Buddhist education in Sri Lanka

By Shanti Nandana Wijesinghe, The Ntaion, May 30, 2015

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The rich and sophisticated history of Sri Lanka spanning an approximation of 2,500 years owes much of its origin to Buddhism. Though the country’s indigenous history dates back much further, it is commonly and persuasively argued that the ascent to a well organized and spiritually informed life in the island was marked with the introduction of Buddhism in the 3rd century B.C.E.

During its very lengthy life span in the island, Buddhism has successfully penetrated all aspects of civil life as well as the highest levels of the state machinery. This huge presence is strongly felt by anyone experiencing the Sri Lankan life even briefly.

The connection between religion, culture, language, and education and their combined influence on national identity have been an age-old pervasive force for the Sinhalese Buddhists. Devanampiya Tissa employed Asoka’s strategy of merging the political state with Buddhism, supporting Buddhist institutions from the state’s coffers, and locating temples close to the royal palace for greater control. With such patronage, Buddhism was positioned to evolve as the highest ethical and philosophical expression of Sinhalese culture and civilization. Buddhism appealed directly to the masses, leading to the growth of a collective Sinhalese cultural consciousness.

Having become the mainstream religion in the country Buddhism today commands a uniquely prestigious position under state patronage. The continued sustenance and proliferation of Buddhism, however, does not so much reflect this sovereign might as it does the extensive degree to which the religion has been able to reach out to the common man.

What has contributed to establish and enhance Buddhism’s popular appeal? Definitely, the essence of the religion effectively discourages all racial, caste, and religious boundaries essentially as constructions of the mind and thus undermines any hierarchy that differentiates between one man and another. However, seeing as this is the core of the religion that can be experienced only from the most refined states of the mind, it is plausible to think that another – more mundane – functional aspect attracted followers to the religion in thousands. A historical scrutiny sheds light on the fact that the educational role of Buddhism has been fulfilling the duty of transmitting its core message to the society in mundane terms.

The resultant intellectual dimension of the religion was instrumental not only in the wide dispersal of Buddhist teachings, but also in facilitating strong social cohesion among all ethnicities through prescribing the ideal moral life that characterized the peaceful and prosperous pre-colonial Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Buddhist education and the evident popularity it enjoyed in the ancient world is as much a reflection of the invaluable core message of Buddhism as it is of the indiscriminate cerebral heritage that was bequeathed to scholars coming from every imaginable background. As such, the inclusive Buddhist academia in pre-colonial Sri Lanka throbbed with the vibrant intellectuality of thousands of diverse bright minds, thus rendering the island an international hub of knowledge production.

The Buddhist clergy, needless to say, played a decisive role in elevating both Buddhism and Sri Lanka to this level. As direct beholders of Buddhist wisdom, they were naturally expected to be the chief carriers of it and as such held many of the teaching ranks in ancient Buddhist universities in Sri Lanka. Indeed, the profession with which Buddhist monks have been identified since the inception of the Buddhist order is teaching because it was the main channel through which Buddhism was passed down. Oral preservation of Buddhist teachings gradually transformed into written preservation, and throughout the process elderly monks fulfilled the duty of educating their succeeding generations through engaging them in constant familiarization and practice.

The study of the role of Buddhist monks in the education system of Sri Lanka is important because it provides valuable insights into the historical evolution of the role of Buddhist monks, their ability to shape public opinion for years to come, and by extension their role in the peace process of Sri Lanka. Towards this end, it is important to first acquire an understanding of the history of Buddhist education in Sri Lanka.

The exact instance of the introduction of Buddhism in itself modeled a classroom situation where Mahinda Thera – son of emperor Asoka and an Enlightened One (arahat) – questioned King Tissa, the then ruler of Sri Lanka upon their first encounter in a forest situated in close proximity to the capital city of Anuradhapura. The celebrated dialogue was designed to gauge the intellectual capacity of the King, and when he satisfied the condition with his sharp answers the arahat deemed it suitable to pass down Buddhist wisdom to him. The King promptly entered the enlightened path, became a devout patron of the religion, and introduced it to the country.

The collective destiny of Sri Lanka underwent a decisive and dramatic change with this momentous occurrence. Not only religion, but also other aspects of culture like aesthetics, social stratification, literature, and even statecraft were affected in equal measure. As stated previously, education was the channel through which all information relevant to particular fields was communicated, molding artists, poets, historians, and kings for the future.

Arahat Mahinda’s arrival marked the establishment of the first formal institute of education in Sri Lanka – Mahavihara. The credentials of this university were so impressive that eminent scholars like Fa-Hien of China and Buddhagosa of India (themselves Buddhist monks) sought academic interaction with it. The fame of the Sri Lankan education system apparently reached even the northern extremity of India (including present day Pakistan and Afghanistan) since Gira Sandesaya – a local historical text – records that Brahmins from those parts of India came to Vijayaba Pirivena, another prominent education institute in the country.

The ascent of King Valagamba to the throne around 89 B.C.E. and the subsequent construction and dedication of the Abhayagiri monastery to the Buddhist monk Kupikkala Maha Tissa as a token of gratitude for providing refuge to the King during his exile marked the first split in the Sri Lankan Buddhist education system as well as in the Buddhist tradition as a whole. Mahavihara opposed the move on the grounds that it was unethical for a Buddhist monk to accept personal gifts from laymen. The monk, along with five hundred of his students, was expelled from the Mahavihara and opted to stay at Abhayagiri under royal patronage. A split in theory occurred upon the arrival of some Vajjiputtaka monks from India whose ideas, despite their contrast with the locally accepted Buddhist tradition, were warmly embraced by Abhayagiri monks.

