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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Ven. Welivita Saranankara Thera and revival of Upasampada

Ven. Welivita Saranankara Thera and revival of Upasampada

By Cecil Jayasinghe

The Esala month is sacred to the Buddhists and the Sangha, in that it was on the Esala Poya Day that the Thathagatha preached the Dhammachakka Pavaththana Sutta to the Five Disciples, Baddhiya, Vappa, Mahanama, Assaji and Kondangna, the First Sanghayanawa and the dispatch of the Sacred Bowl to Sri Lanka or Tunsinhale. It was on July 14 in 1753 that Venerable Saranankara Thera received the Upasampada or Higher Ordination from Siamese Maha Thera Upali and Maha Thera Ariyamuni at Visungama in Kandy.The events that led to the disappearance and the revival of the Upasampada were due to several reasons, mainly on account of internal dissensions within the Buddhist Sangha fraternity and the indifference of the people to uphold or observe the Vinaya -- the sacred rituals and practices of Buddhism. By the dawn of the 17th century, Buddhist practices, discipline and the Vinaya had been neglected. Of special significance was the threat, revolts, disorder, fear and instability of the monarchy and the social pressures exerted by the Portuguese settlers in the maritime areas where the Portuguese held sway. In Europe, Portugal and Spain shared the pre-eminence as the super powers. Marauding Portuguese sailors were pursuing Moor traders in the Asian countries for trading supremacy. The Portuguese and Dutch influence in the Kanda Udarata over the Sinhalese were such that the Sinhalese began to assimilate foreign customs, ways of life, dress and language resulting in a transformation of their local life style. It was inevitable that these alien customs seeped into the Bhikku fraternity as well.

The Portuguese described the native Sinhalese and Buddhists as “heathens” and in the Sangha Fraternity, the concept ‘Ganinnanses’ were often symbolised for the Bhikkus. The Upasampada or the Higher Ordination of the Samaneras who have mastered the Pali and Sanskrit languages, the Vinaya Rules were unknown at the time King Wimaladharmasuriya I ascended the throne. The deterioration of the Vinaya and discipline amidst the raging wars with the Portuguese and the Dutch during the period of the eight kings for 153 years was the primary causes for the instability of the country which directly affected the Sangha. Realising this unhappy situation, King Wimaladharmasuriya despatched a mission to Arakan (or Rakkhanga) seeking the goodwill of the King to send Maha Theras to perform the Upasampada. In accordance with the royal blessings Mahatheras Chandavilasa and Chandivakka led a mission to Sri Lanka. The Upasampada ceremony was performed after a long lapse of years.

The next King Rajasinghe I who ruled for 52 years had to confront the Dutch in major battles in 1630 and 1638 at Gannoruwa and Randiniwela, against renowned Portuguese Generals and the country was so unsettled that the King had no time to give his utmost attention and devotion to religious activities and again deterioration set in. Being aware of the low standards to which the Sangha had fallen to, King Wimaladharmasuriya with the help of local chieftains conversant in Pali, sent another mission to Arakan to invite Preceptor and Teacher Bhikkus to Sri Lanka. Whereupon, Maha Then Sanghaka and Locarage arrived in Kandy and revived the Upasampada at Getambe. This was followed by another mission during the Kingship of King Vijaya Rajasinghe under the leadership of Doranegama Rala to Rakhanga, Siam and Peru, but the ships were wrecked near Peru. Ven. Saranankara was not demoralised on account of the unfortunate situation but persisted that he himself should go to Siam.

The King was not pleased but arranged with the Dutch to supply sea-worthy ships, for by this time the Dutch had become friendly and it was believed that the King had given permission to the Dutch to build a Church in Colombo. Ven. Saranankara Thera persuaded Doranegama Rala and Wilbawegedera to lead the delegation. The mission had been to Batavia and only Wilbawegedera had met the King of Siam and even this mission was unsuccessful. Undaunted by successive failures, Ven. Saranankara Thera was determined to accomplish his mission to bring back erudite Bhikkus to Sri Lanka and revive the Upasampada. He persuaded the new King Kirthisri Rajasinghe, who was of Hindu parentage and married from a Nayakkar family in Tanjore and who acted in pursuance of the wishes of the Sangha and the people, that if he were to rule Sri Lanka, he should become a Buddhist.

King Kirthisri Rajasinghe, aware of the local traditions, followed the visions of King Parakrama Bahu in making Sri Lanka and his kingdom prosperous and also devoted his time in renovating anicuts and ruined vihares, temples, shrines and kovils. Buddhism began to gain ground so much so that he encouraged another successful mission to Siam. Headed by Ellepola Mohottala, Wilbagedera Naide, Pattapola Atapattuwe Mohottala, Eriyagama Muhandiram, Attaliyadde Muhandiram along with 67 persons left Trincomalee on the August 1, 1750 to meet the King of Siam with royal credentials. Although the journey was perilous due to stormy weather conditions, the mission returned to Sri Lanka with Siamese Maha Theras Upali and Ariyamuni. The King and Ven. Saranankara Thera were very pleased and on Esala Poya Day, in the presence of the King, Venerable Saranankara Thera, Kobbekaduwe Unnanse and four other Bhikkus received the Upasampada at Getambe Sima Malakaya. The Siamese Nikaya founded by Ven. Upali and the bhikkus of the Siamese Chapter owe so much to the indomitable efforts of Ven. Saranankara amidst enemies within the court which at one time got an Order for banishment to Laggala, prevented only by Ven. Saranankara Thera’s exemplary character, high standard of Pali, Sanskrit Suttas and the devotion to uphold the Vinaya and scholarship.

Ven. Saranankara Thera began writing Buddhist books such as the Satara Banavara Sannaya, Muniguna Alankaraya, Maha Bodhivamsa Sanna, Rupa Malawa and Pali Sandesa. The Gedige Viharaya at Asgiriya where Upali Maha Thera resided holds the Katina Pinkama yearly. The Gedige Viharaya had been selected as a royal grant by the King of Siam. Ven. Saranankara Thera was conferred the title of Sangharaja of the Siamese Nikaya and thereafter the continuity of Vinaya and Upasampada ceremonies are held annually. Ven. Saranankara Thera passed away in Kandy on Esala Poya Day in 1778 and was cremated at Dalukgolle Temple Cetiya in 1778. The Bhikkus of Sri Lanka and the Buddhists in general owe their respect and devotion on the preservation of the Budda, the Dhamma and the Sangha to Ven. Weliwita Saranankara Sangaraja Thera.

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