The Buddhist Tradition of Sri Lanka: the Dhamma and the Sangha - a Historical Survey

By Buddhistdoor International Prof. Karunadasa
Buddhistdoor Global | 2013-04-17 |
Editor's note: This feature was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 1, October 2006. 

In which sense can we speak of a characteristically Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition? In answering this question we invariably take into consideration how Buddhism influenced the life and thought of the people of Sri Lanka in their material and spiritual progress and the impetus it gave to creative works in arts and literature. There is, however, an equally important aspect which we tend to ignore. It refers to what this Island nation contributed to the further development and enrichment of Buddhist thought in a literature which began almost with the advent of Buddhism to the Island in the third century B.C. E. In point of fact, it was mainly due to Sri Lanka’s early Buddhist literary tradition that Therav
?da Buddhism established its identity in relation to other schools of Buddhist thought. 
What we know as Therav?da is the Buddhism that prevails today in Sri Lanka and in the countries of South East Asia – Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Its prevalence in this part of Asia has given rise to the expression ‘Southern Buddhism’, which is used to distinguish Therav?da from the Mah?y?na and Vajray?na schools of Buddhist thought prevailing in the countries of East Asia and the Himalayan Region. Therav?da is the only Buddhist school which has preserved both its canonical and exegetical literature in P?li, a Middle Indian dialect which is akin to the vernacular of ancient Magadha. This has given rise to another expression for Therav?da, which is ‘P?li Buddhism’. What sets apart Therav?da from other Buddhist traditions is that it seeks to interpret the Word of the Buddha in the light of its ownAbhidhamma, a doctrinal systematization which emerged in the two centuries after the Parinibb?na of the Buddha.
As we all know it was in the third century B.C.E. that Therav?da Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Indian Buddhist Mission led by the Venerable Mahinda Thera. The success of the mission is best illustrated by the circumstance that within few centuries after the event Sri Lanka was able to achieve the unique position as the stronghold of the Therav?da Buddhist Literary tradition. It was particularly because of this position that Sri Lanka was able to play a multifaceted role as a Buddhist country. It as also the main reason why Sri Lanka came to be considered by other Buddhist countries in Asia as the fountain-head of Therav?da Buddhism.   
The necessary background for Sri Lanka to assume this position was in fact created almost simultaneously with the arrival of Buddhism to the Island. It is recorded in the Island’s chronicles that the Venerable Mahinda Thera who led the Buddhist Mission brought with him to the Island, not only the P?li Tipi?aka which enshrines the Word of the Buddha, but also its expository exegesis known as the A??hakath?. This was a very propitious circumstance for Sri Lanka to begin its literary history as a Buddhist country. In the centuries that followed if Sri Lanka became the stronghold of the Therav?da Buddhist literary tradition it was the introduction of both the Canon and its Exegesis at the very inception of the sasana that ensured its success.
The P?li Tipi?aka which the Buddhist Mission introduced to Sri Lanka is the canonical literature of Therav?da Buddhism. It consists of three main divisions. The first is the Sutta Pi?aka which gathers together the discourses delivered by the Buddha. The second is theVinaya Pi?aka which embodies the corpus of disciplinary laws governing and regulating the Buddhist Monastic Order. The third is the Abhidhamma Pi?aka containing the ‘Higher Doctrine’. It is an abstract essence of the Buddha’s Teachings divorced from their historical background and presented in a purely impersonal and technical terminilogy. Its main purpose is to clarify the Buddhist view of existence which serves as a basis for the theory and the practice of the Buddhist spiritual life.   
The whole of the P?li Canon is said to have been redacted at three Buddhist Convocations held in India after the Parinibb?na of the Buddha. We need not agree with the tradition in all its details. But it is fairly certain that at the third Buddhist Convocation held during the reign of King A?oka (3rd century B.C.E.) the P?li Buddhist Canon assumed its present form. It was through a process of oral transmission that the P?li Canon was handed down from generation to generation and it was in this same form that it was introduced to Sri Lanka as well.

