The spread of Buddhism beyond India took root in its surrounding nations and Sri Lanka was one of the lucky ones. Buddhism in India eventually died out and Sri Lanka currently has one of the oldest living Buddhist traditions in the world. About 70% of the citizens of our island nation are Theravada Buddhists while there are about 6000 Buddhist monasteries in Sri Lanka with over 15000 monks who have devoted their lives to serve and preach Buddha’s teachings.
According to chronicles, Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka somewhere in the 3rd century BCE by Mahinda Thera who was the son of Emperor Ashoka. He had arrived on the island during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa who was residing in Anuradhapura. This period is also known for the sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree being brought to Sri Lanka and also when the first monasteries and Buddhist monuments were established. Buddhism was seen flourishing for several centuries in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). The Pali Canon was first known to have been written in Ceylon which was the result of the work of the great Indian Scholar, Buddhaghosa and other compilers such as Dhammapala.
Decline and Revival
The period between the 5th century and the 11th century, Sri Lanka faced continuous warfare which was carried out between local kings and foreign invaders such as the Pandyan and Chola dynasties of India. The war welcomed a dreadful era for Buddhists with many stupas and viharas being destroyed vengefully. However, King Vijayabahu I of Polonnaruwa managed to conquer the island in the year 1070 and started re-building the monasteries and stupas that were destroyed. Due to the countries depleted state, there were not enough bhikkus to ordain monks to restore the monastic tradition and therefore a number of eminent elders were called in from Burma. King Vijayabahu oversaw the ordination of thousands of Buddhist monks while the reforms of Sri Lankan Buddhism continued under King Parakramabahu 1.
The Buddhist Revival after Colonialism
From the 16th century onwards, there were missionaries along with Portuguese, British, and Dutch colonizers who had attempted to convert a majority of the local population to Christianity. However, amidst all the war and turmoil, many of the islands’ religiously inclined leaders continued to patronize Buddhism while restoring temples and monasteries. The 19th century saw the initiation of a National Buddhist Movement and was empowered by a debate between Christian priests and Buddhist monks. The result of the debate saw a major turnover when Sir Henry Steel Olcott converted to Buddhism. The Sinhala Buddhist leaders along with Olcott established the Buddhist Theosophical Society in the year 1880 while their goal was to establish Buddhist schools all over the island. By the end of the year 1940, there were over 400 Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka. A few years after the arrival of Mahinda, Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta arrived in Sri Lanka and started the first nun’s order which died out in the 11th century. However, many Bhikkhunis have been ordained on the island since 1996. The sects of Buddhist clergy referred to as Nikayas include the Siam Nikaya, Amarapura Nikaya, and the Ramanna Nikaya.
When Buddhism spread beyond India, the first nations in which it took root were Gandhara and Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka. Since Buddhism eventually died out in India and Gandhara, it can be argued that the oldest living Buddhist tradition today is found in Sri Lanka.
Today about 70 percent of the citizens of Sri Lanka are Theravada Buddhists. This article will look at how Buddhism came to Sri Lanka, once called Ceylon; how it was challenged by European missionaries; and how it was revived.
The history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka begins with Emperor Ashoka of India (304 - 232 BCE). Ashoka the Great was a patron of Buddhism, and when King Tissa of Ceylon sent an emissary to India, Ashoka seized the opportunity to put in a good word about Buddhism to the King.
Without waiting for a reaction from King Tissa, the Emperor sent his son Mahinda and his daughter Sanghamitta -- a monk and a nun -- to Tissa's court. Soon the King and his court were converted.
For several centuries Buddhism flourished in Ceylon. Travelers reported many thousands of monks and magnificent temples. The Pali Canon was first written in Ceylon. In the 5th century, the great Indian scholar Buddhaghosa came to Ceylon to study and write his famous commentaries. Beginning in the 6th century, however, political instability within Ceylon combined with invasions by the Tamils of southern India caused support for Buddhism to decline.
From the 12th through 14th centuries Buddhism regained much of its former energy and influence. Then it faced its greatest challenge -- Europeans.
Lourenco de Almeida (died 1508), a Portuguese sea captain, landed on Ceylon in 1505 and established a port at Colombo. At the time Ceylon was divided into several warring kingdoms, and the Portuguese took advantage of the chaos to gain control of the island's coasts.
The Portuguese had no tolerance for Buddhism. They destroyed monasteries, libraries, and art. Any monk caught wearing a saffron robe was executed. According to some accounts -- possibly exaggerated -- when the Portuguese finally were expelled from Ceylon in 1658 only five fully ordained monks remained.
The Portuguese were expelled by the Dutch, who took control of the island until 1795. The Dutch were more interested in commerce than in Buddhism and left the remaining monasteries alone. However, the Sinhalese discovered that under Dutch rule there were advantages to becoming Christian; Christians had higher civil status, for example. The converted were sometimes referred to as "government Christians."
During the upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was able to take Ceylon in 1796. Soon Christian missionaries were pouring into Ceylon. The British government encouraged Christian missions, believing Christianity would have a "civilizing" effect on the "natives." The missionaries opened schools throughout the island to convert the people of Ceylon from their "idolatry."
By the 19th century, Buddhist institutions in Ceylon were moribund, and the people were largely ignorant of the spiritual tradition of their ancestors. Then three remarkable men turned this state of affairs on its head.
In 1866, a charismatic young monk named Mohottivatte Gunananda (1823-1890) challenged the Christian missionaries to a great debate. Gunananda was well prepared. He had studied not only the Christian scriptures but also rationalist writings of the West that criticized Christianity. He had already been traveling around the island nation calling for a return to Buddhism and attracting thousands of rapt listeners.
In a series of debates held in 1866, 1871, and 1873, Gunananda alone debated the foremost missionaries in Ceylon on the relative merits of their religions. To the Buddhists of Ceylon, Gunananda was the hands-down winner each time.
In 1880 Gunananda was joined by an unlikely partner -- Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), a New York customs lawyer who had given up his practice to seek the wisdom of the East. Olcott also traveled throughout Ceylon, sometimes in the company of Gunananda, distributing pro-Buddhist, anti-Christian tracts. Olcott agitated for Buddhist civil rights, wrote a Buddhist Catechism still in use today, and founded several schools.
In 1883, Olcott was joined by a young Sinhalese man who had taken the name Anagarika Dharmapala. Born David Hewivitarne, Dharmapala (1864-1933) had been given a thoroughly Christian education in Ceylon's missionary schools. When he chose Buddhism over Christianity, he took the name Dharmapala, which means "protector of the dharma," and the title Anagarika, "homeless one." He did not take full monastic vows but lived the eight Uposatha vows daily for the rest of his life.
Dharmapala joined the Theosophical Society that had been founded by Olcott and his partner, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and became a translator for Olcott and Blavatsky. However, the Theosophists believed all religions have a common foundation, a tenet Dharmapala rejected, and he and the Theosophists eventually would part ways.
Dharmapala worked tirelessly to promote the study and practice of Buddhism, in Ceylon and beyond. He was particularly sensitive to the way Buddhism was being presented in the West. In 1893 he traveled to Chicago to the World Parliament of Religions and presented a paper on Buddhism that emphasized Buddhism's harmony with science and rational thinking. Dharmapala influenced much of the West's impression of Buddhism.
In the 20th century, the people of Ceylon gained more autonomy and eventually independence from Britain, becoming the Free Sovereign and the Independent Republic of Sri Lanka in 1956. Sri Lanka has had more than its share of upheavals since. But Buddhism in Sri Lanka is as strong as it has ever been.