Buddhists make up 70.2 percent of the population of Sri Lanka. Nearly all the Buddhists are Theravada Buddhists and Sinhalese. Sri Lanka’s main ethnic group. Theravada Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism practiced in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Laos and Burma. For the most part it originated in Sri Lanka. Buddhism is given special protection under the Sri Lankan constitution. Buddhism came close to being wiped out in the colonial period due to mass conversion to Christianity and neglect but was revived by reformers who borrowed techniques of proselytizing and political activity from Christian missionaries.

Buddhism has had a strong presence in Sri Lanka for 2,200 years. A key element of the identity of the Sinhalese and their sense of unity, it took hold very quickly and has evolved hand in hand in with Sri Lankan culture, literature and art. Today, Sri Lanka is regarded as a major center of Buddhist teaching and thought. It was where the Theravada School of Buddhist thought originated. Many Buddhist in Southeast Asia, where Theravada Buddhism dominates, look to Sri Lanka for guidance.

It is said that Buddha himself visited Sri Lanka in the 6th century B.C. . He is said to have visited three places during his visit. The couch he reportedly slept on while he was in the Colombo area is inside the stupa at Kelaniya Temple, near Colombo. The worship of Buddha has been expressed symbolically with stupas (mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics associated with Buddhism) and bodhi (bo) trees. The first stupa was built in present-day Annuradhapura and nearby a bo tree was planted from shoot of the original bo tree, under which Buddha attained nirvana (enlightenment) in India.

After Buddhism split into Mahayana and Theravada sects in India, the Sinhalese adhered to the Theravada sect. After Buddhism disappeared from most of India, it remained strong in Sri Lanka, from where the sect spread to southeast Asia via what is now Myanmar. Sri Lanka is home to more than 6,000 Buddhist temples — some of them more than 1,000 years old including the famous Daladwa Maligawa, which houses the Buddha's Tooth — and approximately 55,000 monks. Even though Sri Lanka’s constitution endorses freedom of religion and secularism, Buddhism occupies a place as Sri Lanka's predominate religion. [Source: World Press Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Though the origins of Buddhism in Sri Lanka are linked to the missionary efforts of Ashoka, Theravada Buddhism, throughout its long history, has been decidedly nonmissionary and not evangelical in nature. Moreover, for most of its history Buddhists have coexisted peacefully with Hindus, Muslims, or Christians. Buddhism is a major index for Sinhala ethnicity in Sri Lanka. One is either born into a Buddhist family or elects, on the basis of personal motivations, to become a Buddhist. In Sri Lanka there has been little in the way of active proselytization. During the past few decades, however, some monks and laity have organized missions with the support of wealthy expatriates to take the dharma to the West. Modern technology has abetted this process. In addition to international information centers now established in Colombo, websites are ubiquitous on the Internet. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]


Sacred Bodhi Tree at Anuradhapura

The Sacred Bodhi Tree at Anuradhapura is one of Sri Lanka’s greatest treasures. It is said to be grown from a branch from the original Bodhi Tree under which Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment in India. The bringing of the branch to Sri Lanka is historic event tied with the introduction of Buddhism to the island. The bodhi tree is now very large and is considered to be the oldest recorded tree in the world.

The right branch of the sacred Bodhi Tree is said to have been brought by Arahat nun Sangamitta, sister of Arahat Mahinda and daughter of Emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century B.C.. The branch was planted in the Royal gardens at Anuradhapura by King Devanampiya Tissa who was ruling Anuradhapura and the island at that time.

The bodhi (bo) tree is one of Sri Lanka’s holiest pilgrimage sites. Many saffron-robbed monks and pilgrims come to pay homage to it. Many pilgrims leave offerings of flowers at its base and tie prayer flags to its branches. There are several bodhi trees at the site. The very old and sacred one sprouts from the highest platform. The crush of pilgrims is particularly high during the times of the full moon.

An elaborate gateway marks the entrance to the bo tree area. Over the years a number of kings have taken measures to protect it. Several retaining walls have been built around it. Even during occupations by southern Indian Hindu kingdoms the tree was looked after. Today it is taken care of by a special team of botanists appointed by the government. A gilded fence known as the Ran Vet was fairly recently placed around it.

