SOME OBSERVATIONS ON EARLY BUDDHISM IN SRI LANKA Part 2
Posted on March 28th, 2020

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Buddhism was accepted with enthusiasm in the north Indian republics of the Ganges region. People took robes in considerable numbers. In the lifetime of the Buddha, there were 29 monasteries. There were 18 at Rajagaha, 4 at Vesali, 3 at Kosala and 4 at Kosambi. Over time, it became clear that a set of rules governing the conduct of the Bhikkhus were needed. These rules became the Vinaya Pitaka.

The Vinaya rules were not commandments ordered from above. They were rules made by the Buddha for practical reasons. Most were to enforce discipline in the order, but they also took into account the ease and comfort of the bhikkhu. The Vinaya rules developed gradually, over time,  but they did not develop haphazardly. By the time Baddali sutta was preached, there was a fairly large set of rules, observed Ven. Bellanwila Wimalaratana in his book A critical study of the Sri Lankan development of the rules of Vinaya (Sarasavi, 2018)

Vinaya rules did not remain static. They were amended when necessary.   Buddha made five amendments to the Vinaya for Avanti. He said higher ordination could be conferred with four bhikkhus, not eight,  the bhikkhus could wear sandals with thick soles as the soil was black, they could bathe regularly, sheepskin and goatskin could be used as coverlets, and robes could be accepted on behalf of a monk who had left the district and the robe need not reach the monk concerned within the prescribed ten days.  Ven. Wimalaratana observed that while the Buddha relaxed rules when he found it helpful for the monks, he also tightened rules when he found that there were laxities.

In a Vinaya inquiry, the monk concerned was given a hearing. No judgment could be passed without his presence.  He had the right to cross-examine, and defend himself, raising legal issues. Bhikkhus had sometimes offered prize excuses. When charged with having engaged in sexual intercourse, one monk said he had taken off his robe, and another said he had done it naked.

Each school of Buddhist thought had its own Vinaya, observed Ven. Wimalaratana.   There were at least 18 other schools of Buddhism, if not more by 3rd Buddhist Council and these would have had their own vinayas. Most of these Vinayas are lost, but some fragments were found in Eastern Turkistan and Nepal.  The Gilgit manuscript, containing the Pratimoksa of the Mahasangika School has been published.  Further vinayas are preserved in Chinese and Tibetan versions. The Mahayana does not possess a separate Vinaya. Mahayana Vinaya is contained in the Suttas itself.

With the passing away of Buddha, the Vinaya gradually began to assume a rigid form. The First Buddhist Council, held at Rajgir soon after the Buddha’s death, decided not to repeal any rules. The Theravada tradition faithfully holds that the whole Vinaya Pitaka was compiled and recited at the First Buddhist Council, observed Ven. Wimalaratana. But the present Vinaya Pitaka was not in existence at the time of First Council. Vinaya Pitaka was in an initial stage of evolution, during the First Council he said. The Second Council, held a hundred years later at Vaisali, was no better. There were sharp differences in the Vinaya rules. The matter was hotly debated and a committee appointed to look into the items under dispute.

Arahat Mahinda brought into Sri Lanka the Theravada doctrine approved by the Third Buddhist Council held at Pataliputra in the reign of king Dharmasoka. This early Buddhism is glimpsed today in the Sutra Pitaka said Ven. Wimalaratana.The Vinaya, including amendments and the Vinaya commentarial tradition was brought in. The commentaries came in written form, said Malalasekera.

The Sinhala Sangha produced a vast commentarial literature on the Vinaya, with useful interpretations of the Vinaya rules. Buddhagosha used these Vinaya commentaries, in his Samantapasadika and Kanakavitarani.  Sinhala texts on Vinaya such as Sikavalanda and Sikha Valanda Vinisa show that Vinaya underwent considerable development in Sri Lanka, said Ven. Wimalaratana.

The Vinaya Pitaka consists of Patikmokkha, Suttavibhanga, Khanadhaka, and Parivara. Pattimokha is the code of rules, Suttavibhanga explains the rules and the Khandhaka section dealt with new situations and changing conditions. The Parivara, consisting of 19 chapters, is a digest of the earlier parts of the Vinaya Pitaka. It does not contain anything new.

The Vinaya Pitaka introduced to Sri Lanka did not contain the Parivara, said Ven. Wimalaratana. The Parivara section is a later addition. It is believed to have been compiled by a Sri Lanka bhikkhu in the early Anuradhapura period. Oliver Abeynayake said that the Parivara section of the Vinaya is not identical to that brought in by Mahinda. Sri Lanka has added to it.

The Theravada school thought that the Vinaya should be maintained and protected at all costs. Sri Lanka Buddhists also thought this. For them, the strict observance of the Vinaya was one of the main qualities of a good bhikkhu. This is one of the reasons why the forest monks were highly esteemed over those who were village dwelling, observed Ven. Wimalaratana.

