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Ceylon Buddhism


The beginnings of Buddhism in Ceylon

     According to the chronicles preserved in the monasteries of Ceylon and elsewhere Buddhism was introduced to the island by Mahinda in the third century B.C. In fact this represents only the official acceptance of Buddhism by king Devanampiyatissa and there was probably some knowledge of Buddhism there before this, brought by immigrants from North India.  At all events the form of Buddhism established on the island was rapidly successful, as is evidenced both by inscriptions and by the recent archaeological discoveries of some hundreds of monastic cave dwellings from the last centuries B.C.

     By the early centuries A.D. the unified kingdom on the island was prospering economically and trading actively both to the west and to the east.  The capital of Anuradhapura became a prosperous city and its monasteries appear to have been a centre to which monks came for study from large areas of Southern and coastal India.  The Mahavihara or 'Great Monastery' claimed to have been established by Mahinda and was widely reputed to preserve the most orthodox tradition.  The Abhayagiri monastery, founded in the first century B.C., eventually became the basis for a separate fraternity of
monks.  It had closer contacts with North Indian Buddhism and also undertook the study and practice of the Mahayana.  Little is known about a third school, based at the Jetavana monastery.

     After a period of conflict between the third and fifth centuries A.D. the three schools seem to have flourished side by side, with all receiving support from the Sinhalese monarchy.  The first two at least established centres in various parts of India, Indonesia and probably South-East Asia.  This situation continued down to the twelfth century A.D. During this period the monks affiliated to the Mahavihara were responsible for a considerable literature in the Pali language - a literature which now constitutes the classical textual corpus of Southern Buddhism.  Most of the writings of the other
schools are lost, although a few works are still extant which some scholars attribute to them but this is controversial.

     During the early part of the eleventh century much of the island came under Tamil rule.  This seems to mark the end of the classic period of Sinhalese Buddhism, but in the second half of the century Sinhalese autonomy was restored by Vijayabahu.  Since the Buddhist order had suffered severely during the invasion, the king had the ordination lineage restored from the Mon kingdom of Ramanna. (It is not known when it was taken there.) This seems to have been part of an unsuccessful attempt to reunify the three fraternities.  After his death the island split into various principalities but was reunified in the latter part of the twelfth century by Parakramabahu.  This king did indeed succeed in unifying the order.  This is often presented as the suppression of the rivals to the Mahavihara but this
view is dependent upon rather later sources which appear to be contradicted by contemporary inscriptional evidence.

     Although the political history of the island during the next two centuries was rather chequered, this period saw a considerable literary and missionary development.  Probably with the Muslim conquest of much of northern India, Ceylon had become the largest centre of Buddhist activity in South Asia.  A reaction against Mahayanist and especially more extreme forms of Tantric Buddhism led to the creation and export to South-East Asia of an energetically reformed type of Southern Buddhism, claiming to represent the most orthodox and ancient traditions of the island.

     The arrival of the Portuguese towards the beginning of the sixteenth century heralded a period of extreme difficulty for Sinhalese Buddhism which continued under their Dutch successors. (The economy of the island also suffered severely during this period.) Several attempts were made to restore Buddhist institutions by the independent kings of the Kandyan hill country.  The last and most successful of these was in the second half of the eighteenth century when the ordination lineage was restored from Siam.  Subsequently, separate ordination lineages were introduced from the Burmese and the Mon country, thus constituting the three main fraternities of the island today.

     British rule was extended over the whole island in the early nineteenth century and a policy of favouring the introduction of Christianity eventually introduced.  This posed some problems for Buddhism on the island but these were successfully overcome and well before the time of the independence of Ceylon in 1948, Buddhist institutions had recovered much lost ground.  Subsequent decades saw tensions between the various communities on the island, while Buddhist traditions have come under pressure as a result of new economic conditions.  Yet Buddhism remains highly influential in modern Sri Lanka.