Ven. Bhikkhuni Dr. W. Suvimalee was born in Colombo in 1939. She is a Theravada Buddhist nun currently residing at the Visakharamaya in Veyangoda in the rural outskirts of Colombo. She is a Buddhist scholar with a PhD in Buddhist Philosophy who was appointed as a Special Collaborator for the Encyclopedia of Buddhism by the Ministry of Religious Affairs (2001 – 2004) and was a lecturer of Buddhist Studies at the Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy in Kandy (2010-2014). Her academic papers on the subject of Buddhism have been presented at several international conferences and forums. Prior to being ordained, she was a writer, journalist and broadcaster. Her notable works include the collection of short stories “Mandara Flower Salon and Other Stories” (2004), which won the State Literary Award for the Best Collection of Short Stories in English; the novel “The Vine” (2001), which won the State Literary Award for the Best Novel in English; the acclaimed protest novel “Lake Marsh” (1993), excerpts from which was included in the “Anthology of Sri Lankan Literature 1948-1998” edited by Professor D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke and published by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs; and a collection of short stories “Bili Pooja” (1973). Excerpts from her novels and her short stories have been included in multiple anthologies of contemporary Sri Lankan, South Asian and Asian literature and published in multiple international literary and academic journals. A number of her short stories were also broadcast over the SLBC and the World Service of the BBC. Her non-fiction work includes script writing and artistic direction of the special radio programme on Anagarika Dharmapala broadcast by the SLBC, for which she received a special written commendation in 1990.

The word Abhayabhumi has been coined recently and is in common parlance in the Sinhala language. However, it has ancient roots. An early reference to forests under state protection (abhayàranya) is found in the comprehensive Indian treatise on Law, the Arthaśàstra of Kautilya of the 4th century B.C.E. Although compiled about a century after the Buddha’s demise, the laws may refer to practices coming down from perhaps even pre-Buddhist times. The reference which is of particular interest here concerns regulations with regard to birds, beasts and fish:

“When a person entraps, kills or molests deer, bison, birds and fish which live in forests under state protection (abhayàranya) he shall be punished with the highest amersement” (1)

Revisiting 2

Buddhist scriptures mention several forests such as Migadàya (given to deer/ animals to live without fear of being killed by man) and Kalandaka Nivàpa (squirrels’ feeding ground). They are said to be of pre- Buddhist origin. These words contain the meaning of ‘abhayàranya’. Mihintale and the Mahàmeghavanàràmaya were offered to Arahant Mahinda by King Devanampiyatissa (250-210 BCE).

The word abhayabhumi, undeniably, has a close connection to abhayàranya. Both words signify the donating of a forest sanctuary where birds, beasts, fish, et al can live enjoying freedom without fear of being killed by human beings. The two words share a common concept. This concept is articulated in the duties set down for a monarch in the Cakkavatti Sihanàda Sutta(2). The duties defined are:

“…to establish guard, ward and protection according to Dhamma… for the king’s own household, his troops, his nobles, and vassals for Brahmins and householders, town and country folk, ascetics and Brahmins, for beasts and birds.” (Emphasis added).

When the Cakkavatti-Sãhanàda Sutta is read carefully with a focused mind it is found that it contains a clarion call for all kings (governments) to conduct their duties according to noble ideals. The responsibility is placed fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the government to provide protection to all peoples and all sentient beings including beasts and birds. Only then will the country prosper.

The Vàsettha Sutta is another very important discourse in this connection. It is found in the Sutta Nipàta.(3) It contains a description of the different species in the animal kingdom and reads like a lesson in zoology. Sutta Nipàta is considered one of the earliest texts in the Sutta Piñaka so it has to be taken serious note of as coming from the Buddha direct. In that text, the Buddha states that human beings form one species in the animal kingdom. There is no visible attitude of superiority presented in the canon towards other animal species. All animals, two-footed, four-footed or many footed, crawling creatures or those that slither around on their bellies, long, medium, short or tinier than atoms, should be enveloped in mettà – loving kindness. Buddhist Teachings do not advocate a man-centered attitude of anthropocentrism with regard to animals. The Buddha discouraged animal sacrifices. Causing harm to animals or human beings is against the very tenets of the Teachings.

A significant passage in the Metta Sutta (4) runs as follows:

“Ye keci pàna bhåtathi
Tasà và thàvarà và anavasesà
Dãgha và ye mahantà và
Majjhimà rassakànuka thålà
Diññhà và ye ca addiññhà
Ye ca dåre vasanti avidåre
Bhåtà và sambhavesã và
Sabbe sattà bhavantu sukhitatthà.

