Mary's Gifts

A new biography recounts the life of heiress and philanthropist Mary Foster, whose legacy enduresin Hawai‘i and Sri Lanka
Story by Kamal Kapadia.

Pat Masters stood reading the inscription on the marble plaque. It was hot and dusty outside in the chaotic city of Sarnath, India. But Pat was indoors, by the prayer room in the Mulagandhakuti Temple, and the setting could not have been more peaceful.

Or more sacred: The Mulagandhakuti Temple marks the site where the Buddha, in the sixth century BCE, is said to have delivered his first teachings after attaining enlightenment. As a Buddhist and a scholar of Buddhism, Pat had longed to visit Sarnath for years. Now there she was, finally, in 1996, squinting at a sign that, oddly, made her think of Honolulu:

Mulagandhakuti Temple
Erected by The Anagarika Dharmapala
Founder and General Secretary of
The Mahabodhi Society
With the help of
Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Foster

Of Honolulu, and others

On the site where

Lord Buddha

Promulgated the teachings
2,500 years ago

Pat’s head buzzed. Who is Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Foster of Honolulu? Why is her name on this sacred Buddhist monument? What’s her connection to the Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala? When she was not traveling in South Asia, Pat lived in Honolulu. But the name Mary Foster rang no bells, except for its possible association with Foster Botanical Garden in downtown Honolulu. Pat resolved to investigate when she got home.

Twenty-one years later Pat sits beaming at me in her tidy apartment in Mānoa. On even this overcast winter day, her apartment is still filled with light. The orchids perching on the windowsills seem to watch as Pat excitedly hands me a book: Searching for Mary Foster: Nineteenth-Century Native Hawaiian Buddhist, Philanthropist, and Social Activist. Published by the American Buddhist Study Center, the book has been two decades in the making. The opening scene describes Pat’s encounter with the plaque in Sarnath. The rest recounts the life and times of Mary Foster, a turn-of-the-century Hawaiian heiress who built a lasting legacy in India, Sri Lanka and Hawai‘i. Pat’s book is the first comprehensive biography of this remarkable woman.

Mary Elizabeth Mikahala Robinson was born in 1844, the first of nine children of Kaikilani Rebecca and John James Robinson. Her mother was part-French, part-Hawaiian and a descendant of ali‘i (chiefs) from Maui and Hawai‘i Island. Her father was a British shipbuilder. By all reports she had a happy childhood at the family home in Nu‘uanu. At age 16 she married Thomas Foster, a man in her father’s employ. Soon after they were married, he built the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company in the 1880s, initiating the first mail delivery service among the Islands. With business prospering, the Fosters bought and moved into the property that would eventually become Foster Botanical Garden.

During a trip to San Francisco in 1889, Thomas took ill and died, leaving Mary widowed and childless at age 45. “For some years,” Pat writes, “It was exceedingly difficult for Mary to recover from the loss, and she spent much of her time traveling, far from her home and family.” Then an expected encounter with a Sri Lankan Buddhist gave her new purpose.

Dharmapala Anagarika was a renowned spiritual teacher and Buddhist activist. “Dharmapala was and still is a highly revered person in Sri Lanka,” Pat writes. “And the Sinhalese people credit him with bringing Buddhism back to life there. He is regarded as a national hero and is also viewed as a defender of civil rights and freedom.” Dharmapala first heard of Mary Foster when he was attending the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Already famous in Sri Lanka and India, the handsome Dharmapala caused a stir at the Parliament, speaking eloquently in English about Buddhism as a progressive, reformist, modern religion.

He also spoke about his most dearly held cause: the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India, which marks the site where the Buddha is believed to have gained enlightenment. At the time, a sect of Hindu priests managed the ruined temple. Dharmapala founded the Mahabodhi Society in Sri Lanka and India to work for the temple’s return to Buddhist control and to restore it. It was this mission that brought him to Mary Foster. “Several people have told me about a Mrs. Mary Foster, a part-native woman living in Hawaii,” he wrote in his diary while at the Parliament. “And I am hopeful that this kind lady will see fit to help me in my quest to save Buddha Gaya.”

The kind lady did indeed see fit. They met aboard the USS Oceania, when it docked for a day in Honolulu. As the ship pulled into the harbor, Dharmapala felt buoyed by the view and hopeful about the meeting. But Mary’s mood was dark. When they met, Pat writes, Mary expressed “her great anger and sadness that was fueled mostly by the recent events in Honolulu. She spoke of her friend Queen Lili‘uokalani and her imprisonment in the palace. She must have related details about American marines charging ‘Iolani Palace and over-throwing the Hawaiian Queen.” The year was 1893, and just a few months prior to Mary and Dharmapala’s meeting, armed US soldiers had forced Queen Lili‘uokalani
to abdicate the throne.

