The British government encouraged Christian missions, believing Christianity would have a "civilizing" effect on the "natives." The missionaries opened schools throughout the island to convert the people of Ceylon from their "idolatry." By the 19th century, Buddhist institutions in Ceylon were moribund, and the people were largely ignorant of the spiritual tradition of their ancestors.
Then three remarkable men turned this state of affairs on its head.
Without waiting for a reaction from King Tissa, the Emperor sent his son Mahinda and his daughter Sanghamitta -- a monk and a nun -- to Tissa's court. For several centuries Buddhism flourished in Ceylon.
Travelers reported many thousands of monks and magnificent temples. In the 5th century, the great Indian scholar Buddhaghosa came to Ceylon to study and write his famous commentaries.
Olcott agitated for Buddhist civil rights, wrote a Buddhist Catechism still in use today, and founded several schools.
In 1883, Olcott was joined by a young Sinhalese man who had taken the name Anagarika Dharmapala.
Dharmapala worked tirelessly to promote the study and practice of Buddhism, in Ceylon and beyond.
To the Buddhists of Ceylon, Gunananda was the hands-down winner each time.
The history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka begins with Emperor Ashoka of India (304 - 232 BCE).
Ashoka the Great was a patron of Buddhism, and when King Tissa of Ceylon sent an emissary to India, Ashoka seized the opportunity to put in a good word about Buddhism to the King.
In 1893 he traveled to Chicago to the World Parliament of Religions and presented a paper on Buddhism that emphasized Buddhism's harmony with science and rational thinking.
Dharmapala influenced much of the West's impression of Buddhism.
When Buddhism spread beyond India, the first nations in which it took root were Gandhara and Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka.