Public lecture under the Auspices of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka
The first in a series of lectures to mark the 2600 Sambuddhatva Jayanti
Colombo, November 15, 2010
By Ananda W. P. Guruge


Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha and India is the birthplace of Buddhism. But what would have happened to Buddhism if it had not found a secure and permanent home in Sri Lanka since its introduction in the third century BCE? Would Buddhism have attained the degree of acceptance and recognition in the world today if not for Sri Lanka? These are the two main questions I wish to ask myself in the course of this presentation.

In no other country has Buddhism had an unbroken presence extending to over twenty-three centuries. While the mere presence for such a long time is a record by itself, Sri Lanka has established a claim to be called the “Home of Buddhism” on account of a distinct series of remarkable contributions to the promotion and spread of Buddhism in the world. In a well recorded history in a number of chronicles, corroborated by the histories of several other nations and evidence from archaeological monuments, these contributions extend right up to present times.


Of the nine places to which Arahant Moggaliputtatissa sent missions after the Third Buddhist Council under the patronage of Emperor Asoka, Sri Lanka had two distinct advantages. First, none of the two missions of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis under Arahants Mahinda and Sanghamitta, unlike the bhikkhus of the other eight missions, returned to India after the establishment of Buddhism in the target region. They continued to serve the Island right up to their passing away. Second, Arahant Mahinda and his sister Arahant Sanghamitta were children of the Emperor and their mission was continually supported from Pataliputra with the dispatch of bhikkhunis, the sapling of the Bodhi tree, relics, and skilled artisans. The involvement of as many as ten uncles of Arahants Mahinda and Sanghamitta in the administration of the Island, establishing thus the hereditary civil service of the Lambakannas, could have been a further source of support. These advantages would have contributed to the two major literary activities which promoted the study of Buddhism.


It is to Arahant Mahinda that credit is given for the first production of commentaries on the Tripitaka in Sinhala, the language of the Island. It was a massive literary project and had continued unabated until about the first century of the Current Era. There had been many recensions as Mahatthakatha or Mulatthakatha, Mahapaccariya, Kurindi and Andhattha, attributed to the Mahavihara. It is possible that the Abhayagiri Monastery had a similar tradition as suggested by the term Uttaraviharavamsatthakatha.

These comprehensive commentaries, known as Sihalatthakatha, were characterized by their exegetical authenticity as well as the reliable historical and social information that they recorded. At least one of them – most importantly the Commentary on the Vinaya – had reached China in the fifth century. The Chinese translation provides us about the closest look that we get into the contents and structure of a Sinhala Commentary and gives adequate proof of scholarly quality, coverage and educational value of these commentaries. More of it later.

The second major literary enterprise of the Sri Lankan Sangha was the reduction of the Pali Tripitaka and the Sinhala Commentaries to writing in the first century BCE in the reign of King Valagamabahu at Aluvihara, Matale. The significance of this activity is to be assessed in relation to the survival of the different Buddhist Canons in several languages up to the modern times. With the exception of the Sanskrit Tripitaka, which is available more or less intact in the Chinese translation as Agama Sutras, none of the other Canons have survived in full. We have only a few fragments to show that Canons similar to the Pali Tripitaka once existed in Sanskrit, Khotanese and some other Prakrit languages. Without the written Tripitaka in Pali, which was preserved in Sri Lanka and distributed to various parts of Asia by the Sri Lankan Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, the world would have lost access to the most reliable record of the Buddha’s original teachings. Over the last two centuries no Buddhist studies of any depth and quality have been accomplished without reference to the Pali Tripitaka.

The addition of a second monastery in Anuradhapura by King Valagambahu in the form of Abhayagiri – also in the first century BCE - paved the way for the expansion and diversification of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. This monastery was more open to the new developments taking place in India and was receptive to Mahayana doctrines and practices, including scriptures in Sanskrit. As a result it became the focal point of international Buddhist relations. The third monastery, the Jetavanarama, established two centuries later by King Mahasen, followed a similar eclectic tendencies and all Buddhist traditions – Theravada, Mahayana and even Vajrayana (mentioned in the Nikayasangraha as Nilapatadarshana) co-exited and flourished as can be seen from the artifacts discovered in recent excavations of these two monasteries and elsewhere in Anuradhapura.

The wealth of coins, Intaglios, jewelry and glazed tiles hitherto discovered show the variety of international visitors to these monasteries. The existence of a most noteworthy Mahayana scripture, the Prajnaparamita, engraved on gold plates, as well references to some texts in Mihintale inscriptions is proof that the Sanskrit Mahayana literature was not only preserved but held in esteem. Bactrian coins discovered in Situlpavva in the south show a close relationship of this monastery with the land of King Menander (Milinda). It is possible that Sri Lankan Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis were involved in the development of Buddhism outside the Island in a fair portion of the then known world.


