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Encyclopaedia of Buddhism

By Dr. W. G. Weeraratne, Sunday Observer, Sunday, May 13, 2007

Professor G. P. Malalasekera

Completion of 2,500 years of the Buddhist era (Buddha Jayanti) fell in Wesak 1956. To commemorate this unique event Buddhists all over the world drew up programs to celebrate the occasion in a fitting manner.

The pious Buddhists of Myanmar (Burma) under the leadership of premier U-Nu, decided to hold the sixth Buddhist convention (Chattha Sangayana) in Myanmar to revise and cleanse the Pali Tipitaka (The Buddhist canon). Elaborate arrangements were made by the government of Myanmar for this purpose.

A massive meeting hall was put up with state funds to accommodate the many thousands of Buddhist clergy and lay Buddhist scholars and leaders and other dignitaries who were invited from other Theravada Buddhist countries to participate in this grand historic event.

A team of many erudite Buddhist bhikkhus and lay Buddhist Scholars conversant with all aspects of Buddha Dhamma and its culture represented Sri Lanka in this convention. The Sri Lankan delegation was led by Professor Emeritus G. P. Malalasekera, the world acclaimed Buddhist scholar and national leader. The convention continued for nearly two years and the whole Tipitaka was carefully rehearsed and cleansed.

India, where Buddhism was born and nurtured, joined in this unique celebration by volunteering to perform three grand tasks. The first of them was to re-edit and print many Buddhist Sanskrit works composed by reputed ancient Indian seers and scholars.

The second of them was to publish a massive book titled '2500 years of Buddhism' under the editorship of Professor P. V. Bapath, on many facets of Buddhism and its culture, containing scholarly articles written by reputed Indian scholars.

The third was to publish a large book of photographs with descriptive notes of temples, Buddha and Bodhisattva statues, Buddhist shrines, Buddhist art, Buddhist sculptures and paintings culled from many countries where Buddhism and its culture spread, during a long period of time. The book was titled 'The Way of the Buddha'.

The Indian Prime Minister at the time, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, who was a great admirer of the Buddha and his teaching, personally inspired and gave leadership to these activities.

Sri Lanka which has been acclaimed as the centre of Theravada Buddhism in the world, volunteered to undertake three major activities as its contribution to the Buddha Jayanti Celebrations.

The first of them was to translate into Sinhala the Buddhist canon (Tipitaka) which was first brought to Sri Lanka by Arahant Mahinda thera in the 3rd Century B.C., and subsequently written down in ola leaf books at Aluvihara in Matale in the 1st Century B.C.. The translation was to go under the appellation 'Buddha Jayanthi Tipitaka Grantha Malava' . The translation was to be handled by a panel of highly experienced and qualified Buddhist Bhikkhus.

Comprehensive encyclopaedia

The second of them was to compile a comprehensive general encyclopaedia in Sinhala. Professor emeritus D. E. Hettiarachchi, the most experienced and highly qualified Professor of Sinhala at the time, was entrusted with the planing and execution of the project.

The third of them was to compile a comprehensive Encyclopaedia of Buddhism in the English medium, to cover the complete range of Buddhism, its expansion and its development from its inception up to date. The veteran and highly qualified Buddhist scholar and national leader at the time, Professor emeritus Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera was selected to plan this encyclopaedia and execute the project. He was also the pioneer Editor-in-Chief.

In the preface Professor Malalasekera wrote to the 'Volume of specimen articles' released in 1957, he says; "Buddhism covers a vast expanse, both of time and space. The encyclopaedia aims at giving a comprehensive account of the origins of this world-religion and developments that have taken place during a period of twenty five centuries.

To deal with Buddhism is to deal with a whole civilisation, in fact, a whole series of civilisations, which have influenced the lives of myriads of human beings in many lands.

A satisfactory treatment of the subject should, thus, include information about the doctrines of Buddhism and their growth, the story of their spread and expansion, accounts of the numerous Buddhist schools and sects, their origins and subsequent ramifications, descriptions of Buddhist rites and ceremonies as found in many lands, the history of the fine arts-painting and sculpture, architecture, music, dance and drama - under the influence of Buddhism, in various countries, details of Buddhist shrines and places of pilgrimage and of the vast literatures connected with Buddhism which developed in many languages, both ancient and modern, and biographies of persons who, in the course of Buddhist history, played important parts. Even so, the list of topics would not be exhausted".