Whatever living beings there may be –
all of them –
Feeble or strong, long or tall,
Stout or medium, short, small or long,
Seen or unseen, those dwelling far or near,
Those who are born or yet to be born,
May all Beings, without exception,
be happy minded.

The Pali words ‘tasà và thàvarà và should be noted. They are translated with the conservative words feeble or strong but some scholars have translated them as moving or immobile, giving an extended meaning of sentient life of all kinds in nature as the two footed, four footed, many footed and also that kind of life that cannot move like trees and plants. Tasà has another meaning stemming from the verb tasanti (trembling in fear) as opposed to unmoved, steadfast, like arahants.

Revisiting 3

In brief, all beings, the Metta Sutta states, should be embraced in one’s feelings of loving kindness which should be developed and radiated upwards, downwards and all around one. This is the recommended attitude one should have towards all beings. Such an attitude of tenderness precludes one from harming any sort of being.

A well-known stanza in the Dhammapada states:

“Sabbe tasanti daņóassa
Sabbe bhàyanti maccuno
Attànam upamam katvà
Na haneyya na ghataye”

“All tremble at the rod, all fear death.
Comparing others with oneself
One should not harm others
Nor cause harm to others”

In the Vinaya Piñaka The Book of the Discipline for Monks and Nuns, the Buddha recommends that when one is throwing away the remains in ones alms bowls, it should not be thrown into running water like streams and rivers because the oil and spices in the food might harm small fish and other living organisms in the water. The remains should be thrown away on bare ground where there are no grasses and plants. These are rules that have been transmitted down through the ages making Buddhist monastics motivated towards thoughts of compassion and consideration towards all forms of life which attitude invariably gently percolates down to the periphery of the lay community rippling into wider and wider circles. Thus for generations, consideration for other lives has become second nature especially to Buddhists in villages where people (unlike urban dwellers) have not been exposed fully to foreign influences.

Emperor Asoka of India in the 3rd century B.C.E. did try to abide by these principles for he even set up animal hospitals throughout his kingdom as did King Buddhadasa of a later period in Sri Lanka.

The Cåla Gosinga Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya is yet another discourse which emphasizes how monastics should conduct themselves in conformity with principles which promote harmony in oneself and with one’s environment. The preparation for doing this entails eliminating unwholesome negative qualities in one and cultivating positive loving kindness towards oneself and the rest of one’s environment.

These ideals have had a powerful impact on kings like Emperor Asoka of India and many kings in Sri Lanka beginning with King Devanampiyatissa who was the first king in Sri Lanka to have been exposed to the Buddhist Teachings through Arahant Mahinda. According to the Mahavaüsa which is an ancient chronicle of Sri Lanka, the meeting of the two took place on the mountain of Mihintale in Anuradhapura on the occasion when the king had gone there to hunt, armed with his bow and arrow. Having listened to the Buddha’s Teachings, the King gifted Mihintale and the Mahameghavana Park to the east of Anuradhapura to Arahant Mahinda and his retinue.(7) This event certainly marks the Abhayabhumi concept being activated on Sri Lankan soil. It can be safely assumed that the taking of life would not be countenanced in such sanctified ground dedicated to the Sangha headed by Arahant Mahinda.

There is evidence in Epigraphia Zeylanica (archaeological reports of ancient rock inscriptions) that several kings who ruled in Anuradhapura were motivated to put into practice the “Mà Ghàta” (Do not kill) prohibition with regard to the killing of animals in interdicted forests and fishing in certain man-made reservoirs. In aranyas dedicated to the Sangha this prohibition would come into operation naturally. The rock inscriptions of some kings of Sri Lanka contain proclamations of certain forests as Forest Reserves. No one was allowed to enter them, like the Sinharaja Adaviya (A Rain Forest) to cut down timber or to hunt for fear of the forest wardens – Käläkorales – who were entrusted with the king’s authority to ensure that laws pertaining to forest reserves were not broken.

So strong was the “abhayabhumi” concept in interdicted forests that even generally the hunting and killing of animals came to be looked down upon especially among the growing Buddhist community in ancient Sri Lanka. The Nãti-Niganduwa, a compendium of indigenous laws of Sri Lanka states that the hunting and killing of animals had been declared unlawful in the upper districts during the last fifty to sixty years of the Kandyan kingdom, on the grounds that it was contrary to the principles of the Buddhist religion.

