Ven. Walpola Rahula

Venerable Professor Walpola Rahula was born on the 9th of May, 1907, in the village of Walpola, in southern Sri Lanka. In 1920, at the age of 13, he was ordained as a Buddhist monk. He received his initial monastic training under the Venerable Paragoda Sumanasara, a highly revered, erudite monk who strictly adhered to the monastic code of conduct. From this teacher Ven. Rahula received the complete training required for a monk, which included language skills and how to live a frugal life. He engaged in monastic practices such as meditation and pindapatha (‘begging for alms’). Other than the education by Ven. Sumanasara, until his admission to the University of London, Ven. Rahula did not seek nor receive any formal education.

In 1927, the 20-year-old Ven. Rahula was involved with the Colombo Dharmaduta Sabhava, a Buddhist missionary society. During this time, he worked with people oppressed by the caste system. He paid particular attention to teaching them the Dhamma, the Buddhist teaching while working towards their socio-economic upliftment. He and other program participants would regularly abstain from their meals and use the funds for the welfare of the underprivileged.

During his sermons, Ven. Rahula regularly emphasised the importance of practising the Dhamma as originally taught by the Buddha and the importance of critical thinking and inquisitiveness. (These sermons were distributed as leaflets at the time. In 1992 they were published as a book under the title ‘Sathyodaya’).

Ven. Rahula’s new critical approach gained him the respect and admiration of many lay and ordained Buddhists. However, it also attracted critics and opponents. Certain parties vehemently opposed his strong criticism of caste discrimination within the Buddhist clergy.

The next notable phase in Ven Ranula’s life was when he studied at the affiliated college of the University of London, in Colombo. In 1941 he graduated with an Honours Degree in Eastern Languages, becoming the first Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka to receive a university education. Even as a university student, he continued to help people in need of help. His service during the 1936 Malaria epidemic was recognised in the book “Buddhist Studies in Honor of Walpola Rahula” by E.F.C Ludvaik, a professor at the university at the time. Continuing research activities after his undergraduate degree, he earned a Doctorate from the University of Ceylon for his thesis “Some Aspects of the History of Buddhism in Ceylon”.

In the 1940s, Sri Lanka was on the verge of gaining independence. Ven. Rahula, along with other Buddhist monks like Ven. Yakkaduwe Sri Pannarama of the Vidyalankara Pirivena (An educational institute for Buddhist monks), Ven. Naththandiye Pannakara, Ven. Kotahene Pannakitti, Ven. Kalalelle Ananda Sagara took the position that the Buddhist monks had an active role in shaping the soon-to-be independent nation for the welfare of the masses. Ven. Rahula penned his seminal work ‘Bhikshuwage Urumaya‘ (The Heritage of the Buddhist Monk) to argue for the role of monks in ensuring the betterment of the masses. 

For over three years, the discussion of the Free Education Act was stalled. Progressives such as Ven. Rahula and other Buddhist monks of the Vidyalankara Pirivena campaigned for its discussion and enactment in the State Council of Ceylon. Through articles published in the ‘Kalaya’ (Time) newspaper and public awareness campaigns organised around the county by the ‘Eksath Bhikkhu Sangamaya’ (United Buddhist Monks’ Association), sufficient political pressure was generated for this Act to be discussed in the State Council and subsequently passed in 1947. Ven. Rahula and other monks of Vidyalankara Pirivena played a pivotal role in enabling free education in Sri Lanka, which has benefitted multiple generations and lifted the socio-economic situation of many.

In 1950, Ven. Rahula joined the Sorbonne University, Paris, as a Post Graduate Research Fellow under renowned Professor Paul Demiéville (1894-1979), where he carried out an annotated translation of 4th century Mahayana Bhikkhu Asanga’s ‘Abhidharma-Samuccaya’ to French. This was Ven. Rahula’s scholastic Magnus opus. It was also during this time Ven. Rahula wrote the book ‘What the Buddha Taught’, which would become the most widely-read book on Buddhism in the Western world. During his time in France, Ven. Rahula acted as an ambassador of Buddhism, laying the foundation for Buddhist education in Europe.

Due to his fame and reputation as a scholar of Buddhism, in 1965, Ven. Rahula was invited to be the Professor of Religious History and Literature by the North Western University in the USA. While teaching at the North Western University, he also worked on streamlining the Buddhist study programs at other American Universities.

In 1966, the Sri Lankan Government invited Ven. Rahula to take up the position of Vice Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University (now University of Sri Jayawardanapura). As Vice-Chancellor, he worked purposefully to uplift the standards and prestige of the institution both nationally and internationally. University lecturers were sent to receive training overseas, and distinguished professors from foreign universities were invited to join the university. In 1969 he resigned from his post prematurely in protest of the political interferences to the university’s autonomy and returned to the USA. Back in the USA, he held professorships in several universities and was an advisor to postgraduate students at Oxford University, UK.

