Sri Lanka Table of Contents

The Life and Message of the Buddha

The founder of Buddhism was a man named Siddartha Gautama, a prince of the Sakya clan in what is now Nepal during the sixth century B.C. Popular stories of his life include many miraculous events: before his birth his mother experienced visions that foretold his future greatness; when he was born, he could immediately walk and talk; wise men who encountered the child predicted that he would become either a great sage or a great emperor. Behind these legends is the tale of a young man reared in luxury, who began to question the meaning of life. At the age of thirty, he abandoned his home (including his beautiful wife and child) and wandered throughout northeast India as a beggar, searching for truth.

Gautama studied under several religious teachers and became adept at techniques of meditation and self-imposed austerity. Finally, he sat down under a bo (pipal) tree and resolved not to move from that spot until he had achieved perfect enlightenment. He entered into deeper and deeper concentration, until he finally reached an understanding of the nature of existence and the purpose of life. He thus became the one who knows, the Buddha (from the verb budh, to know or understand). At first he debated whether other beings would be able to comprehend the knowledge that he had gained, but compassion moved him to bring his message to the world and lead others to enlightment. He spent the next fifty years traveling throughout northeast India, discussing his knowledge with all sorts of people. By the end of his life, his message and example had attracted large numbers of converts, from kings to beggars, from rich men to robbers. At his death around 483 B.C., he left behind a dedicated group of disciples who carried on his work.

The Buddha summed up his message in Four Noble Truths that still form the core of Buddhist belief. The first truth is that life is suffering (dukkha). The material world, thoughts, emotions, and ideas are all transitory and do not express or contain any eternal truths. All beings repeatedly experience pain and loss as they pass through innumerable lives, never able to emerge from a conditioned existence (samsara) created through their own consciousness. The second truth describes the cause of suffering as attachment to the world and the products of one's own consciousness. This attachment, or craving for existence, causes beings to create mental views of the world and believe they are correct, to form relationships with other beings, to struggle and desire. Such efforts are in vain because none of these strategies allows them to escape from their limited, suffering world. The third truth says that the way to break the limiting trap of samsara is to stop attachment. Once one has concentrated awareness so intensely that all material and spiritual phenomena appear empty, without real substance, then existence becomes liberated and suffering ceases. The fourth truth is the Noble Eightfold Path of behavior, which roots out attachment and the conditioned view of the world and leads toward the state of enlightenment ( nibbana) gained by the Buddha. The true follower of the Buddha rejects the world, becomes a full-time searcher after truth, and practices meditation that concentrates awareness.

The Buddhist Community

In the absence of the Buddha, the custodian of his message is the assembly (sangha) of monks who carry on his work. The members of the Buddhist assembly practice the discipline (vinaya) set forth by the Buddha as a system of rules for a monastic order. The discipline calls for strict control over the senses and dedicated meditation by the individual monk (bhikku). Following the Buddha's example, the monk should spend the morning begging for food from the lay community, then abstain from meals after noon. He should shave his head, wear orange (or yellow) robes, and own only his clothes and a begging bowl. He should avoid all sexual contact or any other forms of sensual pleasure. The bhikku should rest in one place for an extended period only during the rainy season, when groups of mendicants may stay together in communal houses (vihara). Elaborate rules evolved for admitting novices to the monastic community and conferring ordination on bhikku who passed through a period of initiation and training. The strict organization of the monastic order created a solid basis for the preservation of the Buddha's message and a readily adaptable institution that was transplanted in a variety of social environments throughout Asia.

