A New Beginning 


By Siri Vajiraramaye Nanasīha

The coming of Arahant Mahinda from ancient Jambudeepa with a retinue of five monks and a layman to Sri Lanka on a full moon day popularised later as Poson bringing the noble teaching of compassion and peace was a turning point in the history of this thrice blessed country. Under normal circumstances literally thousands would have flocked to Missaka Pabbata or Mihintale where Arhat Mahinda encountered King Devanampiya Tissa, the Lord of the land. 'Devanampiya' or 'devanapiya' (in inscriptions) was a title used by King Tissa after his second coronation at the request of his friend, unseen Emperor Dharmasoka, who also used the same title, as seen in the Asokan edicts.

The first encounter as recorded in the Mahavamsa has many insights and hence, very significant. The King, who was on a chase with 40,000 men in the forests near Missaka Pabbata was called by his first name Tissa in a loud and clear voice by Arahant Mahinda from the top of a mound now identified as Aradhanagala, when the King was sighted. The first reaction naturally would be to ask the person who was calling him by his name to identify himself. Arhant Mahinda's reply is worth repeating. "Samanas are we, O great king, disciples of the King of Truth (Dhammaraja). From compassion towards thee are we come hither from Jambudeepa" (Mv.XIV v. 08 – Geiger's translation).

The whole episode from the entry to the city, the offering and acceptance of the Mahavihra to the establishment of boundaries for the uposatha vinaya karma and other ecclesiastical acts as recorded in the Chronicles indicates the very dignified, healthy relationship that was established between the Mahāsangha and royalty right from the beginning. The King's words were "I will abide under the Buddha's command, thou giver of light! Therefore establish the boundaries with all speed taking in the city." The reply given by Arahant Mahinda was "If it be so, then do thou thyself, lord of the earth, mark out the course of the boundary; we will establish it"(Mv.XV. vv182, 183). There is mutual cooperation right from the word 'go'.

A person studying the history of this country will soon realise that when there was mutual understanding and cooperation between the Mahasangha and the rulers there has been always prosperity. It was a cherished desire of a ruler and his consort to construct in their names at least a vihara and/or stupa indicating their devotion and dedication to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. Their munificent actions were recorded both at their places of residence or maligavas and the viharas and later formed the source material for the great chronicles such as the Mahavamsa, Dipavamsa, Bodhivamsa, Dhatuvamsa etc. That time has gone when these chronicles were downgraded as mendacious fiction and the State acknowledging the value of these chronicles has undertaken the task of updating the Mahavamsa with the assistance of lay and monastic scholars. There is no country in the world with an unbroken written historical tradition of over 2500 years. With such a long history the whole island is studded with ancient sites that need to be identified with the assistance of literary records. The recent initiative to appoint a Task Force to preserve for posterity the ancient sites in the Eastern Province is commendable and needs to be extended to the Northern Province and then to the entire Island.

'Vinayonāmasāsanassayu', is a term that is frequently quoted, a loose translation of which would be, 'Discipline (of the Sangha) is the heart-throb of the dispensation of the Buddha'. History records instances where the ancient kings in their role as the protector of the Sasana purged the Sangha of recalcitrant monks under the guidance of very senior, disciplined and erudite elders. The relationship was not that one could describe as laissez faire where the rulers allowed the Sangha to carry on without interference until a request was made. Even when a monk has committed a Parajikā, after which he ceases automatically to be a member of the sangha community, the Sangha cannot defrock such a person. Such a monk is tabooed from participating in the recitation of the patimokkha with the other monks, which means that he is expelled from being a member of that community of monks. In such an instance, what usually happens now is for that recalcitrant monk either to create his own sect or to join another sect after leaving the sect from which he was expelled. He may defrock by himself if he decides to do so. The task of defrocking was undertaken by the Ruler i.e. the State.

