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Sinhala Commentaries as indispensable sources for doctrinal clarification and reconstruction of Buddhist History

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Sinhala Commentaries as indispensable sources for doctrinal clarification and reconstruction of Buddhist History

- Dr. Ananda W.P. Guruge -

1. The Beginning of the Commentarial Literature

What the Buddha set in motion by presenting his teach- ings in the form of discourses (sutta) and poetical compositions (gaathaa) was a well-organized intellec- tual operation. The doctrine originated with the Buddha and, as Sariputta stated, “Bhagavanmuuliko no dhammo” - Our doctrine originates with (or is founded on) the Buddha. Accordingly the Buddha was the ultimate authority. Every possible effort was, therefore, made to ensure that the word of the Buddha was not only preserved and transmitted meticulously but also clearly and correctly understood.

The method of diffusion was oral transmission through group recitation (sajjhaayanaa), accompanied by discussion (saakaacchaa). Safeguards were applied to eliminate interpolation and errors in communication. The sheer volume of discourses and poetical compositions preserved in the Pali Tipitaka as well as in the Chinese translations of the Sanskrit Canon as Aagama Suutras testify to the systematic and methodical effort made by the Buddha’s immediate disciples, no doubt with his own interven- tion and direction, to ensure that an authentic record of his teach- ings was made from the very beginning of his mission.

The Sangha was a highly skilled learning society. In it were specialists devoted to the vocation of preserving the theoretical 73 base (ganthadhura = the vocation of books) as a parallel to self- cultivation for Deliverance (vipassanaadhura = vocation of insight). It devoted special attention, especially during the three months of the Rainy Season Lent, to study intensely the teachings of the Buddha, which formed the Pariyatti (the theoretical con- tent) of the Buddha Saasana.

This study concentrated on the codification of the discours- es, synthesis. interpretation, exegesis, explanation and elucidation of knotty points, devising means of retrieval and expanding back- ground information where necessary. The Pali Canon has ample evidence of all such intellectual activities that the Sangha was involved in.

The Canonical text, Niddesa, forming the eleventh book of the Khuddaka Nikaya, is a commentary on two parts of the poet- ical anthology Suttanipaata. It shows how the preparation of commentaries providing phrase by phrase or word by word expla- nation of the Buddha’s teachings commenced very early - possi- bly during the lifetime of the Buddha. We are, however, in no way to find out whether other commentaries were made in India. But as Buddhism spread to a wider region as a result to the missions of Arahant Moggaliputtatissa at the time of Emperor Asoka (circa third century BCE), the need to explain the Buddha’s discourses to new audiences would have arisen. In such situations the com- mentaries prepared for them had to be in local languages.

2. The Sinhala Commentries of Sri Lanka

Tradition attributes the production of commentaries in Sri Lanka in the local language to Arahant Mahinda, the son of Emperor Asoka, who led the mission to introduce Buddhism to the Sinhalas. Teaching the canonical texts to people far removed from the Indian setting, Arahant Mahinda and his colleagues had to rely on an enormous knowledge base, which would have existed in the Indian monastic circles. But we have no way of assessing its extent or richness because nothing comparable to the Sinhala Commentaries exists in India or any other Buddhist country.

 Helatuvaa, as these Commentaries on the Tipitaka in old Sinhala are called, were produced over several centuries and this extended literary movement was carried on primarily by the monks of the Mahaavihaara (Great Monastery) of Anuradhapura, the first established monastic institution of the country. A meas- ure of finality in form had been reached around the first century of the Current Era as judged from the historical data recorded in them.

What this vast literature in the native language of Sri Lanka sought to accomplish were the following:

a. To provide details of the contextual background of the Buddha’s discourses and poetical compositions (e.g. when, where, to whom and why?), where such details were not in the canonical text;

b. To trace the lineage of the Sangha with relevant background historical information to show how the teachings were authentically handed over;

c. To explain terms and expressions in the Buddha’s discours- es to ensure that they were properly understood;

d. To provide additional information to facilitate the compre- hension of concepts presented briefly in discourses;

e. To refer to and clarify wrong or unacceptable interpreta- tions of certain concepts;

f. To discuss the prevailing differences of opinion and to high- light the orthodox position as upheld by the Mahaavihaara, which served as the custodian of the Theravada tradition; and

g. To give cross references and allusions to canonical texts and commentaries to enable a student to search for further infor- mation on a given concept.

