Advent of Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera
Poson Poya marks the advent of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, with the arrival of Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera bearing the message of the Gotama Buddha. It is a pivotal point in Sri Lankan history that beckoned national renaissance.
The ardent adherent that Emperor Asoka, who governed ancient India was, embarked on a Dhamma missionary programme in many countries. But long before this, he was known as ‘Chandasoka’ for his tyranny that succeeded in him conquering the entire network of neighbouring states. However, his battle against Kalinga, was a turning point in his life. Shocked by the brutal carnage of the war, Emperor Asoka was soothed by the sight of a samanera (novice bhikkhu) walking peacefully and gracefully by. A brief dialog with the monk, further placated the emperor. He realised the sinful consequences of war and vowed never to resort to violence. Emperor Asoka embraced Buddhism.
At the Third Sanghayana in 235 B.C., in order to propagate the Buddha Sasana, it was decided that Arhant bhikkhus would be deployed as missionaries to nine foreign countries including Greece, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. After all it was the Buddha’s own wish that his disciples “Go forth, O Bhikkhus, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit and happiness of divine beings and human beings. Let not two go by one way: Preach, O Bhikkhus, the Dhamma, excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, excellent in the end, both in the spirit and in the letter. Proclaim the Holy life, altogether perfect and pure.”
And Emperor Asoka’s own son answered the Buddha’s call, albeit centuries after the Buddha’s parinibbhana, on the behest of his preceptor the Ven. Moggaliputta Tissa Maha Thera, to visit Sri Lanka, which took place on Poson Poya. Consequently, Poson Full Moon Day is of utmost significance to all Sri Lankan Buddhists.
Sri Lanka at the time of the arrival of Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera was spiritually depraved, with its people worshiping the sun, moon, trees, rocks and even dead souls. King Devanampiyatissa (Beloved of the Devas), who ruled over Sri Lanka in 3rd century BC, was attending a national festival at Mihintale, Anuradhapura, where he met Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera. The king and some of his men were out hunting. Spying a magnificent dear, the king gave chase with bow and arrow in hand. As the king of the land the kill was his right. But he was stopped short when he heard someone call out “Tissa! Tissa! Stop!” King Devanampiyatissa looked for the one who dared to address him ‘Tissa’. He beheld the radiant Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera and his retinue of monks, shaven headed, draped in saffron robes, up on a high rock. The king forgot his desire for the hunt and approached the Buddha’s disciples with awe.
Seeing that he was ready, the Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera addressed the king:
Samana mayam Maharaja
Tam eva anukampaya
Jambudipa idha gata.
“We are samanas (peaceful ones/monastics), great king,
Disciples of the king of the Dhamma
Out of tender compassion for you
We’ve come from the Rose Apple Continent (India).”
Since Buddhism is not meant for the unwise, Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera gauged the king’s intelligence with a few quarried regarding their natural environment, according to the Mahavansa.
Maharaja, what kind of tree is this?
Venerable this is a mango tree.
Besides this mango tree do you find anymore mango trees?
Yes, Venerable there are plenty of mango trees.
Besides this mango tree, and other mango trees do you find any other trees?
Of course Venerable there are a variety of other trees.
Has thou, Kings folk O’King?
There are many.
Are there also others who are not Kinsfolk?
Yes, Venerable others are in majority than my Kinsmen.
Is there anyone besides Kinsfolk and others?
There is myself, the King.
Pleased with the Kings answers Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera went on to teach the king the Buddha Dhamma through the discourse of the Culahatthipadopama Sutta (Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint). In this sutta, using the analogy of a woodsman trying to track a big bull elephant, the Buddha explains how a disciple reaches complete certainty in the truth of the Dhamma, providing a full account of the gradual training in the path of awakening. “Start, set forth, observe the path of Enlightenment! Destroy the armies of Mara, as an elephant crushing a Bamboo Hut. This path leads to eradicate defilements bringing an end to the sorrowful cycle of births,” goes the sutta.
So pleased with Maha Thera’s explanation of the Dhamma was he, that King Devanampiyatissa took refuge in the Triple Gem, becoming the first lay adherent in Sri Lanka. On the day following that decisive meeting with King Devanampiyatissa, Mahinda Maha Thera arrived at Anuradhapura, with his retinue of monks, where he preached the Petavatthu, the Vimaanavatthu, and the Sacca-samyutta to the royal household, which outlined the consequences of wholesome deeds and repercussions of unwholesome deeds.
On the 27th day following the arrival of Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera, a member of the Royal family, Prince Aritta, and a group of 50 others entered the order of Bhikkhus in Sri Lanka. Nearly 60 rock enclosures they occupied and the Mihindu enclosure, still exists at Mihintale. According to historical records, at the end of the first discourse, Sumana Samanera attained Arhanthood while 40,000 devotees attained the state of ‘Sovan’. Queen Anoma appealed to the King expressing her desire and that of her retinue to enter the Bhikkhuni order.
In consequence, Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera’s sister Theri Sanghamitta came to Sri Lanka, bearing the Right wing Bo sapling of the Jayasiri Maha Bodhi of Buddhagaya. The sacred bodhi, planted at the Mahameuna gardens Anuradhapura, is the worlds oldest tree and is venerated todate as is Aradanagala, Chethiy pabbhata, or Missaka Pawwa where Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera and his retinue descended on Poson Full moon Day. A great Stupa was built there enshrining relics of Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera.
Together Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera and Theri Sanghamitta laid the foundations for the great tradition of Theravada Buddhism. They were generous and diligent in their progressive missionary service.
The pious and devout Buddhist leader, King Devanampiyatissa, not only governed the country without hatred and prejudice for many years, but did much to establish and safeguard the Buddha Sasana.
The Sangha who descended from Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera engaged in Dhamma Missionary service, while the king and his ministers support them by providing four requisites and vital necessities. In turn citizens performed their duties and discharged their responsibilities as pious devotees.
The advent of Arhant Mahinda Maha Thera bearing Buddha Dhamma resulted in a resplendent moral civilization and social, economic and cultural endowments. Hence, Poson Poya is of great consequence to Sri Lankan Buddhists.