George Clooney, Mary Foster and Anagarika Dharmapala
In the film ‘The Descendants’, George Clooney plays the descendant of
a Hawaiian princess and a ‘Haole’ (white foreigner), who is the sole
trustee of a vast ancestral holding of land on the island of Kaua’i and
who has to decide what to do with it: most of his relatives want to
develop it as a tourist resort. This is more common than one may
realise, as Forbes magazine pointed out recently.
A half-century ago, a similar problem faced the trustees of the
ahupua'a 'o Kahana on the island of O’ahu – ‘ahupua'a’ is the basic
Hawaiian land division, a sustainably managed pie-shaped land area from
mountains to sea. Senator John J. Hulten, a real estate appraiser
produced a report which recommended the state take Kahana over and
develop it for tourism.
Although it was eventually taken over, objections from residents and
other stakeholders prevented the destruction of the ahupua'a, and today
it is run as a state park, which embraces and teaches Hawaiian culture.
This was indeed the intention of the original creator of the trust, Mary
Foster, who had bought and saved the area from being burnt for grass by
‘Haole’ ranchers, allowing people to settle and make their living there.
She is remembered in the song ‘Beautiful Kahana’, which says:
‘This is the home of the lady
Of the loving heart of India’
The reference to India is to Mary Foster’s contribution to the
building of the Sri Dharmarajika Vihara in Calcutta and the
Mulagandhakuti Vihara in Sarnath. And there hangs a tale.
Born on September 20, 1844, Mary Elizabeth Mikahala Robinson was the
oldest child of James Robinson, the English founder of Honolulu's first
shipbuilding concern, and Rebecca Prever, a descendent of King
Kamehameha I. She married Thomas Foster, a Canadian shipbuilder, who
died in 1889.
Hawai’i was a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Lili'uokalani at
its head. Mary Foster’s brother had served as a Cabinet Minister and she
herself was a close friend of the Queen. ‘Haole’ (mostly American)
commercial interests had been conspiring for some time to take the
country away from its natives, and in January 1893 they seized power in
a coup d’etat, aided by American troops (for which President Bill
Clinton apologised a century later).
That year, Anagarika Dharmapala represented ‘Southern’ (i.e.
Theravada) Buddhism at the World Parliament of Religions, held in
conjunction with the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Afterwards,
as he was due to go on a lecture tour in Japan and China, he took a
steamer from San Francisco to Yokohama.
The steamer stopped at Honolulu and there Dharmapala met Mary Foster,
probably accompanied by Countess Miranda de Souza Canavarro, the wife of
the Portuguese Consul-General in Hawai’i (who was, three years later to
become Principal of Sanghamitta Girls' High School in Colombo).
Mary Foster suffered from a short temper (probably the fact that her
country was losing its independence was upsetting her, too) and she
asked Dharmapala for advice. He taught her about meditation, and in she
found relief from her emotions.
She was so impressed that she gave him a sizeable donation for the
Mahabodhi Society, which he had founded two years before. This was the
first of a series of contributions which she made over the years,
totally half a million dollars, a huge sum in those days.
Her funds helped purchase for the Mahabodhi Society a headquarters in
Calcutta and Foster Hall in Perambur, Madras; to start the Sarnath
Industrial School; and later to build the Sri Dharmarajika Vihara and
the Mulagandhakuti Vihara.
When Dharmapala’s father Don Carolis Hewavitarne passed away in 1906,
Mary Foster wrote to him to console him and asked him (with not a little
wit) to regard her as his ‘foster-mother’.
It was not just Dharmapala that she helped. Her financial aid ensured
that the Japanese Honpa Hongwanji Vihara was built in Honolulu in 1899 -
Colonel Olcott spoke there soon after its dedication. In 1906, she
gifted land in the Nu’uanu valley for the building of the Honpa
Hongwanji Mission School, to which a new, Gandhara-style temple with a
dagoba was added in 1918.
She also facilitated the participation in 1901 of the deposed Queen
Lili'uokalani at ceremonies of the Japanese Buddhists, which
strengthened ties between the indigenous people and the recent Japanese
immigrants, who were denied citizenship by the ‘Haole’ authorities -
Hawai’i had meanwhile been annexed to the USA.
In 1913, Dharmapala visited Honolulu to thank her personally for her
help over the years. She again gave him a large amount of money to found
a hospital in the name of her late father and late husband and with this
he founded the Foster Robinson Free Ayurvedic Clinic, the first modern
Ayurvedic hospital in Sri Lanka.
The clinic - and also the Mahabodhi Vidyalaya - was established at
the Mallika Santhagara premises on Darley Lane, off Union Place. The
lane was renamed Foster Lane in her honour. In the 1980s, the Foster
Robinson clinic was moved to new premises in Narahenpita, but the
Mahabodhi Vidyalaya still exists at Foster Lane.
In 1925, Dharmapala visited her for the third and last time. She
helped him to purchase the building for a Buddhist mission in Ealing,
which was named Foster House in her honour. Her death on December 22,
1930 was a great blow to him.
The previous month he had established the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust,
to which he transferred all his properties. The trustees were charged
with, among other tasks, managing the Foster Robinson Free Ayurvedic
Hospital and celebrating the birthday of Mary Foster, whom he
acknowledged as his greatest benefactor.
Yet the greatest thanks that Dharmapala gave Mary Foster, without
whose generosity he would not have been able to carry out his life’s
work, was not in verbal gestures or places named after her.
In the middle of Honolulu, amidst busy urban strip malls and schools
Northeast of Chinatown, is the 5.5 acres Foster Botanical Garden, which
was created when Mary Foster left her house and its grounds, which
contained a collection of rare trees and plants, to the people of
Honolulu for the purpose.
At the entrance, near the Nu’uanu Stream is a sacred Bo Tree, which
grew from a sapling of the original sacred Bodhi at Buddhagaya, under
which the Buddha attained enlightenment, gifted by Dharmapala to Mary
Foster in 1913, and saplings from which have provided Bo Trees for the
Buddhist Viharas of Hawai’i. This is the enduring symbol of the
gratitude of the Buddhists of the subcontinent to their Hawaiian