The message of Mahinda Thera to Sri Lanka

The Message of Arahant Mahinda to Sri Lanka

Ven. Professor Dhammavihari Thera

Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa

Loving thoughts of good will and friendship to all our listeners. This is the full moon day of the month of June, i.e. the Poson Poya day. Any amongst us Sri Lankans who have a reasonable sense of pride in their heads about their cultural heritage of more than two and half millennia in this land, should, on a day like this, recollect the historical situation in Sri Lanka prior to the arrival of Buddhism in this country.

Even more important than that is to assess and assimilate the advances in the different phases of human culture that Sri Lanka has gone through as a result of this revolutionizing impact that Buddhism had on this newly emerging Sri Lankan community, calling them and the land in which they lived collectively, Sinhalas [as did Fa Hsien, the Chinese traveler monk of the 5th century A.D.] or calling them Helas or whatever else you like as you do now, to be in harmony with the foot-lights on the contemporary stage.

You are well aware that there is now a new breed called the rewriters of ancient history, in Sri Lanka as well as elsewhere, who are no more than political propagandists and vociferous blocks of global cheer crowds, who could be rounded up with promises of cheap bargains. In my sermon today, I wish to speak to those who like to be enlightened on some of these issues of Buddhism and Sri Lanka.

The message of Thera Mahinda turns out to be, measuring by any standards, the most fortunate gift we Sri Lankans received a little over two thousand three hundred years ago. At that time, during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa, were we Sri Lankans so very highly cultured, or let me put the question differently, not cultured enough, that our pre-Buddhist king of Anuradhapura took to deer hunting as a royal sport, as some of the big ones in the western world did almost until the other day? King Tissa was a gentleman of deep convictions, but a somewhat spoilt one. Nevertheless, within three days of meeting Thera Mahinda [and resulting from his associations with his unseen good friend Emperor Asoka of India], Tissa pledged to govern the country, submitting himself to the good counsel of governance of the Buddha [sambuddhanaya anto ‘ham vasissami jutindhara – Mhv. XV. vv. 182 ff.]. There was neither pressure nor persuasion on him at that time from anywhere, via religion, political authority or ethnic dominance. His cultural identity was unassailable. Luck would have it; his friendship with Asoka was not a stop-gap alliance.

The arrival of Thera Mahinda in Sri Lanka, with the Asokan gift of Buddhism, marked a turning point in our history. And in world history too. Within a couple of centuries thereafter, we were turned away from hunting, both as a sport as well as a venue for gluttonous eating. Forget not that pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka at the time even had a God-of-the-Hunt or Vyadha – deva whose abode was a palm tree or Tala – rukkha.

It was by royal decree, a few centuries later, that with the maghata proclamation, or the ban on slaughter of animals, security to life of bird and beast and fish in this country was introduced. Our indebtedness as a country or as a nation to the source of this inspiration has to remain incalculable and unassailable for all times. Cultured under the civilizing force of Buddhism, and following this tradition of just kingship, kings of Sri Lanka like Amandagamani, Silakala, Aggabodhi IV and Mahinda III ordered that no animals should be slaughtered [Ma ghatam karayi dipe sabbesam yeva paninam. Mhv. 41. v. 30].

Those exemplary rulers set up veterinary hospitals for the treatment of sick animals. Sanctuaries for animals, including safe pools for fish in rivers and lakes, became a common sight in the land. Certainly there were no shameless state sponsored inland fisheries for the gluttons and the ingenious money spinning business tycoons whom the state and the religious leaders had to patronize. But behold the world today. After more than twenty-three centuries, re-writing of history to serve contemporary needs of religion, politics and ethnicity is seen to be having its disastrous consequences on human life, both here in our native land and elsewhere.

This message of peace of Buddhism is indeed what the whole world today is looking up to, conscious or unconscious of the process of doing so. It is the message of Sakyamuni the Buddha, given to mankind as a whole, with no thoughts of chosen or selected people, of any land or any race. This is what earns for Buddhism in this millennium, its honored title of Fastest Spreading Religion in many parts of the world. At the time it was delivered by the Buddha in the Indo-Gangetic valley in Asia, it was by no means meant to be Indo centric.

