Fr. Aloysius Pieris of the Society of Jesus was awarded the above doctorate from the University of Kelaniya on the 23rd of November by its chancellor the Venerable Kusala Dhamma Himi, at a ceremony held at the Bandaranaika Memorial International Conference Hall.
Much can be said of Fr. Pieris’s unique academic qualifications and listing them here would be like a repetition of the same Sunday homily of a parish priest. But for the sake of those who have not known him let me mention a few of them. He is an erudite scholar, researcher, Indologist and has been a professor at about 20 reputed universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, London, Vanderbilt in the USA, and so on to mention a few.
He has to his credit authored 20 books, some of which are now used as texts in certain universities. He has published approximately 300 research papers in local and international journals. Fr. Pieris’s publications include many scholarly articles on both canonical and post-canonical Pali literature as well as on Abhidhammika philosophy. Some of his writings have appeared in many Western languages such as Italian, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and also in Asian languages such as Indonesian, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.
He has had a rare opportunity of learning Sanskrit and Pali under two most revered teachers, Sanskrit under the Indian pundit V. Varadari Thiupathi of Hindu University of India and Pali under an internationally renowned Pali scholar Rev. Dr. Fr. Vito Perniola sj. In 1961 he graduated from the University of London in both Pali and Sanskrit with first class honours.
He is also an internationally known and respected theologian. His doctoral studies in theology were completed in the Pontifical Theological Faculty, S. Luigi, Naples in 1966. Later in 1987, the Tilburg University of Netherlands awarded him another doctorate in recognition of his pioneering work on an “Asian Theology of Liberation”. During the 1980s he was the most sought after resource person to the Asian Bishops’ Conference.
It is no secret that in the colonial era, the Christians treated everything that is non-Christian as anathema. But since the 1960s with Vatican II and the changes ushered in the Catholic Church, the spirit of triumphalism of the middle-ages began to wither away and Church’s self understanding was transformed into the model of a servant Church. It was in this climate that Fr. Peiris began his doctoral studies in Buddhist Philosophy at the Vidyodaya University. His name has gone into history as the first Christian to have obtained a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. In recognition of the contribution he has made in this field he was offered membership of the Pali Text Society and Sri Lanka Association of Buddhist Studies. It is recorded that about 50 post graduates from several universities have done dissertations on the method and content of his thought.
A piece of writing on Fr. Aloysisus Pieris is not complete without a reference to Tulana which was founded by him in 1974. The meaning of the name TULANA is a centre for discernment, combining intellectual and active social life. A part of its mission is to make available the services of the reference library at Tulana, where there is a collection of rare books on history, philosophy, theology and Buddhist studies, for those who seek help for the advancement of their academic and intellectual careers. Moreover, Fr. Pieris personally makes himself available for consultation and guidance for foreign and local students who frequent Tulana for their study and research.
Tulana is also a house for retreat and reflection, a centre for social animation, a forum for inter-religious dialogue mainly Buddhist-Christian, a seat for theological renewal and a place for various cultural expressions and exchanges. One can find at the Tulana art gallery expressions of Buddhist understanding of Christianity in various forms of art done by Buddhists themselves.
The origin of Tulana lies in the experiences of Aloysius Pieris who witnessed the youth uprising of 1971. It is those experiences which inspired him to leave a teaching appointment at the Gregorian University and return to Sri Lanka to start Tulana as a centre for encounter.
Therefore the mission is not only to serve the intellectual development of various people but also as a venue for the peripheral people in all walks of life to meet and share experiences in a climate of dialogue and mutual support.
In the world view of Fr. Aloy, the intellectual life or the world of ideas and active social life are closely linked to each other in a praxis. Accordingly, in real life, the two aspects do not exist in alienation and separated from each other. The process of understanding or learning within a person becomes more complete and authentic only if he or she ends up in involvement or action in the direction of changing society for the wellbeing of life on earth. The ideas are empty and barren unless applied to promote the wellbeing of life. Thus, Tulana is also an open house for the victims of social injustices and burnt-up activists to rest, recuperate, invigorate before returning to their missions with recovered vigour.
The uniqueness of the theological expositions of Fr. Pieris is that they explain the depth of biblical faith, in contrast to pure dogmatic formulas as found in the traditional and European theology. The foundation of biblical faith is the experiences of a community of slaves who has struggled for liberation. In the light of such experiences, theology for Fr. Pieris is not mere speculation or seeking rational explanation to the problems of human existence. Therefore, listening to the word of God also means involvement in the history of the people, in the concerns of the peasants, workers and the marginalized who suffer injustices and fighting against oppression in view of working towards the birth of a new society.
Faith in the God of the bible implies also an invitation to change the present unjust social system while journeying beyond this world. Therefore the main issue in Christian faith is not orthodoxy but orthopraxis.
The award of the Kelaniya University will be seen as a mark of his academic contribution, a recognition made by the academic world. Fr. Pieris well deserves such a tribute. Nevertheless, that does not overshadow another key dimension of his contribution to the field of human liberation. His study of Asian religions has exposed the core values of a revolutionary spirit, which if evoked in men and women of the under-class would motivate them to fight against the modern forces of the mammon namely organized acquisitiveness, selfishness and consumerism.