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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.

Anagarika Dharmapala

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.

Constitutional monarchy

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).

Mahabodhi Society

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.

George Clooney

Mary Foster

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.

Indigenous people

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.

Greatest benefactor

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 benefactor.

 

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