Within a very short time, overriding barriers of ethnicity and physical terrain, it reached as far west as the Caspian Sea, over today’s warring regions of the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iran etc. In the north, it traversed over deserts along the ancient Silk Route, north and south of the Gobi desert, reaching China as early as 50 A. D. China, Korea and Japan came under its benign influence, reflecting to the world even today, their cultural enrichment under the guidance and inspiration of Buddhism. Think of Japan’s ike bana or the art of flower arrangement of world-wide fame, or its rich heritage of landscape gardening, the tea ceremony etc. etc.

In the message of Buddhism, the world shall find comfort today in the face of threats of violence and disaster both at social and domestic levels, prompted by ethno-religious fanaticism. It is equally true of rape and brutal murders set in motion by multi- pronged sex excitement, in every segment of the world. The story is not very different with regard to pathetic devastation today of mankind, at all ages, resulting from Aids, HIV, and STD or sexually transmitted diseases resulting from moral licentiousness, facilitated by different culture levels of the world today.

The much debated problems of abortion, fatherless homes and unmarried mothers, witnessed with lamentable complacency all around us, here and everywhere, could very well be kept at a low ebb, only if sanity prevailed and the words of the Buddha were adequately heeded. Global seminars seem to bring very little sanity into these areas, when there is very clear evidence that the misdeeds of these agents of evil are being protected by high-ups at global levels in the business world. Misguided charity via world scale institutions and the media, and wagon loads of public sympathy generously invoked would hardly touch the fringe.

Delivered to the world more than two and a half millennia ago and to Sri Lanka via Thera Mahinda a few centuries later, the primary concern of Buddhism is the regulation and revitalizing of interpersonal relationships within the human community. Nay even with the plant and animal worlds, including also the biota and the ecosystems. That is where Buddhist religious living well and truly begins. This is why all Buddhist activities, not merely the rituals and ceremonies within and without the temples, which include pujas of all types, to the living and the dead, to the animate and inanimate, begin with the voluntary acceptance and the pledge to keep and fulfil the basic code of pancasila.

Precepts of pancasila embody some of the fundamental human rights of respect for life and respect for property and a great deal more. Read no more and no less than verses 246 and 247 of the Dhammapada to discover the dynamism of this Buddhist approach to social problems. Answers to these do not lie in prayers to or supplication of forces outside man for favors or forgiveness. But in the total correction of human attitudes and approaches to the rest of the world in which we live.

The above verses emphatically assert that maladjusted relationships in society lead both to social disruption as well as to personal deterioration and disaster within ourselves, literally digging out the very roots of our existence – mulam khanati attano. Why then not be morally good, O men and women of all ranks? On this area of societal considerations or moral goodness in Buddhism, one only needs to be reminded of a very few basic sermons of the Buddha which he appears to have delivered at a very down-to earth congregational level. One is the Veludvareyya Sutta or the sermon at the Bamboo Gate, preached to the lay community of the Veludvara village [SN.V. 352-6]. The main theme here is moral goodness and consequent social harmony [sama-cariya and dhamma-cariya ]. The main thrust of the Buddha’s argument here is ‘Why not treating society in the same way you would like society to treat you?’ This is called attupanayika-dhamma-paryaya.

The other is the Saleyyaka Sutta wherein the Buddha provides us with an almost perfect legal document with which any Buddhist who wishes to regulate and discipline his life on Buddhist lines could do so without any infringement of the Buddhist rules laid down [MN. I. 285-90]. This sutta discusses in detail the rules relating to the ten offences through thought, word and deed – dasa kumma patina. We would call upon all those interested in the study of moral considerations in Buddhism as a religion to take a close and careful look into these two suttas and see their total implications.

Morality or sila implied therein does not imply a mere negative or exclusively personal purity, unrelated to the world one lives in. Or in relation to the degree of submissiveness one is willing to offer to a divine source we are required to believe to be in existence beyond our world of day to day experience. It is a morality which is integrated to one’s community of all that lives which includes man and bird and beast. It is calculated to achieve, more or less, a cosmic harmony. This and this alone shall be the hope of a changing world today, whether it be the territories of less affluent Asia or the more affluent and equally more devastated areas elsewhere – the so-called industrialized and therefore more developed, in the direction of death and destruction.