The office of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism was set up in Colombo during the latter part of the year 1955. Towards the end of that year the office was transferred to the University of Peradeniya. The Peradeniya University atmosphere was very congenial for the compilation of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism.

The Peradeniya academic staff at that time consisted of many professors and lecturess who were experts in Pali, Sanskrit, Indian philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, Western philosophy, archaeology, Indian and Ceylon history and many allied fields of study.

Dr. W. G. Weeraratne

The Paradeniya library at the time was equipped with valuable books on Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy, Western and Indian philosophies, art and architecture and many more invaluable books on allied subjects and internationally recognised journals and periodicals in the allied subjects that are indispensable for the compilation of the needed articles for the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism.

The Encyclopaedia of Buddhism has been planned to be completed in eight volumes and an index volume. Each encyclopaedia volumes is to contain approximately 800 printed pages. For the convenience of printing the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism is released in fascicles, each fascicle to consist of around 200 pages. Four such fascicles form one Encyclopedia Volume.


A volume of specimen articles of 84 pages containing a cross section of the Buddhist Encyclopaedia articles, indicating the methodology that is to be followed in the compilation of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, was released in the year 1957.

Copies of this specimen volume were sent to well recognised Buddhist scholars in Sri Lanka and foreign countries, to obtain their views of the proposed Encyclopaedia of Buddhism project. With their approval and blessing, the printing was commenced and Fascicles 1 of Volume 1 was released in 1961. Thenceforth, Buddhist Encyclopaedia Fascicles were released through the press with a time gap of one and half years.

Noble expectation

Pro. Malalasekera treated the completion of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism project as the climax of his literary endeavour and achievements and he was expecting to see it completed within his life time.

But the massiveness of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism project he shouldered, did not allow professor Malalasekera to achieve the noble expectation he harboured. Professor Malalasekera passed away in 1973, aged 73 years. He could complete only twelve Fascicles, that is the first three Volumes of the envisaged Encyclopedia of Buddhism.

Another Fascicle, Fascicle 1 of Volume IV was in the process of being printed at the time. Dr. Saddhamangala Karunaratne of the Archaeological Department was appointed to succeed Prof. Malalasekera as Editor-in-Chief, but he remained in that position only for a very brief time. Professor emeritus O.H.de A. Wijesekera was next appointed Honorary Editor-in-Chief, and Professor Jotiya Dheerasekera (Ven. Dhammavihari) as Editor-in-chief, next. During the tenure in office of these two experienced Professors, two more fascicles of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism were released. Mr. Bandula Jayawardhana who joined the encyclopaedia of Buddhism project at its very inception was appointed Editor-in-Chief next, but he retired from service soon after.

I have been associated with the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism project, as an assistant Editor, since 1960. To add a personal note, I happened to belong to Prof. Malalasekera's last batch of students at the Peradeniya University, who specialised in Pali and Buddhist studies.

In 1987 I was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, with an extremely depleted internal editorial staff. In spite of the many obstacles I had to dabble with, from 1987 up to date, I was able to complete and release 14 fascicles of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism.

The total number of fascicles released so far stands at 28, which comprise 7 Buddhist Encyclopaedia Volumes. To complete the project we have to compile and print the remaining four fascicles of Volume VIII and the index Volume. The first fascicle of Volume VIII is now in the process of being printed and we expect to release it by the end of June 2007.

About 90% of articles for the last three fascicles are also complete now. We are working with a well-planned schedule to complete the project by the end of the year 2008.

The encouragement and backing I received from many scholars and educationists in the field of Buddhist studies since my appointment as Editor-in-Chief made my task pleasant and easy.

Dr. Ananda W. P. Guruge has been associated with the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism project as the Honorary Editorial advisor and external contributor of several learned articles, since 1987 up to date.

Professor emeritus N. A. Jayawickrama, Professor emeritus P. E. E. Fernando and Professor emeritus Y. Karunadasa assisted the Editor-in-Chief to make the task of editing many articles, pleasant and less cumbersome. Many scholars of Buddhism and Buddhist studies in Sri Lanka and foreign countries assisted the Editor-in-Chief as external contributors, by writing many specialised articles on selected headwords. I take this opportunity to thank them profusely.

In conclusion, I wish to thank my small office staff for the dedicated service rendered by them, without whose assistance I would have been just a cripple."

(The writer is Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism)

source: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2007/05/13/fea03.asp

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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.