In Memoriam: Soma Mahā Thera (1898—1960)

Aciraṃ vat’ ayaṃ kāyo pathaviṃ adhisessati
Chuddho apetaviññāṇo, niratthaṃ va kalingaraṃ [13]


Truly it will not be long before this body lies in the earth, bereft of consciousness, like a useless piece of wood, which is thrown away.— Soma Thera’s translation in ‘‘Words Leading to Disenchantment”, Bosat, Oct. 1959.Truly, indeed, it was not long, after—just four months since he wrote this article—that he suddenly passed away. Often he used to say that this was the sort of death, he preferred.It is fitting to record here the life and work of the Venerable Soma Mahā Thera, for, but for his indomitable energy and earnestness this work would not have been undertaken, persisted in, and brought to a conclusion in just four months. Whenever any difficulty arose it was to him that the others turned. When we were tempted to give up the work on encountering really hard patches, he was always ready with encouragement and with a way out of the difficulty. He loved to work hard, and half-hearted effort was unknown to him. Not infrequently he used to say, “Better wear out than rust out”.Soma Mahā Thera was born on December 23,1898, in Kotahena, Colombo, and passed away at Vajirārāma, Bambalapitiya, Colombo, Tuesday, February 23, 1960. His father was Emmanuel Marian Perera Pulle, and his mother, Theresa Rodrigo Babapulle. His name was Victor Emmanuel Perera Pulle. He received his education at St. Benedict’s College, Kotahena.Once at the age of eleven, when he was told by his teacher that God made man, he promptly asked him, “Who made God?”. The teacher, apparently unused to this sort of question from his pupils, snapped back, “Do not question the antecedents of God”. However, this incident pleased neither the teacher nor the pupil. He began to read and think for himself. One day his mother gave him one rupee as pocket-money, and Victor walked about three miles to a bookshop in the Fort, Colombo, looking out for a book priced at one rupee or less, as that was all he had. Finding an English translation of the Dhammapada being sold for a rupee he quickly bought and read it again and again. This was his introduction to the Buddhadhamma. From that day on he [x/11] eagerly attended lectures and sermons on the Dhamma, the while reading what literature came his way on philosophy, art, archaeology, history—in fact anything that would add to his knowledge. And thus he moved further and further away from the faith of his fathers. During these years, as his mother objected to his reading late into the night, he would, after she had gone to sleep, begin reading by candle light under the bed. Sometimes he found that when he had finished reading it was already day. Such was his thirst for knowledge.Sometime in 1920 he had met Mr. W. Joseph Soysa, one of the founder- members of the Servants of the Buddha, the well-known association which has its headquarters at Lauries Road, Bambalapitiya, and of which the Venerable Kassapa Thera is the founder-patron. After being actively engaged for sometime in the publication of the “Blessing” which was edited by the then president of the association, Dr. Cassius A. Pereira, he, along with Mr. Soysa, joined the Colombo Buddhist Union in the early twenties, and presented a large collection of books to the Union library. He composed “A formula of associate worship” [14] to be used by members of the Union at their monthly joint flower-offering at one of the many shrines in the city.Shortly after this, once again with his equally keen friend Mr. Soysa, he founded the Fort Study Circle and was elected its organizing secretary. Later, as work increased, assistance was needed and Mr. W. Don Michael was elected joint secretary.The following extracts are from Mr. Michael’s article entitled “Apostle of the Dhamma”, written on the passing away of Soma Mahā Thera:‘The sudden death of Soma Thera has uprooted from our midst a personality distinguished at once by the versality of his talents, self-sacrifice, personal sanctity, and crusading apostleship of the Dhamma. A deep understanding of human nature and the human problem of suffering had mellowed him and bred in him, in an unusual degree, qualities of tolerance, patience, restraint and sympathy with fellow-beings. Opposition and frustration left in him no sense of defeat or bitterness. He was the working bee in the Master’s hive and, in His service, the very juice of the bitter thyme turned into honey at his touch. No wonder that, in the Augustan age of Buddhist renascence in Ceylon, Soma Thera was considered to represent the fine flower of Buddhist culture. He shed its fragrance wherever he moved. As scholar, preacher, organiser, monk and friend it may be aptly said of him: “Nihil tetigit quod non ornavit[xi/12] ‘These sterling qualities of Soma Thera were happily blended in a character in which humility and service formed the keynote. He never spared himself. He gave till it hurt. He gave UNTO THIS LAST—unto death. Overwork, fatigue, were the proximate causes of the dire malady which struck down this mighty oak of the Dhamma which was a shade and refuge of many a seeker after Truth. Today a void is left standing which may take years to fill.‘To those of us who knew him and enjoyed his friendship and affection for nearly four decades both as the dashing young layman Victor E. P. Pulle, and as a monk of blessed memory, Soma Thera presents a remarkable character study. The child was the father of the man, Thera. Yet in his twenties, he was a rebel from the faith of his fathers and questing for the knowledge of the truth. In the 1930’s, still hot on the pursuit, he was the leader of a band of young men who formed the Fort Study Circle under the Presidency of Mr. J. Tyagarajah, with Dr. L. A. (now Sir Lalita) Rajapakse and the late Mr. R. Nadarajah as Vice-Presidents.‘Their motto was sacrifice and service and their main object was the economic and cultural development of the country. The regular weekly programme of the Circle, all planned by Victor, included classes in Pali, Hindi, Layman’s Law, History, Economics and politics. With what resourcefulness, with what prevision of judgement and success, he organised and directed its activities towards the cultural and literary formation of the day are now matters of history…‘Young Victor’s reputation for literary and critical scholarship was such that Dr. Lucian De Zilwa prefaced his talk by saying that he accepted the invitation for a lecture with the major- object of making the acquaintance of Mr. V. E. P. Pulle; and Mr. K. P. S. Menon, one of the most graceful and eloquent public speakers this country has ever had, began his lecture by saying that he was always anxious to see the set of young men who could produce an annual report of such literary excellence as that turned out by the Fort Study Circle.