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Encyclopaedia of Buddhism

Compiling Encyclopaedia of Buddhism is one of milestones in the recent history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka (earlier Ceylon). It was initiated as one of several undertakings of Laṅkā Bauddha Maṇḍalaya (Buddhist Council of Ceylon) set up in connection with the celebration of Buddha Jayanti, 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s parinirvāṇa (passing away) (1955-1956). The encyclopaedia was planned to contain all the key terms pertaining to Buddhism in general that cover all schools and sects of Buddhism covering their teachings, literature, culture, history, arts, archaeology and related current issues.

Prof. G.P. Malalasekera, a renowned Pāli scholar and then professor of Pāli and Buddhist civilization, University of Ceylon (presently Peradeniya University) was the founder editor-in-chief, who established the structure of the encyclopaedia taking into consideration the views and suggestions of the world-renowned Buddhist scholars. He continued his valuable service to the encyclopaedia until his death at 73 in 1973. In his service of 17 years he completed virtually all the ground work and published two volumes completely, with four fascicles for each volume, and three fascicles of the third volume.

After Prof. Malalasekera the compilation of the encyclopaedia was handed over to four editors-in-chief consecutively, O. H. De A. Wijesekera, Jotiya Dhirasekera, Bandhula Jayawardhana and W.G. Weeraratne. The eighth and last volume, which has only three fascicles, was published in 2009. Each volume comprises approximately 750 pages, which makes the whole work containing 5,878 pages of B4 size ending with the term Zong a-han.

From the beginning the encyclopaedia was printed at the Ceylon Government Press under patronage of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, and at present the project is run by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana.

At present, newly appointed editorial board, with Prof. Asanga Tilakaratne as editor-in-chief, has started reviewing the entire project for updating contents, filling any missing material, and compiling an index volume. Launching the whole work gradually to the internet is an important part of the mandate of the current editorial board.


Introducing the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism in the preface of Volume of Specimen Articles published in 1957 Prof. Malalasekera states that:

Buddhism covers a vast expanse, both of time and space. The encyclopaedia aims at giving a comprehensive account of the origins of this world-religion and the development that have taken place during a period of twenty-five centuries. To deal with Buddhism is to deal with a whole civilisation, in fact, a whole series of civilisations, which have influenced the lives of myriads of human beings in many lands. Satisfactory treatment of the subject should, thus, include information about the doctrines of Buddhism and their growth, the history of their spread and expansion, accounts of the numerous Buddhist Schools and Sects, their origin and subsequent ramification, description of Buddhist rites and ceremonies as found in many lands, the history of the fine arts – paintings and sculpture, architecture, music, dance and drama – under the influence of Buddhism in various countries, details of Buddhist shrines and places of pilgrimage and of the vast literature connected with the Buddhism which developed in many languages, both ancient and modern, and biographies of persons who, in the course of Buddhist history, played important parts. Even so, the list of topics would not be exhausted.

At the outset, the style and structure of the encyclopaedia were hard to be determined since there was no previous model to be followed. Prof. Malalasekera elaborates this issue lucidly thus:

… It is made more difficult by the fact that we have no model to follow: that ours, in a sense, is pioneer work. The encyclopaedias already available dealing with various religions differs from ours either in their scope or in the method of treatment they have adopted. Thus, the Encyclopaedia Biblica deals only with information connected with the Bible, while the Catholic Encyclopaedia is a presentation of the of the Roman Catholic point of view not only on matters strictly connected with Christianity but on numerous other matters as well, Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics is, for our purpose, too wide in scope and extent, while the Encyclopaedia Islamica requires a knowledge of Arabic for it to be readily used. Mochizuki’s Bukkyo Daijiten is, unfortunately for us, published in Japanese

The suggestion at the inception was to compile ten independent volumes on different titles such as the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, the History and Archaeology of Buddhism, Fine Arts, Buddhist Literature, Sociological Elements, Proper Names and last two for general indexes, but this was given up after the consultation of experts, for it could consume excessive editorial labour delaying the publication of encyclopaedia unexpectedly and, in addition, it might have a risk of missing some important entries. Eventually, the encyclopaedia was designed to follow the method of English Alphabetical Order as presented in Hastings’ Encyclopaedia with two minor amendments as follows

  1. While transliterating Pāli and Sanskrit headwords, diacritical marks were applied without calculating their articulation variations in sorting. Therefore, for instance, the terms Abrahmacariyā, Abṛhat, Ābramhaṇa Abrupt Doctrine are in order.
  2. For a given topic there are, sometimes, multiple articles written in different angles without overlapping the content and usually supplementary to each other in nature.

Transliteration is an indispensable part of any sort of Buddhist glossary. However, for the most part, there was no universally accepted standard of transliterating at the time of the encyclopaedia’s commencement. Transliteration applied in the encyclopaedia was, then, as thus: for Chinese, the Wade-Giles system; for Japanese, the Hepburn system; for Pāli, Sanskrit, Sinhalese and Tamil as standardised by Geiger; for Burmese, Korean, Tibetan and other oriental languages the orthographic transcription generally accepted by scholars, and lexicographers, and for Siamese as suggested by H. H. Prince Dhani Nivat. In certain cases, some canonical words such as Saṅgha for the Buddhist monastic order, Arahant for Saint, karma/kamma for action, have been retained as such in preference to a dubious English rendering with a connotation foreign to Buddhism. There are plenty of cross-references too especially focusing on the readers who are not familiar with such technical terms. An additional remark should be dropped here pointing that the current editorial board is of opinion to revise some of these stylistic features of the encyclopaedia in the light of more popular encyclopaedias now.

Finally, it should be noted that all the entries of the encyclopaedia do not share equal weight of information depending on the significance of the term. As mentioned above, all the possible words brought from every school and sect of Buddhism are discussed here but in varying degrees: for some keywords, like Ākāṅkṣitamukha, have a dictionary-like description of a few lines but for others, like Jātaka, have lengthy articles running more than10 pages. However, this characteristic and few others are being discussed to be revised in the forthcoming edition.

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