According to ancient chronicles the bringing of the sacred Bodhi tree branch to Sri Lanka by Sanghamitta took place a few months after the arrival of Mahinda. Amidst much rejoicing and ceremony, this tree was planted at Maha Mevuna Uyana. The Bo tree (Pipal – Ficus religiosa) branch was brought by Sanghamitta, as a gift from her father Mauryan Buddhist Indian Emperor Ashoka. It is regarded as the oldest historical tree (i.e. having the longest recorded written history) in the world. It has been protected by an uninterrupted series of Buddhist monks since it was planted. The high terrace on which the tree sits is seven meters (21 feet above the ground) and surrounded by railings. It is one of the most sacred Buddhist relics and one of the most important places in Sri Lanka. The parapat wall around the compound where the bo-tree is planted is about 213 meters (700 feet) in length. This wall was constructed during the reign of King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha, to protect the tree from wild elephants. [Source: My Sri Lanka mysrilanka.com ]

Temple of the Tooth

Temple of the Tooth is Sri Lanka’s most sacred important temple. Located on the side of the lake in the center of Kandy and known locally as Dalada Maligawa, it houses Buddha's tooth, which is said to be an upper left incisor snatched from Buddha's funeral pyre in 543 B.C. The tooth was reportedly brought to Sri Lanka from India in the 4th century A.D. hidden in the hair of an Indian princess and given to the Sri Lankan king, Kithsiri Megawanna, who in turn placed in an edifice built by King Devanampriyatissa.

The Sinhalese kings considered themselves the guardian of the sacred tooth, which was considered the source of their power and venerated to invoke the blessings of the king and his people. The sacred tooth was kept in Anuradhapura for a while and moved around Sri Lanka as the Sinhalese kings changed the location of the Sri Lankan capital until it finally came to rest in the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy during the Kandyan period.

Placed on a site, where an auspicious white tortoise was found, the temple is a white crenelated temple structure with a moat and towers that look like swirls of soft ice cream. The closet that visitors get to the tooth is a view of the golden reliquary that holds the tooth through a glass portal.

A two-story shrine was built next to a lake to house the relic by Sinhalese king, Wimala Dharma Suriya I in 1590, when the relic was taken to Kandy. The current two-story pink structure was built under King Narenda Sinhala in 1687 to 1707 and expanded from 1747 to 1782. The tooth is kept in an inner chamber. The temple is surrounded by a moat. The octagonal tower in the moat was built to house palm-leaf manuscripts. The gilded roof was deed by President Premadasa.

The entrance to the temple features moonstone steps, two stone elephants and five intertwined damsels. Pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka converge on the temple during the lunar month of Esala (July or August) for the massive Perahara festival that honors the tooth. At 6:00am and 4:00pm daily the tooth is venerated with a special ceremony that involves drumming. and sacred chanting.

The Dalada Maligawa was badly damaged by a bomb attack in January, 1998 that killed 16 people and was believed to have been set by the Tamil Tigers. The relic was not damaged but the octagonal tower was. The building was not badly damaged because the walls are made of wattle and daub and shock waves from the explosion passed right through them. The damage was fixed in time for the next festival. The tile roof was repaired, painting and teak carvings were retouched. The blast was a sort blessing on an archeological and art level in that paintings covered by plaster over the years were revealed. When visiting, shorts are not acceptable. Sometimes tourists with are given a sarong to wear over their shorts. There is an extra fee for a camera and even more for a video camera.

