Gospel and Cultures: From the Perspective of Sri Lankan Buddhist Experience

by Marshal Fernando


I wish to adopt a historical descriptive approach in making my comments on the theme "Gospel and Cultures: From the Perspective of Sri Lankan Buddhist Experience". The issues that relate to the Gospel and culture in Sri Lanka at the present time is very much influenced by the historical experience and memory of the past. How well intended the present day enterprises of the Christian community may be in exploring to bring about reconciliation within the socio-cultural milieu of Sri Lanka, the Buddhist institutions and community quite legitimately look at them with certain reservation and doubt. Sometimes they resist such overtures. The roots of this suspicion goes back to two centuries of colonial history. Furthermore, the high handed exclusivist behaviour of some Christian institutions of the present day too, reinforce the historical bad memory. Whatever Christians have to say about the issue of Gospel and culture, they need to honestly do critical evaluation of the initial contacts of the Gospel with Sri Lankan culture.

Inclusive Nature of Buddha's Teachings

Buddhist communities find it natural to respect other religions and ideologies, because the fundamental core doctrine in Buddha's teachings is about the inclusive nature of existence. The doctrine of Paticca-Samuppada in pali language, postulate that all things that can be experienced through the six sense organs (eye, ear, tongue, nose, body and mind) originated inter-dependently. Accordingly nothing can exist by itself. It is an inclusive teaching that do not claim monopoly of the truth, even the religious truth. The Buddha applied the doctrine of paticca-samppada (dependent origination) to explain the predicament of human existence. In the discourses of the Buddha, paticca-samuppada is usually expounded by way of twelve links arranged in eleven propositions.

  • Through ignorance the rebirth producing volition is conditioned.

  • Through volition, consciousness is conditioned.

  • Through consciousness the mental and physical phenomena are conditioned.

  • Through the mental and physical phenomena the six bases of mental life, the five physical sense organs are conditioned.

  • Through the six bases the impression is conditioned.

  • Through impression feeling is conditioned.

  • Through feeling craving is conditioned.

  • Through craving clinging is conditioned.

  • Through clinging the process of becoming is conditioned.

  • Through process of becoming rebirth is conditioned.

  • Through rebirth, decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are conditioned. Thus arises the whole mass of suffering.

This core doctrine explains the fundamental relatedness of all aspects of existence inclusive of both humans and nature.

Buddha also taught the value of middle path in all spheres of life. Extreme positions were discouraged and advocated via media, non absolutist approach to all problems. Even with regard to his own teaching, Buddha advised that there is no compulsion to accept them without any questions asked. Inquisitive rational probing was encouraged with regard to all teachings.

A culture moulded by these inclusive teachings was open to all kinds of persons and respected various religions or ideological persuasions. Therefore from the ancient past, Sri Lankan Buddhists were open to various ideas and even religious practices. Although Buddha disagreed with his contemporary religious leaders, he respected their right to teach and practice their religions. The basic Buddhist world view of interdependent origination facilitated outside influence in Sri Lanka and also the Christian missionary penetration to Sri Lanka.

Hence when Christian Missionaries encountered Sri Lankan Buddhist society from the 16th century onwards they found that the Buddhists were willing to enter into dialogue. The 19th century missionary records testify that when the missionaries embarked to speak in bazaars and markets they had large and in general attentive congregations including Buddhist monks. Rev. James Selkirk a member of the Church Missionary Society records in 1834 about his experience with the locals and stressed that people were eager to listen to any words about religion. He was deeply touched by their openness. Several accounts of dialogues with Buddhist monks can be found in similar writings.

