Buddhism in Śrī Lanka


1. Buddhism in Śrī Lanka

Śrī Lanka is home to the world’s oldest continuing Buddhist civilization:

Brāhmī inscriptions etched in stone on drip ledges above natural caves in the country’s North-Central province indicate that hermitages have been dedicated by Buddhist Laity for the meditation needs of monks since the 3rd century B.C.E.

Moreover, the 4-5th century C.E. monastic chronicles, the Dīpavaṁsa (Chronicle of the Island) and the Mahāvaṁsa (Great Chronicle), contain a series of myths

in which the Lankan king Devanāṁpiya Tissa (3rd century B.C.E.), a contemporary of the Indian Emperor Aśoka, is said to have been converted to the Buddha’s teachings by Aśoka’s own missionary son, Mahinda.

Thus, from inscriptions and monastic literary traditions, it is known that by the 3rd century B.C.E. lineages of forest monks supported by Buddhist laity were established on the island in the region that became Lanka’s political centre for 13 subsequent centuries.

Since Aśoka is also thought to have provided support for Devanāṁpiya Tissa’s abhiṣeka (coronation), it would seem that Buddhism became formally associated with Lanka’s Kingship by this time as well.

For more than two millennia, until the British dethroned the last Lankan king in 1815,

a symbiotic relationship entailing mutual support and legitimation between the Lankan Kings and the Buddhist Saṅgha (community) was sustained, either as an ideal or in actual practice.

Over the course of this long history, other forms of Buddhism joined the predominant Theravāda Bhikkhu (monk) and Bhikkhunī (nun) Saṅghas, which the Mahāvaṁsa asserts were established by Aśoka’s children, Mahinda and his sister Saṅghamittā, respectively, and whose lineages were preserved by the Theravāda Mahāvihāra Nikāya.

These included the cults of Mahāyāna Bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteśvara, and the teachings of several Mahāyāna schools and of tantric Buddhist masters associated with Mahāvihāra’s rival in Anurādhapura, the Abhayagiri nikāya, which were established and thrived, particularly during the seventh through the tenth centuries C.E.

2. The Anurādhapura period

Faxian (ca. 337-ca. 418 C.E.), the itinerant Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, has provided a valuable description of 5th century Anurādhapura, reporting that approximately 8 000 Buddhist monks then resided in the capital city.

Faxian also reports that

- a public ritual procession of the Daladā (tooth-relic of the Buddha) was celebrated annually,

- that the cult of Śrī Mahābodhi (a graft of the original Bodhi tree at Bodh Gayā in India) was regularly venerated and lavishly supported by the laity and the king, and

- that Lankan kings had built massive Stūpas to commemorate the Buddha and his relics.

Well before Faxian’s time and long thereafter, the city of Anuradhapura had become a politically powerful and cosmopolitan centre

whose successful economy had been made possible through the development of sophisticated hydraulic engineering and through the establishment of trade with partners as far flung as China in the east and Rome in the west.

Furthermore, the city had become the administrative pivot of the 3 great monastic Nikāyas (chapters) of the Lankan Buddhist Saṅgha:

the Theravāda Mahāvihāra; and the more doctrinally eclectic Abhayagiri and Jetavana chapters,

each of which systematically established a vast array of affiliated village monasteries and forest hermitages throughout the domesticated rice-growing countryside.

During the first millennium C.E., the 3 Nikāyas in Anurādhapura and their affiliated monasteries dominated every facet of social, economic, educational, and cultural life.

Some have argued that just as Lankan polity was expected to be the chief patron supporting the saṅgha, so the saṅgha functioned as a “Department of State” for the kingship.

Perhaps somewhat exaggerated, that assertion does point to the extent to which Buddhist institutions became the basic social infrastructure in Lanka for many centuries.

Given the congenial relationship between polity and religion, the Anurādhapura period witnessed the fluorescence of an economically advanced and artistically sophisticated culture.

Avukana Buddha statue

Although the only surviving examples of painting are the frescos of heavenly maidens (perhaps Apsarās) found at Sīgiriya,

thousands of freestanding stone sculptures of the Buddha, scores of stone-carved bas-reliefs, and hundreds of bronzes are still extant, including the famous colossal images at Avukana

and the meditative Buddhas that remain within the ruins of the Abhayagiri monastic complex at Anurādhapura.

