Buddhaghōsa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background

April 8, 2017; Revised April 29, 2017; August 28, 2022

1. Acariya Buddhaghōsa has strongly influenced Thēravāda Buddhism for the past 1500 years. Before examining his commentaries — especially the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) –, we will discuss some significant events before his time and why he came to Sri Lanka to compose those commentaries.

2. First, we note that only Arahants participated in the first four Buddhist Councils (Sangāyanā), and the fourth one was held at the Aluvihāra Monastery (a rock temple) near present-day Mātalē in the Central Province of Sri Lanka in 29 BCE; see, “Preservation of the Dhamma.”

  • The Tipiṭaka was written down fully (as it exists today) for the first time in this fourth Sangāyanā in Pāli with Sinhala script (Pāli does not have its alphabet).
  • So, it is important to keep three things in mind: (i) Genuine Dhamma existed in 29 BCE with Arahants also completing the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, (ii) What we have in the Tipiṭaka today is this version, and therefore we can have confidence that the true teachings of the Buddha are in the Tipiṭaka, (iii) Tipiṭaka was written down in Pāli with Sinhala alphabet.

3. Secondly, many parts of the Tipiṭaka are in a condensed form, as discussed in “Sutta – Introduction “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.” Today, there is a tendency to translate Tipiṭaka suttā word-by-word, which has led to significant confusion and many contradictions, as discussed in that post.

  • Starting at the time of the Buddha, commentaries were composed to expand and explain the key concepts in a condensed form designed for easy oral transmission. We must remember that the Tipiṭaka was not written down for around 500 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha. During that whole time, it survived only because it was in a designed form for ease of remembering; thus, many details were omitted.
  • For example, Buddha’s first discourse, “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11),” took many hours to deliver, but the sutta was condensed to just a few pages of verse. It is impossible to condense all that information in a sutta for mostly oral transmission that was available at the time. In those early days, Bhikkhus explained the details when they delivered desana or discourses to the public.
  • Therefore, in addition to the Tipiṭaka being orally transmitted through generations, the details were also orally transmitted. However, when Buddha Dhamma started declining around 100-200 CE, those details stopped being transmitted (there were not enough Ariyā, or those who attained magga phala, to pass down correct explanations). Of course, the easy-to-memorize verses of the Tipiṭaka were faithfully transmitted.
  • That last bullet explains a key problem that we have today. Even though the Tipiṭaka remains intact, there have not been many Ariyā within the past hundreds of years to explain the key concepts in the Tipiṭaka; but thanks to late Waharaka Thero, that has changed; see, “Parinibbāna of Waharaka Thero.”

4. Even though a few commentaries were composed in the time of the Buddha in Pāli (we have three in the Tipiṭaka; see below), most of them were written later on in Sinhala (especially after the time of Ven. Mahinda) when written language became more common.

  • Up to the time of Buddhaghōsa (after about 700 years from the time of Ven. Mahinda), there would have accumulated a vast number of such commentaries called Sinhala Atthakathā, which means “accounts of the truth” (attha + kathä). However, most of those were likely destroyed when the Mahavihara was burned before Buddhaghōsa arrived in Sri Lanka; see below.
  • Buddhaghōsa’s task was to translate those from Sinhala to Pāli. Instead, he just made a few of his commentariesespecially the Visuddhimagga — where he incorporated his Vedic concepts in themsee below.

5.  As given in the timeline in the post mentioned in #1, an important event occurred before the arrival of Buddhaghōsa in Sri Lanka, which led to the possible destruction of many original commentaries; this was the establishment of the Abhayagiri Vihara in Anuradhapura around 100 BCE. This led to the degrading of Buddha Dhamma in Sri Lanka, which was then accelerated by the writing of the Visuddhismagga, as we discuss below.

  • Over several decades, Abhayagiri Vihara became a rival to the Mahavihara, which had been the center of religious activity since Ven. Mahinda (King Devanampiyatissa).
  • The arrival of a body of monks from Pallarama in India, who belonged to the Vajjiputta Nikāya, apparently started this schism between the two Vihara (p. 29, Ref. 3). This sect descended from those who were expelled from the Thēravāda by Ven. Moggaliputta Tissa Thero at the Third Sangāyanā.

6. Later, during the reign of King Voharaka Tissa (215-237 CE), Abhayagiri Vihara adopted the Vaitulya Piṭaka. It is no coincidence that by this time, Mahāyāna had become dominant in India.

  • When the Mahavihara raised objections to this new development, King  Voharaka Tissa appointed minister Kapila to investigate and, on his recommendation, ordered all Vaitulya books to be burnt.
  • A key point to remember is that “Literary activity in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) declined and, it seems, fell into virtual abeyance between 150 CE and 350 CE, as will appear below” (Ref. 1, p. xxiii).

