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A historical review : 
Upasampada - The highest Bhikkhu ordination

Aryadasa Ratnasinghe

Upasampada is the highest Bhikkhu ordination replete with higher morality, and it is bestowed upon a 'Samanera' (Novice) ceremonially, only when he completes his 20th birth day.

However, under exceptional circumstances, the gestation period (from the time of conception in the mother's womb), is also taken into consideration, in calculating the age, if it becomes necessary to hold the ordination ceremony earlier. This is normally done when the mother or father or guardian of the child is too old and on the verge of death, and is keen to witness the ceremony before death.

A Bhikkhu's seniority

A Bhikkhu's seniority is reckoned from his date of receiving the 'Upasampada' ordination, and not by his age. An old person entering the order, by wearing the yellow garb, is known as 'samanera', and there may be Bhikkhus younger to him who had received the higher ordination.

Only Bhikkhus can deliver discourses (preaching 'Bana') to the laity, and participate in any 'Sanghika Dana' (alms offered to Bhikkhus), where the number present should not be less than four. Under the 'Vinaya' (Code of Discipline), a Bhikkhu is bound to observe the 'Patimokkha' precept, on full moon and new moon days, without a breach, before an assembled community of Bhikkhus. (This rule is hardly observed today by the 'Gramavasi' Bhikkhus).

The higher Dhamma intended for Bhikkhus is absolute transcendentalism. On receiving the 'Upasampada', the Bhikkhu has to lead a perfect life of a saint, control his senses, keep aloof from the lifestyles of the worldly man, and discipline himself in keeping with the Vinaya Code. His garment is the robe.

He has to obtain his meals by begging ('Pindapatha'), because the nearest interpretation of the word 'Bhikkhu' is 'Mendicant monk'. As a Bhikkhu, having received the highest ordination, must lead a holy life, devoid of anger, passionate desires, pride revengefulness, conceit, arrogance, stubbornness, slothfulness etc. which pollute desires and retard mental purity.

No vows for Bhikkhus

A Bhikkhu is expected to observe four kinds of higher morality, such as, 'Patomokkhala Sila' (Fundamental Moral Code), 'Indiriyasamwara Sila' (Morality by sense restraint), 'Ajivaparisuddhi Sila' (Moral purity of livelihood) and 'Paccayasannissita Sila' (Morality in the use of life's necessary requirements).

These four are conjointly called 'Sila Visuddhi' (Moral purities). There are no vows for Bhikkhus, but they are bound to observe 220 rules of conduct ('Adhikarana Sammatha Dhamma'), apart from other minor offences ('Avat'). Under the Vinaya, a Bhikkhu ceases to be one, if he were to commit the four defeats (Parajikas') i.e., adultery, stealing, murder and pseudo-claims of possessing higher spiritual powers ('Dhyanas'). For various reasons, the 'Bhikkhu Sasana' in Sri Lanka, began to wane from time to time, and there were no qualified Bhikkhus, who had received the 'Upasampada' ordination, and who could ordain the 'Samaneras'.

King Vijayabahu I (1058-1114) of Polonnaruwa, felt the need, and took steps to ordain the 'Samaneras' qualifying to be Bhikkhus, by getting down priests who had received the 'Upasampada' from Aramana (Ramannadesa) in the present Myanmar (old Burma). He requested king Anuruddha of Aramana for assistance. Accordingly, 20 Bhikkhus were sent to Sri Lanka, to bestow the defunct 'Upasampada', by ordaining the 'Samaneras'. The ceremony was conducted at the 'Udakukkhepa Sima' (shelter with boundaries for ordination on water) by the Dastota Ferry.

During the Kotte period (1412-1580), when Bhuvanekabahu VI was the King of Kotte, a group of Bhikkhus, on the invitation of the King, came to Sri Lanka from Ramannadesa, as bidden by King Dhammacetiya of that country to restore the 'Upasampada'. The ordination ceremony was conducted by the Kelani ford by the Ven. Mangala Maha Thera of Ramannadesa, assisted by Ven. Vidagama Maha Thera of Sri Lanka who headed the ceremony.

