2600th Anniversary of the Buddha's Enlightenment and Sri Lankan Contribution to Buddhism

By Ananda W. P. Guruge, The Buddhist Channel, May 5, 2012

The speech delivered at the Washington D.C. Buddhist Vihara on March 23, 2012

Washington, D.C., (USA)
-- In my recent writings and speeches, I have called this occasion the 2600th Birthday of Buddhism. In my theme article which has already been widely circulated – including in several souvenir publications – I have given a detailed account of why I hold the Buddha as the greatest human being who, for 2600 years, has been the fountainhead of a sublime way of life.

His teachings lead us to a unique Path of Deliverance, open and available to all with dedication and self-cultivation as the only requirement. As my appreciation and admiration of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha is in print, let me devote this speech of mine to express our gratitude to that little island nation to which we owe this day.Venerable members of the Sangha, Friends, Let me ask you three simple questions:

1. Would we have met today to celebrate the 2600th Anniversary of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, if not for Sri Lanka?

2. Would the world have known and remembered the historic Buddha and his role as the founder of this all-important spiritual and cultural heritage and venerated him as the foremost teacher and social reformer of his time, if not for Sri Lanka?

3. Would the Pali language and the Buddha’s original and the authentic teachings to humanity as recorded in the PaliTripitaka and the Pali commentaries have survived to serve us now as they do, if not for Sri Lanka?

I am proud to stand before you as a Buddhist, born and bred in Sri Lanka, and tell you as an objective professional historian without any trace of chauvinism that the answer to each of these three questions is a resounding NO.

First, about the date. If not for the traditional Buddhist chronology preserved in Sri Lanka and accepted by the Southern Buddhist countries of South and Southeastern Asia, we will have to wait for at least sixty more years to celebrate this day. According to what is generally calculated by scholars, the 2600th anniversary of the Buddha’s Enlightenment will fall somewhere around 2071-72.

Far more important is the question relating to the memory of the historical Buddha. If Emperor Asoka had not sent his son and daughter to introduce Buddhism to Sri Lanka and if this Island nation had not conserved his teachings in pristine purity, renewing when needed with missions from Myanmar and Thailand to revive higher ordination of monks, the historical Buddha along with his teachings would have receded to oblivion if not to a econdary position as it has happened in other Buddhist traditions. He would have been relegated to the background and the prominence given to the cosmic Amitabha Buddha,DhyaniBuddhas and the Buddhas of the ten thousand Buddha-worlds and numerous Bodhisattvas and Taras.

This happened not only in the countries to which Buddhism was introduced later but in the very land of its origin, India, where the Mahayana and the Vajrayana traditions developed at the expense of early Buddhism. The preservation of the unadulterated memory of the historical Buddha, as an awakened human being and not a reincarnation of a deity, and his original teachings directly to fellow humans is an immense service rendered not only to the Buddhists but also to the humanity. Otherwise the world today would not have come to admire and appreciate the Buddha as a paragon of virtue and Buddhism as the beacon of wisdom and ethical perfection for which parallels are hard to find.
It is with regard to the third question that Sri Lanka had played the most convincing and durable role. Let me enumerate them as they come to my mind.

From the third century before Christ -- that is from the day Buddhism was introduced to the Island – to about the first century after Christ, Sri Lanka carried on a massive literary enterprise of preparing comprehensive commentaries in the old Sinhala language. Known as the Sihalatthakatha or Helatuva, these commentaries were an essential aid to the study of Buddhism not only in Sri Lanka but also the mainland. Translated into the same language as the PaliTripitaka in the fifth century by Buddhaghosa from Buddha Gaya and Dhammapala and Buddhadatta from Tamil Nadu, these commentaries remain the indispensable tools for the study and understanding of the complex teachings of the Buddha.

In the first century before Christ, the Sangha of Sri Lanka met at Aluvihara in Matale and wrote for the first time the whole of the Tripitaka and the commentaries in books so as to save them from both natural and man-made disasters. Of all the compilations of the Buddha’s teachings in different Indian languages, only the Pali Canon has come down to us in a language closest to what the Buddha used.