‘For Victor Pulle reason was the touchstone of truth. In this quest, he studied comparative religion, logic, philosophy—Dahlke and Schopenhauer had a particular appeal to him—art, sculpture, archaeology, history, music and even astrology. Indeed, like Bacon, he took all knowledge for his province. There was not a single individual in the Fort of his day who [xii/13] combined in himself such a vast amalgam of knowledge. Literary and economic studies, however, could not satisfy his ardent mind and he joined the Sangha. It was in this august calling that his scholarship ripened and Buddhist revival throughout the World received from the results of his labour a new life and orientation.‘Meditation, study, teaching the Dhamma, canonical research and his own trials and tribulation in the process produced a vast transformation in Soma Thera. The élan and impulsiveness of the layman turned into serene calm. The combative debater of yesteryear became the sedate teacher and friendly adviser. The glint of battle which, earlier rose to his eyes when argument waxed high grew into sparks of sympathy and compassion. The chiselled square jaws which hurled challenge softened their contours. Above all, the terrific right fist which characteristically swung menacingly in debate would swing no more. It was obvious even to us his old boon companions to whom he still accorded the privilege of “ragging” him once in a way, that this great pioneer and savant, by a terrific ordeal of trial and error, had at last subdued himself and that he had not only found the Middle Path but had established himself so firmly in it that he was a fitting exemplar of his Master’s Way of Life.‘As a writer, Soma Thera belongs to the genre whom Buffon’s dictum “Le style est l’homme meme” is perfectly applicable. In his Study Circle days, he had a massive style. The exposition and argument would at times be obscured by the weight of movement. He used his pen as a tomahawk. When Carthage had to be destroyed, he made no bones about it but went and destroyed. As a Thera, the old asperity and venom disappeared and the style assumed a precision, clarity, mellowness and gentle movement which reflected the repose and. sureness of his own mind. It is significant that, in recent years, his thoughts turned to poetry. They all centre on the Dhamma. One of them recalls so naturally the self-abnegation of the bees in Virgil’s lines “Sic vos, non vobis, mellificatis, apes”—not for yourself, ye bees, your cells ye fill—that the verses “Giving Up” deserve quotation’. [15] One day, towards the end of 1928, our common friend, Mr. W. Joseph Soysa (Oliver as we call him), introduced me to Victor. But it was hardly necessary. Simultaneously Victor and I knew that we had been friends before, in an earlier life. [16] But we were always grateful to Oliver for this. Later I was happy to find that the Buddha taught that it was not easy to find a being, who, during the vast period of time covered in the process of birth and death, and birth again and death, had not, at one time or another, been a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a son, a daughter. The Blessed One then asks the question, “What is the reason for this”? and himself answers: “Not to be known is the [xiii/14] start of beings enmeshed in ignorance and fettered by craving, running on, speeding on through interminable births and deaths. Nor can it be said of the running on and the speeding on of ignorant and craving beings that they are tending to an end. And in this interminable process, for long have you all experienced grief bitter and sharp and made the graveyards bigger and bigger. Because of that you should turn away from the formations (sankhāras), cut them off, and become free of them”—S. II, 190 (Soma Thera’s translation). This is no poetic fancy, as at first sight it may appear to be. This is the word of the Supremely Enlightened One who has done with poetic fancy. His is the vision of things as they are (yathābhūtañāaṇdassana). And this vision he describes without exaggeration; for exaggeration the Buddhas do not indulge in.In the late twenties, Victor and I had heard from the late Mr. Wong Mow Lam, the Chinese scholar, who was in Ceylon for sometime, that there were great possibilities for spreading the Theravāda in his country and that there was much that could be translated from the Mahāyāna literature of China. So when we went to Burma in 1934, remembering the words of our scholar friend, we decided after careful thought to go to the Far East and return later to Burma for ordination. We began our journey to China by way of Kawkerik, over the misty Dawna Mountains and across the border for four days on foot to Raehaeng in Thailand, and thence by bus, river boat and train through Svankaloke (Svargaloka—heaven world), Pisaloke (Viṣṇuloka — Viṣṇu’s world), we arrived in Krum Teb (Deva Nagara — the city of the gods) which is Bangkok. Then again, after travelling by train to Penang, and by ship to Singapore and Hong Kong, we arrived in Shanghai. Finding there no facilities for study we proceeded to Tokyo. There we met Prof. Nichiki Kimura of Rissho University, who invited us to attend his English lectures on Mahāyāna. Towards the end of 1935, through his good offices, we were invited to Jozaiji, the Nichiren temple in Kawatana-Machi, Nagasaki-ken. The head of that temple, the Rev. N. R. M. Ehara, had been a lecturer at Rissho for sometime. He was the perfect host—a most understanding, patient, pleasant, witty character with abundant laughter, and he was young. He did everything within his power to make our stay as comfortable as possible.