Reflections on Poson Poya Day

 

(23.06.2013 – sundayobserver.lk)

Poson marks the great arrival of Arahant Mahinda, son of Emperor Asoka of India, with the Buddha’s teachings to spread in Sri Lanka. It was indeed a momentous event in the history of Lanka. It marked the strengthening of nation building in the island and built up of relationship with India and other countries in the region professing the new teaching of Buddha.

Embracing Buddhism by Devanampiyatissa, the King of Lanka and the people, soon led to a phenomenal progress of the new faith with thousands of Lankans entering the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni orders, to teach and spread the noble message of the Buddha for the wellbeing of the many in the Island. In course of time two other significant events took place in the history of Lanka.

It was the arrival of Sangamitta Maha Therani, the daughter of Asoka Emperor bringing a Bodhi Sapling from the Bodhi Tree from Gaya in India. This was a gift of Emperor Asoka to the King by Devanampiyatissa and people of Sri Lanka for purpose of venerating.

The Bo Sapling was planted in Mahameuna Uyana in Anuradhapura by the King himself with great pageantry and honour.

The Therani Sangamitta also introduced the Buddhist order for women in Lanka and brought several guilds of skilled craftsmen from India to build and maintain monuments and monasteries expressing and teaching the new faith.

The second significant event was the arrival of The Sacred Tooth Relic of The Buddha which took place in the 4th century. Originally it was housed in Anuradhapura in close proximity to the kings palace.

Convention

Thus establishing the convention that possession of Sri Dalada by the ruler symbolised the legitimacy in the island. It is adhering to this very convention that Sri Dalada travelled with the SinhaIa Kings when the state capital was shifted to different locations for security reasons. Soon it came to be established that the possession of Sri Dalada under care of one ruler was the single most important aspect in the development of monarchy and unitary state in Sri Lanka.

For this very reason Wimaladharamasuriya II who seized the throne of the Kandyan Kingdom in the 16th century brought Sri Dalada to Kandy, the seat of power from Delgamuwa Vihara in Kuruvita, before it could fall into the hands of the marauding Portuguese.

The Progressive development of Kingship and Statehood in Sri Lanka is thus closely linked to the progress of Buddhism.

The rulers of Lanka became to protector and promoter of Buddhism and Sasana. The two institutions, the monarchy and Buddhasasana became inseparable in the development of statehood of Lanka.

The progress of Theravada Buddhism made the most profound impact on art, literature and architecture and also on public policy on development.

The high moral basis of the state of Lanka came to be based on the profound teaching of the Buddha and in the practices of Dana, Seela and Bawana which prevailed throughout the country.

The Sinhala Kings’ massive efforts in the development of large and small reservoirs, for agriculture development and the constructions of public roads, parks and townships are in fact a reflection of the application of the noble concept of Dana in public policy.

Resources

Considering the small size of the country and its limited resources, the construction of such massive development projects using advanced traditional knowledge of hydrology and the construction engineering appear to puzzle to modem observers of the civilisation, found in Anuradhapura, Polonnaurwa and Magama regions.

The fact that all the achievements were made in a short period of five to six hundred years (3rd Century BC to 4th Century AD) without any external help, aid, loans or assistance or by conquering and robbing neighbouring lands, but using only local resources, may continue to puzzle many people even to this days.

In ancient times many factors might have contributed to these achievements: A unified state with one powerful ruler can bring about a unity of purpose in public policy and development. Thus rulers such as Dutugamunu or Mahasen could undertake such massive projects that we can see today, using locally available resources and man power.

King Mahasen is credited with the construction of the world’s tallest brick building (Jethavana Dagaba) and several large reservoirs such as Minneriya. He was even called a Deva by the people at the time.

Besides the availability of skilled labour and local material for constructions there would certainly have been appropriate social organisation and management systems and techniques with a reservoir of social capital to match the task of construction.

Building

Building of large public projects for the wellbeing of many was no doubt imbibed by the Buddhist concept of Dana, for the welfare of people (Bahu jana Hithaya, Bahu jana Sukhaya).

On the other hand the excellence of art and architecture that public building constructed, then displayed and continue to even today though in ruined form certainly reflect the high sense of appreciation of aesthetic values enjoyed by the ordinary people at the time. This aspect is hardly appreciated by the present generation.

Many Sinhalese Kings that built and maintained the magnificent monuments, monasteries, temples, hospitals and townships did so not merely to please themselves but to satisfy the ordinary people as well.

Therefore we can only guess their high sense of aesthetic values and tastes, which could only exist with the quality of life enjoyed by the people. Do we reflect this when we visit Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa today?

The arrival of Arahant Mahinda with the profound message of the Buddha thus led to the blossoming of civilisation in Malwathu Oya basin in the North Central plains of Sri Lanka.

This resulted in the establishment of a sovereign, unitary state in the small Island of Lanka, achieving a very high level of civilisation and prosperity. However, the ancient Sinhalese were never war-like but preferred peace and tranquility.

For this very reason Sinhala Kings in the past appeared to have not maintained a standing army of the sort that modern states maintain today to defend the land.

Thus, no wonder Sri Lanka became easy prey to foreign invaders and marauding adventurers.

– by Bernard W. Dissanayake

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Poson Poya and the Momentous Meeting at Mihintale
(23.06.2013 – The Island)

“Monks are we, O great King, disciples of the King of Truth. Out of compassion for you have we come from Jambudipa”
With these words a great historical and cultural change took place in Lanka in the 3rd to 2nd century BC.

