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Samdach Preah Dharmawara Bellong Mahathera: The Great Dhammaduta Monk of Cambodia

Samdach Preah Vira Dharmawara Bellong Mahathera (1889-1999)
Samdach Preah Vira Dharmawara Bellong Mahathera (1889-1999) also known as Bhante Dharmawara was the first Cambodian monk who went to India from Thailand and Burma in order to propagate the teachings of the Buddha in the land of its origin–India. 

The first interesting thing about him to be mentioned is that he was a symbol of relationship and friendship between Cambodian Head of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk and first Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He was a spiritual advisor to Prince Sihanouk. He was an official delegate accompanied Prince Norodom to Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955. On the other hand, he was said to be a personal physician of Pandit Nehru. He cured one of Nehru’s parents by his natural healing methods. In gratitude, Pandit Nehru offered him land to build a temple named Asoka Mission Vihara in Mehrauli, Delhi in 1950, where he spent most of his life before he permanently left for the US in 1976. It’s emotional to learn that Samdach Dharmawara Mahathera kept watch at the deathbed of Pandit Nehru with silent prayers (May 1964).

Being the first Cambodian Dhammaduta in India, Samdach Dharmawara was the first president of Asoka Mission Vihara. The Mission sole objective was to propagate the teaching of the Buddha inspired by Emperor Asoka’s life and works for establishing lasting peace in the world through devotion and spreading the teachings of boundless love and compassion friendship and brotherhood as preached by the Buddha.

Under his prime leadership, Asoka Mission Vihara had become an important Buddhist learning centre in independence India. As mentioned in its monthly publication, The Right Action, due to his untiring efforts, as of 1961, “a quite decent Vihara with a Shrine in it, a Meditation Centre, a Sima Hall with Sima duly consecrated and an International Youth Hostel and a Health Centre based on the nature cure principles have been established.” It received many international students from different countries. Its ultimate aim was to establish an International Academy of Buddhist Studies. 

It is important to note that Asoka Mission Vihara was also functioning as an Indo-Cambodian Friendship Society and it received His Royal Highness, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, as the guest of honour during his two-week-long visit to India in 1963. Therefore, Asoka Mission attached with historical value and friendship between Cambodia and India.

His life was very influential. According to his close disciple, Dr Russell Jaffe, Samdach Dharmawara Mahathera “had worked with Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Patel.” He also mentioned that “Bhante also converted Ambedkar to Buddhism” in 1956. Subsequently, B.R. Ambedkar converted millions of Untouchable Dalits to Buddhism. 

Samdach Dharmawara Mahathera was an active advocate for vegetarianism. Despite his constant travels, he strove to lead a simple life, continuing to subsist on vegetables and nuts. “You are not what you think. You are what you eat and drink,” he often said. Presiding over the 15th World Vegetarian Congress in Bombay in 1957, he said that a vegetarian diet which was far superior to meat diet would make people stronger, healthier and spiritual minded. His colour mediation methods have been practised by many people. 

His teachings have been recognised by all Buddhist major denominations, Theravada, Mahayana and Zen. He was venerated by followers of different sects of Buddhism.

He was very healthy. By 80 he felt and functioned well, followed by three decades of sage-ing, mentoring, and inspiring. He passed away by natural causes in Stockton, California on June 26, 1999, at the age of 110. His ashes were dispersed in Cambodia and in a stupa in Asoka Mission Vihara in New Delhi, India. 

From this brief note, we may come to the conclusion that Samdach Dharmawara was one of the great Dhammaduta monks of Cambodia during his time.
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