Buddhist missionary came to Guelph in 1896

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Local historians do not regard Wellington County in the 1890s as a stop on the road of new ideas and intellectual discussion.

Wellington was, in that period, an important agricultural county. Small industries populated its villages and towns. The city of Guelph, with about 18,000 people, enjoyed a place of some prominence as a manufacturing centre. Its place as a university town was far in the future.

It is something of a surprise, therefore, to see a parade of important thinkers and writers making a stop in Guelph and Wellington during the 1890s for lectures and meetings.

One of those visitors, late in 1896, was Anagarika Dharmapala, the first Buddhist to tour North America as a spokesman for his religion.

Dharmapala was the adopted name of David Hewavitarne, who was born in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in 1864. He received a good education, and in 1880, at the age of 16, he established his first contacts with North America when he acted as a translator for two famous visitors to Ceylon, Madame Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott.

Five years earlier the pair had founded a new movement they called the Theosophical Society, which preached the universal brotherhood of man, borrowed heavily from all religions, and sought to investigate paranormal phenomena and reincarnation.

The Blavatsky and Olcott maintained contact with Dharmapala, and as a result he was invited to the World Parliament of Religions, an attraction at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. That was the first large religious meeting in North America with significant non-Christian representation.

Dharmapala impressed everyone there with his charisma and charm.

Over the next four years, Dharmapala toured around the United States, establishing groups of Buddhists, and speaking to meetings in cities large and small. In November of 1896 he accepted an invitation to Guelph, and spent nine days there. It appears that this was his only visit to Canada during the mid-1890s.

Dharmapala was in Chicago when he received a ticket to Guelph from John Pipe of Guelph. Pipe was a prominent figure in Guelph business and public life. From 1867 to 1883 he had operated a flour mill on the site that is now occupied by the Speedvale Avenue fire station. There seems to be no record of how Pipe became familiar with Dharmapala, but he may well have seen him at the Chicago Fair – the event had attracted quite a number of people from Wellington County.

In any event, Dharmapala boarded a Grand Trunk train in Chicago on the afternoon of Nov. 24, and arrived in Guelph a few minutes after 6am the following morning. On the train he recorded an entry in his diary: “If the Canadian trip succeeds the future is good. This is the burden of my concentration.”

Pipe greeted Dharmapala at the station. There was no mistaking him: he wore a bright yellow robe that couldn’t be missed in the pre-dawn gloom. Dharmapala referred to his host as “My Good Brother Pipe.”

At the Pipe homestead the exotic visitor was greeted by members of the Pipe family, a Mrs. Harvey and her daughter, and Guelph businessman Charles T. Nelles, who appears to have joined Pipe in his curiosity about eastern religion.

During his nine days in Guelph, Dharmapala attended a series of private gatherings arranged by Pipe and Nelles. He also appeared at several local churches, speaking on the main points of his brand of Buddhism, which emphasized brotherhood and the threads common to all religions.

The collections were turned over to him in support of his work. That in itself is remarkable at a time era when most churches could not hide their contempt for other denominations.

Earlier in 1896 Canada had gone through one of its most acrimonious general elections. It had been dominated by the Protestant Protective Association, a vehemently anti-Catholic group, and narrow, sectarian feelings continued to be strong.

Dharmapala was a superb speaker. He had been educated in British-run schools, and had an excellent command of the language. In his talks he explained the scriptures of Buddhism, and made scathing attacks on various brands of phoney oriental mysticism that were then current in North America.

His visit and message were well received. The Guelph Mercury commented that Dharmapala’s talks had been “the means of spreading abroad considerable information concerning his native country and the people therein, and of showing that, after all, men are nearer together on the fundamentals of right living than we generally think. The Buddhist doctrines of enlightenment and self-renunciation are akin to the Christian doctrines of love and self-sacrifice, and such teaching is always and eternally true, despite the fluctuations and changes and differences in the form of presentation thereof. With Dharmapala’s plea for a united Christianity – that is, if he meant an agreement in doctrinal teaching – we confess we have not a great deal of sympathy. So long as men live there will be differences of opinion, and the more complex and advanced the civilization, the wider and finer will be the variations in the concept of truth.”

On his final evening in Guelph, Dharmapala spoke to a full house at Knox Presbyterian Church. He urged his listeners to lead lives of purity and holiness. Afterwards he enjoyed a final dinner with the Pipe family and other guests.

In most places he visited, Dharmapala tried to establish a branch of his Maha Bodhi Society, to keep Buddhism alive in the locality and to recruit new converts. There appears to have been no branch started at Guelph, or if there was, it did not enjoy a long life or much publicity.

Dharmapala left Guelph the morning after his lecture, on Dec. 4, bound for Cincinnati. It was an overnight train trip, and Pipe paid for his ticket.

Though he preached brotherhood and good will, Dharmapala did not hold a high opinion of many Christians. He thought that many ignored the teachings of their own religion. In his diary he described them as “… pure slaves of passion, controlled by the lower senses, wallowing in sensuality. These so-called Christians live in killing each other, hating each other, swindling each other, introducing liquor and vice where they hadn’t existed. Themselves slaves of passion they enslave others to themselves and their vices.”

Nevertheless, Dharmapala continued his missionary work until his death in 1933, touring the United States and Europe, and guiding the establishment of schools and hospitals in India and Ceylon.

It does not appear that Dharmapala made another visit to Guelph. He kept diaries and journals all his life, and enjoyed wide publicity wherever he went. Virtually nothing is known about the ideas of Pipe, Nelles, and Dharmapala’s other followers in Guelph and the surrounding area.

Were they full or partial coverts to his ideas? Or were they simply curious about what was then a new and strange way of looking at life and humanity? And what did Guelph’s Protestant ministers make of Dharmapala’s visit and lectures? Why, indeed, did Dharmapala make Guelph his only Canadian stop, rather than Toronto or some other larger centre?

Buddhism in its various incarnations gained many adherents across North America in the 1950s, and many more read and talked about its concepts. 

Locally, Buddhism has roots, frail though they be, that reach back more than a half century before that. 

It is a pity that we do not know more about the thoughts of those who met with Anagarika Dharmapala in Guelph in 1896.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Oct. 19, 2007.

Thorning Revisited