The majority of Sri Lankans (the Sinhalese) are Buddhist and indeed Sri Lanka was the center of the Theravada branch of Buddhism for many centuries. However, the Tamil minority (about 13% of the population) is Hindu and there is also a significant number of Christians in the country as a result of several centuries of Christian conquest. Buddhism was virtually wiped out in Sri Lanka during the centuries of Portuguese, Dutch and British conquest (15 th-20 th Centuries) which imported and encouraged Christianity. Since the mid-19 th century Buddhism has slowly returned until today it is once again the official national religion. This reintroduction of Buddhism and the government’s attempt to legislate in favor of Buddhism and against the Hinduism of the Tamils, is one cause of the current struggles between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils.
For most of the Sinhalese, Buddhism is a symbol of nationalism, an icon of the former greatness of the country and its potential for future greatness. The twin concepts of “sinhaladipa” (unity and nationalism under Sinhalese rule) and “dhammadipa” ( Sri Lanka as the isle of Buddhism) shaped the nation’s history from the introduction of Buddhism in the 3 rd Century B.C. to the resurgence of Sinhalese nationalism today. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who became prime minister in 1956, sought to throw off the remnants of colonial rule, to restore Sinhalese greatness and to return Buddhism to its place as the official religion. These policies began a cycle of violence as the Tamils sought first an equal place and later an independent homeland and increasingly resorted to terrorism and violence to obtain their desires. Ironically, Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist who felt he was not pushing the cause of Buddhism far enough; the nationalist and pro-Buddhist policies continued under his widow and successor, Sirimavo Bandaranaike (the world’s first female Prime Minister) as did the terrorist attacks by the Tamils.
According to the ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana, the isle of Lanka, then seen to be inhabited by a race of demons led by Ravanna, was conquered by the King Rama (an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu). This poetic account is believed by scholars to be an expression of the southward expansion of Indian, Brahmanic civilization. In any event, Indian civilization and Hinduism were brought by both the Indo-Aryans (the Sinhalese) and the Dravidians (the Tamils) and flourished prior to the introduction of Buddhism in the 3 rd century B.C. Another account of the founding of the state is revealed by legends recorded in the Buddhist chronicles which are the earliest historical accounts of Sri Lanka . According to the Mahavamsa, the legendary colonizer of Sri Lanka , Vijaya, arrived on the island on the exact day of Buddha’s death (parinirvana). Vijaya was the grandson of an Indian princess who had been abducted by an amorous lion, Simha, and was thus himself one-quarter lion. He arrived in Lanka with about 700 followers, married a local princess, Kuveni, and established himself as ruler. He later abandoned his native wife and her offspring and married an Indian princess from Madurai . It is believed that Kuveni’s descendants are the Veddahs, an aboriginal people who now live in Eastern Sri Lanka , while his descendants from his Indian wife became the Sinhalese people. Struggles with the Tamils who also migrated from Southern India are recorded in the Mahavamsa, proving that the recent struggles are not new.
According to the chronicles, Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 3 rd century B.C. by King Asoka’s son, Mahinda, and daughter, Sanghamitra who were sent by their father for the express purpose of converting the island to Buddhism. The conversion of King Asoka to Buddhism after his conquest and union of India was one of the most important events in the history of Buddhism because it changed Buddhism from a minor sect to an official religion. Asoka became famous for sending missionaries throughout his empire and beyond. According to legend, Mahinda met the Sri Lankan king, Devanampiya Tissa while the latter was on a hunting expedition, delivered a speech entitled “simile on the foot of an elephant” and converted the king to Buddhism. This conversion resulted in the establishment of Buddhist temples and monasteries and the gradual spread of Buddhism throughout the land, with official patronage and encouragement. Thus, from its beginning, Buddhism was associated with the royal house and continued to be the official religion until the Portuguese conquest in the 16 th century. The royal house supported Buddhism both financially and by edicts and laws; in return, Buddhism supported the royal house. Over the centuries, Buddhism created a connection between religion, culture, language and education in Sri Lanka and led to the growth of a Sinhalese cultural consciousness.