7. During King Gothabhaya’s reign (254-267 CE), the Vaitulyan heresy raised its head again, and the King took action. He not only burnt their books but branded 60 of their leaders and expelled them.

  • Those expelled settled down at Kavira in South India. While they were there, a recruit by the name of Sangamitta joined them.
  • One day, while bathing, Sangamitta saw the branding on the backs of the others and learned what had happened in Sri Lanka. He vowed to take revenge.

8. Sangamitta went to Sri Lanka and won the confidence of King Gothabhaya, who appointed Sangamitta to tutor his two sons.

  • When King Gothabhaya died, his elder son Jettha Tissa became King, but he was not that attached to Sangamitta, so Sangamitta returned to India. When Jettha Tissa died 14 years later, the younger brother, Mahasena, became King.

9. Mahasena was very much attached to Sangamitta, and Sangamitta decided to return to Sri Lanka, realizing that his time to take revenge had come.

  • On Sangamitta’s advice, King Mahasena started a process of damaging the Mahavihara and the Buddha Dhamma in Sri Lanka. He prohibited providing alms to Mahavihara, and bhikkhus at Mahavihara migrated to other parts of the country over time.
  • By this time, Buddhism in Sri Lanka was in decline due to other factors, including the rise of Mahāyāna in India. Arahants were scarce on the Island; if there were some, they would have been in remote regions.

10. For nine years, Sangamitta lived in glory, plundering the properties of Mahavihara and eventually burning down the seven-story building with its libraries (p. 47 of Ref. 3). People became angry with what happened to Mahavihara, and a rebellion was started by a minister of the King named Meghavaranabhaya.

  • However, before a battle took place, the minister was able to meet the King and explain why he needed to make amends to the Mahavihara to appease the populace. The King apologized and rebuilt the Mahavihara.
  • However, people were quite angry at Sangamitta, who was killed on the orders of a queen of the King, probably without the knowledge of the King.

11. The damage had been done. It is also said that when the King rebuilt the Mahavihara, it was mostly those at the Abhayagiri who took residence at the restored Mahavihara. Therefore, when Buddhaghōsa visited the Mahavihara, the bhikkhus there could have been those originally belonging to the Abhayagiri sect.

  • Furthermore, It is possible that many of the original Sinhala Atthakathā were destroyed when the Mahavihara was burned to the ground. Even though copies of the Tipiṭaka were at many different locations scattered throughout the country, it is not known how many of the Atthakathā had copies.
  • In any case, none of those original Sinhala commentaries exist today.
  • Mahāyāna was taking root in India and possibly contributed to the degrading of Thēravāda in Sri Lanka as well. Sanskrit became the “language of the pundits” (with many new Sanskrit sutras written by Nagarjuna, Vasudeva, etc.), and Pāli was losing the battle; see “Incorrect Thēravāda Interpretations – Historical Timeline.”

12. By the time Buddhaghōsa arrived in Sri Lanka (during the reign of King Mahanama between 412-434 CE), some of those Atthakathā might have still been there.

  • Ven. Nyanamoli says  (p. xviii of Ref. 1), “..There are references in these works (by Buddhaghōsa) to “Ancients (Porana) or “Former Teachers (Pubbacariya)” as well as to several Sinhalese Commentaries additional to the three referred to in the quotation given earlier. The fact is that a complete body of commentary had been built up during the nine centuries or so that separate Bhandantacariya Buddhaghōsa from the Buddha..” and “..This body of material — one may guess that its volume was enormous — Bhandantacariya Buddhaghōsa set himself to edit and render into Pāli (the Tipiṭaka itself had been left in the original Pāli)..”
  • By the way, “Porāna” is a Sinhala word (now Puräna), meaning ancient.
  • The detailed explanations in those Atthakathā were held in high esteem among the remaining Buddhists in India. As we see below, this is where Buddhaghōsa came into the picture.
  • So, it appears that even though some of the Sinhala Atthakathā were burned with the destruction of the Mahavihara, some had survived in other locations and were brought back to the rebuilt Mahavihara.

13. Buddhaghōsa was born into a vedic brahmin family who lived close to the Bodhi Tree in India. He mastered the three Vedas and was a well-known vedic scholar. He was converted to Buddhism by a Bhikkhu Revata who lived in that region in India.

  •  Law (p. 6 of Ref. 2) writes that Ven. Revata told Buddhaghōsa, “..The Sinhalese  Atthakatha are genuine. They were composed in the Sinhala language by the inspired and profoundly wise Mahinda, who had previously consulted the discourse of the Buddha, authenticated at the three convocations (Sangāyanā), and the dissertations and arguments of Sariputto and others, and they are extant among the Sinhalese. Repairing thither, and studying the same, translate (them) according to the rules of the grammar of the Maghadhas (Pāli). It will be an act conducive to the welfare of the whole world”. Malalasekara (p.66 of Ref 3) gives a very similar account of that request.
  • Ven. Nyanamoli also gives a detailed account of how Ven. Revata recruited Buddhaghōsa for the project on pp. xxxiv-xxv (Introduction) of Ref. 1. Also see pp. 31-39 of Ref. 2 and pp. 64-69 of Ref. 3.

14. The important position assigned in the Thēravāda tradition to the work of Buddhaghōsa is evident from the following quote from Ref. 1 (p. xli):

  • “..The doctrines (Dhamma) of the Thēravāda Pāli tradition can be conveniently traced in three main layers. (1) The first of these contains the main books of the Pāli Sutta Piṭaka. (2) The Abhidhamma Piṭaka, notably the closely related books, the Dhammasangayaṃi, Vibhanga Patthana. (3). The system the author of the Visuddhimagga completed or found completed, and he set himself to edit and translate back into Pāli ..”.
  • Even today, many Theravadins use the Visuddhimagga and don’t bother to consult the Tipiṭaka.

15. Sinhala tradition assigns the arrival of Buddhaghōsa in Sri Lanka 965 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, according to Malalasekara (p. 66). This is consistent with the above timeline.

  • Upon arriving at the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, Buddhaghōsa requested those Atthakathā from the authorities. They were initially reluctant, but after verifying that he was a scholar, they gave him access to the books (Refs. 1-3).
  • Law (p. 8 of Ref 2) says, “..Taking up his residence in the secluded Ganthakaro viharo at Anuradhapura, he translated, according to the rules of the Maghdhas, which is the root of all languages, the whole of the Sinhalese Atthakathā (into Pāli)”.

16. This assertion that Buddhaghōsa “translated Sinhalese Atthakathā into Pāli” is incorrect.

  • He incorporated many of his vedic concepts (breath meditation, kasina meditation, etc.) and made his commentaries, as I will discuss in the next post.
  • The obvious inconsistencies of the Visuddhimagga with the Tipiṭaka and the remaining three original Pāli commentaries (still in the Tipiṭaka) are discussed in “Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis.”

17. Law makes the following interesting statement (p. 38 of Ref. 2): “..Buddhaghōsa’s task of translating was finished in three months. Having observed the Pavarana, he informed the congregation’s chief of completing his task. The Samgharaja praised him much and set fire to all the works written by Mahinda in Sinhalese..”. We can make two observations:

  • If the work was completed in three months, as Law says, Buddhaghōsa did not even have time to go through the whole of the Sinhalese Atthakathā, even if only a part of it was left.
  • It is hard to believe that the chief Bhikkhu set fire to the original books. However, ALL those Sinhalese Atthakathā were indeed lost after the Buddhaghōsa.

18. In the next post in this section, “Buddhaghōsa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis,” I discuss why Visuddhimagga does not represent Buddha Dhamma.

  • However, as we discussed above, all of the Sinhala Atthakathā were lost soon after the publication of Visuddhimagga, and Visuddhimagga became the sole source for explaining Tipiṭaka material.
  • It became customary just to use the Visuddhimagga and not even consult the Tipiṭaka until recent times, especially until the “discovery of Buddhism” by the Europeans who started translating the Tipiṭaka and Buddhaghōsa’s works. See the details in the “Historical Background” section.

19. Furthermore, When Europeans started translating the Tipiṭaka (starting with Rhys Davis and others), they translated suttā word-by-word to English, a practice that continues today.

  • However, It is not a good idea to translate Pāli suttā word-by-word, and those early commentaries were critically important to expand on the Tipiṭaka material. This is discussed in “Sutta – Introduction.”
  • In addition, those early European scholars made a huge mistake by incorrectly translating the Pāli words anicca and anatta as impermanent and “not-self”; see, “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.”
  • This is why the work of the late Waharaka Thero is so important. He was able to “re-discover” the meanings of the key Pāli words by perusing the remaining three original Pāli commentaries  of Patisambhidamagga, Petakopadesa, and Nettippakarana; see “Preservation of the Dhamma“.


1. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), by Bhadantacariya Buddhaghōsa (translated by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli), BPS edition, 1999. The Introduction (by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli) provides a historical background.

2. The Life and Work of Buddhaghōsa, by Bimula Charan Law (Low Price Publications, Delhi, 1923), 2005 edition.

3. The Pāli Literature of Ceylon, by G. P. Malalasekara (Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, Delhi, 1928), 2010 edition.

Next, “Buddhaghōsa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis“,.

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