*[xiv/15]* When we arrived at Kawatana-Machi, Jozaiji was being rebuilt. By the end of April, the building operations over, our host set apart the new guesthouse for our use and called it the Lion Hall, “in honour”, as he said, “of the Lion Isle, the home of my friends”. We spent a most pleasant and fruitful year in our Lion Hall, for, it was here that the whole of the Gedatsu Dō Ron (the Chinese translation of the Vimuttimagga) was translated into English for the first time. Perhaps it will not be out of place to mention here that when the late Ven. Nyāṇatiloka Mahā Thera was in Japan during the years that followed the First World War, he tried, but failed, to persuade any Japanese scholar to undertake this translation. So when we sent him a copy of our translation he heartily welcomed it. The word for word translation the draft translation, copying, cyclostyling, binding, packing for the post, were all done by the three of us and that during the brief space of four months. Besides, the section on virtue had to be cyclostyled thrice before Victor was satisfied with it.This is how the translation began. Some days after we went into residence in the Lion Hall, our friend showed us around his new library. Pointing to three thin volumes he said that that was the Chinese translation of the Vimuttimagga, and that originally it was supposed to have been written in Pali in Ceylon by a Sinhalese Thera. With one voice both of us exclaimed that we were ready to begin translating it that very instant,—of course, with his help. And our friend, with his great big ringing laughter, readily agreed. And we immediately translated the first few pages though he had much to do, it being very close to Hanamatsuri, the Flower Festival, which corresponds to Vesaḳ in Theravāda lands. Working incessantly we managed to issue the translation of the first fascicle on Hanamatsuri, May 28, 1936. Continuing to work even up to twenty hours a day sometimes we were able to post the last copy of the last section of the translation to fifty scholars by the last day of September, 1936. During this period Victor knew no fatigue in that most agreeable climate of South Japan.Jozaiji is beautifully situated a third of the way up the hill which rises abruptly from the broad paddy fields that stretch right up to the sea. In front is the river Kawa, the beauty of which they sing in Kawa-no-Kawatana, the song of the Kawa of Kawatana. Behind, the hill rises higher and higher and is level at the top. The temple was here in ancient times, and here Victor and I used to stroll under those attractively twisted and gnarled suñgi trees, the cypresses, that adorn the grounds of Japanese temples. One summer day while walking there our attention was drawn to some plants we seemed to recognize. At first we thought they were well-grown violets. But soon found they were goṭukola (Hydrocotyle Asiatica). Their stalks were nearly eighteen inches long with large leaves. We took a handful of them to the temple, and our host was agreeably surprised to hear that this was eaten in Ceylon. He liked it so much that he introduced it to the whole village. They call it horseshoe.*[xv/16]* During these four months of translation work the thought that repeatedly arose in our minds was how soon could we return to Burma for ordination and put into practice the teaching of the Sambuddha so clearly set forth in the Vimuttimagga. It was plain, open, and easy to understand. What it said reached the heart direct — hadayangama seemed to be the correct word to describe one’s reaction on reading the Vimuttimagga for the first time. There was no point in delaying.So we left Jozaiji with our friend the Rev. N. R. M. Ehara and a few others, went to Nagasaki and took ship to Rangoon. Our friend was much grieved that we were leaving so soon and repeatedly said as the ship was leaving, ‘‘Come back, come back again”. That was the last time we were to see him. For, though we had hoped some day to see him again, word came shortly after the Second World War that he had suddenly passed away. This was sometime after he had been appointed head of the Nichiren sect for the district of Omura.Before we decided to translate the Vimuttimagga our host was keen on translating some of the smaller treatises of Nichiren Shonin which Victor did. Some of them were published in the Young East, the journal of the Japanese Buddhist Associations, Tokyo.We reached Moulmein by the end of October, and found that U. Chit Swe, our dāyaka, had made all arrangements for our ordination in an araññāvāsa (forest residence), as requested by us, and had gone over to India on pilgrimage. His close friend, U. Chit Su, deputised for him. And on November 6, 1936, Victor and I received our higher ordination with the Venerable Pāṇḍava Mahā Thera of Taungwainggyi Shewgyin Kyaung Taik, Moulmein, as teacher. Here we came to hear of the Venerable Nārada Mahā Thera, also known as Jetavana Sayadaw. As he was then living in nearby Thaton, we visited him. A lay pupil of his who had earlier instructed us in the practice of the Satipaṭṭhāna method of meditation, too, accompanied us to see the Sayadaw. His method was strictly in accordance with the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas of the Dīgha and Majjhima Nikāyas and their commentaries. He said that the necessary instruction was found in them and no new interpretation was necessary; the Buddha called it the sole way and that there was no other ‘sole’ way to the purification of beings.On reaching Ceylon by way of India in the middle of 1937, Bhikkhu Soma met a companion of his childhood days who became so attached to him that he would not leave him till his death — that distressing thing called asthma. It would have rendered many a strong man useless for work quite early. But asthma or no asthma, he worked on and on up to the end with increasing vigour. Hearing that we were returning to Ceylon, a dāyaka, the late Mr. W. M. Barnes de Silva, had set apart a small house for our use in a quiet place at Belihuloya. We could not stay there long as the Venerable Soma fell ill and had to go to Colombo for treatment and we stayed at the Vidyālankāra Oriental College, Kelaniya, for a time.*[xvi/17]* After he recovered from his illness, and wishing to live in quiet surroundings for a while, we were able to go into residence at the Mahānadī Ārāma at Gampolawela, Then at the invitation of the late Sir Baron Jayatilaka we visited Bangalore in 1939 with the Venerable Nārāvila Dhammaratana Mahā Thera, as leader of the Mission of Goodwill to India. There the mission was able to secure from the Government of Mysore a site for a Buddhist Centre, and both of us returned to Ceylon in 1940 owing to illness.As Bhikkhu Soma needed rest for sometime, Mr. A. B. C. de Soysa placed his bungalow, in his estate in Kurunegala, at our disposal. After a few months’ stay there we were invited by the Venerable Nyāṇaponika Mahā Thera to the Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa. As the Second World War had begun, all the German Theras of the Hermitage were interned and the Venerable Nyāṇāloka Mahā Thera, the present adhipati (chief resident Thera) was then in charge of the place. During this period the attacks of asthma were most severe. At one time the only available medicament was Himrod’s Asthma Cure. It had to be lit with a match and the fumes inhaled. Bhikkhu Soma could hardly walk two yards without this Himrod’s cure, and could not sleep at night without filling the room with these fumes. One night even this failed to help. So about 2 a.m. he sat at his table and scribbled these verses:

