Many of the words attributed to the Buddha were first written down over two thousand years ago in Sri Lanka, a nation whose people have taken great care to preserve the precious heritage of the Pali Cannon. Today, on the shores of Lake Kandy, that literary tradition lives on in the work of the Buddhist Publication Society.
The Buddhist Publication Society grew out of a Sri Lankan custom of publishing and freely distributing a book on dharma as a way of honoring a deceased relative or friend. The merit of this “dharma dana,” or gift of truth, is then supposedly passed on to the deceased. In 1957, a lawyer in the Sri Lankan hill capital of Kandy was printing such a book in memory of a close relative when he got the idea to publish a series of these books; small, paperbound pamphlets on various aspects of Theravada Buddhism, in English, primarily for distribution in the West. He took his idea to a German-born monk, the Venerable Nyanaponika Thera, and together with another friend they founded the Buddhist Publication Society (BPS).
In the beginning the BPS had to peddle its books on the streets. Today the Society has subscribers in over eighty countries; its publications are translated into many languages, including Icelandic; the BPS catalogue currently includes over three hundred titles of “Wheel” pamphlets; over one hundred titles of “Bodhi Leaves,” and an impressive list of books and anthologies on all aspects of Theravada Buddhism.
The Buddhist Publication Society performs a great service by distributing dharma literature around the world. Consider these lines from a BPS information pamphlet:
“It is particularly gratifying to note that the Society’s publications penetrate to countries where Buddhist literature is scarce and difficult to come by, as in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Spain, Brazil and New Guinea. The letters received from these countries tell of the sad dearth of books on Buddhism, and the thirst for knowledge of the dharma that many of the people feel.”
The Forest Hermitage is located on a hilltop on the outskirts of Kandy, in the middle of a lush, tropical jungle. This is the very jungle where the latest movie version of Tarzan was filmed. Here, in the Forest Hermitage, is the residence of the Venerable Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi, the editorial staff of the Buddhist Publication Society.
Many meditators around the world are familiar with Nyanaponika Thera, primarily because of his book, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. First published in 1962, this book remains one of the clearest and most inspiring interpretations of Theravada philosophy and practice ever written. Nyanaponika has been a monk in Sri Lanka for over fifty years now, longer than he lived in his native Germany. He was the cofounder and guiding energy of the Buddhist Publication Society, and the editor-in-chief until 1970. Now eight-six years old, Nyanaponika lives at the Forest Hermitage, greeting visitors, discussing dharma and continuing to oversee some of the work of the BPS. Although his health is fragile and he speaks very slowly, his mind is still full of clarity and wisdom.
Nyanaponika Thera: In my late teens I became critical and dissatisfied with all forms of biblical religion. So I went on a search of both Western philosophy and Eastern wisdom. I came across a good number of Buddhist books in German, books that attracted me so much that I began reading methodically about Buddhism. I lived in a provincial town where there was nobody who shared my interest, but later I moved to Berlin with my parents and joined the Buddhist Society there. Soon after that I decided I wanted to become a monk, but I had to postpone that several times because my father had died and I couldn’t leave my, mother alone. Finally I came to Sri Lanka in February of 1936 to study under the German monk, Nyanatiloka. I got novice ordination that same year, and high ordination in 1937. So it is now a half century that I have been a monk in Sri Lanka.
Our purpose in starting the Buddhist Publication Society was to preserve and expand the literature of Theravada Buddhism and to make it available throughout the world. We feel that there is a real danger that some of this wisdom could be lost. For instance, we now have some Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia coming under communist rule, and there does not seem to be a place for Buddha’s teaching in these societies. Also now, in the East, many people are taking on Western customs and beliefs, so there is some possibility that this wisdom could be lost through attrition.
We publish many modern commentaries on the sutras and other Buddhist texts. The Buddha’s wisdom is timeless and can be applied to contemporary life, but sometimes it needs some new interpretations.
I think that, in the West especially, there is not enough attention given to the intellectual understanding of what the Buddha taught. Reading Buddhist literature can give people energy and direction, and also a proper context for meditation. Buddhist philosophy is so closely connected to the practice. It can clear the way and point to the goal.
(The Vision of Dhamma: The Buddhist Writings of Nyanaponika Thera—editing and introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi; foreword by Erich Fromm—has just been published by Samuel Weiser, Inc., York Beach, Maine.)
The current editor-in-chief of the Buddhist Publication Society is Bhikkhu Bodhi, a forty-two-year-old, American-born monk with a doctorate in philosophy from Claremont College in California. Bhikkhu Bodhi has a vast knowledge of Buddhist literature and a deep commitment to the work of the BPS.