The logical flow and the internal consistency of its contents and the clear contrast in diction which reveal later interpolations testify to its authenticity. It can also be verified by comparison with the Agama Sutras of the Chinese Tripitaka, which represent the translation of the Sarvastivadin Canon in Sanskrit. Without the PaliTripitaka which exists today in complete translations into several modern world languages, the knowledge of Buddhism would have been lop-sided and even inaccurate and misleading. I even wonder whether Buddhism would have elicited the admiration that it now enjoys especially as intellectuals seek to uncover the original teachings of the Buddha.
The Abhayagiri Monastery, established by king Valagambahu in the first century before Christ and Jetavana Monastery, founded by King Mahasena in the third-fourth century, were open to new developments in Buddhist philosophy and ritual and enabled early Buddhism and Mahayana doctrines to co-exist and cross-fertilize. The wealth of Sri Lanka’s Mahayana Buddhist art, including the Prajnaparamita engraved on gold plates, is an indication of its popularity. That the two traditions existed side by side for centuries without one superseding the other is testimony to the incomparable intellectual tolerance and accommodation, which Buddhism upheld in the Island. The same must be said about the attitude to Hinduism whose gods have chapels in practically every Buddhist temple in the island.

It was therefore not surprising that when Portuguese persecuted Muslims, the Buddhist kings of Kandy settled them in safety and security in the Eastern Province and when the Portuguese in their turn were subject to dire persecution by the Dutch Reformed Church, the same kings built churches for them in places like Wahakotte and enabled missionaries from Goa like Father Joseph Vaz to minister to them.
Please permit me to present to you a few highlights of the Buddhist history of Sri Lanka, which had maintained a very close link with Buddhist centres of the Indian subcontinent both by sea and land.

Around the beginning of the Christian era, a Sri Lankan in some authority appears to have been in the monastery of Ajantha to see that the largest and most prominent mural in Cave XVII represented the colonization of the Island by Sinhalas. That again is not altogether unlikely when we find that around the same time the chief disciple of the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna was Aryadeva, a prince from Sri Lanka. This Aryadeva, who authored Catussataka, succeeded Nagarjuna as the Abbot of the Nalanda University.

Inscriptional evidence from Nagarjunakonda, which credits Sri Lankan monks of the Sihalavihara there with missionary successes in Kashmir, Gandhara, China and various parts of India,  testifies to Sri Lankan contacts with the Buddhist centres of Andhra Pradesh and that would also explain how Buddhaghosa had access to the Andhatthakatha or Andhra commentaries in Mahavihara at Anuradhapura. It was then too that, endangered by warfare, the king of Kalinga sent the Sacred Tooth Relic to Sri Lanka for safety. King Silakalamegha negotiated with the second Gupta Emperor Samudragupta to build a Pilgrims’ Rest in Gaya for Sri Lankan pilgrims visiting the Sacred Bodhi tree. Inscriptions reveal its continuous use by Sri Lankan monks almost up to the disappearance of Buddhism from India.
During the heyday of Buddhism in China during the Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties, Sri Lankan ties were both close and strong. The first century treatise of Upatissa, called Vimuttimagga, the precursor and model for Buddhaghosa’sVisuddhimagga, was translated into Chinese as Cie-to-tao-lun.The monastic reformer Tao-Anwas concerned that Chinese Buddhism could not develop without bhikkhus and bhikkhunis but encountered a major problem in that there were no books on the Vinaya. Fa-Xian came to India to look for Vinaya books. When none was found there, he came to Sri Lanka, stayed two years at the Abhayagiri Monastery and, among others, took the MahisasakaVinaya to China. Generally referred to as the DharmaguptikaVinaya, it is this set of monastic rules which govern the entire Buddhist Order in all the countries of East Asia.

According to Pichuni-chuang,  within two decades of this, a team of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis led by Devasara braved the stormy seas and proceeded in a ship, captained by one Nandi, to establish the Bhikkhunisasana in China. It is significant that this historical antecedent facilitated the resuscitation of the Bhikkhunisasana in Sri Lanka with the monks from Asgiriya and nuns from FoGuang Shan conducting the dual ordinations in 1998 at Buddha Gaya.