During the reign of Wimaladharmasuriya I (1592-1604), there was a close contact, between Sri Lanka and Rakkhangadesa (modern Arakan), a natural division of Myanmar with its old capital at Myohaung. The majority of Bhikkhus had been influenced by the Hindu-Mahayana traditions and were not orthodox Buddhists (Theravadins), but were a heretical sect, opposed to Mahaviharavasins. The Bhikkhus were received by the King, and the 'Upasampada' ceremony was conducted at the Getambe Ferry by the Mahaveli River.

Protective chants

These Bhikkhus brought with them protective chants ('Pirith'), which people, even today, chant on occasions to ward off evil and other malefic influences. The "Jalanandana' is one of them. Some consider it to be a Buddha 'Mantra' (incantation), because it contains Sanskrit words as is a common feature in Mahayana books, e.g., the words 'Sarva Bhandana Cedanam.... iti sri loka Buddhehi... Sarva bhaya vinnassanam etc. 'Jinapanjaraya', 'Atavisi Piritha', Gini Piritha', 'Jala Piritha' and other subsidiary 'Piriths' have Mahayana influence.

As the 'Gramavasi' Bhikkhus began to deplete by getting lured to domestic life and there was not a single Bhikkhu, who had received the ordination. King Wimaladharamsuriya II (1684-1707), taking a serious view of the situation, sent two missions, one to Arakan (Rakkhangadesa) and the other to Siam (modern Thailand). The fist mission was led by Dodanwela Herath Mudiyanse, Beminwatte Dissanayaka Mudiyanse and Sivagama Pandita Mudiyanse. They left by the Dutch vessel Bomba in 1694, but their mission proved a failure.

The second mission

The second mission included Gampola Wijetunga Mudiyanse and Galagama Mohottala. This time the King welcomed the mission and after enquiries, sent to the island Ven. Santata and Ven. Lokaraga with instructions to meet the King and make arrangements to ordain the 'Samaneras' as Bhikkhus.

The Siamese Bhikkhus Sankicca, Pancaloka, Gunameja, Akapanna and Dharmananda, who were accustomed in carrying out 'Upasampada' ordinations, did their job in keeping to tradition.

These Bhikkhus did not follow the orthodox Buddhism and were a heretical sect with Mahayana principles. Even today, when Buddhists worship the Buddha, they say "Ye ca Buddha atitaca, ye ca Buddha anagatha, paccupannaca ye Buddha, Aham Vandami Sabbada".

Here there is reference to present Buddhas. Unlike in the Mahayana Buddhism, the Theravada has only one Buddha and not a host of Buddhas.

Due to the deterioration of the Sasana, during the Kotte period, the Bhikkhus were more or less immoral in their behaviour and led a life of sensuous pleasures given to luxury and emotional feelings. In view of this situation, the laity ignominiously called them as 'Ganai' or 'Ganinnanses'. They had never received 'Upasampada', and were not fluent to deliver discourses ('Bana' preaching), but only read passages from the Jataka Stories, when devotees assembled at the temple on 'Poya Days'.

Some of these Bhikkhus practised sorcery and exercised exorcism, and earned a living by reading horoscopes and making 'Yantras' (talismans), to ward off evil, when requested by the laity. After the funeral of a person in the village, these 'Ganai' spent the night in the house to listen to what the deceased had to say to his close relatives.

Suddenly, he will make a cry in the night, disturbing the sleep of others, by saying "The dead person tells me to you all (the inmates of the house) that the departed wishes that a portion of their land be given to the temple". The people in the house, through fear of any malignant influence by the dead did what was told.

The voyage to Thailand

Once again, during the reign of Vijaya Rajasinha (1739-1747) of Kandy it became necessary to restore the 'Upasampada' ceremony that had become defunct. Welcoming Bhikkhus from Siam for the purpose, he directed Doranegama Muhandiram Rala and Matara Rala, to go to Thailand and bring Bhikkhus qualified to ordain the 'Samaneras'.

For the voyage, the Dutch government in Batavia (now Jakarta), provided a vessel. On the way, the vessel faced disaster and the men on board died.

