Dr. P G Punchihewa on Sinhala Buddhagama


By Gamini Seneviratne

Dr. P. G. Punchihewa’s essay on Sinhala Buddhagama comes at the end of his account of Arahant Mahinda’s legacy to the people of this country, - an island named Sinhale or Lanka. It was from here that the Buddha dhamma, as explained by the Arahant and his associate bhikkus, Ishtiya, Uttiya, Shamkhala and Bhadrashaala, spread eastward to Myanmar, Lao, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Arahanth’s sister, the Theri Sanghamitta was entrusted with the responsibility for conveying a sapling of the Bo tree under which Gautama attained Buddhahood to the King in Anuradhapura. It was planted within the Mahameuna Uyana that he had donated to the Sangha. Known the world over as the Sri Maha Bodhiya in Anuradhapura, devotees gather there all the year round for meditation and prayer. It was such a group of devotees, mostly women, whom the terrorists of the LTTE attacked in May, 1985, killing 120 and injuring 85.

Punchihewa records, too, the role played by Therini Sanghamitta in ‘empowering’ women - to use a term in frequent use today especially in the western media that determine who should rule the world as they see it and how that should be done.

What instruction we children received on the pathways of life included the weekly Daham Paasela at or close by the village temple. Besides guidance at home, generally from their mother, the daham paasela provided pointers towards a life marked by compassion towards all living beings. One of the ‘texts’ used there was the lovaeda sangarava the 15th Century AC instructional poem by the Vidagama Mahathera. (Incidentally, afresh annotation of the poem together with a translation into English by Jinasoma Weerasuriya, the whole edited by Dr. Punchihewa, has been published recently and would serve as a companion to the book under review here, "Anubudu Mihindu Mahimi").

In our childhood we had other ‘teachers’ as well, depending. I do not know how it was with Punchi but I was taught Pali at our village temple in Mattumagala before I was four years old. Things did not proceed as hoped, the oldest of us cousins thought to befit for the sangha taking to medicine, the next to the civil law and I – well, to public administration, coming round through those excursions to the humanities and the social sciences that, together and with much else, seem to straddle ‘religion’.

How close or far those disciplines were/are to Sinhala Buddhism I leave it to you to judge. Reference to matters somewhat close to me are made here also as demonstration that in its history Buddhism has not been treated by the Sinhalese as some exotic kind of worship.

At the daham paasela, usually on the temple premises, occasionally at the village school nearby, we learnt compassion and quietude. At Royal College, a "secular" school (to adopt the much misused current parlance that is value-loaded to obfuscate superstitions put about by the ‘western world’}, we had a reading from a text (the dhammapada, bhagavat gita, bible, koran) twice a week at senior assembly and, at General Assembly each Friday, a talk on one of them by an old boy who could relate those beliefs / injunctions in clear language and hold the attention of10 to 18 year olds for little short of an hour. Such was the "religious instruction" we received at Royal and it served us well. (The school prize for Comparative Religion - which btw I won - was named in memory of S H Mackeen: there was a question on each of the religions mentioned above with three out of four requiring an essay – I wrote on Christianity, Islam and on the Upanishads).

In later years, in the Third Form at Royal, I returned to Pali to escape from "Pol-Thel" Baptist and his lessons in the Geography of Ceylon. And I continued with Pali, taught by a later, senior colleague in the CCS, D M P B Dassanayake, in a failed attempt to dodge K C (Penguin) Fernando, who taught Sinhala Literature - though he was the compiler of an English-Pali Dictionary then in use in schools and pirivenas. (Mr. Fernando had been a classmate of my father at Ananda and felt obliged to be extra-stern in assessing such work as I managed to do: ‘corporal punishment’ was not unusual at that time and, at a rough guess, I received five times the share that, maybe, was due to me). Such were some of the circumstances under which Sinhala buddhagama came to be lodged in our consciousness. Dr. Punchihewa’s is an erudite essay in recounting the history of the Chandragupta - Asoka heritage in the spread of the doctrine developed by Prince Siddhartha Gautama over twenty-five centuries ago. It is informed by a quality of study that has become rare. I myself lack the tools of scholarship needed to evaluate the particularities in his exposition. Dr. Punchihewa has drawn on documentation that range from Lanka / Sinhale to the Asokan rock inscriptions. As for Asokahimself, Punchi quotes H G Wells (whose "Outline of History" paved the way for A J Toynbee’s 12 volume "Study of History"): Wells held that "among the thousands of kings, emperors and savants in human history the name of Asoka glitters like a lone star".

Punchi also recounts the close association that Asoka had with the king of Lanka, Devanampiyatissa. That led to the emperor sending his son, the Arahanth Mahinda, to introduce the Buddha vacana and their import to Lanka’s king. That event and its sequel in being placed within the literary record, over 2000 years ago at Aluvihare, laid the foundation for the unique place of Sinhala Buddhist culture in the history of human society.

