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Theravada Buddhism in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera in his History of Buddhism (1956) took the view that Sri Lanka would have known about Buddhism during the time of the Buddha Himself, since there was regular contact between India and Sri Lanka during that period.
This view has been strengthened by the recent discovery that Anuradhapura has settlements from 10th century BC. Archaeologist Siran Deraniyagala has stated that Buddhism would have come into Sri Lanka early.
If so, then Buddhism was known in Sri Lanka long before the reign of King Dharmasoka and the arrival of Arhant Mahinda Thera in 3rd century BC.
E.W. Adikaram in his Early History of Buddhism (1946) had also concluded that Buddhism existed in Ceylon before the arrival of Arhant Mahinda Thera. He took the view that Arhant Mahinda Thera came to set up the monastic order.
He said that it was only after the conversion of King Devanampiyatissa that Buddhism became the State religion in Sri Lanka.
Historians now think that the meeting between Arhant Mahinda Thera and King Devanampiyatissa was pre-arranged. Communication would not have been a problem.
The Magadhi language, which Arhant Mahinda Thera spoke, would have been similar to Sinhala. The Asokan inscriptions are similar to Sinhala inscriptions of 3rd century BC.
The doctrine preached by Arhant Mahinda Thera in Sri Lanka was based on the Sthaviravadin School of Buddhist thought, known as Theravada. Theravada was considered the doctrine coming direct from the time of the Buddha.
Theravada established itself firmly in the island. The Sinhala kings and the three Nikayas - Mahavihara, Abhayagiri and Jetavana embraced the Theravada doctrine. In time, Sri Lanka came to be seen as the one country that had preserved Buddhism in its original form in the Theravada doctrine.
However, there was a strong Mahayana presence in Sri Lanka during the second half of the Anuradhapura period.
Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera says that Mahayana influence over the ideas and teaching of Theravada was persistent and that as time went on Mahayana ideas and practices crept slowly in the Theravada system and were accepted and incorporated into the orthodox teaching without question of their validity.
Mahavihara and Abhayagiri developed two different schools of Theravada thought. Mahavihara was conservatively Theravada and had its own interpretation of the Theravada doctrine.
Mahavihara teachings went to South India. R.A.L.H. Gunawardana says that most of the Pali works attributed to South Indian scholars are expositions of the teachings of the Mahavihara.
Abhayagiri, though receptive to Mahayana and Tantra, was a Theravada establishment and was recognised as such in India. Abhayagiri had its own interpretation of the Pali canon and its own commentaries. Abhayagiri disseminated Buddhism more energetically than Mahavihara. Ven. Hsuan Tsang Thera said that Abhayagiri 'widely diffused the Tripitaka'.
Sri Lanka made a unique contribution to the Theravada doctrine. The Sangha, with the support of the king, paid special attention to the preservation of the doctrine. The doctrine was memorised and transmitted orally from generation to generation of Monks.
The canon was divided into collections and each collection was given to a specific group of monks to memorise. Then in the reign of Vattagamani (89-77 BC), the Tripitaka was put into writing.
This was the first time that the Theravada doctrine had been recorded in writing and it was done in Sri Lanka. As a result, the Theravada canon, which disappeared from India, survived in Sri Lanka.
The Pali Tripitaka is very important. It contains the earliest Buddhist canon. It is also the only complete version. The Chinese, Tibetan and Sanskrit Tripitaka are fragmented. Paranavithana points out that the preservation of the Theravada canon ranks as the greatest contribution made by Sri Lanka to the intellectual heritage of the world. numerous commentaries.
The Sinhala contribution did not end there. Paranavithana says that Mahinda Thera brought with him the commentaries he had got from his teachers, explaining the terms used in Buddhism.
These were handed down with great care in the Sinhala monasteries. The Sinhala monks examined these commentaries and then wrote numerous commentaries of their own. These Sinhala commentaries formed a 'huge literature.'