However, the oral transmission of the canon could not be continued for long. In the first century B.C.E. when the country was ravaged by an unprecedented famine and civil war it appeared no longer possible under the prevailing adverse circumstances to continue the P
?li Canon. Therefore, the far-seeing members of the Buddhist Sa?gha at a place called Aluvih?ra in Matale committed to writing the whole of the P?li Canon, in order, as the Island’s chronicles say, that ‘the True Doctrine might endure’. As far as we know this was the first ever reduction of the P?li Conon into writing. It was indeed a step in the right direction even if it were taken under normal circumstances. It is to make accecible to many what was known only to a few. The far reaching effect of this historic event is that while almost all other recensions of the original Buddhist Canon remain in fragmentary versions and disarray, it is only the P?li version that has survived to this day in its entirety.
Another event of equal importance concerns the A??hakath?, the expository exegesis to the canon. As we have already noted it was also introduced to the Island together with the canon. We are told that this A??hakath?,, perhaps in its rudimentary form, was the work of the Elders who redacted the Buddhist scripture at the three Buddhist Convocations held in India. We cannot rule out such a possibility altogether, because certain parts of the canonical texts, particularly the versified sections, presuppose the existence of an exegesis which was transmitted together with the canon. What interests us more here is the fact that while the canon was introduced to Sri Lanka in its original P?li version, its exegesis was rendered into Sinhala, the indegenous language of the country. What was intended by the latter act is fairly obvious and is of great significance. It was to ensure the continuous growth of the Buddhist exegetical tradition after its introduction to the Island. As an intellectually oriented religion Buddhism always allowed much latitude to the interpretation of its doctrines in order to encourage their further elaboration. It is in this wider context that the act of rendering into Sinhala of the original Buddhist exegesis assumes its full significance.  
Fulfilling the intention of their original translators the Sinhala exegetical works did not remain static in the same form but kept on growing and accumulating new material as they passed through the centuries. By the 5th century C.E. they had grown into a multifaceted commentarial literature embodying doctrinal interpretations on all aspects of Therav?da Buddhism. The also embraced various shades of opinion and different schools of thought and yet their authenticity as representing the Therav?da orthodoxy was acknowledged by all.
Despite this all-important position the Sinhala commentaries came to assume they remained in comparative isolation because the language in which they were written was one that was confined to the Island of Sri Lanka. This was the period when Sanskrit had displaced P?li and other Prakrits as the medium of study in all other Buddhist schools on the Indian mainland. Therefore the best way to internationalize the exegetical tradition of the Therav?dins could have been to translate the Sinhala commentaries into Sanskrit. If this option did not materialize it was because from the Therav?dins’ point of view P?li was a better candidate for this purpose. Most importantly it was the language in which their canonical literature was preserved. It was also the language which the Buddha himself is said to have used in his discourses. Another important factor is that during this period there were several centres of Therav?da Buddhism in South India where P?li learning was assiduously cultivated. There are clear indications to suggest that these Therav?da centres in South India were keenly interested in the Buddhist exegetical tradition of Sri Lanka but what prevented them from having access to it was the language in which it was preserved. All these factors seem to have had an impact on the decision made by the Therav?dins of Sri Lanka to have the Sinhala commentaries rendered into P?li. The task was accomplished in the 5th century C. E. by a band of erudite Buddhist monks from Northern and Southern India. Among them the Venerable Buddhaghosa was the pioneer and the most prolific commentator. To him is ascribed the authorship of the largest number of commentaries which cover all the three divisions of the P?li Canon. It has been observed that his works “fill more than thirty volumes in the P?li Text Society’s Latin-script edition’. His greatest contribution to the progress of Buddhist knowledge is his Visuddhimagga, ‘The Path of Purification’, and encyclopaedic compendium embracing all the multiplex dimensions of Therav?da Buddhism.
