Buddhism regained

It was a casual meeting one afternoon at Malwatta Vihara with a senior monk, Kulugammana Sri Dhammarakkita Thera, a researcher on the Kandyan kingdom. We talked about the ups and downs, which occurred during the Kandyan period of our history.

He told us about the dark days of Buddhism and the untiring efforts of Velivita Sri Saranankara Sangharaja Thera in restoring the lost glory. Distinguished for his piety, enthusiasm, learning and determination, among the Sangharaja Thera's major achievements was the revival of the practice of upasampada - the higher ordination for monks exactly 250 years ago.

A delegation of monks from Siam (as Thailand was then called) led by Upali Maha Thera arrived at the invitation of King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe to restore upasampada. The event also marked the establishment of the Shyamopali Maha Nikaya and the Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters.

The events that led to the dark days of Buddhism had their beginnings in the times of the Portuguese and the Dutch. In a treatise written by the renowned Buddhist scholar, Sir Baron Jayatilaka on the Sangharaja Thera, he describes the situation in the country then. "The 18th century (the Sangharaja Thera's life covered more than three-quarters of it) dawned upon an unhappy Ceylon. The advent of the Europeans, two hundred years earlier, marked the opening of an era of disaster, which culminated in the ultimate downfall of the Sinhalese kingdom. Two centuries of incessant fighting with this new and formidable invader had weakened native rule, which was now confined to the mountainous and inaccessible parts of the country. The rich and fertile plains of the low country had been for a century and a half in the hands of the Portuguese before they were expelled from their possessions. The results of that occupation were extremely unfortunate to the country. The ruthlessness of the Portuguese was only second to the bigoted zeal, which they displayed towards their faith. Their rule was one long tyranny, emphasized by the unscrupulous methods of conversion they adopted. Persecution and corruption were the powerful means they used for the propagation of Christianity. Their proselytising efforts were apparently crowned with success: the seeds of hypocrisy, which were sown with such assiduity, brought in a rich harvest of 'converts'. Influenced by fear or lust of gold, thousands deserted their ancestral faith and received baptism, and with it the much more tangible advantages of office and honour, at the hands of the Portuguese masters. The whole sea-board became Roman Catholic, in name at least. The national faith fell into disuse with the national names, customs and manners. The Viharas and Dagabas within striking distance of the Portuguese arms were mostly pillaged or demolished. The few that escaped that fate found no supporters or worshippers - for the practice of Buddhism was forbidden - and gradually fell into ruin. The Buddhist monks, forsaken of their congregations and threatened with persecution, withdrew from the Portuguese territories where Roman Catholicism held undisputed sway. But Portuguese dominion soon disappeared, leaving little more than an evil memory behind it.

"The Dutch succeeded the Portuguese in the possession of the maritime districts. They proved much more humane and considerate as rulers, but their bigotry was not second to that of their predecessors. The Roman Catholics became the object of their hatred even in a greater degree than the Buddhists. Upon the latter they tried the efficacy of wholesale bribery. Hypocrisy became the cornerstone of what they reared in Ceylon. Whole districts offered themselves for Baptism, 'proponents' travelled the country in triumph, manufacturing Christians by baptizing the young and the old and solemnizing marriages according to Christian rites, which was the legal form of marriage. In short, Protestant Christianity now began to prosper with as much success as Roman Catholicism had done before. But how hollow this farce of conversion had been was shown when the Dutch power fell after a rule of one hundred and fifty years and left behind it not a vestige of that church which they had reared on Sinhalese soil with such diligence. Though the efforts of the Portuguese and the Dutch to christianize Ceylon thus resulted in failure, their methods of conversion left upon the character of the people a deep evil impression, which cannot even now be said to have been completely effaced.

"Meanwhile, in the areas where the Sinhalese king held sway, people were using their entire strength to keep the enemy away. However, the enemy succeeded in sowing seeds of discord among the people and creating dissension between the king and his subjects.

"Under the stress of war and dissension, social order was disorganized, education was neglected and the practice of religion fell into disuse. Verily it was a period of distress and disaster. But even at the time when things appeared to be at their worst, when a thick veil of moral darkness seemed to have settled upon the face of the land, there arose the man destined to save the faith of the people from extinction, and the people themselves from moral ruin", Sir Baron writes.

The reference is to Velivita Sri Saranankara Thera who, as a 16-year-old lad - Kulatunga Banda by name - from Thumpane close to Kandy got ordained at the Suriyagoda temple near Kiribathkumbura. The temple had gained recognition during the reign of King Narendrasinghe (1703-1739) obtaining the status of a Raja Maha Vihara. At the time he became a Samanera (novice monk) under Suriyagoda Unnanse, one of the few surviving monks who had received higher ordination. He had read his first letters from Eramuduliyadde Upasaka Rala and Nuruddeniye Herathgedera Guruthuma, learned men who had a good knowledge of Sinhala.

A visit to Suriyagoda temple convinced us of the rich historical data it possesses.

