He is a bhikkhu who has no attachment
He who has no thought of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ whatever towards
mind and body, he who grieves not for that which he has not,
he is indeed, called a bhikkhu.
Bhikkhu vagga. The Dhammapada.
Theravada Buddhism in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
THERAVADA BUDDHISM: Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera in his History of
Buddhism (1956) took the view that Sri Lanka would have known about
Buddhism during the time of the Buddha Himself, since there was regular
contact between India and Sri Lanka during that period.
This view has been strengthened by the recent discovery that
Anuradhapura has settlements from 10th century BC. Archaeologist Siran
Deraniyagala has stated that Buddhism would have come into Sri Lanka
If so, then Buddhism was known in Sri Lanka long before the reign of
King Dharmasoka and the arrival of Arhant Mahinda Thera in 3rd century
E.W. Adikaram in his Early History of Buddhism (1946) had also
concluded that Buddhism existed in Ceylon before the arrival of Arhant
Mahinda Thera. He took the view that Arhant Mahinda Thera came to set up
the monastic order.
He said that it was only after the conversion of King
Devanampiyatissa that Buddhism became the State religion in Sri Lanka.
Historians now think that the meeting between Arhant Mahinda Thera
and King Devanampiyatissa was pre-arranged. Communication would not have
been a problem.
The Magadhi language, which Arhant Mahinda Thera spoke, would have
been similar to Sinhala. The Asokan inscriptions are similar to Sinhala
inscriptions of 3rd century BC.
The doctrine preached by Arhant Mahinda Thera in Sri Lanka was based
on the Sthaviravadin School of Buddhist thought, known as Theravada.
Theravada was considered the doctrine coming direct from the time of the
Theravada established itself firmly in the island. The Sinhala kings
and the three Nikayas - Mahavihara, Abhayagiri and Jetavana embraced the
Theravada doctrine. In time, Sri Lanka came to be seen as the one
country that had preserved Buddhism in its original form in the
However, there was a strong Mahayana presence in Sri Lanka during the
second half of the Anuradhapura period.
Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera says that Mahayana influence over the ideas
and teaching of Theravada was persistent and that as time went on
Mahayana ideas and practices crept slowly in the Theravada system and
were accepted and incorporated into the orthodox teaching without
question of their validity.
Mahavihara and Abhayagiri developed two different schools of
Theravada thought. Mahavihara was conservatively Theravada and had its
own interpretation of the Theravada doctrine.
Mahavihara teachings went to South India. R.A.L.H. Gunawardana says
that most of the Pali works attributed to South Indian scholars are
expositions of the teachings of the Mahavihara.
Abhayagiri, though receptive to Mahayana and Tantra, was a Theravada
establishment and was recognised as such in India. Abhayagiri had its
own interpretation of the Pali canon and its own commentaries.
Abhayagiri disseminated Buddhism more energetically than Mahavihara. Ven.
Hsuan Tsang Thera said that Abhayagiri 'widely diffused the Tripitaka'.
Sri Lanka made a unique contribution to the Theravada doctrine. The
Sangha, with the support of the king, paid special attention to the
preservation of the doctrine. The doctrine was memorised and transmitted
orally from generation to generation of Monks.
The canon was divided into collections and each collection was given
to a specific group of monks to memorise. Then in the reign of
Vattagamani (89-77 BC), the Tripitaka was put into writing.
This was the first time that the Theravada doctrine had been recorded
in writing and it was done in Sri Lanka. As a result, the Theravada
canon, which disappeared from India, survived in Sri Lanka.
The Pali Tripitaka is very important. It contains the earliest
Buddhist canon. It is also the only complete version. The Chinese,
Tibetan and Sanskrit Tripitaka are fragmented. Paranavithana points out
that the preservation of the Theravada canon ranks as the greatest
contribution made by Sri Lanka to the intellectual heritage of the
world. numerous commentaries.
The Sinhala contribution did not end there. Paranavithana says that
Mahinda Thera brought with him the commentaries he had got from his
teachers, explaining the terms used in Buddhism.
These were handed down with great care in the Sinhala monasteries.
The Sinhala monks examined these commentaries and then wrote numerous
commentaries of their own. These Sinhala commentaries formed a 'huge
One collection of such writings was said to be equal in volume to
seven elephants of middle size. The earliest commentaries were the Maha
Attakatha, the Maha Paecari and the Kurundi.
They were the three principal Sinhala works on which the subsequent
commentaries of almost all the important texts of the Tripitaka were
based. Short extracts from these Sinhala originals can be found in the
Dampiya Atuva Getapadaya.
