Lankan Buddhist prelates of fame | Sunday Observer

Lankan Buddhist prelates of fame

19 September, 2021

The 18th death anniversary of the most Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha Thera, who was the Chief Prelate (Mahanayaka) of the Sri Lanka Amarapura Sect fell on September, 8 and the fifth death anniversary of the most Ven. Nauyane Ariyadhamma Thera, who was the Anunayaka of the Sri Lanka Ramanna Sect fell on September, 7.

When looking back at our history, it is clear that the Sangha community (bhikkhus) in the country, beginning with Arahant Mahinda, faced many difficulties and challenges at various times, but in the face of all these, they worked to protect the Dharma-Vinaya and to preserve the Buddha Sasana.

Among them, Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha Thera and Ven. Nauyane Ariyadhamma Thera can be identified as two Theras, who have rendered an immense service to the Sasana in recent times.


Madihe Pannaseeha Nayaka Thera was born on June, 21, 1913 in a village of Madihe in the Matara District, as the youngest in a family of five.

His parents were James Carolis Poojithagunawardena and Bela Anjaleena Dheerasekera. His lay name was Benson Wilmot and he had his education in the English medium at St. Thomas’ College, Matara and later at Mahinda College, Galle.

At the age of 13 years he entered the Buddhist Order. His ordination was held at Devagiri Vihara, Kabmurugamuwa, on June, 24, 1926. He was named ‘Madihe Pannasheeha’ at the ordination.

After some time, Ven. Palane Siri Vajiragnana, who was the then Chief Incumbent of the Vajirarama Temple in Bambalapitiya invited Pannaseeha Thera to the temple and there he carried out Pali and other studies at length.

The Maha Nayaka Thera visited China in 1946 for the propagation of Theravada Buddhism.

The Thera also visited Kathmandu in Nepal for a higher ordination of Bhikkhus in 1951 and in 1954 to establish a Seema Malaka in Lalith Pura, Nepal and he renamed the Buddhist Vihara there from “Young Sumangala Vihara” to “Sri Sumangala Vihara”.

Meanwhile, an election by secret vote was held on November 27, 1955, at the Vajiraramaya, Bambalapitiya, to select the Chief Prelate to succeed Ven. Palane Vagiragnana Thera.

At the election 141 bhikkhus of the Amarapura Sect cast their votes, and Pannaseeha Thera received 109, while the other contender received only 32 votes.

Accordingly, Pannaseeha Thera was elected as the Chief Prelate of the Amarapura Sri Dharmarakkhita Sect by a clear majority vote.

The certificate for the appointment of the Chief Prelate was handed over at the Vajiraramaya Bambalapitiya, in the presence of a very large gathering of distinguished guests.

A few days after the appointment, a group had called on Pannaseeha Thera to incorporate all sects of the Amarapura Sect to one.

Accordingly, a Vinaya Karma was held at Maharagama on July 13 and it not only united the Sect, but also made Pannaseeha Thera the head of the entire Amarapura Sect.

Pannaseeha Thera visited Burma in January, 1954, and attended the Sixth Buddhist Council, and in 1956 during the 2500 Buddha Jayanthi he took part in the establishment of a Seema Malaka in Burma.

He also left for the United States on March, 27, 1964 on an invitation from the Asia Foundation to gain an idea of the educational training prevailing there, ways and means of rural development, and also for the propagation of Theravada Buddhism in the US.

The Thera spent five months there and made arrangements to establish a Buddhist temple in Washington in 1964. Other places he visited were England, West Indies, Scotland, Denmark, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore.

On his return he established the Buddhist Information Centre at Greenpath, Colombo, and the first of its kind in order to furnish information to anyone who is interested in Buddhism and the World Buddhist Directory is published by this Information Centre.


After returning from the US, Pannaseeha Thera organised the program called Thurunu Saviya at Maharagama to organise and train the youths of Sri Lanka.

This movement attracted many youth and this resulted in a society called Samma Ajeeva Sangamaya, which was established in 1974.

This was necessary to counter the increasing rate of drug addiction and alcoholism among the youth of Sri Lanka. Pannaseeha Thera also played a vital role in the rehabilitation of youths after the 1971 insurrection.


In addition, the Dharma Vijaya Foundation established in 1979 under the patronage of Pannaseeha Thera had noble objectives to make Sri Lanka a Dharma Deepa or a country where righteous people live, to develop the economy and the culture of the country simultaneously and also to serve the poor in their social needs and education.

He also boldly gave true guidance to the nation in the face of serious national crises such as the takeover of private schools by the Government, the Poya holiday issue, youth unrest and terrorism.