The prestige of Sri Lanka in the Buddhist world has several causes. First, the country was converted by the children of King Asoka himself. Second, the scriptures of Buddhism, known as the Tripitaka or Three Baskets, which had been passed down orally for three centuries, were finally committed to writing by a group of monks in Sri Lanka . Third, several important relics were believed to have been brought by Mahinda and Sanghamitra and housed on Sri Lanka . Mahinda carried the Buddha’s right collarbone and his alms bowl and gave them to King Tissa who had them enshrined in the Thuparama Dagoba (stupa). Another relic, a sacred tooth of the Buddha, made its way to Sri Lanka in the 4 th century A.D. and was enshrined in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy . Possession of this tooth was essential for the legitimation of the royal family’s succession until its capture by the Portuguese in 1560 While Portuguese accounts state that the Portuguese destroyed the tooth, Sri Lankans believe that the tooth they recovered from the Portuguese and replaced in the Temple of the Tooth, is the original Buddha’s tooth. Fourth, Sangahmitra brought with her a branch of the sacred Bo tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. It is believed that this tree, which was planted near Anuradhapura in the north of Sri Lanka , is the oldest living tree in the world and is thus an object of great veneration. Fifth, Sri Lanka became the home of many Buddhist scholars and many important historical and philosophical Buddhist books were written by Sri Lankan Buddhist scholars. The most important of these scholars was known as Buddhaghosa. His Visuddhimaggi (Path of Purity) is still considered the basic exposition and manual of Theravada Buddhism today.
Theravada (Teaching of the Elders) Buddhism is one of the three major divisions of Buddhism, the others being Mahayana (Great Vehicle) and Tantrayana (esoteric Buddhism). This form of Buddhism is the one currently prevalent in the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia , Laos , Thailand , Burma ( Myanmar ) and Sri Lanka . It considers itself to be the oldest form of Buddhism and the one closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. All forms of Buddhism have key beliefs in common and the differences are in matters of practice and emphasis.
All Buddhists accept Buddha as the historical founder of the religion. Theravada emphasizes his humanity; he was a man who discovered the way to enlightenment and anyone can follow his footsteps and achieve enlightenment as well. Buddha was a teacher, a guide, one who showed the way to happiness and enlightenment. Buddha was a human who lived, discovered the middle way between pleasure and pain that leads to enlightenment, taught this path for 45 years, and then entered Nirvana (when he passed away). He is not a God, is not involved in the world and thus he cannot answer prayers or petitions. Thus, Theravada stresses self-reliance and obtaining enlightenment on one's own by following the way of the Buddha. Both Mahayana and Tantrayana, on the other hand, stress the supernatural quality of the Buddha and the fact that Buddha and other beings can help one on the way to enlightenment.
Buddhism is a religion which originated in India in the 6th century B.C. and rapidly spread throughout Asia . Founded by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), the religion stresses one's own responsibility for one's actions and promotes the central virtues of love, compassion, kindness, and no harm to any living creature. Buddhism grew out of dissatisfaction with the increasingly ritualistic practices of Hinduism; it also totally rejected the caste system and insisted on the equality of everyone. However, Buddhism kept certain of the key Hindu beliefs, including the belief in reincarnation, the role of Karma (one's actions) in causing reincarnation, the desire to escape from this "wheel of rebirth" and the belief that ending the cycle of life resulted in entrance to Nirvana, a vaguely described feeling of total bliss. Buddhists also believed that the world, while often a thing of joy, is also a place of suffering; the aim of Buddhism is to relieve the suffering of mankind by eliminating the cause of this suffering.
The basic ideas of Buddhism are those taught by the Buddha in his first sermon, in the Deer Park in Benares , after he himself attained "enlightenment". The legend of the Buddha states that he was a prince (Siddhartha Gautama) of a small kingdom called Sakya (now in Nepal ). When he was born, a seer predicted that he would be either a great king or a great world renouncer. His father, the king, wanted to prevent his son from renouncing the world and becoming a wandering holy man and thus surrounded him with luxury and kept from him knowledge of ills and evils. However, the gods took a hand and, when the prince was out riding one day, exposed him to the four sights: a beggar, an ill man, a corpse, and a holy man. These sights shocked the young prince who realized how much suffering existed. He decided to rid the world of this suffering and one night, at the age of 29, left his palace, his wife, his son (named Rahula, which means fetters), his horse and clothes and adopted the robe of a wandering ascetic. He spent 6 years in self-mortification, starving and suffering, and then realized that this was not bringing him closer to understanding the cause of suffering. So he ate and drank in moderation and sat under a tree (since called the Bodhi or tree of enlightenment) and meditated until he came to a realization, an understanding of the cause both of misery and of rebirth. This understanding is called enlightenment and it came to have two meanings: that one would not be reborn again but, upon "death," would go to Nirvana, and that one would be in a state of bliss in which one would live the rest of one's life in total joy and happiness, unbothered by anything that would happen.
