- From Ceylonese to Sri Lankan Buddhism
- Bhikkhu Prayudh Payutto
I. Ceylonese Buddhism out of the Colonial
Ceylonese Buddhism has been in close connection with
Ceylonese nationalism throughout Ceylonese history. This connection was even stronger
during the British colonial period. Under British rule, the monasteries lacked official
status and were unable to defend their land or rights. One report claimed that 800,000
acres of temple property were confiscated. The colonial government and the Christian
missionaries took the entire school system out of the hands of the Buddhists. The
Buddhists became second-class citizens, while the Christians and the English-educated rose
to the best positions in the colonial administration. Only Christian Sundays and feast
days and the British national holidays were celebrated in this Buddhist country. There
were various anti-colonialist uprisings and prominent Buddhist monks were condemned to
death. Threats of religious, national and cultural effacement like these led to the
Buddhist revival in Ceylon.
In 2382/1839,  a parivena  a Buddhist seminary or institution of higher learning, called
the Parama-Dhammacetiya Parivena, was founded. Among the important Buddhist leaders
produced by this parivena was H. Sri Sumangala Thera. In the years 2415/1872 and 2419/1876
two more parivenas were established, the Vidyodaya in Colombo and the Vidyaalankaara at
Kelaniya near Colombo, which were raised to the status of universities in 2502/1959.
Then, the learned Buddhists led by Ven. H. Sri Sumangala Thera and Ven.
M. Sri Gundnanda Thera demonstrated their opposition to Western ideas, values and social
practices by arranging public disputations with Christian missionaries. In these Buddhist
-Christian controversies, the Buddhists considered the utter defeat of Christianity easy
and certain, while the Christian missionaries could fairly estimate the difficulties of
their position and day by day they had to commend themselves in prayer to God and confide
in Him for wisdom and direction at every step.
Reading the account of such a controversy published in the
Ceylon Times in 1873, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, an American Civil War officer, came to
know of the Buddhist conditions in Ceylon. Then, in 2423/1880, he came to Ceylon to take
part in the defence of Buddhism. He travelled around the country encouraging the people to
revive their historic religion reorganized the Buddhist educational system on modern
principles and founded the Theosophical Society of Ceylon. Within a few years he opened
three colleges and 200 schools, and exercised considerable influence over the younger
generation. One of the Young men who came under his influence was David Hewavitharne
(mentioned earlier), who later became a great Buddhist leader called Anaagaarika
Dharmapaala, the founder of the Maha Bodhi Society (2434/1891) and the Buddhist revival
movement in India. The movement initiated by Col. Olcott also adopted a Buddhist flag and
succeeded in making the Vesak a public holiday once more.
Meanwhile, in the field of Buddhist studies, some of the British
officials, who served in the Civil Service of Ceylon, through their private study and
research, developed an appreciation of the Buddhist culture of Ceylon. Among these was
Professor T.W. Rhys Davids who later founded the Pali Text Society in London in 2424/1881
and wrote, edited and translated voluminous Buddhist literary works. By rendering the
Buddha's teachings admirable in European eyes, he 'gave confidence and pride to the
peoples who had preserved them'. He has been one of the
two Westerners especially revered in Ceylon, the other being Col. Olcott.
Among Ceylonese scholars, it should be noted that lay Buddhists have
played no less important a part in Buddhist literary activities than the monks. One of the
best known or, probably, the best known, should be Professor G.P. Malalesekera, the
compiler of the Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (2480-2481/1937-38) and
Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, the first fascicule of which was
published in 2504/1961. The Encyclopaedia is a work of international collaboration and
several regional committees have been set up for the better coordination of the work, the
largest of these being the Japanese committee. Smaller committees also function in China,
Burma, Thailand, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands. Some 2,000 pages of the
Encyclopaedia have been published so far.
Among monk-scholars, the following names should be cited:
Aggamahaapa.n.dita A.P. Buddhadatta, author of Concise Pali-English Dictionary,
English-Pali Dictionary, New Pali Course, etc.; Dr. Vajira~naa.na Mahaathera, writer
of Buddhist Meditation; Ven. Naarada Thera, an active Buddhist missionary and voluminous
author; Ven. W. Rahula, author of What the Buddha Taught and History of Buddhism
in Ceylon. Of no less importance and distinction than these scholars is Ven.
