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Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka
Prof. Maeda Egaku

In 1981, Sri Lanka had a population of 14.9 million, of whom 74 percent were Sinhalese and 18.2 percent were Tamils. The majority of the Sinhalese were Theravaada Buddhists; most of the Tamils were Hindus, and Muslims and Christians made up a further 15 percent of the population. The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka states: "The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha saasana [church], while assuring to all religions the rights granted . . ." (article 9). The three major sects or orders (nikaayas) are the Siyam (11,474 monks in 1973), Amarapura (5,034 monks), and Raama~n~na (3,514 monks). The Siyam Nikaaya is divided into four or six sub-sects and the Amarapura Nikaaya is said to have twenty-six sub-sects, which do not seem to possess much unity. There is no central unifying organization. Even more than the ordinary temple monks, who devote their energies to social works, the five hundred or so forest-dwelling monks, whose hermitages are centers for training in meditation, enjoy high popular regard. In many temples, shrines are provided for the worship of devas such as Vi.s.nu, Kataragama, and Naatha.

Theravaada Buddhism originated in Sri Lanka, and it is Sri Lanka that transmitted the Paali Tipi.taka, as well as numerous commentaries, synopses, chronicles, and grammars. The legend in the Diipava.msa and other chronicles that the Buddha visited the country three times is widely believed in present day Sri Lanka. As far as is known, Buddhism was first introduced when Mahinda, said to be the son or younger brother of King A'soka, established the Sa"ngha at the start of the reign of King Devaana"mpiya Tissa (ca. 250-210 B.C.E.). The king built the Mahaavihaara in the capital Anuraadhapura, and the Sa"ngha centered there was long recognized as the orthodox school of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The Buddhism of South and Southeast Asia inherited the Mahaavihaara tradition and thus owes its origin to the establishment of this monastery.

The Age of Establishment

Helped by an unbroken state of peace and royal protection, Buddhism

gradually increased its influence. The Sinhalese were constantly engaged in conflicts with Tamil invaders from the Indian coast. King Du.t.thaagama.nii Abhaya (161-137 B.C.E.) obtained a victory over the invaders and extended his power over the whole island. Thirty years later King Va.t.tagaama.nii Abhaya built the Abhayagirivaahara, dedicated to his friend, the senior monk Mahaatissa. Because of problems concerning the Vinaya, Mahaatissa was criticized by the monks of the Mahaavihaara and expelled from the Sa"ngha. He reacted by establishing his own sect, the Abhayagiri, which prospered under royal protection, while the Mahaavihaara went into decline. The Mahavihaara bhikkhus, fearing the extinction of Buddhism, began the transcription of the Tipi.taka (which until then had existed only as an oral tradition). The Abhayagirivihaara monks were liberal in outlook, and because they offered permanent residence to followers of Mahaayaana, their discipline became rather loose. The Mahaavihaara, resenting this, appealed to the king and tried to have the Mahaayanists banished. A Mahaayaana monk was able to gain the confidence of King Mahaasena (276-303) and take revenge on the Mahavihaara. When the monk was slain by a minister who rebelled against the king, Mahaasena had to change his policy, but he could not bring himself to favor the Mahavihaara. He built the Jetavanavihaara in their compounds, and this became the third of the major Sri Lankan sects.

The Chinese monk Fa-hsien, who visited Sri Lanka in 410-412, mentions the prosperity of the Abhayagirivihaara and says that they had five thousand monks, while there were three thousand in the Mahaavihaara and two thousand in the Cetiyapabbatavihaara. A few years later the Southern Indian monk Buddhaghosa wrote the Visuddhimagga and presented it to the Mahaavihaara, and, with all the Buddhist texts in the Mahaavihaara at his disposal, Buddhaghosa composed an extensive set of Pali commentaries. His work was continued by Buddhadatta and Dhammapala, and as a result of these commentaries Theravaada doctrine was firmly established.

