Did the Buddha visit Sri Lanka?

Point of view
By Ranjan Gooneratne

Mahanama, the author of the Mahavamsa refers to three visits by the Buddha to Sri Lanka. Is this historically correct? Did the Buddha ever visit Sri Lanka? To ascertain whether the description in the Mahavamsa has any basis, one has to study the life of the Buddha, as revealed in the Pali Canon.
Immediately after Enlightenment, the Buddha walked from Buddha Gaya to Saranath. From Saranath, He set out to wander by stages to Uruvela. At that time three ascetics with matted hair — Kassapa of Uruvela, Kassapa of the River and Kassapa of Gaya — were living at Uruvela. When the Buddha was living at Uruvela, Kassapa’s sacrificial ceremony fell due.

The Mahavamsa says, “Now, since a great sacrifice by Kassapa of Uruvela was near at hand, and since He (the Buddha) saw that this latter would fain have Him away .., the Conqueror in the ninth month of his Buddhahood, at the full moon of Phussa, Himself set forth for the Isle of Lanka…
A painting at Kelaniya temple that depicts one of the instances that Lord Buddha is supposed to have visited Lanka to settle a dispuite between two factions

“To this great gathering of the Yakkas went the Blessed One and there in the midst of that assembly, hovering in the air over their heads, at the place of the future Mahiyangana Thupa, He struck terror to their hearts, by rain, storm, darkness and so forth. The Yakkas, overwhelmed by fear, besought the fearless Vanquisher to release them from fear. Then, when He had destroyed their terror,… the Master preached them the doctrine.” (Geiger’s translation pages 3 and 4)

The suttas display the Buddha, as the incarnation of patience and peace, capable of working the miracle of transformation by His unshakeable equanimity and impeccable wisdom.

The Buddha would never have struck terror to their hearts. This idea that the Buddha struck terror to their hearts by rain, storm and darkness, Mahanama has taken directly from the Vedas. The Vedas tell us that Indra wields the thunderbolt and conquers darkness. He brings us light and life, gives us vigour and freshness. Heaven bows before him and the earth trembles at his approach “Yes, when I send thunder and lightning” says Indra “then you believe, in me.” (Radhakrishna Indian Philosophy Vol. 1 pages 35-36)

According to the Mahavamsa’s description of the first visit of the Buddha to Lanka, the visit should take place between the sacrificial ceremony and the deliverance of the fire sermon at Gayassi.

The Mahavamsa says the Buddha came by air to Lanka. The description of the first visit of the Buddha goes against the fundamental teachings of the Buddha. In Mahasihanada Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 12) Sunakkata made this statement before the vesali assembly: “The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of reasoning as it occurs to him, and when he teaches the Dhamma to anyone, it leads when he practices it to the complete destruction of suffering”.

Bhikku Bodhi in his commentary to this sutta says “Apparently he (Sunakkhatta) believes that being led to the complete destruction of suffering is, as a goal, inferior to the acquisition of miraculous powers”. In His rebuttal of Sunkattha’s assertion the Buddha says “the recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma hammered out by reasoning, following His own line of reasoning as it occurs to Him-Unless He abandons that view, then he will wind up in hell”.

In the Kevaddha Sutta (Digha Nikaya Sutta 11 in Maurice Walshe’s translation), The Buddha says, He dislikes, rejects and despises the miracles of psychic power and miracle of telepathy. The Buddha was possessed of a quality of compassion, seldom seen among men. His sympathy was all embracing and spontaneous. The Buddha’s teaching is based and built on a conception of universal love and compassion for all living beings.

In the Vatthupama Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 7) the Buddha says, “he abides pervading that all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving kindness, abundant, exalted immeasurable, without hostility, without ill will. He abides pervading one quarter with the mind imbued with compassion.”

“In the Lakkahan Sutta (Digha Nikaya sutta 30) it is stated, “the Tathagata rejects harsh speech, abstains from it, spoke what was blameless, pleasing to the ear, agreeable, reaching the heart, urbane, pleasing and attractive to the multitude.”

Therefore, if the Mahavamsa is to be believed, when Mahanama says, “He struck terror to their hearts by rain, darkness and so forth. The Yakkas overwhelmed by fear… we have to accept that the Buddha abandoned the fundamental tenets of the Dhamma merely for the sake of converting a set of ‘uninstructed wordings.’ He was, of all the historical personages of whom we possess any knowledge, one of the most consistent in thought, word and act.

He not only placed little value on the supra-rational knowledge and ecstasy to which ascetics and mystics were supposed to have access, but actually described their mental acrobatics as “the thicket of theorizing, the wilderness of theorizing, the tangle, the bondage.”

The Mahavamsa goes on to say that it was on His first visit that the “Master preached the doctrine”.
There is no record of the doctrine the Buddha preached to the Yakkas. However, there is a record of the two earlier sermons the Buddha delivered at Saranath.