This they could do because the strategic situation of Sri Lanka at a central point in the Maritime Silk Route between the West and the East, with connecting routes from both sides of the Indian subcontinent. As far back as the fourth century BCE, judging from Greek and Roman records even if our own records are not detailed enough, Sri Lankan ports of Mahatittha (present Mantai) and Godavaya near Ambalantota had been centres of international maritime trade with both Greek and Roman regions of the West and the Chinese and southeast Asian countries of the East. The variety of goods discovered in the course of the recent excavations of the port of Mantai from Greece, Rome, Persia, Venice, Southeast Asia and China are themselves adequate proof of the international trade to which ancient Sri Lanka was exposed. As far back as the fourth century BCE, Anuradhapura is said to have had a Greek enclave and Kautilya, the author of Arthashastra, knew that pearls came from a place called Mayura of the land of the Sinhalas. Cinnamon got the Sanskrit name Sinhalaka about the same time. As trade relations were further expanded with the discovery of the monsoons in the first century, Mahatittha was recognized by Cosmas Indicopluestes as the emporium mediatrix, serving as the entrepot for Western and Chinese ships. The Chinese pilgrim Fa-Xian in the fifth century had been impressed by the luxurious mansions of traders form the Middle-east, thus establishing the fact that trade relations lasted right through history.

Onesicritus knew details of the Sri Lankan ships plying between the Island and the Indus Basin in what is now Pakistan. Emperor Asoka sent his daughter Sanghamitta by ship down the Ganges and from the Port of Tamralipti (Tamluk) on the Bay of Bengal to Jambukola in the Jaffna Peninsula in the third century BCE. King Bhatika Tissa sent envoys to Rome (correctly referred to as Romanukkha = Romanus in the Mahavamsa Tika) to get coral to decorate the same stupa. An Embassy of four sent to Rome during the regime of Caesar Claudius is described by the Latin writer Pliny the Elder, who also had learned that the father of the chief envoy was an envoy of Sri Lanka in China. Ptolemy a century and a half later included in his map topographical and regional information of Tabrobane with incredible accuracy. Li Chou in T’ang Kuo Shi Pu stated that the largest ships that came to China were from Sri Lanka. A fifth century Sigiri graffiti referred to a damsel wearing Chinese silk (Cinapata).

The network of Buddhist contacts facilitated by trade and pilgrimage had been very extensive from the earliest times. The very list of invitees to the ceremonial inauguration of the Ruvanveliseya, as recorded in the Mahavamsa, shows that Sri Lankan bhikkhus had been in touch with Buddhist establishments in Bactria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and both the Northern and Southern India.

The earliest known mention of the Buddha in the West by Saint Clement of Alexandria in the third century CE reflects what the Theravada view held in Sri Lanka rather than what was then prevalent in India even though he was referring to the people as Indians. He said, “Among the Indians are some who follow the precepts of Buddha, whom for his extraordinary sanctity they have honored as a god.”


Trade routes have played a major role in the spread of religious knowledge and there is no doubt that Buddhism spread both westward and eastward from Sri Lanka along the maritime sea route. So were contacts maintained with ports in both the South and the North of India.
Trade routes were also pilgrim routes. The sea route between Tamralipti and Jambukola and Gokanna (Trincomalee) in the Bay of Bengal was taken by Sri Lankan pilgrims to the Bodhi Tree at Buddha Gaya. These pilgrims needed a pilgrim rest and it was provided by King Meghavanna who with the consent of Emperor Samudragupta built a monastery in which three centuries later the Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zhang found as many as a thousand bhikkhus. Even much later this monastery was known to have many Sri Lankan Bhikkhus.

Inscriptional evidence datable in the first or second century CE speaks of a Sinhala Vihara in Nagarjunikonda. Apart from Mahanama mentioned in connection with Buddha Gaya, there was at least one Sri Lankan monk who distinguished himself in India and that was Aryadeva, the disciple and successor of Nagarjuna as the abbot of Nalanda. The author of Catuhsataka and several other Mahayana works, he is reputed to have been of the royal family of Sri Lanka and is credited with the building of many Viharas in South India. On noting that the prominent mural of the coming of the Sinhalas to Sri Lanka in Cave XVII of Ajantha, I had raised the question in 1960 whether that could be evidence for a monk from Sri Lanka in a position of authority in the monastic complex.

For Guhasiva, the King of Kalinga to send the Tooth Relic to Sri Lanka when he was defeated in war, he should have been fully apprised of the stability of Buddhism in the country in the fourth century.


The most spectacular impact Sri Lanka had on Buddhism of India was through the Sinhala Commentaries which were known and utilized by Buddhist scholars there. Did they know the language or did they depend on Sinhala bhikkhus and bhikkhunis who were in Buddhist monasteries of India? Many Sri Lankan monks were, of course, there. For example, there were the monks whom King Gothabhaya branded and banished for holding Mahayana views. In India they carried on their scholarly and educational activities as we know from the story of Sanghamitta who came to Sri Lanka and, through King Mahasen, succeeded in taking revenge from the Mahavihara for what was done to his teacher.

