History Of The Lankavatara

David Kalupahana

The title of the Lankavatara discourse (Descent into Lanka; abbreviated Lanka) and the period of its compilation suggested by historians (i.e., the fourth century a.d.) provide interesting clues to understanding a text that is highly venerated by one of the major schools of Zen Buddhism, albeit considered to be an extremely unsystematic work by its followers. Unfortunately, the significance of the title and the period of compilation were ignored by the most competent authority on the text, D. T. Suzuki. The fact that the Lanka was adopted as a basic text of the Soto Zen tradition does not necessarily mean that the intention of its compilers was to propagate the doctrines of this particular school. Regarding the title, Suzuki has the following to say:

Lahkavatura literally is “entering into Lanka”, while Lanka is one of the islands in the south of India. It is popularly identified with Ceylon, but scholars are not certain about it. “Entering” probably refers to the Buddha’s coming over to the island. The sutra is supposed to have been delivered by the Buddha while staying there. The dialogue takes place between him and Mahumati who is the chief one of Bodhisattvas assembled there. It is unusual for a Buddhist sutra to be delivered in such an out-of-the-way place as Lanka, a solitary island in the middle of the Indian ocean [emphasis added]. 1

In the first place, to ignore the very title of the work, which has never been controverted, is not serious scholarship. Second, Suzuki is almost silent regarding the philosophical and religious atmosphere in which the text was compiled. Considering the enormous impact of this work on East Asian Buddhism and the controversies surrounding its history and compilation, it would seem appropriate to piece together whatever scanty information can be collected in order to determine the significance of the title and the historical context in which the text came to be compiled. In fact, the text was compiled during a rather complicated era in the history of Buddhism, so critical evaluation of the history of the text is all the more important. However, the following information is presented not without sensitivity to the feelings of those who view this work as the primary source of their philosophical views and spiritual exercises. This is simply evidence that stares at you when you are involved in historical scholarship.

Suzuki and many others who commented on the Lanka believe that two chapters—the first and the eighth—are later additions. There is no doubt that, without these two chapters, the rest of the work appears to be a self-contained unit. Yet, examining this self-contained unit in the context of one of the major treatises of the idealistic Yogacara Buddhism, namely, Asanga’s Abhidhartnasamuccaya, one can raise questions regarding its relevance. Asanga’s Abhidharmasatnuccuya is an extremely well-organized and comprehensive text that attempts to provide an idealistic interpretation of the categories or phenomena (dharnm) that were the subject matter of the Abhidharma. The idealistic interpretation emerges when the dharmas are analyzed in terms of the three truths—the false (parikalpita), the relative (paratantra) and the ultimate (parinif-panna)—considered in a hierarchical order. Presented in the form of questions and answers, Asahga’s treatise deals with almost every category and subcategory of phenomena examined in the Abhidharma tradition. If the historians are correct, the Abhidharmasamuccaya is older than the Lanka. (Asanga’s major works were composed between 333-353 a.d., while the Lanka is believed to have been compiled between 350-400.) 2 Even if they were contemporary, one cannot help asking why it was necessary to compile an obviously unsystematic sutra like the Lanka when there was a more systematic, coherent, and detailed treatment of the same subject in the Abhidharmasamuccaya.

The second chapter of the Lanka (i.e., the beginning of the so-called self-contained original text) starts with a series of questions, 108 in number’s The questions deal with a variety of topics and are presented, unlike in Asanga’s treatise, in an extremely unsystematic way, indicating that the work was put together in haste.

However, there are two important differences between Asanga’s work and the Lanka. First, Asanga’s treatise contains questions and answers presented in an impersonal way, as in the Abhidharma. The Lanka, on the contrary, introduces a little-known bodhisattva, Mahamati, as the questioner and the Buddha as the respondant. This is probably to give the appearance of a “discourse” (sutra), which would carry more authority than a philosophical treatise compiled by an individual. Second, the topics on which Mahamati questions the Buddha are immediately negated. This is reminiscent of one aspect of the methodology adopted in the Vajracchedika, a theme discussed in Chapter xvni.

In spite of this difference, the question raised earlier Calls for an answer. Why was it necessary for the idealistic Yogacara tradition to put together a sutra in such haste, especially when there was already a more comprehensive and systematic treatment of idealism in the work of Asanga? The answer is contained in the title of the work and in the first and eighth chapters, all of which baffled Suzuki. The title Descent into Lanka implies the introduction of Mahayana transcendentalism into a country that had remained faithful to the earlier, pragmatic form of Buddhism introduced during the third century B.C.

Chapter J is interesting because the interlocutor here is not the Bodhisattva Mahamati but the mythical King of Lanka, Ravana, the Lord of the Yaksas, who is said to have ruled Lanka before the advent of the Sinhala race. At Ravana’s invitation, the Buddha is supposed to have appeared on the island and preached the Lanka, embodying “the innermost state of consciousness realized by them [the Tathagatas,] which is not found in any system of doctrine 4. Ravana, is here depicted as an extremely intelligent, pious person who had no difficulty understanding the doctrine taught by the Buddha. In fact, Ravana was able to realize the empty nature of all phenomena (dharmata) without a great deal of effort.1 Criticism of him is rare; he is more often praised as a great person.

