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Dr. Paul Dahlke's contact with Buddhism

by Kurt Fischer (The private Secretary of Dr. Paul Dahlke)

Dr. Paul Dahlke was born on the 25th January,1865, at Osterode in East Prussia. While still a child, he experienced some of the hardships of life. His father was a civil servant and a large family was brought up on a very modest income, so that privation and self-denial were part of the daily life at his home.

After some years at a preparatory school, Paul Dahlke attended the secondary school at Frankfurt-on-Main. On the completion of his education in Frankfurt, he pursued medical studies; and after his examinations, applied himself to homoeopathy, perceiving instinctively that this method of healing was most suited to his talent.

Dr. Dahlke was one of those physicians who were not mere routine practitioners. He was a real healer, as expressed by the German word "Arzt" (a doctor), which is derived from the Greek word archiatros, "Supreme Healer". So it came that this young doctor met with exceptional success and soon his reputation extended far beyond his place of work, Berlin.

But Dr. Dahlke's genius was far too active for restricting itself to medical practice alone. It drove him beyond the boundaries of the commonplace into realms of thought, which lay quite outside his professional work. Even in his remarkable achievements as a physician, he displayed a keen sense of actuality (Wirklichkeit), i.e. of 'things as they really are', a mental quality with which only few people are generously endowed. Dr. Dahlke was drawn to fields outside medicine, to the religious ideas of the East, and finally to the teachings of the Buddha. Schopenhauer's writings had made the first impact on him, but soon he out grew them in his untiring research and inquiry.

We cannot do better than repeat here the words by which Dr. Dahlke himself described his first contact with Buddhism and its effect on him:

"It was not in the shape of an emotional shock or of some decisive event that Buddhism entered my life. Slowly, imperceptibly, like the seed in the ground, did it take root and grow when, in 1898, I started on my first long voyage. I had already known Buddhism for some time, but in spite of this, at that time, not India but the South Seas were the goal of my desire. Tahiti and Oweihi, as described in Chamisso's writings, attracted me more than all the wisdom of India; and when, on June 1898, I landed at Apia in the Island of Sama, it appeared to me as the perfect fulfilment of my life."

"After about a year I returned home again, and the Buddha's teaching must have been developing silently in me unperceived; for already when in the following year, I set out again on travels, it was with the avowed aim of India; and not India alone, but Buddhism."

"In the spring of 1900 I reached Colombo, and had the great and good fortune to find at once good teachers who could give me instruction on Buddhism: Sri Sumangala Thera of Maligakanda Vihãra, at a suburb of Colombo, was already an old man, but his intellect was still astonishingly keen; and Ñãnissara Thera, his first co-worker, who took his place after his death, and who now, unfortunately, has also passed away. Then there was the young Bhikkhu Suriyagoda Sumangala of Sri Vardhanarama (Colpetty) with whom I have ever since kept up a close friendship; and finally, the Pandit Wagiswara who, at that time, lived at Payagala, on the South coast of Ceylon. To him I owe most of my first understanding of Buddhism because he who could best adapt him self to the Western View point, and also had a through grasp of English."

"It was then, in 1900, that I made my official entry into Buddhism and it's teachings. Since that time I have been constantly travelling back and forth between India and my native Germany; and most of the time I was ill, partly due to the climate, partly through my own fault: being dissatisfied with these restless wanderings, and yet ever drawn back to India."

The outcome of this inner awakening to the Dhamma was a number of books, the real value of which lay in the fact that they made Buddhist thought accessible to the outlook of the Westerner. Most of his major works have been translated into English, and some have also been rendered into Dutch and Japanese.

There will always be people who combine energy and purposefulness with an original and creative mind. To their ranks belong all who are called "great men". Such was the mind of Dr. Paul Dahlke who occupies quite an exceptional place in the history of western thought. He possessed not only an incredible store of energy, combined with a keen intellect and an artist's sensitivity and creativity; but, and here lies Dahlke's special greatness, he also had a keen sense of actuality which rose above all conventions. As a result of that exceptional combination of qualities, he had a strong urge towards inner purity and honesty, which did not allow him to shrink from the most radical consequences of his thought.

Up to the year 1914, Dr. Dahlke undertook several journeys to many of the great countries of the world. He once said jocularly of him self: "I was like a comet, swishing through the world." But the strongest attraction for him were the places of ancient Buddhist culture, chiefly, Ceylon. Shortly before the outbreak of the first world war, Dahlke had returned to Germany, and owing to the changed conditions consequent on the out break of war, he found him self confined to his home country. The only way by which he could adapt himself to circumstances, seemed to him the resumption of his medical practice, given up completely during the latter years; and soon it became known among his old patients, that Dr. Dahlke was again enjoying his great medical knowledge and skill in the service of the ailing.

But more and more the knowledge grew in Dahlke that there was no greater need for the peoples of the West than a true understanding of Buddhism. His earlier writings had already served to introduce this teaching; and now Dr. Dahlke saw the necessity for producing reliable German translations of the Buddhist scriptures. Though there existed in German language a great many translations from the Pãli texts, almost all, and especially the well-known renderings by Karl Eugen Neumann, were more or less tainted with admixtures foreign to the spirit of the pure teaching. Thus originated Dr. Dahlke's translations of the Dhammapada, and parts of the Dîgha-Nikãya and Majjhima-Nikãya. These books were not mere translations; they were at the same time works of doctrinal instructions in which the author, in copious explanatory notes, embodied the result of twenty years study and personnel experience. At that time he also started a quarterly periodical, the "New Buddhist Journal" (Neu-Buddhistische Zeitschrift), entirely written by him self. In that magazine, he showed in a unique, and ever fresh and stimulating way, how Buddhism can have a decisive influence on the solution of all great problems of life.