Christian Encounter with Buddhist Culture During the 19th Century

However those opportunities of encounter with Buddhism in practice did not challenge or change the missionary preconception, that Buddhism was nihilistic, irrational and false, though they valued the encounters they had with the people. The missionaries were frustrated over the fact that most of those who attended their meetings were not willing to give up Buddhism and its cultural ethos — lock stock and barrel — in favour of Christianity. This missionary attitude was understandable as they were products of evangelical revival in Britain during the 19th century. They made great sacrifices as they believed in Christian exclusivist stance as absolute truth. They left their relatives and risked shipwreck as a compassionate act for the eternal well-being of the people of Sri Lanka. In their enthusiasm to win complete conversion, most of them were not able to appreciate the good will of local Buddhists and behaved by and large in a high handed supremacist manner. That resulted in the Christian community being built on a gross distortion of Buddhist doctrine and culture. The competitive attitude of the Missionaries violated the traditional religious sensibilities of the people.

Missed Opportunity for Dialogue

The Buddhist community discovered through the very early encounters with missionaries that they would do everything within their power to condemn Buddhism and local culture and that they would have no feeling of respect for Buddhist temples, festivals, cultural ethos, etc. All accounts on this relationship indicate that there was a genuine wish on the part of Buddhist clergy for dialogue and that wish was disappointed. Thus, from an attitude of tolerance, welcome, a wish for religious coexistence, and for mutually beneficial dialogue on issues of philosophical interest, a spirit of retaliation developed against those who openly declared that they wished to destroy Buddhism and its culture. It was a move from inclusiveness to exclusiveness, from tolerance to defensive action, from dialogue to polemic and from a shrinking from controversy to an embracing of it. These antagonistic developments created an atmosphere of suspicion and led to the alienation of the Christian minority from the mainstream of Sri Lankan society and culture. Most of the urban Christians in particular, demonstrated disrespect for the local culture. Hence they were looked upon as a fifth column in the body politics of Sri Lanka. The Christian institutions and community were identified with the Hegemonic Imperial System. The link between the Church and Imperial administration was symbolically demonstrated in the appointment of first archdeacon of Colombo. Rt. Hon. Twisleton was the first archdeacon under the Bishop of Calcutta. At the same time he held the position of chief Magistrate, Principal collector of Customs and Inspector General of police.

Buddhist Revival

The missionary schools produced many of the elite and converted many people to Christianity. The influence exerted by the churches over the ruling classes through education was widespread and remained even after the political independence. Local cultural practices were down-graded in favour of western culture which was effectively cultivated through denominational school system. These far reaching developments triggered off a revivalist movement amongst the Buddhists. They too used tools like schools and institutions like YMBA modeled on YMCA to face up to the advances made by the Christians. Furthermore Buddhist practices itself was reinforced or invented new ones to mobilize the people against foreign domination. These experiences contained the seeds of nationalism that took violent form in the recent past.

During the mid 1950's the Buddhist assertion manifested in the political process and took the form of Sinhala nationalism. Sinhala language replaced English as the official language. The Christian institutions particularly schools were targeted for nationalization.

Most of the attempts in the political arena to give vent to the Sinhala nationalism generated forces of reaction from the Tamil community in particular after the independence. It further degenerated into a serious crisis in the Sri Lankan state system leading to an internal war causing havoc and destroying human and material resources.

During the late fifties and the early 1960's, church was engaged in a bitter controversy with the government as well as with the Buddhist forces. The secular press and the publications related to religious institutions carried headlines full of acrimonious charges against each other. The coup d'etat of 1962 inspired by many Christian servicemen, aggravated the situation further. The church was seen not only as a one-time collaborator of the colonial administration but also as an instrument of anti-national and anti-Buddhist force.

As Fr. Aloysius Pieris, S.J. has said these bitter memories which were in continuity with those of missionary aggressiveness of the earlier centuries, cannot easily be erased from the Buddhist conscience unless Christianity is regenerated from within itself through a conversion to a humble way of dealing with other religions and a restoration of the spirit and style of Jesus again in the church. Jesus rejected proselytism i.e. conversion from one religion to another (Matthew 23:15). The conversion Jesus advocated was a change of ways (metanoia). The Church needs a new understanding of its role in a pluralistic society. Then only the church could immerse in the cultural richness of a pluralistic society.

