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Professor Gunapala Malalasekara was born 110 years ago:

Local symbol of global Buddhism

Gunapala Malalasekara was born on 9th November 1899 to the parents Dona Selestina Kuruppu Jayawardhana and Dr. M. S. Peiris, a renowned Ayurvedic Doctor in Panadura. Dr. Peiris, a philanthropist, as it was the practice then, administered his healing powers free of charge to those who sought his services. Gunapala was christened as George Peiris Malalasekara by his parents according to the traditions of the then colonial era.


Professor Gunapala Malalasekara

This promising young lad had the good fortune of meeting Anagarika Dharmapala, the Buddhist Revivalist and a Nationalist of the era, who foreseeing in the talented Gunapala, the great potential for his passion, requested Gunapala to shed the anglicized names George Peris and embrace the Aryan Buddhist names Gunapala Piyasena. Thence forth the young lad was named Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekara.

As a lad he had his primary and secondary education at St. John's College, a prestigious school in Panadura from 1906 to 1917.

In 1917 he commenced his tertiary education at the then Ceylon Medical College. Perhaps due to quirk of destiny with the demise of his father the responsibility of running the family rested squarely on his shoulders. Abruptly he had to forgo his costly Medical Education and turn towards studying humanities, which made him attain the exalted levels he reached during the later years of his life.

Youngest candidate

Having left the Medical College he joined the University College as an external student in quest of his vocation. In 1919 at the tender age of 20 he was awarded the B.A. (London) with a first class honours. He was adjudged the youngest candidate in the world to be awarded with a first class honours in the London B.A. examination. He graduated in English, Latin, Greek and French.

In 1921 he joined the noble profession of teaching and enrolled as a teacher at Ananda College, the newly formed Buddhist School, which was then under stewardship of the great educationist Mr. P de S. Kularatne. Young Malalasekara in 1922 became its vice principal and in 1923 he assumed the post of acting principal.

The then educationists who judged his prowess in the field of education made him enter the School of Oriental Studies of the London University to sharpen his linguistic talents. Young Malalasekara within a very short space of 3 years from 1923 to 1926 was successful in achieving simultaneously the MA and the PhD degrees in Pali Literature of Ceylon. Both degrees were awarded for his research thesis on the Pali language and therefore came under the category of Oriental Languages.

Armed with these degrees he returned to the Island to become the principal of Nalanda College he was instrumental in establishing.

In 1927 Dr. Malalasekara was selected by the University College to teach Pali and Sanskrit in English. With the formation of University of Ceylon in 1942 he was elected the Dean of Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit. Due to the prowess he acquired in the three oriental languages and Buddhist Civilization, he was made the Editor-in-Chief of Encyclopedia of Buddhism. During this period he made valuable contributions to the Pali Text Society under scholars Prof. Rhys Davies and Prof. Horner.

Since 1927 Prof. Malalasekara became the joint secretary and secretary of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress. From 1938 to 1957 for a period of 19 years he was its President which propelled him to the heights he attained in his life. During his tenure as the President of the ACBC he was instrumental in erecting the building in Bauddhaloka Mawatha which stands out as a beacon of the Buddhist Heritage in the city of Colombo. To honour him this hallowed building has been named as Malalasekara building. While being the president of the ACBC, he did yeoman service in the field of social service by establishing the Viharamahadevi girls hostel in Biyagama and the boys hostels in Ja-ela and Panadura.

Vajrayana traditions

While being the President of the ACBC, professor Malalasekara was embroiled with the idea of bringing the hundreds of millions of the Buddhist world over under one umbrella and on May 25 full moon day of the Month of Vesak B.E. 2493 (1950) in the historic city of Kandy, the World Fellowship of Buddhists was formed, where representatives from 27 countries in Asia, Europe and North America (including Hawaii) participated. Nearly every school of Buddhism in the Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana traditions was represented by members of the Sangha as well as laity at this historic occasion. Professor Malalasekara was able to bring about this union due to international recognition he possessed as an erudite scholar of Buddhism.

