MEDIEVAL SRI LANKA AND THERAVADA BUDDHISM IN SOUTHEAST ASIA Pt 1
Posted on April 13th, 2020

KAMALIKA PIERIS

This essay provides additional information on Sri Lanka’s role in establishing Theravada Buddhism in South East Asia. It is a supplementary essay to the earlier essays on    subject.

Historians agree that the major impact of Sinhala Buddhist culture was on South East Asia, on Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and the Yunnan province of China.  Sinhala Buddhism was found there from around the 5th century at least.

There is plenty of information on the other four countries, but very little on Vietnam. The Dong Dong Buddha image from Champa, which is displayed in Ho Chi Ming museum, has been identified by Boisellier as influenced by Anuradhapura of the period 3-4 AD.  It is a standing Buddha made of bronze, a little over a meter high. Dupont (1959) has suggested that the Buddha figures from Dong Duron in Vietnam, Sikendeng and Jember in East Java closely resemble those from 5th century Sri Lanka. 

By the 12th century, Buddhism had been in retreat In the South Asian subcontinent, said Gunawardana. Islam and Hinduism, introduced by Indian traders had replaced it. But, in the middle of the 12 century,   South East Asia decided to turn again to Buddhism. Sri Lanka was the foremost centre of Theravada Buddhism in South Asia.  

Reaching out to Sri Lanka was not a problem. There had been long standing diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Culavamsa records Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) sending envoys with gifts and letter written in his own hand in Pali to king of Ramanna (probably Arakan) seeking his assistance to defeat the Colas.  Parakrama bahu I (1153-86) had a fight with Arakan. But this was settled amicably and the kings who came after him, kept in touch with Burma.

 Vijayabahu II (1186-7) wrote a letter in Pali to the Burmese king and also signed a treaty of friendship.  Nissanka Malla (1187-96) also had friendly relations with Burma.  In Burma, king Narathu poisoned the heir to the throne. The Sangharaja of Burma, Ven Panthagu left Myanmar in disgust and lived in Sri Lanka for six years from 1167.

There were marriage connections too. Luce (1969) said that rulers of south East Asian countries were eager to get consorts from Sri Lanka. Mahavamsa mentions a ship carrying a Sinhala princess to Cambodia, during the time of Parakrama bahu I (1123–1186). King Dharanindravarman II had asked for a bride for his son Jayavarman VII. Dharanindravarman was Buddhist. According to Glass Palace Chronicle, Burmese king Alaungsitthu (1112-1167) had visited Sri Lanka, married the Sri Lanka king’s daughter and returned to Burma. 

It could be mentioned here, that during Portuguese rule, the Indonesian kingdom of Aceh had sent an embassy, asking king Dharmapala for a Sinhala princess as a bride. The Udarata kingdom, hearing this had told   Aceh that Dharmapala had no such princess, but Udarata could supply one.

The medieval period started with Sri Lanka seeking assistance from Southeast Asia. .Vijayabahu I wrote to Burma in 1071, asking for learned monks to restore the Sangha. 20 senior Burmese monks arrived and the Upasampada was re-established. Inscriptions have spoken of arrival of monks from Ramanna, (Thaton) and the purification of the Sangha, but indicate that Sri Lanka   considered it to be ‘our own upasampada’ which was now returning.

Following this, there was a revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the 12 century. This led to the rise of several active centers of Buddhist scholarship in Sri Lanka that attracted young monks from Southeast Asia. The visiting monks were taught the Theravada Buddhism of the Mahavihara (Skilling, 1996).  Mahavihara emphasized the study of Pali and knowledge of the   Vinaya. The training included a study of Sumangalavilasini, Papancasudani, Saratthappakasini, Manorathapurani, also Bodhivamsa and Samantapasadika, said R.A.L.H Gunawardana.

An important feature of this transfer of Sinhala Buddhism was the transfer of the vana vasi (forest dwelling) tradition to Southeast Asia, said Gunawardana. The forest dwelling monks, led by bhikkhus of the Udumbaragiri fraternity had played a leading role in the Sangha reform movement in Sri Lanka. These bhikkhus were also among the most reputed Buddhist scholars of the time. They    participated in the transfer of Sinhala Buddhism to Southeast Asia.

In 1424, for instance, a ceremony of higher ordination was held in Sri Lanka for a group of South east Asian monks who had studied under Vanaratana, of the forest dwelling sect. 28 were from Chiang Mai, 8 from Cambodia, 6 from Burma.  These monks had learned Sinhala and the Sri Lanka style of intonation and recitation of Pali texts.

Dipawamsa and Mahavamsa inspired the tradition of chronicle writing in the entire Southeast Asian region, said Hema Goonetilake.  Mahavamsa became the model for their histories. The vamsa literature influenced Myanmar and Thailand and to a lesser extent, Cambodia and Laos. The Mahavamsa virtually became a household text in the entire region.

The Mahasammata vamsa, the oldest extant chronicle of Burma has been modeled on the Mahavamsa.  The ‘Sasana vamsa’ , the Lanna chronicles and other chronicles written in Thailand followed the Mahavamsa model. Prabang chronicle and the Wat Keo inscription of Laos were also in the vamsa tradition.

