Founding father of the German Dharmaduta Society, Berlin Buddhist Vihara and Mitirigala Nissarana Vanaya

It was 12 April 1961. This historic day marked the first entry into space of a human being, Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut, in a rocket launched by the Soviet Union celebrated by millions across the globe as a monumental day of scientific and technological achievement. In becoming the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin shattered boundaries of what was then thought scientifically possible by human spirit and endeavour and spawned new dreams and aspirations in space for the adventurous and ambitious.

Asoka Weeraratna           Ven.Meethirigala Dhamanissanthi

Coincidentally, this same day serves as a milestone in the life of a young Sinhalese, Asoka Weeraratna, who had by then achieved the remarkable feat of leading and establishing the first Sri Lankan Buddhist mission in Germany on a permanent footing and negotiated the purchase of Dr. Paul Dahlke’s famed Das Buddhistische Haus in Berlin – Frohnau on behalf of the Trustees of the German Dharmaduta Society, converting it into Buddhist Vihara with resident monks – the first Theravada Buddhist Vihara in continental Europe. This day was a moment of reckoning in Asoka Weeraratna's life, providing an impetus to the unfolding of a new chapter in his spiritual path, combined with a firm resolve and commitment to serve the sasana and to realise the Buddha's timeless wisdom.

The unfolding of a new chapter

.....As he listened to the news of Gagarin's success, a thought precipitated in his mind, generating an urge to embark on a life long quest in search of and putting into practice the Buddha's teachings with goals firmly set. Some years later, this earnest quest for liberation and the need to find a suitable teacher and a place for the practice became a catalyst for the establishment of the Mitirigirala Nissarana Vanaya, one of Sri Lanka's foremost Buddhist monasteries in the strict forest tradition.

In 1961, Asoka Weeraratna recollects:

"At that moment, I was resident at the Berlin Vihara in Germany. At 11.00 am, I listened to the news report on Gagarin's launch, marking a historic moment for humankind. The following thought occurred to me: 'this overwhelming moment in history was possible due to one's capacity to develop an intelligent and well thought out plan and strive towards its realisation with great dedication. Similarly, if one were to emulate a well structured plan such as the noble eightfold path and continually strive towards its realisation, path and fruition consciousness is possible in this life itself!'"
"As soon as this thought occurred to me, I paused. I lost my desire to listen to the news broadcast on Gagarin's monumental achievement. I turned off the radio. I closed my fists and made a firm resolve. I made a clear determination. I thought: "as of today, I will not use these two hands to earn money or to strive towards material enrichment. To assist my elder brother, I will continue to work for another six months, during which time, I will also train someone to replace my role in the business. From then onwards, I will go forth on this spiritual journey." 1
Very often, Buddhist commentary in ancient chronicles and the Tripitaka recollects the unique and special qualities; and the wholesome nature of those with virtuous karma. Just as a shining moon emerges from the darkest of clouds, the virtuous qualities of those with well nourished wholesome deeds of the past bear fruit in the most unexpected circumstances. It is well known to us that Upatissa and Kolita, who later became Venerable Sariputta and Venerable Moggallana, the Buddha's chief disciples, also, as young men, decided to go forth in their journey towards liberation, realising the fruitless nature of worldly pursuits, whilst being in the audience of a small village play - the Giragga Samajja.
.....It is a rare moment for such wisdom to generate in one's mind, when the external world clamours in celebration, rejoicing at a moment of scientific advancement. The wholesome thought which permeated in Asoka Weeraratna's mind in a moment of scientific upheaval and universal sentiment, became a day of resolve to commit to material renunciation, only to be replaced by an insatiable spiritual thirst.
A translated excerpt from Ama Bindu Letter from Venerable Dhammanisanthi, p119 cited in Sith Nivena Nissarana Vana Aranya(2003), pp 39-52

An exemplary human spirit

Asoka Weeraratna was born in Galle as the youngest son of Mr and Mrs P.J. Weeraratna, the owners of a reputed jewellery establishment at Wakwella Road, Minuwangoda in Galle on 12 December 1918. He was named Alfred by his parents who, following the general trend in colonial Sri Lanka had named their children after members of the British Royalty. In his adult life, he renounced the name Alfred and adopted the name Asoka, an apt name for the Buddhist Dharmaduta work he was to undertake later. It is no mere coincidence that such a wholesome son was born to two parents, who themselves displayed austerity and simplicity in a lifestyle steeped in Sinhalese culture and rooted in Buddhism.

Asoka's elder brother, Dharmasena recollects how Asoka, at the age of 3 years had used to sit in a sitting meditation posture, closing his eyes and leaning against a wall. His mother and some others were quite surprised at this behaviour, which had continued for some time, feeling concerned whether this conduct was a continuation of conduct coming from his past life or a foretaste of his future, or both.

As a child, Asoka possessed special qualities, vehemently rejecting any pursuit of comfort and wealth, instead, nestling in abstinence and moral restraint. As a young child, he was endowed with an extraordinary vision, an aptitude for critical reflection and search, particularly on the meaning and purpose of life and boundless energy, always maintaining the five precepts and approaching life with great compassion and loving kindness. He was a strict vegetarian. His character, even in his youth, exuded dynamism and a show of exemplary determination.

Keeping Buddhist principles and ideals at the forefront, he undertook his primary and secondary education initially at Sangamitta College, Galle and later at Mahinda College in Galle, two leading Buddhist schools in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka. His elder sister and brother both attended Southlands Girls School, Fort in Galle for their Kindergarten classes.