Buddhism as a State Religion in Sri Lanka

From the day of the establishment of Buddhsim till to the end of the Sinhalese rule in the nineteenth century A.D., only a Buddhist had the legitimate right to be a king of Sri Lanka. By about the tenth century, this belief had bccome so strong that the king of Sri Lanka had not only to be Buddhist but also a Bodhisatta. The Jetavanarama Slab Inscription of Mahinda IV (956972) proclaimed "None but the Bodhisatta would become kings of Sri Lanka …….(who) .... received assurance (vyaran) from the Omniscent Buddha." Similarly, Kirti Nissanka Malla( (1187-1196) says in his inscriptions that Lanka belonged to Buddhism and that therefore non-Buddhists had no right to the throne of Sri Lanka. Pujavaliya, a Sinhalese prose of the thirteenth century, expresses this idea more explicitly :

"The Island of Lanka belongs to the Buddha himself, it is like a treasury filled with the Three Gems. Therefore, the residence of the wrong believers in this Island will never be permanent... Even if a non-Buddhist ruled Ceylon by force for a while, it is a particular power of the Buddhas that this line will not be established. Therfore, as Lanka is suitable only for Buddhist kings, it is certain that their lines, too will be established."

The existence of such a belief is also testified by various European who visited Sri Lanka in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of them points out that the first rule was that king of Sri Lanka should never give up Buddhism and embrace another religion.

Even Dravadians, who ruled over the Island occasionally, had to become Buddhists, at least for the purposes of the office, whether they liked it or not. For example, Elara, the Cola prince, who ruled at Anuradhapura in the second century B.C., is reported to have gone to Cetiyapabbata (Mihintale) to pay homage to and invite the Sangha for alms. Elara, it appears, had no genuine interest in Buddhism, but nevertheless he had to follow the established custom (carittam) of the land. Even the two Tamils. Sena and Guttika, who ruled at Anuradhapura about 30 years before Elara, seem to have been Buddhists by faith.

Theravada Buddhism and Sri Lanka

Theravada Buddhism got its start in Sri Lanka. It helped re-energize Buddhism as a whole at a time when the religion was declining in India. Theravada Buddhism originated in India but did not have a lasting impact there. It spread from Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia, where it remains the dominant religion in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos today

Theravada Buddhism ("doctrine of the elders") is the oldest and most orthodox of Buddhism's three major sects. Regarded as the belief closest to the one taught by The Buddha himself, it is based on the recollections of The Buddha's teachings amassed by the Elders—the elder monks who were Buddha's companions. Sometimes called 'Southern Buddhism', Theravada Buddhism stresses spirituality, the enlightenment of the individual, self-discipline, the importance or pure thought and deed, the importance of the monastic life and the strict observance of the ancient Vinaya code It has distinct roles for monks and lay people, emphasizes that each individual is responsible for his or her salvation and takes the position that only monks are capable of reaching nirvana. Theravada Buddhism believes that it has remained closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. However, it does not necessarily over-emphasize these teachings in a conservative, fundamentalist way, rather they are viewed as tools to help people understand the truth, and not as having merit of their own.

Theravada Buddhism was once one of many schools. It stayed close to the original Pali canon. Pali is the language that Buddha spoke 2,500 years ago. Many people lean its scripture in Pali. In the old days, Theravada Buddhism was sometimes called Hinayana (meaning "lesser vehicle"). This tradition differs from the more widespread Mahayana ("great vehicle") found in China, Japan and Korea, which often treats the Buddha as a superhuman being and fills the universe with a pantheon of enlightened figures (bodhisattvas) who help others achieve enlightenment.

In Sri Lanka, people do not officially worship the Buddha, but show reverence to his memory. Theravada Buddhist preserves a clear understanding of the Buddha as a man who achieved enlightenment and developed monks (arhat) as accomplished followers of his teachings. Attempts were made to introduce Mahayana to Sri Lanka and rivalry developed between two school of thought. The dominance see sawed often depending on the sect rulers belonged to . Theravada won out in the 4th century and remained unchallenged to this day. Theravada Buddhism is regarded as conservative than Mahayan Buddhism.