Early anthropomorphic images of the Buddha in Lanka bear a stylistic, and sometimes material, affinity with Buddha images created at Amarāvatī in South India,

while images from the later Anurādhapura period, such as the 8th century Avukana image, reflect the development of a distinctive Lankan style that emphasized the significance of the Buddha as a Mahā Puruṣa (cosmic person). 

The Mahāvaṁsa asserts that the Buddhist Canon (Tripiṭaka; Pāli, Tipiṭaka) was first committed to writing during the reign of King Vaṭṭagāmaṇī Abhaya (also known as Valagamba of Anurādhapura) in the 1st century B.C.E. at Aluvihare just north of Māthale,

inaugurating, perhaps, the tradition of inscribing Buddhist texts on to palm leaves, a tradition of committing the Dharma to handwriting that continued into the 19th century.

In rare instances, texts were also inscribed on gold or copper plates, such as the gold leaves bearing an 8th century fragment of a Sanskrit Prajñā-Pāramitā-sūtra (Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra), found within the massive Stūpa at Jetavana in Anurādhapura in the early 1980s.

In addition to the Pāli Tipiṭaka and the Pāli monastic chronicles Dīpavaṁsa and Mahāvaṁsa, the 5-6th centuries were the backdrop for the commentaries produced by Buddhaghoṣa:

His Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), an elaborate and precise exegesis of

1. śīla (morality),
2. samādhi (meditation), and
3. paññā or Prajñā (Wisdom)

- the 3 elemental principles of practice that Buddhaghoṣa regarded as the bases of the Buddha’s “Noble Eightfold Path - eventually became an enduring centrepiece of normative orthodoxy for Theravāda in Śrī Lanka and later in Southeast Asia.

The Visuddhimagga stressed the interrelated and dependent nature of śīla, samādhi, and paññā, and the fundamental reality of paticcasamūpāda or Pratītyasamutp.Āda (Dependent Origination).

3. The Polonnaruwa era

Beginning with the Polonnaruwa era (11-13th century C.E.), and especially during the reign of Parākaramabāhu I (1153-1186 C.E.), when the Saṅgha was reunified

after its demise by South Indian Cola invaders who had demolished Anurādhapura in the late 10th century, Theravāda became the exclusive form of doctrinal orthodoxy patronized by the kingship in Śrī Lanka.

It was specifically this reconstituted Theravāda that was exported to Burma (Myanmar) in the 11th century and subsequently into northern Thailand, spreading from those regions to become the dominant religion of mainland Southeast Asia.

What was not reconstituted at Polonnaruwa, however, was the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha, a sorority that had thrived during the Anurādhapura centuries and had spread its lineage as far as China.

Yet Polonnaruwa became a marvellous city for a span of about 150 years before it was sacked by another South Indian invasion.

Although its beautiful Stūpas could not rival the size of the Abhayagiri, Jetavana, and Ruvanvalisaya topes in Anurādhapura, and although its sculptures lacked the plastic fluidity of times past,

the architecture, literature, and educational institutions of Polonnaruwa were unparalleled anywhere in South or Southeast Asia at that time.

The massive Alahena monastic university, a bastion of Theravāda orthodoxy, at one time housed as many as 10 000 monks.

It was also at Polonnaruwa and in the courts of kings who soon followed, such as Parākaramabāhu II at 13th century Dambadeṇiya, that new literary innovations were cultivated,

in part due to the stimulus and presence of Hinduism and Sanskrit literature, and in part due to the maturation of the Sinhala language itself.

At Polonnaruwa, the Hindu temples built by the Cola invaders had not been destroyed by the reconquering Sinhalas in the 11th century

because the queens of the Sinhala kings, who were brought from South India, were nominally Hindu, as were their relations and retinues.

Thus, the royal court headed by a Sinhala Buddhist King was heavily influenced by a classical Sanskrit or Hindu presence

seen not only in the substance and style reflected in contemporary sections of the Cūlavaṁsa (Minor Chronicles, the sequel to the Mahāvaṁsa),

but also in the cultic life and sculptural creations of Polonnaruwa, which included the veneration and depiction of Hindu deities such as Viṣṇu and Śiva.

