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 Post subject: Buddhism and travel in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Mon Dec 22, 2008 11:26 pm 
Buddhism and travel in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka and China seem to have sent religious missions to each other from around the 5th century AD. There were royal missions from Myanmar and Thailand.

by Kamalika Pieris
@ The Island / Apr 2008


As a respected centre of Buddhism Sri Lanka had many Buddhist visitors. According to the Mahavamsa, when the Mahathupa was completed in the 2nd century BC, the inauguration ceremony was attended by representatives from foreign Buddhist centres. They came from many places in north India such as Kashmir, Rajagaha, Isipatana, Savaththi, Vesali, Pataliputra and Ujjain. A delegation of Greek Buddhists came from Afghanistan and another from the Kelasa monastery of Burma.

There were many Buddhist missions, negotiated at the diplomatic level. Sri Lanka and China seem to have sent religious missions to each other from around the 5th century AD. Five Sinhala monks visited the Chinese emperor in 456 AD. Silakala sent a mission in 527 AD to Emperor Wu (502- 549) who was a great patron of Buddhism. During time of Aggabodhi VI (733-772) there were four missions to China. A Sinhala monk, named Amoghavajira, led the second mission. He became very popular in China as a teacher of Tantric Buddhism. The Mongol kings who ruled China in the 14th century were Buddhist. There were four missions to Sri Lanka during the time of Kublai Khan, { 1260-1294). One mission was to pay respect to the Buddha’s alms bowl.

There were royal missions from Myanmar and Thailand. The kingdom at Pegu (in Myanmar) sent a mission to Sri Lanka and got down relics during the time of king Binnya U (1335-1350). King Dhammaceti wanted to re-introduce the upsampada ordination. He sent a mission of two ministers, 22 monks, and their pupils to Sri Lanka in 1476. King Bhuvanekabhu VI gave them a warm welcome. They were given higher ordination by Vidagama Maitreya. On their return, the king set up the ‘Kalyani sima" in Pegu. A Thai mission consisting of 25 Thai, 8 Cambodian and 6 Burmese monks came to Sri Lanka in 1425. They studied under Vanaratana and were ordained near the Kelani river. They returned to Thailand with two Sinhala monks named Vikramabahu and Uttampanna. A Thai monk came to Sri Lanka and studied under Dhammakitti Mahasami of Gadaladeniya in the 14 century.

Many scholar monks visited Sri Lanka to collect Buddhist manuscripts and study Buddhism. The Chinese monk Fa Hsien was in India from 405-411 AD, collecting Buddhist manuscripts and texts and studying at Indian monasteries. He then spent two years in Sri Lanka. He found many foreigners at Abhayagiri. Gunavarman, a Mahayana monk who left Kashmir around 420 AD spent some time at Abhayagiri before proceeding to China. Two eminent monks from Madhyadesa, also stopped over in Sri Lanka. One was Gunavabhadra, who arrived in China in 435 AD. The other was Punyopaya who came to Sri Lanka to collect some of the texts he was taking to China in 655 AD.

Buddhagosha, Buddhadatta and Dhammapala came from India to translate the Sinhala commentaries to Pali during the 5th century. Vajrabodhi, the famous teacher of Vajrayana, spent 6 months at Abhayagiri on his way from India to China. The Indian monk Sanghabadra came to China with a tripitika acharya from Sri Lanka. Young monks from India, including one from Kancipura, were studying in Sri Lanka around 1171.

Buddhist monks from south east Asia visited Sri Lanka. Uttarajiva Mahathera of Myanmar visited Sri Lanka in 1171. He left behind samanera Chapata who stayed in the island for ten years, mastering the tripitaka and the aththakatha. A Thai monk came to Sri Lanka, from the Ayuthya kingdom, in the 14 century. He studied under a very learned monk and obtained higher ordination. A senior monk from Ligor (now Nakon Sri Thammarat) visited during the reign of Buvanekha bahu I (1272-1284) Parakrama bahu II (1236-1270) invited to Sri Lanka a famous monk from Ligor. All three monks had the name Dhammakitti. Monks from China also visited Sri Lanka. Chinese monk I-tsing (635-712 AD) listed over 6 Chinese monks who came to Sri Lanka to worship and to collect texts. one seems to have settled down in Sri Lanka. Amoghavajira, a famed teacher of Tantrayana in China, visited Sri Lanka in the 8th century and spent six months at Abhayagiri. Amoghavajira and his two disciples had learned several Tantric rituals from Samantabadhra, a Sinhala Tantrist of great repute

The Sinhala monks, in their turn, visited foreign countries. They went on pilgrimage to India. They usually went in groups. The Sihalavatthu pakarana and Sahasavatthu pakarana speak of monks who sailed in merchant vessels to ports in Bengal and the south eastern (Coromandel) coast. Sihalavathtu pakarana says 37 monks went to India to worship. This text also showed that there were links between the Buddhist communities of western India and Sri Lanka.

