Buddhism in Śrī Lanka | History

1. Buddhism in Śrī Lanka

Theravada Buddhism is the largest and state religion of Śrī Lanka practiced by 70.1% of Śrī Lanka's population. Practitioners of Buddhism can be found amongst the Sinhalese population as well as the Tamil population.

Buddhism has been given the foremost place under Article 9 of the Constitution which can be traced back to an attempt to bring the status of Buddhism back to the status it enjoyed prior to being destroyed by colonialists.

However, by virtue of Article 10 of the Śrī Lankan constitution, religious rights of all communities are preserved.

Śrī Lanka is the traditionally oldest religious Buddhist country where Buddhist Aryan culture is protected and preserved:

The island has been a centre of Buddhist scholarship and learning since the introduction of Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE producing eminent scholars such as Buddhaghoa (5th century CE) and preserving the vast Pāli Canon.

Throughout most of its history, Śrī Lankan 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 Śrī Lanka with approximately 15 000 monks.


2. Introduction of Buddhism

According to traditional Śrī Lankan chronicles such as the Dīpavaṁsa, Buddhism was introduced into Śrī Lanka in the 3rd century BCE after the 3rd Buddhist Council by Arahant Mahinda Thero, son of Emperor Aśoka, during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa of Anurādhapura.

After the arrival of Arahant Mahinda, he invited his sister Saṅghamittā Thera to bring a sapling of the Bodhi Tree (where Buddha was enlightened) to Śrī Lanka and the 1st Buddhist monastery, monuments and monk were introduced:

Among these, the Isurumuniya and the Vessagiriya remain important centres of worship.

He is also credited with the construction of the Pathamaka-cetiya, the Jambukola Vihāra and the Hatthālhaka Vihāra and the refectory.

The Pāli Canon, having previously been preserved as an oral tradition, was first converted into writing in Śrī Lanka around 30 BCE.

Along with Mahinda came his sibling Saṅghamitra. She gave the Nun Ordinance to female devotees.

Mahāvaṁsa §29 records that during the rule of the Greco-Bactrian King Menander I, a Yona head monk named Mahā Dharmarakṣita led 30 000 Buddhist monks from "the Greek city of Alasandra" (Alexandria in the Caucasus, around 150 kilometres (93 mi) north of modern Kabul, Afghanistan) to Śrī Lanka for the dedication of the Ruwanwelisaya in Anurādhapura, indicating that Greco-Buddhism contributed to early Śrī Lankan Buddhism.

3. Centre of Pāli literature

As a result of the work of Buddhaghoa and other compilers such as Dhammapāla, Śrī Lanka developed a strong tradition of written textual transmission of the Pāli Canon.

The compilation of the Aṭṭhakathā (commentaries) along with the Nikāyas and other Piṭakas were committed to writing for the first time in the Aluvihare Rock Temple during the 1st century BCE.

Buddhist literature in Sinhalese also thrived and by 410, Śrī Lankan monks travelled widely throughout India and Asia introducing their works.

4. Theravāda subdivisions

Over much of the early history of Buddhism in Śrī Lanka, 3 subdivisions of Theravāda existed in Śrī Lanka, consisting of the monks of the 3 Mahā Vihāras:

1. Anurādhapura Mahā Vihāraya
2. Abhayagiri Vihāra
3. Jetavanārāmaya

The Anurādhapura Mahā Vihāraya was the 1st tradition to be established while Abhayagiri Vihāra and Jetavanārāmaya were established by monks who had broken away from the Mahā Vihāraya tradition.

The Indian Mahīśāsaka established itself in Śrī Lanka alongside the Theravadas into which they were later absorbed. Northern regions of Śrī Lanka also seem to have been ceded to sects from India at certain times.

In the 7th century, Xuanzang wrote of 2 major divisions of Theravada Buddhism in Śrī Lanka, referring to the Abhayagiri tradition as the "Mahāyāna Sthāviras" and the Mahā Vihāra tradition as the "Hīnayāna Sthāviras."

Abhayagiri appears to have been a centre for Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna teachings;
Xuanzang writes,

"The Mahā Vihāravāsins reject the Mahāyāna and practice the Hīnayāna, while the Abhayagiri Vihāravāsins study both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna teachings and propagate the Tripiṭaka.”

