Buddhism in Sri Lanka

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Buddhists in Sri Lanka
Venerable Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera (1823-1890).jpg
Anagarika Dharmapala.jpg
Official Photographic Portrait of Don Stephen Senanayaka (1884-1952).jpg
Nissanka Parakrama.jpg
Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranayaka (1916-2000) (Hon.Sirimavo Bandaranaike with Hon.Lalith Athulathmudali Crop).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. Sri Lanka, ca. 750.

Theravada Buddhism is the religion of about 70% of the population of Sri Lanka.[2] The island has been a center of Buddhist scholarship and learning since the introduction of Buddhism in the third century BCE producing eminent scholars such as Buddhaghosa and preserving the vast Pāli Canon. Throughout most of its history, Sinhalese kings have played a major role in the maintenance and revival of the Buddhist institutions of the island. During the 19th century, a modern Buddhist revival took place on the island which promoted Buddhist education and learning. There are around 6,000 Buddhist monasteries on Sri Lanka with approximately 15,000 monks.[3]


Introduction of Buddhism[edit]

According to traditional Sri Lankan chronicles such as the Dipavamsa, Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka in the third century BCE after the Third Buddhist council by Mahinda Bhikkhu, son of Emperor Ashoka, during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura. 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 Isurumuniya and the Vessagiri 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 BCE.

Mahavamsa §29[4] records that during the rule of the Greco-Bactrian King Menander I, a Yona head monk named Mahadharmaraksita led 30,000 Buddhist monks from "the Greek city of Alasandra" (v, around 150 kilometres (93 mi) north of modern Kabul, Afghanistan) to Sri Lanka for the dedication of the Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura, indicating that Greco-Buddhism contributed to early Sri Lankan Buddhism. See also the Milinda Panha.

Center of Pali literature[edit]

As as a result of the work of Buddhaghosa and other compilers such as Dhammapala, Sri Lanka developed a strong tradition of written textual transmission of the Pali Canon. The compilation of the Atthakatha (commentaries) along with the Nikāyas and other Pitakas were committed to writing for the first time in the Aluvihare Rock Temple during the first century BCE.[3] Buddhist literature in Sinhalese also thrived and by 410, Sri Lankan monks traveled widely throughout India and Asia introducing their works.

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 three mahaviharas, Anuradhapura Maha Viharaya, Abhayagiri vihāra and Jetavanaramaya.[5] The Anuradhapura Maha Viharaya was the first tradition to be established while Abhayagiri vihāra and Jetavanaramaya were established by monks who had broken away from the Maha Viharaya tradition.[5] According to A.K. Warder, the Indian Mahīśāsaka established itself in Sri Lanka alongside the Theravadas, into which they were later absorbed.[5] Northern regions of Sri Lanka also seem to have been ceded to sects from India at certain times.[5]

In the 7th century, Xuanzang wrote of two major divisions of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, referring to the Abhayagiri tradition as the "Mahayana Sthaviras," and the Mahāvihāra tradition as the "Hinayana Sthaviras."[6] Abhayagiri appears to have been a center for Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings;[7] Xuanzang writes, "The Mahāvihāravāsins reject the Mahāyāna and practice the Hīnayāna, while the Abhayagirivihāravāsins study both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna teachings and propagate the Tripiṭaka.[8]

In the 8th century, both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism were being practiced in Sri Lanka, and two Indian monks responsible for propagating Vajrayana Buddhism in China, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, visited the island during this time.[9]

In Pali commentaries, terms used for the Mahayanins of Abhayagiri were Vaitulya, Vaipulya and Vaidalya. According to HR Perera, the Theravada commentaries considered them heretical and their doctrines included:

They held the view that the Buddha, having been born in the Tusita heaven, lived there and never came down to earth and it was only a created form that appeared among men. This created form and Ānanda, who learned from it, preached the doctrine. They also held that nothing whatever given to the Order bears fruit, for the Sangha, which in the ultimate sense of the term meant only the path and fruitions, does not accept anything. According to them any human pair may enter upon sexual intercourse by mutual consent.[3]

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 Vinaya of the Mahīśāsaka at the Abhayagiri vihāra c. 406. The Mahīśāsaka Vinaya was then translated into Chinese in 434 by Buddhajiva and Zhu Daosheng.[10] This translation of the Mahīśāsaka Vinaya remains extant in the Chinese Buddhist canon as Taishō Tripiṭaka 1421.[11]

The 7th century pilgrim Xuanzang first learned for several years at Nalanda and then intended to go to Sri Lanka to seek out further instruction. However, after meeting Sri Lankan monks in the Chola capital who were refugees, he decided not to visit:

At the time of Hiuen Tsang's visit the capital 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.[12]

Decline and revival[edit]

