Buddhism in Sri Lanka

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Buddhists in Sri Lanka
Anagarika Dharmapala.jpg
Official Photographic Portrait of Don Stephen Senanayaka (1884-1952).jpg
A T Ariyarathna.jpg
Total population
14,222,844 (2012)[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Western 4,288,797
 Southern 2,334,535
 North Western 1,754,424
 Central 1,665,465
 Sabaragamuwa 1,647,462
According to the Mahavamsa, the Great Stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, was dedicated by a 30,000-strong "Yona" (Greek) delegation from "Alexandria" around 130 BCE.
Avukana Buddha statue from 5th century
Gilded bronze statue of the Tara Bodhisattva, from the Anuradhapura period (8th century)
Bronze statue of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva. Sri Lanka, ca. 750.

Theravada Buddhism is the religion of about 70% of the population of Sri Lanka.[2]


Introduction of Buddhism[edit]

According to traditional Sri Lankan chronicles (such as the Dipavamsa), Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC by Venerable Mahinda, the son of the Emperor Ashoka, during the reign of Sri Lanka's King Devanampiya Tissa. During this time, a sapling of the Bodhi Tree was brought to Sri Lanka and the first monasteries and Buddhist monuments were established. Among these, the Isurumuni-vihāra and the Vessagiri-vihāra remain important centers of worship. He is also credited with the construction of the Pathamaka-cetiya, the Jambukola-vihāra and the Hatthālhaka-vihāra, and the refectory. The Pali Canon, having previously been preserved as an oral tradition, was first committed to writing in Sri Lanka around 30 BC.

The Mahavamsa (Chap. XXIX[3]) records that during the rule (165 BC - 135 BC) of the Greco-Bactrian King Menander I, also known as Milinda, "a Greek ("Yona") Buddhist head monk" named Mahadharmaraksita (literally translated as 'Great Teacher/Preserver of the Dharma') led 30,000 Buddhist monks from "the Greek city of Alasandra" (Alexandria of the Caucasus, around 150 km north of today's Kabul in Afghanistan), to Sri Lanka for the dedication of the Great Stupa in Anuradhapura, indicating that Greco-Buddhism contributed to early Sri Lankan Buddhism. (See also Milinda Panha.)

Theravāda subdivisions[edit]

Over much of the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, three subdivisions of Theravāda existed in Sri Lanka, consisting of the monks of the Mahāvihāra, Abhayagiri Vihāra, and the Jetavana Vihāra.[4] The Mahāvihāra was the first tradition to be established, while Abhayagiri Vihāra and Jetavana Vihāra were established by monks who had broken away from the Mahāvihāra tradition.[4] According to A.K. Warder, the Indian Mahīśāsaka sect also established itself in Sri Lanka alongside the Theravāda, into which they were later absorbed.[4] Northern regions of Sri Lanka also seem to have been ceded to sects from India at certain times.[4]

In the 7th century, the Chinese monk Xuanzang wrote of two major divisions of Theravāda in Sri Lanka, referring to the Abhayagiri tradition as the "Mahāyāna Sthaviras," and the Mahāvihāra tradition as the "Hīnayāna Sthaviras."[5] Abhayagiri Vihara appears to have been a center for Theravadin Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna teachings;[6] Xuanzang writes:[7]

The Mahāvihāravāsins reject the Mahāyāna and practice the Hīnayāna, while the Abhayagirivihāravāsins study both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna teachings and propagate the Tripiṭaka.

In the 8th century, it is known that both Mahāyāna and the esoteric Vajrayāna form of Buddhism were being practiced in Sri Lanka, and two Indian monks responsible for propagating Esoteric Buddhism in China, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, visited the island during this time.[8]

Accounts of Chinese pilgrims[edit]

In the 5th century, Faxian visited Sri Lanka and lived there for two years with the monks. Faxian obtained a Sanskrit copy of the Mahīśāsaka Vinaya at the Abhayagiri Vihāra, c. 406. The Mahīśāsaka Vinaya was then translated into Chinese in 434 by Buddhajiva and Zhu Daosheng.[9] This translation of the Mahīśāsaka Vinaya remains extant in the Chinese Buddhist canon as Taishō Tripiṭaka 1421.[10]

The 7th century pilgrim Xuanzang first learned for several years at Nālandā, and then intended on going to Sri Lanka to seek out further instruction. However, after meeting Sri Lankan monks in Chola who were refugees, he decided not to visit:[11]

... At the time of Hiuen Tsang's visit the [capital of Chola] was visited by 300 Bhikshus of Ceylon who had left the island in consequence of famine and revolution there. On the pilgrim telling them of his intended visit to Ceylon for instruction, they told him that there were no Brethren there superior to them. Then the pilgrim discussed some Yoga texts with them and found that their explanations could not excel those given to him by Śīlabhadra at Nālandā.

Abolition of other Theravāda traditions[edit]

Before the 12th century, more rulers of Sri Lanka gave support and patronage to the Abhayagiri Theravādins, and travelers such as Faxian saw the Abhayagiri Theravādins as the main Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka.[12][13] The trend of Abhayagiri Vihara being the dominant Theravāda sect changed in the 12th century, when the Mahāvihāra gained the political support of King Parakkamabāhu I (1153–1186), and completely abolished the Abhayagiri and Jetavana Theravāda traditions.[14][15] The Theravāda monks of these two traditions were then defrocked and given the choice of either returning to the laity permanently, or attempting re-ordination under the Mahāvihāra tradition as "novices" (sāmaṇera).[15][16] Parakkamabāhu also appointed a saṅgharāja, or "King of the Sangha," a monk who would preside over the Sangha and its ordinations in Sri Lanka, assisted by two deputies.[17]

Lineage continuity[edit]

Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any Buddhist nation, with the Sangha having existed in a largely unbroken lineage since its introduction in the 3rd century BC. During periods of decline, the Sri Lankan monastic lineage was revived through contact with Myanmar and Thailand.