These Sinhala commentaries (Atuva) were greatly valued as a major
contribution to Theravada. They eventually became the only commentaries
available on Theravada.
The Sinhala Atuva were translated into Pali in the 5th century, by
three Indian monks, Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta and Dhammapala.
Buddhaghosa, monk from Andhra or Telegu country, arrived in the reign
of Mahanama (406-428) and translated selected Sinhala commentaries.
Task of translations
These are the Pali commentaries, which we now possess. Buddhaghosa
was not given ready access to the commentaries. He was first examined by
the Mahavihara to see whether he was capable of undertaking the task of
translations. The two Cola monks Buddhadatta and Dhammapala came to Sri
Lanka later and translated further Sinhala commentaries to Pali.
The belief that after Ven. Buddhaghosa Thera, the Sinhala
commentaries were gathered together and destroyed by fire is incorrect.
The Sinhala commentaries did to go out of use as soon as the Pali
version was made. The Sinhala commentaries were in use until at least
the 10th century. These commentaries are now irretrievably lost.
The Sinhala Sangha provided new material to the Sutta Pitaka of the
Theravada canon. The Kuddakapatha, the first book of the Khuddaka Nikaya
was compiled and given canonical authority in Sri Lanka.
The Parivara Section of the Vinaya Pitaka was expanded and the
Parajikapali and Pacittiyapali sections added. A valuable contribution
was made on the question of Nibbana as a metaphysical entity, on the
theory of phenomena, and on the development of the Theory of Double
Truth as held in the Theravada Buddhism of the time.
Visudhimagga contained a chapter on the Theravada interpretation of
the theory of dependant origination, where the twelve-fold theory was
dealt with more deeply and more extensively than in other works.
This text carries a detailed exposition of the three-life
interpretation of dependant origination. Sri Lanka also made a valuable
contribution to Buddhology, by examining all references to the Buddha in
the Buddhist texts.
Sri Lanka became a centre for Buddhist studies. Sinhala monks were
admired for their strictly disciplined, austere style and for their
scholarship. There were many scholars of repute. Foreign monks visited
Sri Lankan monasteries to advance their knowledge of Buddhism. In the
Anuradhapura period many South Indian monks came to Mahavihara in the
Anurahdapura period to study under Sinhala Monks.
Three valued relics
The Chinese monk Fa Hsien Thera came in the reign of Mahanama
(406-428) and stayed for about 2 years. He found many foreigners at
Two Cola monks Ven. Buddhamitta Thera and Kassapa Thera arrived
during the reign of Parakramabahu I. Around the year 1171, the Burmese
Monks Chapata Thera was studying in Sri Lanka.
He met Nanda Thera from Kachipura, as well as Sivali Thera, from
Tamralipti, who had come to Sri Lanka to study the teachings of the
Mahavihara. The son of the king of Cambodia was also in Sri Lanka
preparing for his ordination. In the reign of Buvanekhabahu I
(1272-1284) Dhammakitti Thera, a senior Monk from Ligor (Nakon Sri
Thammarat) arrived in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka was an important place of worship and pilgrimage. Sri Lanka
has three valued relics, the Tooth, Hair and Bowl Relics. The alms bowl
and several other Relics of the Buddha including the right collarbone,
came during Arhat Mahinda Thera's time.
The Kesa Dhatu arrived in Sri Lanka during the reign of Moggallana I
(491-508). During the time of Kublai Khan (1260-1294 AD) a mission came
from China to pay respect to the Buddha's alms bowl. King Thihathura
(1469-1481) and his Queen made their hair into a broom, studded its
handle with gems and sent it to sweep the floor of the Tooth Relic
Temple in Kotte.
A branch of the Sacred Bodhi Tree had arrived with Sanghamitta
Therani. It took root in Anuradhapura.
Saplings of this Tree were distributed all over the island, including
Jambukolapatuna (Sambiliturai) and Kataragama. Sri Pada was known during
the time of the Mahavamsa. It became a popular place of worship once
Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) made it accessible.
Lineage of ordination
Sri Lanka possessed an unbroken lineage of ordination coming from the
time of Arhat Mahinda Thera. This brought many persons into Sri Lanka
They came from Burma, Cambodia, India and Thailand. Ven. Walpola
Rahula Thera researching into Buddhism in the Anuradhapura period, found
that two persons from India, a Brahmana from Pataliputra (Patna) and a
wealthy merchant named Visakha came to Sri Lanka and were ordained as
monks, having heard of the fame of one Ven. Mahanaga Thera of Sri Lanka.