In the early 1980s, Ven. Rahula returned to Sri Lanka and was instrumental in establishing the “Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka” to enhance the education of Buddhist monks. In addition, Ven. Rahula founded the “Buddhist Study and Research Institute”, later renamed the “Walpola Rahula Institute” at Kotte.

In 1980 a group of celebrated intellectuals honoured Ven. Rahula by compiling a book named “Buddhist Studies in Honour of Walpola Rahula”. The book was printed in London by the Gordon Fraser company. While Ven. Rahula was honoured by many prestigious universities around the world, he continued to be the Chancellor of the University of Kelaniya until his demise in 1997.

Ven. Rahula passed away on the 18th of September, 1997, having lived for 90 years. According to his will, his remains were cremated within 24 hours at the Borella crematorium following traditional Buddhist funeral rites, without pomp, pageantry, or speeches.


Walpola Rahula Thero wrote extensively about Theravada Buddhism. Apart from his world-renowned book What the Buddha Taught, he published an enormous number of papers on Buddhism. Notable books written by him include, History of Buddhism in Ceylon, Heritage of the Bhikkhu, Zen and the Taming of the Bull and Le Compendium de la Super Doctrine (French).

  • The significance of “Ariyavamsa” ‘University of Ceylon Review, vol. I, no. 1, April 1943, Colombo, pp. 59-68

  • ‘A Note on Dubbitthi Maharaja’, University of Ceylon Review, vol. I, no,2, November 1943, Colombo, pp. 82-3

  • ‘Sahassavatthu-atthakatha or Sahassavatthuppakarana’, University of Ceylon Review, vol. II nos, 1&2, October 1944, Colombo, pp. 86-91

  • ‘The Buddha Image’, The Buddist, June 1949, Colombo, pp. 17-8 cont. p.20 ‘Buddhist Monasteries in Ancient Ceylon had Slaves, The Buddhist, August 1949, Colombo, pp. 41-2’The Buddha Image’,

  • The Buddhist, June 1949, Colombo, pp. 17-8 cont. p.20 ‘Buddhist Monasteries in Ancient Ceylon had Slaves, The Buddhist, August 1949, Colombo, pp. 41-2

  • ‘The Ideal Past’, The Buddhist, January 1950 , Colombo , p. 99 cont, p. 103 ‘The Future of Buddhism’, The Buddhist, May 1950 , Colombo, p.15 cont. p.27

  • L’ Homme, sa Nature et sa Destinee’, La Pensee Bouddhique, vol. III, no. 12, Octobre 1950, Paris, pp15-7

  • ‘Sutta d’Abhaya (Samyutta-nikaya V, p. 126) et Commentaires’, La Pensee Bouddhique, vol. IV, no. 11, Juillet 1953, Paris, pp. 5-7

  • ‘Sutta de Sangarava (Samyutta V, p. 121) et Commentaires’, La Pensee Bouddhique, vol. V, no 2, Avril 195 Paris, pp.4-8

  • ‘Vesak’, La Pensee Bouddhique, vol. V, no. 6 , Avril 1955 , Paris, pp. 11-2 ‘Aynthese des Instructions donnees (en reponse a des questions)’, La Pensee Bouddhique, vol. V, no. 9, Janvier 1956 , Paris, pp. 11-5

  • ‘History of Buddhism in Ceylon – The Anuradhapura Period (3rd century B.C. 10th century A.C) M.D. Gunasena & Co Ltd. Colombo, 1956 (Second edn. 1966). (This word has been translated into Sinhalese and Chinese)

  • ‘Une Interpretation de la Permiere Noble Verite du Bouddhisme’, La Pensee Bouddhque, bol. V, no. 10 Avril 1956, Paris, pp.5-8

  • ‘Buddha Jayanti Address-Fundamentals of Buddhism’, Buddha Jayanti Souvenir, The Royal India, Pakistan and Ceylon Society, May 1956, London, pp. 68-77

  • Duhkha Satya’, The Indian Historical Quarterly, vol. XXXII, nos. 2&3, June-September 1956, Calcutta, pp. 249-53

  • L, Attitude d’ Esprit du Bouddhisme’, La Pensee Bouddhique, vol. VI, no. 8, Octobre 1958, Paris, pp. 12-4

  • L’ Education Bouddhiste a Ceylan dans les temps anciens’, La Pensee Bouddhique, vol.VI, no 12, October 1959, Paris, pp.4-6What the Buddha Taught ,Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd, London and Bedford, 1959 (second and enlarged edn. 1967); Grove Press, Inc, New York, 1962 (second and enlarged edn. 1974) (This has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Sinhalese, Siamese, Chinese and Burmses)

  • ‘L’Ensieignement fundamental du Bouddhime’, France-Asie’ Presence du Bouddhisme, (sous la direction de Rene de Berval), Fevrier- Juin 1959, Saigon, pp. 261-77

  • ‘A Comparative Study of Khyanas according to Gheravada, Sarvastivada and Mahayana’, The Maha Bodhi, June 1962, Calcutta, pp. 190-7