Whatever it be, Buddhaghosa who came from Buddha Gaya knew so much about the Sinhala Commentaries to realize that the rapidly changing Sinhala language made these Commentaries less and less utilizable by the wider world of Buddhism. It was his idea to have them translated into the same language as the Pali Canon. He was not alone in appreciating the worth of the Sinhala Commentaries because his team, who completed the task, included Buddhadatta of Kaveri the Basin and Dhammapala of Padarattha, both of whom hailing from Tamilnadu were Tamils by ethnicity. Their proficiency in both Sinhala and Pali and their loyalty to the Mahavihara version of interpretation would indicate a very close relationship with Sri Lanka.

As regards Buddhaghosa, one more aspect is significant. His magnum opus, his masterpiece, was Visuddhimagga, which for all intents and purposes had a precursor and model in Vimuttimagga of Arahant Upatissa, a Sri Lankan scholar monk who lived a couple of centuries before him.


Evidence comes from Chinese records about relations with China from the first century of the Current Era to the fifteenth century. No less than twenty-four embassies had been sent by Sri Lankan kings to the imperial court of China. Although the Chinese historians refer to them as missions carrying tribute to the Chinese emperor, they could have been multi-purpose. Some of them were related to the promotion of Buddhism.

Since the Northern Wei dynasty declared Buddhism to be the state religion of its territory, there had been some significant contributions that Sri Lankan had made to Chinese Buddhism. It was the monastic reformer Tao-An who was keen to ensure that Buddhism developed with the four segments of the population, namely bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upasakas and upasikas. He also recognized the absence of authentic Vinaya of the Buddha in China. Fa-xian came to India in search of Vinaya books and discovered that all he could find there was the orally transmitted Vinaya of the Mahasanghika school. There were no books. It was then that he decided to come to Sri Lanka. Residing at Abhayagiri monastery for two years, he found a copy of the Vinaya according to the Mahisasaka school. A Sri Lankan monk named Sanghavami is said to have followed him to China to translate it into Chinese. As a group that broke away from this school came to be known as Dharmaguptikas, the Vinaya thus taken from Sri Lanka is recognized as the Dharmaguptika Vinaya. It is this Vinaya that is valid up to date in all East Asian Buddhist Sangha.

It is within two decades of Fa-Xian’s visit that a mission of bhikkhunis led by Devasara, as described in the Chinese treatise Pichuni-chuang, sailed to China to establish the bhikkhunisasana (the order of Buddhist nuns). As the quorum was inadequate, the ship captained by Nandi had to come back to Sri Lanka and take more bhikkhunis. Thus it was ten years later in 439 CE that the Sri Lankan bhikkhunis ultimately founded the order of nuns in China. It is this Order of Bhikkhunis which had spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

Towards the end of the same century, two major Sri Lankan works were taken to China and translated into Chinese. The first was the Vinaya commentary Shan-jian-li-p’-ip’-osha by Sanghbhadra in the fifth century. Though taken by the pioneering Japanese scholar who included it in the Taisho Chinese Tripitaka (T. 1648) as a translation of Pali Samantapasadika, a closer look at the missing contents as well as the transliteration of some technical terms and place names seems to suggest a possible translation of the corresponding Sinhala commentary. An interesting key word is dukula (the classical Sinhala form for the offence of dukkata). Equally important is Cie-to-tao-lun, the translation of the Vimuttimagga (a detailed exposition of Buddhist meditation, which, as stated above, was the precursor and model for Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga. The original whether in Pali or Sanskrit is considered to have come from the Abhayagiri monastery. The translation by Sanghapala was under the patronage of emperor Wu at the beginning of the sixth century.

Gunavarman, when offered the kingship over Kashmir, was more intent on spiritual development and came to Sri Lanka. It is after a period of stay in Sri Lanka that he left for Java and ultimately to China and was recognized as a foremost interpreter of Vinaya. Yi-Ching refers in the Life Stories of Eminent Monks at least five Chinese pilgrims who had been to Sri Lanka and one of them had even tried to steal the Tooth Relic. Kublai Khan, too, had his eyes on the Tooth Relic and one of the objectives of Chen Ho’s expeditions was also to obtain the Tooth Relic. During the period of King Parakramabahu VI of Kotte, when these expeditions took place, as many as six embassies had been sent to China, marking a steady relationship between the two countries for close upon two millennia.


Writing his two works in Sribhoga (now Palembang in Sumatra, Indonesia), Yi-ching knew of Chinese pilgrims who had contact with Sri Lanka. Although the information is meager, there are two bits of data to prove significant links between Sri Lanka and the Sri Vijaya and Shailendra empires of Southeast Asia. A ninth century inscription of Dvaravati was found to have Pali verses which Professor Rohanadeera Mendis identified as the opening verses of Telakatahagatha, a Sri Lankan work on the story of Viharamahadevi’s father Kalyanatissa punishing an innocent Arahant. An inscription in Sanskrit in Ratuboka in Java, Indonesia, the capital of the Shailendra Empire, refers to a monastery there as a branch of the Sinhala Abhayagiri monastery. Royal matrimonial alliances, one of which caused Parakramabahu I’s invasion of Myanmar, also confirm a lively relationship with these empires.

