We are the fortunate heirs of a rich and highly developed culture moulded by the lofty and noble teaching of Buddhism. The introduction of this sublime teaching by the great Emperor Asoka through Arahat Mahinda to our land brought about a remarkable transformation in the life, thought and beliefs of the people.
Above all, it gave rise to a culture that attaches sanctity to life, values human dignity and aims at moral purity and spiritual excellence.
Prior to the establishment of Buddhism in our country the people had no particular religion as such and each individual followed what he or she considered correct. Their religion was a mixture of Aryan beliefs and aboriginal cults.
They prayed to and performed rites, rituals and ceremonies to gods, demons and supernatural beings, the creations of their vivid imagination, as a reward for these external shows of respect and reverence they expected from these so called powerful beings the fulfilment of their wishes and the causing of harm to their enemies.
Our people were not completely ignorant of the Buddha and His teaching, prior to the coming of Arahat Mahinda. They had close contact with Magadha, where Buddhism flourished and from where Vijaya got down the king’s daughter to be his queen.
The proximity of our country to India, resulted in constant intercourse between the peoples of the two countries. Naturally there would have been discussions about Buddhism and its honoured teacher. Thus our people would have grasped with ease the dhamma expounded by Arahat Mahinda.
This fact coupled with the patronage given by the King resulted in the new teaching of Buddhism taking firm root in the hearts and minds of the people. The embracing of Buddhism and leading their lives according to its tenets became an ennobling experience to the people.
Relationships between man and man were marked by love, friendship and trust. The moral and spiritual tone of the community rose steadily. Kindness, compassion, generosity and tolerance became virtues to be sought after and developed.
With the passing of time, they became the mark of men and women regarded with respect and held in esteem in society. Thus the possession of these high qualities became a part of our culture.
In our culture generosity is a lofty virtue. Even the poorest of the poor toiling to earn his living gives whatever he can afford for any worthy cause perhaps with greater pleasure and deeper feeling than the man of opulence and who gives a fat donation, while enjoying the comfort and luxury of his sprawling mansion.
When floods, gales and other forces of nature, strike in all their awesome fury and render people destitute and homeless, the number of willing hearts, that to go to their rescue with lorry loads of food and other needs show that compassion and generosity are ingrained in our people.
It warms the heart to see long queues of men and braving the burning sun to donate blood with the lovely thought and the earnest hope, that another life may be saved. Our country is small in size but big in its liberality and compassion for it is the biggest donor of eyes for transplanting in the entire world.
These donors of eyes must certainly be dying with the happy thought, that even after death they will be of service to their fellow men as some of those living in a world of darkness will enjoy the glory of sight and the wondrous beauty around them.
The spirit of tolerance, rated high in our culture has penetrated deep into the hearts of our people. Buddhism is a teaching sans dogmas and freedom of thought is highly valued.
Buddhism has the unique distinction of spreading the dhamma in the most civilized manner without using force, violence or other iniquitous methods. The dharmadutas from the earliest times scaled rugged mountains, crossed deserts and sailed stormy seas with love and compassion in their hearts, so that their hands were free from the stain of blood.
It speaks volumes about our culture when we read about the Buddhist king of Kandy who settled Roman Catholics and Muslims who were persecuted by the Dutch in his kingdom. They were given lands and they had the freedom to practise their religions even today, the descendants of those settlers live in peace and amity with the Buddhists in those areas.
In our culture women are treated with respect and regard. It was the Buddha, raised the status of women who were given a low position in Indian society and were subject to various disabilities. They were denied the right to perform certain religious observances in the absence of the husband, while they were debarred from reading the vedas.
The wife had to treat her husband as her lord and master, eventhough he might prove to be a slothful and worthless rake. According to Buddhism, there is spiritual equality between men and women and sex is no bar to one’s spiritual ascent.
Our women, brought up in a Buddhist atmosphere move freely with men at meetings and social gatherings. They display no embarassment or uneasiness, while at the same time they maintain their dignity, womanliness and charm. This clearly shows that cumbersome restrictions and cloistering in impregnable sanctuaries do not make women any more virtuous.
With the portals of higher education opened wide and the freedom given, our women have busted the bastions of male dominance in almost every sphere of activity and have proved their worth and capabilities.
In those days our people were mostly cultivators enjoying considerable leisure. Their minds were free from stress, tension and problems, while their new religion gave them complete freedom of thought and kept them away from evil. There was enought food and no one went hungry.
The fruits of free minds, dwelling on spiritual thoughts, adequate nutrition and living in a pleasant environment are the activation of latent skills and the flowering of fine arts, drama, literature, poetry and other persuits that bring joy to all.
After accepting the noble teaching, the people wanted to make the likeness of the great teacher in works of art. Sculptors with deft hands chiselled out of solid rock inspiring and serene figures of the Buddha with charm and grace evident in every inch of the creations.
The painter’s brush worked ceaselessly, convering drab temple walls into huge canvasses, on which Jathaka stories and events from the Master’s life were painted with skill and cultured taste.
Massive Dagabas rose majestically to the clouds, adding beauty, cheer and an aura of sanctity to the entire scene. Well located and superbly designed ponds, guard stones, moonstones and other creations of the sculptor’s art, all done with consummate excellence remind us of the glories of our past.
Architects designed multi-storeyed buildings like the Lowa Mahapaya with remarkable skill. Even modern scientists are impressed by talents of our people who located and built our vast tanks spread over the dry zone.
Great learning is an important facet of Buddhism. The first universities in India, some of which had over 10,000 scholars would not have come into being, but for Buddhism. The Mahavihara at Anuradhapura became a centre of great learning with scholars from foreign lands too.
Among them was Buddhagosa who wrote the famous commenteries on the Buddhist teaching. Along with the progress of education, literature, poetry, drama and similar cultural pursuits developed rapidly.
Thus, the more we learn about Buddhism, the more we realize that it has not only made man into a being worthy of his humanity but also abundantly enriched the cultures of those lands to which it penetrated.