Different Buddhist Sects in Sri Lanka

There is no central religious authority in Theravada Buddhism, and the monastic community has divided into a number of orders with different styles of discipline or recruitment. The broad outlines of the modern orders originated in the eighteenth century. By that time, monastic personnel came entirely from the upper levels of the Goyigama caste, and enjoyed easy lives as recipients of income from monastic estates worked by lower castes. The official line of monastic ordination had been broken, since monks at that time no longer knew the Pali tradition. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In 1753 the Kandyan king fulfilled his duty as a protector of Buddhism by arranging for Theravada monks from Thailand to ordain Sinhalese novices. These initiates set up a reformed sect known as the Siyam Nikaya (the Siamese order), which invigorated the study and propagation of the ancient Sinhalese heritage. The order remained a purely Goyigama enclave. *

By the nineteenth century, members of rising low-country castes were unhappy with Goyigama monopoly over the sangha, and rich merchants arranged for Karava youths to receive ordination from Thai monks. These initiates formed a new sect called the Amarapura Nikaya, that subsequently split along caste lines. Disputes over doctrinal matters and the role of meditation led to the establishment of another order, the Ramanna Nikaya, in the late nineteenth century. *

In the 1980s, the Sinhalese sangha of 20,000 monks fell into three major orders, subdivided into "families": the Siyam Nikaya contained six divisions; the Amarapura Nikaya, twenty-three; and the Ramanna Nikaya, two. Each family maintained its own line of ordination traced back to great teachers and ultimately to the Buddha. Caste determined membership in many of the sects.*

Hinduization of Buddhist Culture in Sri Lanka

According to the “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”: “While the destruction of institutional Buddhism at Anuradhapura and the reconstruction of the sa gha at Polonnaruva may have led in general to the eclipse of Mahayana and tantric cults in Lanka, invasions from south India beginning in the tenth century and the increasing numbers of military mercenaries who followed during the politically volatile thirteenth and fourteenth centuries only increased the presence and influence of Hindu cults in the Sinhala Buddhist religious culture of the era. [Source: “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

During the fourteenth century, when a retreating Buddhist kingship established its capital in the Kandyan highlands at Gampola, Hindu deities such as Vi u, Skanda, the goddess Pattin, and Ganesha, 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 (devalayas), 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 pura as (mythic stories), was created to edify devotees over the ensuing several centuries.

“By the fifteenth century, the island had been again reunified politically by Parakramabahu VI, whose capital at Kotte on the southwest coast became the hub of an eclectic renaissance of religious culture epitomized by the gamavasi (village-oriented monk) Sri Rahula, whose linguistic dexterity (he was known as "master of six languages") and concomitant affinities for popular religious and magical practices, refracted the syncretic character of religion at the time. Sri Rahula is perhaps best remembered for writing two classical Sinhala sandēSaya poems styled after the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa's Meghadhuta (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. Vidagama Maitreya, a wilderness monk (arañavasi) and one of Parakramabahu's childhood mentors, wrote the Budugu ala karaya (In Praise of the Buddha's Qualities) as a scathing critique of the increasing Hinduization of Buddhist culture. These two 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.

Buddhism During the Sri Lanka Colonial Period

According to the “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”: “By sixteenth century, the Portuguese had begun to interfere with the court at Ko e and eventually converted King Dharmapala 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 bhikkhusa gha whose lineage was imported from Burma, a new Da ada Maligava (Palace of the Tooth-Relic), and devalayas for the gods who had emerged as the four protective guardian deities of the island. The Kandyans colluded with the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century to oust the Portuguese. Despite one war in the 1760s during the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasi ha, 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. [Source: “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

But it is remarkable how "Buddhacized" this last line of Lankan kings became. Kirti Sri and his brother Rajadi who succeeded him, were responsible for the last great renaissance of Theravada: first, by reconstituting what had become a decadent sa gha by introducing a fresh lineage from Thailand that became known as the dominant Siyam Nikaya; second, by appointing a monastic head (sa gharaja) in the person of the learned monk Sara amkara, who reemphasized 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 äsa a perahära procession of the Dalada 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 nineteenth century, Buddhist culture atrophied for several decades. Its revival toward the end of the century was catalyzed in part by the establishment of two new low-country monastic nikayas, the Amarapura and the Ramañña. Both, in contrast to the Siyam Nikaya, 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 fueled 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 modeled 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 AnagArika DharmapAla (1864–1933), transformed the religious revival into a religio-nationalist cause by founding in 1891 the Mahabodhi Society, which sought to regain Buddhist control of Buddhist holy sites in India. In addition, Dharmapala 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 Dharmapala 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.