According to the Mahavamsa, the Buddha’s second visit to Lanka was in the fifth year of His Buddhahood “He set out to Lanka from Jetawana.” If the Mahavamsa account of the Buddha’s second visit is to be believed He should have come to Lanka before He left for Kapilavasthu.

In His second visit, the Mahavamsa says the Buddha brought about a reconciliation between the Naga kind Maniakkhika and Mahodora by preaching the “the doctrine that begets concord.” King Pasanedi was one of the most devoted lay followers of the Buddha. Pasanedi says “The dhamma has been made clear in many ways by the Blessed One, as though He were turning upright what had been turned upside down. (vide Kosalaamyutta in the Samyuta Nikaya.)

Yet the Buddha was not able to prevent King Pasanedi going into battle with Ajasathu. In the Paranibbana Sutta we find Ajasattu sending his chief minister Brahamin Vessakara to the Buddha to seek advice as to how he could attack the Vajians and bring them to ruin and destruction. The Buddha told him, “the Vajians will never be conquered by force of arms.” Still the Buddha was not able to dissuade Ajasatu resorting to various stratagems to destroy the Vajians.

It is strange therefore, that while the Buddha was not able to prevent His disciples from waging wars, He could bring about reconciliation between two kings in a foreign country.

The doctrine that “begot concord” is not found anywhere in the Pali Canon. It is also strange that this doctrine was not delivered to Kings Pasanedi or Ajasatu and thereby dissuade them from going to war.
According to the Mahavamsa, the third visit of the Buddha to Lanka was in the eighth year of His Buddhahood.

The Buddha “set forth surrounded by five hundred arahats on the second day of the beautiful month of Vesak..” Again the doctrine He preached on His third visit to the island is not found in the Pali Canon. The Buddha’s famous statement in the Paranibbana Sutta, “I have taught the Dhamma, Ananda, making no inner and outer. The Tathagata has no teacher’s fist in respect of the Dhamma,” makes it clear that there is no esoteric teaching in Buddhism.

On a plain reading of the Buddha visits to Lanka as recorded in the Mahavamsa, it becomes clear that this account is not only false but goes against the teachings of the Buddha.

It is also established that from the day of His enlightenment till He passed away at Kusinara, the Buddha walked barefoot from Buddha Gaya to Kusinara. At the little village of Beluva the Buddha said (Paranibbana Sutta), “Ananda, I am now old, worn out, one who has traversed life’s path, I have reached the term of life which is eighty.” The version in the Mahavamsa that the Buddha came by air from Jetawana to Lanka should be rejected.

One other matter that should be considered in delving into the veracity of the Buddha’s visit as narrated in the Mahavamsa is that there was an intellectual awakening in India about a thousand years before the Buddha. Therefore, we find in India at the time of the Buddha’s birth the tendency of man to think rationally, to reduce the chaotic universe of his sense-impressions and intuitions to a coherent and logical order, was ingrained in the Indian mind. The Buddha, as Radhakrishna says, “tore away the Dhamma from His ancestral stem and planted in a purely rational soil.”

Even in such an intellectually fertile soil as in India in the fifth century B.C, soon after enlightenment the Buddha experienced an inner conflict as to whether He should ever teach the Dhamma because, in the words of Bhikku Bodhi, “He reflected the density of the defilements of beings and the profundity of the Dhamma. In the Brahmasamayutta in the Samyutta Nikkaya we find the following statement, “This Dhamma I have discovered is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, not within the sphere of reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise.”

There is no evidence that the Nagas and Yakkas, if such tribes ever existed in prehistoric Lanka, had any intellectual background capable of understanding the profound teachings of the Buddha. It is also a matter for surprise that while there is a record of the very first sutta preached to five ascetics, we do not find in the Pali Canon any reference to the three discourses delivered to the Nagas and Yakkas.

William Geiger regards the Mahavamsa as a conscious and intentional rearrangement of the Dipavamsa as a sort of commentary to this latter.” Geiger refers to R.O. Franks’ Dipawamsa and Mahavamsa where he says, “In the absence of any sources, the Dipavamsa must be considered as standing unsupported on its own tottering feet.” Therefore, according to Franke no historical value can be conceded to the Dipavamsa nor to the Mahavamsa.

Geiger also refers to V.A. Smith’s “Asoka, the Buddhist Emperor of India” where “the Ceylonese chronology prior to B.C. 160 is absolutely and completely rejected as being not merely of doubtful authority but positively false in its principal propositions.”

The account given in the Mahavamsa has no historical evidence to support the proposition that the Buddha ever visited this island . Biographer and literary critic Lytton Strachey once said, “ignorance is the first requisite of the historian. Ignorance which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and limits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art. Had Lytton Strachey ever read the Mahavamsa, he would have been delighted to realize that Mahanama had followed his observation to the very letter.

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