Out of the womb of sightless night | Rang out a word of healing strong, | And put to flight the evil throng | That stood betwixt the eye and light:

Where lies, friend, the golden mean? In giving up.
Where’s the heart forever clean? In giving up.
Where is life at its best seen? In giving up.
Where reaches one Peace Serene? In giving up.
When does one always see things clear? In giving up.
When is one to all beings dear? In giving up.
When does one wipe away all fear? In giving up.
When does one to Truth adhere? In giving up.
How does one give full measure? By giving up.
How, end poverty’s pressure? By giving up.
How, come to rarest treasure? By giving up.
How, know the purest pleasure? By giving up.
Why on self a tight hand keep? For giving up.
Why the heart in culture steep? For giving up.
Why turn on to wisdom deep? For giving up.
Why care not to sow or reap? For giving up.

[xvii/18] He lived in this “our little island home”, as he liked to call the Hermitage, from 1940-45 and from 1948-54. These were years he treasured much. For it was here that the first edition of The Way of Mindfulness (1941) and His Last Performance (1943) were written. He also edited here in 1943 Ānāpāna Sati of Dr. Cassius A. Pereira. In spite of his failing health he wrote unceasingly. He contributed articles to various Buddhist journals regularly. The quiet of the Hermitage appealed to him a great deal. Frequently he sat beneath the trees by the water’s edge in deep thought, and the following verses might indicate some of the thoughts that occupied his mind then:

Away against the lip of sea and sky
A tiny fisher craft tanned brown by sun,
Pops up and down, like monk in russet clout,
Upon the choppy sea of doubt and lust.
The tender palms of gold and light green fronds
Remind me of my youth and boyhood’s days.
Amidst their plumy, wavy forms I throve
Imbibing nature’s simple silent ways.

Once it was thought that his asthma might improve if he had a change and so he stayed at Asokārāma in Nuwara Eliya for sometime. There, walking along in Moon Plains once, he was absorbed in the beauty of a waterfall. He used to watch the water rushing down in a silver streak, and very often the asthma left him on those occasions or he forgot it. This tiresome friend, Asthma, has a peculiar trait. He wants attention. And, sometimes, if no attention is paid to him, he sharply retorts in return by paying no attention. These were the times when Soma Thera would say, “I am thoroughly fit. I can work even the whole day”, reminiscent of the Lion Hall days when he really worked almost the whole day. It is about this waterfall in Nuwara Eliya that he wrote:

E’er let me live and die where waters flow
From hidden springs on heights that probe the sky,
And come to light as white foam falling by
The negro face of rocks that shine and glow.