The way to rid oneself of suffering that the Buddha came to understand and to preach was called the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. These are the basic core beliefs of Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths are:
1) The world is full of suffering
2) This suffering is caused by desire
3) There is a cure for this suffering
4) The cure is to get rid of desire
The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to get rid of desire, which is seen as the cause of all misery AND the cause of rebirth. The Indian term Karma, which literally means actions, was redefined by Buddha to imply that it is the desires behind one's actions that cause the accumulation of karma, which in turn causes rebirth. Thus any action which is accidental or which is done with no selfish desire of any kind does not cause rebirth. The key to escaping from the cycle of rebirth, as well as to achieving happiness on earth, is the elimination of desire. Following the Eightfold Path is the easiest and best way to achieve this aim. The path consists of three sections: ethical conduct, mental development and wisdom. Under ethical conduct, one practices right speech, right action and right livelihood; under mental development one practices right effort, mindfulness, and concentration; and under wisdom, one practices right view and right intention.
The various sects which developed had different ideas about what constituted these eight virtues and how to practice them. For example, what is right speech? Is it permissible to tell a lie to save people's lives? Under right action, for example, one must take a vow of non-harm of other creatures. Does this mean that one should starve to death rather than eat meat? Does it mean one should never kill in self-defense? Each of the above 8 virtues raised many questions about its implementation and these were answered differently by different Buddhists.
The center of Buddhist life is the monastery. Buddha felt that it is difficult to avoid desire and preference while leading the life of a householder; giving up the things of the world and living in a monastery with one's simple wants met would make it easier to follow the above eightfold path. Thus, monks and nuns have always been at the center of Buddhism and the monastic way of life is practiced in all Buddhist countries. Gradually a set of rules, called the Vinaya rules, governing monastic life was created. Each monk or nun takes 3 great vows: poverty, chastity, non-harm to others and agrees to abide by ten precepts: to abstain from harming living beings, taking things not freely given, sexual misconduct, false speech, intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness, taking untimely meals, dancing, singing, music, the use of flowers, perfumes and personal adornment, the use of high seats, and the use of gold and silver. In Theravada countries, it is the custom for each young boy to spend a certain amount of time, ranging from one week to several months, in a monastery. In his initiation, he repeated the Buddha's life by renouncing things of this world, shaving his head and donning the robes of a monk. This served to inculcate Buddhist values in these young boys and ensure tight relations between the monks and the community.
For the first 300 years or so after Buddha's death, his teachings were passed on orally and were memorized by the monks and nuns. Eventually they were written down into a series of sutras known as the Tripitaka or Three Baskets. These contained the ethical, practical and metaphysical teachings of the Buddha as well as the rules for monastic living. All Buddhists consider these scriptures to be the word of the Buddha and thus sacred. Theravada Buddhists accept only this collection of Sutras as valid. Both Mahayana and Tantrayana Buddhists have additional writings which they consider to also be the teachings of Buddha.
Many of the ways in which Buddhism is practiced in Sri Lanka echo those of Buddhists in other Theravada countries. The center of Buddhist life is the monastery and the monks are greatly revered. Monks are given seats on crowded buses, they are honored by the government in special ceremonies, they are financially supported both by the government and by the local communities, and they are seen as the advisors and helpers of the people. Many of the ceremonies described below are also held, in one form or another, in the other Theravada Buddhist countries ( Laos , Cambodia , Myanmar-Burma , Thailand ).
Theravada Buddhism recognizes that only a small minority of people are, in this life, ready to make the sacrifices necessary to become a monk or nun. Most people are not ready to renounce the things of this world and work for enlightenment in this life. While only Buddhist monks and nuns are actively working for enlightenment and escape from the cycle of rebirth in this lifetime, the majority of lay people are working for a better life here and now and for a better rebirth. Thus, many of the practices of Buddhism are designed for lay people, to assist them in better understanding Buddhism and in their quest for a better life and a better rebirth. Many of these acts and practices have as their goal the acquisition of “merit.” “Merit,” sometimes referred to in the West as “good Karma” helps to lead the practitioner closer to a more spiritual and hence “better” rebirth. Other acts are directed towards increasing prosperity or in avoiding calamity in this life time. Many of the acts serve both purposes, increasing merit towards a better rebirth and in obtaining the good things of life in the here and now.