The introduction was made by Thera Mahinda to the King of Lanka after he had called out: “Tissa, Tissa.” King Devanampiyatissa stopped in his tracks, annoyed at this all too familiar manner of addressing him. Looking up he saw on a high rock a yellow clad monk with four others similarly robed, and a lay person. The king bowed to the Thera and was then engaged in a conversation which it is said was to test the intelligence and thus the reception to be expected for the religion the Thera had come to preach. This meeting took place on the full moon day in June in 306 BC, 236 years after the death of the Buddha. The day being festive, the king had gone deer hunting to Missakha-pabbatha (now named Mihintale) from his capital city, Anuradhapura.

The introduction of Buddhism to Lanka

Mahinda Thera had arrived in Lanka on the bidding of his father, Emperor Ashoka of India, to whom King Devanampiyatissa had appealed for the new teaching that was spreading through India. The great Emperor Ashoka, hitherto a merciless conqueror of lands and peoples, had converted to Buddhism. Thus did he send his only son Mahinda who had donned robes when he was 26 years of age, to a friendly neighbouring country. The monk arrived in Sri Lanka at age 32.

Mahinda Thera was invited to reside in Anuradhapura for which purpose a garden was created – the Mahamegha Uyana, in which, later, the Bo sapling was planted, still living as the world’s oldest historical tree. Mahinda Thera however, preferred to live in Mihintale and thus the wonderful sites and stupas, ponds and halls seen as ruins or reconstructed in this hilly area. He gave to the King and country the Theravada Canon of orthodox Buddhism that had come down the years in the oral tradition. In addition, his visit and conversion of the country to Buddhism ushered in a peaceful socio-religious revolution which also introduced a new civilization of art and culture. Lanka reputedly had a degree of civilization when Thera Mahinda arrived, but worship was of nature and spirits and aesthetic culture was far from advanced, although Buddhism would surely have been known and had adherents. Travel to and from India would have been on-going, even totally overland.

Mihintale

The very ambience of Mihintale is arresting. The first historical artifact that the pilgrim or visitor sees is a stone trough for immersing patients in medicines in the believed-to-be first hospital in the world (885-887 AD). The surrounding grove of mango trees and particularly the frangipani trees with their large white flowers that line the sides of 1840 rock hewn steps that lead to the sacred area, constitute a forerunner to the sites that enthrall.

The aradanagala rising 1000 feet from the flat area that you come to after the steps is believed to be the spot on which Thera Mahinda and his five companions stood watching King Devanampiyatissa hot in pursuit of a deer. The wind is strong here, but climbers of all ages and sizes brave it. A huge stupa – Ambatthala Chetiya or Maha Stupa is reached by climbing another flight of steps. Descending along a steep twisty path with steps cut in, or naturally carved, you reach a flat rock face with a sheer drop at one end. This is believed to be Thera Mahinda’s bed. He was an Arahant, a person who’d gone forth and reached elevated states of renunciation and total repudiation of greed and luxury living. Thus he could very well have slept on this stone slab.

Shrouded in an atmosphere of utter stillness imbued with an intangible air of mystery are two ponds which are rock-hewn. Kaludiya pokuna, as its name implies, (‘black water pond’) has dark water even on the brightest of days, shrouded as it is by trees and bushes and cupped by dark granite. It is 200 feet long and 70 feet wide, and roughly rectangular in shape. The Naga Pokuna, of almost the same size has at its farther edge where water meets rock, a five-headed cobra, etched in light relief, hence its name. Not only are the ponds exquisitely quaint but they go to show that many monks resided at Mihintale and needed not one pool but two for their daily baths. Another indication of the large numbers are the 68 caves hewn from rock that existed and two large stone troughs 23 feet in length that lie in the flat area toward the bottom of the hill. The ruins here are believed to be that of the monks’ refectory. The troughs were for dishing out cooked rice.

The hill of Mihintale has a charm of its own at all hours of the day and night. The full moon day in June is considered especially significant as it is the anniversary of Mahinda’s encounter with the king, and thus marks the day Buddhism officially arrived in Sri Lanka. Mihintale is unique in dew drenched mornings which are full of bird song and birds winging their way around. As the sun rises the heat settles in but strong breezes cool you. The verdant paddy fields and jungle areas interspersed with irrigation tanks and in the distance dagobas of Anuradhapura are spread out below and visible from all edges of the flat spaces and precipitous inclines. The evening bathes the place with the rays of the setting sun and a luminosity is transferred to the ground far below. Late evening has birds returning to their nests and as the stars and moon appear, the stupas and araddhana gala gleam. Mihintale is wondrous seen in Poson Poya moonlight when the full moon appears extra large and a mite closer at hand. Business enterprises light up the stupas and pathways at Poson. Crowds throng to pay homage to Mahinda Thera who gave this land Buddhism, now adhered to by 73 percent of Sri Lankans.

It is sad to note that a religio-historical place of such significance to Buddhists of the land and all others does not evoke deep reverence nor silence from the great masses who visit Mihinale. They hardly know of the greater civilization of sculpture, painting, carving and even verse that flowered in the land after the thera met the king. Many treat the climb up and down as picnic fun to be enjoyed with flashing cameras and cell phone talk. Added to that is the strident loud speakered temple voice announcing monetary donations. When will such disturbances end and a deserved aura of piety, gratitude and reverence pervade the place?

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