Childlikeness was a prominent characteristic of his, and perhaps the following verses illustrate some aspect of it:

E’er let me live and die with childlike sight,
Beholding elfin gold and jewels bright,
And dream-made treasure in the silent night
Of travel on and on the Path of Light.

[xviii/19] At the invitation of the late Venerable Tai Tsu, the well known Buddhist leader of China, the Venerable Maḍihē Paññāsīha Thera (now Mahā Nāyaka Thera), the Venerable Soma Thera, and I, went to China to establish a Pali College at Sianfu, the ancient Buddhist Centre in Shensi Province, the home of Fa Hsien the famous pilgrim. Arriving in Shanghai in early July, we found that fighting had broken out in Shensi between the Nationalist and the Communist forces. There was no possibility of proceeding further. The Vassa-vāsa, the rainy season residence, was spent in Shanghai after which the mission returned. During this period Soma Thera’s radio sermons were much appreciated. Besides, he addressed many gatherings in various parts of the city. The Shanghai Y.M.B.A. which he founded had, by the time the mission left, nearly three hundred members. He also conducted a Pali class, which was well attended. In November that year the Mission returned to Hong Kong where, too, Soma Thera addressed various groups of Buddhists. Arriving in Singapore in January 1947, the mission had to wait two months for a boat. Meanwhile Soma Thera delivered sermons and lectures to large gatherings both in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The Mission returned to Ceylon in March that year. Soma Thera returned to the Island Hermitage at the end of 1948 and remained there till 1954. After his return from China, on his initiative, two important Buddhist associations in Colombo, The Sāsanādhāra Kāntā Samitiya and The Banks’ Asoka Society, were formed in 1950 and 1956 respectively. He was the founder-patron of the latter.With the approach of the Buddha Jayanti celebrations, it was suggested that a bi-monthly called ‘Buddha Jayanti’ be published for the duration of these celebrations for the benefit of the English reading public. When in 1953 the organizers came to ask Soma Mahā Thera for his help, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the work, for half-hearted effort was alien to his nature. Most of the editorials on the Dhamma in the ‘Buddha Jayanti’ and a large number of translations from the Pali and the German, besides original articles, and the Jayanti Miscellany, were from his versatile pen. His masterly articles on ‘The Greatest Mahānāyaka Thera of Our Time’ and the editorial ‘A Maker of Good Men’ on the passing away of the. Venerable Paelāēnē Siri Vajirañāṇa Mahā Nāyaka Thera, were written at a time when he was much harassed by asthma. Finding that the long stay at the Island Hermitage had worsened his asthma and seeing the advantage of being with the Venerable Paelāēnē Siri Vajirañāṇa Mahā Nāyaka Thera at Vajirārāma with its well equipped library, Soma Thera came to reside once more at Vajirārāma. Both the Mahā Nāyaka Thera and Soma Thera were happy to meet; for, as far back as 1919, the former had inspired the latter by his great knowledge, understanding, and kindness. Soma Thera’s regard and respect for him kept on increasing during the years. They used to converse on the Dhamma and on allied subjects such as literature, history, grammar, folk-lore, and so on, for hours at a time. The Māha Nāyaka Thera, too, was always ailing, but when both of them began to converse they forgot their [xix/20] ailments. It might be wondered how it was possible for one to get so interested in such a theme as grammar. But the Māha Nāyaka Thera was such a master of the subject and an accomplished conversationalist that he was able to make even a subject like grammar interesting. I remember in the early thirties how the Māha Nāyaka Thera discoursed on the Dhamma to a group of us young men whose leader was Victor. Once the questions put by Victor so interested the Māha Nāyaka Thera that he continued the conversation till three o’clock in the morning.This early earnestness he maintained to the very end. How this long and earnest practice of the Dhamma moulded Soma Mahā Thera’s character is briefly shown in the following extracts from an article by Ceylon’s Director of Education, Mr. S. F. de Silva: ‘I came to know the Venerable Soma Thera as Mr. Victor Pulle some thirty years ago…. My first impression was of a remarkably earnest man who was determined to seek and find out the Truth. His face was an index to his earnestness and I often listened to him arguing a point….We became very good friends and week in and week out I used to watch and realise that of the band that gathered together, he was one of the most earnest and untiring in his study of the Dhamma…. As a member of the Order he became a changed man. I noticed a strength of character and calmness of demeanour in everything he said and wrote. I used to visit him in his room and talk things over many an evening. Occasionally the eye would flash and I could see the old time fighter but there was an unmistakable sense of toleration of others and a remarkable kindliness in everything he said. The Venerable Soma Mahā Thera was very well known to English speaking audiences in the Island. Many may remember his thoughtful talks over Radio Ceylon. I am aware how deeply he was respected by Buddhist students in schools all over the island….To me his translation, edition and notes of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is characteristic of the man. He was one who wanted to practise the Dhamma, and the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta was to him ‘the one way for the ending of unhappiness’. I can see his mind in his introductory notes and his interpretations of the text. The Venerable Soma Thera’s edition of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is a part of his own life because he was one who wanted to practise the Dhamma. I miss him very much as a friend but those who knew him have no cause to grieve for a life that had been so nobly spent, He had acquitted himself heroically in all things he did to the….end Alert and intensely alive in the search and practice of the Truth, it is of these that the Buddha has said that ‘those who are heedful do not die’. His life is an example to all those who knew him, that there is nothing nobler for a Buddhist than to live the life that the Buddha has preached, to walk the way He had walked and to follow Him on the Noble Quest. May the Venerable Soma Thera attain the Noble Quest he started some forty years ago’.When one happens to be the only person in a powerful group to accept another teaching, much opposition may be expected. This Victor had in [xx/21] plenty. At these times he resorted to the calm atmosphere of Vajirārāma, where the late Venerable Mahā Nāyaka Thera and the Venerable Nārada Mahā Thera always found the time to speak with him, sometimes for hours, and he went away stimulated. Later, as a bhikkhu, when the Venerable Soma, while residing at the Vidyālankāra Oriental College, Kelaniya, found that the opposition had grown into hostility, he had the ready sympathy and unstinted support of the late Venerable Lunupokunē Dhammānanda Nāyaka Thera, the Venerable Kirivattuḍuvē Siri Paññāsāra Nāyaka Thera (now Vice-Chancellor) and the other venerable theras of the College. It is also fitting to record here the help readily given by the late Mr. Sāgara Palansuriya and Mr. K. M. W. Kuruppu during this difficult period. But both as layman and as monk his attitude to those who were opposed to him, and who later became hostile, was one of kindness and understanding. True follower of the Master, he bore his sufferings without rancour, like the fragrant sandal wood tree which perfumes the axe that lays it low, and like the sugarcane which sweetens the mouth where it is being crushed.Soma Thera participated in the making of the sīmā, chapter house, at the Mahabodhi Society’s Centre in Bangalore during the Buddha Jayanti celebrations in 1956. Some of the older members of the Buddhist Association