In the message delivered in Sri Lanka as far back as twenty-three centuries ago, Thera Mahinda did not lose track of his thesis. With the assistance of the text of the Culahatthipadopama Sutta [MN. I. 175-84], Thera Mahinda placed the Buddha on the highest pedestal he deserves to be on, delineated his greatness as the teacher of gods and men and indicated that his path to salvation led one away from the world of today’s over-exaggerated mundane pleasure of women, wine and song.

Within a few days this was followed by yet another course of Buddhist instruction. We are told that the Petavatthu and Vimanavatthu provided much material for his sermons to his new converts. We are particularly interested in his choice of the Petavatthu. It is no indication, as far as we feel, of the lack of intellectual maturity of his Sri Lankan audiences, men or women, elite or rustic. The Petavatthu is more vibrantly eloquent and more convincingly vehement as a warning that the neglect and disregard of the moral instructions issued in Buddhism for decent and good living here and now, could lead one, in one’s next life, to a total loss of the prestigious human position which one presently enjoys. This is the very realistic sense in which the Buddhist concepts of apaya and niraya or the suffering hells are to be viewed. Today’s new exponents of the Dhamma seem to witness the existence of these apayas within their own physical bodies.

It is our firm conviction that today, with the expansion of scientific knowledge and development of technology, Buddhism is coming to be more and more correctly understood by a vast majority of non-Buddhists all over the world. This is partly because of their own keen search for truth. Fortunately, many of them are not misled by digressing and distorting Sri Lankan neo-exponents, monks and laymen, of Buddhism today. These latter, they all insist on their freedom of speech and expression. Let them have it. Human Rightists everywhere are helplessly driven to concede all these, they themselves have blundered on some of these, sometime, somewhere.

Therefore it is a matter of paramount importance that Buddhists themselves make a keener in-depth study of their own religion. They could not possibly be lured by attractive offers of down to earth make- believe material gains of better health, more wealth and greater success. or even instant Nirvana. Cultic attractions in the garb of religion are becoming extremely menacing all over the world. In Sri Lanka, wonder-workers, both monks and lay persons, playing on the super-natural they can generate, are seen robbing spiritual considerations like parittas of their true worth. Items like medicines and foods are super-charged with paritta chanting for greater efficacy. Parittas are now being equally well used by religious leaders to dispossess their opponents of unacceptable decisions. Religious amalgams and alliances are being made to look more attractive and enticing than cocktails served at the bar. They are amazingly hallucinogenic. The saner world is becoming aware of it, except for feeble and fickle-faith ones who are deeply involved and heavily drugged, even after having seen their disastrous ill effects.

In Sri Lanka today, we feel it is not a day too early to systematically plan and urgently start an honest venture of salvaging this lost treasure of the original message of Buddhism. The Buddha delivered it to the world as an essentially salvation process of enabling samsaric beings to seriously commence an earnest journey of moving towards liberation in Nirvana. It can make any sense only to people who have been told the truths about Samsara. If there are long arrays of not very expensive hotels and motels all along the highways of Samsara, one would ask us, why not spending a few long week-ends en route. Sometimes we are told that morally good loving couples can, if they wish, together book and reserve heavenly mansions while still being here.

But Nirvana reaching is not a goal one necessarily reaches after one’s physical death in this life. Death in any form, whether as ordinary worldlings or as arahants, does not provide the keys to the gates of Nirvana. One takes charge of them while still living, on becoming arahant, as Buddha Gotama himself did at the age of thirty-five. Not on his death at eighty.

This message of Samsara crossing and reaching Nirvana and the way of doing it in earnest seems to have been delivered in Sri Lanka by Thera Mahinda within the first few days of his arrival in the island. There was nobody here at the time to indicate to him to pull his punches or divert him in other directions. Even his elitist audience at the palace which included women like his sister-in-law Anula among others, had also the necessary wisdom to comprehend the whole truth of Samsara to Nirvana. Those women, of yester year, undoubtedly, were qualified to lead the way. They gained the conviction about the truth of samma samkappa or the need to reduce the pursuit of pleasure. Anula, along with five hundred of her friends, decided to renounce the pleasures of the royal household. They moved out of the palace and lived nobly as renunciation-aspirants, awaiting the arrival of Theri Sanghamitta, the illustrious sister of Thera Mahinda. These are the noble historical models for Sri Lankan women, not to forget and not to lose sight of, if they dare venture into the field, to rescue or salvage Buddhism.