In this context, Gurulugomi, a Buddhist upāsaka (layman), composed the first Sinhala works of prose, including the Amāvatura (The Flood of Nectar), a reworking of the life of the Buddha aimed at demonstrating his powers to convert others to the truth of dharma.

Since the Amāvatura seems to have been written in a conscious effort to avoid using Sanskrit words, some have suggested that his writings reflect an antipathy for an ever-growing Hindu influence on Sinhala Buddhist culture in general.

The late Polonnaruwa era also marks the creation of many other important Sinhalese Theravāda Buddhist classics, including:

- the Butsaraņa (Refuge of the Buddha),
- the Pūjāvaliya (The Garland of Offerings), and
- the Saddharma Ratnāvaliya (The Garland of Jewels of the Good Doctrine),

- all didactic and devotional works.

4. Hinduization of Buddhist culture in Śrī Lanka

While the destruction of institutional Buddhism at Anurādhapura and the reconstruction of the saṅgha at Polonnaruwa may have led in general to the eclipse of Mahāyāna and tantric cults in Lanka,

invasions from South India beginning in the 10th century and the increasing numbers of military mercenaries who followed during the politically volatile 13-14th centuries

only increased the presence and influence of Hindu cults in the Sinhala Buddhist religious culture of the era.

During the 14th century, when a retreating Buddhist Kingship established its capital in the Kandyan highlands at Gampola,

Hindu deities such as Viṣṇu, Skanda, the goddess Pattinī, and Gaṇeśa, as well as a host of other local deities associated with specific regions and natural phenomena, were incorporated into an evolving pantheon of Sinhala deities.

They were recast as gods whose warrants for acting in the world on behalf of Buddhist devotees were subject to the sanctioning of the Buddha’s dharma.

The highest of these deities, worshipped within the same halls where the Buddha was worshipped or in adjacent shrines (devālāyas) , came to be styled as Bodhisattvas, or “Buddhas in-the-making,”

and a vast literature of ballads, poems, and sagas in Sinhala, some inspired by the Sanskrit Purāṇas (mythic stories), was created to edify devotees over the ensuing several centuries.

By the 15th century, the island had been again reunified politically by Parākaramabāhu VI, whose capital at Koṭṭe on the south-west coast became the hub of an eclectic renaissance of religious culture

epitomized by the gamavāsi (village-oriented monk) Śrī Rāhula, whose linguistic dexterity (he was known as “master of 6 languages”) and concomitant affinities for popular religious and magical practices, refracted the syncretic character of religion at the time.

Śrī Rāhula is perhaps best remembered for writing 2 classical Sinhala sandēśaya poems styled after the Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa’s Meghadhūta (Cloud Messenger)

that, while glorifying the Buddha as the “god beyond the gods,” appealed directly to the gods for divine assistance in sustaining the wellbeing of the Buddhist Kingship and its administration.

Vīdāgama Maitreya, a Wilderness Monk (arañavāsi) and one of Parākaramabāhu’s childhood mentors, wrote the Buduguṇalāṁkāraya (In Praise of the Buddha’s Qualities) as a scathing critique of the increasing Hinduization of Buddhist culture.

These 2 great monks, both of whom were deeply involved in competing trajectories of court and monastic cultures, represent an ancient and continuing tension regarding the nature of the monastic vocation:

as a matter of caring for the “welfare of the many” (the village monk) or engaging in the “rhinoceros-like solitary life” of a forest meditator.

5. Colonial and post-colonial eras

By the 16th century, the Portuguese had begun to interfere with the court at Koṭṭe and eventually converted King Dharmapāla to Christianity,

exacerbating an increasingly fractious political context that led in the 1590s to the establishment of a new line of Sinhala Buddhist kings in highland Kandy,

a new Capital City replete with a supportive cast:

a Bhikkhu Saṅgha whose lineage was imported from Burma, a new Daladā Maligāvā (Palace of the Tooth-Relic), and devālāyas for the gods who had emerged as the 4 protective guardian deities of the island.

The Kandyans colluded with the Dutch in the mid-17th century to oust the Portuguese.