In contrast, Chapter 8 is, by allusion, a most severe condemnation of the Sinhala race, which is believed to have colonized the island during the sixth century B.C., and which by this time had come to preserve the Buddhist tradition introduced to the island during the time of Emperor Asoka. One wonders why a chapter entitled “Meat Eating” (Matn-sabhaks’ana) should be a conclusion to such an important philosophical treatise. An allusion to the Sinhala race is found in the following paragraph:

Mahamati, there was another king who was carried away by his horse into the forest. After wandering about in it, he committed evil deeds with a lioness out of fear for his life, and children were born to her. Because of their descending from the union with a lioness, the royal children were called the Spotted-Feet, etc. On account of their evil habit-energy (vasana) in the past when their food had been flesh, they ate meat even [after becoming] king [sic], . . . Falling into such, it will be with difficulty that they can ever obtain a human womb; how much more [difficult] attaining Nirvana! 6

The allusion is clear. The Sinhala race traced its origin to Simhabahu and SimhasTvalr, who were believed to have been the children born to an Indian princess, Suppadevi, who ran away into the jungle and lived with a “lion” (simha). 7 Prince Vijaya, who colonized the island around the sixth century B.C. (long after Ravana), is said to have been the progeny of Simhabahu and SimhasTvalr, and is supposed to have been banished from India because he was the product of incest. Thus the custodians of the Buddhist tradition at the Mahavihara belonged to the so-called Lion-race (siwhala). The chapter on “Meat Eating” thus appears to be no more than a condemnation of the Mahavihara tradition, for a philosophical treatise like the Laiiku could have dealt with more important moral issues than meat-eating. In fact, the compilers of the Lanka were quite aware that the Mahavihara followed the rather liberal views of the Buddha, and even go to the extent of denying a statement in the early discourses attributed to the Buddha regarding meat-eating. 8

This is the internal evidence that the Lanka was meant as a textbook for the conversion of Lanka to Mahayana Buddhism. The external evidence for this view is even more compelling. Lanka does not appear to be a simple, out-of-the-way, solitary island, as Suzuki thought, if we keep in mind the extended ideological battles between the Theravadins and the Mahayanists staged in this part of the world during the third and fourth centuries a.d. While the Mahavihara in Sri Lanka remained the center of Theravada Buddhism, more cosmopolitan Buddhist centers were coming into prominence in South India, especially in places like Nagarjuni-konda. These centers attracted scholars from various parts of the world, including Sri Lanka. It may be remembered that South India produced a number of leading Buddhist scholars like Nagarjuna, Dignaga, Bud-dhaghosa, and Dhammapula.

We have already seen how transcendentalism (lokuttanwada), which came into prominence during the time of Moggaliputta-tissa, reached its culmination in the Lotas. The condemnation of the arhats in the Lotus could not have gone unnoticed by the Theravadins of Sri Lanka, who
Hen had a Sinhalese monastery in Nagarjunikonda. 9 It is during the third century a.d. that we hear of the first major invasion of Sri Lanka by the Mahayanists. It may have been during this time that the Theravadins, who were angered by the Mahayana characterization of their teachings as hmayana (the lowly vehicle), began referring to their opponents as Vaitulyavadins. According to historical records, the uaitulyavada (Pali, vetullavada) made its first appearance in Sri Lanka during the reign of Vohartka-tissa (269-291 a.d.). 10 Urged on by the monks at the Mahavihara, the king suppressed the teachings and expelled their adherents from the island. Its second appearance was during the reign of Gothabhaya (309-322), and was associated with the monastery called Abhayagiri, whose monks had broken away from the Mahavihara. It was probably received with favor by the monks at Abhayagiri, since they had been influenced by the doctrines of the Sautrantikas, 11 who (as mentioned in Chapter xvii), were referred to as those who had “arrived at the portals of Vaipulyasastra.”

Gothabhaya is said to have held an inquiry, suppressed the Vaitulyavadins, burnt their books, and exiled sixty of their leaders from the island. Some of the exiled monks took up residence in Kavlrapattana, Chola country in South India. Walpola Rahula observes that this period coincided with the activities of the Yogacara school in India, 12. Furthermore, the Sri Lankan monks who lived in exile in Kaveri became friendly with a dynamic young monk named Sanghamitra. It was Sanghamitra who came to Sri Lanka, befriended King Mahasena (334-362), and wreaked havoc in the Theravada tradition, compelling the monks of the Mahavihara to flee to the south of the island. For almost a decade, the Mahavihara was deserted. It is reported that Sanghamitra got the king to demolish the buildings at the Mahavihara, including the seven-story Lohtpflsada (“the brazen palace**), and used some of that material to erect new buildings at Abhayagiri. 13 Sanghamitra’s activities sent a shock wave through the length and breadth of the country. King Mahasena himself was unaware of the enormous influence of the Mahavihara until one of his close friends, Meghavanna-Abhaya, who had fled to the South, raised an army and challenged him. Mahasena is aid to have awoken from his slumber, met with his friend, regretted the damage done to the Mahavihara, and promised to restore it.