Nakhon Si Thammarat in Ligor in the Malayan Peninsula was a center of Pali Buddhism with a close relationship with Sri Lankan monastics. It is from here that Theravada Canon and bhikkhus went to Thaton in southern Myanmar. Three gold plate inscriptions found there record well known passages from Buddhist texts, with slight differences from those known in Sri Lanka. Whether Buddhaghosa went from Sri Lanka to Thaton, as the Myanmar tradition suggests, is, however, a moot point, just as whether he went with the Samantapasadika to China and got it translated as some Japanese scholars hold..

It was from Thaton that Shin Arahan went to Pagan and converted King Anawrata to Theravada Buddhism. Myanmar tradition records that Shin Arahan spent some time in Sri Lanka. A close friendship between King Anawrata and Vijayabahu I of Sri Lanka is shown by the mutual assistance that was extended to their military interventions and also by the fact that Vijayabahu I, after his victory over the Cholas, obtained a quorum of bhikkhus from him to restore higher ordination. The Mynamar, on this occasion, returned to Thaton with Sri Lankan Pali texts. As regards Sri Lanka’s contribution to Myanmar Buddhism, it is important to note that the Pali Canon as was brought from Thaton was compared by his successor King Kyanzitta with that of Sri Lanka in a Sangayana and the Sri Lankan version was accepted.


An event in Sri Lanka, which ranks in equal importance as the Sinhala Commentaries and the writing of the Tripitaka, was the unification of Mahavihara, Abhayagiri and Jetavana monasteries by Parakramabahu I in the twelfth century. Professor G. Coedes describes the resulting amalgam of the Mahayana and Theravada traditions with Pali scriptures and many Mahayana rituals as the Sinhala Reform. Bhikkhus going on pilgrimage to Sri Lanka brought news of the developments there. Among them was the successor of Shin Arahan as the king’s teacher, Uttarajiva. He left for Sri Lanka with Chapata and a team of four including a Cambodian. Their return after a decade of study and practice in Sri Lanka resulted in the formation of the Sinhala Sangha in Myanmar and possibly also Cambodia. Thus was continued the influence of Sri Lanka on Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

The spiritual force behind the reform of Parakramabahu I was Kassapa Sangharaja of Dimbulagala and he played a major role in the diffusion of the forest tradition of meditation in Southeast Asia. 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.” In his reign, he received a monastic and lay mission led by a Dri Lankan monk Sumana designated Mahasami, who “played a great part in the spread of Sinhala Buddhism in Thailand.” A royal decree advised Thais to visit Sri Lanka to help the cause of Buddhism and gain merit. If their capital, Sukhothai looks like a replica of Polonnaruwa, the Thai script introduced by this king looks a derivative of the Sinhala alphabet and Parakramabahu I was held as a role model for the rulers, this close contact coupled with esteem was the reason.

A Pali inscription of Cambodia records that King Jayavarman Paramesvara 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.

Another event of lasting consequence for not only Myanmar but 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 Kalyanisima indicates that the mission brought with it an entire library of manuscripts to be transliterated and diffused in Myanmar and its neighbors. An inscription recording the titles is discussed in an article in the Malalsekera Commemoration Volume. Sri Lanka was the ultimate beneficiary of this gift. When after the dual catastrophes of the conversion of Rajasinha I to Hinduism and the onslaught of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, Sri Lanka lost its literary treasures, it was from Myanmar and Thailand that our own books were brought back and recopied. Even today when scholars prepare critical editions of Pali texts, Myanmar and Thai manuscripts – despite some phonetic solecisms - are found to be extremely helpful. At least one major work on Sri Lankan history, the Extended Mahavamsa, twice as long as the Sri Lankan original, has been found only in Thai and Cambodian script. In addition there are works like Jinakalamali, a Pali work by a Thai monk, which deals with the Buddhist history of Sri Lanka.

This is all history. But has it continued?

A steady contact with Buddhists of Southeast Asia even during Sri Lanka’s dark age of Portuguese and Dutch occupation of the maritime regions is proved by the fact that Velivita Saranankara Sangharaja knew even in his early days that the quorum to restore higher ordination could be obtained from Thailand. With the Buddhist and literary renaissance that he ushered in by 1753, the Sri Lankan relations with the region continued to develop.

The renewal of the close association with Southern Myanmar – especially Amarapura and Ramanna – took place as a result of two factors: the British colonial administration in the maritime region was keen to stop the religious impact that Kandy exerted on their territory due to the need to go there for higher ordination of bhikkhus. At the same time, the restrictions imposed on the Siamese Sect by the decree of Kirti Sri Rajasinha on a communal base enabled the British to encourage and facilitate low country bhikkhus to seek higher ordination there. Thus arose the Amarapura and Siamese Sects of Sri Lanka.