Attempts to Seek Cultural Authenticity

In the context of Sri Lanka, beginning from late 1950's some attempts were made by church related people to challenge the churches in Sri Lanka to change its ways to facilitate peaceful coexistence. Some of those important attempts are listed below.

  1. The first Anglican Bishop of Kurunagala Late Rt. Rev. Lakdasa de Mel initiated steps to indigenize the worship and church decorations. This process was introduced to other denominations as well. This pioneering attempt created indigenous liturgies, music, church decorations etc. However the whole church was not touched by this attempt and it remained an unfulfilled hope of the pioneers of indigenization

  2. The Anglican priest Yohan Devananda created an aramaya (Devasaranaramaya) in north western province in 1959 and engaged in a living dialogue with rural Buddhist people. Since 1971 insurrection, Devasaranaramaya incorporated social justice issues of youth in the context of Buddhist Christian dialogue in its programmes.

  3. The Christian Workers' Fellowship begun in 1958 engaged in liturgical experiments and new ways of expressing ecumenical solidarity with workers struggles. It helped to facilitate goodwill and friendship amongst certain section of Buddhist, Hindu and Christian groups.

  4. Late Rev. Lynn A. de Silva pioneered an intellectual dialogue with Buddhism through the activities of the Ecumenical Institute which originated in mid 1950's. He organized seminars and workshops around concerns related to Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

  5. Since Vatican II, the Catholics entered a new era of dialogue and collaboration with people's of other faiths. Earlier Protestant experiments helped some catholic clergy and laity to embark on this difficult path of working for reconciliation.

  1. The work of the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) was pioneered by Fr. Tissa Balasuriya OMI, centred around study on socio-political issues.

  2. Fr. Paul Caspersz S.J. gave leadership to organize Satyodaya Centre in Kandy to engage in Research and Encounter in plantation areas.

  3. Fr. Dr. Aloysius Pieris S.J. founded the Tulana Research and Encounter centre to foster goodwill and solidarity amongst Buddhists and Christians.

  4. Late Rev. Dr. Michael Rodrigo OMI started a living dialogue in rural Sri Lanka in South eastern province to share the experience of the rural poor. He died as a martyr for justice.

  5. Late Rt. Rev. Leo Nanayakkara started the Badulla seminary to experiment on training of priests based on a living dialogue with other religions and sharing the experiences of the people.

There were few other similar experiences which grappled with the problems of cultural and spiritual alienation of the churches in Sri Lankan society. However some of these experiments could be interpreted as humble responses to the changes taking place in the country. During the early 1960's denominational schools were incorporated into state system. Hence the most powerful instrument of exercising power in society in terms of conversion to Christianity and influencing levers of power was taken away from the churches. The 1971 youth revolt challenged church related people to take social reality seriously.

The official church structure and leadership though shaken by these developments could not respond adequately to the new situation. The attempts of peripheral groups and individual church related persons to dialogue with Buddhist community in order to seek cultural legitimacy had some impact in the life of the church. However by and large the changes in church institutions remained at the level of cosmetic appearances in terms of cultural integration.

In the light of seriousness of the mismanagement of Buddhist-Christian relations and cultural alienation of the church caused at the very inception of church formation in Sri Lanka, it would be an illusion to expect efforts of such groups mentioned above to eliminate Buddhist distrust of the Church within such a short time. The moves from various Christian groups to express their faith through the local cultural medium remained a minority effort.

New Elements of Discord

In fact since 1977 further factors added to weaken the Buddhist-Christian relations. The open market economic policies introduced during 1977 also opened the flood gates for all kinds of influences to enter into Sri Lankan society. The churches also benefited immensely from the new economic policies in numerous ways. The fundamentalist Christian sects heavily funded mainly from USA enjoyed unlimited freedom to convert Buddhists and Hindus. Buddhists began to view this new wave of conversions as a continuation of practices of the past. The invasion of new international cultural forces, which overwhelm the local culture Once again has erected a great cultural divide between the Christian community and the rest.

