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Dr K Sri Dhammananda

Early Life

Venerable Dhammananda was born on March 18, 1919 to the family of Mr. K.A. Garmage in the village of Kirinde, Matara in southern Ceylon. Like most children born during the British colonial period, he was given the English name of Martin. He was the eldest in a family of three brothers and three sisters.

He began his formal secular education in a government school in the village of Kirinde at the age of seven. Even as a young child he had a keen interest in the Buddha's teachings. Buddhism was close to the hearts of the villagers because of the strong presence of the sangha which successfully used the local vihara as the vortex of most religious activities and functions.

The young Martin participated in many of these religious programmes which were based on Buddhist principles and morals. He also had an uncle who was the chief monk of the local temple. Together with his devout mother, his uncle provided much spiritual guidance in his childhood days. Thus, the idea of monkhood slowly seeped into his mind.

When he was 12 years old, he was ordained as a novice monk (samanera) by Venerable K. Dhammaratana Maha Thera of Kirinde Vihara. He was given the name "Dhammananda" meaning "one who experiences happiness through the Dharma." He then underwent ecclesiastical education for the next 10 years before he was fully ordained as a full-fledged monk bhikkhu) in 1940. His Preceptor was Venerable K. Ratanapala Maha Thera of Kotawila Vihara. Thus, at the age of 22, samanera Dhammananda became bhikkhu Dhammananda upon receiving the higher ordination (upasampada).


Venerable Dhammananda enrolled at the Sri Dhammarama Pirivena, Ratmalana in 1935, and then at the Vidyawardhana Buddhist Institute, Colombo, 1937 for a more detailed study of the Buddha's teaching. His mentor was Venerable Kotawila Deepananda Nayaka Thera. Upon completion of his studies in 1938, he entered Vidyalankara Pirivena, in Peliyadoga, Kelaniya, a prestigious Buddhist college that has since been upgraded into a university.

For the next seven years, Venerable Dhammananda attended a diploma programme at the Vidyalanka Pirivena where he studied Sanskrit, the Pali Tipitaka and Buddhist Philosophy, besides other secular subjects. His principal tutor at the Institute was Venerable Lunupokune Sri Dhammananda, an eminent scholar monk. At age 26 he successfully graduated with a diploma in Linguistics and Pali Tipitaka.

His seven years of intensive learning and training in monastic discipline from 1939-1945 at the Vidyalanka Pirivena provided him the relevant knowledge and skills in missionary techniques. He was able to use his training to assist the Buddhists in Ceylon, especially those who were English educated and had been prime targets of Christian proselytization, in understanding the more intellectual aspects of the Buddha's teachings.

In 1945 Venerable Dhammananda furthered his tertiary education at the Benares Hindu University in India where he was awarded a scholarship. At the university, he read Sanskrit, Hindi and Indian Philosophy. His contemporaries at the University included Venerable P. Panananda Nayaka Thera of Colombo, Venerable Dr. H. Saddhatissa Maha Thera (who later became head of the London Buddhist Vihara), Venerable Dr. U. Dhammaratana and the late Venerable Dr. Amritananda Thera, former head of the Sangha of Nepal. Venerable Dhammananda studied four years at the university graduating with a Master of Arts degree in Indian Philosophy in 1949. Among the many well-known professors who taught him was the late Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, who later became President of the Republic of India.

Having completed his studies, Venerable Dhammananda returned to Ceylon. In Kotawilla he established the Sudharma Buddhist Institute and tended to the educational, welfare and religious needs of the villagers. He also published a quarterly Buddhist journal "Sudharma" in Sinhalese. He gave regular teachings to the devotees to improve their knowledge and practice of Buddhism.


In 1952, Venerable K. Sri Pannasara Nayaka Thera, head of the Vidyalanakara Pirivena, received an invitation from the Sasana Abhiwurdhi Wardhana Society of Malaya requesting for a resident monk to administer to the religious needs of the Sinhalese Buddhist community in the country

From among 400 monks at the Vidyalankara Pirivena, Venerable Dhammananda was selected for the mission to Malaya. He readily accepted the invitation even though he had wanted to serve the Buddhist in his native land. He was fully aware that while Ceylon had many learned and dedicated monks, Malaya did not have enough qualified monks to conduct even a simple religious ceremony. Malaya, during the 1950s, had very few Theravada Buddhist temples where devotees could learn the teachings. However, it was not short of temples as there were hundreds of Chinese and Thai Buddhist temples in the country. Devotees visited them mainly to request for blessings or to listen to their chanting. Such was the situation when Venerable Dhammananda set sail from Ceylon on January 2, 1952 for Malaya.

Venerable Dhammananda's journey to Malaya took three days. Upon his arrival in Penang on January 5, 1952, Venerable Dhammananda stayed at the Mahindarama Buddhist Temple.

The abbot then was Venerable K. Gunaratana Maha Nayaka Thera (1891-1964), a Sinhalese monk well known for his lucid and simple explanations of the Buddha's teachings. He took the opportunity to discuss with Venerable Gunaratana some of the problems and issues involved in propagation work in Malaya. It was a practical arrangement, with Venerable Gunaratana concentrating his missionary efforts in Penang while Venerable Dhammananda focussed on the Kuala Lumpur area. Venerable Gunaratana had been in Malaya since 1926 and was quite familiar with the situation of Buddhism in the country.

