Nuwan Kulasekara was Australia's tormentor-in-chief, removing four of the hosts' top five on his way to figures of five for 22 as Australia capitulated to 40 for nine.
At that point it looked unlikely they would reach their lowest ever total of 70, scored against England in 1977 and New Zealand in 1986, but numbers nine and 11, Mitchell Starc (22no) and Xavier Doherty (15), combined to add 34 for the last wicket and - at least to some extent - spare Australia's blushes.
Nevertheless, having recorded their third lowest total in ODIs, they face a huge task to avoid going 2-1 down in the five-game series.
Kulasekara's figures were the second best in an ODI at the Gabba, after Chris Woakes' six for 45 for England against the West Indies in 2011.
Michael Clarke won the toss and elected to bat but Australia found themselves in trouble right from the start, losing openers David Warner (four) and Phil Hughes (three) cheaply, as the Sri Lankans bowled a tight line.
Resting Warner for the first two matches of the series paid no immediate dividends for Australia, as he scooped an Angelo Matthews delivery to Shaminda Eranga at mid-off in the third over after an unusually tepid innings. Soon Australia were in dire straits thanks to Kulasekara's devastating spell.
The paceman saw off Hughes in his third over, before claiming David Hussey (four) and George Bailey for a duck with consecutive deliveries in his fourth. The unplayable Kulasekara was not done yet, though, clean bowling both Clarke (nine) and Moises Henriques (two) in the 12th over to leave the Aussies reeling at 30 for six.
Lasith Malinga (three for 14) chipped in with the wickets of Mitchell Johnson (two), Matthew Wade (eight) and Clint McKay (three) to stifle any notions of an Australia fightback.
Ironic cheers rang around the Gabba stands as Australia passed 50 in the 22nd over as Starc and Doherty guided the score past the lowest ever recorded in this form of the game, before Doherty was eventually dismissed by Eranga (one for 12) to end a dismal batting performance.
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