Well-intentioned diplomacy | Daily News


Significance of Poson full moon Poya day:

Well-intentioned diplomacy

That the then king of this land encountered a monk donned in serenity yet equipped with authoritarian personality is already etched in the knowledge trove of Sri Lankan Buddhist history. Yet what came to pass over the next few days between Arahant Mahinda Thera and King Devanampiyatissa needs to be unearthed. There is more to exhume beyond the mango-quest.

During his brief stay in the island, Arahant Mahinda Thera consulted five works of the Pali Canons, which remain relatively lesser known: Cullahatthipadopama Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya I, 3. 7), Peta Vatthu and Vimana Vatthu, two books of Khuddaka Nikaya (short volume) on celestial and ghostly mansions, Devaduta Sutta (on Heavenly Messengers - Majjhima Nikaya III 3. 10) and Balapandita Sutta (on Wise and Fool - Majjhima Nikaya III, 3. 9.).

King Devanampiyatissa and his family are said to have become Buddhists following these sermons; some family members, in fact, attained the first stage of sainthood, Sotapanna.

Sotapanna is the stream-winner. It literally means entering the stream. A person with a mindset advanced to the sotapanna status eradicates the first three fetters: belief in an individual self (sakkaya dihi), doubt or uncertainty, especially about the teachings (vicikiccha) and attachment to rites and rituals (silabbata paramaso). The rest goes as sensual desire (kamacchando), ill will (vyapada), lust for material existence and rebirth, (ruparago), lust for immaterial existence and rebirth in a formless realm (aruparago), conceit (mano), restlessness (uddhacca) and ignorance (avijja). The sotapanna is named after a simile that compares attaining Nibbana with crossing a stream and reaching the farthest shore. Sotapanna, hence, is the first followed by three advanced mental stages: sakurdagami (once-returner), anagami (non-returner) and arahant (fully awakened or enlightened).

Buddhism in Sri Lanka owes its rock-solid establishment to Arahant Mahinda Thera’s refined choice of works from the Pali Canons. His mission in sailing for Sri Lanka was more than simply converting another royal clan into Buddhism.

This fact is corroborated, as the Arahant Thera did not get to the conversion business right away; his first requirement was inquiring intellectual capacity of the chief of state with the history’s first recorded famous Intelligence Quotient on trees and relatives.

Elephant footprint

With this in the setting, Culla Hatthipadopama Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya: Sutta 27), a minor discourse on the simile of elephant footprints, is an interesting study. Hatthi, Pada and Opama define elephant, foot and simile respectively in Pali.

The source is based on a conversation that ensued between two Brahmins (non-Buddhists): Pilotika and Janussoni. Pilotika, though not a perfect Buddhist convert, describes his pleasant feelings about Buddhist philosophy and its followers to Janussoni, making the latter get fascinated in a follow-up.

An inquiring-minded Janussoni raises the issue of the Buddha’s claim to be an Enlightened One. In simple terms, the learned Brahmin questions the Buddha’s wisdom. Pilotika puts forward the simile of an elephant.

"… Suppose a wise elephant woodsman were to enter an elephant wood and were to see in the elephant wood a big elephant's footprint, long in extent and broad across. He would come to the conclusion: 'Indeed, this is a big bull elephant.' So too, when I saw four footprints of the recluse Gotama, I came to the conclusion: 'The Blessed One is fully enlightened, the Dhamma is well proclaimed by the Blessed One, the Sangha is practising the good way.'"

(Translated into English from Pali by Venerable Nanamoli and Bodhi Theras)

The Buddha’s footprint, Pilotika perceives, represent the non-Buddhist scholars who contemplate on raising a particular set of questions and getting armed with rebuttals for the obvious answers. Pilotika joyously illustrates how he sees the same tribe of scholars becoming the Buddha’s disciples. Pilotika argues that he can measure the Buddha’s accomplishment of wisdom simply by observing his disciples.

Janussoni could have been satisfied by Pilotika’s explanations, but it reflects the modern-day misunderstanding of Buddhism.

Buddhism is generally understood in the light that the true Buddhist shies away from basic sins such as slaughter, stealth, debauchery, false speech and alcohol consumption. The core of the teachings, however, is far deeper.


Arahant Mahinda Thera’s choice shows the clear difference he wanted to point out between a normal saint and a Buddhist saint. The best way to see the truth is walking from darkness up into the light. Janussoni was enlightened when he heard the Buddha’s expanded version of elephant footprint simile. Just because the footprint was large in length and breadth, it does not help picture the big elephant. There can be dwarf female elephants with feet large in length and breadth.

Likewise, there can be other non-Buddhist saints who stay away from the sins; most sins are listed in the sutta. A big elephant if fathomed only by seeing the whole being.

So the real Buddhist saint should be understood, or the real accomplishment of wisdom should be understood, by the realisation and the practice of four noble truths, originally taught in Buddhism. The sutta is hard to understand in one go. However, if studied carefully, the sutta helps us develop the idea that the modern-day concept of comparing Buddhism with other religions is not theoretically correct. Every religion has its unique features, and so has Buddhism: four noble truths, for one.

Although the message seems simple and clear, it is hard to convince it to a run-of-the-mill. It is this background that led, or compelled, Arahant Mahinda Thera to inquire the intellectual capacity of King Devanampiyatissa to absorb the sublime teachings.