there were pleasantly surprised to see him, for this was the site that the Mission of Goodwill had, in 1940, secured from the Government of Mysore for a Buddhist Centre. On his return to Ceylon in early 1957, Soma Thera was invited by the German Dharmadūta Society to lead the first Buddhist Mission to Germany in June that year, the other members being Vinīta Thera, Mr. W Joseph Soysa and myself. But though he underwent a serious operation just two weeks before the mission was due to leave, he insisted on not altering the travel arrangements. Actually he went on board ship direct from the hospital. The wound had not healed completely then, and the dressing had to be continued for another five weeks. At the end of this period he could not move his left arm. It was after a further three months’ treatment that he recovered. Yet during all this, time Soma Thera worked with a fortitude which evoked the admiration of all around him. Though the dry climate of Berlin helped his asthma he was not entirely free of attacks. Referring to his fortitude, a friend wrote, “No other monk except another Soma Thera would have ventured forth on such a mission after the serious operation he had to stand only a couple of weeks before”.Yet the work which he had undertaken absorbed all Soma Thera’s time and attention. He met the leading Buddhists in Berlin, who were anxious to co-operate with the mission’s work, and soon there began a series of weekly meetings at which Soma Thera read a paper in German which was followed by answering questions that the audience liked to ask. The interpreting at these meetings was done by Mr. F. Knobelock, the then President of the Congress of German Buddhist Associations, or by Mr. Guido Auster. This programme was continued till the mission left Berlin. Meanwhile [xxi/22] Soma Thera addressed schools in various parts of the city. The children listened to him with the greatest interest. Just before leaving Berlin, the mission received an invitation from the Municipality of Iserlohn to conduct a Meditation Seminar during the “Indian Week” which was a part of the ‘Sauerland Cultural Season’. About one hundred people from all walks of life attended it. The late Mr. Egon Vietta was the organiser of the Seminar. On the last day of the Seminar he announced that he had brought a few questions from his teacher, the well-known Existentialist philosopher, Prof. Heidegger, who was ill and unable to travel. When these questions were put to the Yen. Soma Mahā Thera his answers were prompt and so convincing that Mr. Vietta said that these same questions had been put by him to European scholars, individually and in groups, but he had not received such satisfying answers as had been given by Soma Mahā Thera.Another invitation that the mission accepted was that of the Buddhists of Hamburg. They were anxious to have us with them during Vesak time. So from Iserlohn the mission left for Hamburg, where Mr. W. Stegemann, the President of the Buddhist Society of Hamburg, welcomed us. From here, after making a brief visit to London, Oxford, and Cambridge, the mission returned to Hamburg where Soma Thera conducted classes in meditation, and delivered lectures and led discussions on the Dhamma. These meetings were well attended. He much liked working among the Hamburg Buddhists because, as he said, they were well informed, organized, and greatly interested in their work as a body. In response to numerous requests, all the addresses delivered in Germany by Soma Mahā Thera were published by the Hamburg Buddhist Society in their Bulletin the Mitteilungsblatt.With all this incessant work and travel Soma Thera grew weak, and when he returned to Ceylon from Germany in June 1958 he was very tired; but with skilful medical attention and another operation he regained his former vigour and worked hard which he loved to do. Then again he fell ill—this time with renal colic—and after another spell in hospital he was once more in a fit condition to continue his work. This time he slept hardly four hours a day, from about midnight to 4 a.m. When told that he tired himself overmuch, he used to say, “I have gathered enough now but I have not time enough to give”. So he worked on to the end never caring for his health. Yet he was happy doing it.He was held in affectionate and highest regard by all those who knew him for his qualities of heart and head. One of them wrote from England thus: “I was mentioning to the Dons of the Faculty of Eastern Religions at Oxford that there was in Ceylon a monk (referring to Soma Thera) who was eminently qualified by way of knowledge and learning to fill the Chair of Eastern Religions which is now vacant”. Mr. Guido Auster, the Director of the Oriental Department of the German State Library, Berlin, hearing of his death wrote, “He contacted many personalities of the religious and intellectual life in Berlin and Germany. He delivered lectures at various places, [xxii/23] among them—most important in my opinion—several to pupils in our schools. He had an especially lucky hand in dealing with children and young people who admired him. He was most patient towards enquirers and beginners”. Again, he says, “This impressive personality, reminding me in his dignity of a high prelate during the Middle Ages, weilding not only spiritual but also temporal power, has dissolved”.The President of the Servants of the Buddha, Mr. Ānanda Pereira, who, long before his ’teens, knew Soma Thera wrote thus of him in the Ceylon Daily News of February, 27, 1960.‘With the death of the Venerable Soma Thera, Lanka loses one of her noblest sons. Born of Roman Catholic parents on December 23, 1898, duly baptised and brought up in the faith of his parents, the youthful Victor Pulle began asking questions—deep, simple, direct questions—the answers to which as given by his parents and spiritual advisors did not satisfy him.‘His inquiries in due course led him to Buddhism, where at last he found the answers, or at least the hope of satisfactory answers to his questions.‘He plunged into the study of the Buddha Dhamma. It was at this period that he laid the foundation of that sure grasp of the Teachings that served him so well in later years as a missionary. He was associated with Dr. Cassius A. Pereira (later Ven. Kassapa Thera) in the preparation of the Blessing. He was an-enthusiastic and hard-working member of the Servants of the Buddha. He made many friends.‘Never one to be satisfied with half measures, he was ordained as a Bhikkhu in 1936. From the day he joined the Sangha, he adorned it. As scholar, translator, writer, preacher and missionary, he strove mightily in the Buddhist cause. He never spared himself.‘But those who knew him, will remember him most for his humanity. His was not the cold way of the anaemic academician. He lived his Buddhism with every beat of his warm generous heart. Sometimes he seemed impulsive, sometimes even a shade pugnacious, but never, never, did he say or do a mean, false, or deliberately unkind thing.‘He was generous—with his advice, with his time, with himself. Though to outward appearance he was strong, his health was never particularly robust. But he never let ill-health interfere with his work, and his work was always giving. I have seen him preaching sermons or reciting Pirith at times when the mere act of breathing was acutely difficult because of asthma.‘Soma Thera was a genuine monk. He observed the Vinaya rules with absolute strictness, never permitting himself the slightest infringement, His standards were the highest. His life was a shining example to others, Bhikkhus and lay-folk alike.‘One does not need to feel sorrow on his behalf. His road is the road of the Buddha, the Arahats, the mighty ones. He lived here a while and has [xxiii/24] gone on, strong and assured, brave and smiling, kind, gentle, untiring. The story is not done. We too must fare onward when our time comes. We shall meet again’.During the last few months of his life he often spoke and wrote on death, quoting from the Suttas and other writings, for instance, his own translations from the Sanskrit of Viṣṇusarman thus:

