HomeArticlesBuddhist Links Between Sri Lanka and Indonesia: Then and Now

    Buddhist Links Between Sri Lanka and Indonesia: Then and Now

    (First Published in “Anchor”, First Electronic Magazine of Sri Lanka Naval Association, 19th Edition, April 2024)

    Buddhism Becomes a Major Religion in Asia

    In the third century BC king Asoka was in power. He was from the Mayren empire. His empire touched Himalayas in the north and came close to Sri Lanka in the south. When Emperor Asoka embraced Buddhism, it was a huge boost for the religion. Buddhism received state patronage. Asoka sent missions to spread Buddhism. One of these missions were sent to Myanmar. Asoka sent Buddhist monks and scriptures to Myanmar and people became followers of Buddhism. Even to date, nearly 90 percent of population of Myanmar are Buddhists. Another more defined mission was sent to Sri Lanka. This mission was led by Emperor’s own son Arahat Mahinda and his colleagues. Minhinda met the Sri Lankan king Devanampiyatissa on a Poson Poya day in Mihintale, close to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka and delivered a sermon. The Sri Lankan king embraced Buddhism and invited Asoka mission to his capital and provided state patronage. Thus, Buddhism took roots in Sri Lanka by the 2nd century BC. Even to date, 72 percent of Sri Lanka population are Buddhist. Later Asoka sent his daughter with a sapling from the original Bo tree in Bodhgaya, India, where Buddha attained enlightenment and to establish an order of nuns on the island. Incidentally, the Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka is the oldest recorded tree in the world since the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya since died. 

    When Emperor Asoka died his empire crumbled and Buddhist lost its top support in India, Thereafter King Kanishka of Kushan dynasty ruled a large empire including parts of central Asia, Afghanistan and north west India. He supported a different school of Buddhism; the Gandhara Buddhism which had more influence from Greek and Persia. This is how Buddhism flourished in central Asia and took a leap to China. Chinese Han Emperor then sent a mission to India. They collected Buddhists texts and took them back to China. Buddhism also spread to Eurasia and other parts of Asia through the ancient silk route. Buddhism then spread to Korea, Vietnam and Japan.

    Buddhism Arrived in Indonesia through Sri Lanka

    An Indian Monk took Buddhism to Indonesia. His name was Gunawarman. He was born in to a Kashmiri royal family. He travelled down south to Sri Lanka and country had embraced Buddhism already.  Gunawarman became an adviser to the Sri Lankan king.  With Kings help he set sail first to Sumatra and then to Java in Indonesia. This was the 4th century and Java was ruled by a Hindu king named Wadaga. As per the legend Wadaga’s mother had a dream: a Holi person coming by the sea in a flying boat. When Gunawarman reached Java Wadaga’s mother embraced Buddhism and convinced her son to do the same.

    Revival of Buddhism in Indonesia Post Second World War

    Buddhism enjoyed a vibrant environment after the Second World War. As many Asian regions became independent states, the status of religions vis-à-vis the state became more stable and their adherent’s gained prominence. The Sri Lankan state highlighted the “greatness” of Buddhism in 1956 by establishing the Buddha Jayanti, a commemoration of the 2,500th  year of Buddhism, which became an international event celebrated by Buddhists across Asia, including those in Indonesia.

    This decade also witnessed what is often referred to as the institutionalization of Buddhism across Asia. It was marked by the establishment of the World Fellowship of the Buddhists (WFB) in 1950 in Sri Lanka as a platform “to unite and coordinate all important Buddhist activity throughout the world”.

    The institutionalization of Buddhism in this decade not only focussed on forming the WFB’s organization and showcasing of Buddhist events. It also focussed on institutionalizing Buddhist material culture and symbols. For example, the WFB adopted the Buddhist flag to be the international symbol of Buddhists in 1952 during the World Buddhist Congress, which was held in Japan.

    Buddhist activism in Indonesia grew after the Second World War. At that time, the Buddhists in the country were seeking an identity which was in accordance with that of the new state. For example, Buddhists in Indonesia wanted to adopt Buddhist practices dating from the Majapahit kingdom like upasampada (ordination into monkhood). However, Buddhism in Indonesia experienced turbulences regarding definitions and symbols and its status in the newly independent country.  Both Hindu and Buddhist leaders seek international legitimization and support in order to maintain their status as religions in the eyes of the state as well as to avoid persecution.

    Additionally, in the 1950s Buddhists in Indonesia were introduced to the elements of the Theravada/Southern Buddhism that typically organized the Buddha’s into three parts, namely: Vinaya Pitaka (Monk’s Rule of Conduct), Sutta Pitaka (The Buddha’s Sermons), and Abhidhamma Pitaka (Analysis of Basic Natural Principles that Govern Mental and Physical Processes).

    Bhikku Narada Maha Thero of Sri Lanka and Revival of Buddhism in Indonesia

    Bhikkhu Narada from Sri Lanka was the first Buddhist monk who visited Indonesia in 1930s when Buddhism was at a very low level in Indonesia. Narada Thero visited few times to Indonesia and even planted a Bo sapling brought from Sri Lanka in a temple near Borobudur. There were no Buddhist monks in Indonesia at that time. Bhikkhu Narada did not ordain any novice monks but only taught Buddhism. The Buddhists who wanted to become a monk obtained ordination from Thailand. The 1950s saw the building of new connections with the Southern/Theravada Buddhist world that further restructured Indonesian Buddhism.

