“First of all, Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. If anything at all, it is realistic, for it takes a realistic view of life and the world. It looks at things objectively (yathābhūtam). It does not falsely lull you into living in a fool’s paradise, nor does it frighten and agonize you with all kinds of imaginary fears and sins. It tells you exactly and objectively what you are and what the world around you is, and shows you the way to perfect freedom, peace, tranquility and happiness.” – Walpola Rahula
Venerable Walpola Rahula was a pioneering Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka of the last century. His contribution to society and to the study of Buddhism (both Mahayana and Theravada) was immense. As a leading critical thinker of his time, hiswork in society and the Buddha Sasana was multifaceted.
From the days of writing Satyodaya pamphlets in his 20s (later published as a book under the same title in 1992) till he passed away at the age of 90, he continued to enliven critical thinking, particularly in Buddhism and its practice. His extensive studies of Buddhism as a religion, the Buddhist practices of his own society and the Buddhist philosophy of both Theravada and Mahayana traditions are testament to this. It is worthy to remember that Ven. Rahula began his mission in the colonial period, where Buddhism had been oppressed for over 400 years.
Education was a key focus area in his work. Campaigning throughout Sri Lanka, raising awareness of the value of education among the masses and gaining their active engagement, he pioneered the struggle for free education for the people. The passing of the Free Education Bill in the State Council in 1947 was one of the land mark victories of this campaign. He, together with the monks of Vidyalankara pirivena – one of the leading Buddhist learning centres in Sri Lanka at the time – should be credited for this victory of the people.
By being the first monk to enter University and obtain a BA honours degree, and subsequently a Ph.D, he set an example to his followers. He received a fellowship grant from the Government of France in 1950 where he became a full time researcher. In the 1960’s, as the professor at the department of History and the Literature of Religion at the North Western University in USA, he helped change the nature of the study of Buddhism in the USA. His efforts in uplifting the level of study of Buddhism across the world is incomparable.
“The question has often been asked; Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? It does not matter what you call it. Buddhism remains what it is whatever label you may put on it. The label is immaterial. Even the label ‘Buddhism’ which we give to the teachings of the Buddha is of little importance. The name one gives is inessential…. In the same way Truth needs no label: it is neither Buddhist, Christian, Hindu nor Moslem. It is not the monopoly of anybody. Sectarian labels are a hindrance to the independent understanding of Truth, and they produce harmful prejudices in men’s minds.” – Walpola Rahula