King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe refused to accept venison brought to him by the Veddhas for religious reasons. (8)

Apparently, it became a policy of the kings of Kandy to protect the thickly wooded mountains of Kandy to where human habitation gradually shifted from the plains around Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Yapahuwa, Dambadeniya, and Kurunegala, etc. to the central hills. The principal reason for protecting the forests was to ensure supplies of water for agricultural purposes in the valleys. The King and people knew the connection between forests and water. But the deeper reason for protecting nature was never lost sight of. Hence the “Tahansi Käles” came into being all over the Central Provinces of Kandy. These protected forests not only preserved underground springs but also indigenous plants and trees and the multifarious species in the animal world.

The following is a valuable nugget of information from an ancient source:

“Very early in the history of the Kandyan Kingdom monasteries had been established in Hant????na and Udavattekäle and offered to the Sangha. Those were sequestered royal forests – Tahansi kälä– which were established by Sinhalese monarchs of the past” (9)

Western conquerors of the island had no regard for indigenous laws. At least, the Portuguese and the Dutch were effectively contained in the coastal areas to engage in their trading activities, but the British ventured to conquer the interior of the island and all but devastated the ‘Tahansi Käles’ to plant first coffee and then, when that failed, to plant tea in their fervor for commerce. They had scant regard for rice cultivation. They sold ‘crown’ land at ridiculously low prices to lure entrepreneurs from Britain. It was much later, after the damage was done that they began to take an interest in archaeology and indigenous flora and fauna and began drawing up ordinances declaring this and that forest a Nature Reserve or Game Sanctuary but not of-course with the original concept of Abhayabhumi.

As for establishing zoos as a mechanism for conservation, that is a totally alien concept to Sri Lanka’s core principles. It is antithetical to the Abhayabhumi concept. Keeping animals confined in cages or in chains and attempting to force breed in this unnatural setting is a far cry from that concept. This fact is borne out by the custom, still extent, of freeing birds from cages and bulls, calves, goats and other animals from the slaughter house, considered a very meritorious act.

The ideal of creating Abhayabhumis is not a thing of the past for Buddhists by any means. But now, after nearly five hundred years of western colonial rule and the influence of mass media and global culture, it is not a wonder that they have to be reminded now and again of their Abhayabhumi heritage.

In conclusion it can be pointed out that the original concept of Abhayabhumi elaborated on in Cakkavatti-Sihanàda Sutta influenced Buddhist thought to such an extent that kings altered their anthropocentric attitudes towards a more balanced and long-sighted view. This is reflected in Pali Literature, especially in the Jataka Tales such as Nigrodhamiga Jatakaya where a charming fable is related which can be appreciate at all levels. The unhappy situation at present, however, is that this culture that arose in the past, though still not altogether extinct, underwent erosion during the last nearly five hundred years of Western colonial rule. What is worse is that pseudo colonial attitudes persist even after sixty years of independence, adding rigid mind-sets to the prevailing mass media and globalized culture. Thanks to the liberal humanistic winds coming with that very same globalizing influences, some activity to improve the conditions of animals and the natural environment is seen to be at work. So, perhaps, it is an opportune time to refresh memories and revisit the Abhayabhumi concept that was so much a living force in ancient Sri Lankan culture.

1. John M. Seneviratne, “Kindness to Birds and Beasts in Ancient India and Ceylon”, Ceylon Antiquary and Literary Register, Vol. vi,
part I, 1920-1, p.9, quoted in Nihal Karunaratna, Udavattekele, the Forbidden Forest of the Kings of Kandy, 1986, p.29, published by
the Department of Archives, Colombo.
2. Majjhima Nikàya
3. One of the books in the Khuddhaka Nikàya
4. Ibid
5. Dhp. V.129, translated by Ven. Narada Thera
6. Majjhima Nikàya
7. See Mahàvaüsa
8. Lorna Srimathie Dewaraja “Revenues of the Kings of Kandy” JRAS (Ceylon Branch) vol. xvi New Series 1972, p.22
9. Asgiri Upatha, translated P.L.Praematilleke, Professor of Archaeology, University of Peradeniya and quoted in Nihal Karunaratna


  1. One of the sadist visions I had in the 1960’s was at the Griffith Park Zoo in L. A. They had a full-grown bengal tiger in a cage about 2 feet longer than from its head to its tail. It constantly paced back and forth with barely enough room to turn around. What a horrible life for this tiger. I will never go to a zoo again!

  2. What a beautiful concept this Abhayabhuni is. We can all learn from mistakes made and work toward having a world without fear. Imagine living in towns and cities where everyone was compassionate.
    What if we all begin by radiating loving kindness today.
    Thank you for offering this ancient concept to readers to consider and hopefully strive for.

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