Buddhism in Sri Lanka has its roots deep in one of the earliest variants of Buddhism that survives in the world today. The Sinhalese call their beliefs Theravada, or "the doctrine of the elders." Their tradition, frequently described as Hinayana (meaning "lesser vehicle"), preserves a clear understanding of the Buddha as a man who achieved enlightenment and developed monks (arhat) as accomplished followers of his teachings. This tradition differs from the more widespread Mahayana ("great vehicle"), which often treats the Buddha as a superhuman being and fills the universe with a pantheon of enlightened figures (bodhisattvas) who help others achieve enlightenment. In Sri Lanka, people do not officially worship the Buddha, but show reverence to his memory. The most striking expressions of public reverence are dagoba or thupa (stupa), large mounds built over sites where relics of the Buddha or a great monk are buried. The dagoba in Sri Lanka preserve a spherical shape and a style of architectural embellishment that link them directly to the monuments originally erected over the Buddha's remains in ancient India. The traditions of the Sinhalese indicate that their oldest dagoba are at least 2,000 years old, from a period when genuine relics of the Buddha came to Sri Lanka. The conservative nature of Sinhalese Buddhism is strengthened through the preservation and living tradition of ancient scriptures in the Pali language. A dialect related to Sanskrit, the classical language of India, Pali is probably close to the popular language in northeastern India during the Buddha's time. The monks of Sri Lanka have kept alive an unbroken Pali transmission of monastic rules, stories of the Buddha's life, and philosophical treatises that may constitute the oldest body of written Buddhist traditions.

For people who do not become monks, the most effective method of progressing on the road to enlightenment is to accumulate merit (pin) through moral actions. One who performs duties faithfully in this world, who supports the monastic order, and who is compassionate to other living beings may hope to achieve a higher birth in a future life, and from that position accumulate sufficient merit and knowledge to achieve enlightenment. Meritorious activities include social service, reverence of the Buddha at shrines or at dagoba, and pilgrimage to sacred places. Gifts to monks rank among the most beneficial meritmaking activities. Lay devotees invite monks to major events, such as a death in the family or the dedication of a building, and publicly give them food and provisions. In return, the monks perform pirit, the solemn recitation of Pali Buddhist scriptures. Although the average person may not understand a word of the ancient language, simply hearing the words and bestowing presents on the monks accumulates merit for the family or even for deceased family members. Some wealthy donors may hold giftgiving ceremonies simply for the public accumulation of merit. The monks thus perform important roles for the laity at times of crisis or accomplishment, and they serve as a focus for public philanthropy.

Popular Sinhalese Religion

There is no central religious authority in Theravada Buddhism, and the monastic community has divided into a number of orders with different styles of discipline or recruitment. The broad outlines of the modern orders originated in the eighteenth century. By that time, monastic personnel came entirely from the upper levels of the Goyigama caste, and enjoyed easy lives as recipients of income from monastic estates worked by lower castes. The official line of monastic ordination had been broken, since monks at that time no longer knew the Pali tradition. In 1753 the Kandyan king fulfilled his duty as a protector of Buddhism by arranging for Theravada monks from Thailand to ordain Sinhalese novices. These initiates set up a reformed sect known as the Siyam Nikaya (the Siamese order), which invigorated the study and propagation of the ancient Sinhalese heritage. The order remained a purely Goyigama enclave. By the nineteenth century, members of rising low-country castes were unhappy with Goyigama monopoly over the sangha, and rich merchants arranged for Karava youths to receive ordination from Thai monks. These initiates formed a new sect called the Amarapura Nikaya, that subsequently split along caste lines. Disputes over doctrinal matters and the role of meditation led to the establishment of another order, the Ramanna Nikaya, in the late nineteenth century. In the 1980s, the Sinhalese sangha of 20,000 monks fell into three major orders, subdivided into "families": the Siyam Nikaya contained six divisions; the Amarapura Nikaya, twenty-three; and the Ramanna Nikaya, two. Each family maintained its own line of ordination traced back to great teachers and ultimately to the Buddha. Caste determined membership in many of the sects.

The members of the Buddhist monastic community preserve the doctrinal purity of early Buddhism, but the lay community accepts a large body of other beliefs and religious rituals that are tolerated by the monks and integrated into Sinhalese religion. Many of the features of this popular religion come from Hinduism and from very old traditions of gods and demons. Sinhalese Buddhism is thus a syncretic fusion of various religious elements into a unique cultural system.

There is a thin boundary between reverence for the Buddha's memory and worship of the Buddha as a god, and the unsophisticated layperson often crosses this line by worshiping him as a transcendent divine being. The relics of the Buddha, for example, have miraculous powers; the literature and folklore of the Sinhalese are full of tales recounting the amazing events surrounding relics. During the construction of a Buddha image, the painting of the eyes is an especially important moment when the image becomes "alive" with power. At the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, where the Buddha's Tooth Relic is enshrined, rituals include elements from Hindu temple worship, such as feeding and clothing of the Buddha. In general, devotees believe that the Buddha's enlightenment makes him an all-powerful being, able to control time and space and all other supernatural beings.