In the 8th century, both Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism were being practiced in Śrī Lanka

and 2 Indian monks responsible for propagating Vajrayāna Buddhism in China, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, visited the island during this time.

In Pāli commentaries, terms used for the Mahāyānins of Abhayagiri were Vaitulya, Vaipulya and Vaidalya. The Theravada commentaries considered them heretical and their doctrines included:

They held the view that the Buddha, having been born in the Tuṣita 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 Saṅgha, 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.

5. Accounts of Chinese pilgrims

In the 5th century, Faxian visited Śrī Lanka and lived there for 2 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 Buddhajīva and Zhu Daosheng. This translation of the Mahīśāsaka Vinaya remains extant in the Chinese Buddhist canon as Taishō Tripiṭaka 1421.

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

At the time of Xuanzang’s visit the capital was visited by 300 Bhikṣus 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 Nālanda.

6. Decline and revival

From the 5th century to the 11th century, the island of Śrī Lanka saw continuous warfare between local kings, pretenders and foreign invaders such as the South Indian Chola and Pandya dynasties. This warfare saw the sacking of Vihāras and made the situation difficult for Buddhism.

In 1070, Vijayabāhu I of Polonnaruwa conquered the island and set about repairing the monasteries.

The state of Śrī Lankan Buddhism was so bad at this time that he could not find 5 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. The king oversaw the ordination of thousands of monks.

The royal reforming of Śrī Lankan Buddhism continued under Parakkamabāhu I (c. 1153), who restored many stūpas and monasteries.

During this period, Śrī Lankan Buddhist literature thrived once again and many great Pāli commentaries and sub-commentaries were written.

Parakkamabāhu II of Dambadeniya (from c. 1236) was a learned king and wrote several Sinhalese Buddhist texts.

7. Abolition of other Theravada traditions

Before the 12th century, more rulers of Śrī Lanka gave support and patronage to the Abhayagiris and travellers such as Faxian saw the Abhayagiris as the main Buddhist tradition in Śrī Lanka.

The trend of Abhayagiri being the dominant sect changed in the 12th century, when the Mahā Vihāraya gained the political support of Parakkamabāhu I (1153–1186), who completely abolished the Abhayagiri and Jetavanāya traditions:

The monks of these 2 traditions were then defrocked and given the choice of either returning to the laity permanently or attempting re-ordination under the Mahā Vihāraya tradition as Sāmaṇeras.

Parakkamabāhu also appointed a Saṅgharaja "King of the Saṅgha," a monk who would preside over the Saṅgha and its ordinations in Śrī Lanka with the assistance of two deputies.

8. Mahāyāna legacy

Veneration of Avalokiteśvara has continued to the present day in Śrī Lanka, where he is called Nātha:

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.

It is clear from sculptural evidence alone that the Mahāyāna was fairly widespread throughout Śrī Lanka, although the modern account of the history of Buddhism on the island presents an unbroken and pure lineage of Theravāda.

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 Śrī Lanka as being engaged in the recitation of mantras and using Buddhist prayer beads for counting as practiced in Mahāyāna Buddhism.

9. Lineage continuity

Śrī Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any Buddhist nation, with the Saṅgha having existed in a largely unbroken lineage since its introduction in the 3rd century BCE.

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

10. Colonialism and Christianity

From the 16th century onwards, missionaries and Portuguese, Dutch and British colonizers of Śrī Lanka have attempted to convert the local population to Christianity.

The wars with the Portuguese and their allies weakened the Saṅgha.

In 1592, Vimaladharmasūriya 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.

From 1612 to 1658, 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.

During this period many religiously inclined Sinhalese rulers of the interior such as Vīra 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 Upasampadā, 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 Kirti Sri Rajasinha.

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 Śrī 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) was a requirement for government office. Missionaries also wrote tracts in Sinhalese attacking Buddhism and promoting Christianity

11. Buddhist revival

In the 19th century, a National Buddhist movement began as a response to Christian proselytizing.

