The legacy of Walther Schmits

The legacy of Walther Schmits The framed photograph of Walther Schmits will be unveiled during Vesak celebrations on May 3 at Das Buddhistische Haus (Berlin Vihara) in Berlin – Frohnau, Germany

“ Kaput, kaput, alles kaput ” may sound rather strange in today´s economically resilient Germany, but at the end of the second world war and in the immediate post - war period, these words echoing despair and hopelessness had wide currency amongst large sections of the German people.   It was the worst of times for them in every sense of the word.  It was this scene of almost total destruction and collective  public resignation to an unknown fate that confronted  Asoka Weeraratna, a young Sinhalese businessman from Ceylon (then called), when he stepped foot on German soil for the first time in 1951.

Germany lay in ruins not only in a physical sense but also in a moral sense. There was a profound feeling of moral crisis. Everyone was looking for new directions and new hopes. And clear answers to the vexed question of how to prevent wars re-visiting Germany every twenty five years or in every generation taking a terrible toll of its youth in that bitter process.  Traditional religions in the West could no longer provide credible answers. There was a growing feeling of people having being led astray by the leadership strata.  No longer prepared to face unceasing wars and conflict and suffer heavily in that process, Europeans and particularly Germans, were beginning to experiment with new ideas of conflict resolution and look even outside the occident for a breadth of fresh air in the hope of winning a durable and ever lasting peace for themselves and others in the rest of the globe.

Asoka Weeraratna, a man never to give up half way down the road once he had set his mind on a goal, took up the challenge to bring solace to a war weary people in the best way he could i.e. to transmit from Sri Lanka to Germany, Asia´s greatest gift to humanity - the Buddha Dhamma. Asoka knew that the Buddha in his wisdom and infinite compassion had placed peace and non violence high on his moral agenda. “ Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is hatred healed. This is an ancient and eternal law ”, the Buddha had declared. Asoka Weeraratna realized that this was the ideal tonic for a highly advanced culture and community unfortunately misled by the rhetoric of using force to settle disputes and rectify historical injustices meted out to Germany by others by violence.

Asoka returned to Ceylon in 1951 after a 5 month stay in Europe firmly convinced that he had a noble mission to fulfill. On September 21, 1952 he founded the Lanka Dhammaduta Society (later to be renamed as the German Dharmaduta Society). With boundless energy and commitment, Asoka went about laying the foundation to send a Buddhist mission to Germany and set up a Buddhist Vihara therein manned by resident monks and upasakas  with a viewing to finally establishing the Buddha Sasana in Germany. He used as its initial head quarters a back room in his shop ´P.J. Weeraratna & Sons´ a firm based in Maradana, Colombo 10, reputed for manufacture of elegant jewellery  and retailing of high quality Swiss made wrist watches.       

Asoka again visited Germany in 1953 on a fact finding mission. He travelled to many cities and met leading German Buddhists and invited them to join the first Dharmaduta Mission from Sri Lanka to Germany planned to co – incide with the celebration of the Buddha Jayanthi in 1956. Friedrich Moller from Hamburg (later to become internationally known as the Ven. Polgasduwe Gnanawimala Thero) was the first German trainee of the GDS. In 1954, Asoka Weeraratna launched under the banner of the GDS , a huge fund raising campaign called the ´ Dasa Laksha Aramudala ´ ( One Million Rupee Trust Fund´) under the patronage of Hon. Dudley Senanayake ( former Prime Minister of Ceylon) and appealed to the public for funds to establish the Buddha Sasana in Germany as Arahant Mahinda had done it in Sri Lanka 2300 years ago. It became a popular movement and captured the attention and imagination of the Buddhist public. Asoka Weeraratna became a household name. It was during the period of this campaign that the paths of Asoka Weeraratna and Walther Schmits, an unique individual from Germany, crossed each other.