Yi-Ching records the visits of several Chinese monks on pilgrimage to Sri Lanka and even mentions how one of them was caught attempting to steal the Sacred Tooth Relic. It is also interesting to note that Gunavarman, who fled to Sri Lanka to escape being made the king of Kashmir, became a monk and in due course went via Sri Vijaya to China and became an important authority of the Vinaya.

Equally important is that the Chinese Vinaya Commentary Shan-jian-lu-piposha appears to be a direct translation of a Sinhala commentary older than its translation into Pali by Buddhaghosa asSamantapasadika. It is around the same time that a treatise on the Mind-only doctrine of the Yogacara School had a new introduction added to it in order to name it Lankavatarasutra.

Chinese history over a millennium records as many as twenty-four missions of emissaries from Sri Lanka to the Imperial Court and some of them were connected with Buddhism. One of them was that of Amoghavajra and his teacher Vajrabodhi.Amoghavajra played a major role in spreading Tantric Buddhism in East Asia and is considered a patriarch of the Shingon Sect of Japan.

That Abhayagiri Monastery was predominantly connected with the outreach of Sri Lankan Buddhism to foreign lands is established by the documented discovery of its branch at the Shailendra capital Ratuboka in Indonesia.
Sri Lanka’s relations with Southeast Asia have been both spectacular and long lasting. An eighth century inscription at Dvaravati in Thailand quotes three verses of Telakatahakatha which narrates the story of Kalyanatissa, the father of Viharamahadevi. The conversion of Myanmar from a form of Tantricism with monks called Aris to Theravada Buddhism is a product of Sri Lankan influence.

Monks from Sri Lanka at Nakorn Si Thammarat in the Kingdom of Ligor played a key role in the spread of early Buddhism in both Myanmar and Thailand. It was how it was possible for Vijayabahu I to obtain monks from Myanmar to restore higher ordination after the defeat of the Cholas in the eleventh century.

Historically the most impactful event in Sri Lanka which changed the face of Buddhism in the region was the unification of the three Monasteries at the behest of Parakramabahu the Great in the twelfth century. Called by scholars the Sinhala Reform, a new form of Buddhism evolved as an amalgam of all three traditions. Its intellectual base was the Pali Canon and its commentaries, resulting in the ultimate disappearance of Mahayanasutras in Sanskrit. But the inclusion of the ritualistic aspects of the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions appealed to the people.

Not only Sri Lanka but also the neighbouring countries found the new form of Buddhism more acceptable as a practical religion to suit changing conditions. Thus before long monks like Chapata of Myanmar, whose team included a prince from Cambodia, came to take the new higher ordination to their countries. Still called somewhat erroneously as Theravada Tradition, it was welcomed in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Yunnan Province of China and the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Along with it, the Pali language and the rich Pali literature of Sri Lanka went to these countries and for several centuries Pali was the lingua franca of communications among them.

An event of lasting consequence for not only Myanmar but also its neighbours was the mission to Sri Lanka of the Myanmar King Dhammazedi, formerly an ordained bhikkhu of the Sinhala Sangha. This mission consisting of a large number or bhikkhus was sent in 1476 for them to be re-ordained so that a purification of the Myanmar Sangha could be implemented. An inscription recording the re-ordination at what was called the Kalyanasima indicates that the mission brought with it an entire library of manuscripts to be transliterated and diffused in Myanmar and its neighbors.
As Thais emigrated to the south from Yunnan in China and occupied Siam previously held by the Mons and Khmers and Lavas, Ramkhamahaeng, the third ruler of Lanna Thai Kingdom and his successors came under the influence of Sri Lankan Buddhism. Ramkhamahaeng had invited the eminent Sinhala monk from Nakhon Si Thammarat, known simply by his designation as Sangharaja, to take residence in his capital Sukhothai. His grandson Dhamamraja I or Lethai had left an inscription which says that he “loved to wander in the forest, staying here and there, neglecting food, and behaving in every respect after the manner of Sinhala monks.”

A Pali inscription of Cambodia records that King JayavarmanParamesvara patronized Sinhala Buddhism around 1307 and his son-in-law introduced it to Laos. By the mid-fourteenth century, Sri Lankan Buddhism was firmly established in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka was looked upon as the religious metropolis.
Let me touch on the modern period even briefly. What Sri Lanka has done to promote Buddhism during the last century or so was largely supported and facilitated by Great Britain. Despite all one would say against foreign domination and colonialism, it has to be admitted that Sri Lanka could return its historical Buddhist mission due to a series of very significant scholarly and political steps taken by the British administration.