One collection of such writings was said to be equal in volume to seven elephants of middle size. The earliest commentaries were the Maha Attakatha, the Maha Paecari and the Kurundi.
They were the three principal Sinhala works on which the subsequent commentaries of almost all the important texts of the Tripitaka were based. Short extracts from these Sinhala originals can be found in the Dampiya Atuva Getapadaya.
These Sinhala commentaries (Atuva) were greatly valued as a major contribution to Theravada. They eventually became the only commentaries available on Theravada.
The Sinhala Atuva were translated into Pali in the 5th century, by three Indian monks, Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta and Dhammapala.
Buddhaghosa, monk from Andhra or Telegu country, arrived in the reign of Mahanama (406-428) and translated selected Sinhala commentaries.
Task of translations
These are the Pali commentaries, which we now possess. Buddhaghosa was not given ready access to the commentaries. He was first examined by the Mahavihara to see whether he was capable of undertaking the task of translations. The two Cola monks Buddhadatta and Dhammapala came to Sri Lanka later and translated further Sinhala commentaries to Pali.
The belief that after Ven. Buddhaghosa Thera, the Sinhala commentaries were gathered together and destroyed by fire is incorrect.
The Sinhala commentaries did to go out of use as soon as the Pali version was made. The Sinhala commentaries were in use until at least the 10th century. These commentaries are now irretrievably lost.
The Sinhala Sangha provided new material to the Sutta Pitaka of the Theravada canon. The Kuddakapatha, the first book of the Khuddaka Nikaya was compiled and given canonical authority in Sri Lanka.
The Parivara Section of the Vinaya Pitaka was expanded and the Parajikapali and Pacittiyapali sections added. A valuable contribution was made on the question of Nibbana as a metaphysical entity, on the theory of phenomena, and on the development of the Theory of Double Truth as held in the Theravada Buddhism of the time.
Visudhimagga contained a chapter on the Theravada interpretation of the theory of dependant origination, where the twelve-fold theory was dealt with more deeply and more extensively than in other works.
This text carries a detailed exposition of the three-life interpretation of dependant origination. Sri Lanka also made a valuable contribution to Buddhology, by examining all references to the Buddha in the Buddhist texts.
Sri Lanka became a centre for Buddhist studies. Sinhala monks were admired for their strictly disciplined, austere style and for their scholarship. There were many scholars of repute. Foreign monks visited Sri Lankan monasteries to advance their knowledge of Buddhism. In the Anuradhapura period many South Indian monks came to Mahavihara in the Anurahdapura period to study under Sinhala Monks.
Three valued relics
The Chinese monk Fa Hsien Thera came in the reign of Mahanama (406-428) and stayed for about 2 years. He found many foreigners at Abhayagiri.
Two Cola monks Ven. Buddhamitta Thera and Kassapa Thera arrived during the reign of Parakramabahu I. Around the year 1171, the Burmese Monks Chapata Thera was studying in Sri Lanka.
He met Nanda Thera from Kachipura, as well as Sivali Thera, from Tamralipti, who had come to Sri Lanka to study the teachings of the Mahavihara. The son of the king of Cambodia was also in Sri Lanka preparing for his ordination. In the reign of Buvanekhabahu I (1272-1284) Dhammakitti Thera, a senior Monk from Ligor (Nakon Sri Thammarat) arrived in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka was an important place of worship and pilgrimage. Sri Lanka has three valued relics, the Tooth, Hair and Bowl Relics. The alms bowl and several other Relics of the Buddha including the right collarbone, came during Arhat Mahinda Thera's time.
The Kesa Dhatu arrived in Sri Lanka during the reign of Moggallana I (491-508). During the time of Kublai Khan (1260-1294 AD) a mission came from China to pay respect to the Buddha's alms bowl. King Thihathura (1469-1481) and his Queen made their hair into a broom, studded its handle with gems and sent it to sweep the floor of the Tooth Relic Temple in Kotte.