The Sangha frequently needed purification, since there was no central authority and no hierarchy of control. Katikavatas to cleanse the Sangha started in Sri Lanka in the late Anuradhapura period. First, there was vihara katikavata, such as the inscription of Mahinda V, Kaludiya Pokuna inscription of Sena IV and Puliyankulam inscription of Udamahaya. Udamahaya was the first viceroy under Dappula IV. He ascended the throne as Udaya III.

Then came Sasana katikavat which applied to the whole Sangha. These started in the Polonnaruwa period and continued into the Udarata period. The first Katikavat was the Katikavata of Parakrama bahu I knew also as Galvihara inscription. This was followed by Hatadage inscription of Nissanka Malla, Dambedeni Katikavata of Parakarama bahu II,   katikavata of Parakrama bahu VI, katikavata of Kirti Sri Rajasinha and Katikavata of Rajadhi rajasinha. Vijayabahu III also had issued a Katikavata. This has not been discovered.

Katikavat was initiated by the king. The rules were formulated by senior monks, the king gave his assent and the Katikavata became binding on the Sangha. The katikavata was like a royal decree.  It was compulsory for all monks.

The initiative for the katikavata of Parakrama bahu I came from the king himself. The rules were by Udumbara Giri Maha Kassapa Thera.  The Katikavata started with a preamble giving the reasons for the katikavata.  Then came 27 rules, mainly on the day to day behavior of monks including their daily routine. All monks had to meditate every day. This was compulsory.

Dambadeni Katikavata was also preamble and text. The Preamble had a wealth of information on the declining state of Sangha. This katikavata created two separate headships, (Mahathera), for Gramavasi and Aranya Vasi bhikkhus, with a Mahimi above both. Below them came the heads of the 8 ayatanas, and deputies, followed by the principals of Pirivenas. None of these offices are in the Vinaya.

The age limit to enter the order now became 12 years for grama vasi and 13 years for forest dwelling monks. Higher ordination could not take place where the bhikkhus wanted it, only with approval and consent of king. The quorum needed for ecclesiastical matters were amended. What was earlier carried out by 4 bhikkhus was now to be carried out by 8 bhikkhus. What had been done by 20 was now to be carried out by 30. This was to ensure that there was a minimum of monks of unblemished character in it, said Ven. Wimalaratana.

The katikavata also ruled on the behavior of Bhikkhus. Monks must walk in slow, unhurried manner and must abstain from laughing aloud. Monks cannot use harsh speech to laymen, or refer to their pedigree and caste.  Even a servant in the temple cannot be subject to such treatment. If so monk must apologize.  Bhikkhus had been composing flattering poems for lay people to get them to donate to the temple.  This was prohibited.  Bhikkhus cannot sell excess gifts. They cannot teach children of householders, they cannot teach poetry and drama  and they should not perform the exorcism duties of Kapuvas.

Ven Wimalaratana observed that, Vinaya rules were not sufficient to deal with the practical issues faced by the viharas. The monasteries had become extensive landowners, thanks to huge endowments of cash, land, tanks, paddy fields, villages. Sangha had to manage these lands and fields and villages.  Large scale economic management and managing peasants are not included in the Vinaya   pitaka. Vinaya pitaka rules were insufficient for this. Vinaya had blanket rules for opulence, but that was insufficient. Special rules were needed now.

Slab inscriptions erected in vihara premises tried to remedy this. Anuradhapura slab inscription of Kassapa V, Virankurarama slab inscription of Dappula V, Abhayagiri inscription of Mahinda IV and the second Vessagiri inscription,  contain various rules and regulations for conducting the affairs of that vihara, their properties and workers.  Also for admission to the order, settlements of disputes in monasteries and the role of government officer in settling disputes.

The inscription of Kassapa V says, when admitting a new monk into the order, there must be unanimous agreement.  Gifts should not be accepted when admitting someone into the order. Quarrelsome bhikkhus and those who violate the Vinaya should be expelled and exiled to India. Abhayagiri inscription said if the money provided for repairs to the monastery is insufficient, monks must use the money allocated for their personal needs.

Buddhism became popular in north India, very quickly and young men started to take to robes. This did not please everyone. Parents complained, accusing Buddha of breaking up families, making families devoid of sons and making young wives widows by encouraging young men to join the Maha Sangha. 

Therefore an alternative had to be found. The ‘lay disciple’ was created. Historians trace the creation of lay followers to the family of the bhikkhu Yasa. The young man, Yasa, son of a rich gild master in Benares, found his way to Gautama Buddha and eventually became a disciple. Yasa’s father went in search of his son, and ended up as the first lay disciple.

