Christian-Buddhist Dialogue in Sri Lanka in Modern Times

The World Council of Churches (WCC) [partnered] in organising the 13th annual conference of the European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies to commemorate the birth centenary of Lynn A De Silva, a pioneering figure in Christian-Buddhist dialogue. The conference, which is considered one of the most high-profile international conferences on crucial issues within the Buddhist-Christian encounter, [took place] at the Arch Abbey of St Ottilien, near Munich, Germany from 27 June–1 July 2019.

De Silva (1919-1982), a Methodist minister from Sri Lanka, was for many years Director of the Centre for Religion and Society, Colombo, and a key member of the working group of the WCC Subunit on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, as the WCC’s office of Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation was then called.

The theme of the conference was “Buddhist-Christian Encounter: A Visionary Approach”. In her welcome letter, Prof. Elizabeth Harris, president of the European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies, [wrote], “The theme of the conference concerns our vision for Buddhist-Christian encounter. The topics that will be addressed by invited speakers are inspired by the work of Rev. Dr Lynn A. de Silva, Sri Lankan Methodist minister, Pāli scholar, artist, philosopher, theologian, and pioneer of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, at the centenary of his birth.”

According to Harris, speakers at the conference [were asked to] “combine an examination of De Silva’s work with a visionary approach that will look to the future of Buddhist-Christian encounter, and its recent achievements.”

Speaking of the forthcoming conference, Rev. Dr Peniel Rajkumar, programme coordinator of the WCC’s office of Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation, said, “The forthcoming annual conference of the European Network of Buddhist Christian Studies will be an appropriate event to celebrate and commemorate the birth centenary of Rev. Dr Lynn De Silva. De Silva meant much for the World Council of Churches. His compelling theological interventions during the Nairobi assembly of the WCC in 1975, when dialogue proved to be a contentious topic, altered the course of the WCC’s engagement in Interreligious dialogue.”

Though academic in focus, the conference is open to all those who are committed to building understanding between Buddhists and Christians. Past conferences have drawn many participants from outside academia.

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In her new article, Cadbury Centre Honorary Fellow Dr Elizabeth Harris writes about a group of Sri Lankan Christians who sought rapprochement with Buddhism in the middle of the twentieth century. They included Buddhist readings and terminology in Christian liturgy and poetry. Harris examines these examples against the backdrop of Buddhist mistrust of Christianity stemming from Sri Lanka’s colonial past and explores the extent to which the expression of respect by Christians through the performative has transformed memory of the colonial period.

Elizabeth J Harris, 2016. ‘Art, Liturgy and the Transformation of Memory: Christian Rapprochement with Buddhism in Post-Independence Sri Lanka’Religions of South Asia vol 10.1: 54-82.

ABSTRACT: In the middle of the twentieth century, a group of Sri Lankan Christians, from a diversity of churches, sought rapprochement with Buddhism, in the context of long-standing Buddhist mistrust of Christianity, conditioned by memory of the colonial period. They included Yohan Devananda, Vijaya Vidyasagara, Michael Rodrigo omi, and Aloysius Pieris sj. One face of this wish for rapprochement found expression in the performative. Devananda devised a ‘New World Liturgy’ for his Christian ashram that included Buddhist readings. Vidyasagara, through the Christian Workers Fellowship (CWF), helped create a Workers’ Mass that used Buddhist terminology to highlight elements within Christianity. Rodrigo, who was murdered in 1987 whilst he was living in an entirely Buddhist village, expressed what he had learned from the Buddhists of this village in poetry and participated in Buddhist rituals and festivals. Pieris, at his research and dialogue centre, Tulana, invited Buddhist artists to interpret Christian themes through art. This article examines these examples against the backdrop of Buddhist mistrust of Christianity stemming from Sri Lanka’s colonial past and explores the extent to which the expression of respect by Christians through the performative has transformed memory of the colonial period.

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