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Buddha in Sri Lanka

Remembered Yesterdays

Swarna Wickremeratne, George D. Bond

Publication Year: 2006

This book provides both an erudite and intimate look at how Buddhism is lived in Sri Lanka. While India is known as the birthplace of Buddhism, Sri Lanka is its other home; Buddhism extends back over twenty-five hundred years on the island and remains at the center of its spiritual traditions and culture. Throughout the book, author Swarna Wickremeratne incorporates a personal view, sharing stories of herself, her family, friends, and acquaintances as they “lived Buddhism” both during her Sri Lankan girlhood and during more recent times. This personal view makes the traditions come alive as Wickremeratne details Buddhist beliefs, customs, rituals and ceremonies, and folklore. She also provides a fascinating discussion of the Sangha, the institutional monkhood in Sri Lanka, including its history, codes of conduct, and evolution and resilience over time. Wickremeratne explores the recent attempts by many monks to reinvent themselves in a society characterized by secularization, globalization, and a tide of aggressive Christian evangelization.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Title, Copyright and Dedication Pages

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

There is an old debate in the study of religion and culture concerning who understands the subject best: the insider or the outsider. Some have argued that only the insiders can truly understand a religion, for they participate in it and see its inner meanings. Others, however, have argued that the outsider has a distinct advantage. ...

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Terminology and Related Concepts

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pp. xv

The island of Lanka, my birth place and the focus of my book, is named in the Mahabharata but occurs frequently as one would expect, in the great epic of the Ramayana. The word Lanka means shining, resplendent, and golden. The Arab term for Lanka was Serendib. ...


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pp. xvii-xviii

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1. Beginnings and Looking Beyond

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pp. 1-10

HOW DOES ONE TRANSLATE amorphous thoughts into the formal language of reason, to make sense? I do not know. I cannot think of sophisticated academic reasons for writing this book. It was a labor of love. ...

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2. Growing Up in Sri Lankan Culture

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pp. 11-30

SOME YEARS AGO, in randomly picking up a copy of the Times Literary Supplement, my eye fell on a review of a biography of Evelyn Waugh or Thomas Hardy. I am now unable to say which it was. What I do remember was a remark made by the reviewer that each one of us, despite all our protestations on being our own unique person, is in reality the product of a trinity of forces: ...

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3. Festival of New Beginnings: The New Year

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pp. 31-40

SRI LANKAN NEW YEAR is a solar festival, which marks the passing of the sun from the zodiac of Pisces to the zodiac of Aries inaugurating the coming of New Year. In the traditional astrological belief system, the sun completes its movement across the twelve segments of the Zodiac in the course of one year, taking one month to travel each constellation. ...

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4. Loving Worship and Loving Kindness

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pp. 41-54

YOU COULD HARDLY HEAR them lisping the syllables, stumbling over the unfamiliar words. In age, they ranged from five to about eight. Their voices rallied only to fade away. As the lights of flickering coconut lamps fell on their beautiful faces near the stupa in Bellanwila, I felt a trifle sad as I saw my own childhood on their faces. ...

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5. Givers: Many Motives, Many Fruits

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pp. 55-73

THE GODS SHOULD NEVER be taken for granted. As always, swift was the wrath of Minerva. Every now and then when our family made preparations to go to Kataragama, one sensed a certain tension. One never spoke aloud about how the trip was planned prior to reaching Kataragama. ...

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6. Sri Lankan Buddhists and Their Rituals

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pp. 75-88

BUDDHISTS IN SRI LANKA perform many rituals. Rituals are performed as a rite of passage connected with an event that denotes a change of social or religious status in the passage of life. They take many forms: a new birth, introduction to solid foods to an infant, the first reading of letters, attaining puberty, two people getting together, a loved one passing away, and so on. ...

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7. Reminiscences of Bana Preaching

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pp. 89-99

THE BUDDHA, HAVING ATTAINED ENLIGHTENMENT, looked for an audience to share the fruits of his wisdom and found none. He hailed five mendicants who had at first enthusiastically been part of his search for wisdom but scornfully left him when they realized that he had abandoned extreme forms of asceticism to which they attached great importance in the Brahamanical ...

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8. Buddhist Pilgrims’ Progress

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pp. 101-111

BUDDHISTS MAKE PILGRIMAGES to worship the sacred dagabas (relic chambers) in Sri Lanka on a regular basis, inspired by instructions given by the Buddha in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (his last discourse) to his trusted disciple Ananda, before he passed away, on how his relics should be treated after his cremation. ...