Asoka's generous nature, altruism and total commitment to serve the Buddha sasana in later life were shaped and fostered within a very closely knit Buddhist family and school environment.

At the age of seven years, Asoka used to build Dagabos with sand while other children made houses and animals. He used to join his mother (a very religious type lady) every Poya Day and observe Sil. Asoka followed in the footsteps of his mother and continued to take great interest in Buddhist activities.

Even as a child, he never missed a single radio broadcast of a Buddhist sermon and encouraged the fifteen craftsmen working for his father, P. J. (Paiyagala Jewathamy) Weeraratna and the neighbours to come and listen. The Radio was placed in the drawing room and the lights were switched off to avoid distraction. At the conclusion of the radio broadcast light refreshments and tea were served to those who listened to the sermon.

Several Buddhist monks used to visit their parental house at Wakwella Road, Galle daily on ‘Pindapatha’. One of these monks was Venerable Pandit Akuretiya Amarawansa Thera, later to become a Nayake Thera and Principal of Vidyodaya Pirivena, Maligakanda, Maradana, Colombo 10. Another visiting well - known monk reputed for his scholarship on Buddhist and Pali Studies was Venerable Suriyagoda Sumangala Thera (teacher of Dr. Paul Dahlke, German Buddhist). These monks were resident at Vidyaloka Pirivena, Galle. Asoka took great delight in assisting his mother in offering dana to these monks.

Asoka’s father, Jewathamy, had once remarked to his mother that if she pets him i.e. Asoka, too much and allows him to keep company with bad (not so well behaving) children he may become worse than Devadatta. However if he turns to do good, he may even beat Mahatama Gandhi in virtue and determination. These intrinsic qualities in Asoka were noticed from his school days by his father.

Asoka used to attend sermons and talks on Buddhism given by learned people at the YMBA. Dr B. R. Ambedkar, the Law Minister of India, once delivered a lecture at the Colombo YMBA on 'The Rise and fall of Buddhism in India’ sometime in early 1950. Asoka attended the talk and then asked him a couple of searching questions on Buddhism in Indian History. Dr. Ambedkar was taken aback and then thanked him for his courage in posing such challenging questions.

Asoka was a voracious reader. He read life stories of great men especially that of philosophers, great thinkers, inventors, and social workers, in addition to Books and Journals on Buddhism and Psychology. He had a great admiration for the British Philosopher Lord Bertrand Russel and had among his possessions almost the entire collection of Bertrand Russel’s publications, which he later gifted to his nephews.

He valued ideas that help to build one’s character and saw in abstinence and self – sacrifice an excellent moral basis for self – development. The Buddhist tenets of reverence for life of all living things and compassion (maithri) for animals were well grounded in him. His nephews are able to recall the occasions when they were in their teens when Uncle Asoka (their ‘baappa’) cautioned them not to harm even an ant. The austere life he led sans any form of indulgence had a great influence on all those who were close to him; some of them in admiration saw in Asoka a role model for their own self - development and frugal living.

One of his favourite verses was the following verse of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow which Asoka constantly used to encourage people including his nephews to strive and succeed in their studies at school:

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night

Another poem that Asoka took to heart was ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling which has Buddhist nuances, and this may partly be explained by the long years that Kipling spent in India and his exposure to Buddhist philosophy and thought.

Asoka’s brother

A tower of strength and the individual who was constantly at Asoka Weeraratna's side, in giving both moral and logistical support was his only brother, Dharmasena, the elder of the two. The first names of the two brothers, Dharmasena and Asoka, can be joined to form (with little editing) the name ‘Dharma-Asoka’, reminiscent of the greatest Buddhist sovereign, Emperor Dharma Asoka of India, as recounted by the Malwatte Mahanayake Thera in his address at the historic meeting held in Mihintale on June 11, 1957 (Poya Day) to mark the commencement of the journey i.e. the first steps taken, by the Buddhist Mission to Germany. The two brothers had spent a large part of their time and money towards the preservation and up – lift of the Buddha Sasana. Without fanfare Dharmasena Weeraratna had also donated large sums of his personal funds to worthy Buddhist causes.

Dharmasena Weeraratna

Photos: Left - Dharmasena Weeraratna at 41 years of age. Photo was taken on June 15, 1957 at the Elizabeth Quay, Colombo Harbour on the occasion of the departure of the First Buddhist Mission to Germany. Right - Dharmasena Weeraratna as a student (circa 1936) in his up - stair study room in his parental house at Wakwella Road, Galle. He would have been around 20 years of age. Note the brief description in his own handwriting at the bottom of the picture.

Family Photograph (1957) From left to right (Standing)
Senaka Weeraratna, Asoka Weeraratna, Tissa Weeraratna
Seated: Dharmasena Weeraratna

.....After his father's demise in 1943, both Asoka and his elder brother, Dharmasena became partners of their family jewellery business. In 1948, they re-located their business from Galle to Maradana in Colombo.

This picture was taken while the guests were standing on the balcony of the new building at Maradana, Colombo which was declared open by the Prime Minister Mr. D.S. Senanayake, on September 9, 1948.

Photo: Left to Right (Front Row) Mr. Asoka Weeraratna, Sir John Kotelawala, Minister of Transport and Works (later Prime Minister), Mr. Dharmasena Weeraratna, Mr. D.S. Senanayake, Prime Minister, Mr. C.W.W. Kannangara ( former Minister of Education), Mr. S.P. Wickremesinghe (Municipal Commissioner), and Mr. Victor Ratnayake, (M.P. for Deniyaya) holding his son.