The rendering into P?li of the Buddhist exegesis is an event no less important than the reduction of the P?li Canon into writing some six hundred years earlier. Its salutary and far-reaching effect was that what had hitherto been confined to Sri Lanka became the common property of all Therav?da Buddhist countries. Equally importantly it led to the founding of a school of P?li literary composition in Sri Lanka and paved the way to the revival of P?li as the literary language of Therav?da Buddhism. Just as Buddhist schools on the Indian mainland adopted Sanskrit as their medium of study even so the Therav?dins in South and South East Asia adopted P?li as their language of study. It has also been suggested that the revival of P?li during this period was due to a drive launched by the Therav?dins of Sri Lanka and South India in order to have a language which could compete with Sanskrit which was fast becoming the medium of international Buddhist culture.
With the displacement of Sinhala as the medium for the study of Buddhist teachings a propitious background was created for a great outpouring of literary activity in P?li. It embraced a wide spectrum of both religious and secular topics and among its major works were commentaries (a??hakath?) and sub-commentaries (??k?) on canonical texts, compendiums (sa?gaha) on the psychology and philosophy of the Abhidhamma, chronicles on the history of the sasana and the Island, lexicons and treatises on poetics, prosody and grammar.
Among these P?li works it is on those relating to Therav?da Abhidhamma that we can see Sri Lanka’s major contribution to the development of Buddhist thought. The Abhidhamma, as we have already noted, is a comprehensive and precise systematization of the teachings disclosed by the Master in his discourses. Its primary aim is to present a theory of reality which is intended to serve as a rational basis for the practice of the Buddhist religious life. The theory is based on the analysis of our world of sensory experience into a number of elemental constituents which the Abhidhamma introduces as dhamma. These dhammas may be understood as the last principles of reality or as the building blocks of our experience. They are either mental or material and in their combination they make up the whole of sentient existence. Besides the dhammas the Abhidhamma does not recognize any other reality in explaining the nature of empirical existence. Nor does it recognize some kind of transcendental reality as a background to the dhammas. If the dhammas are presented as if they were discrete and independent entities, it was only for the purpose of their definition and description. In actually they exist in inseparable association, exhibiting a vast network of relational categories. The dhamma theory, of which we have given here a very bare outline, is not merely one principle among others in the Abhidhamma, but the base upon which the entire system rests. It would therefore be fitting to call it the cornerstone of the Abhidhamma.
The early version of the dhamma theory is found in the canonical Abhidhamma which emerged in the two centuries preceding the Asokan era. At this stage the theory was not yet precisely articulated but remained in the background as the unspoken premise of the Abhidhammaanalysis. It was in the Buddhist literature of Sri Lanka that this theory came to be fully developed as Buddhist thinkers sought to draw out the implications of the theory and to respond to problems it posed for the critical intellect. Thus the dhamma theory was repeatedly enriched first by the Abhidhamma commentaries (a??hakath?)and then by the later exegetical literature (??k?) and finally by the medieval compendia (sa?gaha) of the Abhidhamma which in turn gave rise to their own commentaries.
