“The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka”

Home / Buddhist Studies / Articles / “The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka”

There is a difference between the asceticism of the Visuddhimagga and that of the Jātakas, though it is quite possible for them to coexist, as they did in Paññānanda. In one the forest life is seen from close on, in practical detail; in the other it is seen from afar. The Visuddhimagga is for forest monks, the Jātakas for them and everyone else as well. But if the Jātaka version is practiced without the professional detail of the Visuddhimagga and the canon, quite a different way of life results.

The struggle for perfection by the Bodhisattva in the Jātaka cycle is cast so that the dearest and most common desires of the flesh and family life are called up to bear witness to the heroism of sacrifice and renunciation. The Sinhalese audience, of whatever condition or sex, can therefore identity with underlying Buddhist morality because the emotional charge inherent in worldly life animates the (more noble) values of renunciation. Given this fundamental strategy, however, the Jātakas and their various interpretations may play the theme of renunciation differently.

The Temiya Jātaka, which inspired Paññānanda to become a monk, exploits a more somber and more plainly ascetic view of renunciation. A fourteenth-century Sinhalese translation from this particular Pāli Jātaka has probably been the main source for preachers and poets since its composition. Asceticism and renunciation – the taking of special vows, the voluntary submission to pain, the leaving of the pleasures of the world – appear over and over again, layer upon layer, repeating the message of the deity in Paññānanda’s dream: uproot sloth, go to the forest. All the vows, renunciation, and voluntary suffering of this tale are summarized in the single word, tapas. The root of the word (Skt. tap-)refers in its concrete sense to heating, burning, consuming by fire. This set of meanings is closely allied with a second, however, which have to do with tormenting, suffering, and penitence. In the Indian cultural realm – or, in the Indian climate – heat is very closely associated with suffering. But it was never possible to rid tapas of its primeval association with torment and laudable self-mortification. In the first instance, this is because the idea embodies a very deep-seated and pervasive way of visualizing certain emotions – sorrow, the pain of renunciation; and certain spiritual action – self-purification. And in the case of Buddhism at least, tapas is all the more persuasive for being neither critically examined nor philosophically elaborated. It remains at the level of a poetic or mythic formulation of spiritual activity, and though shorn of its connection with the more spectacular self-tortures found in the broader Indian scene, it is nevertheless felt to be powerful and efficacious in its own right.

Unlike the monk, the Jātaka tāpasāya (=a practitioner of austerities, an ascetic) has no detailed monastic code, no canon, no connection with an already established line of pupillary succession. What would happen if one attempted to follow an ascetic life on this model alone can be seen in the case of the first Buddhist tāpasāya of modern times: Subodhānanda. As a fully ordained monk, in 1898, he renounced his robes, and took ordination at his own hands as a Buddhist ascetic. The Buddhist tāpasāyo of today, and the movement of self-ordained ascetics in the early 1950s, stem ultimately from his precedent. His evocation of the Jātaka ideal touched a deep and lasting chord in Sinhalese culture. Now, whatever the accuracy of any particular detail on his account, clearly the tāpasāyo were born in an atmosphere of uncompromising opposition to the ordinary village Saṅgha. The ideology which Subodhānanda developed in the course of his struggle was therefore one which was concerned as much with attacking his opposition as with defining his own position.

On the crest of the wave of religious enthusiasm to which Subodhānanda’s group contributed so much rose Vabada Tāpasa Himi – the Venerable tāpasāya from Vabada – to national fame for a brief while in 1954. He even had been regarded as “The Resplendent Praiseworthy Anagārika Dharmapāla Leading Venerable Lord of Vabada”. He was taught by his grandfather a number of practices, unknown to the Visuddhimagga or the prescriptive parts of the canon, but based entirely on an interpretation of the Jātaka tradition. Another young monk – Anandasiri – considered Tāpasa Himi to be of a ‘speculative nature’ (vitakka),though there were others, besides his father, who treated this as madness. Tāpasa Himi had heard of the dhutaṅgas from Anandasiri which led him to his first choice of residence at a cemetery. And almost immediately the seeds of mythic stories took root.

At one time or another people from every social group in Buddhist Ceylon supported the tāpasāyo. Their message and behavior were universally recognizable. They seem to have been more warmly supported in the country than in the city, though, and the most abiding support seems to have come from the poor rather than the rich. They were also supported by low-caste people. It also seems likely that in some areas people supported tāpasāyo against village monks as an expression of political factional divisions within the village.

Between the beginning of 1952 and the end of 1953, when tāpasāyo began to figure prominently in the Sinhalese press, Tāpasa Himi’s reputation grew. At the height of the movement, sometime in 1954, there were perhaps several hundred tāpasāyo who owed their inspiration to him, though very many may have never seen him: for, after all, one could ordain oneself. This dispersal is one of the chief features of the movement’s social organization – or, better, disorganization. But even at the moment of high enthusiasm, however, the swift and painful end of the movement was prefigured. The crowds that came to see the tāpasāyo expected something from them which even well-trained and experienced meditators would be hard put to deliver. The dilemma of the failed tāpasāyo shows that momentary enthusiasm is no substitute for training. In the next months and years this event was to be repeated all over Ceylon.


Reference: Michael Carrithers (1983), Forest Monks of Sri Lanka, Chapter 4ff., The Sinhalese Monk Paññānanda and others: p. 69–136.

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.