Malaya during the 1950s was in the midst of the Emergency, declared by the British Military Administration, due to the Communist insurgency. As a result he had to take a flight to Kuala Lumpur as the train services in the country were disrupted by Communist attacks. He arrived at the Brickfields Temple, and was warmly welcomed by Venerable M. Pannasiri Maha Thera, a former colleague from the Vidyalankara Pirivena. Having come to serve the Buddhist community in Malaya, Venerable Dhammananda wasted no time in planning out the religious activities at the Temple.

In March 1952, Venerable Dhammananda received a letter from the secretary to Sir Gerald Templer, then British High Commissioner of Malaya, requesting for a meeting. Sir Gerald Templer wanted to know if Buddhist teachings were similar to Communism because many of the suspected Communist insurgents were Chinese who were also traditionally regarded as Buddhists. Sir Templer's misconception of Buddhism was corrected when Venerable Dhammananda convinced him that Buddhism is a non-violent and compassionate religion

Venerable Dhammananda further explained to Sir Gerald Templer that Buddhism teaches the spiritual and moral aspects of living whereas Communism is a political movement. Convinced that Venerable Dhammananda was not "fifth column" for the communists, Sir Templer instead invited him to aid the Government in its psychological war to win the "hearts and minds" of the people. The main target of the Government were the Chinese inhabitants at the New Villages.

With the assistance of Venerable Pannasiri, he started his missionary activities in the country. Both the Sasana Abhiwurdhi Wardhana Society and the Selangor Regional Centre of the World Fellowship of Buddhist gave support to his early missionary activities in the country. With a sincere mind and a tactful approach, Venerable Dhammananda's visits to the Chinese New Villages were welcomed without hostility or suspicion.

Venerable Dhammananda had only one motivation when he visited the New Villages - to impart the message of the Buddha to the villagers so that with a proper understanding of Buddhism they could lead a life of peace, happiness and goodwill. He believed that his prime duty as a Buddhist monk is to teach Buddhism to more people. As he was unable to communicate in Chinese when he visited the villagers in places like Ampang and Sungei Buloh, translators were used during his talks.

As a result of Venerable Dhammananda's missionary efforts, many Chinese in the country became aware of the real teachings of the Buddha. It was common for many Chinese in Malaysia to regard themselves as Buddhist because of past traditions. However, many of them did not understand the teachings of the Buddha. They mistook the customs and traditions that they grew up with, or those practised by their parents and grandparents as being part of Buddhism. Unfortunately, many of these customs and traditions were based on superstitious beliefs handed down from the past. This resulted in Buddhism receiving a very bad image and regarded as an out-dated and superstitious religion by the educated strata of society.

At the same time, Christian missionaries were actively converting the Chinese and Indians in the country to Christianity. As they were prohibited from preaching to the Malays because of the intervention of the Malay rulers, the non-Malays became prime target for Christian conversion. Venerable Dhammananda was almost alone in defending Buddhism against the onslaught of Christian missionaries during the 1950s, especially in the Kuala Lumpur region. He realized that the only way to prevent the young, educated Chinese from being converted was to ensure that they understood the proper teachings of the Buddha. In all his talks, he presented Buddhism in a rational and logical manner to prove that it is compatible with modern science.


Venerable Dhammananda's outreach programme is not restricted to publications and talks within the confines of the Buddhist Maha Vihara. He travels extensively till today, despite his advanced age and occasional failing health to deliver talks on Buddhism throughout the country, including Sabah and Sarawak. In areas where the audience is predominately Chinese-speaking, the response is nevertheless still overwhelming though his talks are delivered through translations. He is also a regular speaker at public forums organized by Buddhist groups in Singapore. Like his talks in Malaysia, his public lectures on Buddhism in Singapore attracts hundreds of listeners

He realizes that the future of Malaysian Buddhism depends on the young and the educated. Thus, he has always placed special emphasis on students, especially those in colleges and universities. Together with the late Venerable Sumangalo, an American Buddhist missionary monk, he was instrumental in encouraging Buddhist students at tertiary institutions to establish Buddhist societies in their campuses. Besides being a regular speaker at the various local colleges and universities, he has also organized special talks and discussions for campus students on Sunday mornings at the Buddhist Maha Vihara to broaden their knowledge and understanding of Buddhism.

It is not surprising therefore that he has been the main benefactor of the Buddhist Gem Fellowship (BGF), established in 1980 to act as an organization for Buddhist graduates to support the Buddhist student community in areas of training and religious education. The BGF has worked very closely with Venerable Dhammananda on missionary programmes for campus students and the Buddhist community at large. Thanks to his missionary work, many graduates of these tertiary institutions are now leaders of various Buddhist societies throughout the country.

With well over 300 Buddhist organizations throughout Malaysia representing the rich traditions of the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Venerable Dhammananda has always espoused a universal approach towards all these different groups. Many of the organizations follow the Chinese Mahayana tradition and are also affiliate members of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia (YBAM). Others belong to the various schools of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Venerable Dhammananda, however, has always encouraged open-mindedness among his devotees. He has invited H.H. Dalai Lama and many other well-known Tibetan Buddhist teachers to visit the Buddhist Maha Vihara and give talks. Similarly, the late Venerable Master Hsuan Hua has also delivered teachings at the Buddhist Maha Vihara. In Penang he was on the same stage with Venerable Hsin Yin of Taiwan to address a public forum on Buddhism titled "Two Masters, One Message". All these speak of his openness and spiritual maturity in understanding and catering to the religious needs of the Malaysian Buddhist community who follow different Buddhist traditions.