    In the early twentieth century, the Buddhist world was dominated by males. Bhikkhu Narada was highly impressed by an Indonesia Buddhist lady named Visakha Gunadharma’s demeanour and spirit of activism. He acknowledged that on one occasion, during his visit to Jakarta, Gunadharma acted as a translator for him and that she was the first woman do so during his time as a missionary in 1934. This acknowledgement demonstrates a shift in the perspective of men regarding the role of women as Buddhist intellectuals and activists; it also helped women to attain upper-level positions within Southern Buddhist circles.

    Ambassador Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage with the Venerable Bante Sombat of Dhammachakka Temple in Jakarta, who has associated closely with Narada Mahathero in front of a portrait of Nrada Mahathero at the Library dedicated in appreciating the great service to Theravada Buddhism.

    Narada Mahatero together with Indonesia Theravada Buddhist monks
    Sacred Bodi Tree at Dhammacakka Temple in Jakarta which has originated from Sri Lanka

    Continuation of Indonesia and Sri Lankan Engagement Through Buddhism

    The very first international engagement with leaders from other Buddhist countries happened in Indonesia during the 1952 Vesak celebration. Apart from being attended by the Indonesian Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs, the event was also attended by the Ambassadors of Sri Lanka, India and representatives from the government of Burma, which made the occasion both national and international in nature. Aside from being the first international Buddhist event to be held in post-colonial Indonesia, it was also the first Dhammic connection with Southern Buddhism since the Second World War

    Ashin Jinarakkhita’s, the first Indonesian Bhikku’s full ordination as a Southern/Theravada monk in 1954 proved crucial to the development of Buddhism in Indonesia for several reasons. First, despite his former status as a samanera in the Mahayana tradition, Ashin Jinarakkhita sought knowledge of Buddhism from Southern/ Theravada tradition in Burma because he was unable to travel to mainland China. The ordination of Ashin Jinarakkhita was special in that it was witnessed by two prominent monks Balangoda Ananda Maitreya from Sri Lanka and Venerable Chaokun Bimoldam from Wat Mahathat, Thailand.

    Another important connection established by Indonesia Buddhists occurred during the 1956 celebration of Buddha Jayanti. The organizing committee of the Buddha Jayanti Indonesia, invited heads of state and Buddhist leaders to the event in 1956. Among them were Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India; G.P. Malalasekera from Sri Lanka, the President of the WFB. The event also received attention from the minister of the Union of Burma, U Nu, and the prime minister of Sri Lanka, Sir John Kotelawala, both of whom sent congratulatory messages to the Committee of the Buddha Jayanti.

    Indonesia’s religious policy and regulations explain why Indonesian Buddhist leaders invited political leaders to the 1956 Buddha Jayanti celebration. The Indonesian Buddhist leaders were not only concerned about renewing past international Dhammic connections; they were also concerned about the uncertain position of Buddhism in the new nation state.

    The progress of Buddhism in the 1950s was driven by the connection with Southern/Theravada Buddhism which had been established in the previous generation. Bhikkhu Narada visited Java for the first time after Independence in 1955. However, the visit was very brief due to the Indonesian government’s refusal to allow him to deliver sermons. He returned to Indonesia in 1958 and he was received with great enthusiasm by the Indonesian Buddhists. During that visit, he revisited the Borobudur. The positive situation of Buddhists in Indonesia led him to visit other places outside Java. One of these places was the Vihara Buddha-Gaya in Semarang, the centre for Buddhist learning. Later, accompanied by Bhikkhu Ashin Jinarakkhita, Narada visited Bali where he preached and most importantly presented the relic of the Buddha to Balinese Buddhist priests.

    Several prominent Southern Buddhist monks from South and Southeast Asia attended the occasion and performed the ordinations. Many of them were prominent monks, such as Bhikkhu Narada, Bhikkhu Mahanama and Ven. Piyadassi thero.

    Buddhist Connection at Present

    The Sri Lankan Embassy in Indonesia has worked diligently to promote the revival of Indonesia- Sri Lanka linkage through Theravada Buddhism. Sri Lankan Embassy together with Association of Sri Lankans in Indonesia organized Vesak celebrations in May 2023 and invited all the leading Buddhist organizations to participate. The Embassy has also organized two Buddhist groups together with a web influencer to visit Sri Lanka and planning the third one in June 2024. These tours were led by the chairperson of Wanita Theravada Indonesia- Wandani, Wenny Lo, a devote Theravada Buddhist lady, who is working very closely with the Sri Lankan Embassy to promote Buddhist linkage. The Embassy also partnered with Miwa-Pattern fashion designer Mira Hoeng to launch a designer collection depicting the Sri Lankan national flower Blue Lotus and colours of the Buddhist flag. Twenty five percent of the earnings were donated to help Dharmaraja Vidyalaya in Trincomalee. Sri Lanka embassy also participates in major Buddhist events in Indonesia including in Borobudur which is the biggest Buddhist site in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site. A visit is scheduled to Muara Jambi; one of the biggest Buddhist temple complexes in the world located in Jambi province in Sumatra, Indonesia.  The Ambassador is expected to deliver a talk focusing on the value of Sri Lanka as a Theravada Buddhist country. This complex is supposed to be bigger that Nalanda in India and Taxila in Pakistan. The Embassy also organized temple-to-temple diplomacy program and four Sri Lankan Buddhist monks visited and stayed for two weeks to experience the religious culture in Indonesia. This program is now continuing.

    By Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage
    Ambassador of Sri Lanka for Indonesia and ASEAN

    Join our WhatsApp Group to get the latest News Updates right into your device.

    What do you think?