Walther Schmits

Walther Schmits was born in 1884. He was the last descendant of the Julius Schmits family of Elberfeld in Germany, a renowned and well – connected family that was highly prominent in the textile industry that flourished in Elberfeld and Barmen in the 19th century. Walther had one brother called Gunther (born in 1887). Both Walther and Gunther were drafted and had to serve in the German Imperial army during World War 1.  Walther`s brother Gunther was killed in France in 1915, while Walther was captured by the Russians and imprisoned in a POW camp in Siberia. He managed to escape from the Russian prison camp and crossed over to China and remained there until 1952. It was during his period in China that he first encountered Buddhism. With communism taking over China under Mao Tse Tung, Walther Schmits moved over to Ceylon / Sri Lanka where he found real solace in Buddhism. He was passionately anti-war and abhorred violence and found in the Buddha´s teachings the ideal solution to contain aggressive tendencies at both the individual and collective levels. In Ceylon / Sri Lanka he met Asoka Weeraratna in 1954 and was impressed by Asoka´s keen interest in spreading the word of the Buddha in Schmits fatherland, Germany. After his very first meeting he invited Asoka Weeraratna to visit him practically every other day in the evenings for about two months if he i.e. Asoka, could spare his valuable time as he i.e. Walther, wanted to learn how to live the Buddhist way of life.  For over 25 years in China, Walther had been interested in Buddhism, but it was only after his close association with Asoka Weeraratna that he became a practicing Buddhist. He used to consume both meat and alcohol. He gave up both and became a vegetarian and a teetotaler like Asoka Weeraratna, and to the best of his ability he lived according to the Dhamma, a very virtuous practicing Buddhist.

In 1955 he had told Asoka Weeraratna not to worry about money for the spread of Buddhism in Germany as he has already written in his Last Will a bequest to the Society.      

The following account is an extract from a document titled  ´Autobiographical Memorandum concerning the German Dharmaduta Society in Colombo and Buddhistische Haus (Berlin Vihara) in Berlin submitted by Ven. Dhammanisanthi (formerly known as Asoka Weeraratna), being a statement addressed to the President, Board of Management, German Dharmaduta Society from Das Buddhistische Haus dated April 16, 1983. Ven. Dhammanisanthi was then resident at Berlin Vihara for a short period of time.     

“ In 1954 I read an account in a newspaper ( Daily News ) that a German was interested in Buddhism. I enquired from two leading Hotels in Colombo and came into contact with Mr. Walther Schmits (at the Grand Oriental Hotel). He was impressed with my talk and invited me to visit him every other day during his stay in Ceylon. He visited Ceylon for 3 consecutive years and stayed about 3 to 4 months each year. I visited him very often after my business hours during his three visits.

He told me that I need not worry about money for our Dharmaduta work in Germany as he would leave a rich legacy for our noble cause. He added that he was doing so solely because I was honest and an energetic secretary.

Therefore it will be seen that this big legacy of over DM 550, 000 came to us not because I happened  to be the Secretary of the GDS, but as a result of my continuous personal contact with him for a  very long time.

Had we not got this rich legacy what would be our position today? ”

In the Minutes of the Jt. Meeting of the Board of Trustees and Board of Management of the GDS held on March 31, 1957 at No. 417, Bullers Road, Colombo 07, the following account is found:

“ The Secretary (Asoka Weeraratna)  then tabled the file containing the original copies of letters and other documents relating to the legacy under the will of Mr. Walther Schmits deceased. The Secretary gave a fresh account of Mr. Schmits and the circumstances in which Mr. Schmits made provision for the Society in his last Will.  The Secretary stated that he met Mr. Schmits for the first time in the Grand Oriental Hotel and found that Mr. Schmits was interested in Buddhism. He (the Secretary ) explained the plans of the Society ( which was then known as “Lanka Dhammaduta Society”) to spread Buddhism in Germany and invited Mr. Schmits to join the movement. The acquaintance which he made on that occasion developed within a short time into a relationship of great affection and confidence. Mr. Schmits visited Ceylon thereafter annually until his death on May 28, 1957. Mr. Schmits gave several cash donations to the Society. These donations are shown in the accounts of the Society.

As a result of the talks and discussions which they had on Buddhism, Mr. Schmits became deeply interested in our movement in Germany. Mr. Schmits death was a great loss to the cause, because if he had lived long enough to see the establishment of the Buddhist Centre at Buddhistisches Haus in Berlin, he would have been the most enthusiastic supporter of the Society´s cause in Germany ”.

What was the total value of the legacy of Walther Schmits to the German Dharmaduta Society?

In a Report submitted to the GDS dated 24th February, 1958, by Dr. Heinz  Frowein, a lawyer acting for the executor of the Will, it is stated that the total value of the legacy to the Society is DM 576, 245 . 06. It basically comprised shares and securities. (see Minutes of the Jt. Meeting of the Board of Trustees and Board of Management of the GDS held on March 31, 1957, page 40)

Waiver of Estate Duty Tax

There was a 40% estate duty tax payable prior to the execution of the legacy to the GDS. This amounted to Rs. DM 199, 000. This tax was waived by the German Government after representations were made by Asoka Weeraratna (Hony. Secretary) to the then Prime Minister Hon. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who in turn made a written appeal using diplomatic channels addressed to the German Federal Government requesting a waiver of this tax as it was a legacy granted to a non – profitable charitable institution. 