The formation of the World Fellowship of Buddhists did not materialize by mere chance but by the dint of effort displayed by Prof. Malalasekara. This is amply described in the souvenir published on its 50th anniversary celebrations held in Sri Lanka, where Prof. Malalasekara attending a conference in the University of Hawaii having a detail discussion with the Thai Professor Sotho Miyabara.

Prof. Malalasekara was its President from 1950 to 1958.

Presently the World Fellowship of Buddhists has its headquarters in Bangkok in Thailand with 147 regional centres spread throughout the world in 39 countries.

Although the World Fellowship of Buddhists was established in Sri Lanka, Thailand was chosen by the World Fellowship of Buddhists as the seat of the permanent headquarters in B.E. 2512 (1969) and Sri Lanka being converted to a mere regional centre.

The main reason for this could be attributed to the disunity that exists within the Buddhist community of the Island of Sri Lanka which comprises over 80% of the population with each Sri Lankan Buddhists attempting to overdo the other. Prof. Malalasekara was well aware of this and was subjected to a similar treatment.

Squabble among Buddhists

Presently the World Fellowship of Buddhists Sri Lanka Centre is housed in single room in the ACBC headquarters building in Bauddhaloka Mawatha. Even the Building named The Malalasekara Library which was donated to the World Fellowship of Buddhists by the benefactor and its former President Albert Edirisinghe (Rev. Ganegama Devamitta Thera) was lost to the World Fellowship of Buddhists Sri Lanka Centre due to a squabble among the Buddhists.

In Bangkok Thailand with an international secretariat working full time for the benefit of its members of the World Fellowship of Buddhists the world over, the Royal Thai Government is empowered by law to maintain the secretariat by providing annual subsidies to it.

Prof. Malalasekara who was a member of the Royal Asiatic Society received accolades for his erudition from countries like Britain, France, Cambodia and Myanmar. Britain bestowed him the officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 1953, France the Chevalier de 'I Nationale due Merite, Cambodia the Commander of the Order of Mani, Myanmar the Buddhasasanavipulahithadhara.

He received from the University of Moscow and Hon. D. Litt and from the Vidyodaya University of Ceylon a Hon. D. Litt in 1960.

He also received accolades from countries for the erudite scholarship shown by him in the presentation of articles and lectures on Buddhism, Buddhist Civilization and Buddhist History.

Sri Lankans had the fortune of using his English-Sinhalese dictionary published in many editions. In the last editions published he had gone a step forward by giving the pronunciation of the English word in Sinhala.

In the preface to this edition he mentions of the inclusion of the pronunciation in Sinhala will be a great boon to those who have had not the fortune of studying in school in the English medium.

Prof. Malalasekara has a number of publications to his credit in English:

1. The Pali Literature of Ceylon
2. Vamsatthappakasin:
3. Dictionary of Pali Proper Names
4. The Buddhist Doctrine of Anatta
5. The Truth of Anatta
6. Aspects of Reality as taught by Theravada Buddhism
7. Buddhism in Ceylon
8. The Buddha and His teachings
9. Buddhism and the Race Question
10. Transference of Merit in Ceylon Buddhism

However his Magnum Opus is his publication of the Extended Mahavamsa Prof. Malalasekara in the year 1957 assumed office as the first ambassador to the USSR. Subsequently he held the posts of Ambassador to Canada in 1960, The Permanent Representative for Ceylon in the UN in 1961 and served as Chairman of the Security Council; Member Fact Finding Mission to Saigon; and in the Committee on Information from Non-self Governing Territories and finally in 1963 as the Ceylon High Commissioner in the United Kingdom.

On his return to Sri Lanka in 1967 he assumed the top most post in the Education Sector when he was appointed to the post of Chairman of the National Higher Education Commission.

In his life time he inculcated many regimens which should be emulated by those of us aspiring to be academics.

Before going to bed he had a practice of committing to memory 10 words of a language he perused to learn.

He advised children on a daily basis to speak for a period of one minute on any subject of his choice.

Prof. Malalasekara was a father of three sons and three daughters. He bestowed to the progeny his vast knowledge in this large collection of research studies, which had been published.

He lived a simple life shunning glamour as a true Buddhist. Above all the stupendous work done for the development of Buddhism in the world is unparallel. He passed away on the 23rd of April 1973 at a ripe age of 74.

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