At this juncture it is important to remember that Therav?da Abhidhamma did not develop in Sri Lanka in isolation from the currents and cross-currents of Buddhist thought in the mainland of India. There is ample evidence to show that since the advent of Buddhism to Sri Lanka its learned monks had throughout been well acquainted with the new trends and doctrinal refinements that were taking place among the Buddhist schools in the mainland, both of the so called Hinayana and Mah?y?na persuasions. In the commentary to the Kath?vatthu which was compiled in the Anuradhapura period, for instance, we find names of some eighteen schools of Buddhist though with an identification of the specific doctrines for which each of them became well know. Both P?li commentaries and Abhidhamma compendiums show that their authors took into consideration the parallel data in other Buddhist traditions in their own interpretation of the Dhamma. Two of the Indian Buddhist schools with whose doctrines the Therav?dins in Sri Lanka were quite familiar were know as Vaibh??ikas and Sautr?ntikas. The former had their own version of the Abhidharma through which they sought to interpret the Word of the Buddha. The latter rejected the authenticity of the Abhidharma and accepted only the authority of the Buddha’s own discourses. The doctrinal controversies between these two schools did in fact serve as a background to the evolution of Buddhist thought in Sri Lanka. We can see in certain quarters an attempt to transcend sectarianism and to follow a somewhat eclectic approach to the interpretation of the Abhidhamma. The best example in this regard is the Sinhala Exegesis of the Visuddhimagga, a work attributed to King Parakramabahu ??of Dambadeniya. In this work we find allusions made to several non-Therav?da literary sources, not as might be expected to criticize them but to draw corroborative evidence for the Therav?dins’ own interpretation of the Dhamma.
There is also evidence to show that Sri Lanka’s Therav?da literary tradition was not unknown to the Buddhist schools in the mainland of India. Thus, for instance, in the Abhidharmako?avy?khya, a well known exegetical work in Sanskrit, we find the interesting observation that among all Buddhists only those in Sri Lanka recognize a physical basis as the seat of consciousness. Again we find Acarya Vasubandhu, one of the founders of the Idealistic School of Buddhism, drawing attention to the theory of the sub-conscious (bhav??ga-citta) as recognized in Sri Lanka’s Therav?da tradition. The purpose of this reference by Acarya Vasubandhu is to justify a similar theory in his own system of thought.
What has been observed so far should show that Sri Lanka’s Therav?da tradition did not develop in isolation but by responding to the currents and cross currents of Buddhist thought in the Indian mainland. However, what enabled Sri Lanka’s Therav?da school to maintain its identity was that unlike many others on the Indian mainland it conformed to a great extent to the early Buddhist empiricist tradition. As noted by many scholars, in contrast to other Indian religions, early Buddhism had a strong empiricist predilection: It recognized only the reality of the empirical world and saw no valid reason for positing a transcendental reality as its ultimate ground. It was also the position adopted by Buddhism that preoccupation with metaphysical questions and cosmological problems as to the origin of the world, etc. is utterly unnecessary in understanding man’s present predicament, with which problem Buddhism is solely concerned. As the Buddha himself says in addressing one of his disciples called Malunkyaputta:
“The religious life, Malunkyaputta, does not depend on the dogma that the world is eternal, nor does the religious life depend on the dogma that the world is not eternal. Whether the dogma obtains that the world is eternal or that the world is not eternal, there still remain birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief and despair, for the extinctions of which in the present life I am prescribing.” (Majjhimanik?ya, PTS ??, p. 122).
It was this position which Buddhism adopted in relation to metaphysics and its concentration on the here and now that led to its radically empiricist predilection which, as several scholars have noted, is particularly discernible in the Buddhist teachings relating to psychology and epistemology.  
However, some three hundred years after the birth of Buddhism, particularly in the post-Asokan era, the early Buddhist empiricist tradition got marginalized and sometimes submerged in a mass of metaphysical speculations and cosmological theories. It is to the credit of the Therav?da tradition in Sri Lanka that it was able to resist this trend to a great extent and conform to the empiricist tradition which early Buddhism initiated. It was in consonance with this situation that when a large number of Buddhist schools considered the Buddha as an earthly manifestation of a transcendental reality, the Theravadins never denied the historicity of the Buddha and his birth as a human being. 

