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Educating Buddhist Children in Sri Lanka

  Venerable R. Gnanaseeha from Singapore

  The teachings of the Buddha recorded in the Pali canon and in the other scriptures written in Sanskrit, Prakrit etc. is called Dhamma in this context. It includes not only the doctrines such as Four Noble Truths, Three Characteristics, Dependent Coorigination but also the various ethical teachings relevant to both Sangha and lay society.

  The Dhamma preached by the Buddha in the 6th century B.C. in India has preserved, edited and developed through the three Buddhist council was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century B.C. by Ven. Mahinda Thera during the reign of King Devanam Piyatissa. Dhamma education in Sri Lanka begins properly with the arrival of Ven. Mahinda Thera. This educational service was started by means of preaching Dhamma by the community of Sangha established by Ven. Mahinda Thera as well as his sister Ven. Sanghamitta Thero who established the order of nuns in Sri Lanka. With the development of Buddhist Sangha, Buddhist monasteries and nunneries were spread throughout the island and eventually these monasteries and nunneries became the main educational centres in Sri Lanka. In the course of time, there evolved a number of educational institutes called Parivenas specially for the monks and nuns. The main educational centre was the Mahavihara in the city of Anuradhapura and a number of other institutes such as Jetavana, Abhayagiri came into being in the succeeding period of time. The Mahavihara established by King Devanampiyatissa with the instructions of Ven. Mahinda became an international Buddhist educational centre which was able to attract the famous scholars like Ven. Buddhadatta, Buddhaghosa and Buddhappiya who contributed a large number of commentaries, sub-commentaries and other ancillary works to the stock of Sri Lanka Buddhist literature.

  Thus the history of Buddhist education in Sri Lanka continued successfully until the 16th century A.D. The golden history of Buddhist education in Sri Lanka came to an end with the invasion of Portuguese in 1505 A.D. They became the rulers of costal areas of Sri Lanka and began to spread not only their political power but also the Christian missionary works. Next to the Portuguese the Dutch and the British invaded Sri Lanka and they strengthened Christian missionary activities further in the island and ultimately they were able to transform the Sri Lankan Buddhist culture into a Western type of civilization to a great extent.

  At the end of the British rule in Sri Lanka (1876 to 1948 A.D.) a number of events or activities were organized in order to revive the Sri Lankan Buddhist culture by some great savants like Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda. Encouraged by the debates conducted by Ven. Gunananda an American free thinker called Steel Henry Olcott came to Sri Lanka in 1880 A.D. became a Buddhist at Vijayananda temple in Galle. Thus the Buddhist revival activities in Sri Lanka were initiated by Steel Henry Olcott and he was supported by a Sri Lankan national hero called Anagarika Dharmapala. A large number of people gathered around them and the Buddhist revival organization was strengthened. One of the most important events of these revival activities was the establishment of the Parama Vijnanatha Buddhist Society with the headship of Steel Henry Olcott at 54, Maliban Street, Colombo in 1880 A.D. The fore-runner of many important Buddhist revival activities in Sri Lanka was this society.

  Mr Steel Henry Olcott had an idea in his mind to start some Buddhist educational activities specially for children. This is confirmed by a note in his diary.

  “I had an important idea that all Buddhist children should spend at least several hours at their temples in order to learn Buddhism”.

  (Olcott Diary — Vol. III — Sinhalese Translation, p. 143).

  According to his noble idea the first Sri Lanka Dharma School was started at Galle namely Vijayananda Dharma School in 1895 A.D. This noble event encouraged all Buddhists in Sri Lanka and as a result, Dharma schools were started in almost all Buddhist temples. Eventually teaching of Buddhism was compulsory even at the government schools. Further from 1995, the Sri Lankan government has declared the

  3rd August in each year as the day of Dharma schools. The specific characteristic of Dharma schools is that the children and education in them free of charge. The Buddhist monks and lay people render their service for education with dedication. Some Dharma schools are conducted in English medium and most of them are in Sinhala medium. The subjects taught in Dharma Schools are mainly related to the following :

  1. Pali language

  2. History of Buddhism

  3. Biography of the Buddha

  4. Biographies of very famous Buddhist monks, nuns and lay people

  5. Fundamental doctrines of Buddhism

  6. Recitation of Pali passages and stanzas

  7. Abhidhamma

  8. Buddhist meditation

  The Dharma schools mostly begin early morning of Sundays and children come to the school with flowers, incense and oil to offer to the Buddha. Kindling of oil-lamp indicates dispelling the darkness of ignorance through understanding the Dhamma. Offering flowers symbolizes the respect towards the Buddha and it also reminds us the impermanent nature of everything. The daily activities of Dharma schools can be

  presented with photographs :

  1. Coming to the Dharma school with flowers etc. together with parents

  2. Preparing flowers etc. to offer to the Buddha

  3. Observing five precepts

  4. Recitation of Dharma school song and relevant Pali stanzas for offerings

  5. Practicing meditation

  6. Teaching at the classes - the classes are arranged according to the levels of education

  Annual examinations are conducted by the government. The final examination of Dharma schools is similar to the Grade 12 in other schools. One of the national universities conducted a Diploma course for Dharma school teachers. The children and teachers wear special clothes when attending Dharma schools. They are white in colour. This colour symbolizes restrainment, calmness and purity.

  Below are some photographs showing children going to Sunday dharma schools in Sri Lanka. A detailed presentation with photographs and video clips will be shown on the presentation day.

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