I read when the British came to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) during the colonial era, Buddhism was virtually extinct in Sri Lanka and has degenerated into very low forms of superstition. However, because some Sri Lankans wanted to stop British Christianity, they requested the Burmese Sangha to reinstate a Sri Lankan monastic Sangha. I read some intellectual Sri Lankan laymen had debates with Christians, where both sides (logically) accused the other side of superstition.

Why did Buddhism become virtually extinct in Sri Lanka? Was that 'extinction' somehow related to the form of Buddhism or how it was practised, or something else?

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    Do you know that long before British came to Sri Lanka, the country was ruled by Portugese (1505-1658) and then Dutch (1640-1796)? Local people resisted these invasions and rebelled time to time against the rulers. Buddhist monks faced so much difficulties during these periods. Buddhism was very much fertile before these periods. Ruins of buddhist monasteries more than India can be found everywhere in Sri Lanka.
    – Damith
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 8:34
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    The link says: Portuguese rule was always in the maritime provinces and the people whom they converted were the coastal folk. They were the backbone of their power. Many of the princes they converted had either died or were no longer Catholic. The rest of Ceylon remained in the Buddhist-Hindu religion. Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 9:02
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    @Damith I don't think your comments are relevant to the question, of why it nearly became extinct. Or are you saying the answer is that it's because Buddhist monks faced difficulties during the three centuries of Portuguese and then Dutch rule? If so, would you please post that as an answer, not a comment?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 10:46
  • @ChrisW Sorry sir! I will post these with a detailed answer (most probably within next few days). Until then you can either delete them or keep them.
    – Damith
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 11:05

1 Answer 1


I have quoted 3 sources below on this topic.

Basically, it says that in Sri Lanka and other Theravada countries, people who lived over 150 years ago, thought that even stream entry was no longer possible because in-depth understanding of meditation had been forgotten. They felt that it's better to practise virtues and make merit, while waiting for the next Buddha, Meteyya or Maitreya to come and show them the path to Nibbana. Supposedly, even Buddhaghosa, who authored the Visuddhimagga around the 5th century CE in Sri Lanka, held this view.

However, Buddhist meditation practices (based on the Satipatthana Sutta and Visuddhimagga, as well as other suttas) started to be revived in Burma as a popular movement, over a hundred years ago, and then spread to other countries including Sri Lanka. This seemed to have reinvigorated the faith of Theravadins (both monks and lay people) in the possibility of stream entry and enlightenment.

Here, Buddhism did not become extinct in Sri Lanka, but people simply lost faith in the possibility of attaining even stream entry, until Buddhist meditation was reintroduced to them from Burma.

In the Broken Buddha book, S. Dhammika wrote:

In Sri Lanka it is widely believed that it is not possible to become enlightened anymore and it’s not just simple folk who believe this either. I once attended a talk by the famous Narada Thera of Vajirarama in Colombo during which he said that it is even impossible to become a sotapanna today. Richard Gombrich found this same idea to be widely held in Sri Lanka. ‘The comparative rarity of meditation is closely connected with the widespread belief in the decline of Buddhism. A village girl said that in a Buddha-less period one must keep trying, but only limited progress is possible. It is further believed by the majority of monks, at least those whose general attitudes can be described as traditional, that the sasana has already declined so far that it is no longer possible for men to attain nirvana. This opinion is very prevalent among the laity...One monk even specified that till (Metteyya) comes it is not even possible to become a sotapanna. The last arahat is commonly said to have been Maliyadeva (1st cent B.C.E). Others say that there may still be human arahats, but it is unlikely and/or undiscoverable ....

I have heard these same views expressed a thousand times in Sri Lanka. Even Buddhaghosa did not really believe that Theravada practice could lead to Nirvana. His Visuddhimagga is supposed to be a detailed, step by step guide to enlightenment. And yet in the postscript he says he hopes that the merit he has earned by writing the Visuddhimagga will allow him to be reborn in heaven, abide there until Metteyya appears, hear his teaching and then attain enlightenment.

In Encyclopedia of Buddhism (editor: Robert E. Buswell, Jr.), it is written:

By the tenth century C.E., vipassana meditation appears to have fallen out of practice in the Therevada school. By that time it was commonly believed that the religion of Gautama Buddha had so declined that liberation through insight could no longer be attained until the advent of the future Buddha Metteyya (Sanskrit, Maitreya) many eons from now. In the early eighteenth century, however, renewed interest in the Satipatthana Sutta (Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness) led to a revival of vipassana meditation in Burma (Myanmar). After encountering initial resistance, the practice of vipassana was endorsed by the Burmese sangha and embraced by the royal court.

By the late nineteenth century, a distinct praxis and organizational pattern had emerged that set the stage for the modern vipassana movement of the twentieth century. Led chiefly by reform minded scholar-monks, a variety of simplified meditation techniques were devised based on readings of the Satipatthana Sutta, the Visuddhimagga (Path to Purification), and related texts. These techniques typically follow the method of bare insight.

The teaching of vipassana also prompted the development of new Buddhist institutions called wipathana yeikthaor insight hermitages. Initially attached to monasteries, these evolved into independent lay oriented meditation centers. A related development was the rise of personality cults devoted to the veneration of prominent meditation teachers as living arhats. In terms of impact, the popularization of vipassana represents the most significant development in Burmese Buddhism in the twentieth century.

Thailand has also witnessed a revival of vipassana practice in the modern period, and both Burmese and Thai meditation teachers have been instrumental in propagating vipassana in Sri Lanka, India, and the West.

In Meditation en Masse, Erik Braun wrote:

These days many assume that Buddhism and meditation go hand in hand - sometimes they are even considered to be one and the same. But even counting Theravadins, progenitors of the massively popular insight meditation (Vipassana) movement, relatively few Buddhists historically have ever understood meditation to be essential. On the contrary, instead of meditating, the majority of Theravadins and dedicated Buddhists of other traditions, including monks and nuns, have focused on cultivating moral behavior, preserving the Buddha’s teachings (dharma), and acquiring the good karma that comes from generous giving. To be sure, such folks have recognized the critical role meditation plays in awakening—in the Theravada view, you cannot become enlightened without such practice—but they have not doubted that one can live a worthwhile and authentic Buddhist life without meditating. Aiming not toward awakening but toward a good rebirth, many Theravadins have even argued that meditation is inappropriate in our degenerate age, except perhaps for a rare few living in the isolation of jungles or mountain caves. Where, then, did this now pervasive idea come from that meditation lies at the heart of Buddhist life?

This question brings us to Burma just over a century ago. Prior to this time, no trend toward widespread meditation had developed anywhere. It is true that Thai forest masters, above all Ajaan Mun (1870–1949) and revivalist figures in Sri Lanka such as Dharmapala (1864–1933), played an important part in the establishment of insight practice and sounded the call for lay meditation. But they did not spark any broad-based movements. One must look instead to Burma to account for the ascendance of meditation to a popular practice—specifically, that of insight meditation. The Vipassana view understood meditation as the logical and even necessary application of a Buddhist perspective to one’s life, whether lay or monastic. The rise of this practice, however, was not strictly an indigenous development. It came into being specifically through colonial influence. (In fact, no current tradition of insight practice can reliably trace its history back further than the late 19th or early 20th century.) Though now a global movement, insight practice had its start in a moment of interaction between a Western empire and an Eastern dynasty. Indeed, one could go so far as to pinpoint its origins to a particular day: November 28, 1885, when the British Imperial Army conquered the Buddhist kingdom of Burma.

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