“Searching for Mary Foster” by Patricia Lee Masters

Buddhist scholar and teacher Patricia Lee Masters traveled half-way around the world, from Honolulu and Ceylon to India and Chicago, to find Mary Foster, granddaughter of a Native Hawaiian chief and British shipbuilder.

In “Searching for Mary Foster: Nineteenth-Century Native Hawaiian Buddhist, Philanthropist, and Social Activist” (2017), Masters narrates her journey of discovery about the lives of Mary Foster of Honolulu and Anagarika Dharmapala of Sri Lanka.

This slim volume is as much a reflection on spirituality and shared values that connect different people and cultures, as it is a biography about a single individual.

We learn a brief history of Buddhism in India; the impact of Anagarika Dharmapala on restoring the birthplace of Buddha, Bodh Gaya, to Buddhists; and Mary Foster’s influence on Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Hawaii.

Just one chapter is dedicated to Mary Elizabeth Mikahala Robinson Foster (1844-1930), who was the older sister of Victoria Ward, and a childhood friend to both Lydia Paki, who became Queen Lili‘uokalani, and Bernice Pauahi Bishop. We learn that Mary Foster was a strong-willed woman with a “horrible temper,” a fierce intellectual curiosity and a need to know more about spiritual ideas other than Christianity. She wrote, “My hunger for understanding remains unquenched, and I long for some way to better understand the world, God, and myself.”

She had both the passion and wealth to champion the causes she believed in: Buddhism and the Native Hawaiian people. Her dual passions may seem contradictory, one looking inward for meaning and one focused outward on society, but both reflect her generosity of spirit and dedication to helping others.

Mary Foster supported Anagarika Dharmapala’s quest to restore Bodh Gaya (the site of Buddha’s awakening). She also generously supported the Maha Bodhi Society, Foster Seminary for Seinhalese monks and nuns, and Foster Home (an orphanage in Colombo). In fact, a cutting from the Bodhi Tree in Sri Lanka was planted at Foster Estate in Honolulu, Hawaii. She was also critical in supporting Buddhism in Hawaii, donating land and funds to build Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii in Honolulu.

In Hawaii Mary Foster is perhaps best remembered for her legacy of Foster Botanical Garden. She also founded scholarships for Native Hawaiians to attend Kamehameha Schools and bought hospital beds for the needy at Kapiolani Hospital and Kapiolani Home (later Kapiolani Hospital for Women and Children). She was a determined activist, creating petitions protesting the annexation of Hawaii in 1893 and fighting to protect native trees and water rights in Kahana Valley on Oahu.

With her tremendous impact in Hawaii and Sri Lanka, it is inexplicable that Mary Foster’s life and work have largely been forgotten. It was frustrating to realize that, as Masters admits, “We will never know the real reasons for the family’s dismissal and silencing of the story of her life.”

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