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Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Maha Sangha’s role in preserving Buddhism

The Maha Sangha’s role in preserving Buddhism

(By Priyanga Kumari Jayakody)

The following is an analysis of the importance of the Maha Sangha in the advent of Arahat Mahinda by Ven. Lenadora Soratha Thera, the Assistant Director of Education, Pallepola Educational Zone.
Afghanistan is a country rich with Buddha statues but the inhabitants of Afghanistan are not Buddhists. This is because the country did not have a group of persons to protect and preserve Buddhism. If there were, the massive destruction of Buddha statues in that country would not have taken place. From that point of view, the importance of the presence of Maha Sangha can be easily determined. The presence of the Sangha Saasana is a sin qua non to foster, protect, and preserve a sublime philosophy like Buddhism, meant for the eternal welfare of the mankind.

Arahat Mahinda’s visit and Sanga Saasana

The Sangha Saasana is the legacy bestowed upon the Sri Lankan society through Arahat Mahinda. According to the chronicles like Mahawansa, Deepawansa and Samantha Paasadika, Arahat Mahinda’s arrival marked the dawn of understanding of Buddhism in its correct perspective in Sri Lanka. It cannot be connoted that the pre-Mahinda period was a dark era in this country. If that were the case, the arrival of Arahat Mahinda cannot bear so much significance. Nevertheless, our chroniclers have not attempted to illustrate that Buddhism existed in Sri Lanka even before the arrival of Arahat Mahinda. If they have done so, his arrival would not have been of much importance. It is a fact that Sri Lankans had the fortune of enjoying just a touch of Buddhism before Mahinda visited this country.
For instance, we have the story of Gauthama Buddha visiting Mahiyangana, Nagadeepa and Kelaniya during his lifetime. Since Buddha delivered sermons during those visits, we cannot avoid the conclusion that there were descendents of those who knew Buddhism.
The next conclusion is that the Sri Lankans in the pre-Mahinda period had heard about Gauthama Buddha.

The Girihadu Seya

In addition, we have the story of the two Sri Lankan traders, brothers, Thapassu and Bhalluka meeting Gauthama Buddha at the expiry of the seventh week of his enlightenment. On that occasion, Buddha gave the two brothers relics of hair from his head which they brought to Sri Lanka and enshrined in a dagoba they built at Trincomale. His dagoba was named Girihadu Seya, which is supposed to be the first ever dagoba built in this island. This story is testimony to the fact that Buddha was known to the people of this country for a long period - before the days of Mahinda.

Vijaya, the protector

The arrival of Prince Vijaya in the island with his entourage is related to a deity, Upul(Sri Vishnu), who decreed that Prince Vijaya should provide protection to the island because this was the land where Buddha’s teachings were predestined to flourish. This incident points to the fact that Prince Vijaya and his followers knew Gauthama Buddha. There is no reason to contradict an argument that they did not carry the message of Buddha to be propagated among the inhabitants of this land. Similarly, the fact that princess Badrakachchayan and her followers arrived in the island disguised as Buddhist nuns indicates that the Buddhist clergy was respected in this land from ancient times.
The friendship between Emperor Dharmashoka of India and King Devanampiyatissa in Sri Lanka is another indication of Sri Lanka being familiar with Buddhism before the arrival of Arhat Mahinda. The message of the Buddha Dhamma brought here did not take much time to gain ground in Sri Lanka. Emperor Dharmashoka’s mission in the propagation of the Dhamma was not confined to Sri Lanka alone. He sent emissaries to many other countries too. But Buddhism did not flourish in those countries. Arahat Mahinda in his first encounter with King Devanampiyatissa introduced himself as, ‘Samanamayam Maharaja Dahamma Rajassa Saavaka’ meaning, ‘O’King, I am a disciple of the King of Dhamma. This presupposes that King ’Tissa had forehand knowledge of the emissary.

Buddhism before Mahinda

There is no solid example of the presence of the Buddha Dhamma in Sri Lanka because there was no Sangha Saasana in Sri Lanka before the arrival of Mahinda. It was after his arrival that a Sangha Saasana came into existence and Buddhism became the state religion of the country. However much there could have been archaeological ruins to support the fact that Buddhism was present in Sri Lanka during the pre-Mahinda period, in the absence of a Sangha Saasana such ‘proof’ does not impress the people. This situation is like the existence of a temple without a priest. A parallel situation was observed in Afghanistan.

It was the Buddhist clergy that took the message of Buddha among the public. The clergy is the golden thread that runs through the tapestry of society.
After Mahinda, the establishment of a Buddhist clergy marked the beginning of a new culture, a new way of life and the observance of precepts including poya sil in our country.
In short, it brought about a renaissance encompassing the entire social fabric so dynamic that it became instrumental in establishing an intellectual and peaceful society moulded according to the teachings of Buddha. This was the feat of the Mahasangha Saasana which emerged consequent to Mahinda’s visit here.

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