An enormous volume of still unexplored literary records are to be found in Myanmar and Thailand of correspondence in Pali among the Sangha on many important issues – both doctrinal and Vinaya. Some of them, which Ambalangoda Polwatte Buddhadatta Mahanayaka Thera had worked on and published, testify to the cross-fertilization of Buddhism as understood and practised in our countries over the last two centuries. Pali became the lingua franca of the Southeast Asian Sangha and thus came to the attention of the British Administrators.


Although Eugene Burnouf and Christian Lassen get the credit for introducing the Pali language to the Western world through their Essai sur le Pali, Paris 1826, Benjamin Clough, serving as a missionary in Sri Lanka for the Methodist Church, is known to have published his A Compendious Pali Grammar in London in 1824. In 1836 George Turnour of the Ceylon Civil Service, who learnt about the Mahavamsa at the Mulgirigala Temple in the Hambantota District, solved the mystery of Devanapiya in Asokan inscriptions and drew the attention of the British and Western scholars to the rich literature in that language. His survey of the Pali Literature in an appendix to the Mahavamsa translation, published in London that year, was bafflingly comprehensive.

Buddhist scriptures in Pali came to be studied by Christian missionaries and their early translations like that of the Sigalovadasutta, Ratthapalasutta and Dhammacakkappavattanasutta 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.

While this was happening, the Matale Rebellion of 1848 was ruthlessly mishandled by Lord Torrington to the utter shame and repentance expressed in London. One of the steps taken to redress the situation on the part of colonial policy-makers was to insist that officers sent to administer the colony acquired a thorough knowledge of the languages and cultures of the people they were expected to serve. This was implemented through a series of efficiency bar examinations demanding intense study on comprehensive syllabi.

The civil servants needed assistance and a steady stream of scholar-monks arose to take up the task. Thus did bhikkhus like Yatramulle Dhammarama, Dodanduwe Piyaratanatissa, Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Weligama Sri Sumangala, Waskaduwe Sri Subhuti and Alutgama Seelakkhandha and many others became the promoters of Pali and Buddhist scholarship not only in Sri Lankan but also in the world as a whole. These monks in turn also contributed to the national and Buddhist revival of the country especially by developing a system of Buddhist education. Some of them also established contacts with eminent personages of other Buddhist countries in Asia. Thus did institutions like Paramadhammacetiya, Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas come to the attention of these countries and they were inspired to establish similar centers of Buddhist learning like Mahachulalonkorn and Mahamakut Rajavidyalayas in Bangkok, Thailand.

Out of the host of British Civil Servants motivated and trained by these scholar-monks, Robert C. Childers and T. W. Rhys Davids turned out to be the pioneering Western scholars in Pali and Buddhist Studies. To them we owe the development of these studies as recognized disciplines in the universities of the world. A study of the vast volume of correspondence which I did and published in my FROM THE LIVING FOUNTAINS OF BUDDHISM shows how scholars like Viggo Fausboll of Denmark, Childers, Rhys Davids, Rheinhold Rost, Lord Chalmers of Britain, Herman Oldenberg and Wilhelm Geiger of Germany, Edmund Hardy of Switzerland and J. Minayeff of Russia were in constant contact with the Sri Lankan scholar-monks.

Fausboll in one of his letters called them the “Living fountains of Buddhism.” How these scholar-monks provided data, guidance, advice and documentation to international scholars in Buddhism reflects their indebtedness to Sri Lanka. The Abhinavarama of Waskaduwa, under Waskaduwe Sri Subhuti Nayaka Thera serviced a score of renowned scholars in the world and functioned verily as an international Buddhist research centre. Interestingly, its task was effectively continued by Ambalangoda Polwatte Sri Buddhadatta Mahanayaka Thera, whose correspondence with Wilhelm Geiger and Mrs. Rhys Davids, published in my book, displays the indispensability of Sri Lankan support and guidance to these scholars.

During the period of Orientalism ushered in by this cooperation, the very first Pali-English Dictionary was published in London in 1875 by Robert Childrers based on the lexicographical work of Waskaduwe Sri Subhuti Nayaka Thera and with continuing direct support from him. T. W. Rhys Davids’ initiative to publish sacred books of the East was transformed into the Pali Text Society of London on account of the substantive collaboration and financial support of the scholar-monks and the laity of Sri Lanka. Its publication of Romanized critical editions of the Tripitaka and much of the Pali literature, along with translations into English, had done a yeomen service to the spread of Buddhism in the world.


The most significant landmark of the national and Buddhist revival of Sri Lankan in the mid-nineteenth century was the Buddhist-Christian Debate of 1873 at Panadura. Eight articles on it by a visiting American journalist, J. M. Peebles, were subsequently published in book form in the USA. Among its readers were Colonel Henry S. Olcott and Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founders of the Theosophical Society. The interest in Buddhism that was generated in them by this book was further nourished by a stream of ready correspondence with Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Migettuwatte Gunananda and Dodanduwe Piyaratnatissa Theras to the point that Olcott and Blavatsky came to Sri Lanka in 1880 and embraced Buddhism as their personal religion.