The notion (which Punchi quotes) that the stability of buddhagama is somehow related to the country producing a native arahanth is not one that Gautama would have seen any logic in. Be that as it may we did have the Maliyadeva rahathan vahanse, resident initially at Dimbulagala and later at Arankele, not many centuries ago. In the late 1970’s a scholar from northern Europe who was engaged in doctoral studies on mahayana Buddhism was sent to me for assistance in obtaining an extension of his resident visa here. I remarked that Mahayana is practiced mostly in and above the upper reaches of what is referred to as ‘India’ and he should perhaps conduct his researches there. He said he had spent three years in Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet and had been told that in Lanka there was a Theravada bhikku who had reached arahathood: he had come here in the hope of meeting him. The bhikku was named Katukele Seevali and was known to reside in the forest hermitage of Arankele. He was indeed a savant and possessed of a presence that gave support but did not overawe: he died young.

The name of this country has been distorted through the centuries, as often happens to other, much larger, spaces as well, innocently by travelers and not innocently by covetous intruders. Hence, it would seem appropriate in these times of ‘fakery’ on a global scale to provide a word or two on the genesis of the name of this sacred island and, by extension, what "Sinhala buddhagama" behooves. Following the name associated with Prince Vijaya (6thcentury B.C.), this island was known as Tambapanni in the time of Asoka (3rd Century B C) or, in the corrupt version adopted by the Greeks, as Taprobane.

By the 2nd century B C it was known as Heladiva (in old or Elu Sinhala), Sinhaladvipa in Sanskrit and Sihalamin Pali. It was known as Siar-xa-diep in China (2ndcentury A C) and by the 4th century A C as Serendiviin the Roman Empire. Wang-te-Yuan who visited Adam’s Peak in 1330 A C refers to the island as Seng-ka-la. Marco Polo, late 13th century, refers to it as Zeilan. The editor of Polo’s ‘Travels’, Thomas Wright, observes, "The name of this important island is pronounced Selan by the Persians and the people of Hindoostan (who also call it Serendib)". Mahdi Hussain (in his edition of The Rehlat of Ibn Battuta) has it that "Siylan appears to have been connected with Sihalam the Pali name of Sarandip" Nearer in distance and time South Indian records have consistently maintained the identity of the island as Sinhala (e. g., the Ariyur Plates of Virupaksha, 1390 A C), and the Telegu composition Simhala dvipa Kathava (16th century).

The processes by which Buddhism in this island came to acquire its Sinhala-specific character could be traced by observation or in conversation with bhikkus at most viharas and at pirivenas. Pirivenas are centres of learning and also serve as repositories of large collections of palm leaf manuscripts as well as of printed documents of more recent vintage. Am slightly acquainted with the Vidyalankara pirivena, (our maternal great grandfather L Weerasinghe and his senior nephew, D B Jayatilaka, were among its dayakayas), and I had the privilege, when I served as a visiting lecturer there, of guiding its senior academic, the Venerable Kotahena Pannakitti, through Nehru’s "The Discovery of India".

Half a century ago, besides the famous pot gula at Hanguranketha, the Mahamantinda pirivena in Matara and the Ridigama pirivena were home to invaluable libraries mostly of religious texts. I have since learnt that following the LTTE’s terrorist attack on the Dalada Maligawa, officers of the National Archives in Kandy had catalogued the holdings of the Maligawa library – a most praiseworthy action. The Government Archivist, as that office was originally designated, continues to have responsibility for preserving such palm leaf and other manuscripts for the use of scholars –bhikkus as well as ly persons.

Reports of the population of Buddhists in the world suggest that there are over 500 million worldwide. Percentage-wise Myanmar and other East Asian countries have high numbers (in Sri Lanka Buddhists have been put at 2/3rds of the total population). One supposes that Australia showing the highest ‘growth rate’ of Buddhists would excite interest in some quarters.

Persons who have been in one way or another exposed to the practice of Buddhism would have acquired some form of sympathetic understanding of it. At a kind of memorial gathering in honour of Professor S J Tambiah a couple of years ago, his colleague Professor Gananath Obeyesekere said that after his work in Thailand that resulted in his major work, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background’, Tambi had become a crypto-Buddhist. Such a development is not unusual in social anthropology as also among those whose personal experience of a culture has provided insights that go beyond their specialist interests.

The research engineer (he designed the first air balloon that could carry passengers across continents) and novelist, Nevil Shute, went that way. Among anthropologists, I believe the Anglican Gehan Wijewardena too may have been a crypto Buddhist. Gehan carried out his field work in Thailand. He also translated a novel that explicated Thai life into English.

Closer here was Martin Southwold whose studies were in a village off Kurunegala. As he wrote to me some years later, his book ‘Buddhismin Life: The Anthropological Study of Religion and the Sinhalese Practice of Buddhism’ had drawn the ire of some colleagues at his University in Manchester. They had castigated him for becoming ‘a Sinhalese Buddhist’ – a reading he was happy to accept.

So, it would appear that Sinhala Buddhagama has had a way of spreading from here beyond the lands of eastern Asia.

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