In him who ever and again,
Reflects on death’s hard hand of pain,
The drive for gross material gain
Grows limp like hide soaked through with rain;

and from the commentary to the Dhammapada: “Uncertain is life, certain is death; it is necessary that I should die; at the close of my life there is death. Life is indeed unsure but death is sure, death is sure” — [Dh-a] III, 170 ; and from the Sutta[S] IV, 211 : “Mindfully and with complete awareness should a bhikkhu meet his end. This is the advice I give you”.‘I knew the Venerable Soma Mahā Thera intimately for nearly thirty-two years. During this period if the number of days we were absent from each other be added up it will not amount to more than a few months. Yet during all these years our interests centred round the Dhamma only. When I met him I knew very little Dhamma, having but recently accepted the Teaching of the Buddha. What Dhamma I now know was gleaned from him or in his company. So when he passed away suddenly the blow was difficult to bear. Before this event “the separation” referred to in the words of the Buddha: Piyehi vippayogo dukkho, “the separation from the loved is ill”, did not seem so difficult a thing to bear. Now it appeared in a different light.The passing away of the Venerable Sāriputta Thera caused in the Venerable Ānanda Thera, who was then only Sotāpanna, Stream-entrant (he became Arahat later), great agitation of mind, in spite of his having been with the Buddha and learned the Dhamma from him for twenty-five years. How he served the Buddha during those years is shown in the following verses, beautifully rendered by Mrs. C. A. F. Rhys Davids, thus:

