After the third Buddhist Council held during the reign of the great, Indian Emperor Asoka (273-236 BC) under the Chairmanship of Ven. Moggaliputta Tissa Maha Thera several missions were sent to preach the Dhamma in and outside India. Emperor Asoka's son Arahant Mahinda together with four others were sent to Sri Lanka. They preached the teachings of the Buddha to King Devanampiyatissa (247-207 BC), who being greatly impressed readily accepted Buddhism. Its progress was phenomenal. Thrice during the reign of ancient Sinhala Kings the whole land of Sri Lanka was offered to the Buddha. Thousands of men and women embraced the new faith and many entered the Bhikkhu Order. Monasteries were erected and rich endowments were made for their upkeep.
Queen Anula, consort of an Uparaja (sub-king) named Mahanaga with 500 of her attendant ladies having listened to discourses, gained mental attainmetits and implored Arahant Mahinda to grant them ordination. But as monks were not allowed to ordain females, emissaries were sent to Emperor Asoka to send bhikkunis to ordain them. Sanghamitta, sister of Van. Mahinda, who had received ordination was sent to Sri Lanka. With the ordination of Anula and several others, both the Bhikku Order and the Bhikkuni Order were established in the Island.
Two great events in the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka left a deep impression and still evoke pious enthusiasm among millions of Buddhists. The transplantation of a branch of the Bodhi tree under which Buddhahood was attained served as an inspiration to the people who had recently embraced the religion. The second event was the bringing of the Buddha's tooth relic from India.
There followed a period of political unrest in early lst century BC when foreign rulers from South India seized Anuradhapura, the capital. The lack of interest of these Tamil rulers in the Buddhist faith and vandalism of their supporters evidently retarded the progress of the religion.
The reign of King Dutugemunu (101-77 BC) may be acclaimed the golden era of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In addition to a large number of men and women entering the Order, many were also practising meditation in forests and rock caves. The affairs of the Sangha were managed by the monks themselves under well established rules. King Dutugemunu built the most celebrated stupa, the Ruwanveli Maha Seya in Anuradhapura. and the Brazen Palace, the magnificient edifice of nine storeys and 900 chambers for use of the monks.
The Fourth Council according to Theravada tradition, was held in Aloka Vihara, near Matale during the reign of King Vattha Gamini Abhaya (29-17 BC). Afterwards, 500 monks presided by Ven. Rakkhita committed the entire Buddhist Canon (Tri-pitaka) and the Commentaries (Atthakatha) to writing. This timely action of the Sinhalese king helped in preserving the original Buddhist Canon to this day, and made Sri Lanka the home of pristine Buddhism.
Sri Lanka by now had become the champion of pure Theravada tradition. Mahavihara in Anuradhapura was the centre of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. From time to time protagonists of different sects came from India to Anuradhapura. Some received royal patronage which led to bitter controversies between the Mahavihara and the later Abhayagiri Vihara which became traditionally the home of dissentient sects referred to as 'heretics' (Vetulla or Vaitulya). The Abhayagiri Vihara received the highest support during the time of King Mahasena (334-362 CE) being influenced by Sanghamitra, a learned monk who was tutor to the king when he was young and one who was close to Sri lankan monks living in exile in Kaveri due to their upholding 'Vaitulya' views.
Mahasena's successor was King Sri Megha-vanna ( 352-379 CE ) who restored the Mahavihara to its pristine previous glory. His greatest contribution was the building of a vihara in Buddha Gaya, with permission from King Samudra Gupta, for Sri Lankan monks. It acted as an outpost of Theravada Buddhism in India at a time when Pail Buddhism had lost much of its popularity in India. Buddha Gaya under Sri Lankan monks, firm in their allegiance to Pali, stood as an oasis for those who were desirous of learning the pure Buddha word. The most significant reward was the conversion of Ghosa later known throughout the Buddhist world as Buddhaghosa.
An important event was the coming of the great Pali commentator Buddhaghosa to Sri Lanka in the time of King Mahanama (450-480 CE). The Visuddimagga written by him before the Mahavihara monks gave the Sinhala commentaries to be translated to Pali, is ample testimony to his erudition and great scholarship. In the same way it also showed the great responsibility with which the Mahavihara monks acted, as the guardians of the word of the Buddha in its pristine purity. Although the Sinhala commentaries went out of vogue because of the translations into Pali, the original traditions are preserved to this date. Furthermore, these traditions again became current among the Buddhist scholars of the time. No single individual has contributed more to the preservation of the Theravada tradition than Ven. Buddhaghosa.
