Buddhist monks are known as “bhikku” (or bhiku) in Sri Lanka. They have traditionally worn saffron robes and have shaved heads. They are expected to renounce all worldly attachment and depend on alms for subsistence. This lifestyle doesn’t appear to appeal strongly to Sinhalese. There are only around 20,000 monks in Sri Lanka and ordinary Sinhalese young men generally do not become monks for a few months or longer as is the case in Burma and Laos and to a lesser degree Thailand. In Sri Lanka, it is possible for women to be ordained as monks.

In the absence of the Buddha, the custodian of his message is the assembly (sangha) of monks who carry on his work. The members of the Buddhist assembly practice the discipline (vinaya) set forth by the Buddha as a system of rules for a monastic order. The discipline calls for strict control over the senses and dedicated meditation by the individual monk (bhikku). [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

Bhikkus play an important role in the Sinhalese community. They serve the religious needs of the people, but Sinhalese people also worship at the temples (devale) of Hindu gods. Lay people who give alms to monks are expected to rewarded with an advantageous rebirth Monastic organizations and the general bkikku community are known as “sangha.” Temple-monasteries are known as “viharas”. Young monks wear orange saffron robes and carry glistening black begging bowls and red parasols. When asked why he had become a monk, one young boy replied, "to make my journey to nirvana shorter."

According to “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Buddhist monks, whether fully ordained or not, wear an orange or burnt-orange colored robe at all times. Dasa sil matas or sil maniyos (precept-holding lay women who have achieved a "nun's" status in the eyes of many) may wear yellow or orange robes. Laity who observe sil on Poya Days or who participate in any formal ritual occasion wear white shirts, white sarongs, or white saris. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]


Religious Practitioners in Sri Lanka

In villages where there is a temple but no monk, religious duties are taken care of by non-monk priests called “kapuralas.” Village temples are devoted to gods (bandaras and devas). Kapuralas meet the various needs of the villagers.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: In Sri Lanka, each of the four major religions are served by native religious leaders, although not exclusively; the island is home to training institutions for specialists in each of its organized religions.

“The largest and most active group of religious specialists are the members of the Buddhist monkhood, or Sangha, who are ordained for life to follow a path of celibacy committed to the disattachment from worldly life. As temple monks, they provide spiritual guidance to the laity, serve as role models, and act as a source of merit acquisition for those who support them. They do not, however, traditionally play a role in secular matters or life-cycle rituals, except the death rites. Well organized and often in control of fair amounts of property, the Sangha have considerable influence in society, both historically and today. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The priests of the various gods are more independently organized. The ethnicity of the priests depends on their clientele more than the origin of the gods they serve. Tamil Hindu priests are born into their roles, almost traditionally but not exclusively coming from the Brahman caste. Sinhala Buddhist priests, who serve many of the same gods, are drawn from the laity and are increasingly likely to be women. Members of both the Buddhist and Hindu laity also play a variety of specialized religious roles as mediators, renunciates who withdraw from worldly pursuits, and other kinds of adepts.

Life of Bhikkus (Monks) in Sri Lanka

Following the Buddha's example, the monk should spend the morning begging for food from the lay community, then abstain from meals after noon. He should shave his head, wear orange (or yellow) robes, and own only his clothes and a begging bowl. He should avoid all sexual contact or any other forms of sensual pleasure. The bhikku should rest in one place for an extended period only during the rainy season, when groups of mendicants may stay together in communal houses (vihara). Elaborate rules evolved for admitting novices to the monastic community and conferring ordination on bhikku who passed through a period of initiation and training. The strict organization of the monastic order created a solid basis for the preservation of the Buddha's message and a readily adaptable institution that was transplanted in a variety of social environments throughout Asia. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “In Theravada Buddhism a true Buddhist — a bhikku — is one who has renounced all worldly attachments and follows in the Buddha's footsteps, depending on alms for subsistence. Traditionally, the sangha was interdependent with Sinhalese kingly authority, which both depended on and supported the monastic orders. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Professor Rhys Davids wrote in the late 19th century: "Go and talk to the yellow robed and tonsured recluse - not of course through an interpreter, or out of a book of phrases: you must know not only his language but something of Buddhist ideas; and you must speak to him as man to man, not as the wise to the barbarian. You will certainly be courteous; for whatever else a Buddhist Bhikkhus may be, he will be sure to give proof of courtesy and a dignified demeanor. And it will be strange if you do not find a new world of thought and of feeling opening out before you." [Source: Rhys Davids, Prof of Pali in the University of London at Manchester during 1882-1904)]

