Sri Lanka is the most felicitous location for an International Buddhist center of Learning, research and experiment while Kelaniya is the most serene home it could be housed in.
Legend and beliefs claims that the Buddha undertook three visits to Sri Lanka as he foresaw the flourishing of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the eventual decline of his teachings in India.
The first visit was to Mahiyangana, nine months after his enlightenment. During this visit, the inhabitants of the island known as the Yaksas, Raksas and Nagas, embraced Buddhism.
Five years later, the Buddha visited Sri Lanka to mediate in a war between two Nagakings called Chulodara and Mahodara over a jeweled throne. The two kings gave up the throne to a third Naga king called Maniakkhika of Kelaniya.
The Buddha visited for the third time three years later, on the invitation of Maniakkhika and preached the Dhamma in Kelaniya. He then proceeded to visit the mountain variously called Samantha kuta, Sri Pada and much later as Adams peak where he left an imprint of his left foot at its peak.
On a clear day the sacred peak is visible from the Nāgānanda campus cradled in the heart of Kelaniya the hallowed grounds that legend has sanctified as the venue of the first arbitration known to man either in legend or history.
Keleniya was the ancient Naga kingdom.
According to the Chinese traveler Hieun Tsang, Nalanda the great center of Buddhist learning owed its name to a Naga that resided in a pond nearby. The famous Chinese pilgrim scholars Hieun Tsang and Fi Han were among the distinguished students of Nalanda University. Hien Tsang received the name Mokshadeva during his time at Nalanda. The University received the patronage of the great emperor, Harshavardhana of Kannauj and the Pala rulers.
Buddhism in India reached its zenith during the reign of emperor Harshadeve never again to reach such heights except in the brief interlude of Ashoka.
Nagarjuna the great trail blazer in the Mahayana tradition met the Buddhist master Saraha who told him that if he became a renunciate and recited the Amitabha mantra, he would lead a long life.
Nagarjuna did so and then joined the monastery, receiving the name “Shrimanta.”
According to some narratives, two youths, who were the sons of a Naga king, came to Nalanda.
They had the natural fragrance of sandalwood.
Nagarjuna asked how it s was so and they revealed to him who they were. Nagarjuna asked them for sandalwood scent for a statue of Tara and their help in constructing temples. They returned to the naga realm and asked their father, who said he could help only if Nagarjuna came to their realm beneath the sea to teach them.
Nagarjuna obliged and made many offerings, and taught the Nagas.
Once, when Nagarjuna was teaching Prajnaparamita, six Nagas came and formed an umbrella over his head to protect him from the sun. Thus the iconographic representation of Nagarjuna has six Nagas over his head. It is then that he got the name Naga. His skill in teaching the Dharma was so precise and accurate as the arrows of the famous archer Arjuna he also earned the name Arjuna. Thus, he was known as Nagarjuna.”
The great emperor Harshadeva the patron par excellence of the Nalanda university also authored the famous Buddhist play ‘Nāgānanda’ the joy of the Nagas.
Of all countries that have fostered Buddhism in any of the three forms – Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, Sri Lanka is the only country that serves as the crucible that holds both tradition and transformation.
What is SriLankan Buddhist tradition? To respond to this query we must explain how Buddhism has influenced the life and thought of the people of SriLanka in their material and spiritual progress. We need to assess how it has served as an impetus for the creative works in arts and literature.
History tells us that while the conservative monks of the Mahavihara studied only the orthodox Theravada texts, the monks of the Abhayagiri studied both the Theravada and Mahayana scriptures. They kept in touch with different Buddhist sects in India and accepted liberal views and progressive ideas, even if these were unorthodox.
For about three centuries the two monasteries advanced the cause of Buddhism in SriLanka in their respective ways. An eminent Sri Lankan Scholar Professor Y.Karunadasa concludes that “this Island nation contributed to the further development and enrichment of Buddhist thought in a literature which began almost with the advent of Buddhism to the Island in the third century B.C.E.
In point of fact, it was mainly due to SriLanka’s early Buddhist literary tradition that Theravãda Buddhism established its identity in relation to other schools of Buddhist thought.
What we know as Theravãda is the Buddhism that prevails today in SriLanka and in the countries of South East Asia – Myanmar,Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Its prevalence in this part of Asia has given rise to the expression ‘Southern Buddhism’, which is used to distinguish Theravãda from the Mahãyãna and Vajrayãna schools of Buddhist thought prevailing in the countries of East Asia and the Himalayan Region.”
The success of the implant of Buddhism in the island explains why SriLanka is recognized by other Buddhist countries in Asia as the fountain-head of Theravada Buddhism.