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Buddhism in SriLanka



Vesak Poya


The young ascetic Sumedha was committed to achieve the highest spiritual realm, only a few could reach. That day he heard Dipankara Buddha was visiting his town. What he wanted was a definite prophecy that he would be a Buddha in eons to come.

However the place was congested with people and the young man could hardly reflect a way of seeing Dipankara Buddha. When he spotted the muddy road, his mind worked in a different plane.

He requested the Great Teacher and his retinue to walk over him. Dipankara Buddha saw the young man's thought in his divine eye, and knew the youth's wish will materialise in uncountable eons to come.

Dipankara Buddha prophesied ascetic Sumedha would be a Buddha named Gotama in the future. The day Buddha declared the solemn prophecy to his twenty-fourth successor was a Vesak Full Moon Poya day.

Three major events in the Buddha's life

From then Sumedha had been reborn in many existences. He had to complete the 30 Paramitas, perfections. And before his final birth, the Bodhisatva, or Buddha-to-be, was born in Thusitha heaven.

The divine creature inquired five affairs before expiring for the final birth: right time, right area, right continent, right cast and right mother. Then, as any Buddhist knows, the fully mindful divine being entered the womb of Queen Mahamaya. A prince was born on a Vesak Poya day to the Queen and King Suddhana and was named Siddharth, one who has found meaning of existence. The Queen passed away seven days after the prince's birth.

The whiz kid declared the glorious verse, customary for all Buddhas, just after the birth: "I am the chief of the world. There is no equal to me. I am supreme. This is my last birth. No rebirth for me." The teacher worshipped the teacher of the world, and the father worshipped the son.

Siddharth Gotama's life was spent amid royal luxuries until he realised life's true nature. Moments later Prince Siddharth renounced the princely life on a Vesak poya day. Ascetic life was not a simple thing for the prince.

The robed Gotama was trained in various mental skills under many teachers, only to get disillusioned that they do not have the truth he looks for. The right way to achieve the truth dawned on him one day. He directed the mind in the right meditation path. Moments later he reached Enlightenment and conquered the world of sorrows on a Vesak Poya day.

The Conqueror was heading to the city of Kusinara, when he met Pukkusa. Pukkusa listened to the Dhamma and offered the Conqueror two golden robes: one worn by the Blessed One and the other by His assistant Ven. Ananda.

When the Conqueror was robed, his skin became clear dazzling the robe. Ven. Ananda was amazed and the Conqueror declared that the skin of a Buddha will be remarkably bright on two occasions: the night he attains enlightenment and the night he passes away.

80-year old Gotama Buddha then announced his passing away, Parinibbana, would take place on the third watch of the night at Sal grove of Malla royal family, and it happened to be a Vesak poya day.

Buddha visits the land of Nagas

The Buddha visited Sri Lanka on three occasions: first to Mahiyangana in January, second to Nagadipa in April, and third to Kelaniya in May, Vesak.

On the second visit made to Nagadipa, King Maniakkikha invited the Blessed One for a third visit to Kelaniya. And the Blessed One visited Kelaniya three years after his second visit, with 550 Arahants.

However Nishantha Gunawardena, a Sri Lankan historian living in US, mentions an interesting find in his 'The Lost Dynasty'; Buddha was not invited by King Maniakkhika but by a king named Panitha and his daughter princess Abhi Upaliya. Nishantha cites rock inscriptions at Balaharukanda and Bambaragastalawa that corroborate this find.

"...the rock inscriptions are more accurate due to the difficulty in changing or forging them. It was the national King Panitha who invited Gautama Buddha the second time. The regional King Maniakkhika is mentioned in a few other records.

But it was not until the December 2004 tsunami hit, the King reintroduced himself. As the tsunami tore through the island it exposed several rock inscriptions. Two of them bore the name King Maniagiya and his mother's name. This is, in fact, King Maniakkhika." (82pp)

King Maniakhikha is commonly mistaken as a Naga (snake) king, but scholars believe the king belonged to a clan named Naga. Following the Buddha's sermon in Kelaniya, the king erected a shrine with the Buddha's hair, utensils and the seat buried inside. However the foreign invasions have resulted in damaging the original shrine.

The Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara became more sacred following the Ven. Mahinda's arrival in Lanka to establish the Dhamma wheel officially. Mahavamsa, the official chronicle on Sri Lankan history written in the 5th century CE, states King Devanampiyatissa's brother Uttiya renovated the Dagoba along with the first quarters of the Monks, Shrine.

Mahavamsa interestingly relates how the Blessed One headed to Adam's Peak or Sumanakuta from Kelani on the Vesak Poya day. The 7359-ft-tall conical mountain has a historic significance as Buddhists believe it has the Buddha's footprint on it.

The mount is normally known as Adam's Peak for Christians and Shivan Adipatham (Shiva's footprint) for Hindus. The mount obviously has become the meeting place for people of diverse religions and ethnicities.

In Sinhala the mount is known as Sri Pada, a term derived from Sanskrit denoting the Sacred Foot. The Sinhala Samanala Kanda, or Butterfly Mountain in English, is named thus because of the butterflies annually migrating to the region.

