Sri Lanka Table of Contents
In the absence of the Buddha, the custodian of his message is the assembly (sangha--see Glossary) of monks who carry on his work. The members of the Buddhist assembly practice the discipline (vinaya) set forth by the Buddha as a system of rules for a monastic order. The discipline calls for strict control over the senses and dedicated meditation by the individual monk (bhikku--see Glossary). Following the Buddha's example, the monk should spend the morning begging for food from the lay community, then abstain from meals after noon. He should shave his head, wear orange (or yellow) robes, and own only his clothes and a begging bowl. He should avoid all sexual contact or any other forms of sensual pleasure. The bhikku should rest in one place for an extended period only during the rainy season, when groups of mendicants may stay together in communal houses (vihara). Elaborate rules evolved for admitting novices to the monastic community and conferring ordination on bhikku who passed through a period of initiation and training. The strict organization of the monastic order created a solid basis for the preservation of the Buddha's message and a readily adaptable institution that was transplanted in a variety of social environments throughout Asia.
Buddhism in Sri Lanka has its roots deep in one of the earliest variants of Buddhism that survives in the world today. The Sinhalese call their beliefs Theravada, or "the doctrine of the elders." Their tradition, frequently described as Hinayana (meaning "lesser vehicle"), preserves a clear understanding of the Buddha as a man who achieved enlightenment and developed monks (arhat) as accomplished followers of his teachings. This tradition differs from the more widespread Mahayana ("great vehicle"), which often treats the Buddha as a superhuman being and fills the universe with a pantheon of enlightened figures (bodhisattvas) who help others achieve enlightenment. In Sri Lanka, people do not officially worship the Buddha, but show reverence to his memory. The most striking expressions of public reverence are dagoba or thupa (stupa), large mounds built over sites where relics of the Buddha or a great monk are buried. The dagoba in Sri Lanka preserve a spherical shape and a style of architectural embellishment that link them directly to the monuments originally erected over the Buddha's remains in ancient India. The traditions of the Sinhalese indicate that their oldest dagoba are at least 2,000 years old, from a period when genuine relics of the Buddha came to Sri Lanka. The conservative nature of Sinhalese Buddhism is strengthened through the preservation and living tradition of ancient scriptures in the Pali (see Glossary) language. A dialect related to Sanskrit, the classical language of India, Pali is probably close to the popular language in northeastern India during the Buddha's time. The monks of Sri Lanka have kept alive an unbroken Pali transmission of monastic rules, stories of the Buddha's life, and philosophical treatises that may constitute the oldest body of written Buddhist traditions.
For people who do not become monks, the most effective method of progressing on the road to enlightenment is to accumulate merit (pin) through moral actions. One who performs duties faithfully in this world, who supports the monastic order, and who is compassionate to other living beings may hope to achieve a higher birth in a future life, and from that position accumulate sufficient merit and knowledge to achieve enlightenment. Meritorious activities include social service, reverence of the Buddha at shrines or at dagoba, and pilgrimage to sacred places. Gifts to monks rank among the most beneficial meritmaking activities. Lay devotees invite monks to major events, such as a death in the family or the dedication of a building, and publicly give them food and provisions. In return, the monks perform pirit, the solemn recitation of Pali Buddhist scriptures. Although the average person may not understand a word of the ancient language, simply hearing the words and bestowing presents on the monks accumulates merit for the family or even for deceased family members. Some wealthy donors may hold giftgiving ceremonies simply for the public accumulation of merit. The monks thus perform important roles for the laity at times of crisis or accomplishment, and they serve as a focus for public philanthropy.
Data as of October 1988
Sri Lanka Table of Contents