There was a great revival of Buddhism under Parakramabahu 1 (1153-1186 CE), who re-united the whole of Sri Lanka. The Polonnaruwa period had three great benefactors of Buddhism-Vijayabahu 1 (1055-1 1 10 CE), Parakramabahu 1 and Nissanka Malia ( 1187-1196 CE ). Politically Sri Lanka reached the zenith of her power during the reign of Parakramabahu, who sent sea expeditions even to Burma and Pandya country in South India. The most important Buddhist event was the reunification of the Mahavihara, Abhayagiri and Jetavana Sangha in 1165 CE after the holding of a Council for tho purification of the Sangha under the leadership of Ven. Dimbulagala Kasyapa. A code of disciplinary rules (Katikavata) was also promulgated by him and recorded in a stone inscription. During this time, Sri Lanka was gaining pre-eminence in the Buddhist world.
Anuradhapura, which was the centre of Buddhism and also the political capital, was abandoned after a period of nearly 1500 years. Polonnaruwa was held for only 300 years. After the devastating rule of Magha of Kalinga (1215-1236 CE) which brought destruction all round, the Sinhala rulers were forced towards the Central and South West regions. The frequent invasions from South Indian Tamil rulers and the resulting change of citadels ushered in a period of stress, which even affected the cause of Buddhism. Libraries full of valuable Buddhist books were burnt down and Buddhist monks dispersed. Yet the Kings remained Buddhist and gave whatever support they could offer for its sustenance. The monks of Sri Lanka, however, maintained their superiority in piety, erudition and scholarship. In 1316 CE a Sangharaja (chief monk) from Sri Lanka was invited by the then King of Siam to organise the Songha (Buddhist Order) in that country.
The political stability that was maintained by Parakramabahu 11 and his successors until about the 15th century began to weaken by the end of that century. The Portuguese made use of internal dissensions to obtain a political foothold in the country. They claimed legitimacy to the whole of the maritme provinces, first as the protector and then as the successor of the last King of Kotte who was baptised as a Catholic. The Portuguese suppressed Buddhism, the national religion of the Sinhalese people and started a ruthless programme of proselytising. Such were the cruelties inflicted on the local Sinhala people that Father Queroz, a Portuguese Roman Catholic Father who wrote a History of Ceylon, mentions in his history that they lost Ceylon, the land of Eden, to the Dutch as 'the arm of God was raised against the Portuguese' for their crimes. This period was one of the darkest periods of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
After Vimala Dharmasuriya 1.(1592-1664 CE) ascended the throne of the hill capital, Kandy, he obtained monks from Rakkhanga (Arakan) to restore the ordination to Sri Lanka.
In 1658 CE the Portuguese were expelled from the country and the Dutch came to occupy the regions which were formerly occupied by the Portuguese. When the Dutch were occupying the maritime provinces several Sinhalese rulers of the Kandyan kingdom made attempts to restore Buddhism. Vimala Dharmasuriya 11 (1687-1706 CE) constructed a three-storieyed pavilion for the Tooth Relic. He too sent an emissary to Rakkhanga (Arakan) to obtain monks for an ordination ceremony as the state of the Order of monks was unsatisfactory.
The reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinhe ( 1747-1782 CE) proved to be one of the most inspiring periods for Buddhism. At the time of his accession the Order of monks had sunk to a very low level. There was not a single monk in the whole island who had received the higher ordination. An emissary was sent to King Dhammika of Siam who sent monks to re-establish the higher ordination ceremony . Several hundreds of persons were ordained and the king also proclaimed a 'Katikovata' (code of conduct) for the guidance of the monks. In all these religious activities the king, was inspired and guided by a great personality, a Samanera (novice) who was distinguished for his piety, enthusiasm, learning and determination. He was Welivita Sri Saranankara who later received higher ordination and was appointed Sangharaja of Sri Lanka. He was also responsible for a literary revival as a result of the impetus given by him to the study of the Pali language and the Buddha's teachings. Many religious works were compiled by him.
The successors of Ven. Sri Saranankara are known as belonging 'to the Syamopali Nikaya, now popularly called the Siyam Nikaya (Siamese Order). In 1799 CE a Samanera, Ambagahapitiya Nanawimalatissa went to Amarapura in Burma to obtain higher ordination and on his return, he established the Amorapura Nikyaya (Order) in 1803 CE. Subsequently, in 1863 Ven. Ambagahawatta Sri Saranankara established the Ramanna Nikaya. These three Nikayas or Orders exist up to this day with no doctrinal differences between them.
