Buddhism in Sri Lanka
The Preservation of the Theravada Tradition
By the seventh century, Buddhism was gradually being replaced in the south of India by forms of devotional Hinduism. Because the monasteries depended on popular support, many of them became deserted in that region of India. In the northwest, invasions by the Ephthalite Huns in the sixth century had devastated hundreds of monasteries. In the eighth century there were invasions by the Muslim Turks in northwestern and western India. ...
As these invaders moved south, they pillaged Buddhist monasteries, burned Buddhist sutras, and butchered Buddhist monastics. The famous Buddhist monastic university of Valabhi was destroyed. Buddhist refugees fled to the east, where they found refuge in the Ganges plain. However, the Pala empire that ruled that area was overthrown in 1162, and by the end of that century, the Muslim Turks conquered that region as well. Nalanda was destroyed in 1198. Without the leadership of the monastic Sangha and their great universities, the Buddhist communities could not survive. They were assimilated into devotional Hinduism; by the next century, Buddhism in India virtually disappeared. However, as Buddhism disappeared in its homeland, it took on new and vital forms in other parts of Asia. ... (BIBE, 173)

Asoka’s Mission to Sri Lanka
Tradition states that King Tissa of Sri Lanka, converted by King Asoka’s son and daughter [Mahinda and Sanghamitta], helped to spread the Dharma throughout the island. He also built the Mahavihara, a huge monastery complex in his capital at Anuradhapura. As Buddhism became the state religion, the monastics of Mahavihara took on the role of preserving the orthodox practice of Theravada, especially in the face of early Mahayana developments in India. ... But in the first century B.C.E., a new monastic community formed in Anuradhapura, the Abhayagiri-vihara. Faced with this division, Mahavihara scholars committed the Pali canon and commentaries to writing. However, its final structure was not established until the fifth century C.E. (BIBE, 91)

Sri Lanka was conquered by the Hindu Tamils in the early eleventh century, and the Sangha was severely disrupted. Indeed, it seems that the women’s order in Sri Lanka died out at that time. Then in the middle of the eleventh century, King Vijayabahu of Sri Lanka, with the aid of Burma, drove out the Tamil forces. The king decided to reestablish Theravada Buddhism from his new capital in Polonnaruva; this meant that the monastic ordination lineage had to be reestablished. Instead of turning to India, for obvious reasons, the king brought monks and Pali texts from Burma. Unfortunately, the nun’s lineage was not reestablished in Sri Lanka. But the new relationship between Sri Lanka and Burma forged a connection in the faith between Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia that remains strong today. Then, during the twelfth century, King Parakrama Bahu I unified the Sangha in Sri Lanka under the Mahavihara Order. For the next three centuries, a golden age of Theravada and Pali scholarship in Sri Lanka blossomed. (BIBE, 93)
In the latter half of the 1800s, a movement arose within the Buddhist community to debate Christians and to renew the Buddhist discipline and teachings in ways that were relevant to the modern world. This movement was supported, and in some ways guided, by founding members of the Theosophical Society, Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott. In fact, both Blavatsky and Olcott went to Sri Lanka and proclaimed themselves to be Buddhists. When independence [from the British] was gained after World War II, this spirit of renewal increased and produced a vital and influential Sangha along with lay movements dedicated to social reform. ... The government has continued to support Buddhism and founded the World Buddhist Fellowship in 1950. The Sri Lankan Sangha now sends monastics around the world to introduce the Dharma and teach the practice of meditation. (BIBE, 94)

In Sri Lanka, many Buddhist leaders have been concerned with the effects of the capitalist model of economic development on the people and environment of their country since the colonial period. ... In part to counter this influence of Westernization on Sri Lanka, A. T. Ariyaratne founded the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. Sarvodaya is a term first coined by Mahatma Gandhi to mean “the well-being of all.” Shramadana is interpreted to mean “the gift of sharing one’s time and labor.” As a social movement in Sri Lanka, Sarvodaya Shramadana seeks to live the Dharma by sharing both time and labor for the well-being of all in order to create a society where there is no poverty and no affluence.