But a spirit so bent on the realization of what he knew to be the Truth, could not for long be satisfied with mere literary work in the cause of Buddhism. Soon arose in him the idea of a "Buddhist House" which was to be a meeting place for those who were no longer in accord with their inherited religion and felt that materialism was not in keeping with true human dignity.

strassen-ansichtA few years after the end of the first world war, just when the difficulties due to inflation of the German currency were at their peak, a favourable opportunity presented it self for acquiring about nine acres of wooded land at Frohnau, a suburb of Berlin. Now Dr. Dahlke devoted all his energies to the realization of this great idea: to establish a home for Buddhism in Germany. The task was completed very slowly, in gradual progress. The difficulties with which he had to contend may be estimated from the fact that the currency inflation in Germany had almost obliterated his financial means for carrying out the project. Thus the money needed for constructing the House had first to be earned, day by day, by hard work, in Dr. Dahlke's consultation room. Nevertheless he was determined to carry out his plan, and in August 1924 the construction of the Buddhist house was so far advanced that Dr. Dahlke and a few of his disciples were able to move in. It was his intention that the House should be a monument, a visible expression, of the teaching: and new plans constantly issued from his fertile brain, for expanding the first lay out. Besides the House proper, containing the living quarters and a library, a meeting Hall was built close by, and separate rooms and cells for accommodating guests who wished to stay there some time for quiet contemplation and for receiving instruction in the Buddhist teachings.

The Buddhist House was conceived as a place devoted to inner purification, as far as this could be achieved in a life of compromise between the life of a Buddhist Monk and western conditions. It could not well be a monastery since both the material and spiritual requirements were lacking. Therefore it was to be a mid-way solution between a monastery and a layman's habitation. The Five Precepts were to be the basic rules of conduct for the residents, and their further endeavours for inner purification was to bestow a characteristic atmosphere to the House. Only those who have tried it can appreciate the difficulty of doing this under western conditions. In a world where the lusts of life and a brutal struggle for existence were dominant, the courageous attempt of Dr. Dahlke and the small band of his followers, was like the struggle of a small boat against the mountainous waves of a stormy sea.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Dr. Dahlke's strength was entirely consumed by his last few years' work in connection with the Buddhist House. Dr. Dahlke had mentioned several times to his friends how weak his heart was; and in fact with out the high degree of inner composure, which he owed to Buddhism, he could never have worked as long as he did. For about a year, a severe cold had troubled him, over which he was unable get control. It was only his constant thought on the Dhamma and his plans connected therewith, which enabled him to withstand for some time the relapses that occured after a grave crisis in his illness. Also another project, that of founding a House of Retreat on the North Sea Island of Sylt, and literary plans, occupied him constantly. But death prevented the realization of this plans. Early in 1928, Dr. Paul Dahlke passed away from the scene of his labours.

Until now hardly an attempt has been made to give an adequate appreciation of Dr. Dahlke's unique personality and of the significant place he held in the mental life of the West and in the forceful and penetrative presentation of the Buddha's Teaching. May the time come soon when his great work is fully understood and utilized for the benefit of humanity.


The German Dharmaduta Society, founded in 1952 by Ashoka Weeraratna, purchased the premises from the heirs of Dr. Dahlke in 1957, and converted it into a Buddhist Vihãra with resident monks drawn from Sri Lanka and other countries. It is now a Centre for the spread of Theravãda Buddhism in Europe. The German public authorities have designated "Das Buddhistische Haus" (the oldest Buddhist institution in Europe) as a National Heritage site. It is also an unique monument for the growing Buddhist cultural ties between Sri Lanka and Germany.

Bhikkhu Sîlacara's tribute

Bhikkhu Sîlacara (J.B. Mc Kechnie) pays the following tribute to Dr. Paul Dahlke: "In Dr. Paul Dahlke, the Buddhist cause in Europe possessed one of the most efficient and able pens, backed by what was certainly the most able and efficient brain that has no far appeared in Europe to champion and propagate the idea contained in the Buddha-Dhamma."


The Anagãrika Dharmapala tribute

dharmapalaThe Anagãrika Dharmapala pays the following tribute to Dr. Dahlke : "The Sinhala Buddhists have every reason to be proud of the achievement of Dr. Dahlke of Germany for it was in Ceylon that he learned Pãli under such well known scholars as the Thera Sumangala and Pandit Wagiswara. For more than twenty years he has been reading and translating pali texts, and in Europe there is no more spirituality-minded Pãli scholar than Dr. Dahlke. He has travelled all over Ceylon, visited the ancient Vihãras, and has been to historic Buddhist places in India and Burma. It is the personality of Dr. Dahlke that attracts people to him, in his daily life he is a living example to his disciples, strictly observing the five Precepts, and still attending to his professional duties. It will be hard to find a better Buddhist than Dr. Dahlke. He is a strict vegetarian and takes no alcohol. His literary labours have won him fame in Germany."



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