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The rise of heterodox Buddhism in early Sri Lanka

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe - DN Sat 28 Aug 2004

The Abhayagiri cetiya

Buddhism introduced to Sri Lanka, by the illustrious Maha Mahinda Thera, during the reign of king Devanampiyatissa (307-267 BC), was in its orthodox form, as taught by the Buddha, and contained in the Tripitaka (Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma).

But, the new doctrines and new rules of discipline which were later introduced to the island, were considered as heterodox and reformist in outlook. The upholders of pure Buddhism from the beginning were the Mahaviharavasins in Anuradhapura.

Mahavihara was the oldest and the foremost Buddhist institution in the island, and the headquarters of the Theriya Nikaya (School of Elders), and other temples scattered throughout the country held their allegiance to the Mahavihara.

The doctrine taught by the Buddha, was later arranged by the great Thera Mahakassapa, during the reign of Asoka of India (264-238 BC), and it came to be known as Theravada of the Theriya Nikaya.

King Asoka embraced Buddhism and proclaimed it as the State religion of India, and advocated a policy based on 'Dhamma' (principles of righteousness).

In one of his rock edicts he wrote: "May the Dhamma last as long as my sons and grandsons and the sun and the moon will be, and may the people follow the path of the Dhamma, for happiness in this world and in the other would to be attained".

For nearly 200 years from the establishment of Buddhism in the island, it had an unchequered history and flourished without any disturbances for its peace and progress. However, the period of tranquillity was disturbed during the reign of Valagambahu alias Vattagamani Abhaya (103-77 BC), which happened to be a turning point for the disadvantage for the Theravadins of the Mahavihara.

Disturbances created a division among the Sangha, with the introduction of heretical ideas, which the Mahaviharavasins rejected as unwholesome and injurious to the orthodox teachings of the Buddha.

Abhayagiri vihara in Anuradhapura was the earliest of the most active centre of heterodox Buddhism. King Valagambahu who favoured the heretical Bhikkus, notwithstanding objections by the Mahaviharavasins, founded the Abhayagiri vihara and gifted it to Thera Mahatissa.

The Mahaviharavasins could not go against the wishes of the king, and charged the Thera Mahatissa with a breach of the 'vinaya' (code of discipline for bhikkus), and in frequenting families of laymen (Kulasam-sattha), and imposed on him the punishment of expulsion from the Order (pabbajja-niyakamma).

Since the king, in principle, did not consult the views of the bhikkus of the Mahavihara, before gifting the Abhayagiri vihara to the Thera Mahatissa, it earned for the Thera the chagrin of the Mahaviharavasins.

In the meantime, another Thera Bahalmassutissa (the big-bearded Tissa), a pupil of Thera Mahatissa, residing at the Mahavihara, objected to the accusation levelled against his teacher. As a result, the Mahaviharavasins imposed upon him the act of 'ukkhepaniya' for defying the elders.

Bahalamassutissa was a rebel who lived under the same roof. As conditions proved difficult for his to stay further at the Mahavihara, with 500 followers, he went Abhayagiri vihara and joined his teacher, and formed a separate faction independent of the Mahavihara. This was the first breach of the Sangha and this religious vendetta had its repercussions later.

After sometime, a band of bhikkus from South India came to Sri Lanka and took residence at the Abhayagiri vihara. They brought with them new religious doctrines which exposed heretical views. They were the pupils of the Thera Dhammaruci who belonged to the Vajjiputta sect. He was a native of Pallarama in South India.

Since then, the bhikkus of the Abhayagiri vihara were known as Dhammarucis. This divided the Mahaviharavasins from the Abhayagirivasins into two separate sects upholding different views contrary to orthodox Buddhism. The Abhayagiriya, a cetiya is 345 ft. high with a circumference of 1,355 ft.

Vijjiputtas were those who belonged to the Vajji clan, and they were some of the earliest to join the disciples of the Buddha. In the time of Voharika Tissa (204-226), fresh trouble arose at the Abhayagiri vihara.

Certain Brahmins called Vaitulyas, professing to be Buddhists and wearing yellow robes, began to preach heretical doctrines opposed to the teachings of the Buddha. The Dhammarucians of the Abhayagiri vihara, adopted the Vaitulyan heresy, and proclaimed it as the teachings of the Buddha.