These bhikkhus were also in communication with others in the world scene. Weligama Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera had befriended Sir Edwin Arnold who was an influential journalist in India representing the Daily Telegraph of London. Sir Edwin’s interests at the beginning were in the Indian literary and spiritual heritage of Hinduism. Later, his contacts with Sri Lankan Buddhist scholars and activists won him over to Buddhism. His admiration of the Buddha resulted in the magnificent poem THE LIGHT OF ASIA, which in 1879 brought the Buddha and his teachings to the attention of the wider world. By 1881, Olcott had published his BUDDHIST CATECHISM with a certificate of authenticity granted by Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera. These two books brought Buddhism to limelight by the end of the nineteenth century.

Both authors also became activists in the promotion of Buddhism. Sir Edwin Arnold was the prime mover of the campaign to restitute Buddhist shrines of India to Buddhists. Olcott set in motion a sorely needed ecumenical movement among the different traditions of Buddhism in Asia with his “Fourteen Point Platform on which All Buddhists Can Agree.” Both of them inspired and guided Anagarika Dharmapala: Sir Edwin in Dharmapala’s bid to save Buddha Gaya and Olcott in making Dharmapala the most vocal and dedicated promoter of Buddhism in the world.

The credit goes to Anagarika Dharmapala for establishing the first ever international Buddhist forum in the form of the Maha Bodhi Society and its Journal. He was able to involve in the Maha Bodhi Society all important Buddhist leaders of the world from the Mikado of Japan to the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Its office-bearers came from all Buddhist countries of Asia and several countries of other continents. Its Journal impressed the organizers of the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. Invited to serve on the organizing committee and to participate as a delegate, Dharmapala delivered his historic address on the WORLD’S DEBT TO BUDDHA. What an impact it made on the Parliament and the American public! The contribution he made to the spread of Buddhism in the world is well known and needs no further elaboration.

Two aspects of the Anagarika Dharmapala’s contribution, however, need to be highlighted. The first is the spread of Buddhism in India. The renowned Indian linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterjee as the Speaker of the Bengal State Assembly once stated that the Anagarika had fully repaid the debt that Sri Lanka owed India on account of the introduction of Buddhism by Asoka the Righteous through his son and daughter in the third century BCE. Not only did Anagarika Dharmapala succeed in restituting the Buddhist shrines of India to Buddhists but also enlisted the participation of a significant number of devoted Sri Lankan bhikkhus to service these shrines and also function as Buddhist missionaries in the subcontinent.

It suffices me to say that it was a Sri Lankan monk, Dr. Hammalawa Saddhatissa Nayaka Thera, who in 1956 administered the Five Precepts to Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar to embrace Buddhism. The Buddhist revival which he had led has raised the population of Buddhists in the birthplace of Buddhism from a mere two hundred thousand in the 1950s to well nigh fifteen million. The pioneering Indian bhikkhus of the Movement such as Rahul Sankritayana, Jagadish Kashyap and Anand Kausalyayan had their Buddhist education in Vidyalankara Pirivena just as a generation of Indian scholars represented by Dhammanand Kosambi, Satish Chandra Vidyabhushana and Padmanabha Jaini had their training at Vidyodaya Pirivena.

The second is the Anagarika’s mission to London. As far-reaching as his service in India and the USA was his effort to set up in 1925 the London Buddhist Vihara which had become a focal point in Sri Lanka’s involvement in the spread of Buddhism in the West. Still administered and maintained by the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust, it enlisted the services of an illustrious array of scholar-monks of Sri Lanka.

Another protégé of Olcott to carry on a worldwide mission of spreading the message of the Buddha was Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka, scholar, educator and statesman. Apart from participating in a series of international parleys, he used his writing and editorial skills for this purpose. His Journal, THE BUDDHIST, reached out to a wide reading public. When in England to negotiate constitutional issues with the colonial administrators, he found time to assist the first ever bhikkhu of England, Ananda Metteyya, in editing and publishing his journal.


The development of Buddhist education in Sri Lanka had a ripple effect in especially Myanmar. The Buddhist colleges like Ananda, Dharmaraja and Mahinda attracted students who on return continued to be active in the promotion of Buddhism. One of them was U Chan Toon, who, as Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice, succeeded Gunapala Malalasekera as the President of the World Fellowship of Buddhism (1958-1963).

Bhikkhus from neighbouring countries as well as from Europe came for training in Sri Lankan temples. Vajirarama in Bambalapitiya under the leadership of Pelene Vajirajnana Nayaka Thera assumed an active missionary role. Narada Mahathera led a series of successful missions to Nepal and Vietnam to introduce Pali Buddhism and the institutions he established continue to serve the people. Piyadassi followed him as an itinerant missionary active in many countries. Ananda Maitreya and Ambalangoda Polwatte Buddhadatta Mahanayaka Theras were associated with the development of Buddhism in Myanmar.