Traditional Monk Foods in Sri Lanka

Chandra Edirisuriya wrote: The monks of ancient Lanka had to spend a considerable portion of the fore noon in connection with their food. There were common refectories attached to large monasteries like the Mahavihara, the Abhayagiriya and Mihintale. Thousands of bhikkhus went to these places for food. Fa Hien gives an eye – witness account: “They get their food from their common stores. The king, besides, prepares elsewhere in the city a common supply of food for five or six thousand more.” About two centuries later Hiuen Tsiang gives us an account on hearsay: “By the side of the king’s palace there is built a large kitchen, in which daily is measured out food for eight thousand priests.” The Rasavahini corroborates the accounts of these Chinese pilgrims when it says that from five great monasteries (pancamahavasa) monks and nuns assembled at Maha pali for alms. Bhikkhus went on pindapatha particularly for ghee and oil. [Source: Chandra Edirisuriya, WS, June 4, 2006]

There was light refreshment, some times, between two meals, with some snacks called antara – khajjaka and consisted of such things as honey (madhu) and jaggery (sakkara). Sometimes even preparations of meat were included. A story in the Rasavahini relates how a setthi entertained monks three times in the fore noon with delicious preparations including hare (sasa – mamsa). A special preparation of hare was included in the antara – khajjaka as well as in the other two meals. We learn from the Tonigala Inscription that the diet of monks in the 4th century. included among other things, curd (di), honey (miyavata), treacle (peni), sesame (tila), butter of ghee (bu(ja) natela), salt (lona) and green herbs (palahavata).’

Monk Sects in Sri Lanka

There are three main bhikku sects (nikaya) in Sri Lanka: 1) the Siyam Nikam, the largest sect, dominated by Kanyan Goyihama (an agricultural caste); 2) the Amapura Nikya, dominated by members of the Karava, Salagama and Durava castes; and 3) Ramanya Nikaya, a reformist movement. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Siyam Nikaya is rooted in the precolonial Kandyan political order and is still limited, in practice, to Goyigama aspirants. The smaller Amapura Nikaya emerged from the nineteenth-century social mobility of the Karava, Salagama, and Durava castes of the maritime provinces. The smallest sect, the Ramanya Nikaya, is a reform community.”

Activities of a Village Monk in Sri Lanka

According to the Sunday Times: At least one monk was resident in the village temple. The villagers looked after him. The monk would go on ‘pindapatha’ at least once a day, usually in the morning, for his meals. Taking his ‘pattaraya’, the alms bowl, he would start at the crack of dawn for the ‘heel dane’ or morning alms. He would take a different route every day visiting a few houses each morning thereby giving a chance for everyone in the village to offer alms. [Source: LLRH, Sunday Times, 2008]

“Having collected the alms, he would get back to the temple and partake of the food or share with the other monks, if there are others. The ‘kepakaru’ or the layman who attends to the needs of the monk, was also given his share. Invariably there would be at least one dog, if not more, in the temple. The ‘daval dane’ or the mid-day alms would generally be brought to the temple and after offering a portion of the food to the Buddha in the form of ‘Buddha pooja’, the monks would be served the alms. The ‘dayakas’ who bring the alms would observe ‘pan sil’ — the five precepts- and the monk would deliver a short sermon reminding the devotees of how they would acquire merit by giving alms. The devotees would reverently worship him and then serve the alms to the bowl. Usually the monk would accept only a single serving, so the devotees would make sure that sufficient food is served.

“The Buddhist monk gave leadership in the village. The peasant turned to him for advice. The monk performed several vital functions in the daily life of the villagers. Chanting of ‘pirith’ offering protection to the individuals, participation in activities in the village and offering his blessings, partaking of the ‘dana’, alms offered by the ‘dayakas’ were all part of the monk’s routine.”

