Buddhism in Sri Lanka: A Brief History

Buddha With Birds
Birds perch on a Buddha statue in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. Cyrille Gibot / Getty Images

When Buddhism spread beyond India, the first nations in which it took root were Gandhara and Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka. Since Buddhism eventually died out in India and Gandhara, it can be argued that the oldest living Buddhist tradition today is found in Sri Lanka.

Today about 70 percent of the citizens of Sri Lanka are Theravada Buddhists. This article will look at how Buddhism came to Sri Lanka, once called Ceylon; how it was challenged by European missionaries; and how it was revived.

How Buddhism Came to Ceylon

The history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka begins with Emperor Ashoka of India (304 - 232 BCE). Ashoka the Great was a patron of Buddhism, and when King Tissa of Ceylon sent an emissary to India, Ashoka seized the opportunity to put in a good word about Buddhism to the King.

Without waiting for a reaction from King Tissa, the Emperor sent his son Mahinda and his daughter Sanghamitta -- a monk and a nun -- to Tissa's court. Soon the King and his court were converted.

For several centuries Buddhism flourished in Ceylon. Travelers reported many thousands of monks and magnificent temples. The Pali Canon was first written in Ceylon. In the 5th century, the great Indian scholar Buddhaghosa came to Ceylon to study and write his famous commentaries. Beginning in the 6th century, however, political instability within Ceylon combined with invasions by the Tamils of southern India caused support for Buddhism to decline.

From the 12th through 14th centuries Buddhism regained much of its former energy and influence. Then it faced its greatest challenge -- Europeans.

Mercenaries, Merchants, and Missionaries

Lourenco de Almeida (died 1508), a Portuguese sea captain, landed on Ceylon in 1505 and established a port at Colombo. At the time Ceylon was divided into several warring kingdoms, and the Portuguese took advantage of the chaos to gain control of the island's coasts.

The Portuguese had no tolerance for Buddhism. They destroyed monasteries, libraries, and art. Any monk caught wearing a saffron robe was executed. According to some accounts -- possibly exaggerated -- when the Portuguese finally were expelled from Ceylon in 1658 only five fully ordained monks remained.

The Portuguese were expelled by the Dutch, who took control of the island until 1795. The Dutch were more interested in commerce than in Buddhism and left the remaining monasteries alone. However, the Sinhalese discovered that under Dutch rule there were advantages to becoming Christian; Christians had higher civil status, for example. The converted were sometimes referred to as "government Christians."

During the upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was able to take Ceylon in 1796. Soon Christian missionaries were pouring into Ceylon. The British government encouraged Christian missions, believing Christianity would have a "civilizing" effect on the "natives." The missionaries opened schools throughout the island to convert the people of Ceylon from their "idolatry."

By the 19th century, Buddhist institutions in Ceylon were moribund, and the people were largely ignorant of the spiritual tradition of their ancestors. Then three remarkable men turned this state of affairs on its head.

The Revival

In 1866, a charismatic young monk named Mohottivatte Gunananda (1823-1890) challenged the Christian missionaries to a great debate. Gunananda was well prepared. He had studied not only the Christian scriptures but also rationalist writings of the West that criticized Christianity. He had already been traveling around the island nation calling for a return to Buddhism and attracting thousands of rapt listeners.

In a series of debates held in 1866, 1871, and 1873, Gunananda alone debated the foremost missionaries in Ceylon on the relative merits of their religions. To the Buddhists of Ceylon, Gunananda was the hands-down winner each time.

In 1880 Gunananda was joined by an unlikely partner -- Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), a New York customs lawyer who had given up his practice to seek the wisdom of the East. Olcott also traveled throughout Ceylon, sometimes in the company of Gunananda, distributing pro-Buddhist, anti-Christian tracts. Olcott agitated for Buddhist civil rights, wrote a Buddhist Catechism still in use today, and founded several schools.

In 1883, Olcott was joined by a young Sinhalese man who had taken the name Anagarika Dharmapala. Born David Hewivitarne, Dharmapala (1864-1933) had been given a thoroughly Christian education in Ceylon's missionary schools. When he chose Buddhism over Christianity, he took the name Dharmapala, which means "protector of the dharma," and the title Anagarika, "homeless one." He did not take full monastic vows but lived the eight Uposatha vows daily for the rest of his life.

Dharmapala joined the Theosophical Society that had been founded by Olcott and his partner, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and became a translator for Olcott and Blavatsky. However, the Theosophists believed all religions have a common foundation, a tenet Dharmapala rejected, and he and the Theosophists eventually would part ways.

Dharmapala worked tirelessly to promote the study and practice of Buddhism, in Ceylon and beyond. He was particularly sensitive to the way Buddhism was being presented in the West. In 1893 he traveled to Chicago to the World Parliament of Religions and presented a paper on Buddhism that emphasized Buddhism's harmony with science and rational thinking. Dharmapala influenced much of the West's impression of Buddhism.

After the Revival

In the 20th century, the people of Ceylon gained more autonomy and eventually independence from Britain, becoming the Free Sovereign and​ the Independent Republic of Sri Lanka in 1956. Sri Lanka has had more than its share of upheavals since. But Buddhism in Sri Lanka is as strong as it has ever been.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Buddhism in Sri Lanka: A Brief History." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, learnreligions.com/buddhism-in-sri-lanka-450144. O'Brien, Barbara. (2023, April 5). Buddhism in Sri Lanka: A Brief History. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/buddhism-in-sri-lanka-450144 O'Brien, Barbara. "Buddhism in Sri Lanka: A Brief History." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/buddhism-in-sri-lanka-450144 (accessed June 8, 2023).