Having being rejected by the Mahavihara, the new sect identified itself as the Dhammaruci sect. Roughly two centuries later Abhayagiri monks were yet again influenced by a new interpretation of Buddhism called Vaitulyavaada. The emerging faction steadily gained power and was able to influence Mahaasena, the then king. With royal favor dipping in the direction of the new sect, Mahavihaara was nearly crippled with its members attacked and killed. King Mahaasena built and dedicated another monastery to a monk named Tissa, thus galvanizing the movement. However, a great Indian monk named Jotipaala successfully proved the invalidity of the new branch during the reign of King Aggabodhi I, which effectively restored the Mahavihaara to its pristine position.

Gradually, the three institutes merged to create a dynamic academic environment and the indiscriminate dissemination of knowledge attracted international scholars to the island. The quality and scope of educational institutes in the imperial capital of Anuradhapura increased dramatically to accommodate the rising inward flow of scholarship. The Buddhist educational history thus started has continued to date, albeit with major alterations along its course.

Today, Sri Lanka accommodates many universities that are either entirely monastic in their outlook, or have roots that have overwhelming Buddhist monastic connotations. For instance the Buddha Shravaka Bhikshu University in Mihintale and the Pali and Buddhist Studies University in Colombo are dedicated to monk scholarship, while the University of Kelaniya and the University of Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte were previously monastic universities that now accommodate education facilities for lay students.

The role played by Buddhist monks in these institutions is significant in that they are not only fulfilling their historic role as teachers, but are also being crucial tools of public opinion by influencing and shaping young minds regarding both political and non-political issues. A study was conducted to evaluate the stances of these teacher monks regarding the role of education in the peace process in Sri Lanka because their commanding position in the country directly affects the peace process and also the minds trained under them.
Buddhist Respondents of the study assumed varying positions. Some respondents believed that education could be used as a medium of promoting inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony.

Education must be used to create good attitudes among the people. Respondent 01, Non-war zone, 28 years old, fifteen years of education.
Because we don’t respect each other, there are many problems. If we can learn the cultures and religions of others we can build positive relations and good will among different races. That’s where education is important.

Respondent 59, War zone,22 years old, sixteen years of education.
This issue (the ethnic problem) can be addressed by improving the mentality of young people. Teaching can be used to do this. A good message can be transmitted through education. Yet others proposed reforms in the existing educational structure to address the ethnic problem.

Respondent 104, Non-war zone, 23 years old, twelve years of education.
Both Sinhala and Tamil people must learn both languages. There is a lack of Tamil teachers. So those who work in Tamil areas must be taught the Tamil language. At the national level there should be a long term educational policy that gives priority to solve this problem.

Respondent 02, Non-war zone, 55 years old, seventeen years of education
If we made the effort to learn Tamil instead of English there would be fewer problems. We should not give education in such a way that Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils are segmented. There should be educational reforms that make learning the Bible, Koran and Buddhist Thripitaka mandatory.

Respondent 93, Non-war zone, 39 years old, twenty years of education
We must facilitate revolutionary thinking among school children. The school system must be changed so that students of different races can learn together. Otherwise in different racial schools students are taught different notions of races other than their own, which leads to hostile attitudes or unfamiliarity between races.

The above responses indicate that there is a strong call for education to be a medium of promoting harmony. This notion is indeed consistent with the core teachings of Buddhism. Being a philosophy that emphasizes on non-violence and universal loving-kindness, Buddhism has consistently endorsed harmonious interaction between individuals.

However, respondents who believed that education must be used to assert racial and religious majoritarianism were also present.

Respondent 109, Non-war zone, 23 years old, fourteen years of education
If we are residents of England we need to learn English. That means we learn the language of the majority. That is the problem in Sri Lanka. So from childhood, Tamil children must be taught Sinhala.

Respondent 21: Moratuwe Mahanama Thero
It should be clearly taught that there are differences between Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils. Though both speak Tamil, Indians are different from Sri Lankan Tamils. By teaching this reality, the Sri Lankan Tamils led by the LTTE can be isolated from India. Also when we go to England, we cannot say that others must learn Sinhala, we need to speak English. Therefore Tamil people must learn Sinhala. Next, formal theoretical education must be limited. Some practical professional education must be given to them. Also there should be a political university in Sri Lanka to train politicians.

Respondent 103: Madapatha Dharmadasa Thero.
If Buddhism is spread in the North and East, this problem can be solved. But our monks cannot preach sermons in Tamil. There is a language problem in the North and East.


Crucial as they are to the country’s peace process, it is pivotal that Buddhist monks, especially those engaged in the profession of teaching, condition their mindsets to accommodate more tolerant views on the ethnic problem. The fact that more respondents have demonstrated interest in engineering a solution that would satisfy all ethnicities is a promising signal in this regard.

The deep penetration of education into all tiers of society implies that whatever decision taken with regard to it will have an extensive impact on the whole society. The combined influence of education and the Buddhist clergy, then, is obviously very decisive.

Therefore it would not be a terrible exaggeration to say that the course of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process can be altered fatefully depending on the path of the island’s education and Buddhist monks. Hence it is the responsibility of the latter to reform the former such that the nation’s youth will be able to entertain and celebrate the beauty of diversity at all times.

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