The resulting richness of this long-drawn intellectual activi- ty with such an array of objectives was remarkable. The Sinhala commentries were indispensable to any serious student of Buddhism.

The following were their special merits:

* They provided the most authoritative and hence reliable interpretation of the word of the Buddha, as developed and preserved by an unbroken line of devoted and scholarly monastics;

* They explained the most widely accepted definition and explanation of the doctrinal terms used by the Buddha;

* They explained contradictions and inconsistencies in canon- ical texts and suggested ways and means of reconciliation and integration;

* They contained detailed accounts of the Buddha’s interac- tion with the Sangha and the society and provided the base for a reliable biography of the Buddha;

* The commentaries on the Dhammapada and the Jataka, in particular, preserved the immense legacy of Buddhist narra- tive literature, which vividly illustrated the Buddhist doc- trine of Kamma, rebirth and renunciation; and

* They also recorded with chronological accuracy and ample background details the history of Early Budddhism and pro- vided a base for the development of the Buddhist historical tradition.

The production of Sinhala Commentaries continued for many centuries as a major activity of the Sri Lankan Sangha. It was only second in importance to the reduction of the canonical and com- mentarial texts to writing which was done in the first century BCE at Aluvihara near Matale in the reign of King Valagambahu. 

The scholarly activity of producing commentaries was not restricted to a single monastery. Over a period of eight hundred years, several well-recognized traditions of Sinhala Commentaries had come into existence and were known by such designations as Mahaatthakathaa, Mahapaccariya, Kurindi and Andhattha. It is possible that the Abhayagiri Monastery had a similar tradition as suggested by the term Uttaravihaaravamsatthakathaa. Together they served as the best available guidance for the understanding of the Buddhist Canon.

3. Facilitating Foreign Access to Sinhala Commentaries

The Mahaavihaara of Anuradhapura, which was the main repository of the Sinhala Commentaries, continued to be the most stable institution for the preservation of Early Buddhism long after schisms, persecutions and political upheavals had weakened and even destroyed its institutional base in India. It had achieved the status of a radiating centre of inspiration and intellectual lead- ership in the Buddhist community of India, which adhered to Early Buddhism. Despite the distance and difficulties in travel, scholars and pilgrims from both countries maintained lively con- tacts. As recorded, this contact enabled Indian scholars to appraise and recognize the indispensability of the Sinhala Commentaries for a comprehensive study of Buddhism.

By the fifth century of the Current Era, Indian scholars and students had confronted a major obstacle. It was linguistic. The Sinhala Prakrit in which the Sinhala Commentaries were first produced was very close to the Prakrit dialects of North India and hence comprehensible with little effort. But as living languages, not only the Sinhala Prakrit but also the dialects of India evolved and similarities disappeared. In South India the problem appeared in a different dimension. With the patronage of the Kalabhras,early Buddhism had by this time taken root among people whose lan- guages were of Dravidian origin, which had no connection what- soever with the Prakrit dialects. Thus the Sinhala Commentaries 77 were no longer accessible to Indian scholars and students of either the North or the South. They had to find a solution.

The solution they arrived at was practical. Why not translate the Sinhala Commentaries into the same language in which the Tipitaka, the Buddhist Canon, was? The Sri Lankan historical tra- dition gives credit for this solution to Buddhaghosa, a scholarly monk who hailed from the vicinity of the Sacred Bodhi Tree at Gaya. He is said to have come to the Mahaavihaara during the reign of King Mahanama (406 - 428 CE) and sought permission to translate the Sinhala Commentaries into Pali. The monks of the Mahavihara would not give their permission easily. He had to prove his competence by producing Visuddhimagga, the Path of Purification, one of the most authoritative compendiums of Early Buddhism. Being thus permitted, Buddhaghosa commenced the translation of the Sinhala Commentaries into Pali.