For five-and-twenty years a learner I;
No sensual consciousness arose in me.
O see the seemly order of the Norm!
For five-and-twenty years a learner I;
No hostile consciousness arose in me.
O see the seemly order of the Norm!
For five-and-twenty years on the Exalted One
I waited, serving him by loving deeds,
And like his shadow followed after him.
For five-and-twenty years on the Exalted One
[xxiv/25] I waited, serving him with loving speech,
And like his shadow followed after him.
For five-and-twenty years on the Exalted One
I waited, serving him with loving thoughts,
And like his shadow followed after him.
When pacing up and down, the Buddha walked,
Behind his back I kept the pace always;
And when the Norm was being taught, in me
knowledge and understanding of it grew. [17]

And it is this ‘knowledge and understanding’ that he refers to as being ‘confused’ for him in the following verses, when the Venerable Sāriputta Thera passed away:

The firmament on every hand
Grows dim, yea, all confused stand
The truths I seemed to understand.
Gone is the noble friend we love,
And dark is earth and heaven above. [18]

The following is a description by Soma Thera (Bosat, October 1959, pp. 170-71) of how the Buddha comforted the Venerable Ānanda Thera on this occasion:‘When the Buddha was told of the passing away of the Venerable Sāriputta Thera, who was considered to be the Commander of the Army of Righteousness, the Blessed One said this to the Venerable Ānanda Thera, who was upset, “Tell me Ānanda, did Sāriputta take the aggregate of virtue along with him and become extinct? Or did he take the aggregate of concentration along with him and become extinct? Or did he take along with him the aggregate of wisdom and become extinct? Or did he take along with him the aggregate of freedom and become extinct? Or did he take along with him the aggregate of the knowledge and insight of freedom and become extinct?’—‘No Venerable Sir’.—‘Have I not, indeed, told you before that with all that is dear, pleasing, involved are change, separation, and variation?”‘The Buddha shows that it is not possible to stop the breaking up of what is born, produced, and put together, and of what has the nature of breaking, and compares the Venerable Sāriputta Thera to one of the greater branches of the mighty tree of the Community of Bhikkhus. Comparable to the breaking of a bigger branch of a mighty tree, says the Buddha, is the Venerable Sāriputta Thera’s passing away and no one can stop the breaking of what is breakable by ordering that thing not to break’.But when this peerless comforter, the Blessed One himself, passed away [xxv/26] shortly afterwards the Venerable Ānanda Thera uttered the following verses:

And is the comrade passed away,
And is the Master gone from hence?
No better friend is left, methinks,
Than to mount guard o’er deed and sense.
They of the older time are gone;
The new men suit me not at all.
Alone to-day this child doth brood,
Like nesting-bird when rain doth fall. [19]

Thus did the Venerable Ānanda Thera find comfort, and we, too, find solace at the feet of the Teacher of divine and human beings.Sometimes birds fly into houses and, staying a while, sing and cheer those there; but suddenly they fly away, casting no glance behind, none knowing where. In like manner even, as it is said: Anavhāto tato āga, anuññāto ito gato [20] — ‘uncalled he hither came, unbidden soon to go’, Soma Mahā Thera, too, came uninvited and unbidden went away, the while having cheered some weary traveller on the way.To me Soma Mahā Thera was a kalyāṇamitta. In life he blessed me with the friendship extolled by the Blessed One in no uncertain terms: Sakalam eva h-idam Ānanda brahmacariyaṁ yad idaṁ kalyāṇa-mittatā kalyāṇa-sahāyatā kalyāṇa-sampavaṅkatā, [21] —‘the whole of this holy fife consists in noble friendship, in association, in intimacy with what is noble’. And in death he has drawn me ever near to the Dhamma, that sure refuge and support, as has been sung by the ancients, thus:

Dhammaṁ vinā natthi pitā ca mātā
Tameva tāṇaṁ saraṇaṁ patiṭṭhā
Tasmā hi bho kiccamaññaṁ pahāya
Suṇātha dhāretha carātha dhamme. [22]
Except the Dhamma of the Perfect One,
There is no father and no mother here;
The Dhamma is your refuge and support,
And in the Dhamma is your shelter true,
So hear the Dhamma, on the Dhamma think
And spurning other things, live up to it. [23]

May that ‘trusty, staunch, true friend’, the Venerable Soma Mahā Thera, attain to that happiness, higher than which there is none — Nibbāna, the Happiness Supreme!*Vissāsaparamā ñātī, nibbānaṁ paramaṁ sukhaṁ*. [24] Kheminda Thera, Vajirārāma, Bambalapitiya, Colombo, September 3, 1960.*[xxvi/27]*