The international Sangha represented by such famous personalities as Bhikkhu Silcara of England, Bhikkhu Lokanatha of Italy, Amirtanand Mahathera of Nepal and Nyanatiloka Thera of Germany found inspiration and support from Sri Lanka. The Island Hermitage of Dodanduwa where such bhikkhus as Nyanasatta, Nyanaponika and Nyanamoli under the leadership of Nyanatiloka turned out to be erudite and innovative interpreters of Buddhism, became a focal point for the spread of Buddhism to the West. Their learned treatises are among the most sought after in the world. Nyanasatta even wrote on Buddhism in Esperanto. Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist Dictionary and The Word of the Buddha remain standard reference works. Bhikkhu Dharmapala of Netherlands motivated students to be Buddhist activists and the Buddhist Students Union that he set up produced a generation of active workers who contributed to the spread of Buddhism. Later as Van Zeist, he functioned as the Deputy Editor of the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism.

A special development within Sri Lankan Buddhism was the emergence of the lay scholar-activists who complemented and supplemented the contribution of the Sangha. Starting with Mudaliyars Louis de Zoysa, Edmund Gunaratne, Louis Corneille Vijesinghe, Sri Lanka has given the world a fair number of Pali and Buddhist scholars like Gunapala Malalsekera, A. P. de Zoysa, Cassius Pereira (later Bhikkhu Kassapa), K. N. Jayatilleke, N. A. Jayawickrema, Jotiya Dheerasekera (later Dhammavihari Thera), W. F. Jayasuriya, W. S. Karunaratne, David Kalupahana, Y. Karunadasa, Shanta Ratnayake, Asanga Tilakaratne, P. D. Premasiri, G. A. Somaratne and many more. Sri Lankan scholars are known to serve with distinction in many Universities and colleges in the world.

Access to quality English education as well as facilities for publication has enabled Sri Lanka to be a productive centre of Buddhist publications. Kandy Buddhist Publication Centre has been for over six decades an active supplier of high level books, brochures and papers to an ever widening readership all over the world.

Among the widely read and sought books by those interested in Buddhism are Narada Mahathera’s The Buddha and his Teachings, Buddhism in a Nutshell, and A Manual of Abhidhamma – since revised and enlarged by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Paravahera Vajirajnana Nayaka Thera’s Buddhist Meditation in Theory and Practice, Henepola Gunaratana Thera’s Path of Serenity and Insight, W. F. Jayasuriya’s Introduction to Abhidhamma, K. N. Jayatilleke’s The Message of the Buddha, and my own Buddhism – The Religion and its Culture, What in Brief is Buddhism, and Buddhist Answers to Current Issues. Bhikkhu Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught has attained the unique distinction of being the most widely published and translated book by a Sri Lankan author.


The position that Sri Lanka occupied in this respect around 1940 is best summarized through the following montage of quotes from speeches made in Sri Lanka and China by Master Tai-xu, the exceptionally influential Chinese reformer of Buddhism, who visited the Island in 1928 and 1940:

“Now Buddhists in Ceylon are making Buddhism progressive by all new means. Dharmapala has introduced Buddhism to Europe and America. This is the glory of Ceylonese Buddhism. …. The revival of Indian Buddhism is linked to the joint efforts of Ceylonese Buddhists. …. Buddhism has aroused the interests of Europeans and Americans due to the efforts of Ceylonese Buddhists in recent years. It is due to their efforts that Buddhism has been able to spread in the world. …. When I visited New York, London, and other places, I was welcomed and treated by the branches of Mahabodhi Society created by Ceylonese Buddhists. Therefore, I have been associated with Ceylonese Buddhists for decades in our joint efforts for the world Buddhist movement. … Ceylon does not have the custom in which monks return to lay life because Ceylonese consider becoming monks to be noble and thus they despise the returning to lay life. … Their level of knowledge is generally higher than that of Burmese and Thailand peoples. … They have made great efforts to study the doctrines and observe the commandments. That is why many Buddhists, not only Buddhists from Burma and Thailand, but also scholars doing research into the Theravada Buddhism in Pali language all over the world have come to study Buddhism in Ceylon. The Buddhists in Ceylon have widely engaged in many causes, such as social welfare, culture, education, etc., thus making benefits to the state, society and even the broad masses in the world. This marks the great spirits of compassionate love of Buddhism. Though the Buddhism in Ceylon is generally considered to be Theravada Buddhism, it is indeed the practice of Mahayana Buddhism. … Although the Buddhist canon in Ceylon is not so rich as that in China, it is very strictly organized and pure. The position of monks in society is high. As soon as we entered Ceylon, we immediately feel that the people of Ceylon are in a true Buddhist country. I feel strongly that Ceylon is a model for Chinese Buddhists in their reform.” (Culled from speeches as taken down by Weifang, Tai Xu’s Diary abroad, Complete Works by Venerable Tai Xu, volume 56: translated for me by Darui long)

As so stated, Master Tai-xu’s remarkable movement to bring Chinese Buddhism from the mountains to cities and villages and from the funeral ceremonies to everyday life was no doubt modeled on the Sri Lankan experience. His interpretation of Humanistic Buddhism for this purpose has been made by Grand Master Hsing Yun of the Fo Guang Shan Order the most successful and widespread multi-pronged approach to propagating Buddhism in the world.