In his prefaces, he explained how and why he was motivat- ed to undertake this mission. In doing so, he highlighted the qual- itative superiority of the Sinhala Commentaries and their indis- pensability for the comprehensive study of Buddhism and explained how they were no longer readily available to growing Buddhist societies due to unfamiliarity with the “language of the island.”

Buddhaghosa was an accomplished scholar and he approached the task systematically. He collated various traditions of Sinhala Commentaries and gave preference to the positions taken by the Mahaavihaara. There is no doubt that he preserved the authenticity of the original interpretations and explanations and set a very high standard for thoroughness of critical scrutiny. Thus the Pali Commentaries on which all Southern Buddhist Countries - Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Bangladesh - depend for the detailed study, interpreta- tion and explanation of Buddhism and which Buddhist scholars of the world utilize in their critical studies are authentic versions of the Sinhala Commentaries.

  What Buddhaghosa initiated was not an individual effort even though he was the most prolific contributor. Early Buddhism prevailed in South India and centres of Buddhist scholarship flourished in Kanchipuram, Uragapuram and Tirunelvely in Tamilnadu. Buddhaghosa himself is said to have passed some time in Madurai. Tamil scholars like Buddhadatta and Dhammapala continued the translation of Sinhala Commentaries on Abhidhamma and Khuddaka Nikaya texts.

Though undertaken as a solution to a local linguistic prob- lem, the translation of the Sinhala Commentaries into Pali served a much wider purpose and perpetuated the Sri Lankan contribu- tion to the preservation and promotion of Early Buddhism. The availability of these Commentaries in the same idiom as the Tipitaka has greatly helped scholars and students of Buddhism in the world today.

Without them we would have no way to know how the important doctrinal terms and concepts were originally defined, interpreted and explained, what the orthodox approach to the Path of Deliverance was and the contextual background of most of the discourses of the Buddha. It is remarkable how the objectives of the Sinhala Commentaries had been widened and universally accomplished through their translations into Pali.

4. What Happened to the Sinhala Commentaries?

Contrary to the misconception upheld in some circles, the Sinhala Commentaries did not disappear as a result of their trans- lation into Pali by Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta and Dhammapala. They were there and still accessible in the tenth century (that is, five hundred years after the translation) to King Mahinda V who quoted extracts from them in his Dhampiyaa Atuvaa Gaetapadaya. Around the same time or a little later, they also served as sources to the author of Vamsatthappakaasini (Mahaavamsa Tiikaa) to supplement the data in the Mahavamsa. 

The rapid evolution of the pure Sinhala idiom into highly Sanskritized mixed Sinhala after the Anuradhapura Period could have resulted in their disappearance. It is also possible that the fall of Anuradhapura and the chaotic drift of the Sinhala power base to the southwest of the Island could also have affected the preservation of this literature.

5. Light Thrown by the Chinese Shan-Jian-Lu-Piposha

What proof do we have that the current translations into Pali are authentic renderings of the Sinhala Commentaries? The Chinese Vinaya Commentary Shan-Jian-Lu-Piposha, which early Japanese scholars considered to be a translation of the Pali Samantapaasaadikaa, appears more to be a translation of the orig- inal Sinhala Commentary on Vinaya.

Firstly, it does not include the verses which Buddhaghosa added to his translation on why and how he prepared his version. Secondly, the technical terms and proper names as transliterated into Chinese are not from a Pali base. A particularly significant term is the pure Sinhala dukulaa for dukkata (minor offence), which appears in Chinese translation in the exact Sinhala form. The references, hitherto taken to be to Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa, could as well be to Vimuttimagga of Upatissa, which was available in China in an earlier translation.

The closeness in content, form and organization between Shan-Jian-Lu-Piposha and Samantapaasaadikaa testifies to the high level of accuracy achieved by the respective translators.

6. Sinhala Commentaries as an Irrefutable Source of Buddhist History

While the main purpose of preparing the Sinhala Commentaries had been the exegesis of the Buddhist doctrines, their contribution to the reconstruction of the early Buddhist his- tory needs to be specially highlighted. It is the Chinese Shan-Jian- 80 Lu-Piposha, which I take as the nearest we have to a Sinhala Commentary, that throws much light on this aspect as much as the Sri Lankan historical tradition recorded in the chronicles Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa and the Vamsakathaa literature in gener- al. They represent the historical data which were dealt with in some detail in the Sinhala Commentaries.