From the 5th century to the eleventh century, the island of Sri Lanka saw continuous warfare between local kings, pretenders and foreign invaders such as the South Indian Chola and Pandyan dynasties. This warfare saw the sacking of viharas and made the situation for difficult for Buddhism.[3] In 1070, Vijayabahu I of Polonnaruwa conquered the island and set about repairing the monasteries. The state of Sri Lankan Buddhism was so bad at this time that he could not find five bhikkhus in the whole island to ordain more monks and restore the monastic tradition; therefore, he sent an embassy to Burma, which sent back several eminent elders with Buddhist texts.[3] The king oversaw the ordination of thousands of monks. The royal reforming of Sri Lankan Buddhism continued under Parakramabahu I (c. 1153), who restored many stupas and monasteries. During this period, Sri Lankan Buddhist literature thrived once again and the three greats writers Mahakassapa of Dimbulagala Raja Maha Vihara, Moggallana Thera and Sariputta Thera compiled Pali commentaries and sub-commentaries. Parakramabahu II of Dambadeniya (from c. 1236) was a learned king and wrote several Sinhalese Buddhist texts.

Abolition of other Theravada traditions[edit]

Before the 12th century, more rulers of Sri Lanka gave support and patronage to the Abhayagiris, and travelers such as Faxian saw the Abhayagiris as the main Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka.[13][14] The trend of Abhayagiri being the dominant sect changed in the 12th century, when the Maha Viharaya gained the political support of Parakramabahu I (1153–1186), who completely abolished the Abhayagiri and Jetavanaya traditions.[15][16] The monks of these two traditions were then defrocked and given the choice of either returning to the laity permanently or attempting reordination under the Maha Viharaya tradition as sāmaṇeras.[16][17] Parakkamabāhu also appointed a saṅgharāja "King of the Sangha," a monk who would preside over the Sangha and its ordinations in Sri Lanka with the assistance of two deputies.[18]

Mahayana legacy[edit]

Veneration of Avalokiteśvara has continued to the present day in Sri Lanka, where he is called Nātha.[19] In more recent times, some western-educated Theravādins have attempted to identify Nātha with Maitreya. However, traditions and basic iconography, including an image of Amitābha on his crown, identify Nātha as Avalokiteśvara.[20]

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.[21]

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 Buddhist prayer beads for counting as practiced in Mahayana Buddhism.[21]

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 BCE. During periods of decline, the Sri Lankan monastic lineage was revived through contact with Burma and Thailand.

Colonialism and Christianity[edit]

Dutch painting of the Buddhist religious festival in Ceylon, c. 1672

From the 16th century onward, missionaries and Portuguese, Dutch and British colonizers of Sri Lanka have attempted to convert the local population to Christianity. The wars with the Portuguese and their allies weakened the Sangha. In 1592, Vimaladharmasuriya I of Kandy sought aid from Burma in order to ordain Buddhist monks on the island as there was hardly a single properly ordained monk left.[3] From 1612 to 1658 to The Dutch and the Portuguese fought over the island with the Sinhalese caught in the middle, the Dutch won and occupied the maritime sections of the island that had been occupied by the Portuguese until 1796 when they surrendered their territories to the British. The Dutch were less zealous than the Portuguese in their religious proselytizing, though they still discriminated against Buddhists which were not allowed to register with the local authorities therefore many Sinhalese pretended to be Protestant.[3] During this period many religiously inclined Sinhalese rulers of the interior such as Vira Narendra Sinha of Kandy (1706-1739) and Sri Vijaya Rajasinha of Kandy (1739-1747) continued to patronize Buddhism, restoring temples and monasteries.

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 Thai Buddhist monks on the initiatives taken by Weliwita Sri Saranankara Thero during the reign of king Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe.[22]

In 1813 the American Ceylon Mission (Protestant) was established in Jaffna. In 1815 a British army captured Kandy and deposed the Sinhalese king ending a line of Buddhist kings lasting 2301 years, they retained Sri Lanka until 1948. Like the Dutch, the British refused to register unbaptized infants and to accept non-Christian marriages. They also always preferred Christians in government administration. The British also supported various Christian missionary groups who established schools on the island. Education in these schools (which disparaged Buddhism) were a requirement for government office. Missionaries also wrote tracts in Sinhalese attacking Buddhism and promoting Christianity[3]

Buddhist revival[edit]

Henry Olcott and Buddhists (Colombo, 1883).