When King Kirthi Sri Rajasinha ascended the throne of Kandy in 1747, he, on the advice of Ven. Asarana Sarana Saranankara Thera (yet a 'Samanera' though he was above 50 years in age), again sent an embassy to Siam which included Pattapola Mohottala, Ellepola Mohottala, Aitthaliyadde Muhandiram, Eriyagama Muhandiram and Wilbagedera Rala, who had once gone to Siam earlier, acted as the guide.

The Dutch again provided a vessel for the journey. They left Trincomalee on board the 'Vel Trek', along with physicians, astrologers, soldiers etc.

The King of Siam

The King of Siam welcomed the people and agreed to send enough Bhikkhus to Sri Lanka, to hold the 'Upasampada' ceremony.

A number of Bhikkhus came to the island headed by Pra Buddhadhamma Upali Maha Thera, and the others were Pra Aryamurti Maha Thera, and Theras Maha Indasuvanna, Maha Brahamaswara, Maha Suvanna, Maha Manisara, Maha Dhammajotha, Maha Muni, Maha Candasuvanna, Maha Assami, Maha Pannasa, Maha Sara Candana, Maha Punnajatha, Maha Candasara, Maha Indajotha, Maha Brahmajotha, Maha Ratta and Maha Candajotha. Six Ministers also arrived with them. They were Prasudanta Mestri, Luwang Seneho, Kum Vaca Piron, Kum Maha Pon and Kum Racana Vicin. They arrived in the Dutch vessel 'Oscarbel' in 1753.

Ehelepola Maha Adikaram went to meet these Bhikkhus and Ministers, whose vessel dropped anchor in the Trincomalee harbour, and they were brought to Kandy, as the King Kirthi Sri Rajasinha was impatiently waiting their arrival.

Their arrival coincided with the Kandy Esala Perahera held to appease the gods, and the King being a Malabari Hindu, made arrangements to have the perahera. In the most grandiloquent way. When these alien Bhikkhus heard the sound of the jingles, they inquired from the King as to what it all meant.

When the King said that the devale peraheras are getting ready to go in procession, they took umbrage at it, and expressed their wonder why a Buddhist country is encouraging Hindu practices. The King in order to satisfy the Bhikkhus, told them that the Dalada Perahera would be joining the Devale Peraheras taking the foremost position.

The first ordination ceremony

The first ordination ceremony bestowing 'Upasampada' on the novices was held on the Full Moon Day in the month Esala in 1753 within the 'Sima' (boundary) known as 'Visungama' of the Malwatte Vihara.

The first to ordain was a novice who came along with the Siamese Bhikkhus. It was to set an example to the 'Samaneras' who were ready to undergo the ceremony.

Malwatte Vihara was earlier known as Pushparamaya and those ordained belonged to the Siyam Nikaya ("Shyamopali Maha Nikaya") The Maha Thera Upali established two Chapters known as 'Malwatta' and 'Asgiriya' to prevent a repetition of what happened earlier.

The first Maha Nayaka Thera of the Malwatte Vihara was Ven. Tibbotuwawe Siri Siddhattha Buddharakhitha (1753-1773) and of the Asgiriya Vihara was Ven. Urulewatte Siri Piyadassi Dhammadassi (1753-1778). These two Chapters still exist as the two Buddhist fraternities eligible to carry out 'Upasampada' ceremonies.

The Sri Lanka Ramanna Nikaya

The Sri Lanka Ramanna Nikaya was established in 1864, when the 'Samanera' Ambagahawatte Saranankara returned to the island, having received the 'Upasampada' from the Ven. Gneiyadharma Sangharaja of Ratnapunna Vihara in Myanmar. He was not ordained by the Malwatta Vihara Bhikkhus, as he was of Salagama caste.

The Amarapura Nikaya came into existence in 1803, when the 'Samanera' Ambaghapitiye Gnanawimalatissa went to Myanmar and received the ordination from Gnanabhivamsa Dhammasenapathi Sangharaja, as he too was not absorbed to the Siyam Nikaya due to caste difference. These Nikayas later came to be sub-divided under different names, but maintained the principal names.


Source: Sri Lanka Daily News, 19 April 2004 - http://www.dailynews.lk

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last updated: 11-07-2004