I pen these thoughts and reflections as a tribute to Ven. Soma Maha Thera of the Vajiraramaya on his 58th death anniversary. He was born at Kotahena on December 23, 1898 to Catholic, Colombo Chetty parents, Emmanuel Marian Perera Pulle and Theresa Rodrigo Babapulle and at his baptism was given the name, Victor Emmanuel Perera Pulle.
Rev. Soma Maha Thera was an erudite Buddhist scholar and a true disciple of the Buddha
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
He never spared himself and those who knew him, will remember him most for his humanity
To my life-long regret, I never had the opportunity of meeting him but had the privilege of meeting his colleague and brother monk Rev. Kheminda Thera, who accompanied Rev. Soma to Burma, for their higher ordination in 1936, and wrote the ‘In Memoriam’, which prefaced the marvellous piece of writing titled Vimuttimaga or The Path to Freedom, authored by Arahant Upatissa and translated from Chinese to English by Rev. N.R.M. Ehara, Rev. Soma Thera and Rev. Kheminda Thera.
I remember, as a 13 or 14-year-old, listening to some of Rev. Soma Maha Thera’s sermons broadcast over the airwaves of the then Radio Ceylon though their depth, thrust and message were alien to me.
As a youth and later as a Buddhist monk, Rev. Soma was known to have been a voracious reader, an independent thinker and a student of comparative religion, philosophy, art, archaeology, astrology and history.
The story is told of how as a youth he had walked to Fort looking to buy a book for the rupee his mother had given him as pocket money. He had ended up buying an English translation of the Dhammapada, which served him as his introduction to the teachings of the Buddha. It led to his eager attendance at lectures and sermons on the Buddha Dhamma as he gradually moved away from the faith of his parents.
“Aciram vat’ ayam kayo pathvimadhisessati
“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”, which was published in the Bosat, Oct. 1959.
Often he was heard to say that this was the sort of death he preferred. He had passed away a few months later, on February 23, 1960 at the Vajiraramaya in Bambalapitiya, .
I compiled these insights into the life and work of Rev. Soma Maha Thera from what his colleagues had written which were quoted in the, ‘In Memoriam’.
“It is fitting to record here the life and work of the Ven. Soma Maha Thera; but for his indomitable energy and earnestness, the translation of Vimuttimaga, would not have been undertaken, persisted in and completed 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, while half-hearted effort was unknown to him. Not infrequently he used to say, ‘Better wear out than rust out,’” Rev. KhemindaThera wrote in the ‘In Memoriam’.
In 1920 Victor Perera Pulle had met Mr. W. Joseph Soysa, one of the founder members of the Servants of the Buddha, the well-known association which had its headquarters at Lauries Road, Bambalapitiya. After being actively engaged in the publication of the ‘Blessing’, he and Mr. Soysa joined the Buddhist Union and later founded the Fort Study Circle and was elected its organizing secretary with Mr. W. Don Michael as joint secretary.
The following are excerpts from Mr. Michael’s article titled, “Apostle of the Dhamma”, written on the passing away of Ven. Soma Maha Thera:
“The sudden death of Soma Thera has uprooted from our midst a personality distinguished at once by the versatility 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 renaissance in Ceylon, Soma Thera was considered to represent the fine flower of Buddhist culture. He shed his fragrance wherever he moved. As scholar, preacher, organizer, monk and friend it may be aptly said of him: Nihil tetigit quod non ornavit,” which translated into English reads, ‘He touched nothing that he did not fail to adorn’.
“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. Overwork and fatigue were the proximate causes of the dire malady which struck down the mighty oak of the Dhamma. Today a void is left standing which may take years to fill.”
The following are excerpts from an article written by the then Ceylon’s Director of Education, S.F. de Silva: ‘I came to know Ven. Soma Thera as Mr. Victor Pulle some 30 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 realize that of the band that gathered together, he was the most untiring in his study of the Dhamma. As a member of the Order he became a changed man. I noticed 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 Ven. Soma Maha Thera was very well known to English-speaking audiences in the Island. Many may remember his thoughtful talks over Radio Ceylon. To me his translation, editing and notes of the Satipatthana Sutta are characteristic of the man. 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. 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.” There is so much more to say but little space to say it in and reluctantly though, I conclude my tribute to Rev. Soma Maha Thera with excerpts from an article written by Mr. Ananda Pereira, the then President of the Servants of the Buddha. It was published on February 27, 1960, three days after he passed away.
“With the death of Ven. Soma Thera, Sri Lanka loses one of her noblest sons. Born of Roman Catholic parents on December 23, 1898, duly baptized 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 advisers did not satisfy him. His inquires 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 and laid the foundation of that sure grasp of the Teachings that served him so well in later years as a missionary. Never one to be satisfied with half measures, he was ordained as a Bhikku 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 and 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 and generous heart. Sometimes he seemed impulsive, sometimes even a shade pugnacious, but never, never, did he say nor do a mean, false, or deliberately unkind thing. He lived here a while and has moved on, strong and assured, brave and smiling, kind, gentle and untiring. We too must fare onward when our time comes. We shall meet again.”
Rev. Soma Maha Thera was an erudite Buddhist scholar and a true disciple of the Buddha. He taught and preached the Buddha Dhamma and lived a life shaped by its principles. Truly it could be said of him that he not only talked the talk but also assiduously walked the talk and to echo what Mr. Don Michael wrote of him, ‘He touched nothing that he did not fail to adorn’.
May you have attained the supreme happiness of Nibbana.
Note: Ven. Soma Maha Thera and the writer’s mother were first cousins and the photograph that accompanies this article was given to the writer by Mr. Joseph Soysa’s brother.