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Upasampada; the crowning moment for all Buddhist monks

By L.B.Senaratne, Daily Mirror, June 18, 2008

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The Buddhist rituals of the Upasampada (higher ordination) ceremony held at Malwatte and Asgiriya Viharas in Kandy are similar to the first  ceremony held 255 years ago on July 20, 1753.

It was on this day that the Upasampada ceremony begun by king Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe when he  presented  the ‘Vatapatha’ , giving his royal patronage  The ‘ Vatapatha’ is normally used by the Buddhist  monks when they preach sermons. Handing over the vatapatha at the Upasampada ceremony indicates the right to attain higher ordination.

In fact the revival of Buddhism began during the period of King Wimaladharmasuriya and later with the reformist movement initiated by Ven. Welivita Sri Saranankara Thera.  During the period of King Wimaldharmasuriya II, monks from Burma visited Sri Lanka and conferred Upasampada to Suriyagoda Unnanse who later became the teacher of Ven. Sri Saranankara Thera.   These Burmese monks ordained and conferred the Higher ordination to those monks qualified to receive at a location close to Getambe on the banks of Mahaveli.

The crowning moment for any Buddhist monk is the conferring of Upasampada or Higher Ordination. In order to receive this single honour he must be without physical disability and morally sound and knowledgeable in Buddha Dhamma.

Thailand, then called Siam is from where the Upasampada   ceremony was introduced to Sri Lanka. It was a time, when there were no monks who had received Upasampada. At present Asgiriya and Malwatte  Maha Viharaya are where Upasampada ceremonies  are held according to Buddhist rituals in the same manner when it was introduced from Siam .

It is a member of the Sangha who had been conferred with Upasampada or Higher Ordination who could perform ‘Vas’ or rain retreat. This is, the season meant for Buddhist monks to mediate and deliver to lay Buddhists, so that they could develop their morals for the benefit of society.

However, there was a period in Sri Lanka when Buddhism declined.  There was not a single Buddhist monk, who had received Upasampada. The Buddhist revival movement  began when  King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe sent Buddhist monks to Siam, and introduced the Upasampada ceremony,  though he was a Hindu.

The Buddhist rituals of the Upasampada ceremony held at Malwatte and Asgiriya Viharas in Kandy are similar to the first  ceremony held 255 years ago on July 20, 1753.

It was on this day that the Upasampada ceremony begun by king Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe when he  presented  the ‘Vatapatha’, giving his royal patronage  The ‘ Vatapatha’ is normally used by the Buddhist  monks when they preach sermons. Handing over the ‘vatapatha’ at the upasampada ceremony indicates the right to attain higher ordination.

In fact the revival of Buddhism began during the  period of King Wimaladharmasuriya and later with the reformist movement initiated by Ven. Welivita Sri Saranankara Thera.  During the  period of King Wimaldharmasuriya II, monks from Burma visited Sri Lanka and conferred Upasampada to Suriyagoda Unnanse  who later became the teacher of Ven.Sri Saranankara Thera.   These Burmese monks ordained and conferred the Higher ordination to those monks qualified to receive at a location close to Getambe on the banks of Mahaveli.

After some time, Upasampada tradition introduced by Burmese monks declined.  It was Ven. Welivita Saranayakara Thera and King Kirthisri Rajasinghe who were responsible for introducing the Upasamapda ceremony.

The decline of Buddhism began when Buddhist monks came to be called as ‘ganinnase’ who led  the life of lay people Ven.  Welivita Sarnankara Thera was born at Welivita.  During his childhood he wanted to enter the Sangha order and was tutored at Suriyagoda vihara.  He was not satisfied with the learning he had received at Balana when he was living in two caves. One he used for his meditation and the other for his stay and for his bathing.

It was during this time, the king entrusted his brother-in-law Sri Vijaya Rajasinghe of the Nayakkar dynasty – Sri Vijaya Rajasinghe to be tutored in matters of the state as to how a Buddhist King should perform.

Ven.  Welivita Saranankara Thera saw this opening as to use his influence to introduce the Higher Ordination into the country. He also secretly yearned that once Vijaya Rajasinghe came ascended the throne, the new king would embrace Buddhism and reject other religious practices from the Kandyan kingdom.

In the meantime there was a power struggle in the Kandyan court when mighty individuals in the court rallied around Unambuwa Bandara, alleged to be the illegitimate son of King Narendrasinghe. This may be the reason that this monk was accused for having brought Vijaya Rajasinghe to the throne.

However, king Vijaya Rajasinghe embraced Buddhism and Ven. Welivita Saranankara Thera made use of this opportunity to influence the king to introduce Upasampada ceremony.

Ven. Weliwita Saranankara Thera was able to influence the king, as a result, the first delegation left for Siam, on the  February 20, 1741.

The first delegation left for Siam got perished in the high seas. The second delegation also failed. However, the third delegation  left Kandy on Thursday the  July 12, 1751 at the auspicious time   finally reached  Trincomalee and from there they left b ship on the  July 25, 1751.

Two years later, the Sri Lankan delegation returned  with Upali Maha Thera of Siam on  January 21,1753.

Upali Maha Thera was offered accommodation at Malwatta Viharaya. A special mandapaya was erected an on the 19th a pirith ceremony was held and followed  with an alms giving where nearly  300 persons were participated.

 Following is an extract of an account by a British official J.A.Dickson who recorded the event of   Upasampada ceremony at Malwatta Vihara in   1872.

“From the Sri Dalada Maligawa , the novices  mount on  tuskers and are taken in procession three times from the Temple Square. Thereafter novices are taken to the respective maha viharas.”

The Upasampada ceremonies are described  in  “Upasampada Kammavaca” which sets out the form and manner of conducting the ceremonies.

According to Dickson, this manual has been translated into Italian in 1776 under the title “ Kammava Ossia Trattato della ordinazlio dei Yaalopnini del seconde online detti Penzi “ by one Padre Maria Percoto.

I was able to witness the same rituals described by Dickson at Asgiri Vihara. The novice accompanied by his tutor  dressed as a layman, after leaving yellow robes of a monk.  He wears the Kandyan dress showing  that he was to be a layman for the last time in his life. The novice now pays his obeisance to   the Mahanayaka Thera of Asgiri Viharaya.

Upasampada ceremonies are conducted on Vesak and Posaon Days. On these days only one monk will be conferred Upasampada who is popularly called “ Wahal Naga”. In the past kings used to send robes when monks receive upasampada.



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