Sinhala monks went regularly to the Bihar-Bengal area where they worshipped at Buddhagaya. In the beginning they took the land route from Kaveripattana and the journey from Anuradhapura to Buddhagaya took about ten or eleven months. From the 5th century or so, they went by ship from Mantota to Tamralipti. This reduced travel time. Fa Hsien reached Sri Lanka from Tamralipti in 14 days. As a result, the number of Sinhala monks going to Buddha gaya increased and their numbers at Buddhagaya swelled. There were 300 monks from Sri Lanka at Buddha Gaya in 1235.

Sinhala monks also went to scholarly monasteries in north India such as Vikramasila where they met monks from other countries. The Blue Annals, an Indian work from Vikramasila records the existence in the 12th century of a saintly monk from Sri Lanka named Gunaratna. A monk from Kashmir had visited him, hearing of his fame. Through this monk, Ven. Gunaratna had sent greetings to two Tibetan monks he admired.

Sinhala monks also travelled to south India. It was easy to get to the Vengi region of Andhra Pradesh from Sri Lanka. Silavamsa Dharmakirti had a stone vihara called Sri Dhanyataka built at Amaravati during the reign of Vijayabahu V (1335-1341). A monk at Sihala vihara, Nagarjunikonda, translated into Pali the text of Sihalavatthu pakarana. These religious contacts may have led to an exchange of expertise in other fields. Shaw and Sutcliffe have found similarities between Sri Lanka’s Basawakkulam and the small tanks system in Sanchi, fed by the Betwa river . The small tanks in Sanchi are dated to 2nd or 3rd century BC.

The Sinhala monks did not confine their travels to peninsular India. They went beyond. They went to Peshawar, now a part of Pakistan. It was known as Devaputtanagara in Sinhala texts. Hema Goonetilleke says that in 4th or 5th century AD Buddharakkhita, a monk from Abhayagiri vihara, travelled through Punjab to Central Asia. He wrote a text on Greek, Roman and Persian rule in the region titled "Rajavamsa Pusthaka." A copy was found in the Sri Vijayan kingdom in the 10th century AD..

Sinhala monks also travelled to Tibet. In the 11th century Sinhala bhikshuni Chandramali went to Tibet and translated six tantras which are now included in the Tibetan Tripitaka, the Kanjur. A Sinhala monk, Anantasri, who lived in Tibet sometime between 1172 and 1216 contributed translations of Pali texts such as Natka nidanta, Dhammacakka sutta, Atanatiya sutta and Maha mangala sutta to the Kanjur. He took with him an early medieval Sinhala text known as Karmavibhaya. Tibetan Buddhist history also speaks of Prithvibandu, another Sinhala scholar monk.

Sinhala monks went to China. The Sinhala monk Sanghavarman arrived in 412 AD and translated the Mahisaka Vinaya into Chinese. The bhikkuni sasana was introduced to China by Sri Lanka bhikkunis. The Chinese texts mention that in 429 AD and 433 AD two of groups of bhikkuni arrived in China. They learned the Chinese language and ordained 300 Chinese bhikkunis. Around 456 AD, five Sinhala monks including Yasagupta and Buddhanandi, travelled to China, visiting several countries to the west of China (‘western region’) on the way. They took a letter from king Dhatusena. They took the overland route to China via Central Asia. They took with them, three Buddha statues, and a drawing of the Buddha’s Alms Bowl.

Monks also visited China during the Tang period (618- 907). One monk arrived in 991 AD, with twelve Mahayanist texts. On their visits to China, the monks took with them Buddhist texts, paintings, images and Bodhi plants from Sri Lanka. Ven. Vajra Tripitaka who was a skilled portrayer of Buddhist images in the ‘western style’ did some incomparable Buddhist paintings.

Sinhala monks went to Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand to strengthen Theravada Buddhism. In 1430, two Sinhala monks, known as Sri Dhammalankara and Sihala Mahasami came to the Burmese kingdom of Ava to help develop Buddhism. They took relics with them. Long before that, some of the monks who left Sri Lanka during the Cola occupation of the 11th century, had gone to Myanmar. During the time of King Lo Thai (1317-1347) Medhankara Sangharaja, a monk from Sri Lanka went on invitation to Thailand to reorganise the Thai sangha. King Lu Thai, son of Lo Thai, had in 1361 got down a Sinhala monk from Myanmar.


(The writings of Hema Goonetilake, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, HBM Illangasinha P.V.B. Karunatilaka, S. Kiribamune, S .Paranavitana, CR Panabokke Walpola Rahula, R Thapar, S.G.M. Weerasinghe and M. Werake were used for this essay.)


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