Community Activities of a Monk in a Sri Lankan Village

According to the Sunday Times: The monk’s function was not restricted to religious activities. He took the lead in the social activities in the village. The ‘bana maduva’ was the meeting place to discuss community activities. The needs of the villagers were discussed there. Activities beneficial to the village were planned. The monk always presided over the discussions and gave advice. In case a road was to be cut, everyone would first gather at the temple and start work after paying obeisance to the monk. Thus the temple was the focal point in the village. Rarely did the villagers act against the wishes of the monk. [Source: LLRH, Sunday Times, 2008]

Being the most learned person in the village, the monk had to read the first letters to the kids. Having looked at ‘nekath’ according to the child’s horoscope, on an auspicious day, at an auspicious time, the child would be brought to the temple for the ‘akuru kiyaveema’. The monk read the first letters getting the child to repeat after him and also helped in writing the first letters either on the sand in the temple premises or on the ‘gal lella’ — the slate.

It was customary for parents to get the monk to chant ‘pirith’ to bless their daughter expecting a baby. They would bring the daughter to the temple, offer a sheaf of betel to the monk and invite him to chant ‘pirith’. In the same manner, if the monk hears that one of his ‘dayakas’ was not well, he would visit his home, chant ‘seth pirith’ and bless him. If someone was opening a shop or starting a new business, the monk would grace the occasion. In this way there was lot of interaction and cordiality between the village and the temple.

Monastic Ordination

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: ““There is deep ritualistic significance in the two stages of monastic ordination called pabbajja and upsampada. The former is the initial admission into the homeless life as a novice or samanera, which can be granted to any male over the age of seven or eight, provided certain conditions are satisfied. The ritual proper consists in shaving the hair and beard, donning the dyed robes, whose color ranges from yellow to brown, and then taking from the selected preceptor (upajjhaya) the Three Refuges in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, and the Ten Precepts (dasa sikkhapada): abstinence from (i) destroying life, (ii) theft, (iii) unchastity, (iv) lying, (v) fermented liquor, spirits, and strong drinks which cause intoxication and heedlessness, (vi) eating solid food after midday, (vii) dancing, singing, music, and improper shows, etc., (viii) adorning and beautifying the person by the use of garlands, scents, and unguents, (ix) using high and luxurious beds and seats, and (x) receiving gold and silver, i.e., money. The ceremony is performed on an auspicious day at the monastery where the ordination is sought. Thus the postulant becomes a novice. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“The full or higher ordination (upasampada) is more formal and difficult. The higher ordination ceremony should be conducted in a prescribed and duly consecrated "chapter house" (sima, or Sinh.: poya-ge), without which the ritual is not valid. If the candidate possesses the necessary qualifications like knowledge and intelligence and he is above twenty years of age, he may formally apply for admission and appear before a chapter of bhikkhus. Before admission he is made to put away the yellow robes and wear the clothes of a householder and face an interview at which he would be thoroughly examined as to his fitness for admission. If he successfully passes the test, he is led aside, reclothed in mendicant robes, and called back. Bearing his alms-bowl, he once again appears before the Sangha and goes through certain formalities after which, if all the monks agree, he is declared admitted.9]

Uposatha Observance refers to the ritual of confession performed by the monks on the new-moon and the full-moon days, when the Disciplinary Code, the Patimokkha, is recited. This is a set of 227 rules, to be observed by the members of the Buddhist Order. When each of the seven sections of the rules is recited amidst the assembled Order, if any among those present has infringed any of those rules, he should confess and undergo any punishment prescribed. Silence implies absence of guilt.