In the 19th century, a national Buddhist movement began as a response to Christian proselytizing, and was empowered by the results of the Panadura debate between Christian priests and Buddhist monks such as Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera and Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero which was widely seen as a victory for the Buddhists.[23] In 1880 Henry Steel Olcott arrived in Sri Lanka with Madame Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society; he had been inspired when he read about the Panadura debate and after learning about Buddhism converted to the religion. Olcott and the Sinhalese Buddhist leaders established the Buddhist Theosophical Society in 1880, with the goal of establishing Buddhist schools (there were only three at the time, by 1940, there were 429 Buddhist schools on the island).[3] The society also had its own publications to promote Buddhism; the Sinhalese newspaper, Sarasavisandarasa, and its English counterpart, The Buddhist. As a result of their efforts, Vesak became a public holiday, Buddhist registrars of marriage were allowed, and interest in Buddhism increased. Another important figure in the revival is Anagarika Dharmapala, initially an interpreter for Olcott, who traveled around the island preaching and writing. After traveling to India, he established the Maha Bodhi Society in 1891 whose goal was to revive Buddhism in India, and restore the ancient Buddhist shrines at Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinara.[24] His efforts saw the restoration of these sites and a renewal of interest in Buddhism among some Indians. The associations of the Buddhist revival also contributed much to the publication of Buddhist texts, and promotion of Buddhist scholarship. Revivalist Buddhist scholars include Sir D. B. Jayatillake, F. R. Somnayake, Valisinha Harishchandra and W. A. de Silva.[3] Several Buddhist shrines were also rebuilt. Buddhist leaders were also active in the movement for Sri Lankan independence. Since independence, Buddhism has continued to thrive on the island.

The Temple of the Tooth was renovated during the Buddhist revival.

Since the Buddhist revival Sri Lanka has also been an important center of Western Buddhist scholarship. One of the first western bhikkhus, Nyanatiloka Mahathera studied in Sri Lanka, established the Island Hermitage there and ordained several western monks. Western monks who studied in the island hermitage such as Nanamoli Bhikkhu and Ven. Nyanaponika (who established the Buddhist Publication Society along with Bhikkhu Bodhi) were responsible for many important translations of the Pali Canon and other texts on Buddhism in English and German.

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.

Many women have been ordained in Sri Lanka since 1996.[25] In 1996 through the efforts of Sakyadhita, an International Buddhist Women Association, Theravada bhikkhuni order was revived, when 11 Sri Lankan women received full ordination in Sarnath, India, in a procedure held by Ven. Dodangoda Revata Mahāthera and the late Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasāra Mahāthera of the Mahābodhi Society in India with assistance from monks and nuns of Korean Chogyo order.[26] [27][28][29] Some bhikkhuni ordinations were carried out with the assistance of nuns from the East Asian tradition;[30] others were carried out by the Theravada monk's Order alone.[31] Since 2005, many ordination ceremonies for women have been organized by the head of the Dambulla chapter of the Siyam Nikaya in Sri Lanka.[31]

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]


  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. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Perera, HR, Buddhism in Sri Lanka A Short History, 2007, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/perera/wheel100.html
  4. ^ McEvilley 2012, p. 558.
  5. ^ a b c d Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. 2000. p. 280
  6. ^ Baruah, Bibhuti. Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. 2008. p. 53
  7. ^ "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
  8. ^ Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 121
  9. ^ Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. pp. 125-126
  10. ^ Hsing Yun. Humanistic Buddhism. 2005. p. 163
  11. ^ The Korean Buddhist Canon: A Descriptive Catalog (T 1421) 
  12. ^ Mookerji 1998, p. 520.
  13. ^ Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 125
  14. ^ Sujato, Bhikkhu. Sects & Sectarianism: The Origins of Buddhist Schools. 2006. p. 59
  15. ^ Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 126
  16. ^ a b Williams, Duncan. Queen, Christopher. American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship. 1999. p. 134
  17. ^ Gombrich, Richard. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History From Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 1988. p. 159
  18. ^ Gombrich, Richard. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 1988. p. 159
  19. ^ Baruah, Bibhuti. Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. 2008. p. 137
  20. ^ "Art & Archaeology - Sri Lanka - Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara". 
  21. ^ a b Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. 2004. p. 151
  22. ^ Weliwita Sri Saranankara Theroenerable Weliwita Sri Saranankara Mahathera, Dr. Daya Hewapathirane, Lankaweb
  23. ^ Buddhists must safeguard religion, Sangha - Thera, Daily News
  24. ^ Maha Bodhi Society
  25. ^ Buddhist Studies Review, volume 24.2, page 227
  26. ^ "Bhikkhuni ordination". Dhammawiki (archived). Archived from the original on 23 December 2013. 
  27. ^ Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Revival of Bhikkhuni Ordination in the Theravada Tradition. Dignity and Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns. 
  28. ^ Bhikkuni Dr. Kusuma Devendra. "Abstract: Theravada Bhikkhunis". International Congress On Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha. 
  29. ^ Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. "Keeping track of the revival of bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka". 
  30. ^ id, page 227
  31. ^ a b id, page 228


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

External links[edit]