Buddhist Revival and Rise of Social Reform in Ceylon

Missionaries were very active under the British. They converted large numbers of Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. They converted a fairly large number of Buddhists too. Beginning around the middle of the nineteenth century, the Buddhist clergy attempted to reform the sangha (religious community), particularly as a reaction against Christian missionary activities. Walisinghe Harschandra is regarded as a great Sri Lankan hero. In the 19th century he worked hard to help Sri Lankans develop pride in their culture and heritage and not blindly imitate the West. He is considered the father of the Dharmapala movement, which itself is named after Anagarika Dharmapala.

In the 1870s, Buddhist activists enlisted the help of an American, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott. An ardent abolitionist in the years leading up to the American Civil War, Olcott cofounded and later became president of the Theosophical Movement, which was organized on a worldwide basis to promote goodwill and to champion the rights of the underprivileged. Shortly after his arrival in Sri Lanka, Olcott organized a Buddhist campaign against British officials and British missionaries. His Buddhist Theosophical Society of Ceylon went on to establish three institutions of higher learning: Ananda College, Mahinda College, and Dharmaraja College. Olcott's society founded these and some 200 lower schools to impart Buddhist education with a strong nationalist bias. Olcott and his society took a special interest in the historical past of the Sinhalese Buddhist kingdoms on the island and managed to persuade the British governor to make Vesak, the chief Buddhist festival, a public holiday. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The rediscovery of old Buddhist texts rekindled a popular interest in Sri Lanka's ancient civilization. The study of the past became an important aspect of the new drive for education. Archaeologists began work at Anuradhapura and at Polonnaruwa, and their finds contributed to the resurgent national pride. In the 1880s, a Buddhist-inspired temperance movement was also initiated to fight drunkenness, and the Ceylon Social Reform Society was founded in 1905 to combat other temptations associated with Westernization. Encouraged by the free reign of expression that the government extended to these reformists, a growing number of communal and regional political associations began to press for constitutional reform in the closing years of the nineteenth century. The colonial government was petitioned for permission to have Sri Lankan representation in the Executive Council and expanded regional representation in the Legislative Council. In response, the colonial government permitted a modest experiment in 1910, allowing a small electorate of Sri Lankans to send one of their members to the Legislative Council. Other seats held by Sri Lankans retained the old practice of communal representation.*

Major Theravada Buddhist Leaders and Theologians in Sri Lanka

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: The most important figure for defining Theravada orthodoxy (correct doctrine) and orthopraxy (correct practice) has been the monastic Indian commentator Buddhaghosa (fifth century c.e.), whose Visuddhimagga, among other works, remains the classic Theravada formulation of the path of dharma based on the cultivation of morality, wisdom, and meditation leading to the experience of nibbana (nirvana). The fifteenth-century gamavasi (village monk) Sri Rahula, a gifted linguist and aesthetician with a wide-ranging intellect, extended the scope of Buddhist monastic religious culture in numerous ways, as seen in his composition of several lyrical poetic tracts in which popular practices such as veneration of deities, the incantation of mantras, and other apotropaic practices were valorized. The eighteenth-century reformist monk Saranamkara reestablished the primacy of moral practice and deepened the practice of monastic learning through literary excellence in the Sinhala vernacular. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Sri Lankan Buddhist was revitalized by Bhikku Upali more than 250 years ago.“After decades of passive resistance to the Christian missionary efforts in the early to mid-eighteenth century, a small coterie of determined Buddhist monks, including Potuvila Indajoti, Kahave Nanananda, Mohottivatte Gunananda, and Valigama Sumangala, began to respond aggressively to the Christian missionary challenge by publishing a series of pamphlets defending the Buddhist tradition on philosophical grounds. Mohottivatte is especially well remembered for his stirring two-day debate with a Sinhalese Wesleyan minister at Panadura in 1873 amidst crowds of 5,000 to 10,000 people, an event that, in retrospect, may have marked the beginning of modern Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

