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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 a series of debates held in 1866, 1871, and 1873, Gunananda alone debated the foremost missionaries in Ceylon on the relative merits of their religions.

To the Buddhists of Ceylon, Gunananda was the hands-down winner each time.

In 1866, a charismatic young monk named Mohottivatte Gunananda (1823-1890) challenged the Christian missionaries to a great debate. He had studied not only the Christian scriptures but also rationalist writings of the West that criticized Christianity.

He had already been traveling around the island nation calling for a return to Buddhism and attracting thousands of rapt listeners.

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When Buddhism spread beyond India, the first nations in which it took root were Gandhara and Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka.

Since Buddhism eventually died out in India and Gandhara, it can be argued that the oldest living Buddhist tradition today is found in Sri Lanka.

At the time Ceylon was divided into several warring kingdoms, and the Portuguese took advantage of the chaos to gain control of the island's coasts. According to some accounts -- possibly exaggerated -- when the Portuguese finally were expelled from Ceylon in 1658 only five fully ordained monks remained.

The Portuguese were expelled by the Dutch, who took control of the island until 1795.

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