Mary also confided in Dharmapala about her personal grief over the loss of her husband. During the brief visit, Dharmapala taught Mary a form of mindfulness meditation called Vipassana. He also gave her a copy of the Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification, a fifth-century Buddhist manual for righteous living, a book that she cherished for the rest of her life.

“Dharmapala spoke to Mary at that first meeting of his desire to restore Bodh Gaya and he likely made a plea to her to help him realize the project,” Pat writes. The friendship that began aboard the USS Oceania lasted a lifetime. For the next four decades, Mary and Dharmapala corresponded frequently, and Dharmapala came to refer to his Hawaiian friend as his “foster mother.”

Mary also became the chief sponsor of Dharmapala’s projects. Pat calculates that over her lifetime Mary donated the equivalent of $10 million in today’s currency to Dharmapala’s Mahabodhi Society. Some of the trusts funded by her still provide for Sri Lankans in need. Although Dharmapala and Foster never saw the Mahabodhi Temple restored to full Buddhist control, they set in motion a process that created shared Buddhist-Hindu management of the sacred site. Mary’s legacy in Sri Lanka is cemented into modern life: A street in Colombo is named Foster Lane, and at the Foster-Robinson Hospital the poor can still receive free ayurvedic treatment.

Mary’s contributions in Hawai‘i were equally remarkable. She donated land along Pali Highway for the construction of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission, the first Buddhist temple in Honolulu, and she also supported the Hongwanji High School. She was a champion of the cause of the Hawaiian people and involved in political movements to restore Queen Lili‘uokalani to the throne after her overthrow. She established scholarships at Kamehameha Schools, bought beds at Kap‘iolani Hospital for those who could not pay and purchased lands that would otherwise have been owned by haole (foreign) investors to enable Native Hawaiians to stay. Before her death in 1930, she bequeathed her beloved home and estate to the city of Honolulu to create Foster Botanical Garden.

I ask Pat what she imagines Mary’s personality was like. “I think she had a cynical sense of humor,” she replies. “And she had something of a temper, it seems! But you know, I wish I could have known more about her.” This might sound surprising at first—Pat knows more about Mary than possibly any other person alive. But also, there are mysteries about her life that Pat has not been able to answer.

Was Mary a Buddhist herself? Scraps of evidence suggest she might have been, but she still had a Christian burial, possibly against her wishes. Did she ever travel to India or Sri Lanka? Did she have a lover after her husband’s death? And, most intriguing to Pat, why is her story so unknown? “How,” Pat writes, “could some-one who had such an impact in the world be so unknown, so unacknowledged, especially in her homeland of Hawai‘i nei?”

One thing we do know is that Mary met Dharmapala at least one more time in Honolulu. On that visit Dharmapala gave her a cutting of the sacred and ancient Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. That tree is widely believed to be cultivated from a cutting from the original bodhi, or fig tree, in Bodh Gaya under which the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment. Mary planted the cutting on her property, and visitors to Foster Garden today can stand under its shade-giving branches and consider its heart-shaped leaves, the likeness of which danced over the head of the Buddha two millennia prior.

Searching for Mary Foster is an academically rigorous book, meticulously sourced and annotated. But differing from a standard academic treatment, it’s warm and familiar in tone because this is so much more than an academic project for Pat. When she speaks and writes about Mary, she does so with the fondness of a dear friend.

“Once I started to know more,” Pat tells me, “I just felt closer and closer to her. I felt somehow that I was channeling her or that I knew her. And I kept being pushed by that. Especially the whole Buddhist role or aspect to her life—once I found there was such a deep link, I felt a kind of ringing in my own soul.”

By the time she went to Sri Lanka, Pat had been practicing Buddhism for forty years. After a year in Japan during college, she studied Buddhism in graduate school. That was just the first of her three master’s degrees and a doctorate. Alongside her academic work, she carved out time to lead American college students on study-abroad programs in Japan and India, do development work in Sri Lankan villages, have two children and take vows and enter into monastic life as a Buddhist nun in Bodh Gaya, India.

Most recently, just before she retired, Pat served as assistant director of the Office of Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity (SEED) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She focused on enhancing access for disadvantaged groups to college education, receiving recognition from the East-West Center for her contributions to student affairs and diversity.

From Buddhism Pat also draws remarkable fortitude. She suffers from metastatic cancer, but she’s unfazed by her frightening prognosis. Three years ago she had a similar diagnosis, and the cancer went into spontaneous remission. Her oncologist had asked her, astounded, what she thought was the cause for this seemingly miraculous healing. “It’s love,” she had told him matter-of-factly. “Just love.”

If there’s one thing, then, that has defined Pat’s life, it’s love: a love of life, of people, of adventure, of the Buddha and of the unusual and inspiring Mary Foster. “Love,” in fact, is the word Pat used most frequently in our chats for this story. “I love that we’re doing this together,” she says, radiating contentment. HH