Colonialism and Christianity[edit]

From the 16th century onward, Christian missionaries and Portuguese, Dutch and British colonizers of Sri Lanka have attempted to convert the local population to Christianity. In the mid 18th century the higher ordination of Buddhist monks known as Upasampada, which was defunct at the time, was revived with the help of Siamese Buddhist monks on the initiatives taken by Weliwita Sri Saranankara Thero during the reign of king Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe.[18] In 1813 the American Ceylon Mission (Protestant) is set up in Jaffna. In the late 19th century, a national Buddhist movement started, inspired by the American Buddhist Henry Steel Olcott, and empowered by the results of the Panadura debate between Christian priests and the Buddhist monks such as Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera and Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero.[19]

Mahāyāna legacy[edit]

Veneration of the Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva has continued to the present day in Sri Lanka, where he is called Nātha.[20] In more recent times, some western-educated Theravādins have attempted to identify Nātha with Maitreya Bodhisattva. However, traditions and basic iconography, including an image of Amitābha Buddha on his crown, identify Nātha as Avalokiteśvara.[21] Andrew Skilton writes:[22]

... It is clear from sculptural evidence alone that the Mahāyāna was fairly widespread throughout [Sri Lanka], although the modern account of the history of Buddhism on the island presents an unbroken and pure lineage of Theravāda. (One can only assume that similar trends were transmitted to other parts of Southeast Asia with Sri Lankan ordination lineages.) Relics of an extensive cult of Avalokiteśvara can be seen in the present-day figure of Nātha.

Early reports by Europeans from the 18th century describe the Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka as being engaged in the recitation of mantras, and using mālā beads for counting, as practiced in Mahāyāna Buddhism.[22]

Bhikkhuni ordination[edit]

A few years after the arrival of Mahinda, Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta, who is also believed to be the daughter of Emperor Ashoka, came to Sri Lanka. She started the first nun's order in Sri Lanka, but this order of nuns died out in Sri Lanka in the 11th century.

In 1996, 11 selected Sri Lankan nuns were ordained fully as bhikkhunis by a team of Theravāda monks in concert with a team of Korean nuns in India.[citation needed] There is disagreement among Theravāda vinaya authorities as to whether such ordinations are valid. In the last few years the head of the Dambulla chapter of the Siyam Nikaya in Sri Lanka has carried out ordination ceremonies for hundreds of nuns.[citation needed]

Buddhist monastic groups[edit]

A pagoda at Dambulla golden temple

The different sects of the Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy are referred to as Nikayas, and three main Nikayas are:

Within these three main divisions there are numerous other divisions, some of which are caste based. There are no doctrinal differences among any of them.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Tessa Bartholomeusz: First Among Equals: Buddhism and the Sri Lankan State, in: Ian Harris (ed.), Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia. London/New York: Continuum, 1999, pp. 173–193.
  • Mahinda Deegalle: Popularizing Buddhism: Preaching as Performance in Sri Lanka. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006.
  • Richard Gombrich: Theravada Buddhism: a social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo. 2nd rev. ed. London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Langer, Rita. Buddhist Rituals of Death and Rebirth: A study of contemporary Sri Lankan practice and its origins. Abingdon: Routledge, 2007. ISBN 0-415-39496-1

Notes & references[edit]

  1. ^ "A3 : Population by religion according to districts, 2012". Census of Population & Housing, 2011. Department of Census & Statistics, Sri Lanka. 
  2. ^ "The World Factbook: Sri Lanka". CIA World Factbook. Retrieved 2006-08-12. .
  3. ^ Full text of the Mahavamsa Click chapter XXIX
  4. ^ a b c d Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. 2000. p. 280
  5. ^ Baruah, Bibhuti. Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. 2008. p. 53
  6. ^ "Esoteric Buddhism in Southeast Asia in the Light of Recent Scholarship" by Hiram Woodward. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Jun., 2004), p. 341
  7. ^ Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 121
  8. ^ Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. pp. 125-126
  9. ^ Hsing Yun. Humanistic Buddhism. 2005. p. 163
  10. ^ The Korean Buddhist Canon: A Descriptive Catalog (T 1421) 
  11. ^ Mookerji, Radhakumud. Ancient Indian Education: Brahmanical and Buddhist. 1989. p. 520
  12. ^ Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 125
  13. ^ Sujato, Bhikkhu. Sects & Sectarianism: The Origins of Buddhist Schools. 2006. p. 59
  14. ^ Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 126
  15. ^ a b Williams, Duncan. Queen, Christopher. American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship. 1999. p. 134
  16. ^ Gombrich, Richard. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History From Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 1988. p. 159
  17. ^ Gombrich, Richard. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 1988. p. 159
  18. ^ Weliwita Sri Saranankara Theroenerable Weliwita Sri Saranankara Mahathera,Dr. Daya Hewapathirane, Lankaweb
  19. ^ Buddhists must safeguard religion, Sangha - Thera,Daily News
  20. ^ Baruah, Bibhuti. Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. 2008. p. 137
  21. ^ "Art & Archaeology - Sri Lanka - Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara". 
  22. ^ a b Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. 2004. p. 151

External links[edit]