A branch of the Sacred Bodhi Tree had arrived with Sanghamitta Therani. It took root in Anuradhapura.
Saplings of this Tree were distributed all over the island, including Jambukolapatuna (Sambiliturai) and Kataragama. Sri Pada was known during the time of the Mahavamsa. It became a popular place of worship once Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) made it accessible.
Lineage of ordination
Sri Lanka possessed an unbroken lineage of ordination coming from the time of Arhat Mahinda Thera. This brought many persons into Sri Lanka for ordination.
They came from Burma, Cambodia, India and Thailand. Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera researching into Buddhism in the Anuradhapura period, found that two persons from India, a Brahmana from Pataliputra (Patna) and a wealthy merchant named Visakha came to Sri Lanka and were ordained as monks, having heard of the fame of one Ven. Mahanaga Thera of Sri Lanka. Those who could not come here obtained the Sinhala ordination from elsewhere.
In the 14th century a Thai monk went to Burma and received Upasampada from a Sinhala monk, Udumbaragiri.
The Sinhala monks propagated Theravada Buddhism in other countries. Bodhisri inscription at Nagarjunikonda (3rd century) says that monks from Sri Lanka helped entrench Buddhism in many regions in greater India and beyond, such as Kashmir, Gandhara and China.
The Sinhala Monks helped to establish Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. This contribution is still remembered. At a symposium on Nalanda held in Singapore in 2006, a number of speakers had made reference to Sri Lanka's historic role in the spread of Buddhism in South East Asia.
Sinhala monks were highly regarded in India. They were praised in an inscription at Nagarjunikonda, dated to 3rd century. Ven. Hiuen Tsang Thera, who was in India in the 7th century, said that the Sinhala Monks "were distinguished in their attitude to moral rules, in their power of abstraction and their wisdom.
Their manners were grave and imposing. Their correct conduct was an example for subsequent ages."
Sinhala Monks were highly regarded in India. They were praised in an inscription at Nagarjunikonda, dated to 3rd century. Ven. Hiuen Tsang Thera, who was in India in the 7th century, said that the Sinhala Monks “were distinguished in their attitude to moral rules, in their power of abstraction and their wisdom.
Their manners were grave and imposing. Their correct conduct was an example for subsequent ages.” The Tibetan Monk Dharmasvamin, writing around 1234, said the Sri Lankan Monks he met at Buddha Gaya always treated him courteously.
The Sinhala Sangha gradually established themselves as a prominent community at Buddha Gaya. They had started by going there on pilgrimage, usually in groups. The journey from Anuradhapura to Buddha Gaya took about ten or eleven months. Buddha Gaya has a resting place exclusively for them from the 3rd or 4th century.
From the 5th century onwards, the journey to North India was by sea, from Mahatittha to Tamralipti. The journey could be completed in one month and the number of Monks going to Buddha Gaya increased.
In the 6th century, two Sinhala monks one named Ven. Mahanama Thera, constructed a monastery and established a Buddha image at Buddha Gaya. By the 7th century, the resting place had become a Sangarama. It has storeyed halls and six courts with terraces.
An inscription of Lakshmana Sena in 1157 AD speaks of an endowment to Buddha Gaya. This was to be administer by the Sinhala Sangha.
Tibetan Monks Dharmasvamin Thera visited Buddha Gaya between 1234 and 1236 and noted that there were 300 Monks from Sri Lanka. They were in charge of the main shrine and had the exclusive right to sleep within its sacred precincts.
Sinhala monks also settled in South India. Parakramabahu II (1236-1270) had sent items for the use of Monks ‘settled in’ Pandya and Cola Kingdoms of Tamilnadu. I assume that these were Sinhala Monks. Monks also settled in Andhra Pradesh. The Vengi region of Andhra Pradesh was within easy reach.