Those who could not come here obtained the Sinhala ordination from
In the 14th century a Thai monk went to Burma and received Upasampada
from a Sinhala monk, Udumbaragiri.
The Sinhala monks propagated Theravada Buddhism in other countries.
Bodhisri inscription at Nagarjunikonda (3rd century) says that monks
from Sri Lanka helped entrench Buddhism in many regions in greater India
and beyond, such as Kashmir, Gandhara and China.
The Sinhala Monks helped to establish Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar,
Thailand and Cambodia. This contribution is still remembered. At a
symposium on Nalanda held in Singapore in 2006, a number of speakers had
made reference to Sri Lanka's historic role in the spread of Buddhism in
South East Asia.
Sinhala monks were highly regarded in India. They were praised in an
inscription at Nagarjunikonda, dated to 3rd century. Ven. Hiuen Tsang
Thera, who was in India in the 7th century, said that the Sinhala Monks
"were distinguished in their attitude to moral rules, in their power of
abstraction and their wisdom.
Their manners were grave and imposing. Their correct conduct was an
example for subsequent ages."
To be continued
Last few hours of Venerable Siri Devamitta Dhammapala
Ven. Siri Devamitta
Anagarika Dharmapala spent the last years of his life as a Bhikkhu.
He was known as venerable Siri Devamitta Dharmapala.
This is an account of his last few hours on earth. Anagarika
Dharmapala's 143rd birth anniversary fell on September 17.
DHARMAPALA: "Let me die soon. Let me be re-born twenty-five times to
spread the Buddha's Dhamma." This was the last wish of the late
Venerable Siri Devamitta Dharmapala, as he lay sick in the bed at Holy
Isipatana with a fever to which he eventually succumbed on 29th April
It was not the wish of the coward or the imbecile but the earnest
yearning of the undaunted spirit seeking fresh opportunities for greater
service to humanity. Every minute of his remarkable life had been spent
for the good of humanity and it was impossible for him to lie ideal in
He was now compelled to a life of inactivity which was against his
very nature and he longed to free himself from it. How often did he
during his last days express a desire to pass away and be re-born with a
better body and mind to serve Buddhism.
On the 20th, his condition became serious and I thought it advisable
to send a telegram to his relations in Colombo. Responsibility lay heavy
on my shoulders and at distant and lonely Isipatana I wanted someone who
could share it with me.
The doctors were very grave and I could guess who was going on in
their minds. So I wired to Calcutta asking Dr. P. Nandi, one of the
leading physicians in Calcutta, to come up at once for no one understood
Venerable Dharmapala's ailments better that Doctor Nandi.
The reply came much to my relief that an assistant Doctor was coming
up on the 22nd and that Dr. Nandi himself would arrive on the 23rd. In
the meantime on the 22nd, the Doctors pronounced the case as critical.
"Let me die soon, let me be re-born. I can no longer prolong my agony; I
would like to be re-born twenty-five times to spread the Buddha's
Dharma" repeated Venerable Dharmapala.
At eleven o'clock in the morning his pulse began to fail and death
was imminent. A tense silence prevailed in the room as heavy as a spell
and there were many a hushed whisper and smothered sob around the bed of
the dying leader.
He was not fully conscious of all that was happening around him while
with heavy hearts we devoutly arranged his bed facing the Vihara so that
he may have a fully view of the great work he had completed.
He looked for a moment at the sacred and stately edifice with that
longing of the affectionate parent for his growing off-spring and in a
flash this was changed into one of reverential love as he several times
raised his folded hands in adoration.
An "Ata-Pirikara" was offered and we placed an image before him while
the Samaneras chanted "Pirith", listening to which the great leader fell
asleep and he was still sleeping when the assistant doctor arrived with
oxygen from Calcutta. Waking up a little later he only asked, "Why all
A streak of hope
Doctor Nandi arrived on the 23rd and the joy of our leader was
unbounded. Ever since they had met each other they had been like
brothers and I could hardly suppress the tears that rushed into my eyes
as I saw how the two kindred great men met each other in mutual
understanding and regard - one in the throes of death and the other
determined to save him.
After a prolonged and careful examination Dr. Nandi pronounced the
case of pneumonia. The arrival of the doctor changed the whole
atmosphere of the place. Utter hopelessness and depression which were so
long predominant gave place to hope and confidence for not merely was he
the healer but was a guide, philosopher and comforter to us all. To our
infinite joy and relief the patient began to come around; in the doctors
presence he no longer refused medicine for he had implicit faith in him.