Nyanatiloka, a German Buddhist monk of Island Hermitage in Ceylon who wrote Guide
Through the Abhidharnma Pitaka, The Word of the Buddha, Buddhist Dictionary and
other valuable works in German, English and Pali. Of his pupils, Ven. Nyanaponika, a
German monk learned in the Abhidharnma, and Ven. ~Naa.namoli, an English monk with
voluminous translated Pali works, are among international Buddhist scholars. In presenting
Buddhist teaching and practice to the modern world, these scholars have been active in
relating them to modern thought and much attention has been paid to the Abhidharnma and
II. Nationalistic and International Buddhism
After Independence in 1948, the identification between
Buddhism and nationalism continued and even led to the politicization of the Ceylonese
Sangha. Several factors were accountable for this. Firstly, other religions, Hinduism,
Islam and Christianity, were imported to the island by occupying powers during various
colonial periods. Secondly, the fact that, by the British constitution, the Queen of
England is the head of the Anglican Church and Defender of the Faith, caused in the
Buddhists opposition to Ceylon's constitution of 1946-47. They would ask, "How can
the Queen of England be defender both of the Christian and of the Buddhist
religions?" Thirdly, religious conflicts during the British colonial period increased
in the Ceylonese love of their native culture, stimulated a desire to turn back to a
golden past when Ceylon was under Buddhist kings, and thus led to the demand for the
reestablishment of Buddhism as the state religion and the planning of educational and
cultural policies under the guidance of Buddhist principles. Moreover, the fact that in
Ceylon temple lands and monasteries are the private property of the monks who have
interests in them may also have some connection with the matter. As a result of the
politicization of the Sangha, every politician tries to win the support of the monks and
the winners are those who attract the greater number of monks to their cause. Today, monks
may be seen actively campaigning for a political party candidate or politicians making
speeches with monks at their sides.
This politicization has, however, caused reactions, especially since
the assassination of Ceylonese Prime Minister Bandaranaike in 1956. There has been a
public demand for the purifying and reforming of the Sangha. Thus, there are trends to put
an end to the politicization and secularization of the Ceylonese Sangha, and to restore it
to the purely spiritual character of monasticism.
Another trend worthy of interest is the involvement of monks in
community development projects and programmes for rural uplift. Organizations and
movements have been formed for the participation of monks in various kinds of work for the
spiritual and material welfare of the people and for the improvement of the living
conditions of the villagers, such as the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement (organized in
2501/1958) and the Ceylon Farmers' Association (founded in 2509/1966). This trend can also
be seen in other Southeast Asian countries, especially Thailand.
In 2515/1972, Ceylon adopted a new constitution under which the country
became a republic and its name was changed to Sri Lanka.
At present, there are three main sects of the Sri Lankan Sangha the
largest and oldest, Siam Nikaaya, which is divided into two principal chapters,
Malwatta and Asgiriya; the Amarapura Nikaaya, founded in the 19th century with
about 20 percent of monk population; and the Raama~n~na Nikaaya, founded by
reformist members of the Siam sect. While the former Siam sect derived its ordination from
Thailand, the latter two are the recipients of ordination from Burma. There are no
fundamental or doctrinal differences between these sects.
Of the population of 15,000,000 (est. 2524/1981), Buddhists make up 67
percent, while, of the rest, 18 percent are Hindu, 8 percent Christians, and 7 percent
Muslims. There are almost 6,000 monasteries with about 17,000 monks and 14,000 novices in
Among the Theravada Buddhist countries, Sri Lanka has been the most
advanced in modern Buddhist studies. Besides the two monastic parivenas of Vidyodaya  and Vidyaalankaara  which have
been elevated to university status, admitting lay students as well as monks, the older
secular University of Sri Lanka offers courses in Pali and Buddhist studies both for the
lower and for the advanced degrees to all students, Sri Lankan and foreign, including
Sri Lanka has made great contributions to the progress of international
Buddhism. Besides the above-described Maha Bodhi Society, Sri Lanka gave birth to another
great international Buddhist organization, that is, the World Fellowship of Buddhists
(WFB.) in 2493/1950. Professor Malalesekera who initiated the idea was elected the first
president of the organization. Now the organization has its permanent headquarters in
Thailand. In addition, until 2518/1975 Sri Lanka had sent abroad a far greater number of
Dhammaduutas than any other Buddhist country, except Japan. Sri Lankan monks can be found
residing in their vihaaras or residences in London, Washington, West Berlin and other
Western cities, as well as in India. The Buddhist Publication Society of Kandy,
established in 2501/1958, has regularly published two useful serial publications called
'The Wheel' and 'Bodhi Leaves', which have enjoyed a world-wide readership. Sri Lanka's
monthly journals such as World Buddhism, meet with increasing numbers of readers in the
English-speaking world. So far, as Trevor Ling says in his A History of Religion: East
and West, "Ceylon has also played a larger part than any other Buddhist country
in making known to some of the non-Buddhist areas of the world the principles and practice
 B.E./C.E. The Buddhist Era as shown here is according to
the Thai calendar. To have the one in the Ceylonese calendar, just add one to the present
 Also called pirivena.
 Vev. Parsons quoted in Balding's One
Hundred Years in Ceylon, p. 120.
 R. H. Robinson, The Buddhist
Religion. (Belmont: Dickenson Publishing Co., 1970), p. 108.
 At Vidyodaya, there is a fund of 5,000
rupees called "Siyaamaraajatyaaga" donated by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) of
Thailand for granting awards to students who get the highest marks.
 From 2509/1966 onwards, admission to
Vidyaalankaara.flas been extended to women. In 2510/1967, there were 6 Thai monks and
novices taking courses at this University.
[Originally published in Rajavaramuni, Phra
Prayudh Payutto. Thai Buddhism in the Buddhist World. (Bangkok: Mahachulalongkorn
Buddhist University, 1st Ed. 1984), pp. 66-71].
Thanking Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for his
retyping this article.