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The spread of Buddhism beyond India took root in its surrounding nations and Sri Lanka was one of the lucky ones. Buddhism in India eventually died out and Sri Lanka currently has one of the oldest living Buddhist traditions in the world. About 70% of the citizens of our island nation are Theravada Buddhists while there are about 6000 Buddhist monasteries in Sri Lanka with over 15000 monks who have devoted their life to serve and preach Buddha’s teachings.
According to chronicles, Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka somewhere in the 3rd century BCE by Mahinda Thera who was the son of Emperor Ashoka. He had arrived in the island during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa who was residing in Anuradhapura. This period is also known for the sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree being brought to Sri Lanka and also when the first monasteries and Buddhist monuments were established. Buddhism was seen flourishing for several centuries in Ceylon (Now known as Sri Lanka). The Pali Canon was first known to have been written in Ceylon which was the result of the work of the great Indian Scholar, Buddhaghosa and other compilers such as Dhammapala.
The period between the 5th century and the 11th century, Sri Lanka faced continuous warfare which was carried out between local kings and foreign invaders such as the Pandyan and Chola dynasties of India. The war welcomed a dreadful era for Buddhists with many stupas and viharas being destroyed vengefully. However, King Vijayabahu I of Polonnaruwa managed to conquer the island in the year 1070 and started re-building the monasteries and stupas that were destroyed. Due to the countries depleted state, there were not enough bhikkus to ordain monks to restore the monastic tradition and therefore a number of eminent elders were called in from Burma. King Vijayabahu oversaw the ordination of thousands of Buddhist monks while the reforms of Sri Lankan Buddhism continued under King Parakramabahu 1.
From the 16th century onwards, there were missionaries along with Portuguese, British and Dutch colonizers who had attempted to convert a majority of the local population to Christianity. However, amidst all the war and turmoil, many of the islands’ religiously inclined leaders continued to patronize Buddhism while restoring temples and monasteries. The 19th century saw the initiation of a National Buddhist Movement and was empowered by a debate between Christian priests and Buddhist monks. The result of the debate saw a major turnover when Sir Henry Steel Olcott converted into Buddhism. The Sinhala Buddhist leaders along with Olcott established the Buddhist Theosophical Society in the year 1880 while their goal was to establish Buddhist schools all over the island. By the end of year 1940, there were over 400 Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka. A few years after the arrival of Mahinda, Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta arrived in Sri Lanka and started the first nun’s order which died out in the 11th century. However, many Bhikkhunis have been ordained in the island since 1996. The sects of Buddhist clergy referred to as Nikayas include the Siam Nikaya, Amarapura Nikaya and the Ramanna Nikaya.