What was the chief motivation that inspired Walther Schmits to leave such a sizeable legacy to the GDS upon his death on May 28, 1957?

This question is best answered by his relative Werner Kemmann who accompanied Walther Schmits on one of his visits to Ceylon in 1955. In a letter addressed to Asoka Weeraratna (Hon. Secretary, GDS) dated May 25, 1960, Werner Kemmann writing from Wuppertal – Elberfeld, Germany and providing a biographical sketch of Schmits says as follows:

“ In 1915 he (Walther Schmits) was taken prisoner by the Russians (in the Eastern front). He succeeded to escape from Vladivostok to China, where he stayed in Peking until 1952 when it was no more possible to remain there. I think that it was in China where he got the first ideas about Buddhism, but it was the direction he really searched. After 1952, he did not take a firm residence, but he was mostly travelling to study religions. It was in Colombo where he found Buddhism in its proper sense and I believe that he was very happy to have found the right way through this religion. He studied Buddhism thoroughly and he was convinced that this religion had to be spread more and more to improve the world and to prevent wars.

In the last years of his life he was every year some months in Colombo and some months in Wuppertal or in Locarno / Switzerland. When he left Colombo in March 1957, he had a tropical sickness and he died on the 28th May, 1957 in the tropical Hospital of Bale (Switzerland)”.

Endowment Fund in memory of Walther Schmits

The Board of Trustees of the GDS in appreciation of the legacy of the Walther Schmits made a proposal to create an Endowment Fund out of the assets of the legacy to perpetuate the memory of Walther Schmits. In a letter dated September 18, 1958 addressed to Dr. Heinz Frowein, lawyer acting for the Executor, and signed by Asoka Weeraratna (Hony. Secretary), acting on behalf of the Board of Trustees, it is said as follows:

“ As the legacy is a gift of considerable value, members of the Society and the public of Ceylon, will be much interested to learn about Mr. Walther Schmits and his magnificent gift to the Society. It will therefore be the duty of the Trustees to make a public statement on these matters. The Trustees also propose to create an Endowment Fund out of the assets of the legacy to perpetuate the memory of Mr. Schmits and to preserve the capital value of the assets”.

In this letter a question is posed to Dr. Heinz Frowein seeking his views on the feasibility of the formation of the proposed Endowment Fund.     

 Application of the major funds

The two biggest sources of funds for the GDS were the moneys collected from the public under the ´Dasa Laksha Aramudala` (Million Rupee Fund) launched in 1954 and the legacy of Walther Schmits. While the funds from the former were mostly employed in the construction of the Headquarters of the GDS at 417, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 07, which was declared open by Prime Minister Hon. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, on August 7, 1956, it would be correct to say that assets of the legacy of Walther Schmits were also used in the re-payment of Bank loans taken by prominent Trustees of the GDS for the purchase of Das Buddhistische Haus (Dec. 1957) and for the purchase of the three blocks of land adjacent to Das Buddhistische Haus in Berlin – Frohnau (1961), and subsequent preservation of this national heritage site as declared by the German Govt.

 An Assessment of the Contribution of the German Dharmaduta Society

In a seminal article on the state of Buddhism in Germany, Dr. Hans Wolfgang Schumann, the reputed scholar and chronicler of the history of Buddhism in Germany, states as follows:

“ Another important Buddhist Centre is the “ Buddhist  House’ founded by Paul Dahlke in Berlin – Frohnau in 1924. It survived World War II in a dilapidated condition and probably would have been auctioned and dismantled if the Ceylonese ‘German Dhammaduta Society’ (founded 1952) which inherited a large sum of money from a German Buddhist had not come to its rescue. The GDS purchased the house in 1958, renovated it, furnished it with additional rooms and a good library, and stationed some Ceylonese Bhikkhus (monks) there who take charge of regular lectures and meditation courses.”

Refer Hans Wolfgang Schumann ‘ Buddhism and Buddhist Studies in Germany’, Maha Bodhi Journal, Vol. 79, (February – March 1971) page 99.    