The message of Mahinda is good enough to outlive the lifetime of the world. The fountain from which it has been derived needs no revisionist updating. No authorized or unauthorized emissaries ever need descend to earth to revise the original teachings of Buddhism which are declared as the teachings of all time: esa dhammo sanatano. Too many future Buddhas on the horizon can be utterly confusing. No new bulletins ever need to be issued advertising the Buddha way. Therefore on this day of the Poson full moon our very kind admonition to our listeners is Sunatha dharetha caratha dhamme.

Give attention to this teaching. Bear it well in your mind. Live your life in accordance with these for the achievement of your goal.

May all beings be well and happy. May there be peace on earth and goodwill among them

A summary of a talk delivered by Bhante Gunaratana at the 2006 Western Buddhist Monastic Gathering.

One of the seven aparihaniya dhammas (D.N. 16, 1.6) is frequent meeting of the monastic sangha. It is well and auspicious that these yearly gatherings of the diverse Mahasangha are taking place. I am very pleased that the Bhavana Society Forest Monastery has been able to host this year’s event.

There are genuine difficulties in living a monastic life here in the West, wearing our traditional robes, keeping our monastic vows, living in a close proximity to the opposite sex and the other lures and temptations just outside our doors. We must be vigilant and cultivate a lot of restraint, patience and Metta. We do not have to go out and proselytize. By our appearance and lifestyle we are simply reminding people to come and see, the eternal truths of the Dhamma.

Many Westerners are hungry for the true Dhamma. We should not water down the Buddhas teachings in order to make it sound nice to attract larger audiences or disciples. We should not make it into merely some psychological or medical treatment for people to regain their balance in life, to take the edge off the frenzied Western lifestyle. We should keep on teaching the deepest aspects of Sila, Samadhi and Panna, the Paticca-samuppada along with rebirth and Anatta.

Kassapa, just as, gold does not disappear in the world as long as a counterfeit gold has not arisen; but when counterfeit gold arises then the true gold disappears; Just so, the true Dhamma does not disappear in the world so long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma does not arise; but when the counterfeit of the true Dhamma arises then the true Dhammas disappears. (S.N.Part II, 16.13)

This will happen when monks and nuns give up their simple robes and live in Luxurious temples or accommodations in the cities.; when they become infatuated with gains, fame and flattery, and associate too closely with families and opposite sex, when they indiscriminately break the precepts; when they make a living on performing rites and rituals and neglect the practice of meditation.

The wrong grasp of the Dhamma is compared to catching a poisonous snake. (M.N. 22, 10). Does this mean that the Dhamma has poison in it? No, but misunderstanding and misrepresenting the Buddhas Dhammma teachings is like unmindfully grasping the snake’s tail.  The wrong grasp of the Dhamma, being a monk or nun for the wrong reasons, teachings the Dhamma for the wrong reasons ; poisons the mind like the snake’s venom poisons the body. Poisoning of the mind is much more dangerous of lethal. It could last lifetimes, creating many deaths, instead of only one.

The Buddha advises us to fight Mara with weapons of Wisdom and then protect what we have won (concentration, insight, bliss) without being proud or attached to it (Dhp.40). This is like climbing a ladder. When you’ve caught hold of the higher rung you must let go of the lower rung in order to pull yourself up higher. Similarly, you should strive with diligence to let go of the obstructions in order to realize what you’ve not realized, in order to attain what you’ve not yet attained (jhanas, magga and phala) until you reach the final goal, total liberations from suffering, Nibbana.

Those who take the unessential to
be  essential, and the essential to
be unessential,
wandering in the pasture of
wrong thoughts, they fail to
arrive at the essential.
Those who take the essential to be
essential, and the unessential to
be unessential, delighting in the
pasture of right thoughts, they do
arrive at the essential.
(Dhp. 11&12)


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