  • ‘Early Buddhist Peotry – An Anthology, edited by I.G. Horner’, book review in The Middle Way, November 1963, London, p.126

  • ‘Self-cremation in Mahayana Buddhism’, The Buddhist, December 1963, Colombo pp. 84-5; same article under the title ‘Self-Immolation an Ancient Buddhist Custom’, World Buddhism, December 1963 , Colombo, pp. 6-7

  • ‘Sur les Buchers du Bietnam’, Esprit, Decembre 1963. Paris, pp. 925-8

  • ‘Alayavijjana’, The Maha Bodhi, June 1962 , Calcutta, pp. 190-7

  • ‘Early Buddhst Peotry – An Anthology, edited by I.B. Horner’, book review in The Middle Way, November 1963, London, p. 126

  • ‘Self – cremation in Mahayana Buddhhsm’, The Buddhst, December 1963, Colombo, pp. 84-5; same article under the title ‘Self-Immolation an Ancieng Buddhist Custom’, World Buddhism, December 1963, Colombo, pp. 6-7

  • ‘Sur les Buchers du Vietnam’, Esprit,

    ‘Alayavijnana’, The Maha Bodhi, may 1964, Calcutta, pp. 130-2; The Middle Way, August 1964 London, pp. 55-7

  • ‘Anagarika Dharmapala’. UNESCO Feaure, Pairis1964, and Religious Digest, October-December 1964, Colombo, 43-7

  • ‘Buddhism in the Western World’, The Maha Bodhi, January 1965, Culcuttta, pp. 2-12

  • ‘When is Man Wise’, The Maha Bodhi, September 1965, Culcutta, pp. 223-7; The Buddhist, June-July 1965, Colombo, pp. 3-5

  • ‘Asnga’, Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, vol II, fascicule 1, Colombo1966 ‘Inluence of Buddhism on Ceylon’s Culture’, The Maha Bodhi, May-June 1970, Culcutta, pp. 121-5

  • Le Compendium de la Super-Doctrine (Philosophie)(Abhidharmasamuccaya) d’Asanga, traduit et annote, Publications de l’Ecole francaise d’ Extreme-Orient, vol. LXXVIII, Paris, 1971

  • ‘L’Ideal du Bodhisattva dans le Theravada et le Mahayana’, Journal Asiatique (Paris) tome CCLIX, annee 1971 fascicules 1 et 2, pp. 63-70

  • “Bodhsattva Ideal in Theravada and Mahayana”, The Maha Bodhi,Vaisakha Number, May-June 1971, Culcutta, pp. 139-43′ The Buddhis, June 1971, Colombo, pp. 83-6′ The Middle Way, August 1971, London, pp. 82-6.

  • “Vijnaptimatrata Philosophy in the Yogacara System and Some Wrong Notions”, The Maha Bodhi, July 1972, Calcutta, pp. 324-30; The Middle Way, November 1972, London, pp. 118-23

  • The Heritage of the Bhikkhu, fifteenth edition, 1974

  • “Wrong Notions of Dhammata (Dharmata), Buddhist Studies in Honour of I.B. Horner, D. Reidel, Holland 1974, pp. 181-91

  • “Zen and the taming of the Bull”, Malasekera Commemoration Volume, Colombo 1976, pp. 292-303. Also in the Journal of Buddhist Studies, no. 8, October 1977, Komazawa University, (Japanese translation) pp. 303-14

  • “The Development of Mindfulness”, Voice of Buddhism, June-Septemter 1974, Kuala Lumpur, pp. 25-9

  • “The Problem of the Prospect of the Sangha in the West”, The Maha Bodhi, April – May 1974 , Calcutta, pp. 118-28; Voice of Buddhsm, December 1974, Kuala Lumpur, pp 5-11 World Buddhism, July 1974, Colombo, pp.328-31 and continued August 1974 , pp. 7-10; The Middle Way, Fepruary 1975, London, pp. 170-80

  • Zen and theTaming of the Bull; Towards the Defintion os Buddhist Thought (Collection of Essays), Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd, London and Bedford, 1978


  • Uttama Pujava, Colombo, 1932

  • Buddhagama saha Adahima, Matara, 1933

  • Satyodaya Patrika (series of seven pamphlets), Colombo 1933-4

  • Bhiksuvage Urumaya, Colombo 1946 (second and enlarged edn. 1948)

  • “Nyayapravesa of Sankaravami and Nyayahodiya of K. Pannakitti”, book review in the Vidulakara, Vidyalankara University , Sri Lanka, 1961, pp. 152-6

  • Lankave Budusamayehi Ithiasaya, Colombo, 1962

  • Budun Vadala Dharmaya, Colombo, 1965

  • Anatmavadaya, Dhara, Vidyalankara University, Sri Lanka, 1965, pp. 209-25

  • “Yakkaduve Hamuduruvo”, Vimamsa in Honour of Yakkaduve Sri Prajnaranma, no. 16, Kelaniya, 1967, pp. 15-2