Becoming a Buddhist is a very simple act and is open to everyone. One simply repeats the formula known as the “Triple Refuge:”
“ I go to the Buddha for refuge
I go to the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) for refuge
I go to the Sangha (monastic community) for refuge”
One then vows to follow the five Precepts which will regulate his/her life and help him/her to approach the Buddhist ideal of distancing him or her self from attachment to worldly things.
“I undertake the precept to abstain from destroying life.
I undertake the precept to abstain from taking things not given.
I undertake the precept to abstain from sexual misconduct
I undertake the precept to abstain from false speech.
I undertake the precept to abstain from intoxicating liquors”
Children born of Buddhist parents are frequently taken to a nearby temple as their first outing, presented to the monks and receive blessings from them. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy is considered an especially auspicious place to introduce new babies to the Buddhist world.
The most common act of worship, which is a recognition of the greatness of the Buddha and implies a determination to imitate him, takes place on a daily basis in the home. Each home has an altar with a statue or picture of the Buddha. Each day, fresh flowers, lighted lamps or candles, fresh food and drink are placed on the altar and the Triple Refuge is recited along with other prayers. The family members clap their hands together and bows when reciting these prayers.
Individual worship also takes place whenever the devotee wishes, at a variety of temples and stupas (called dagobas in Sri Lanka ). The pattern of worship practice varies but generally includes offering of gifts to the Buddha and the monks, bowing and reciting prayers, and circumambulating the temple, statue or stupa. The most common gifts are flowers, which symbolize enlightenment and are the sine qua non of worship in Sri Lanka; food and drink, usually rice and curries, fruit juices and fruit; incense sticks; oil or candle lights; and betel nuts. The most common prayers include the recitation of the Triple Refuge and the Five Precepts, followed by personal pleas. Circumambulation of the dagoba or temple is done in a clockwise direction, so that the “pure” right side of the body always faces the temple, and is usually done three times.
In addition to individual worship, which may take place whenever the devotee feels the need for this kind of action, group worship usually occurs on specific days which celebrate specific events. These worship events are led by a Buddhist monk and are more formal occasions. They may be done daily, in the morning or evening, on anniversaries of the death of family members or important persons, or on special days in the Buddhist calendar. The actions in all of these ceremonies are similar although the sermons and prayers may differ according to the purpose of the event. The devotees stand in a line in front of the place of worship and pass the offerings down the line to the altar. Food offerings are made of dishes appropriate to the time of day or to the season; these offerings are later consumed by the monks in the temple. Bowls or vases of flowers, medicine, oil lamps, etc are similarly passed down. All persons stand together regardless of age or sex. While the offerings are being made, a monk recites a prayer appropriate to each offering which is then repeated by the devotees who clasp their hands together. Sometime, drums or horns are played during the offerings. Then, one of the monks delivers a short sermon explaining the occasion, verses are recited relevant to transferring merit to the devotees and further prayers for both general and personal blessings are made.
As in other Theravada countries, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka do not work; instead, their needs are met by the community. One aspect of this is the daily offerings of foodstuffs in the major temples. This occurs in the morning, for the noon meal (the last meal of the day) and for drinks in the evening. Lay families take turns in providing these food supplies; it is considered a great honor and a source of merit to supply the monks with these necessities. While the offerings are being made, drumming and horn playing accompany the actions. In Sri Lanka , the drummers are from an hereditary caste of drummers who receive income from temple lands in return for their work.
Special offerings and ceremonies are made on Poya days (the days of the new and full moon, which are traditional retreat days for monks and lay persons. The ceremonies are similar to the daily ones, but often lay people will imitate the monks and fast after the noon meal; often an important monk will deliver a longer sermon to the combined audience of lay people and monks.
Veneration of the Bodhi-tree
According to legend, Sanghamitra, King Asoka’s daughter, brought a shoot of the actual Bodhi tree (pipal) under which Buddha attained enlightenment, with her to Sri Lanka . King Tissa (3 rd century B.C.) had the tree planted at Anuradhapura and it became and remains the source of prayer and veneration. Today it is believed to be the oldest living tree in the world. Saplings which grew from seeds of this tree were planted at other Buddhist temples on Sri Lanka and today, one of these trees is present in every Buddhist temple on the island.