The Naharallabodu Complex at Ven. Nagarjunikonda Thera resembles the monasteries at Anuradhapura. The overall plan and the position of the Monks cells, refectory, and image house was similar to those in Anuradhapura.
The Stupa design was also similar. It has brick walls instead of stone railings and two of the balustrades resembled Sinhala ones.
The complex had a ‘Sinhala Vihara’ dated to third century AD. It has a Bodhighaara and an image house. The Buddha Statue had relics enshrined in it. This was not the custom in India though it was quite common in Sri Lanka.
The moonstones also showed an affinity with the Sri Lankan moonstone. One was carved with figures of lion, elephant, bull and horse with figures of deer and bear added. This ‘Sinhala Vihara’ held a permanent community of Sinhala Monks.
Sinhala Vatthu Prakarana was translated into Pali at this Vihara. During the reign of Vijayabahu V (1335-1341), the Monks Silavamsa Dharmakirti There went to Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh and had a stone Vihara called Sri Dahanyataka built there.
There was a close link between the Sangha and the people. The Monk was a trusted teacher, guide and friend to the people. He was also a means of obtaining merit for the next life. The Sangha were called the ‘merit field’ where one could sow the seeds of merit and reap a good harvest in the next world.
When the Monks went on pilgrimage, they stopped and delivered sermons in the villages they passed through. It is recorded that Cittala Pabbata Monastery, near Tissamaharama was a noisy, crowded place unsuitable for quiet meditation as the people assembled in large numbers of pay homage to the Monks.
The public showed a genuine desire to study and master the doctrine. Classes intended for monks were sometimes converted to public lectures. When a learned Monk from Mahavihara went to study under Ven. Dhammarakkita Thera at Ruhuna, villagers built a big pavilion and listened to the exchanges between the Monks.
Some laymen knew the doctrine so well that they even delivered sermons. Some of the kings, such as Kassapa V were Buddhist scholars. Some high official of governments were also well versed in Buddhism. We come across a number of ministers who were learned enough to be commissioned to settle both ecclesiastical and doctrinal disputes.
However, the main public interest was in accumulating merit, Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera researching the Anuradhapura period, stated that acquiring merit was the motive underlying the religion of the laity from king down to peasant.
Good fortune was seen as the result of good Karma. Records were kept in royal families and also in the house of the rich known as ‘Merit Books’ (Punna Pottaka) where various important meritorious deeds were written down to be recited at death bed.
Merit was acquired through various means. Money was deposited in the temples for payment for wicks, oil, flowers and other items of worship. Nitalaviitiya Siva had deposited money for use by Devagiri Monastery.
The public attended Bana preaching. Ven. Walpoal Rahula Thera says that the public listened to preaching because they thought that they would gain merit simply by listening. The public also went on pilgrimages, ‘beautifully dressed according to Theri means’. Some went on pilgrimage to India as well.
The most popular method of acquiring merit was by giving Dana to the Sangha. According to the Kaludiyapokuna inscription several persons had arranged for meals to the Sangha at Dakkhinagiri Monastery. One devotee Dalana had deposited 23 Kalandas of gold for the purpose.
The Pali commentaries give instances where the poor fed the Monks even when they themselves were starving.
Some had mortgaged their children to give good to the Monks. One parent had worked in a sugar mill in order to liberate his mortgaged daughter, and then used the money to feed a Monk who was in danger of missing his midday meal.
The writings of O. Abeynayake, Y. Dhammavisuddhi, N. Dutt, C.E. Godakumbura, Siri Gunasinghe, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, H.B.M. Illangasinha, W.A. Jayawardana, N.A. Jayawickrema, P.V.B. Karunatilaka, S. Kiribamune, A. Liyanagamage, S. Paranavithana, Ven. Walpoal Rahula Thera, W.M. Sirisena and W.I. Siriweera were used for this essay. Mahavamsa quotations are from the Geiger translation, 1950.
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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.