Historians have found that Buddhism did not go  from Sri Lanka  to South East Asia in  a map-like order, Burma first, then Thailand, then Cambodia and so on.  Instead, Sinhala Buddhism has gone direct to Cambodia from Sri Lanka. It went to Thailand and Laos from Cambodia. Cambodia was the most powerful state in the region at the time and many of the Pali texts found in South East Asia were in Khmer script. Cambodia  also showed a sense of mission. Tamalinda, son of Jayavarman VII of Cambodia had gone to Sri Lanka with Thai monks, studied there for 10 years, came back and then went to Burma and promoted Buddhism there. Therefore this essay looks first at Cambodia.

CAMBODIA

Cambodia and Sri Lanka have been in touch from the 6th century, at least.  In 505 AD a Pali text of the Abhayagiri vihara, Vimuttimagga, was translated into Chinese by Sanghabadra, a monk from Funan (Cambodia).

Records indicate that Sinhala bhikkhus arrived at Angkor from Ligor in Thailand, in time of King Jayavarman VII (1181 – 1218). They established the Sinhala Lankavamsa ordination. This Lankavamsa ordination then spread into Thailand and Laos. The stone stupa in the Prasat Phra Khan temple built by Jayavarman VII  showed the influence of Kiri vehera.

By the 14 century Sri Lanka monks had become advisors to Cambodian kings . A 15th century Cambodian inscription refers to a monk named Lanka Sriyasa. He taught the Dhamma to the royal princes. He also did much to popularize Buddhism.  When King Po Hea Yat founded the capital Phnom Penh in 1422,  all five temples built in Phnom Penh were headed by Sinhala monks. Wat Lanka was designated the principle library in the country. the Tripitaka was taught there by Sri Lanka monks.

LAOS

Laos became an independent state when the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang was established in 1353. Before that Laos was part of the Khmer empire.  Sometime in the 1330s, the heir apparent to Laos, was exiled to Cambodia, with his son, Fa Ngum   Fa Ngum was looked after by the Cambodian king, Jayavarman Paramesvara, who gave his daughter in marriage to him in 1332.  Fa Ngum (1353 – 1372) then returned to Laos, united the various Laos provinces  and declared himself king. 

His queen wanted Buddhism introduced to Laos.  Her father, the Cambodian king sent a mission. The mission included 20 Buddhist monks and   four groups of artisans, skilled in painting, writing and casting images. Phra Maha Pasaman, a Cambodian monk and Mahadeva Lanka, a Sinhala monk, were the leaders of the delegation.  

The delegation included three Sinhala monks, Mahadeva Lanka, Mahadeva ….. and Mahadeva Nandipanna. Mahadeva Lanka was given a long Lao name, Phru Silavavisuddha  Uttamacarinanavisesa Viseyyateyapidok Pavartep Lanka, abbreviated to Phra Maha Tep Lanka  and made chief monk of Wat Keo, a temple specially built for this team  by  the king.  Mahadeva Lanka later became the monk advisor for Fa Ngum and the first Sangharaja of Laos.

the  second Sinhala monk was  made chief monk of  Wat Xien Kan, and was also given a long Lao name, Mahasanghasena Sasanabhiromm Uttamusami Silavisesa Tep Lanka, shortened to Phra Tep Lanka and was made chief monk of Wat Xien Kan. The third monk was   given the Lao name Maha  Nandipanna.

Wat Keo inscription  says that on the arrival of the Cambodian mission, a monastic complex was  established, with a Bodhi tree, Vihara, ceti and residential quarters. The  Bodhi  was from a sprout of the Sri Maha Bodhi and the vihara was known as Wat Po Lanka ( Lanka Bodhi Vihara)

When the  Cambodian king  sent  the mission to Laos, he  also sent his proudest possession, the Buddha image Prabang” with miraculous powers. According to the ‘Prabang Chronicle’, this image was cast in 874 AD in Sri Lanka , by Culanaga thera , at the  request of the   Cambodian king. It was sent as a gift from Vijayabahu I. The statue was    83 cm in height, standing  in abhaya mudra and had  been made from an alloy of gold, silver, copper and brass.   This  statue was treated as   the symbol of the right to rule Laos.  It was kept in the capital city and the capital was named Luang Prabang.

Fa Ngum’s son, Sam Saun Tai ( 1373-1416)  also built temples and founded monastic schools for the study of Buddhism. He  elevated Maha Tep Lanka  and Maha Pasaman to the  rank of Sangharaja. By the end of his reign, Luang Prabang city had won recognition as one of the most important centers of Buddhist teaching in the region. Lao chronicles specifically state that it was the Sinhala form of Buddhism that was introduced to Laos. ( continued)

One Response to “MEDIEVAL SRI LANKA AND THERAVADA BUDDHISM IN SOUTHEAST ASIA Pt 1”

  1. Nimal Says:

    We must be mindful about pointing any division in the teaching of Lord Buddha as it could be used to cause mischief among Budhists,just as among the Christians and Muslims. Buddha only brought one religion or faith.

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