Almsgiving in Sri Lanka

Alms giving is one of the most common practices among Buddhists. It’s a way to support the monks, who study and practice the Buddha’s teachings, by offering them food. A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: Amsgiving in Sri Lanka is “generally known as sanghika-dana, meaning "the alms given to the community of monks." [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, 1995, Virtual Library Sri Lanka

The most important item among these offerings is what is traditionally known as “the eight monastic requisites” (ata-pirikara): the alms-bowl, three robes, belt, razor, water-strainer, and sewing needle. This offering is regarded as especially meritorious. As it is an expensive item and therefore difficult to offer to all the monks, generally one ata-pirikara is offered to the chief monk and other items such as books, towels, pillow-cases, umbrellas, etc., are presented to the other monks. who just give alms to monks,

“Once this is over, another monk administers what is called punnanumodana or "thanks-giving" wherein all those who were connected with the ceremony are requested to partake of the merits (punna) for their future good. The participants are also called upon to transfer the merits they have thus acquired for the well-being of their dead kinsmen and friends as well as for the sustenance of beings in the deva worlds, i.e., the deities, who are expected to protect the donors out of gratitude. The relic casket and the monks are conducted back to the temple in the same manner as they were brought and the proceedings are concluded.

Almsgiving Ceremony in Sri Lanka

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “A ceremonial almsgiving is often preceded by an all-night pirit ceremony. Even otherwise this ceremony too is usually performed on important occasions in the same way as the pirit ceremony, associated with such events as house-warming, setting out on a long journey, a marriage, birth, or death anniversaries, and so forth. At least four monks who have obtained higher ordination (upasampada) must participate for the dana to become valid as a full-fledged sanghika-dana. Such danas were held even during the Buddha's time, the Buddha himself participating in very many of them. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

Alms are first offered to the Buddha in a separate bowl, and are placed on a separate table on which the relic casket, containing a bone-relic of the Buddha, has been set. All the items of food are served in plates and placed on mats or low tables before the seated monks. A senior monk administers the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts (see pp. 5-6) to the assembled gathering, as this has become the established custom with which any Buddhist function commences. After he has given a short address on the significance of the occasion, the food is formally presented by getting the chief householder to repeat a Pali statement: imam bhikkham saparikkharam bhikkhusanghassa dema ("These alms, along with other requisites, we offer to the whole community of monks"). Next, the food is served and once the monks have finished eating (which should be before noon) the other requisites (parikkhara), referred to in the statement quoted, are also offered.

“Of the many items of offering that dana or the act of generosity could include, food is usually regarded as the most important and the formal meal offering accordingly is done with much ceremony and ritual. The monks are conducted from the temple in procession with drumming as in the case of pirit. A layman leads the procession, with the relic casket (dhatu-karanduva), representing the Buddha, borne on his head under an umbrella or canopy. As they approach the particular household they are received by the host. As the monks step into the house, one person washes their feet, while another wipes them. This part of the ceremony is the same as in the case of the pirit ceremony. The monks are then conducted to the cushioned seats arranged on the floor against the wall.

“A related ritual that cannot be ignored as regards the ceremony of almsgiving is the custom of getting the neighbours and friends also to serve into the alms-bowl that is offered to the Buddha. On the morning of the day on which the almsgiving takes place a separate bowl is kept on a table for this purpose. This is called the Buddha-pattare, or the Buddha's alms-bowl. Alms served into it are regarded as offered to the Buddha himself. The neighbours would come with plates of rice prepared in their homes and serve into it. This rice is also taken when the bowl of food is prepared for offering to the Buddha, near the relic casket at the time of the dana proper, the purpose here being to get the neighbours and outsiders also to participate in this merit-making ceremony.

Monastic Ceremonies: Vassa and Kathina

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: ““The Vassa, a three-month rains retreat, was instituted by the Buddha himself and was made obligatory for all fully ordained bhikkhus; the details are laid down in the Mahavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka (3rd and 4th chapters). The retreat extends over a period corresponding to the North Indian rainy season, from the day following the full moon of July until the full-moon day of October; those who cannot enter the regular Vassa are permitted to observe the retreat for three months beginning with the day following the August full moon. From the time Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka by the arahant Mahinda, the observance of Vassa — Vas in Sinhala — has been one of the mainstays of monastic life in the island. During the Vas the monks are expected to dwell permanently in their temples and suspend all traveling. If unavoidable circumstances necessitate traveling, they are allowed to leave their residences on the promise that they will return within a week (sattahakaraniya). On the first day of the retreat the monks have to formally declare that they will dwell in that manner in the selected monastery or dwelling. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of SriLanka”, 1995]