Dr.Schumann further says in the concluding paragraph of the above named article as follows:

“ Seen from another angle, however, Asian Buddhist mission was successful. The organizational help which Buddhist Societies in Asia, in particular Ceylon, in several critical periods have extended, has saved the flame of the Dhamma in Germany from being blown out by the storm of historical events. Isn’t this for the Germans reason enough to be grateful? “     

Refer Hans Wolfgang Schumann ‘Buddhism and Buddhist Studies in Germany’, Maha Bodhi Journal, Vol. 79, (February – March 1971) page 101

Germany and Japan in the eyes of Ceylon in the post war period

When both Germany and Japan stood condemned like outlaws or pariahs of the international community by the victorious Allies at the end of the second world war seeking huge amounts of reparations and heavy punishments for their leaders, political and military, as war criminals, the leaders and people of Ceylon / Sri Lanka adopted an entirely different approach to both these countries. It was an approach based on the Buddha´s teachings.

The words of Ceylon´s delegate Finance Minister J.R. Jayawardene in defence of  a free Japan at the San Francisco conference on September 06, 1951 is worthy of reproduction here. He said:

“ We in Ceylon were fortunate that we were not invaded, but the damage caused by air raids, by the stationing of enormous armies under the South-East Asia Command, and by the slaughter-tapping of one of our main commodities, rubber, when we were the only producer of natural rubber for the Allies, entitles us to ask that the damage so caused should be repaired. We do not intend to do so for we believe in the words of the Great Teacher whose message has ennobled the lives of countless millions in Asia, that "hatred ceases not by hatred but by love". It is the message of the Buddha, the Great Teacher, the Founder of Buddhism which spread a wave of humanism through South Asia, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Siam, Indonesia and Ceylon and also northwards through the Himalayas into Tibet, China and finally Japan, which bound us together for hundreds of years with a common culture and heritage. This common culture still exists, as I found on my visit to Japan last week on my way to attend this Conference; and from the leaders of Japan, Ministers of state as well as private citizens and from their priests in the temples, I gathered the impression that the common people of Japan are still influenced by' the shadow of that Great Teacher of peace, and wish to follow it. We must give them that opportunity."

Likewise the efforts of Asoka Weeraratna and the German Dharmaduta Society to spread Buddhism in Germany commencing in the 1950s to revive the spirit of the German people, then heavily de – moralized, and re-direct them on to a path of peace and non – violence as expounded by the Buddha must be seen in a similar light as exemplified by J. R. Jayewardene at the San Francisco Conference in 1951.

At a public meeting held at Ananda College, Colombo on May 30, 1953 Asoka Weeraratna in  presenting a detailed account of his survey of the present state of Buddhism in Germany made during his recent visit (in 1953), pointed out the importance of Germany and the unique contribution it has made towards the enrichment of European thought, culture and science. He stated that Germany was the pulse of the European continent. In a similar vein Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Maha Thera added that one of the greatest services that one can do to the Sasana is to help the Society to establish the Buddhist Dispensation in Europe with Germany as its center. Ven. Nyanatiloka (the pioneering German monk) the first patron of the German Dharmaduta Society was present at this meeting. He died on May 28, 1957 ( the same day that Walther Schmits died in a tropical hospital in Basel, Switzerland) while being a resident monk at the Sanghavasa of the German Dharmaduta Society at 417, Bullers Road, Colombo 07. Ven. Nyanatiloka Maha Thero was accorded a State Funeral at the Independence Square, Colombo with Hon. S. W.R.D. Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister delivering the funeral oration.

The first German Ambassador to Ceylon after the war Dr. Georg Ahrens was a regular participant in GDS functions and given pride of place befitting his rank without any qualification and disregarding a hard line adopted by powerful western and some commonwealth countries towards former Axis powers and their diplomats.

One of the most successful outcomes of Asoka Weeraratna`s Buddhist missionary efforts was the enlisting of Walther Schmits to help spread Buddhism in Schmits fatherland.

Conclusion

Hans Wolfgang Schumann in his seminal article ´Buddhism and Buddhist Studies in Germany´ recalled the services rendered by the GDS at a critical moment thereby contributing significantly to the survival of Buddhism in Germany, and posed the question “ Isn’t this for the Germans reason enough to be grateful? ”

Likewise the GDS and its membership wish to place on record our debt of gratitude to Walther Schmits for his large hearted contribution to the GDS in the 1950s to help spread Buddhism and ensure that the flame of the Dhamma is kept lit in Germany.   

Senaka Weeraratna

(Hony. Secretary, German Dharmaduta Society)


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