The first recorded defrocking of recalcitrant monks was by Emperor Dharmasoka. The question was put to a monk: What creed do you follow? If the reply was 'Vibhajjavada' (Theravada) he was allowed to continue as a monk. If he replied otherwise that monk was immediately defrocked and given a white piece of cloth to wear. For seven years the uposathakamma was not held by Arhat Moggaliputta Tissa Mahā Thera and when asked by Emperor Asoka for the reason, he made mention of the recalcitrant monks and non-believers among the Mahasangha. The king was responsible for the purification of the Sangha by defrocking. This was followed by the Third Council after which Missionaries were sent to nine countries, including Sri Lanka. It is incorrect to conceive that these are Sasana matters and let not the state intervene.

The first schism of the Mahā Sangha in Sri Lanka was during the reign of King Valagamba in the first century BC. The strict vinaya tradition was to offer anything to the mahasangha coming from all directions and not to an individual monk. In gratitude for the support given to King Valagamba when he fled to the interior because of an invasion from South India, he offered the Abhayagiri Viharaya to Thera Kupikkala Tissa. Although the Mahavihara was considered the seat of authority for the Sangha, Abhayagiri and Jetavana developed to become two rival sects. That rivalry hindered the progress of the Sasana. During the reign of Vijayabāhu I, higher ordained monks had to be invited from Pagan, Myanmar to resuscitate the upasampadāvinaya karma.

King Parakramabahu I, also known as Parakramabahu the Great, restored the Sasana under the guidance of DimbulāGala Kassapa Mahaā Thera. The three sects were united and a code of conduct for the monks and the vihara officials were promulgated and inscribed in stone. It is well known as the Galvihara Katikavata. It is presumptuous to believe that these changes were done with the consensus or full agreement of all the bhikkhus at the time. The State as equal partners to protect the Buddhasāsasana has to intervene not on its own steam but with the guidance of an erudite monk or monks to make the necessary reforms for the protection of Buddhasāsasana.

In recent times, there has been a cry from all quarters for a need of a Katikāvata, which has been rendered into English as an 'Ecclesiastical Convention' (better as Sangha Concordant)to deal with the current indiscipline seen in some quarters and the harm done by wrong use of the YouTube, for example, to propagate non-dhamma in the guise of the Dhamma. Unfortunately, the Ministry of BuddhasāSasana failed to get enacted a single piece of legislation since the dawn of the new millennium. It has become more of a regulatory body.

There is a new beginning after Covid-19, which has become a blessing in disguise both nationally and internationally. On matters relating to the BuddhasāSasana the monthly meeting H.E. the President representing the State has with the Mahāsangha, representing the BuddhasāSasana is another good beginning. It should not become another Advisory Body. Instead, it should be named a Consultative Body with the two parties having equal stakes for the prosperity and welfare of the entire citizenry.

I wish to recall a meeting that I had the fortune to witness between the late King of Thailand H.E. Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Sangharaja of Thailand at Chitralada Palace, the official residence of the King. They were both seated facing each other, the Sangharaja with his senior monks in order of upasampadaā seniority on one side and the King with his officials according to rank on the other. The sight was very much like what we see when missions go abroad and sit to discuss; the difference being that there was no table placed in between separating them. Some matters were discussed and some papers were exchanged. Everything happened with much decorum. According to Thai tradition, one's head or should be kept below that of the person respected. When the officers, including the Prime Minister of the country, went to hand over something to the King they were on all fours. Towards the end of the meeting the King had to hand over a document to the Sangharaja. From his seat, which was at one extremity facing the Sangharaja he went kneeling to where the Sangharaja was seated and handed the document with great respect. It was not servility but traditions maintained with mutual respect.

I think that some of the traditions seen in Thailand had their origins in Sri Lanka when Sri Lankan monks had much influence there like during the Sukhothai period. Whilst some of these traditions continue in other Buddhist countries that had close ties with Sri Lanka, after 1815, when Sri Lanka lost her independence, she was totally immersed in an alien culture, which dominated our people and our land. The Poson full moon day is very opportune for us to reflect whether some of the lost traditions should be resurrected. The Sangha has to be elevated as equal partners in the relationship between the State and the Sangha. In the mutual relationship both the Sangha and the State have equal responsibility to maintain discipline and the purity of the Theravada tradition that was brought to Sri Lanka by Arahat Mahinda.

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