Poson poya is reverentially observed by Sri Lankan Buddhists as it was on a Poson full moon day in 236BCE that the most precious gift – the Buddha Dhamma was brought to Sri Lanka. When Arahant Mahinda introduced the Doctrine, the Sangha Saasana was part of the legacy which was established for the propagation of [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Arrival of Mahinda Thera and the Sangha’s role in preserving the Buddha Dhamma


Poson poya is reverentially observed by Sri Lankan Buddhists as it was on a Poson full moon day in 236BCE that the most precious gift – the Buddha Dhamma was brought to Sri Lanka. When Arahant Mahinda introduced the Doctrine, the Sangha Saasana was part of the legacy which was established for the propagation of the Dhamma.

Jaya Siri Maha Bodhiya in Anuradhapura

If we review Arahant Mahinda’s mission today, in the absence of the Sangha, would the Buddha Dhamma have lasted for over 2000 years?

History has records of upheavals in the Sangha Saasana and there had been controversial roles played by some factions as it is happening today. But history reveals that by and large, the dedication of the Sangha to protect and preserve the teachings of the Buddha and the renaissance they brought about, moulding society in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha, kept the light of the Dhamma aflame for over two millennia.

According to ancient chronicles, from the very beginnings of the arrival of Arahant Mahinda, large numbers of people flocked to his Aramaya to listen to his sermons. Most of those who grasped the Dhamma and sought emancipation, took to robes. These were people, who till then, had lived at a time described as the dark period of the island following tribal and ritualistic practices. There may have been traces of Jainism, Brahminism, Hinduism and even Buddhism present, because Sri Lanka could not have escaped the religious and cultural winds that blew across from neighbouring India. There are however, no records of the presence of the Sangha in Sri Lanka before the arrival of Arahant Mahinda.

The streamlined and disciplined Sangha Saasana, which was guided by a strict code of ethics as laid down by the Buddha became a vital component of the Buddhist Doctrine Arahant Mahinda introduced. His first ordination of a monk in Sri Lanka however was a member of his own delegation of missionaries to Sri Lanka. The delegation included two of his relatives – his nephew – Sumana Saamanera who was Sanghamitta Theri’s son. The other was his mother’s sister’s grandson Bhanduka whom Arahant Mahinda chose to ordain in the full glare of a Lankan audience – probably to show how an ordination is done and as an incentive to draw Lankans to the Sangha Saasana. According to records, the first Sri Lankan to enter the Sangha Saasana was King Devanampiyatissa’s Prime Minister – Mahaaritta. The greatness of the numbers of those who entered the Saasana as recorded in the chronicles, is evidence of the effectiveness of Arahant Mahinda as a missionary.

The first monastery-complex was built by King Devanampiyatissa in the Mahamevna Uyana for Arahant Mahinda and his delegates which later became the Mahavihara and which had to be expanded to accommodate the rapidly increasing numbers of the Sangha. This commenced the monastic- tradition in Sri Lanka. There had been some however, who from these early years, had opted to live in caves in the forest.

With the arrival of Sanghamitta Theri six months later, Upasika Viharaya – the first monastery for Bhikkunis was built on a serene park in Anuradhapura. Queen Anula Devi, the sister-in-law of King Devanampiyatissa who had attained the higher spiritual realms of Sothapana having listened to the sermons of the great communicator Arahant Mahinda, had requested that she be ordained a Bhikkuni which led Sanghamitta Theri to arrive in Sri Lanka.

According to records, 500 upasikas from all levels of society, joined the Bhikkuni Order along with Queen Anula.

With monasteries coming up in Anuradhapura, what followed was a tremendous religious and scholarly upsurge. The Mahavihara developed into a renowned place of learning akin to a modern University and attracted religious scholars, dignitaries and emissaries especially from the Indian subcontinent to follow scholastic dhamma studies. Discussions and debates on the Buddhist Dhamma resulted in participation and interaction of Bhikkus and Bhikkunis.

Although there were members of the Royalty and those from higher families who took to robes, many may have been ordinary civilians who had been engaged in their respective occupations till they entered the Saasana. One could imagine the plight of these people, not literate but having a deep interest to understand the Dhamma. Being yet the era which practised the oral tradition, the Dhamma was expressed in the Pali language and the Bhikkus and the Bhikkhunis, in their quest to learn the Dhamma, proceeded as a result to learn Pali. Arahant Mahinda however preached in Sinhala but the rest of the senior clergy, including Sanghamitta Theri, delivered sermons in Pali.

Therefore, the monasteries turned into study-centres where the Dhamma was taught in Pali to a generation completely alien to any kind of learning which led them to literacy and even made some of them Pali scholars. Sermons however, were delivered by these monks to the laymen in Sinhala.

The planting of the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhiya in Mahamevuna Uyana, described as the grandest religious ceremony in the annals of Lanka, took place hardly six months into their new status as monks. Emperor Asoka had sent artisans from 18 clans to attend to varied services which had to be solemnly performed to the sacred Bodhiya – an act which triggered waves of activity that had to be carried and overseen by this first generation of the Sangha.

King Devanampiyatissa in the meantime, invited all regional leaders to participate in the sacred planting ceremony when he gifted each of them the first Bo Sapling that had sprung from the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhiya in Anuradhapura. This resulted in all regions in the island being covered – an act done in order to involve them actively in the observation of Buddhist traditions. Buddhist temples as a result, sprang up in all regional locations with the Bo Sapling planted, symbolizing the presence of the Buddha.

This led the Sangha, who were congregated in the capital city of Anuradhapura, to spread out which helped the preservation of the Buddha Dhamma throughout the island.

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