Master Tai-xu spoke of Sri Lanka with admiration and hope in 1940. The country was still a British colony, though semi-self-governing. The emerging decade brought Sri Lanka to the comity of brave new independent nations rediscovering their heritage and exploring their place in the world. Political, economic, social, educational and cultural imbalances were being diligently addressed.

2500 Buddha Jayanti to be celebrated as a landmark event with both a religious and national significance was in the horizon. It was almost a hundred years from the time that James d’Alwis predicted the disappearance of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the erudite introduction to his Sidat Sangara. In preparation for the Buddha Jayanti, the Buddhists were energized and motivated to look ahead.

All Ceylon Buddhist Congress under the leadership of Gunapala Malalasekera planned to mobilize the international Buddhist community. Its representatives gathering in Sri Lanka in 1950 decided to form themselves into the World Fellowship of Buddhism. Urged by the active Buddhist organizations of the country, the government stepped in to celebrate Buddha Jayanti as a national event. Its program was ambitious as can be seen that some of the activities like the translation of the Tripitaka into Sinhala and the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism took half a century to be completed. Among the non-governmental initiatives, the most important was the setting of the mission in Germany.

Though Buddha Jayanti was relevant to South and Southeast Asia, it drew the attention of the whole world, especially as India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and, of course, Sri Lanka implemented extensive programs. The Chattha Sangayana (sixth synod) of Myanmar brought together the learned Sangha of these countries in a joint effort to edit, rehearse and publish the Tripitaka. Scholar-monks of Sri Lanka played a major role and the general editor with overall authority was a Sri Lankan who had settled down in Myanmar.

Inspired by Buddha Jayanti, Sri Lanka spent the next two decades in clarifying its future role in the promotion of Buddhism. The establishment of two new Universities with the formal mission of developing Buddhist studies proved to be vital. They provided hundred of bhikkhus with the training and the inclination for international Dharmaduta work. Today, a network of Sri Lankan temples has sprung up in practically every major county including some in Africa and Latin America. Supplemented by scholars and publishing enterprises, this network has the capacity to enhance substantially Sri Lanka’s role in the spread of Buddhism in the world. It is my hope that the 2600 Sambuddhatva Jayanti due to be observed in May 2011 will further galvanize Sri Lanka to continue its magnificent historical position as a radiating centre of the teachings of the Buddha.


Let me conclude by answering the question I posed myself at the beginning. What would have happened if Buddhism had not found a permanent home in Sri Lanka during the last twenty-three centuries?

With rise of schisms and reinterpretations resulting in the evolution of Mahayana and Tantric Vajrayana movements and the increasing competition and challenges from Hinduism, the simple, straight-forward and authentic teachings of the Buddha would have vanished into thin air, leaving behind only what is recorded in the Chinese Agama Sutras, which due to the overarching importance of the Mahayana Sutras are hardly studied and not yet fully translated into world languages.

The historic Buddha of the Sakya clan would have been relegated to the background as one of their pantheons which include Amitabha Buddha, Medicine Buddha, Dhyani Buddhas and cosmic Buddhas of many thousands of Buddha fields of the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions..

The Pali language would have disappeared altogether and neither the quai-canonical nor non-canonical literature in Pali would have ever developed. If anything of the Pali Canon survived, it would have been only in fragments just as the Sanskrit or Khotanese Buddhist works.
The enormous Pali commentarial literature generated by translating the Sinhala commentaries would never have come to being.
The Sinhala Reform of Parakramabahu I would not have taken place and the Southeast Asian countries which have benefited from it would have remained, if at all, Mahayana or Tantric Buddhist countries or even Hindu.

The Buddhist shrines of India, connected with the life of the Buddha and reflecting the aesthetic creativity of the early Buddhists, would have been in the hands of the Hindus just as the Buddha himself has been absorbed into the Hindu pantheon as an incarnation of god Vishnu.

Neither the splendid heritage of Buddhist architecture and art of Sri Lanka would have come into existence nor could it have played the historic role as described above.

If for whatever reason, Sri Lanka failed even to retain its Mahayana affiliations, it could have been another Pakistan, Malaysia or Philippines.

What is more, the International Buddhist community would not be gathering in Colombo today to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the World Fellowship of Buddhists founded in Sri Lanka by Gunapala Malalsekera in May 1950. And you and I will not be preparing to celebrate with utmost dedication the 2600 Sambuddhatva Jayanti – the 2600th anniversary of the attainment of Buddhahood by Prince Siddhartha Gautama or, in other words, the 2600th Birthday of Buddhism.