The Dark Ages

From the end of the fifth century, Theravaada Buddhism in Sri Lanka rapidly declined as a result of the waning power of its royal patrons. Until the eleventh century, no conspicuous Buddhist activity is observed. On the Indian continent the religion was also in decline. Mahaayaana influences on Sri Lank are visible from the third century and continued until, at the end of the sixth century, the Indian monk Jotipaala demolished the Mahaayaana doctrine in an open debate. There were no- more converts to Mahaayaana, and the Mahaavihaara recovered its lost prestige. Around 638 the Chinese monk Hsuan-tsang traveled all over India but did not go as far as Sri Lanka because he had heard that not only was the country in political disarray but there were also no outstanding learned monks. He wrote that there were in Sri Lanka at that time more than ten thousand monks and that the Mahaayaana-Sthavira (Abhayagirivihaara?) prevailed over the Hiinayaana-Sthavira (Mahaavihaara?).

According to Chinese accounts, Vairabodhi (671-741), who introduced Tantric Buddhism to China, visited Sri Lanka twice, staying at the Abhayagirivihaara. His disciple Amoghavajra, (705-774) is said to have been born in Sri Lanka. In accord with his masters last will, in 741 he travelled from China to Sri Lanka in order to transmit the sacred scriptures of Tantric Buddhism. It is said that Tantric Buddhism was flourishing then in the country and that Amoghavajra received there the initiation ceremony by sprinkled water, and took more than five hundred scriptures back with him to China.

From the latter half of the eighth century, the maintenance of Anuraadhapura became difficult, and the capital was moved to Polonnartiwa. The religious world was also often in disarray. There is very little mention of Tantric and Mahaayaana Buddhism in the chronicles of these centuries. Instead, there was influence from Hinduism, reflecting the faith of the Indian masses. The Mahaavihaara reached the limits of decay, and at one time there was not a single Mahaavihaara monk in Sri Lanka. At the beginning of the eleventh century, the Cola invasion reduced Anuraadhapura to ruins. The Mahaavihaara, Abliayagirivihaara, and Jetavanavihaara were completely destroyed. The Cola were believers in 'Siva and persecuted Buddhism without mercy.

The Age of Prosperity

Whereas Buddhism in India, after the destruction of the Sa"ngha, was completely replaced by Hinduism, which won the adherence of the masses, in Sri Lanka the king and the populace remained Buddhist despite the disappearance of the Sa"ngha. King Vijayabaahu I (1055-1110) recaptured Polonnaruwa from the Co.la invaders and made the city his capital. Having restored stability, he gave his attention to the reestablishment of the monastic order. He sent an emissary to the Burmese king Anawrahta and reintroduced Buddhism from that country. He encouraged the Tipi.taka and Buddhist activities in both countries. After his death, there was again unrest in the country and strife among the monks. This was finally overcome by the great king Parakramabaahu I (1153-1186). In 1165 he held a conference of leading monks, which resulted in the reunification of the three sects under the Mahaavihaara. A reform was implemented with special emphasis on the following points: (1) study of the scriptures; (2) times and places at which it was allowed to leave the monastery; (3) prerequisites for accepting new disciples. The king built several monasteries, and his literary activity marks the beginning of the "Augustan Age of Ceylonese literature." The best-known scholar of the period is Saariputta, whose many works, including the Vinayasa"ngaba, a summary of the commandments, won a wide following.

In the Polonnaruwa period there were several changes in Buddhist practice. First, a great loss to the Sa"ngha was the sudden disappearance of the order of Buddhist nuns. The reason for this is not altogether clear, but there are no traces of persecution. Second, Buddhism as an ethical system yielded to folk Buddhism, marked by the increasing popularity of spirit chanting. Third, pilgrimages to Mount 'Sripaada grew in popularity and were patronized by royalty. Fourth, the Tooth Relic at Kandy, received from the Kali"nga Royal House of India in 311, and long a popular object of worship, became the main symbol of royal authority, so that the princes fought for its possession. In the period after the removal of the capital to K6tte in the fifteenth century,' Sri Lankan Buddhism was admired and imitated by visitors from Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia.

