Mary Robinson Foster

Mary Robinson Foster

(September 20, 1844 – December 29, 1930)

Mary Elizabeth Makahala Robinson was born in Honolulu on September 20, 1844. Her parents were John James Robinson, a shipwrecked English sailor, and Rebecca Kaikilani Prever, who was a descendant of the famous Hawaiian king Kamehameha I. Thus, Mary was related to Queen Liliʻuokalani, who was six years older, and was one of the monarch's closest friends. In 1860, Mary Robinson married Thomas R. Foster (1835-1889) of Nova Scotia, who had arrived in the Islands just three years earlier. He founded the Interisland Steam Navigation Company, and owned a shipyard, a shipping agency and a number of schooners. He died in 1889, leaving her a very wealthy widow, as she had also inherited substantial property from her father following his death in 1876. After her husband's death, Mary became interested in Theosophy, joining the Theosophical Society on May 12, 1882. Initially a member of the Golden Gate branch in San Francisco, she soon organized lectures and classes in Honolulu. She helped to organize the Aloha Branch in February 1894.


Mary Foster was Anagarika Dharmapala’s foremost benefactor after his father's death. She dedicated enormous sums of her wealth to his various causes and missions. They met in 1893 when Anagarika Dharmapala’s steamer, the Oceanic, docked in Honolulu (in Hawaii), on his way back to Ceylon, via Japan, from the inauguration of the Parliament of Religions in 1893. There began a friendship that spanned more than 40 years. As a Theosophist it is likely that Anagarika’s work and writings were familiar to Mary Foster long before they met and it is said that she confided her battle with grief over the death of her husband and her anger probably over the deposition of the Hawaiian monarchy. Anagarika Dharmapala had given her guidance in Buddhist meditation. This kindled her lifelong interest and support for Buddhism, especially, but not least, the financial assistance for the construction of the Mulagandhi Kuti Vihara in Sarnath, India. As Anagarika writes in his diary, while it was his father who planted the seed Bodhi in him and his mother taught him the doctrine of impermanence, it was Mary Foster who supported him after his father’s death. He believed this was the workings of the powers of the Dhamma: “There is none other except the Dharma to look up to. Strict adherence to the Dharma has been my principle. The Dharma protects me. The Dharma brought me in contact with Mrs Foster”.

In 1913 Anagarika Dharmapala gifted Mary Foster a cutting from the Sri Mahabodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Ceylon, which is a direct descendant of the "Bo" tree (Ficus Religiosa) under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. From the tree that took root in her garden, several other bo trees were provided to other gardens at Hawaiian Buddhist viharas and to the University of Hawaii - Manoa campus. At her death in 1930, her property was bequeathed to the city of Honolulu as its first botanical garden, The Foster Botanical Gardens. The bo tree now flourishes near the Nu’uanu Stream in the gardens.

Mary Foster provided funding to establish temples and for repairs to Buddhist temples in India and Ceylon, and to numerous schools, hospitals, and training programs in South Asia and Hawai'i. By some accounts she donated over USD 10 million by today’s standards to Buddhist causes. These are some of the projects she supported the:

Construction of Mulagandhi kuti Vihara at Sarnath in India.
· English-Sinhala free school at Rajagiri near Colombo.
· Hewavitarne Weaving School.
· Maha Bodhi Press in Colombo, and its journals in Sinhala and English. · Industrial School at Sarnath.
· Foster-Robinson Hospital for the Poor - a free ayurvedic hospital .
· Dharmarajika Vihara in Calcutta, India.
· Foster House at 86 Madeley Road, Ealing, London - opened on July 24, 1926 as the first missionary vihara to be founded outside the Asian continent. This also marked the birth of the British Mahabodhi Society.

Mary Foster and Angarika Dharmapala met for the final time in 1925. The Angarika Dharmapala Trust offers alms to Buddhist monks on her birth anniversary every year, according to the wishes of Anagarika Dharmapala. In 2019 the London Buddhist Vihara unveiled a portrait of Mary Foster, at the Vihara hall as part of Anagarika Dharmapala’s 155th birth anniversary commemorations.