionately known as “Dharme” to his many students in Sri Lanka and around the world. The soft-spoken philosopher was one of Sri Lanka’s foremost Buddhist scholars. Over the course of his career, he integrated his profound understanding of the Theravadan tradition with the Mahayanan and Vajrayanan paths to enlightenment. Fluent in Sinhalese, Pali, Sanskrit, and English, Dharme’s books, translations, and lectures were infused with his remarkable understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and with his thorough comprehension of Eastern and Western philosophies.

Once, over tea and the inevitable cigarette, Dharme told me he had always felt it was his good karma to be born a Buddhist in Sri Lanka. Even when he traveled abroad, Dharme maintained a strong national pride. He often waxed lyrical about Sri Lanka’s beauty and peacefulness. He called it “a paradise” and often told me that village life, in particular, was the ideal.

Dharme was 8 when Sri Lanka won its independence from Great Britain. Throughout his life, he maintained an awareness of the colonial lie of white superiority. He was skeptical of Western ideas being inherently superior (although he did have a fondness for gadgets). After careful study of the ideas of the major Western philosophies, Dharme concluded that Buddha’s teachings were far wiser and pointed us to direct experience of Ultimate Truth.

He earned his doctorate at the University of Lancaster under Dr. Ninan Smart, who had established the first secular department of religious studies in the U.K. Dharme’s dissertation, A Buddhist Critique of the Christian Concept of God (1974), was considered revolutionary. While Western academics had long been in the habit of critiquing non-Western religions, few Eastern academics had returned the favour. In his endorsement of Dharme’s book, Smart wrote, “… An excellent book, and one which breaks new ground. It is, as far as I know, the first full length and systematic account of the Buddhist critique of theism.”

After completing his studies in England, Dharme joined the faculty of the philosophy department at the Peradeniya campus and soon was invited to teach abroad. I met him in 1981, when he came to the U.S. on a Fulbright Fellowship to Swarthmore College. He taught a course called Buddhist Ethics in Contemporary Perspective, which for me, at age 17, was life-changing. He suggested I come to Peradeniya to study the following year, and that began a three-decade friendship with this extraordinary teacher and his wonderful family.

While he was in the U.S. that first time, his impact on his students was so profound that Swarthmore College offered him the Julian Cornell Visiting Professor Fellowship so he could teach for an additional semester. He presented a lecture series, which he then turned into a book, published in 1986, called Fundamentals of Buddhist Ethics.

Dharme’s books became quite popular in Singapore and he was invited to teach there on many occasions. He felt a deep affinity for the Boddhisatva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism. He returned home from one of his trips with a three-foot statue of Kuan Yin, which graced his dining room table for years after.

I returned to Sri Lanka in 1986, to do research on Sri Lankan nuns (Bhikkshunis). Dharme was delighted with the project. His own mother had become a nun and he had the highest respect for Bhikkshunis. At that time, Dharme had been reading extensively in the field of women and religion and considered himself a feminist. In 1987, he formed the Bhikkshuni Foundation to support the education of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist nuns so they could achieve Higher Ordination. He raised funds to send several nuns abroad to Mahayana countries where Bhikkshunis had already received Higher Ordination. His hope was that Sri Lanka could revive its Bhikkshuni sangha (a Buddhist community of monks and nuns). Articles about the Bhikkshuni Foundation were published in the feminist Ms. magazine as well as Tricycle, which is a prominent magazine for Western Buddhists.

By this time Dharme was well into his great work, with colleague and friend W.M. Gunathilake (a professor of Sinhala at Peradeniya), to translate and publish the Mahayana sutras from English into Sinhalese. His translation work continued until illness in his later years made it too difficult for him to see. But for more than 30 years, Dharme translated dozens of important works so that Sri Lankans would have access to these profound teachings of the Buddha. Dharme considered himself a Mahayana Buddhist. He criticized the Theravadan sangha for being “dehydrated,” by which he meant they had lost the key point that enlightenment cannot be achieved without both wisdom and compassion. He encouraged all his students to contemplate the importance of compassionate understanding.

In 1993, Dharme returned to the U.S. as a visiting professor at Bowdoin College in Maine. He was already connected to the college through the ISLE (Inter-Collegiate Sri Lankan Education) program, which is still active today. Dharme was a key figure in the program for decades. At Bowdoin, he had time to write his next book, The Nature of Medicine (1997). He had become passionately interested in Sri Lanka’s Ayurvedic tradition and was a strong advocate for preserving Sri Lanka’s medicinal plants. Dharme believed that reliance on Western medicine was a mistake when Ayurveda was so beneficial, affordable, and local. The Nature of Medicine was an appeal to Sri Lankans to preserve and value their own medical tradition. In those years and for many years after, a meal with Dharme included mini-lectures on the valuable healing properties of the various ingredients in the curries!

Dharme retired as chair of Peradeniya’s philosophy department, but continued to work on his writing and translations until his health would not allow. I visited him for the last time in 2014, and he handed me two unpublished manuscripts. A Packet of Gods is a collection of short stories he wrote in 1967, as a graduate student living in the U.K. It was published a week before his death. The second manuscript, Buddhism and Sex, is forthcoming.

One of our last conversations will stay with me forever.

“I have figured it out,” he told me. “You just have to extinguish thought (naroda) and experience pure Being. The secret to Nirvana is ridiculously simply: pure Being with no thought!”

“But how can we extinguish thought?” I asked. Extinguishing thought didn’t sound simple to me, and I have been practising vipassana for decades.

“Read my ethics book, fourth edition,” he told me sternly. “There is a whole chapter on it.”

In the end, Dharme’s great gift to us is his constant reminder in every book, translation, lecture and conversation: the reminder that enlightenment is possible for each one of us in this lifetime.