Ven. Prof. Dhammavihari Thera, an erudite scholar and teacher
The Venerable Professor Dhammavihari (formerly Professor Jotiya
Dhirasekera) passed away yesterday.
The passing away of the Venerable Professor Dhammavihari Thera marks
the departure of one of the most respected elders of modern Buddhist
studies, who was an intellectual, philosopher of art and independent
thinker. He was 89 years and till the very end of his life the erudite
Thera was active in both national and international spheres of Buddhist
religion and scholarship.
Venerable Professor Dhammavihari
When the Venerable Thera entered the Sangha, 19 years ago, as a pupil
of the Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayake Thera, he was known as
Professor Jotiya Dhirasekera, and had recently retired from his
university service as the director of Postgraduate Institute of Pali and
Buddhist Studies, Kelaniya University. Immediately prior to this, he
served as the Editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia of Buddhism, a project of
the Cultural Affairs Department.
Born and raised in Tangalla Dhirasekera started his university
teaching career in 1946 at the Colombo University, right after
completing his first degree at University College, Colombo. Illustrious
scholars such as G.P. Malalasekera and O. H. de A. Wijesekera were among
his teachers who later became his senior colleagues.
Although Dhirasekera specialized in Sanskrit he was appointed to
teach Pali, a subject in which he was able to make an original
contribution in the course of time. He received training in classical
Chinese language at the Cambridge University for two years, and this
training gave him access to the Chinese religions which were crucial in
interpreting the Pali canonical texts. Dhirasekera's understanding of
the Dhamma and the Vinaya, substantiated by his critical appraisal of
texts, was of very high standard. This is amply proved by his doctoral
research in the Buddhist monastic discipline. In this research, which
was later published under the title of Buddhist Monastic Discipline, he
corrected many misunderstandings of previous researchers.
Professor Dhirasekera was a textbook example of critical scholarship.
A student may find it very hard to digest all the critical comments that
are coming from him. But one would never be the same facile and naive
person once exposed to the shock of Dhirasekera. His being a
kind-hearted teacher and great admirer of beauty (a characteristic which
pervaded his entire life) never compromised his thoroughness as a
teacher and researcher.
As a university teacher at both Peradeniya and the Toronto
University, Canada, and as the Editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia of
Buddhism and as the director of Postgraduate Institute of Pali and
Buddhist Studies, Professor Dhirasekera dedicated his life to teaching
and conducting research in Buddhism.
The culmination of this long academic career was his decision to put
into practice in a serious manner what he taught many thousands of
students during his entire professional life. Accordingly, at the ripe
age of 70, Prof. Dhirasekera obtained monkhood under the tutelage of the
late Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayake Thera, receiving the
monastic name, Dhammavihari, one who lives the Dhamma. Unlike many
others, the new novice had little to learn anew for he was well versed
in all the Vinaya and the Dhamma. Thus began another phase of life of
Prof. Dhirasekera as a member of the Sangha.
Venerable Prof. Dhammavihari brought along with him a critical
outlook to the Buddhist monastic order which has remained largely
traditional and orthodox. He took upon himself the role of correcting
misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the Dhamma and the Vinaya
and establishing their correct meaning. While he respected the tradition
deeply, he did not have any hesitation in pointing out clearly and
loudly what he realized to be not in accordance with the Dhamma and the
Vinaya, whether it be the great commentator Buddhaghosa or any lesser
known modern scholar.
As a university teacher he loved his students and guided them not
only in the academic subject he taught but also in the larger arena of
life. As a Buddhist monk, he was the beloved teacher of many who
belonged to various age groups and various cultures and countries as
well. Prof. Dhammavihari loved telling people what he knew; he was a
born teacher with warmth, kindness and affection towards his students.
People nevertheless approached him with some sense of hesitation for his
sharp intellect was inescapable.
The demise of the Venerable Prof. Dhammavihari Thera leaves a great
vacuum in the modern Buddhist scholarship. He was one of the few left
that linked the Buddhist scholarship of the early 20th Century to that
of the early 21st Century. He belonged in a vanishing breed that had a
holistic vision of reality going well beyond the narrow confines of
one's academic or professional specialization. He was one of those rare
people even random encounter with whom was an educational and edifying
experience. I bow my head to this great son of the Buddha who dedicated
his life to do what he said. May the Thera attain the Supreme serenity