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Jesuit teacher initiates Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Sri Lanka

Tulana Research Center is a center of learning, culture and theological renewal

UCA News reporter, Kelaniya

UCA News reporter, Kelaniya

Updated: October 12, 2020 11:10 AM GMT
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Jesuit teacher initiates Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Sri Lanka

Father Aloysius Pieris stands alongside a unique vision of Christ in 'Jesus Washing the Feet of his Disciples,' a sculpture by a Buddhist monk at Tulana art gallery. (Photo: YouTube)

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Father Aloysius Peiris is the founding director of the Tulana Research Center for Encounter and Dialogue. The Jesuit priest teaches laypeople and clergy students the value of Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

Tulana is a combination of a mini-university, a center for interreligious dialogue (mainly Buddhist-Christian), a center for social animation, a place for various cultural expressions and exchanges, and a seat for theological renewal.

Tulana art gallery displays expressions of Buddhist understanding of Christianity in various forms of art created by Sri Lankans

Aruna Shantha Nonis, editor of the news site Sachchan and convener of Born To Win Relationships, has visited Tulana several times. “It is like an art gallery rich in sculptures, wall paintings of Buddhist culture, statues, music, books and movies,” he says.

Nonis is impressed that a Buddhist monk has depicted Jesus washing the feet of his disciples in a sculpture.

Ven. Hatigammana Uttarananda Thera, sculptor, painter and poet, has contributed many of his works to the Tulana art gallery that houses an important collection of Buddhist art interpreting Christianity.

The monk created Our Lady of Refugees during a violent period of the civil war in 1989. A Sandakada Pahana (Moon-stone) meets you at the entrance to the gallery

Nonis said these unusual art forms express the faith and dialogue of Christians and Buddhists.

"Father Pieris is a very simple priest who smiles innocently but honestly. There is a smile on his face every moment," he said.

Father Pieris was born on April 9, 1934, and joined the Jesuits on Dec. 23, 1953. He took vows in 1953 and became a priest on July 4, 1965.

The 86-year-old priest hails from Kandy, 120 kilometers inland from Colombo, but he established Tulana in Kelaniya, Colombo. He is a theologian, researcher and erudite scholar who earned the first doctorate in Buddhist studies ever awarded to a non-Buddhist (and a Catholic priest) by the University of Sri Lanka. He has three theological degrees and also holds a first-class honors degree in Pali and Sanskrit from the University of London.

Father Pieris has been a professor at about 20 reputed universities including Cambridge, London, and Oxford. He has authored 20 books and has published about 300 research papers in local and international journals.

Tilburg University in the Netherlands awarded him another doctorate in Asian theology of liberation. During the 1980s, he became a very important resource to the Asian Bishops' Conference.

Father Pieris and Sister Greta Nalawatta founded the Centre of Education of Hearing Impaired Children in 1982. He is patron and a member of the board of trustees.

Precious resource

A senior Catholic priest who taught as a lecturer at Sri Lanka's major seminary said Father Pieris is the local Catholic Church's most precious resource.

The priest said Father Pieris' services to interfaith reconciliation were immense and he was the teacher of many Catholic priests as well as many Buddhist monks.

Over the years Tulana has developed as a mini-university where scholars from Sri Lanka and abroad come for research, consultation and thesis supervision. It is a place for seminars, workshops and study courses.

"The doors to his interreligious effort must be opened in the seminaries, church-run schools, Sunday schools as well as in the lay theologates," said the priest, who prefers to remain anonymous.

"The best way to accomplish this valuable endeavor is to treat the priest as a consultant to the councils of seminaries, universities, church-run higher education institutions, religious congregations and the bishops' conference.

"I have discussed Father Pieris' attempt at interreligious dialogue with a bishop and a few senior priests, but I have not yet received a positive answer from them.

"We have already lost the great priests like Father Michael Rodrigo, Father Srilal Amaratunga and Father Mary Bastian. We must at least now protect brave and true followers of Jesus. Father Pieris did not give up his effort and has continued his dialogue with many lay leaders and some of the priests and nuns." 

A university professor and veteran writer who is author of several books said that he cannot write about Father Pieris in a short form because there is so much to write and to learn from the priest.

A rare combination

Oblate Priest Father Rohan Silva, director of the Centre for Society and Religion, said Father Pieris is a mosaic who combines a rare combination of intellectual disciplines, culture and art, discourse and humor.

"His contributions to the development of liberation theology and interreligious dialogue in Asia have been the subjects of several doctoral dissertations at renowned universities across the globe," said Father Silva, former provincial superior of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

"According to Father Aloy [Pieris], what characterizes Asia is not only the involuntary poverty of the Asian masses but also the multifaceted religiosity. Both these characteristics of Asia are linked closely with each other; they are inseparable realities which in their interpretation constitute what might be designated as the Asian context and which is the matrix of any theology that is truly Asian.

“Father Aloy strongly expounded that Christian-Buddhist dialogue is said to be genuine only when it truly springs from the core of Christianity and the core of Buddhism. Nothing short of a core-to-core dialogue merits to be called dialogue.

"Father Aloy teaches that the liberation that the religions speak of is both here and beyond, and it is something that is irreconcilable with mammon or accumulation of wealth. That it is a principle revealed in all religions, biblical and non-biblical.

"Father Aloy concludes that Christ, who is the irrevocable covenant of God with the oppressed of the earth, is the possible Christ of interreligious dialogue. He does not claim superiority over other religions but identifies himself with the masses of the oppressed and persecuted, leading to dialogue at all levels."

Father Pieris traveled across Europe and could play many songs in different languages including Italian songs and old Sinhala songs.

"We learned to play many musical instruments at home. When I was a child, the house was full of music," Father Pieris told UCA News.

"I really wanted to work with children before my priesthood but I was sent to study theology. Then I dedicated my life to learning and teaching. It shows how Buddhism and Christianity can act as a source of hope to people who suffer from socioeconomic injustice, religious-political conflicts and environmental crises."

Sanilka Ruwan Perera, a university student who has been guided for his higher studies by Father Pieris, goes to the Tulana retreat house once every year with a group of students for retreats.

"We listen to Father Pieris for hours and days and that's how we have changed our lives. He is a man with a wealth of knowledge and faith in God," said Perera, a Sunday school teacher from Negombo.

Nonis said that listening to Father Pieris several times made turning points in his faith journey. Father Pieris suggested the name “Sachchan” for Nonis’ news site. It is the Pali word for “truth.”

"Revolution begins with people who see and think differently and search for the truth," said Nonis.

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