In 1796 CE, during the reign of King Rajadhi Rajasinghe (1782-1798CE) the Dutch who were defeated in battle surrendered their territories to the British and left Sri Lanka. In 1802 CE these territories became a British colony. In 1815 CE at a solemn assembly of the Kandyan chiefs and the monks,' 'King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe (1 798~ 1 815CE) was deposed and his territories vested in the British Crown. He was the last king of Sri Lanka. In the treaty that was signed between the British and the Kandyan chiefs, the British promised -to safeguard Buddhism, declaring its rights and ceremonies sacred and inviolate. However the British attitude towards Buddhism soon caused dissatisfaction among the Sinhala chiefs, who along with the monks realised that the British had no desire to respect the clause of the treaty relating to Buddhism, and that they were keen on converting the people to their own faith.
In the period that followed, there was much ridiculing of Buddhism through books and pamphlets written in the vernaculars which Christian preachers distributed in propagating their faith. This was besides the mass proselytising of Buddhist children through the school system. These resulted in an open challenge being made by Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda to the Christians to defend their faith. It was accepted by the Christian clergy. This led to three public debates one at Uyanwita in 1866 CE, the second at Gampola, in 1871 CE and the last at Panadura in 1873 CE.
There was wide coverage in the Press for the Panadura Debate where rules were laid down for fair play. Reports of the debate and the efforts made by the Sinhala Buddhists to safeguard their rights reached America and inspired a. young American lawyer, Henry Steele Olcott to come to Sri 'Lanka in May 1880 CE and fight the Buddhist cause. The defeat of the Christians in debate, more than anything else, broke the myth of the infallibility of the Christian Church and was one of the major contributing factors to the Buddhist revival in the country.
On arrival, Olcott became a Buddhist and formed the Buddhist Theosophical Society for the purpose of establishing English schools for the Buddhist children. He also made representations to the British rulers and in 1885 made them declare the Full moon day of Vesak (May) a public holiday. He also felt the need of a special flag for the Buddhists which he assisted in establishing and the flag was later accepted by all Buddhists as their flag.
One of the great Buddhist revivalists of the country, Anagarika Dharmapala was inspired by Olcott and became one of his close co-workers. Anagarika Dharmapata founded the Mahabodhi Society in 1891 CE and fought hard to get back Buddha Gaya and other places of veneration in India for the Buddhists. He also originated the idea of a Buddhist Vihara in London.
Sri Lanka took the lead in the spread and revival of Buddhism in the modern era. Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas (Oriental Colleges) found in 1871 and 1873 respectively became important centres of Buddhist learning and many monks from Thailand, Burma, Nepal, Cambodia and other Buddhist countries came to these two centres to learn Buddhism and the oriental languages.
Of monasteries, the most important were the Vajiraramaya in Bambalapitlya, Island Hermitage in Dodanduwa and the Forest Hermitage in Kandy. Many Westerners, intent in obtaining a deep insight into Buddhism came and lived as monks in these monasteries. Notable amongst them were Ven. Nanavira Nanamoli from England, Ven. Nyanatiloka, Ven. Nyanaponika. and Ven. Nyanavimala from Germany, Ven. Nyanasatta from Czechoslovakia and Ven. Nyanajivika from Yugoslavia. Monks from the Vajiraramaya also went on Buddhist dharmaduta work. The leading monk was Ven. Narada whose first mission was to Indonesia in 1934 CE. Later his missions took him to Nepal, Vietnam. Singapore, Ball in the East and to Sweden, Germany, England and many other European countries in the west. Ven. Amirtananda and Ven. Subhodananda who obtained higher ordination under Ven. Pelene Sri Vajiranana of Vajiraramaya were greatly responsible for the revival of Buddhism in Nepal.
In preparation for the Buddha Jayanti-2500th year of the Buddhist Era-failing on Vesak day of 1956 CE, the Lanka Bauddha Mandalaya was established in 1954 CE and work on a Buddhist Encyclopaedia in English was undertaken with Professor G. P. Malalasekera, Professor of Pali. University of Sri Lanka, as chief editor. The translation of the Tri-pitaka to Sinhala was also undertaken as a state venture.
The Buddha Jayanthi was celebrated in a fitting manner with dignitaries of Buddhist countries being invited for the celebrations centred round each full moon day of the year which resulted in closer ties being developed amongst the Buddhists.
Some important developments in recent times were the establishment of
the Buddhasravaka Dharma Pitaya in Anuradhapura (1968 CE). Department of
Buddhist Affairs (1981 CE)and the Universityof Buddhist and Pali Studies