Friday, March 20, 2009

Hiuen Tsiang On Sri Lanka II

Hiuen Tsiang learned that Sri Lanka was known by several different names - Ratnadipa "because of the precious gems found there," Silangiri and the Sorrowless Kingdom, which may be related to Ravana’s Asoka Garden as mentioned in the Ramayana. Another name, Simhala, was derived from the name of the legendary founder and first king of the island. Hiuen Tsiang was told two stories about the origins of the Sinhalese, each different from the other and both differing from the legend in the Mahavamsa. The stories are too long to relate here but they suggest that the Mahavamsa story was only one of several legends circulating in the 7th century. Hiuen Tsiang described the Sinhalese and their island home thus; "The soil is rich and fertile, the climate is hot, the ground regularly cultivated and flowers and fruit are produced in abundance. The population is numerous, their families possessions are rich in revenue. The statue of the men is small, they have dark complexions and they are fierce by nature. They love learning and esteem virtue. They greatly honor religious excellence and labor in the acquisition of religious merit." He adds further; "...they have square chins and high foreheads, they are naturally fierce and impetuous and cruelly savage without hesitation." This unpleasant side of their natures was, he was told, due to being the descendants of the offspring of a woman and a lion. But this had a positive side as well, for it also made them brave and courageous at the same time.
The Sri Lankan monks Huien Tsiang met in Kanchipuram were probably from Anuradhapura which would explain why they were able to give him such a detailed and vivid description of the temples in the capital, especially those in the royal compound. The most celebrated of these was of course the Temple of the Tooth. "By the side of the kings palace is the temple of the Buddha’s tooth which is decorated with every kind of gem and splendor of which dazzles the sight like the sun. For successive generations worship has been respectfully offered to this relic..." The temple was "... several hundreds of feet high, brilliant with jewels and ornamented with rare gems. Above the temple is placed an upright pole on which is fixed a great ruby. This gem constantly sheds a brilliant light which is constantly visible night and day and afar off appears like a bright star. Three times a day the king washes the Buddha’s tooth with perfumed water or sometimes with powered perfume." It is interesting to note that a few decades after Hiuen Tsiang returned to his homeland another Chinese pilgrim in India, I Tsiang, heard a most strange story about one of his fellow countrymen staying in Sri Lanka. It seems the Chinese monk was in Anuradhapura and had been invited to attend the washing ceremony at the Temple of the Tooth. So enthralled was he by the Tooth that he decided to steal it. Unbeknown to him though, the relic casket was attached to some kind of mechanical device so that when it was moved it set off an alarm and automatically sealed all the doors. The Chinese monk was caught and escaped punishment only because of his yellow robe. Next to the Temple of the Tooth was "a small temple which is also ornamented with every kind of precious stone. In it is a life-sized golden statue of the Buddha cast by a former king of the country. He afterwards ornamented the statues head dress with a precious gem." Apparently the statue had a slightly bent head and a delightful legend was told to explain this. Once a robber decided to steal the gem in the head dress of the Buddha in the temple which he entered by digging a tunnel. Seeing the huge gem he reached up to take it but the statue miraculously increased in height so that he could not reach it. The robber said to himself; "Formerly when the Tathagata was a bodhisattva so great was his compassion that he vowed to give up everything, even his own life, for the sake of others. But now the statue which stands in his place begrudges to give up even one little gem. What was said of old about the Buddha seems to differ from what his statue now dose". Suddenly the statue bent over and the robber could reach the gem. He ran from the temple and took the gem to a merchant to sell but the merchant recognized the gem, informed the king and the robber was arrested. When asked by the king where he got the gem from the robber said that the Buddha had given it to him and he related what had happened. The skeptical king sent someone to the temple and sure enough the golden statue’s head was still bent over. Convinced that a miracle had occurred, the king brought the gem from the robber, who escaped punishment, and it was placed once again the statue’s headdress. Neither this temple or the delightful legend told about its golden statue survive in any Sri Lankan sources. Another building in the royal compound that Hiuen Tsiang was told about was the Mahapali Hall. "By the side of the kings palace there is built a large kitchen in which is daily measured out food for eight thousand monks. The meal time having come the monks arrive with their bowels to receive their allowance. Having eaten it they return, all of them to their monasteries. Ever since the Buddha’s teaching has reached this country the king had established this charity and his successors have continued it down to our times". When Fa Hien was in Anuradhapura in 412 AD he received alms in this very kitchen and left a description of it. The great stone trough of the Mahasali from which the rice was served can still be seen in the citadel at Anuradhapura.
The rest of the information that Huien Tsiang gives about Sri Lanka consists of brief and fragmentary facts and impressions. For example he mentions that there were 100 monasteries in the island and about 10,000 monks. About the pearl industry he wrote, " A bay on the coast of the country is rich in gems and precious stones. The king himself goes there to perform religious services in which the spirits present him with rare and valuable objects. The inhabitants of the capital seek to share in the gain and also invoke the spirits for that purpose. They pay tax on the pearls they find according to their quality." This may be a reference to the religious ceremonies used to keep sharks away from pearl divers that Marco Polo noted. He also makes a brief reference to Sri Pada. "In the south-east corner of the country is Mount Lanka. Its high crags and valleys are occupied by spirits that come and go. It was here that the Tathagata formerly delivered the Lankavatara Sutra." Sri Pada is of course in the south-west not the south-east of the island, so either Hiuen Tsiang misheard his informants or lost his notes and later when writing his travelogue had to rely on his (in this case faulty) memory. The Lankavatara Sutra he refers to is the great Mahayana scripture now used and revered in the Zen school of Buddhism of Japan and was supposedly taught by the Buddha during one of his visits to Sri Lanka. Hiuen Tsiang knew that Mahinda had introduced Buddhism into Sri Lanka although, in accordance with Mahayana tradition, he called him the brother, not the son, of King Asoka. He made an extremely interesting comment about a monastery that he noticed a few miles from the capital of Malakuta in south India. "Not far from the east of the city is an old monastery of which the vestibule and court are covered with wild shrubs; the foundation wa11s only survive. This was built by Mahinda, the younger brother of King Asoka." So it seems that the Buddhists of south India had there own traditions and legends about Mahinda and even monuments attributed to him. Sri Lankan legend has Mahinda flying from north India to Sri Lanka but obviously he must have come overland. In which case it is only logical to assume that he had done missionary work in south India before coming to Sri Lanka and Hiuen Tsiang’s travelogue seems to strengthen this conjecture.
lt is a great pity that political trouble prevented the most observant and articulate of the great Chinese pilgrims from visiting Sri Lanka. What other fascinating and detailed information about our past would we have if he had he do been able to?


Anandajoti said...

Dear Venerable,

Much merit to you for the last two posts which contain a wealth of information from your seemingly unlimited knowledge of all things to do with Buddhist history! Well done, and many thanks.

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