I shall be happy to take your medicine and die, he told the doctor.
On receiving news of his serious illness the Samaneras who were sent
to Buddha Gaya, returned on the 24th and peeped into the sick room.
"From where are they coming?" enquired Venerable Dharmapala. "From
Buddha Gaya" replied Revd. Sasanasiri who was standing close by.
When he heard this there was quite an agitated look in his face
giving an index to the worrying emotions in his heart and then at last
he asked to every one's surprise. "When her child is dying will the
mother run away?" Those present readily understood what he meant for
Buddha Gaya was of greater importance to him than his own life.
Throughout his illness Venerable Dharmapala kept harping on the
Buddha Gaya question. Not a day passed without a reference to it. It has
been his greatest ambition to recover the sacred site for the Buddhist
Lately he had re-started the movement and was contemplating a
vigorous campaign when he unfortunately fell ill. "If I live another two
years I shall see that the Holy Temple is restored," he told me once.
His plan was to take up his residence at Gaya itself and from there
carry on his last battle. He expected the whole Buddhist world to stand
by him like one man, but in this he was sadly mistaken.
It was a rude awakening that he received a copy of a memorial sent by
the Congress of Buddhist Associations dealing a death blow to his life's
long aspirations. It was the greatest shock of his life and I can
vividly recollect his pain and anguish when he read it. Alas! He never
recovered from that shock.
How could he forget such treachery even on his sick bed? Space does
not permit me to dwell on everything he said in this connection; but I
must say that the restoration of Buddha Gaya to its rightful owners is a
work which he has left to Buddhists to complete and I hope that it will
be taken up in right earnest by the entire Buddhist world who would not
look back till they succeed, thus crowning with success the great and
heroic task initiated by the greatest of Buddhist Missionaries for the
last seven hundred years and the greatest of Sinhalese of his time.
Flicker of the lamp
"Venerable Dharmapala's nephew, Mr. Raja Hewavitarane arrived from
Colombo on the 26th, a day earlier than we expected, I had been
fervently hoping that he would arrive before the patient should take a
serious turn and so his welcome presence lifted a heavy load from my
head. My relief was immense.
Venerable Dharmapala recognised him at once, affectionately stroked
his face and enquired about his brother Neil. He also asked what action
they were taking against the memorial sent by the Buddhist Congress.
As hours passed by the showed signs of recovery but it was only the
last flicker of the flame before it went out. The end was soon to come,
and bathe the Buddhist world in tears.
As the patient was not taking sufficient nourishment food had to be
injected much against his will. On the 27th, all of a sudden he called
and wanted pen and paper to write something very important.
He was semi-conscious at the time, and after scribbling something
with great effort he closed his eyes. There were three lines of which
the first was very indistinct while the last two read as follows:
"Doctor Nandi I am tired of injections; I may pass away."
On the 28th, his condition showed no improvement although Dr. Nandi
was hopeful and asked us not to worry. After staying at Sarnath for five
days Dr. Nandi left by the evening train giving full instructions to his
assistant to continue the treatment.
The patient passed a restless night and though very much worried at
the time, little did we think of what the morrow held in store. In the
morning of the 29th he was almost unconscious, and spoke nothing at all
except mutter my name once. The usual sponge bath was given by the
assistant doctor but unlike on other days the patient did not turn to a
side. He showed no desire for food and his eyes were half closed.
A serene smile
Mr. Rajah Hewavitarane and all the inmates were anxiously watching by
his bed side in silence when at about 12 o'clock, the temperature began
to rise and in spite of all the efforts of the doctor and me it rose to
104 Farenthight by 2 o'clock.
We now realised that the end was near and Mr. Hewavitarane summoned
all the Bhikhus and Samaneras and requested them to chant Pirith. While
the priests were thus chanting the great leader breathed his last
peacefully at 3 o'clock. There was a serene smile on his face bespeaking
happiness and contentment.
Thus ended the remarkable career of the greatest Sinhalese of modern
times and one of the most lovable and dominating personalities of this
age. Not only did he save the Sinhalese from national degeneration and
extermination but also won them a place of high honour amongst the great
nations by his humanitarian activities throughout the world.
This is not the place to make an exhibition of his service to
humanity, but it may be said without fear of contradiction that his
services in the cause of his country's welfare and his services in the
cause of Buddhism throughout the world are unsurpassed by those of any
one during the last seven hundred years.
A grateful nation will no doubt treasure his memory ranking him with
such great Missionaries like Asoka, Mahinda Thera and other great
figures in the history of Buddhism. (Maha Bodhi Journal - June 1933)