The Buddha is so pure and powerful that he does not intervene personally in the affairs of the world. That is the job of a pantheon of gods (deva) and demons (yakka) who control material and spiritual events. The Buddha never denied the existence of the gods or demons, but said that attention to these matters simply detracts from concentration on the path to enlightenment. The Sinhalese believe that the all-powerful Buddha has given a warrant (varan) to a variety of spiritual entities that allows them to regulate reality within set boundaries (sima). For help in matters of everyday life, the Sinhalese petition these spiritual entities rather than the Buddha. Near many dagoba, or shrines of the Buddha, there are separate shrines (devale) for powerful deities. After reverencing the Buddha, devotees present prayers and petitions to the gods for help with daily life. The shrines for the gods have their own priests (kapurala), who practice special rituals of purification that allow them to present offerings of food, flowers, or clothing to the gods. Propitiation of demons occurs far away from Buddhist shrines and involves special rituals featuring the assistance of exorcists.

The popularity of different deities changes over time, as people come to see particular deities as more effective in solving their problems. The principal gods include Vishnu (also a Hindu god, identified by Buddhists as a bodhisattva, or "enlightened being," who helps others attain enlightenment), Natha, Vibhisana, Saman (the god of Adams Peak and its vicinity), and the goddess Pattini (originally an ordinary woman whose devotion to her husband, immortalized in poetry, elevated her to divine rank). During the twentieth century, the god Vibhisana has declined in popularity while the god Kataragama, named after his hometown in Moneragala District, has become extremely powerful. The annual Kataragama festival brings tens of thousands of worshipers to his small town, including Hindus who worship him as a manifestation of the god Murugan and Muslims who worship at the mosque there. This common devotion to sacred sites and sacred persons is one of the most important features of popular religion in Sri Lanka.

Another example of this religious syncretism is the cult of Sri Lanka's leading oracle, Gale Bandara Deviyo, who originally was a Muslim prince slain by the Sinhalese to prevent his accession to the throne. He is revered by Buddhists and Muslims alike at his shrine in the town of Kurunegala (in Kurunegala District). As transportation and communication facilities have expanded in modern Sri Lanka, there has been a big expansion of major pilgrimage sites that are jointly patronized by Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims, thus providing a commonality that may lead to closer cultural cooperation among competing ethnic groups.

Buddhism and Politics

Buddhism plays an eminent political role in Sri Lanka and serves as a unifying force for the Sinhalese majority . Although the monks must renounce worldliness, they of necessity maintain close relationships with the lay community, whose members must supply them with food, shelter, and clothing. During the past century, as Sinhalese nationalism fueled lay devotion to Buddhism, there was a proliferation of lay support organizations, such as the All-Ceylon Buddhist Congress, the Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society, the All-Ceylon Buddhist Women's Association, and the Young Men's Buddhist Association. The state has similarly retained close ties with the sangha. Since the time of Asoka, the first great Indian emperor (third century B.C.), the head of state has been seen by Buddhist thinkers as the official protector of Buddhism, the "turner of the wheel of the law". One of the recurring problems in the history of Sri Lanka has been a definition of the state as the official supporter of Buddhism, which in turn has been the religion of the ethnic Sinhalese. To be successful among the Sinhalese, a government must provide visible signs of its allegiance to the sangha by building or maintaining dagoba, judging disputes among the orders of monks, and fostering education in the Pali Buddhist tradition.

Individual monks and entire sects have involved themselves in party politics, but seldom do all families and orders unite behind a coherent policy. When they do unite, they are a potent political force. In 1956, for example, a rare union of monastic opinion gave crucial support to the election of the Sinhalese political leader Solomon West Ridgeway Diaz (S.W.R.D.) Bandaranaike. As of 1988, the sangha controlled extensive estates in the interior of Sri Lanka and retained an independent power base that, combined with high status in the eyes of the Sinhalese population, gave the Buddhist orders influence as molders of public opinion. Monks remained prominent at rallies and demonstrations promoting ethnic Sinhalese issues.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress