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Sanghamitta

Few disciples were as important as Sanghamitta in the early history of Buddhism. As a young nun, Sanghamitta fearlessly set sail from India to Sri Lanka, where she helped establish Theravada Buddhism.Barbara Crossette

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Motionless in the midday heat, the old nuns sat watching a stranger cross the dusty courtyard toward a small temple. The altar was heaped with flowers. They were lay women who had donned robes and found refuge at this holy place as they neared the end of their lives. They showed no expression until asked about the platform that rises in stages behind the temple, capped by a golden fence that guards the holiest of trees. “Sanghamitta’s tree!” they said, breaking into smiles. Sanghamitta was their patron saint, and though she may be forgotten elsewhere, this place—the ancient Sri Lankan city of Anuradhapura—remembers her.

In the early history of Buddhism’s southeastward advance across Asia, there were few disciples as important as Sanghamitta, daughter of the Indian emperor Ashoka. Feeling remorse after his bloody campaign on the battlefield of Kalinga—one of the fiercest of a series of battles that he fought to enlarge and consolidate his empire—Ashoka commenced a “reign of dharma.”

Sanghamitta, a nun of barely eighteen, and others from her order set sail from India in the third century B.C.E., carrying to the sultry green island of Sri Lanka a branch of the sacred Maha Bodhi tree, under which Siddhartha, the Buddha Shakyamuni, had attained enlightenment. Sanghamitta and her brother, Mahinda, soon established the first center of Theravada Buddhism outside India. And from here, amid the glassy reservoirs and fertile fields of a sophisticated ancient civilization, Theravada Buddhism made the leap to Burma and Siam, now Thailand, and on into Indochina.

The miraculous branch of the Buddha’s Bodhi tree, which legend says jumped of its own volition into a vase waiting to take it on its journey, was planted with great ceremony and still lives in the holy city of Anuradhapura. Over the years, a grove of bo trees formed around the original tree, and offshoots rose up throughout the island. Although frailer than some of its offspring, Sanghamitta’s bo is hailed not only as the oldest tree in the world but also as the symbol of the rooting and flowering of Buddhism on Sri Lanka . . .

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