Tracing the lineage with accurate historical details was nec- essary to underscore the authenticity of the doctrines discussed and the reliability of the interpretations. The commentators had spared no pains in ensuring that every event in the development of Buddhism was dated in relation to the contemporary political leadership. Thus the chronological details recorded in the Sinhala Commentaries are found to be the most reliable on account of their high degree of accuracy. Most significantly, they agree with the chronological data of the Hindu Puraanas, which give details of various dynasties.

On the contrary, Sanskrit Buddhist sources of India happen to be grossly deficient and inaccurate. They had no idea of the dynastic changes that had taken place in North India during the first three centuries from the Buddha. They had no reference to Candragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty. They predated Mauryan Asoka by a hundred years by not distinguishing between two kings of two dynasties who had the same name Asoka. They ascribed to Maurya Asoka the transfer of the Magadha capital from Rajagaha to Pataliputra whereas both Indian and Greek sources show that his father and grandfather ruled from that city. They even presented Pushyamitra, the founder of the Sunga Dynasty, as a scion of the Mauryas. These led to a serious confusion as regards chronology. Unfortunately, these errors recurred in the Chinese and Tibetan translations and continue to create a significant problem to Buddhist historians.

The Sinhala Commentaries, as well as the Shan-Jian-Lu- Piposha, on the other hand, contained invaluabele data. The year of the passing away of the Buddha was given as the eight year of 81 the reign of Ajatasattu of the Haryanka Dynasty. Ample informa- tion was also included on the ascendancy of Magadha which commenced at the time of the Buddha and continued under the Sisunaga and Nanda Dynasties until it led to the founding of a pan-Indian Mauryan Empire with only small segments out of it. Names of kings and length of reigns were recorded with remark- able accuracy. The first Asoka connected with the Second Council was described as Asoka the Black (Kaalaasoka) and his nickname arising from his complexion is reflected in its Puranic version Kaakavarnin (Crow-coloured).

Events were dated from the demise of the Buddha, thus ini- tiating the Buddhist Era. The first Buddhist Council took place a few months after the Buddha. The dates for the Second and the Third Councils are given as 100th and 336th year of the Buddhist Era (BE). There was no doubt that serious historiography was developed to a very high level in the circles where this literature arose.

It is with regard to the Mauryan Dynasty and especially the life and career of Asoka that the Sinhala Commentaries and Shan- Jian-Lu-Piposha had preserved substantial information not found in any other sources. The identification of Asoka with Devanapiya of his inscriptions would have been delayed by almost a century if not for this information. Equally significant is how his inscriptions and the data recorded in Sri Lankan sources are mutually corroborative and together enable to counter and correct the fallacies perpetuated by the Avadaana literature in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. The identification and authentici- ty of names of missionaries sent out at the time of Asoka. as inscribed in the reliquaries of Sanchi and Sonari in Madhyapradesh in India and in Sri Lankan inscriptions were also facilitated by these historical data. This is how the Sinhala Commentaries and the Buddhist historical tradition of Sri Lanka commencing with them are an irrefutable source of early Buddhist history.

7. Conclusion

The voluminous Sinhala Commentarial literature contribut- ing to the detailed study of the Buddha’s discourses in Sri Lanka for over a millennium had been an incomparable repository of the orthodox instructional tradition of Early Buddhism. Fifteen cen- turies ago, its indispensability for the proper understanding of Buddhism was recognized by the then Buddhist world and hence its translation into the same language as that of the Buddhist Canon. Through these translations, the Sri Lankan commentarial tradition continues in the world today to exert its unique impact on the understanding, the interpretation and the explanation of the Buddha’s teachings, while at the same time serving as an indis- pensable source to reconstruct the early history of Buddhism and Buddhist nations.

Dr. Ananda W.P. Guruge,

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Huntington Beach, CA 92646, USA

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