Some of Sri Lanka’s Holy Places 

-Theresa Bachhuber, TTP student from Germany

Famously, the Theravāda Pāli Canon is said to have first been put into writing in Sri Lanka, and to this day the majority of Sri Lankan Buddhists are Theravāda adherents. A lot of people, however, are not aware of Sri Lanka’s great importance for Vajrayāna Buddhism. The below retelling of legends surrounding Sri Lanka and some of its holy places is largely based on accounts by Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche.  

According to legend, twenty-four years after the passing of the historical Buddha, the Bodhisattva Vajrasattva appeared on the peak of Mount Malaya (also called Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak) and taught the Vajrayāna for the very first time in our world. On this first occasion, the complete Vajrayāna tantras were taught to the Five Excellent Ones of Sublime Nobility, namely the god Yaśasvī Varapāla, the nāga king Takṣaka, the yakṣa Ulkāmukha, the rākṣasa Matyaupāyika, and the human being Licchavi Vimalakīrti, who later concealed them in space, until the time was right for a wider audience. According to Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, since Mount Malaya is the source of the Vajrayāna in our world, it is the most holy place of pilgrimage to all adherents of the Vajrayāna.   

Before Vajrasattva ever taught here, however, the historical Buddha himself is said to have visited Mount Malaya on multiple occasions with the help of his miraculous abilities. On one such occasion he left a footprint atop the mountain, which is nowadays enshrined in a Buddhist monastery. This was also the place where the Buddha taught the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. The mountain and footprint are not only considered sacred by Buddhists. All of Sri Lanka’s religious traditions have incorporated the footprint into their own legends, some followers of Hinduism believe it was Rāma who left the footprint, while Muslims and many Christians consider the footprint to be that of Adam – which gave the mountain one of its names: Adam’s Peak. 

Another important place for pilgrimage in Sri Lanka is a temple housing one of the Buddha’s teeth. This temple is located in Kandy, a city in the centre of Sri Lanka. Legend has it that after the Buddha’s passing each of the four great kings of India received one of his canine teeth. Having guarded the tooth for many years, after an attack on his palace King Kāliṅga entrusted his daughter with the tooth, entreating her to take it to Sri Lanka and into safety. To keep the moving of the tooth secret, the princess hid it in her hair, therefore many depictions of the princess show a little halo surrounding her elaborate hairstyle.  

Finally, and just as important, in the sacred city of Anuradhapura grows a direct descendant of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. King Aśoka sent the sapling together with a delegation of ten nuns to Sri Lanka with the wish to establish Buddhism there. According to Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, experts who examined this tree indeed dated it to be around 2,500 years old. 

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