Legend has it that the Buddha placed his left footprint on the hill summit and then strode across to Thailand, then Siam. In Siam the Buddha is said to have left the impression of the right foot; this is called Phra Sat, similar to Sri Pada. In his Bharhut Stupa General Sir A. Cunningham has details about footprints: "Footprints of the Buddha were most probably an object of reverence from a very early period - certainly before the building of the Bharut Stupa - as they are represented in two separate sculptures there. In the sculpture the footprints are placed on a throne or altar, canopied by an umbrella hung with garlands.

A royal personage is kneeling before the altar, and reverently touching the footprints with his hands. The second example is in the bas-relief representing the visit of Ajata-satru to Buddha. Here, as in all other Bharut sculptures, the Buddha does not appear in person, his presence being marked by His two footprints.

The wheel symbol is duly marked on both' (112pp). A cave temple called Diva Guhava is recognised as the place the Buddha had a rest during his Sripada Visit along with his retinue. The cave is said to have the capacity to provide shelter for over 500 people.

Siripa samaya, the season of Sripa pilgrimage starts in December and ends in May. "When the Teacher, compassionate to the whole world," goes on Mahavamsa, account of the great clan, "had preached the doctrine there, he rose, the Master, and left the traces of his footsteps plain to sight on Sumanakuta.

And after he had spent the day as it pleased him at the foot of this mountain, with the brotherhood, be set forth for Dighavapi."

Some historians however see the Buddha's visit to Dighavapi far from being likely. As the chronicle states, the Buddha had Himself visited the village and meditated consecrating the place. A shrine was later erected on the place the Blessed One meditated.

Many works including Samantha Pasadika and Dipavamsa contain allusions to Dighavapi.

The works mention the inhabitants of Dighavapi were Yakkas, with links to pre-Aryan Kirat people in Northern India. As a legend goes, while a novice monk was repairing a part of the shrine, he fell from the top. He heard the shouting of his colleagues to recall Dhajagga Paritta, a Sutta reciting the great qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. And finally, it is said, the novice monk was saved miraculously. The area was later reconstructed by King Saddhatissa.

Some sources indicate that the Buddha set foot on Kataragama following the visit to Dighavapi. Legend has it that the Buddha met King Mahasena (some sources identify the king as Mahaghosha) in Kataragama.

The King listened to the Buddha and erected a shrine - now known as Mangala Ceitya - on the place he preached. The place is now called Kiri Vehera, located close to the Hindu temple built by the same King.

According to a source discovered by Nishantha Gunawardena the Mangala Ceitya contains the sword that Prince Siddharth used to cut his hair in renouncing. However, as Nishantha adds, the source is yet to be verified.

Vijaya arrives in Tambapanni

Prince Vijaya's visit to Sri Lanka - then called Tambapanni, an island with golden sand - happened on a Vesak Poya. As commonly known, Vijaya was exiled to Tambapanni because of the dreadful behaviour of him and his associates.

His father, Sinhabahu, had no option other than exiling him, his followers and their families numbering about 700, to the island shaving half of their heads as a sign of disgrace. Vijaya's ancestors came down from the kingdom of Kalinga, known as Orissa to the ancient, and Vanga in Bangladesh and in eastern part of India.

The king of Vanga was married to the daughter of the king of Kalinga, named Suppadevi. Mahavamsa then relates the episode of Suppadevi having a sexual affair with a lion ending up with two children: Sihabahu, lion-arms, and Sihasivali.

The lion had the family life in a cave, covered by a large rock to block any attempt of escapade. But turn of events took a different shape as the lion's family had escaped from the cave, and Sihabahu killing his father with an arrow. Following the patricide, Sihabahu married his sister and formed a kingdom in Sihapura city. The royal couple had a series of twins, of which Vijaya was the eldest.

Rajavaliya, the chronicle on Sri Lankan kings, mentions Vijaya's entourage spotted Adam's Peak and landed in Southern Sri Lanka - the area that later became the Kingdom of Ruhuna. H. Parker, a British historian, however, mentions it is the mouth of Kirindi Oya.

So started Vijayan dynasty, a reign of a King with a positive attitude towards Buddhism, making the path clear for an official introduction during King Devanampiyatissa's reign.

King "Beloved of the Gods" consecrates

King Devenampiyatissa - meaning 'beloved of the gods' - had his second coronation on a Vesak Poya day. Mahavamsa goes on to describe the moment of glory: "Grand miracles occurred during the consecration of King Devanampiya Tissa. Jewels buried in earth rose to the surface, pearls in deep oceans were washed ashore and piled up and bamboo trees started to look like they were made out of silver. King Devanampiya Tissa thought that these pearls and gems should be sent to his great friend, King Dharmashoka of India.

King Dharmashoka and King Devanampiya Tissa were great friends for many years but had never seen each other."

King Dharmashoka by this time was sending Buddhist missionaries to countries around the world. He selected his son Mahinda Thera to be sent to Lanka with the message of Buddhism.

Mahinda Thera and four other theras started out from India to visit Lanka and ended up in "Missaka Pavva" (Mihintale). At this time King Devanampiya Tissa was conducting a deer hunt close to Mihintale.

The god of the mountain wanted to show Mahinda Thera to the King and disguised himself as a deer. King Devanampiya Tissa and his men chased the deer. When the deer came near the mountain where Mahinda Thera was standing, the deer disappeared. King Devanampiya Tissa saw Mahinda Thera standing on the mountain.

Such is the meaningful influence of Vesak Poya day that intermingles the events of both religious and historical significance.


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