Sarvodaya members live out the experience of no-self (anatta) by sharing what they can with all persons in need. They see this selfless service to others as a way of changing their own consciousness into a more awakened and compassionate state on the way to Nirvana. When organized properly, such service can also contribute to social and economic changes that will help those who are served to better understand and live the Dharma. It has been pointed out that the Buddha once did not deliver a Dharma talk until a poor laborer was fed, because, as the Buddha said, no one suffering from hunger can comprehend the Dharma. To guide this work for those in need, Ariyaratne interprets the Four Divine Abodes in the following manner:
loving kindness means a love and respect for all persons. This leads to compassion for those persons one loves who are in need. Sympathetic joy comes from seeing how compassionate service to the needy has helped them. Equanimity aids one in continuing this life of service undeterred by praise or blame, gain or loss. ...

Concretely, Sarvodaya directs village-renewal programs by which members assist villagers in Sri Lanka with their particular problems by applying the Four Noble Truths. First, what is the problem to be addressed? Second, what are the causes of that problem? Third, how can the problem be resolved? And fourth, what are the steps that need to be taken to resolve it? ... Here are his own words reflecting on the Sarvodaya experience:
... People expect quick solutions to the culture of violence that prevails today. They forget that this culture has been caused over a long period of time by multifarious factors. ... Sarvodaya is patiently and silently rebuilding the foundations of the required new social order. ... We in Sarvodaya believe that religions should assist human beings and human groups to overcome internal defilements such as greed, ill will, and egotism, and promote internal spirituality so that beneficence, sharing, morality, and enlightenment will evolve within them. The ultimate objective of Buddhists and other religious individuals should be building a critical mass of spiritual consciousness on this planet — which is the surest way to live in a culture of peace. (BIBE, 98-100)

Politically Engaged Buddhism?


The Darker Side of Buddhism

The small temple in the suburbs of Colombo is quiet. An image of the Buddha is surrounded with purple and white lotus flowers. Smaller Buddhas line the walls.

But upstairs, a burly monk in a bright orange robe holds forth — for this is one of the main offices of a hard-line Buddhist organisation, the Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force (BBS).

The peaceful precepts for which Buddhism is widely known barely figure in his words. Instead, the monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, talks of his Buddhism in terms of race. Most Buddhists here are ethnically Sinhalese, and Sinhalese make up three-quarters of the island’s population.

“This country belongs to the Sinhalese, and it is the Sinhalese who built up its civilisation, culture and settlements. The white people created all the problems,” says Gnanasara Thero angrily.

He says the country was destroyed by the British colonialists, and its current problems are also the work of what he calls “outsiders”. By that he means Tamils and Muslims.

In fact, while a minority of the Tamils did indeed come from India as tea plantation workers, most of them, and most of the Muslims, are as Sri Lankan as the Sinhalese, with centuries-old roots here.

“We are trying to ... go back to the country of the Sinhalese,” says Gnanasara Thero. “Until we correct this, we are going to fight.” (The Darker Side of Buddhism)


Practice vs. Study?
[An] important division that had its roots in India and is found in all Theravada countries was that between monks who sought to emphasize practice (the maintenance of the precepts and the practice of meditation) and those who sought to emphasize learning (the study and preservation of the Buddhist scriptures). Alternatively, these two groups are sometimes identified as ascetics and Dharma-reciters, or as forest-dwelling monks and town- or village-dwelling monks, or as followers of the vocation of meditation and followers of the vocation of books. However this polarity is characterized, it represents not so much a sectarian division as a distinction of alternative lifestyles, based on differing notions of whether the main thrust of Buddhist practice should be the preservation of the teachings or the pursuit of perfection. (The Experience of Buddhism, 228)