In the mid 20th century there were some really great popularisers of Theravāda Buddhism working in Sri Lanka, some local, like Vens. Nārada, Piyadassī and Walpola Rāhula; others from Europe, like the great German monks, Nyanatiloka, Nyanaponika and the English monk Nyanamoli.
Amongst the latter was someone who is now nearly forgotten, but was one of the great writers and defenders of Buddhism during his time: the Dutchman Henri van Zeyst, who was also known under his ordained name as Ven Dhammapāla.
Henri first came to Sri Lanka around 1938, as an ordained Catholic priest, who had been teaching dogmatic theology in London, when he came into contact with comparative studies, and with Buddhism, which prompted him to make the long journey.
Within a year of his arrival he had left Catholicism and become a Buddhist monk, convinced of the truth of the teachings of Lord Buddha, and later even engaged in open debates with defenders of that faith, in the lineage of such greats as Ven Guṇananda in the 19th century.
Like other convinced converts he was zealous in his learning of the new religion, and he worked as editor and Admin on the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism at the University of Ceylon in Peradeniya from the mid 50s until his death in 1988, specialising in meditation and abhidhamma.
He spent his last years in Nilambe Meditation Centre, where a couple of years later, I met my own teacher Acarya Godwin Samararatne, and his books were widely read and discussed there.
Despite there being a continuance of his publications after his death, mainly owing to the good work of U. Mapa, the Public Trustee of Sri Lanka, Henri’s many fine books on Buddhism, both popular and detailed were quietly fading into the past and no republications were made.
Recently I was contacted by Manfred Wierich, who had transcribed some of Henri’s works, and had been looking to get them published in some way for around a year, but without success, so I immediately undertook to make a website for them.
The Henri van Zeyst Archives is the result, which contains around a dozen of Henri’s books, and is published in both html and pdf format. I also made what I hope are attractive covers for the works from the paintings of Bhikkhu Sumedha.
We are now trying to contact people who knew Henri and see if we can get photographs and other memorabilia to add to the archives so that his great contribution to Buddhism can be perpetuated, and Ven. S. Dhammika has already agreed to furnish a biography and appreciation which we will publish on the site in the coming weeks.
If you are interested in these readable but also learned writings, please do visit the site and share with your friends, so more people can benefit from his distillation of the Buddha’s teachings.