“The Vassa is also a time for the lay Buddhists to express their devotion to the cause of Buddhism by supporting the Sangha with special diligence, which task they regard as a potent source of merit. It is customary for prominent persons to invite monks to spend the Vas with them in dwellings specially prepared for the purpose. In this latter case the host would go and invite the monk or monks formally. If the monks accept the invitation, the hosts would prepare a special temporary dwelling in a suitable place with a refectory and a shrine room. On the first day of the Vas they would go with drummers and dancers to the monastery where the invitees reside and conduct them thence in procession. The hosts would assume responsibility for providing all the needs of the monk or monks during this period, and they attend to this work quite willingly as they regard it as highly meritorious. If no special construction is put up, the lay supporters would invite the monks to observe the retreat in the temple itself.

“At the close of the Vas season, the monks have to perform the pavarana ceremony. At this ceremony, held in place of the Patimokkha recitation, each monk invites his fellows to point out to him any faults he has committed during the Vas period. On any day following the day of pavarana in the period terminating with the next full-moon day, the kathina ceremony is held. Different monasteries will hold the kathina on different days within this month, though any given monastery may hold only one kathina ceremony. The main event in this ceremony is the offering of the special robe known as the kathina-civara to the Sangha, who in turn present it to one monk who has observed the retreat. The laity traditionally offer unsewn cloth to the monks. Before the offering takes place, the robe is generally taken, with drumming, etc., around the village in the early hours of the morning. Once the robe is given to the Sangha, certain monks are selected to do the cutting, sewing, and dying of the robe — all in a single day. Public contributions are very often solicited to buy the robe if it is not a personal offering.

“This ceremony, which is performed with keen interest and devotion, has today become an important occasion of great social and religious significance for the Buddhist laity. This seems to have been so even in historical times when many Sinhala kings made this offering with much interest and devotion (e.g., Mhv. xliv,48, xci, etc).

Monks, Politics and Money

Monks command high respect and wield a fair amount of power in Sri Lanka. Some Buddhist monks are large landowners and it is not uncommon to see monks in chauffeur driven cars. Buddhist temples are often centers of political intrigue, corruption and ant-Tamil activity. Buddhist connections are often necessary to obtain a job, scholarship or permit.

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.

Bhikkus often have a fair amount of political power. 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

Murders and Serious Crimes by Sri Lankan Buddhist Monks

In 2018, a monk strangled police officer that tried to arrest him. Reuters reported: “A 37-year-old Sri Lankan Buddhist monk assaulted and strangled a police officer who sought to arrest him on a warrant for alleged sexual harassment. Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said the monk fatally injured the unarmed police officer by throttling him while resisting arrest at his temple in the central district of Ratnapura, 100 kilometers from the capital Colombo. [Source: Reuters, July 11, 2018]

He said nearby residents notified authorities of the killing and the monk tried to throw a grenade at police who went to arrest him in the temple. A scuffle ensured and the monk was arrested on suspicion of murder in addition to the harassment allegation, Gunasekara said. The monk was hospitalised with a broken hand.

In February 2012, A Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka was been sentenced to death for murder, the first monk in 50 years to receive such a sentence. The BBC reported: Gomadiye Sarana, 37, was convicted for a murder committed before he was ordained into the clergy. Sarana and an accomplice were found guilty of murdering a man 12 years ago by a court in the south of the country. The crime appeared to be linked to a dispute over an affair the monk had with the murder victim's sister. [Source: Charles Haviland, BBC News, February 22, 2012]

Reports say the judge ordered the defendant to remove his robes before he delivered the judgement - probably because he did not want to sentence a monk to death. But the convicted man refused. This is the first time a monk has been given the death sentence since the hanging in 1962 of Talduwe Somarama, a fierce Sinhalese nationalist who assassinated a prime minister.

Other monks have recently been implicated in serious crimes. In 2011, a court ordered the arrest of a Buddhist cleric in northern Sri Lanka for allegedly sexually molesting a teenage girl. In the south a crowd of protesters demanded the arrest of someone they said was a monk for the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl. In And last week police said they detained a monk in possession of heroin.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, 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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