For over six decades, Pannaseeha Thera has been able to guide the country to a social transformation from the fourfold aspects of economics, education, health and morality based on Buddhist social values, based on the motto, “The country cannot be developed without developing the people, let’s develop the country while developing people too”

Pannaseeha Thera was conferred an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Peradeniya in 1987, and received the honorific title Agga Maha Pandita from Burma in the year 1996. He passed away on September, 9, 2003 at the age of 90.

Ven. Nauyane Ariyadhamma Thera

Ariyadhamma was born on April, 24, 1939 to a traditional Buddhist family in Kurunegala and was educated at the Government school in Nilagama.

His father, Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Kalubanda was a supporter of late Ven. Weegoda Bodhirakkhita Thera, who was resident at the nearby Nauyana forest monastery.

The close relationship with the bhikkhus from childhood inspired his decision to ordain, and he was trained under Ven. Weegoda Bodhirakkhita Thera in 1956 as an upasaka, following which he became a bhikkhu on March, 27, 1957 under Ven. Matara Sri Gnanarama Thera and Ven. Kadawedduwa Jinawamsa Thera.

He received upasampada on July, 15, 1959 with Ven. Madawala Dhammatilaka Thera as the upajjhaya.


Ariyadhamma Thera studied under several learned elders, including Ven. Getamanne Sri Vimalavamsa Thera, Ven. Kadawedduwe Sri Jinavamsa Thera, Ven. Devagoda Mangalasiri Thera and Ven. Matara Sri Gnanarama Thera. He studied the Burmese language from Ven. Nyaninda Sayadaw Thera while the latter was in Sri Lanka in 1964.

Ariyadhamma Thera, who has been working in various monasteries throughout Sri Lanka since 1965 and has been teaching the Tripitaka Dhamma, Linguistics and Meditations to young bhikkhus, also conducted trainings at the Mirigama Teachers’ Training College Colombo under the guidance of Pannaseeha Thera.

Affirming the fact that Ariyadhamma Thera was one of the foremost bhikkhus who immensely contributed to the promotion of meditation not only among the bhikkhus, but also among the youths, Pannaseeha Thera once said “I consider Ariyadhamma Thera to be the foremost of the Karmatthanacharyas in Sri Lanka”.

Ariyadhamma Thera was proficient in Pali and Sanskrit and had extensive knowledge of the Pali Canon and the Pali commentaries.

He was a teacher at the Gunawardena Yogasrama (the headquarters of Sri Kalyani Yogasrama Samstha) from 1965 to 1995. Later he was appointed the registrar of Sri Kalyani Yogasrama Samstha in 1969, a position he held until being appointed the spiritual advisor and head of the organisation in 2003.


In this capacity, Ariyadhamma Thera led about 1,500 bhikkhus who were residing in 193 branch monasteries.

During the 1960s, Ariyadhamma Thera studied the Mahasi meditation system under Ven. Matara Sri Gnanarama Thera, and was guided in traditional Sri Lankan meditation methods by Ven. Matale Silarakkhita Thera of the Ruwangirikanda Aranya. He did retreats at Mahasi centres in Burma in 1992 and 1993.

In 1996, Ariyadhamma Thera practised under Ven. Sayadaw U Āciṇṇa (Pa-Auk Tawya Sayadaw) at Pa-Auk Meditation Centre in Mawlamyine, Burma.

On returning to Sri Lanka in the beginning of 1997, he introduced the method to the Sri Kalyani Yogasrama Samstha, and there are several monasteries in the organisation now practicing the Pa-Auk method. Ariyadhamma Thera did further retreats at the same centre in 1997, 2001 and 2010.

He taught meditation to bhikkus and lay practitioners since 1977. In 2006, he was awarded the Mahākammaṭṭhānācariya (‘Great Meditation Teacher’) title by the Government of Burma in recognition of his services in teaching Dhamma and meditation.

In addition, the Sri Lanka Ramanna Sect awarded Ariyadhamma Thera the titles of Tripiṭaka Vāgīśvarācārya and Mahopādhyāya.

He has written more than 100 books and booklets in Sinhala on meditation and Dhamma. A few of these have even been translated to English.

Ariyadhamma Thera, who rendered an immense service to the Buddha Sasana, passed away on September, 7, 2016, at the age of 77.

The life stories of both these great bhikkhus are extremely wonderful and exemplary to the present generation of bhikkhus.

They kept discipline in the forefront and did not like to violate any rule even when they were ill. They did not consider any differences such as sect, religion or race. Even though they did not earn physical comforts, they created a generation of virtuous and wise students.

Let’s hope that the memories of such great characters will remain in the Sasana of this country for many more centuries to come.