It is not insignificant that Saiighamitra’s activities in Sri Lanka coincided with the compilation of the Lanka. Even a cursory glance at the Lanka can convince the reader that its basic teachings are not far removed from what the Theravada perceived to be the theory of the “Great Emptiness” (mahasunnatavada) or the tradition of the Vaitu-Jyakas.

If the internal evidence that the Lanka was a Mahayana handbook to be used in converting Sri Lanka is valid, then Sanghamitra and his followers could have propagated no better discourse during their fateful sojourn on that island. Indeed, it would be surprising had Sanghamitra, who was committed to converting the island, arrived there empty-handed. He needed to replace the scriptures of the Mahavihara with his own. Given the seriousness with which he undertook his mission, one cannot easily reject the view that a work entitled Descent into Lanka or The Invasion of Lanka (Lahkavatura), which was subsequently included among the Vaipulya-sfltras, was a handbook for Sanghamitra. The reason none of this literature survived in the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition is that Sanghamitra and his followers were dealt with so severely after the revolt by Meghavanna-Abhaya. Sinhalese historical records say that after the reconciliation between Mahasena and Meghavanna-Abhaya, the angry crowd went on a rampage. One of the king favorite wives, who was bitter about the suffering of the Mahavihara monks, got a carpenter to kill Sanghamitra. Nothing associated with Sanghamitra survived. Even one of his closest friends, a Sinhalese minister named Sona, was slain. It would have been a miracle had any Mahayana literature from this period remained on the island. These events left an extremely bitter feeling among the Theravada monks, so much so that, when Buddhaghosa arrived from the same part of India two centuries later, he was treated with great suspicion.

If these historical events have any validity, and if our surmise about the original intention of the compilers of this work is not too farfetched, there is no reason to be baffled by the Lanka’s extremely unsystematic treatment of subject matter or crude presentation of important philosophical questions. Suzuki himself puts this rather mildly: “For thoughts of deep signification are presented in a most unsystematic manner. As I said in my Studies, the Lanka is a memorandum kept by a Mahayana master, in which he puts down perhaps all the teachings of importance accepted by the Mahayana followers of his day.” 14 Unfortunately, despite the Lanka’s popularity in East Asia, it failed to attract the attention of Buddhists in Sri Lanka, who were too deeply rooted in the tradition representing the less mystical, more empirical and pragmatic teachings of the historical Buddha.


  1. D. Т. Suzuki, Studies in the Lankuvatura (London: Routledgc, 1930), p. 3.
  2. Nakatnura, Indian Buddhism, pp. 231, 264. n. 1,
  3. Lanka 9 p. 23, v. 9. The number 108 puzzled Suzuki. See tr. Suzuki, p. 31, n. 2t continued on p. 32. One explanation is that the title of the chapter “Collection of All Thirty-six Thousand Dharmas” (Sattrimsat-sahasra-sarva-dharma-samuccaya), which Suzuki mistranslates following the Chinese versions (p. 117), possibly refers to 36 dharmas, namely, 5 aggregates (skandha), 12 faculties (dyatana, indriya), and 18 elements (dhatu), to which the Yogacarins were compelled to add alaya-vijnana, not previously included among the 18 elements. When these 36 items are analyzed in relation to the 3 degrees of truth accepted by Yogacara, one can have 108 propositions; hence the number of questions. Yet some of the questions raised here have no relevance to the above dharmas, nor can one be sure of the number of questions—some are single, others contain several queries within one question.
  4. Lanka, p. 5, v. 10.
  5. Ibid., pp. 8-9, v. 38-44; tr. Suzuki, pp. 8-9.
  6. Lanku, tr. Suzuki, pp. 216-217.
  7. See The Mahavamsa, tr. Wilhelm Geiger (Colombo: Government of Ceylon, Information Department, 1960), pp. 51ff.
  8. Lahku, tr. Suzuki, pp. 217-218.
  9. 2S00 Years of Buddhism, ed. P. V. Bapat (New Delhi: Ministry of Education and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1959), p. 295.
  10. See Rahula, History of Buddhism in Ceylon, pp. 87ff.
  11. David J. Kalupahana, “Schools of Buddhism in Early Ceylon,” Ceylon Journal of the Humanities, Peradeniya: I (1970): 159-190.
  12. Rahula, History of Buddhism in Ceylon, p. 93.
  13. Ibid, p. 94.
  14. Lanka, tr. Suzuki, p. xi.