The cult of the sacred tree takes place at each Buddhist temple but the most important veneration occurs at the site of the original tree at Anuradhapura . Today this tree is well guarded and surrounded by a gold plated railing and pilgrims are not allowed to go near the foot of the tree. In addition to daily rituals by visiting pilgrims, an annual festival takes place during which the tree is hung with gold ornaments, and valuables including gold and money are offered by devotees.
Generally, veneration of the tree involves rituals similar to those involved in venerating a Buddha statue or a stupa (dagoba in Sri Lanka ). Offerings are made, usually consisting of flowers, fruits, rice, medicines and coins. Incense is burned and presented to the tree and scented water is tossed on the tree; oil lamps are lit and placed around the tree or on the altars. The pilgrims circumambulate the tree from one to three times, reciting a prayer as follows:
“I worship this Bodhi-tree seated under which the Teacher attained omniscience by overcoming all enemy forces. I too worship this great Bodhi-tree which was honored by the Leader of the World. My homage to thee, O King Bodhi.”
This is the most important day in the Buddhist calendar. It occurs on the full-moon day of the month of Vesak (usually in May) and it commemorates the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha, all of which are believed to have happened on the same day of the month in different years. Sri Lankans also believe that it was on this full moon day that Buddha, in the 8 th year after his Enlightenment, paid his third visit to Sri Lanka .
During Vesak, which is often observed for three days, Buddhist lay people will visit or stay in a monastery, and take vows to observe 8 precepts: the original five that they take upon becoming Buddhists and three others: to abstain from solid food after mid-day; to abstain from dancing, singing, music, and from ornamenting the body with garlands, scents, etc, and to abstain from the use of high and luxurious beds and seats. In addition, parades and feasts are held, special gifts are given to the monasteries, and the usual offerings and veneration occurs.
This festival occurs on the full moon day in the month of Esala (usually July) and it commemorates Buddha’s preaching his first sermon in the deer park at Benares as well as the day he was conceived and performed miracles. This is especially important in Sri Lanka as it is also the day that Prince Arittha, nephew of the king, was inducted into the monastic life by Mahinda, himself at Anuradhapura and the date that the important dagoba in Anuradhapura was begun and the relics enshrined there by the king upon its completion.
Kandy Perahera: Celebration of the Sacred Tooth Relic
A perahera is a procession and refers to many Buddhist ceremonies, including planting and harvest festivals. The most important of these Perahera’s takes place in Kandy at the Temple of the Tooth in July. During this celebration, the tooth is paraded through the city on the back of an elephant, flowers are thrown and lamps are lit, offerings made and feasts prepared.
Pirit refers to the chanting of a series of protective mantras which are used during times of danger to ensure protection. These rituals are believed to have the power to ward off evil and danger, including disease. These ceremonies can be simple or complex but the essence of each consists of ritualistic chanting of certain Pali texts selected from the scriptures which have been collected in a Book of Parittas. The simplest form of a Pirit ceremony involves three of four monks sitting around a low table on which flowers and puffed rice are strewn, with a ball of thread twisted around a pot of filtered water, the end of which is held by the monks and the person on whose behalf the ceremony is being conducted. Both the water and the thread are sanctified by the chanting and hereafter can be used for protection; the thread is worn and the water drunk or sprinkled on the person.
More elaborate Pirit ceremonies can last for a week and can be in a private home or in public in an especially built pavilion. Chanting is undertaken by a number of monks and continues night and day for the entire week; monks from the nearby monastery rotate their stints at this chanting. The chanting is accompanied by music, especially drumming and by short sermons describing the benefits to be obtained and the meaning of the ceremony.
Death is the most important life time ceremony for an individual. It is both a chance to help the deceased towards a better rebirth and a reminder to the living that all life ends in death, all is impermanent. It is considered an ideal death when the dying person is accompanied by monks who chant and read scriptures while he/she is dying. Monks are an important part of the funeral procession, of the cremation ceremony and of the post- funeral events. Gifts are given to the monks in the name of the deceased, thus earning merit for him/her and helping to ensure a good rebirth. Three months after the funeral, an almsgiving ceremony in the name of the deceased is held and this is repeated annually to help ensure that the spirit of the dead person is satisfied and has attained a good rebirth.
For more details on these and other Buddhist ceremonies in Sri Lanka , please click on the following essay:
A good site with pictures of the ancient city of Anuradhapura , including the Temple of the tooth is