Buddha was invited by Yasa’s father for alms at his house the next day and with this started the growth of lay followers. At the start they were not considered a component of Buddhist society. They were like admirers, providing the basic needs of the ordained members. They were enthusiastic but did not have any particular practices to follow or any formal duty to perform.

 As time passed the lay followers wanted to be formerly recognized as followers of the Buddha with a practice approved by the Buddha himself. They also desired a particular goal to aspire for. Vyaggapajja sutta of Anguttara nikaya described how some members of the Koliyna clan headed by Digajanu made this request.

Buddha did so. He gave a series of actions to follow while remaining in lay life, and the possibility of a good future life. This consisted of    8 items, of which 4 were for this life and 4 were for the next. The lay followers had thus opted for the lesser goal of continuing samsara life, hoping for a better destiny in the future.

This makes an important juncture in the practice of Buddhism, observed Ven. Wimalaratana. The original aim was to put an end to dukkha, end of Samsaric existence. But lay followers opted for a lesser goal. Buddha agreed and approved the practice.

This was the best option to keep the lay community on the right track with the possibility of changing lanes in the future and attain final liberation. This approach provides a graduated practice, of the path of Buddhism, to suit the different personalities of the practitioners. In the relaxed practice approved for the laity, realization of NIbbana is not completely discarded. It is postponed for a future date.

The lay follower of the Buddha were enthusiastic, they were more in number than the ordained followers.  They came from all levels of society, royalty to the lowest. The prospect of   gaining good and happiness in this life as well as the next, they found very attractive.

A common aspiration was the accumulation of merit. Supporting those ordained was one way of accumulating merit. It was also an easy way. So they lavished their generosity on them. Now supporting the Sangha turned into a duty of the laity and in turn the Sangha became the guides of the laity, directing them on the proper path. The Sangha ranked above the laity.

This led to extremes in some cases. Spending excessively on dana to the Sangha, specially by wealthy persons, otherwise known to be utterly stingy, was ridiculed in Sri Lanka as ‘giving in this birth to get it back in the next’.  I have personally heard this said in the 1950s at a dane in Panadura.

The Sangha also did not like to   eat too much rich food. In 2012, Buddhist monks had told the Health Ministry  in Sri Lanka to advise the Buddhists to prepared proper alms for monks, as they were getting diabetes and heart problems due to the rich food they were given. The Danas contained great quantities of oil, starch, salt and sugar. They wanted a nutritious meal which did not have these.

Ven Beligalle Dhammajoti observed that during British rule, Buddhism was presented as an ‘other worldly’ religion, which was not rooted in everyday living.  It was so sublime that ordinary people could not practice it. That is incorrect. Buddhism is not an ‘other worldly’ religion.  And it is not asocial.  Buddhism is not an other worldly religion.  And it is not a-social.  Sigalovada sutta explicitly explained the family and social relations, and gives a set of instructions and ethical guideline that pertain to social living.

During British rule, non-Buddhists also said that Buddhist philosophy is interest only in higher morality and ignore the social and economic welfare. This is incorrect. Kutadanta sutta explains the way of developing a country with proper planning and the nature of socio-economic process. These ideas, it should be noted were propounded in the 6 century BC.  In Agganna sutta there is a theory of the origin of classes. Chakkavattisihanada sutta explains poverty, revolution, crime and the reasons for those social ills.

Gunadasa Amarasekera thought that Buddha’s interest was in social change, he notes that a large part of Buddha’s major preaching is meant for the layman and not for those who have renounced lay life. Most of the steps in the Ariya astangika margaya are meant to be followed by the layman.

Rajitha P Kumara writing on early Buddhist philosophy   (Economic Review, Peoples Bank, 2011) observed that Buddhism recognized the mental and physical needs of human beings. According to Agganna sutta the fundamental human needs are reproduction, existence and protection.

Buddhism recognized basic needs such as subsistence, economic stability, education, social interaction, mental and physical health, human dignity and social status.  Kutadanta, Agganna and Mahasuddassana sutta focus much attention on the economic condition of individuals and advice is given for the fulfillment of economic realities by the state.

Buddhist gave equal importance to all the sections of society. In the Pali discourses much emphasis is made of cultivation, agriculture, government service, business ventures and employment. The hoarding of wealth was condemned.

Buddhism emphasizes the appeasement of the divided sections of society by building a harmonious and cordial relationship among the conflicting sections of society.  It is necessary to be responsive to the need and expectation of others and to have a regard and respect for them. This sort of responsible social behavior is known as samacariya, observed Rajitha.

A system of good governance was needed in human society primarily for the maintenance of justice and peace. There should be a good system of law (justice) and order (peace) above everything. . It is the responsibility of any government to create a harmonious atmosphere in which justice and peace are enjoyed. (Concluded)

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