The valuable material preserved at the temple reveals how the novice monk spent his early days preparing himself to resurrect the fast deteriorating state of Buddhism. The large collection of ola books is ample proof of his erudition. Among them are two volumes of the Pansiya Panas Jataka Potha (collection of 550 Jataka tales) where, in his own handwriting, he relates how he noticed the books being used as the door plank of the paddy barn in the house of Vilbagedera Rala, one of the 'dayakas' and how he got a door made from a forest tree and brought the Jataka Potha to the temple. "The book may have been written much earlier, possibly in the 14th century during the Gampola period", says Bulumulle Gunaratana Thera, resident monk of the Suriyagoda temple.

In his continuing search for knowledge, Samanera Saranankara learnt of one Levuke Ralahamy, a learned layman who had been imprisoned by the king in a village called Makehellvala. The monk came to live in a cave at Alagalla and although it was an offence to associate a prisoner, he risked his life to learn Pali from Levuke Ralahamy. It was a hard life for the monk who just survived from the small quantity of alms the villagers brought him.

In his desire to gradually turn the average villager to be more religious, he started preaching the Dhamma and going on 'pindapatha', following the practice during Buddha's time when monks used to walk on alms rounds. The monk soon came to be known as Pindapathika Saranankara because of his regular trek for alms carrying the alms bowl with him. He also started to teach the children to read and write on the 'veli pillewa' (sand board).

Samanera Saranankara gained popularity among the devotees through his ability to preach the Dhamma and follow the daily routine strictly according to what the Buddha preached. He formed the 'Silvat Samagama' (the pious team) to go to the villages and teach the people how to take Pansil and Ata Sil and how to develop Dana, Sila, Bhavana. Other monks who were known as 'ganinnanses' were leading a lax life virtually similar to how the laymen lived. They resented Saranankara Thera's efforts and even reported him to the king, who ruled that the 'silvats' should wrap a cloth round the head and show due respect to the other monks. Undeterred, Samanera Saranankara continued his missionary work.

At this time, Buddhism had deteriorated to such a level that even a minimum of five higher-ordained monks could not be found to perform the Upasampada Vinaya act. Having impressed the king with his erudition, Samanera Saranankara convinced him on the need to revive the upasampada as a prerequisite to restore Buddhism to the pristine glory of the past. He got the king to request the king of Siam to send senior monks with higher ordination to perform the ceremony here. The king got the assistance of the Dutch to send a delegation to Siam but several died when the vessel sank on the way. The survivors returned. A second delegation could not conclude the negotiations due to the death of the king (Vijaya Rajasinghe) and the King of Siam being reluctant to send the monks not knowing what the attitude of the new king would be. However, the successor, King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1781) having committed himself to work towards the spiritual welfare of the people supported Samanera Saranankara's activities and sent another delegation to Siam. The mission was a success and a delegation of 22 monks led by Upali Maha Thera arrived in the Island.

Elaborate arrangements were made to hold the upasampada under royal patronage after a lapse of nearly a century. On Upali Maha Thera's advice, an existing building in the centre of the courtyard of Pusparamaya (present Malwatta Viharaya) was selected as the site for the ceremony which was held on July 19, 1753, the day before Esala Poya day. The novice monks from Siam received higher ordination first and it was on the second day, that Sri Lankan monks received upasampada. Since the upasampada was conducted by Upali Maha Thera, the new Order was named Shyamoplai Maha Nikaya and the two Chapters - Malwatu Parsavaya and Asgiri Parsavaya - came to be identified since that day. By royal decree, the two Viharas - Malwatta and Asgiriya - were elevated as apex to the monasteries, which were already in existence under their control. The king appointed a Maha Nayaka Thera (Chief Prelate) for each Chapter and an advisory committee comprising 21 monks was selected from the main monasteries belonging to each Chapter. Thus a central ecclesiastical authority was established over the bhikkhus in Sri Lanka. It was the crowning glory of the untiring efforts of Samanera Saranankara that all this was achieved.

In recognition of the services rendered by the monk, the king appointed him to the exalted office of Sangharaja (Supreme Patriarch) and he came to be known as Velvita Pindapathika Asarana Sarana Saranankara Sangharaja Thera. "Never was honour more worthily earned, and never did royal bestowal of honour accorded with the wishes of a nation than on this occasion when King Kirti Sri Rajasinha, surrounded by his ministers, proceeded to Malwatta Vihara and there in the grand assembly of the Bhikkhus presented Saranankara Thera with the insignia of the office of Sangharaja. But honours made no change in his mode of life. He lived the same simple life, continuing his labours and inspiring his pupils by precept and example, with an enthusiastic love for unselfish work for the good of the world", writes Sir Baron.

After assuming the exalted position, he took residence at the Malwatu Vihara and as a constant reminder to himself, wrote the words 'Udangu nova mahana' (Monks, don't feel elated) on al ola leaf thrice and kept it on the door lintel. The words can be seen to this day as one enters the Velivita Pansala, where he resided as the Sangharaja. One among the 33 residential quarters within the Malwatta Vihara complex, it houses the Sangharaja museum. The institutional framework established 250 years ago continues to this day. The Karaka Sangha Sabha of each Chapter consisting of the Nayaka Theras of temples meet once a month to discuss current matters including religious and national issues. Chief monks of temples belonging to the Chapter are appointed by the Sangha Sabha, which also fixes the dates for the annual upasampada ceremony. The tradition continues.

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