British missionaries and Civil Servants were the first to bring the Buddhist heritage of Sri Lanka to the attention of the modern world. Within nine years of the Kandyan Convention, Benjamin Clough published his A Compendious Pali Grammar in London.

When the pioneering epigraphist James Princep and scholars in India were in a quandary over identifying Devanapiya in Asokan inscriptions, George Turnour, the Government Agent of Hambantota, discovered the Sri Lankan chronicle Mahavamsa in the Mulgirigala temple and enlightened them. Not only did he publish it with an English translation in 1836 but appended to it a comprehensive survey of the Pali literature.

Buddhist scriptures in Pali came to be studied by Christian missionaries and their early translations like that of the Sigalovadasutta, RatthapalasuttaandDhammacakkappavattanasutta by D. J. Gogerley from 1846 raised the prestige of Buddhism among the intellectuals. It was no longer a pagan religion confused with devil-dancing and superstition.

The rule that officers sent from England to administer the colony should acquire an in-depth knowledge of the language and culture of the Island brought them into close contact enterprising Buddhist monks like YatramulleDhammarama, DodanduwePiyaratanatissa, Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Weligama Sri Sumangala, Waskaduwe Sri Subhuti and AlutgamaSeelakkhandha.  Many of these officers became promoters of Pali and Buddhist scholarship not only in Sri Lanka but also in the world as a whole.

The most remarkable of them are Robert C. Childers who published the first ever Pali English dictionary in 1875 in London and T. W. Rhys Davids, who excelled as the father of Buddhist Studies as a university discipline in not only England but in the West as a whole. The founding of the Pali Text Society of London in 1881 remains undoubtedly his most durable contribution.

In their wake came the contributions of ViggoFausboll of Denmark, RheinholdRost and Lord Chalmers of Britain, Herman Oldenberg and Wilhelm Geiger of Germany, Edmund Hardy of Switzerland and J. Minayeff of Russia.

It is interesting to note that the scholar-monks who came into close contact with the British Civil Servants were the dominant activists of the Buddhist Revival Movement. On the one hand, it began with the public debates between them and the Christian missionaries. The Debate of Panadura of 1873 brought

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott to Sri Lanka. His two protégés AnagarikaDharmapala and Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka dominated the scene well into the twentieth century. On the other hand, the Movement concentrated on the development of Buddhist education.

The result as far as the promotion of Buddhism in the world was manifold. Anagarika Dharmapala reintroduced Buddhism to India, created the very first modern international Buddhist forum in the form of the Maha Bodhi Society, succeeded in getting the Indian Buddhist shrines restituted to Buddhists, presented Buddhism to the first Parliament of World’s Religions in 1893 in Chicago and established the London Buddhist Vihara in 1925.

Associated with this temple are two notable monks, namely Venerable Narada whose most significant contribution is the introduction Sri Lankan Buddhism to Nepal and Vietnam and Venerable Dr. HammalawaSaddhatissa who administered pancasila to BabasahebBhimraoAmbedkar and paved the way of the millions of new Buddhist converts in India.

Last but not the least, a lasting service to Buddhism was rendered by Professor GunapalaMalalasekera who in 1950 founded the World Fellowship of Buddhists which continues to be active after sixty years as the most representative international Buddhist forum in the world. It is with great pleasure that I announce the completion of the monumental Encyclopaedia of Buddhism which he started with me in 1954 as a project to mark the 2500 Buddha Jayanti.
Thus has Sri Lanka carried out its self-imposed mission of loving kindness and compassion to humanity for twenty-three centuries.Thus this year we celebrate the 2600th birthday to Buddhism.

Let us express our thanks to many generations of the Sangha and other scholars, missionary monks and nuns and the pious adherents for having safeguarded this precious heritage for the whole of the humanity. We shall never be able to ever fulfill our national debt to the Sangha, without whom Sri Lanka would not have earned the glory of being the lasting home of Buddhism for over twenty-three centuries. Nor would we have the credit for not only having preserved but also shared with the world the noble message of the Buddha.

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