It was perhaps this Buddhist empiricist tradition that has also led to the emergence of a Buddhist historiography within Therav
?da Buddhism. Although we find its antecedents in the P?li Canon, particularly in its Vinaya texts, it was in Sri Lanka that it developed into a national tradition. The tradition had its beginning in the Buddhist commentaries which were in Sinhala. These commentaries contained, besides the Buddhist exegetical expositions, valuable data on the history of the sasana and the Island and the section that carried such historical information was known as the Sihala??hakath? Mah?vamsa, i.e. the Great Chronicle of the Sinhala Commentary. The first attempt at presenting it in a chronicle entirely in P?li is the D?pavamsa (Chronicle of the Island), which is of unknown authorship and is the earliest of the chronicles now extant. Because of its major imperfections such as faulty grammar and linguistic inelegance it was superceded in the 5th century C.E. by the Mah?vamsa (Great Chronicle) whose compiler was the Venerable Mah?n?ma.
The Mah?vamsa is more than a history book. It represents a continuing national historical tradition. Over the centuries after its appearance in the 5th century C.E. the original text came to be extended in order to cover the ensuing history of the Island. Its latest prolongation was published in 1992, thus bringing the narrative to the twentieth century. It is not without significance that the Mah?vamsa is called the non-stop epic of Sri Lanka.
In assessing the importance of the Mah?vamsa there is another aspect that must be taken into consideration here. Although it is intended to record the history of Sri Lanka it has attracted an audience in the countries of South East Asia as well. Among the several manuscripts collected by Wilhelm Geiger in preparing his critical edition of the P?li text some came from Mianmar and Cambodia written in their own characters. The Burmese manuscripts were found to be more accurate and better preserved that those from Sri Lanka. Much more interesting were the manuscripts form Cambodia. They revealed that the original text of the Mah?vamsa had been extended to contain double the number of verses. The additional material for the augmentation of the text has been derived from the commentary to the Mah?vamsa which was composed in Sri Lanka in the 10th century C.E. This Cambodian Edition of the Extended Mah?vamsa is the work of a scholar monk form Thailand or Cambodia.
In the commentary to the Mah?vamsa we have information of some five other historical works, none of which are extant now. Among them the most important seems to have been theUttaravih?ra Mah?vamsa, the Great Chronicle of the Uttaravih?ra Fraternity. It shows that some Buddhist monasteries had different recensions of the Mah?vamsa or that they were in the habit of compiling their own chronicles. We have also chronicles which deal with more specific aspects of Buddhist history, as for example, Th?pavamsa, the History of the St?pa,Dathavamsa, the History of the Tooth Relic, Mah?bodhivamsa, the History of the Great Bodhi Tree. All these chronicles including the ones which have been irretrievably lost shows how the Buddhist historiographic tradition which began in the Sinhala commentaries in the third century B.C.E. continued over the centuries as a further extension to Sri Lanka’s Buddhist literary tradition.    
The foregoing survey of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist literary tradition cannot be properly understood without reference to the Buddhist Sa?gha for it was the members of the Buddhist Sa?gha who played the leading role both its creation and preservation. ‘Sa?gha’ which literally means ‘community’ is the P?li term for the Buddhist Monastic Order which the Buddha himself established in the 6thcentury B.C.E. From the very beginning the Buddhist Sa?gha was expected to evolve as a fraternity without a rigid hierarchy being imposed upon it. It had no central authority or central control, the principle of hegemony been ruled out by the Buddha himself. The Buddha is reported to have said that he never thought of himself as “managing” the Sa?gha or of the Sa?gha as depending on him. “The dhamma and the Vinaya which I have set forth and laid down for all, let them, after I am gone, be the Teacher (Guide) to you”. This was the Buddha’s instruction to the Sa?gha on this matter. The Vinaya that is referred to here is the code of regulations for the monks’ external conduct, a code agreed upon for the smooth functioning of the monk-community. This should explain why the Buddha is reported to have said that the Sa?gha could abolish or amend the minor rules of the Vinaya if they so desired. However, at the First Convocation held a few months after the Buddha’s Parinibb?na the monks unanimously decided neither to lay down new rules nor to remove any of the existing ones. This was because of two reasons. One is that there was no unanimity of opinion on the part of the Sa?gha as to what the minor rules were. The second was that even if they knew what the minor rules were to abolish them was to invite public censure. There would be people who might say: “Well Samana Gotama’s rules for his disciples seem to have lasted ‘till his funeral pyre smoked’ (dhumakalikam). Public opinion played an important role both in promulgating and amending Vinaya rules even during the time of the Buddha. The reason being that the Sa?gha lived not in isolation form but by interesting with lay society. In the earliest Buddhist texts and ideal Buddhist monastery is defined as one located neither too far (natidure) nor too near (naccasanne) human habitation but easily accessible to people (gamanagamanasampanna). Thus from the very beginning Buddhist monasticism did not encourage isolation of the monk from lay society. The monk-layman intercourse was in fact one of the most important factors that was taken into consideration in the promulgation of Vinaya rules.