The Age of Modern Buddhist Revival

From 1505 Sri Lanka was colonized by Portugal, Holland, and England in turn. At that time the island was divided into the three states of Koo.t.te, Taffna, and Kandy, which were unable to take joint action against the invaders. The Portuguese goals were "Christianity and spices," and with their overwhelming military power they succeeded in gradually subduing the island. The majority of the population of Koo.t.te were Buddhists, while in Jaffna, Hinduism predominated. But it was the Muslims in both states who were the strongest rivals of the Portuguese in both religion and trade, and who were the first object of their attacks. Since the Portuguese considered Hinduism and Buddhism to be primitive religions, they did not think of studying them. The Franciscan missionary Vincente arrived in 1505, followed by Dominicans and Jesuits, who preached in the vernacular, lived and ate with the people, helped the poor, and built schools and hospitals, winning many converts. For Buddhism this development was a bolt from the blue. The conversion of Sinhalese kings to Christianity, beginning with King Dharmapaada in 1557, was a heavy blow. As a result of such conversions, Koo.t.te and Jaffna became predominantly Catholic, and Buddhism and Hinduism completely lost the traditional royal sponsorship. The decline of Buddhism accelerated. Portugal brought the powerful Renaissance culture of Europe to Sri Lanka, every aspect of which seemed superior and worthy of imitation. The variety of ceremonies and rituals in the Buddhism and Hinduism of the time facilitated the adoption of Christian customs. Buddhist temples were destroyed and many monks victimized; temple property and the income that the temples received from the villages were transferred to Christian churches.

It was during the reign of Vimaladharmassuuriya I (1592-1604), king of Kandy, that the first emissary of Holland arrived in Sri Lanka. The only wish of the king was to get rid of the Portuguese, so he welcomed the Dutch with open arms. However, when, with their help, the Portuguese were expelled in 1658, the Dutch took their place. Their religious policy, implemented through schools opened by Calvinist missionaries, was to convert to the Dutch Reformed faith not only the Buddhists and Hindus but also the Catholics. When a school was built in a village, the children were obliged to attend, and, along with reading and writing, the catechism and the prayers of the Dutch Reformed Church were the main subjects of study.

The kings of Kandy, an inland area less important to Western traders and not so heavily affected by the successive dominations of Portugal and Holland, had continued to be zealous reformers of the Sa"ngha. The reign of Kiirti 'Sri Raajasiimha (1747-1781) was a period of Buddhist revival, marked by the activity of the founder of the Siyam Nikaaya, Vaalivi.ta Sara.na.makara. He became a saama.nera at the age of sixteen and was a popular preacher, widely respected for his personality and erudition.. He had to remain a saama.nera for a long time, since Buddhism was in a situation of extreme decay and not enough bhikkhus were available in Sri Lanka to confer higher ordination. In 1753 the king welcomed a Buddhist delegation from Siam led by Upaali. Sara.na.mkara, then aged fifty-five, at last became a bhikkhu, along with seven hundred others. He was appointed Sa"ngharaaja (Ruler of the Order), and under his leadership a great revival of Buddhism took place. Sara.na.mkara was a prolific author and is regarded as the father of the revival of arts in the country.

In 1762 the British emissary Pybus visited Kandy and asked for a settlement and for trade. The king, who was constantly at loggerheads with the Dutch, welcomed the arrival of the British. In 1780 the British declared war on the Dutch, and in 1796 all Dutch possessions in Sri Lanka fell into the hands of the English East India Company. In the early period of British rule, the government of Sir Thomas Maltland (1795-1806) feared that the king could use Buddhist and Hindu monks to rouse the Sinhalese and Tamils to resistance. Maitland's policy was to divide and rule by fomenting rivalry between the monks. He put the Anglican and Dutch churches under government control and managed to receive the support of the Catholics as well. The churches related to England and the Dutch Reformed Church received government support; their ministers were paid from public funds. The government did not lend any support to Buddhism; the governor did not fulfill the role that the kings had performed in the Buddhist ceremonies, nor did he show the monks the respect that they had received from the kings; instead, they were obliged to pay homage to him.