Despite one war in the 1760s during the reign of Kīrti Śrī Rājasiṁha,

the Kandyans and the Dutch managed to coexist for a century and a half producing, in effect, distinctive highland and lowland Sinhala cultures.

The former styled itself as more purely Sinhala Buddhist, despite the fact that by this time the Kandyan kings were ethnically Tamil, owing to the continuing practice of securing queens from Madurai.

But it is remarkable how “Buddhist” this last line of Lankan kings became. Kīrti Śrī and his brother Rājādi who succeeded him, were responsible for the last great renaissance of Theravāda:

first, by reconstituting what had become a decadent Saṅgha by introducing a fresh lineage from Thailand that became known as the dominant Siyam Nikāya;

second, by appointing a Monastic Head (saṅgha rāja) in the person of the learned monk Saraṇamkara, who re-emphasized the importance of monastic literary education and moral virtue;

third, by providing the means to hold a calendar of Buddhist public rites, including the still annually held Asala Perahara procession of the Daladā and the insignia of the guardian deities in Kandy; and

fourth, by refurbishing virtually every Buddhist monastery in the kingdom, a commitment that resulted in the artistic birth of the Kandyan school of Buddhist monastery painting.

After the British established their colonial hegemony in the early 19th century, Buddhist culture atrophied for several decades:

Its revival toward the end of the century was catalysed in part by the establishment of 2 new low-country monastic nikāyas, the Amarapura and the Rāmañña:

Both, in contrast to the Siyam Nikāya, established new lineages from Burma, claimed to be more doctrinally orthodox, emphasized the practice of meditation, and recruited novices without regard to caste.

A series of public religious debates between Buddhist monks and Anglican clergy in the low country also fuelled the revitalization.

Moreover, the revival gained momentum with the arrival of Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907),

an American Theosophist who organized and established many Buddhist schools modelled on the successful missionary schools administered by the Anglicans.

Olcott wrote a widely disseminated “Buddhist Catechism,” designed and distributed a Buddhist flag, and helped to organize a liturgical year celebrating full moon days as Buddhist holidays.

One of Olcott’s early and enthusiastic followers, the Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933), transformed the religious revival into a religio-nationalist cause by founding in 1891 the Mahābodhi Society, which sought to regain Buddhist control of Buddhist holy sites in India.

In addition, Anagārika Dharmapāla published his influential Return to Righteousness (a detailed excursus on lay Buddhist conduct and spiritual realization aimed at purifying Buddhism of its colonial and popular “contaminations”), and he inspired the laity to emulate their colonial masters’ work ethic.

Some have argued that Olcott and Dharmapāla successively set into motion a new lay Buddhist religious ethic comparable to the lay-oriented religious culture of Protestant Christianity, a “Protestant Buddhism,”

so called because of its emphasis on unmediated individual lay religious practice and the importance attached to integrating the significance of spiritual teachings into everyday life.

Aside from “Protestant Buddhism,” at least 3 other features marked the character of Buddhism in 20th century Śrī Lanka:

1) The first is the re-emphasis given to meditation for both monks and laypersons, especially methods of insight (Vipassanā) practice made popular by Burmese masters.

2) The second is the establishment of Buddhist-inspired welfare institutions, such as Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, founded in the 1950s by A. T. Ariyaratne (1931-) to reawaken village culture and to stimulate rural economies and social services.

3) The third is the increasing politicization of Buddhism in the post-colonial era, most notably the patterns that can be traced to the pivotal national elections of 1956

when S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (1899-1959) and his newly formed Śrī Lanka Freedom Party won a landslide election on promises of “Sinhala only” as the national language and Buddhism as the state religion.

This posture on language and religion (the basic constituents of ethnic identity in South Asia), as well as other subsequent “Sinhala Buddhist” based education and economic policies,

were enacted to redress perceived inequalities resulting from earlier British colonial policies that had favoured Tamil interests and disenfranchised the Sinhalese.

In turn, these changes became reasons for Tamil alienation, feeding an enduring ethnic conflict dividing Sinhalas and Tamils during the final decades of the 20th century.

In this context, some influential Buddhist monks have colluded with Sinhala politicians to resurrect the ancient rhetoric of the Mahāvaṁsa and proclaim Lanka as the exclusive and predestined domain of the Buddhadharma.

Others have marched for peace and co-existence.