Bhikkhu Bodhi: There is a tendency in the West to turn to Buddhist meditation as a kind of psychotherapy, not to cure mental illnesses, but to get some kind of deeper, more meaningful satisfaction in life. However, by neglecting the doctrinal and religious side of Buddhism, one misses, I think, the true meaning of Buddhist meditation, and is not able to achieve the ultimate or highest fruits of that meditation. If one understands the Buddha’s teaching, then one sees that meditation is a path to spiritual liberation, which means complete liberation from the suffering of samsara. It’s not just a way to achieve some higher bliss within samsara. Once one takes this perspective of the ultimate aim, then everything that lies beneath that aim changes in its nature.
For those involved in Buddhist practices in the West, I think it is very important to have a sound intellectual knowledge of the Buddha’s philosophy and teaching. Practice that isn’t guided by that knowledge will still be fruitful, helping people to understand their own minds, develop greater patience, equanimity and compassion. But for meditation practice to attain what we call maggas and pallas, the paths and the fruits, the practice has to be guided by right view or right understanding. In order to acquire that right understanding it is important to have some theoretical knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings, not for the purpose of becoming a Buddhist scholar or to engage in play with words and concepts, but in order to understand what one is practicing. The practice itself is like going through a wilderness, and in order to get through that wilderness, one has to have some idea of the path.
The literature published by the Buddhist Publication Society makes the basic principles and teachings of the Buddha available in a very comprehensible form. We publish translations of the sutras and classic texts such as the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification), as well as modern commentaries on these works. The BPS catalogue also includes some of the best contemporary books on meditation practice, a Buddhist dictionary, books on the life of the Buddha; the list covers all aspects of Theravada Buddhism, both philosophy and practice.
In 1979, after thirty-seven years of government service in education and rural development, Albert Wittanachi retired, only to find himself with a full-time job as honorary secretary of the BPS. In addition to handling a desk full of correspondence and other paperwork, Albert often acts as host to the many visitors who come to the new headquarters of the BPS. He gives tours of the building, drives people up to visit the Forest Hermitage, and generally makes guests feel at home.
Albert can quote from Shakespeare or Buddhaghosa, and loves to tell stories about Sri Lankan politics or recount Buddhist legends. He tells visitors how, in 1985, Sri Lankan President Jayawardene came to inaugurate the new Buddhist Publication Society headquarters on the shores of Kandy Lake. It turns out that forty years ago, President Jayawardene studied Buddhism with Nyanaponika Thera, and even wrote a couple of books on the dharma. One of Jayawardene’s books was entitled Buddhism and Marxism.
Albert says the BPS is there to meet the needs of contemporary Buddhists. He finds it appropriate that so many affluent Westerners are now interested in meditation, and paraphrasing Buddhist literature, he says, “Well-born sons and daughters are now leaving their family palaces to seek the truth.”
To give readers some idea of the scope of the Buddhist Publication Society literature, here are a few selected titles:
The Word of the Buddha: An Outline of the Teaching of the Buddha in the Words of the Pali Canon, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera.
Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience: Collected Essays and Case Studies, by Francis Story.
The Buddha Speaks Here and Now: Fundamental Buddhist Scriptures Interpreted in Contemporary Idiom, by Stanley Rice.
Progress of Insight: The Stages of the Path of Mindfulness, by the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw.
The All Embracing Net of Views: The Brahmajala Sutra, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.
Buddhism and Science: Essays, by Professor K. N. Jayatilleke.
Women in Early Buddhist Literature, by I. B. Horner, president of the Pali Text Society.
Buddhists, edited by Francis Story.
The Mirror of the Dharma: Chanting and Devotional Texts, in Pali and English.
Schopenhauer and Buddhism, by Bhikkhu Nanajivako.
The Buddha on Meditation and Higher States of Consciousness, by Dr. Daniel Goleman.
Psychotherapy, by Seymour Boorstein and Olaf G. Deatherage.
Stories from the Dhammapada Commentary, translated by E. Burlingame.
Flight: An Existential Conception of Buddhism, by Stephen Batchelor.
Bag of Bones: Thoughts, Poems and Essays on the Body, compiled by Bhikkhu Khantipalo.
For a nominal annual fee you can become a member of the Buddhist Publication Society and receive the latest regular editions of the “Wheel” pamphlets as well as the BPS newsletter: www.bps.lk/membership.php
You can also browse publications that are available in the Society’s library and/or bookstore at www.bps.lk/pub-index.php