“In 1880 the American theosophist Henry Steele Olcott (1832–1907) arrived on the island, capitalized on the momentum initiated by these Buddhist monks and galvanized the efforts of supportive Buddhist laity by establishing modern curricula at many newly founded Buddhist schools, organizing the liturgical calendar of public Buddhist holidays (the full-moon Poya Day observances), and disseminating widely in print his Buddhist Catechism. One of Olcott's early followers was Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933), who wrote the voluminous Return to Righteousness and founded the Mahabodhi Society in an effort to promulgate Buddhist values based on morality and honest, diligent work within the everyday lives of lay Buddhists. Dharmapala also enlisted international support for his campaign to regain Buddhist control over holy places of pilgrimage in India associated with the birth, first sermon, enlightenment, and final nibbana (nirvana) of the Buddha. Since the late nineteenth century the mahanayakas (chief prelates) of the Malvatta and Asgiriya chapters of the Siyam Nikaya in Kandy (heirs to the Mahavihara traditions in Anuradhapura) and the mahanayakas of the Ramanna and Amarapura Nikayas have served as important monastic spokesmen for the various Sinhala Theravada sects of the sangha. Since the 1990s the reformist Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thero of Colombo, an outspoken social and political critic representing Sinhala nationalist fears and aspirations, has become a well-known, influential, and controversial television personality.

Buddhism After Sri Lanka Became Independent in 1948

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”:Aside from "Protestant Buddhism," at least three other features marked the character of Buddhism in twentieth-century Sri Lanka. The first is the reemphasis given to meditation for both monks and laypersons, especially methods of insight (vipassana) practice made popular by Burmese masters. The second is the establishment of Buddhist-inspired welfare institutions, such as Sarvodaya, founded in the 1950s by A. T. Ariyaratne (1931–) to reawaken village culture and to stimulate rural economies and social services. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“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 Sri 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 favored 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 twentieth century. In this context, some influential Buddhist monks have colluded with Sinhala politicians to resurrect the ancient rhetoric of the Mahava sa and proclaim Lanka as the exclusive and predestined domain of the Buddhadharma. Others have marched for peace and coexistence.

Buddhist Clergy, Lay People and Texts in Sri Lanka

The Buddhist clergy is very powerful in Sri Lanka. In the old days royalty and the Buddhist clergy depended on each other for their positions and authority. The clergy looked over the Tooth relic in Kandy, which was the source of legitimacy for Sinhalese kings. The kings in turn gave generous land grants to the clergy which enabled them to become quite wealthy.

Today the clergy is very involved in politics, especially the Buddhist nationalist politics of Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the JVP. Monks have a tradition of political activity and influential in Sinhalese nationalist organizations. See Political Parties

The members of the Buddhist monastic community preserve the doctrinal purity of early Buddhism, but the lay community accepts a large body of other beliefs and religious rituals that are tolerated by the monks and integrated into Sinhalese religion. Many of the features of this popular religion come from Hinduism and from very old traditions of gods and demons. Sinhalese Buddhism is thus a syncretic fusion of various religious elements into a unique cultural system. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The conservative nature of Sinhalese Buddhism is strengthened through the preservation and living tradition of ancient scriptures in the Pali language. A dialect related to Sanskrit, the classical language of India, Pali is probably close to the popular language in northeastern India during the Buddha's time. The monks of Sri Lanka have kept alive an unbroken Pali transmission of monastic rules, stories of the Buddha's life, and philosophical treatises that may constitute the oldest body of written Buddhist traditions. *

Theravada Buddhist Beliefs in Sri Lanka

For people who do not become monks, the most effective method of progressing on the road to enlightenment is to accumulate merit (pin) through moral actions. One who performs duties faithfully in this world, who supports the monastic order, and who is compassionate to other living beings may hope to achieve a higher birth in a future life, and from that position accumulate sufficient merit and knowledge to achieve enlightenment. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Meritorious activities include social service, reverence of the Buddha at shrines or at dagoba, and pilgrimage to sacred places. Gifts to monks rank among the most beneficial meritmaking activities. Lay devotees invite monks to major events, such as a death in the family or the dedication of a building, and publicly give them food and provisions. In return, the monks perform pirit, the solemn recitation of Pali Buddhist scriptures. Although the average person may not understand a word of the ancient language, simply hearing the words and bestowing presents on the monks accumulates merit for the family or even for deceased family members. Some wealthy donors may hold giftgiving ceremonies simply for the public accumulation of merit. The monks thus perform important roles for the laity at times of crisis or accomplishment, and they serve as a focus for public philanthropy.*

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Buddhism often has been portrayed in the West as a mystical or otherworldly tradition. But early on Buddhist kingship was legitimated by a rich mythology that stressed the moral justice administered by a righteous king (cakravartin) who conquered by moral example rather than by force. Ashoka's rule of dharma became a paradigm for all Theravada-inclined kings to emulate, the physical and social well-being of the people being the paramount responsibility of the ruler. Since the disestablishment of kingship and the resurgence of indigenous culture and nationalism in the late nineteenth century, Buddhist concepts of morality have frequently fused with more secularly oriented initiatives to alleviate the suffering (dukkha) of the people. The Sigalovada Sutta is a good text illustrating the importance of social relations. In that text the Buddha puts forward the view that instead of cultivating important relations with the deities of the cardinal directions, Buddhists should concentrate on honoring and cultivating relationships with their parents, children, teachers, employers, and so forth. Sarvodaya, a Buddhist-inspired non-governmental organization founded in 1958 by a schoolteacher, A.T. Ariyaratne, aimed at uplifting village life through the alleviation of poverty, the promotion of sanitation and sustainable development, and the education of rural youth, remains an excellent example of how Buddhist values promote social justice in contemporary Sri Lanka. Though suicide is clearly condemned within Buddhist thought, Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Gods and Spirits in Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism

The Buddha is so pure and powerful that he does not intervene personally in the affairs of the world. That is the job of a pantheon of gods (deva) and demons (yakka) who control material and spiritual events. The Buddha never denied the existence of the gods or demons, but said that attention to these matters simply detracts from concentration on the path to enlightenment. The Sinhalese believe that the all-powerful Buddha has given a warrant (varan) to a variety of spiritual entities that allows them to regulate reality within set boundaries (sima). For help in matters of everyday life, the Sinhalese petition these spiritual entities rather than the Buddha. Near many dagoba, or shrines of the Buddha, there are separate shrines (devale) for powerful deities. After reverencing the Buddha, devotees present prayers and petitions to the gods for help with daily life. The shrines for the gods have their own priests (kapurala), who practice special rituals of purification that allow them to present offerings of food, flowers, or clothing to the gods. Propitiation of demons occurs far away from Buddhist shrines and involves special rituals featuring the assistance of exorcists. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The popularity of different deities changes over time, as people come to see particular deities as more effective in solving their problems. The principal gods include Vishnu (also a Hindu god, identified by Buddhists as a bodhisattva, or "enlightened being," who helps others attain enlightenment), Natha, Vibhisana, Saman (the god of Adams Peak and its vicinity), and the goddess Pattini (originally an ordinary woman whose devotion to her husband, immortalized in poetry, elevated her to divine rank). During the twentieth century, the god Vibhisana has declined in popularity while the god Kataragama, named after his hometown in Moneragala District, has become extremely powerful. The annual Kataragama festival brings tens of thousands of worshipers to his small town, including Hindus who worship him as a manifestation of the god Murugan and Muslims who worship at the mosque there. This common devotion to sacred sites and sacred persons is one of the most important features of popular religion in Sri Lanka.*

Another example of this religious syncretism is the cult of Sri Lanka's leading oracle, Gale Bandara Deviyo, who originally was a Muslim prince slain by the Sinhalese to prevent his accession to the throne. He is revered by Buddhists and Muslims alike at his shrine in the town of Kurunegala (in Kurunegala District). As transportation and communication facilities have expanded in modern Sri Lanka, there has been a big expansion of major pilgrimage sites that are jointly patronized by Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims, thus providing a commonality that may lead to closer cultural cooperation among competing ethnic groups.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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