The Story of the Buddhist Publication Society
The Buddhist Publication Society is today one of the world’s major publishers of literature on Buddhism, but its beginnings were small and simple and its eventual course of development totally unforeseen by its founders. The birth of the Society goes back to late 1957, when Mr. A.S. Karunaratna, a devout Buddhist gentleman of Kandy, undertook to print a small booklet on Buddhism in English for free distribution in memory of a deceased relative. While the booklet was still in the press the idea occurred to him to start a series of such publications—small booklets paperbound and chiefly for distribution abroad. He discussed the project with a friend, Mr. Richard Abeyasekera, and with the German-born Buddhist monk, Ven. Nyanaponika Thera. They received the suggestion enthusiastically, and without further formalities the new project was launched.
Mr. Abeysekera, Ven. Piyadassi Thera, and Ven. Nyanaponika Thera
The three constituted themselves an informal society with the Ven. Nyanaponika as honorary secretary (later president) and editor, Mr. Karunaratna as honorary treasurer, and Mr. Abeyasekera as assistant secretary (later honorary general secretary). Thus, on New Year’s day 1958, the Buddhist Publication Society was born. Originally the founders intended to issue only a limited series of inexpensive booklets on basic Buddhist principles and then to end this venture into the publishing world, but the future held in store for their Society a course of development they could scarcely have foreseen during their initial meetings. For the formative period of the BPS coincided with the unexpected upsurge of a worldwide interest in Buddhism, and as this interest escalated so did the demand for authentic Buddhist literature. Thus the BPS found its first publications received with an enthusiastic welcome that far exceeded their expectations. Encouraged by this reception, they abandoned their original limited aim and decided to embark on an ongoing publishing programme which today still continues to grow.
Though being only a small publishing house located in a provincial town, the BPS has blossomed and thrived through the selfless service of its staff and the generous support of its well-wishers, friends, and volunteers. For the first thirty years of its life, the Society was guided by the mature and sagacious counsel of Ven. Nyanaponika Mahathera, who passed away in 1994 at the age of ninety-three. From 1984 to 2002 the editorship of the English-language publications was under the direction of the American monk Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, who also succeeded Ven. Nyanaponika as the president of the BPS in 1988. The Sinhala publications were under the direction of Ven. Piyadassi Nayaka Thera who passed away in 1998. From 2002 until 2005, the late Mr. Kariyavasam was the English as well as Sinhala editor of the BPS. In June 2005 Bhikkhu Nyanatusita accepted the English editorship. The day-to-day operations of the BPS are handled by a spirited staff who look upon their work not so much as a job but as an opportunity to express their own devotion to the Dhamma.
BPS publications represent the standpoint of Theravada Buddhism, whose Pali Canon is generally regarded as the oldest complete collection of Buddhist texts to survive intact. Titles published by the BPS include over fifty full-size books ranging from basic introductions to Buddhism to advanced works on the finer points of Buddhist doctrine and practice. Among its basic books are such classics as Narada Mahathera’s The Buddha and His Teachings, Piyadassi Thera’s The Buddhist Ancient Path, and Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli’s Life of the Buddha. The BPS publishes erudite yet readable translations of some of the most important works of the Pali Canon, such as the complete Digha Nikaya and Majjhima Nikaya, the Dhammapada, the Udana and Itivuttaka; a major contribution too is a series of detailed studies of individual suttas along with their commentaries. Since 1975 the Society has been honoured to maintain in print Bhikkhu Ñanamoli’s outstanding translation of the Visuddhimagga, entitled The Path of Purification, and for more specialized interests the BPS publishes the important A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma.
The BPS is perhaps best known for its two series of booklets—the Wheel and Bodhi Leaves—which used to be issued to all its associate members. The Wheel consists of substantial tracts covering a wide range of topics, from meditation to Buddhist perspectives on the ecocrisis; the series also includes translations from the Pali Canon. Bodhi Leaves consist of a series of shorter essays, more informal in tone, expressing personal insights into the Buddha’s Way. A Sinhala counterpart of the Wheel called Damsak used to be issued for our Sinhalese readers.
In late 1993 the BPS launched a Dhamma Dana Project intended to give our books and booklets a wider distribution. Under the Project, the BPS distributes, free of charge, about 100 copies of each new major book publication to selected Buddhist centres, viharas, and libraries around the world, inclusive of Sri Lanka. We also send a substantial portion of our Wheels, both new titles and reprints, to various centres for free distribution among their members.
Altogether BPS publications constitute a voluminous reference library on Theravada Buddhism. Here it should be pointed out that as the teachings emphasized by the Theravada form the foundation for the entire Buddhist tradition, BPS publications can help those involved in the study and practice of other forms of Buddhism discover the roots of their own traditions and gain an appreciation of the core of Buddhist doctrine common to all schools.