It is against this background that the role played by the Buddhist Sa?gha in Sri Lanka has to be understood. The advent of Buddhism to Sri Lanka means the inception of the Buddhist Monastic Order as well. As recorded in a P?li Commentary one of the first acts the King of Sri Lanka (Devanampiya Tissa) performed when the Buddhist Mission led by the Venerable Mahinda Thera came to Sri Lanka was to offer the park, Mah?meghavana, to be used as the headquarters of the Sasana. After this generous gesture the king is said to have asked the Thera whether the Sasana was established in the Island of Sri Lanka. The Thera’s answer that although the Sasana is established its roots are not yet gone deep. “When will the roots go deep?” “When a son born in Sri Lanka (Tambapanni D?pa), of Sri Lanka parents, becomes a monk in Sri Lanka, studies the Vinaya in Sri Lanka and recites it in Sri Lanka, then the roots of the Sasana are deep set”.  
The Thera’s answer is very significant. It shows that his was not an attitude of patronage or that he had any ulterior motive or any vested interest in his mission to Sri Lanka. His sole concern was that the seeds of the Sasana should germinate in the soil of Lanka. The local Sa?gha, the Sa?gha in Sri Lanka was, thus, not expected to develop as an appendage of the Indian Buddhist Sa?gha, with the latter having control and jurisdiction over the former. The Sri Lankan Sa?gha was to develop as an indigenous movement, responding to the needs of the country and adapting itself to suit the local conditions. This was how the Indian Buddhist missionaries made the spiritual conquest of Sri Lanka, a conquest not accompanied by any form of economic or political domination but one that was in complete harmony with King Asoka’s policy of Dharmavijaya.
With the establishment of the Buddhist Monastic Order in the Island, naturally, there came into being Buddhist monasteries as well. Among them the earliest and the most famous was the Mah?vih?ra in the capital city of Anuradhapura. It was this monastic establishment which for over a thousand years functioned as the citadel of Therav?da orthodoxy. It was here that the earliest Buddhist commentaries in Sinhala had been preserved and it was also here that in the 5th century C.E. they came to be translated into P?li. Thus it is the Mah?vih?ra school of scriptural interpretation that we find embodied in the extant P?li commentaries and sub-commentaries whose authenticity is accepted by all Ther?vadins. Another monastery that came into equal prominence was the Abhayagiri which arose some two hundred years later. It was less conservative and was not averse to exposing itself to new developments in Buddhist thought and practice. With its more open and liberal policy, it encouraged the study of Mah?y?na doctrines while maintaining its Therav?da identity. Both monasteries became the two great centres of Buddhist learning in the Island, attracting scholars and students from other parts of Buddhist Asia besides producing eminent men of letters. Another Buddhist monastery which ranked high as a seat of learning was the Jetavana which came on the scene in the 4th century C.E. Although these three monasteries came within the pale of Therav?da Buddhism there were differences among them on matters pertaining to doctrinal interpretation and monastic practices. The three fraternities associated with the three monasteries continued to maintain their identity up to the 12th century C.E. when a unification of them was effected during the reign of King Vijayabahu
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