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9. Karma in Popular Buddhist Culture

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pp. 113-124

IN SRI LANKA, IN A SENSE, I grew up with karma. The culture was permeated with karma. Every action and its reaction was connected to karma. Fortunes, misfortunes, accidents, sickness, bad luck and good luck were related to karma. It was an axiom. ...

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10. To Die Only to Be Reborn

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pp. 125-139

THE FOLLOWING ARE THE haunting lines of a song that was popular when I was growing up: “Epida mare yali epide; nothira sasara sagare.”
In a vibrant voice, the popular singer W. D. Amaradeva is telling us that one is born only to die and be reborn again and again in the boundless ocean of samsara, an ocean devoid of a shore. ...

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11. Death: Buddhist Ways and Other Ways

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pp. 141-156

THE DRAMATIS PERSONAE numbered many: a bitter cold Chicago winter morning; the sun deceptively filling the world with light but yielding little in warmth; the sidewalk taken over by mounds of overnight snow, already turning a dull, ugly gray; an endless procession of vehicles, the crunching wheels scattering the ice in cascades of crystals; ...

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12. Bodhi Puja: All for the Sake of a Tree

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pp. 157-166

THE PIPAL TREE (ficus religiosa), a native tree of India, is popularly known to Sri Lankans as the Bo tree or Bodhi tree. It got these names when Siddartha Gautama (2,550 years ago) sat under this tree for many weeks in meditation resolving not to arise until he reached his goal of attaining Enlightenment. ...

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13. Pirit Chanting and the Holy Thread

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pp. 167-177

PARITTA IN PALI OR PIRIT in Sinhala means “protection.” Pirit suttas are canonical scriptures that are regarded as records of discourses delivered by the Buddha, and are chanted for protection, security, prosperity, and well-being. The Buddha taught the monks to use the spiritual energy generated by chanting the Buddhist scriptures and reflecting on the virtues of the Buddha, to...

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14. Sons of the Buddha

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pp. 179-197

DESIGNATING ONESELF AS A BUDDHIST, or being a Buddhist, leads a person to focus on the Buddha, the dharma, and the Sangha—the epiphanous Triple Gem. From a philosophical and teleological point of view, since transcendence is the ultimate goal in Buddhism, its attainment is dependent on the grasp of the Buddha nature and, as important, on an understanding of the dharma. ...

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15. Varieties in a Single Saffron Robe

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pp. 199-219

SHORTLY AFTER THE BUDDHA attained Enlightenment, he established the order of Buddhist monks. Beginning with five of his original disciples, over the next forty years of his active ministry, the Buddha transformed an amorphous conglomeration of monks into a well-knit, self-regulating order governed by rules that later became a code of conduct and discipline...

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16. Quid Pro Quo Worship

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pp. 221-235

IT WAS MY AUNT’S HOUSE. At 5.30 A.M. on a Wednesday, a kemmura day, an auspicious day for the gods, there was confusion in the house. To those who worship gods in Sri Lanka, Wednesdays and Saturdays are days of special sanctity. It is widely believed that on these days, the power of the gods is most felt arising out of their personal presence. My aunt and her entourage were...

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17. Many Gods, Many Altars

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pp. 237-258

BUDDHISTS IN SRI LANKA take refuge in the Triple Gem and believe they are endowed with almost talismanic power. They also seek the protection of extraterrestrial beings they refer to as “gods” or “devas.” These are many faceted and take the form of gods, deities, demons, and spirits. ...

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18. God Kataragama

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pp. 259-271

SOME CALLED HIM “MURUGAN.” Others revered him as “Skanda.” He was the son of Shiva. Sinhalese Buddhists, comparatively less knowledgeable about the pantheon of classical Hinduism, called him “Kataragama deiyo” (god) so named after the locality in which the jungle shrine is situated. ...

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pp. 273-274

Urged to write an epilogue, out of curiosity I randomly picked up a few books broadly within the genre and was struck by the absence at the end of the text. In older books it was de rigueur to write an epilogue. It made sense to do so. The epilogue serves the curiously psychological need to say one last thing, something in the grand manner before consigning one’s ...

Glossary of Religious Terms

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pp. 275-279


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pp. 281-283


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pp. 285-297

E-ISBN-13: 9780791481141
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791468814
Print-ISBN-10: 079146881X

Page Count: 317
Publication Year: 2006

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Subject Headings

  • Religious life -- Theravāda Buddhism.
  • Theravāda Buddhism -- Sri Lanka -- Customs and practices.
  • Sri Lanka -- Religious life and customs.
  • Wickremeratne, Swarna, 1939-.
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