The Mahaviharavasins condemned the Vaitylyan heresy as open to public scandal. The Vaitulyavadins, also known as Mahasunnavadins, held the view that Buddha never lived as a mortal on this earth. It was only his fantasmal form (nimittarupamattakam) that appeared to men.

Vaitulyavada has been identified with Mahayana by the late Prof. Senarath Paranavitana, and adduces considerable information to substantiate his identification. According to him Vaitualya or Vaipulya was one of the commonest names of the texts of the Mahayanists. During the reign of Gotabhaya (249-263) saw the rise of still another sect.

This was the result of a secession, when the Abhayagirivasins, fearing the repetition of the tragic situation, that arose during the reign of Voharika Tissa, owing to the activities of the Vaitulyavadins, left Abhagiri vihara and went to Dakkhinagiri vihara.

Their leader was Thera Useiliya Tissa, who fell under the spell of another Thera Sagala, all of whom held heterodox views. The Sagaliya sect took shelter at the Dakkhinagiri vihara.

While king Voharika Tissa was busying himself over these matters, all was not well with his own household. His queen had been for some time in terms of improper intimacy with the king's younger brother, prince Abhaya Naga, and one day the secret was detected.

Fearing king's wrath, the prince fled the capital and went to Bhallatittha in the North and took ship to India. There he met with a Cholian Thera named Sangamitta, who was very much moved by his privation.

Thera Sangamitta, pledged to convert the Mahaviharavasins to Vaitulyavada, or in the event of his failure, to destroy the Mahavihara, but he could not achieve his objective easily, because Mahaviharavasins were equally steadfast in their religious convictions, for which they were even ready to sacrifice their lives. Now Sangamitta resorted to another course of action.

On the death of Jettha Tissa, his brother Mahasena ascended the throne, and Sangamitta having taken his abode at the Abhayagiri vihara, persuaded the bhikkus of the orthodox viharas to adopt the Vaitulyan doctrine. But it proved futile.

He now complained to king Mahasena that the bhikkus of the Mahavihara do not teach the true doctrine, and thus he condemned the Theriya bhikkus. Then followed a series of events which formed the darkest chapter in the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

"Whoever gives food to a bhikku dwelling in the Mahavihara is liable to a fine of a hundred pieces of money" was the burden of a Royal edict proclaimed by the king and none had the courage to disobey. For these bhikkus none offered alms and they returned with empty bowls.

On the fourth day, the Theriya Nikaya bhikkus assembled in large numbers at the Lova Maha Paya (the Brazen Palace), and expressed themselves thus: "Even though we starve, we cannot say that heresy is true doctrine.

Should we say so, many others would follow us and go to perdition, and guilt would be upon us. So, even if our lives and asceticism be imperilled, we shall refuse to adopt the Vaitulya doctrine".

The Theriya bhikkus left Anuradhapura and settled down in Rohana, to await the day of their deliverance from further persecution. This was what Sangamitta wanted. Now Sangamitta with his co-adjutor Sona carried out their ruthless campaign to demolish and de-spoil the buildings occupied by the Theriya bhikkus.

The first to fall was Mahavihara. Some 364 educational institutions and great temples were destroyed and their sites ploughed and sown with 'undu' or orid-gram (Phaseolus radiatus). Abhayagiri vihara stood pre-eminent over all as the greatest and wealthiest monastery in the island.

Within the ancient boundaries of the Mahavihara in Jotivana (Nandana Park), king Mahasena soon began to construct a stately vihara for his friend, the Maha Thera Kohontissa.

Acting on the advice of the ever-mischievous Abhayagirivasins, who had more in common with the Sagaliya sect than with the Mahavihara bhikkus, the king took steps to build the Jetavana vihara, without encroaching upon the Mahavihara, in the 12th year of his reign (287), which was also known as Dena vehera or Dena Naka.

One may draw attention to the important fact that throughout the periods of heterodox activity in the island always synchronised with periods of important developments in Mahayanism in India due to Asanga and Vasubhandu, the incomparable duo given to heretical views.