It was empowered by the results of the Pānadura debate between Christian priests and Buddhist monks such as Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera and Hikkaduwe Śrī Sumaṅgala Thera which was widely seen as a victory for the Buddhists.

In 1880 Henry Steel Olcott arrived in Śrī Lanka with Madame Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society; he had been inspired when he read about the Pānadura 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 3 at the time, by 1940, there were 429 Buddhist schools on the island).

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 Anagārika Dharmapāla, initially an interpreter for Olcott, who travelled around the island preaching and writing:

After traveling to India, he established the Mahā Bodhi Society in 1891 whose goal was to revive Buddhism in India, and restore the ancient Buddhist shrines at Bodh Gaya, Sārnāth and Kuśīnagar. 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. Jayātilāka, F. R. Senanayake, Walisinghe Harischandra and W. A. de Silva.

Several Buddhist shrines were also rebuilt. Buddhist leaders were also active in the movement for Śrī Lankan independence. Since independence, Buddhism has continued to thrive on the island.

The Buddhist revival also resulted in Sinhala Buddhists carrying the torch of Buddhism and igniting it on foreign shores:

Anagārika Dharmapāla and Aśoka Weeraratna are 2 such leading pioneers among many others. They pioneered the establishment of Buddhist Vihāras in Europe:

Anagārika Dharmapāla founded the London Buddhist Vihāra in 1926.

Aśoka Weeraratna opened a new chapter for the spread of Buddhism in Germany and Europe by establishing the Berlin Buddhist Vihāra in Dr. Paul Dahlke’s Das Buddhistische Haus in 1957 with monks from Śrī Lanka stationed on a long-term footing to spread the Dhamma. This was the first Theravada Buddhist Vihāra in Germany and continental Europe.

Since the Buddhist revival Śrī Lanka has also been an important centre of Western Buddhist scholarship:

One of the first western Bhikkhus, Nyanatiloka Mahāthera studied in Śrī Lanka, established the Island Hermitage there and ordained several western monks.

Western monks who studied in the Island Hermitage such as Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu and Ven. Nyanaponika (who established the Buddhist Publication Society along with Bhikkhu Bodhi) were responsible for many important translations of the Pāli Canon and other texts on Buddhism in English and German.

12. Bhikkhunī ordination

A few years after the arrival of Mahinda, Bhikkhunī Saṅghamittā, who is also believed to be the daughter of Emperor Aśoka came to Śrī Lanka. She started the 1st Nun's Order in Śrī Lanka, but this order of nuns died out in Śrī Lanka in the 11th century.

Many women have been ordained in Śrī Lanka since 1996. In 1996 through the efforts of Sakyadhita, an International Buddhist Women Association, Theravada Bhikkhunī order was revived, when 11 Śrī Lankan women received full ordination in Sārnāth, 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. 

Some Bhikkhunī ordinations were carried out with the assistance of nuns from the East Asian tradition; others were carried out by the Theravada monk's Order alone.

Since 2005, many ordination ceremonies for women have been organized by the head of the Dambulla chapter of the Siam Nikāya in Śrī Lanka.

13. Buddhist monastic groups

The different Traditions of the Śrī Lankan Buddhist clergy are referred to as Nikāyas, and 3 main Nikāyas are:

1. Siam Nikāya, founded in the 18th century by Ven. Upāli Thera, a Siamese monk who was invited by the King Kirti Śrī Rajasinha of Kandy, and on the initiative of Weliwita Śrī Saranankara Thero.

2. Amarapura Nikāya, founded in 1800 with higher ordination obtained from Myanmar (Burma)

3. Rāmañña Nikāya, founded in 1864 by Ambagahawatte Saranankara.

Within these 3 main divisions there are numerous other divisions, some of which are caste based. There are no doctrinal differences among any of them.


Buddhism in Śrī Lanka is predominantly practised by the Sinhalese,

however the 2012 Śrī Lanka Census revealed a Buddhist population of 22 254 including 11 monks, amongst the Śrī Lankan Tamil population, accounting to roughly 1% of all Śrī Lankan Tamils in Śrī Lanka.

In 1988 almost 93% of the Sinhalese speaking population in Śrī Lanka were Buddhist.