The ethnic conflict is another issue that reinforced the Buddhist suspicions of the Christians. The Church in Sri Lanka containing adherents of both communities (Sinhalese and Tamils) is drawn into controversies surrounding the ethnic conflict. With the Internationalization of the ethnic conflict since 1983, the activities of many foreign Church and human rights organizations were not favourable to Sri Lanka. The work of the local churches around ethnic issue was replete with ambiguities. Hence the bona fide's of Christian church institutions are subject to suspicion.

The triumphalistic and aggressive manner in which new evangelization of the Catholic church was launched in order to celebrate the 2000th birthday of Christ has also contributed to the friction between Buddhists and Christians in Sri Lanka. The conferences held around new evangelization here and abroad are looked upon as yet another internationally hatched threat to undermine Buddhism and its cultural heritage.

At the time of the visit of Pope John Paul II to Sri Lanka in January 1995 serious controversy emerged over the reference made to Buddhism by the Pope in his book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope". Gross misinterpretation of some aspects of Buddhist doctrine in this book seriously hurt the sensitivities of the Buddhists. There have been other instances where Buddhist sensitivities are hurt by Christians in public in the recent times. These experiences are causing serious damage to Buddhist-Christian relations and therefore in such a context it sounds conspiratorial to advocate a theme "Gospel and Culture" without making a real attempt to repent over the injustices done to Buddhism and its culture through the Christian enterprise over the years.

Some of the literature emerging even through the WCC sources around the theme "Gospel and Culture" are insensitive to the sensibilities of our Buddhist friends. For example in advocating the need to root the Gospel in the local culture the International Review of Mission stated that:

By all accounts, the attempt at Christian expansion in Asia is a failure. "After two-thousand years of Christianity in Asia, in spite of many intense missionary efforts, the Christian religion has failed to baptize Asian cultures, nor has it made much of an impact on the ancient world religions of the Asian continent." After many years of work, the number of Christians remains only a small minority of the population. The Semitic presuppositions that underlie Christianity as it encountered the Asian world were not present in the Asian soil. Christianity had thus to meet a completely new culture and religious world. As a result, the church simply failed to be rooted in the Asian soil. The Asian churches are thus called to find their way into Asian hearts by completely new and hitherto untried ways. In the face of such situations, a process of "de-culturation of European Christianity" becomes extremely sensitive and difficult, because the missionary expansion had been more or less accompanied by a denigration of the cultures that it encountered outside Europe1.

Transformation of Inner Culture is Called for

In the light of the historical experience explained the sentiments expressed in this passage breeds serious doubts about the intentions of the Christians to a Sri Lankan Buddhist. To them it would seem that the Christians are now changing their modus operandi to achieve their historical objectives of conversion through subtle means of using the cultural medium.

Honesty demands that Christians who advocate the love of Christ should not allow the history to repeat itself and cause more damage to the already fragmented society. People should be encouraged to take culture for good and honest reasons and not as yet another trap to proselytize. Emphasis on "Gospel and Culture" should be based on honest recognition of the need to integrate in the community to share the richness of plurality in our society. This is possible only when we have undergone a transformation of our " inner culture" that takes the others as co-creators of new energy to build harmonious relationships. This approach to culture could help the modern day Christians to overcome the shackles of exclusivity of the hegemonic era and to explore a new dimension of understanding of the love that Christ demonstrated in his life death and resurrection.



1. Ecumenism Culture and Syncretism, IRM, Vol. LXXIV No. 332/333, January/ April '95, WCC Geneva pp. 8-9.

The following two articles were extensively used to prepare this paper.

1. Harris, E. Crisis and Competition: The Christian Missionary Encounter with Buddhism in Early 19th century, 1995 Everding, U,(ed.), Buddhism and Christianity, Goethe Institute, Colombo.

2. Pieris A. S.J., Dialogue and Distrust Between Buddhists and Christians, 1995, Everding, U, (ed.) Buddhism and Christianity, Goethe Institute, Colombo.