Many scholars, especially Westerners, entertain the theory that Buddhism encourages only the saintly life. Arahant Mahinda Thera gives the lie to this famous misconception with his subsequent sermons of Peta Vatthu, Vimana Vatthu, Devaduta Sutta and Balapandita Sutta, which mostly discuss the way a Buddhist should behave as a layperson. For instance, Peta Vatthu illustrates the fate of evil-doers and Vimana Vatthu focuses on what the virtuous can wait for.

Heavenly messengers

Devaduta Sutta talks of five heavenly messengers we see in our life, but continuously and unknowingly pass over.

The five heavenly messengers go as follows:

1. A toddler standing and lying with difficulty.

2. An old woman or man decayed and bent like the framework of a roof.

3. A sick woman or man, immersed in their own urine and excreta, raised by others and conducted by others.

4. An offender taken hold by the king and given various kinds of torture caned and whipped.

5. A dead woman or man after one day, two days or three days, bloated and turned blue.

Balapandita Sutta teaches how human beings suffer through their follies, thus encouraging good deeds.

The primary reason for Arahant Mahinda Thera’s arrival in Lanka is the third council which took place during Emperor Asoka’s regime under the guidance of Venerable Moggaliputtatissa Thera. It was a hard task for the emperor to set the background to the third council, but it reached the expected fruition. Arahant Mahinda Thera’s emissary role is a result of the third council of Buddha's teachings held during Emperor Asoka’s period.

Third council

The council remains significant and weighty since it paved way for the establishment of the teachings in nine different countries; hence Arahant Mahinda set foot in Lanka, one of the countries then known as Thambapanni, to establish Buddhism.

The background for the third council was created 218 years after the Buddha’s demise, in Emperor Asoka’s regime. Despite his notoriety for military offensives, Asoka metamorphosed into a different personality following the encounter with a novice monk. The emperor soon grew interested in the teachings.

He channelled a great deal of state funds to the welfare of Buddhism, earning the wrath of powerless Brahmins. The Brahmins apparently had issues with the flourish of Buddhism. They had been scheming for the downfall of Buddhism.

One strategy was entering the monk order and living as they desire. This was infiltration, one can say. This strategy proved effective as people became embarrassed and disappointed over the behaviour of some monks. They did not care to assume it was a Brahmin strategy to put Buddhism into shame.

By this time, it dawned upon the emperor that the Uposatha ceremony, or prescribed purification of monks, had not been performed for seven years. He was interested in continuing the much-acclaimed spiritual practice. A monk must confess any discipline breach to another monk according to the prescribed purification procedure. The emperor sent courtiers to let the monk order be informed about his wish.

However, a positive response from the genuine monks was hard to obtain. They objected as the order was impure with heretic monks. Courtiers could not see the spiritual grounds of the objection, and they mistook the objection as acting against the royal decree. Offended courtiers started massacring the monks, but were brought to halt by emperor's brother who was also a monk.

Asoka was disturbed to learn this and inquired Ven Moggaliputtatissa if he was responsible for what his courtiers had done. Ven Moggaliputtatissa smartly handled the situation enlightening the emperor further on Buddhism; the monk’s main point was that Buddhism is a philosophy that sorts things out by analysing.

Asoka then assigned himself the time-consuming task of interviewing each and every monk to identify their genuine position. A monk failing to provide a satisfactory explanation would be disrobed with a proper layperson’s job as an alternative.

At least 60,000 people are said to have been disrobed in the purging process. The path for the third council was thus cleared in the 17th year of Emperor Asoka’s period.

Later additions

As Pali sources uphold, Venerable Moggaliputtatissa Thera compiled a book titled Katavatthupakarana of 23 chapters as a rebuttal to heretical views held by different sects. The council had been executed for nine months with Venerable Moggaliputtatissa Thera as the chair of the assembly of 1000 Arahants.

Many historians, however, question the third council. Lankan chronicles and Samantapasadika glossary do mention about the third council, but many other sources do not have references to such an event during the period. Ironically Asoka’s inscriptions do not refer to the event either!

Asoka’s claim of having united the monk order and disrobed the heretics remains scribed in his inscriptions.

It is clear, as mentioned earlier, Asoka's two precautions were followed by the major event of the third council. When it comes to the shouldering of the event, it is Venerable Moggaliputtatissa Thera who deserves the honour, though the emperor must have provided financial and other material sponsorship.

The absence of such a mention may well be accredited to the emperor’s respect towards Venerable Moggaliputtatissa for shouldering the event.

Following this major event, the emperor worked on extending his foreign relations by spreading Dhamma in the neighbouring countries. He was lucky to be equipped with enough human resources to accomplish his mission. Asoka’s mission of sending Buddhist representatives to nine countries is a breakthrough event second only to Venerable Moggaliputtatissa’s compilation of Katavatthupakarana and steering the third council.

What unfolded on Poson Poya and afterwards epitomizes the Buddha's directive on what's to be done following his demise. The Buddha urged to treat the Dhamma Vinaya (his teachings and the code of discipline) as the Teacher following the demise. For those who lament the absence of a Buddha and hence guidance, the Dhamma Vinaya continues to shine vested with the Teacher's authority. Arahant Mahinda Thera's arrival benchmarked the continuation cultural and spiritual revolution that shook the world two millennia ago.

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