Sir Cyril de Zoysa Copyright 2002-2003 and on,

Original article by my good friend Ven. Weligama Gnanaratana Maha Nayake Thera

Anthropologist Leakey, once said that, man really became man, when he learnt the art of helping his fellow-men. This is very much an echo of the eternal teachings of the Supremely Enlightened Buddha, long centuries ago. The purpose of human life is to help others, proclaimed the Supreme Buddha.

Devotees of the Buddha, hold the doctrine in the highest esteem. In our day too, outstanding Buddhist devotees, make it their lives' primary aim to extend assistance to the generality of people.

Sir Cyril de Zoysa, whose 107th birth anniversary we commemorate on the 26th of October, is an embodiment of the Buddhist ideal of helping people. The essence of his life was service to others.

He followed in the footsteps of numerous Buddhist devotees, promoting the welfare of people and substantially contributing towards the advancement of the Teachings of the Supreme Buddha.

Without any doubt whatsoever, Sir Cyril is one of the most distinguished sons of Sri Lanka, who, as a Buddhist leader, as a patriot and as a philanthropist of high eminence, elevated the contemporary Sri Lankan society in a variety of ways. He made it his life’s mission, to ensure, utilising every resource he possessed, that Buddhist culture flourished uninterrupted, in this noble land, overcoming whatever obstacle that had to be surmounted, to achieve that praiseworthy aim.

One could very well construe, that it had been pre-ordained as it were, that, he should pioneer a Buddhist revival in this country in the twentieth century.

Cyril de Zoysa was born at the dawn of the twentieth century, in the historical city of Galle. Initially he received his education in Matara, a southern city, renowned for its contribution to learning, at a time when Sinhala was being enthusiastically resuscitated.

His father was a Notary Public. In consequence, young Cyril had to change his educational venues, in terms of his father’s professional shifts. Back in Galle, he studied at Richmond College, from where he came over to Colombo to study at Royal College.

He was just twenty, when he entered the Law College, for his training in the profession, which he opted for. Even in those early years, he exhibited a personality suffused by a pervading sense of human kindness. An anecdote from those youthful days of his life illustrates this deep feeling for others. His father, went about in a hired buggy-cart, as he was not able to afford one of his own at that time. Young Cyril, assiduously saved his hard-earned pocket money, worked as a private tutor while still at the Law College, and bought his father a brand new buggy-cart and a bull.

It goes without saying, that the doting father was immensely touched by his dear son’s gesture.

From childhood on, the Buddhist way of life, was a built-in facet in his personality. He was raised in a family background, where Buddhist values where highly esteemed.

Eventually, a historical meeting occurred, that determined the course of his life and the story of Buddhist worship in Sri Lanka. He started practising law in Kalutara. Here Sir Cyril met the sacred Bodhi Tree at Kalutara.

This spiritual meeting was the beginning of a new chapter in Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

This Bodhi Tree, has a history dating back to about 2200 years. When the sacred branch of the Bodhi tree was brought to Sri Lanka in the days of King Devanampiyatissa, 32 seedlings from that holy tree were planted at selected sites in the country. The Bodhi tree at Kalutara is one of those thirty-two.

But when Sir Cyril came over to Kalutara, the Sacred Bodhi Tree at that site, was in a dire state of neglect and disregard. Devotees who visited the site to worship the Sacred Bodhi Tree, were driven away in an undignified manner by the security personnel appointed by the Government Agent.

There was an earlier attempt to cut down this Sacred Tree. It is in such a background, that Sir Cyril initiated his historic move to make this spot a holy site.

His interest was roused, when he visited this place once to take a dip in the river. There he met a dedicated devotee, who had attended upon the sacred Bodhi all by himself, over a considerably long period of time. The young lawyer impressed by the religious fervour of this devotee, opted to help him to continue his service to the Sacred Bodhi Tree. On the 7th of September 1951, Sir Cyril established a committee to protect this sacred site. Investing his own personal funds, he transformed this holy site, into one of the most adored religious places in this country.

Millions pay homage to this Sacred Bodhi Tree, each year. The sacred Bodhi Tree at Kalutara, has now assumed the stature of a Sri Lankan spiritual shrine, adored by the masses, without considerations of religious differences.

Vehicles that pass, ritually stop at this holy spot as a blessed segment of their journey. There is hardly any other wayside holy site in Sri Lanka, that receives the adoration of travellers as this Bodhi Tree does. With the passage of time, a whole variety of religious adjuncts grew up around the Sacred Bodhi Tree. Sir Cyril went on continuing his magnificent service to the Sasana, to the development of the country and towards the promotion of Sri Lankan entrepreneurship.

When his business enterprises continued to escalate, he utilised a good part of his income for religious, cultural and educational activities. Sir Cyril launched a bus service as a precursor to the multiplicity of business enterprises, he would eventually initiate. In his tireless efforts to pursue social and religious services, his progress was punctuated at times, by some colourful episodes.

One such is related to Colombo YMBA, which incidentally, is a glittering monument to Sir Cyril’s extensive service to the cause of Buddhism. When financial constraints retarded the building effort, he turned to Sir Ernest - a Buddhist philanthropist - for assistance. Sir Ernest gave him a stamp, saying, “Cyril take this stamp to a particular stamp-dealer. He will give you one hundred thousand rupees for it.” Sir Cyril’s odyssey in the cause of his service to Buddhism is studded with that kind of intriguing episode.

In Sir Cyril’s glorious record of service towards the advancement of the dispensation of the supremely Enlightened One, the crest-gem, without even the shadow of a doubt is the Kalutara Bodhi Tree.

Although Sir Cyril’s name is associated very much with the Bodhi Tree at Kalutara, his service to the cause of Buddhism has been multifarious. The detail or his activities is well-high beyond recording.

Many a Buddhist shrine, site and institution, has flourished through his generosity. He was the foremost force in the restoration of Kiri Vehera, at Kataragama.

Education was yet another field that received his concerned attention. He donated his land for school buildings. An inevitable outcome of his involvement in social welfare, was his entry into active politics. There too, he was able to achieve a marked success.

He was the Vice-President of the Senate for six years. Then again, he was the President of the Senate for eight years. He was conferred the British Imperial Honour of a Knighthood. Though kept exceptionally busy, Sir Cyril never neglected to observe the due Buddhist rituals. Each morning he would start the day, by making offerings to the Sacred Bodhi Tree at Kalutara from 6 o’clock. He led a Buddhist way of life. In the late evening of his life, as the lengthening shadows merged into the darkening dusk he had attained a state of deep spiritual serenity. His words at this late stage of his life, seemed to sum up the quintessence of Buddhism.

This is what he said:

“Now I am free. The state of your wealth does not really matter. These are all illusion. I was born without any wealth. I will die just as I was born - without any wealth. As I reach the end of my days, Buddhism is my sole consolation, my happiness and my strength.”

He cherished the Buddhist ideal of cantonment. He said farewell to life, with words that could only stem from the depths of a truly Buddhist mind. Sir Cyril de Zoysa passed away, on the second of January 1978, at the ripe age of 82.

To millions who pass the Sacred Bodhi Tree at Kalutara, each year, his memory is ever fresh.

May he attain Nibbana.

(The writer is Maha Nayake Thera of Amarapura Sri Dharma Rakshitha Maha Nikahya, Director of Sri Dharma Raskshitha Thripitika Dharma Ayathaneya, Mallikaramaya, Ratmalana.)