As a result of religious revival in England, several Protestant denominations sent missionaries to Sri Lanka. In 1812 the Baptist Mission arrived, followed by the Wesleyan Missionary Society in 1814, and the Church Missionary Society in 1815. Today the non-Catholic churches in Sri Lanka include the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Wesleyan-Methodists, Baptists, and the Salvation Army, all of which have followed the Dutch Reformed policy of using schools to propagate Christianity. This method was not adopted by the Catholic Church. This church had found itself in a disadvantageous position in the Dutch period. Under British rule, its position improved a little, though it did not receive government support. Its strong organization facilitated intensive missionary work, and its solemn ceremonies and rituals had immense popular appeal.

The seeds of revival sown by Sara.na.mkara bore fruit in centers for Buddhist learning opened by his disciples in the areas dominated by the Dutch. It is regrettable that he introduced the caste system in the Sa"ngha, which was originally without any discrimination. The Siyam Nikaaya, which he founded, forbade people of all castes other than the farmers' class to enter the Sa"ngha. Those who were excluded went to Burma to receive the precepts and founded the Amarapura Nikaaya. A reform movement within the Siyam led to the establishment of the Raama~n~na Nikaaya. Buddhists became aware of the need for organization if their religion was to survive. They established associations using the same methods as the Christian churches. Books and pamphlets explaining Buddhist doctrine were published. Buddhists started comparing their faith with Christianity, and a number of open debates were held between the two religions. In 1873 Moho.t.tivattee Gu.naananda engaged in a historic debate with Rev. David de Silva and Mr. F. S. Sirimanna before Buddhist and Christian leaders and a large crowd. Contrary to the expectations of the Christians, the debate persuaded the people that Buddhism was superior to Christianity and boosted the recovery of Sinhalese self-confidence.

Helena P. Blavatsky and Colonel H. C. Olcott, the first Westerners to understand Buddhism and to become Buddhists themselves, were deeply impressed by this controversy and, after founding the Theosophical Society, came to Sri Lanka in 1880, establishing there the Buddhist Theosophical Society with the purpose of founding schools in which children could receive a Buddhist education. Olcott published a Buddhist catechism and a Buddhist newspaper. Anagaarika Dharmapaala (1864-1933), the father of the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, studied PWi on the advice of Madame Blavatsky and devoted himself to the study and propagation of Buddhism, social service, and political enlightenment. In 1891 he went to India and was shocked to discover that the places sacred to the Buddha were in the hands of non-believers and in ruins. His appeal to the Buddhists of the whole world led to the restoration of the sacred places. The Mahaa Bodhi Society which he founded for this purpose has chapters throughout the world. In 1898 a group of about twenty young Buddhists, under the leadership of C. S. Dissanayake, a convert from Catholicism, met in the headquarters of the Buddhist Theosophical Society. This was the beginning of the Young Men's Buddhist Association, which contributes very actively to the social education of Buddhists, including Sunday schools. In 1919, the YMBA created the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, the first national organization of Buddhist laymen, which conducts influential political campaigns for the protection of Buddhist rights. As part of its international service department, the World Fellowship of Buddhists was founded in 1930; it restarted after the war with G. P. Malalasekera as president. After Sri Lanka attained independence in 1948, Buddhism became the central pillar in the formation of the new nation, and its leading ideology. Buddhism now faces the task of finding its place in an independent country without a king. The monks, awakened to their political responsibilities, started a movement to make Buddhism the state religion. It is in that context that the present constitution of Sri Lanka was promulgated. The new political significance of the religion is reflected in the phenomenon of so-called political monks making street speeches. However, there is also an increase in monks who practice meditation at the hermitages, aiming to return to the original way of the Buddha.


Adikaram, E. W. Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon. Colombo: M. D. Gunasena, 1953. Ariyapala, M. B. Society in Mediaeval Ceylon. Colombo: K. V. G. De Silva, 1956.

Geiger, Willielm. Culture of Ceylon in Mediaeval Times. Edited by Heinz Bechert. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1960.

Malalalasekera, George Peiris. The Paali Literature of Ceylon. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1928.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri. Buddhism in Sinhalese Society. 1750-1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Nicholas, C. W., and S. Paranavitana. History of Ceylon. Colombo: Ceylon University, 1959-1973.

Rahula, Walpola. History of Buddhism in Ceylon: The Amuradhapura Period Colombo: M. D. Gunasena, 1966.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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