Aloysius Pieris SJ, one of the most exciting and original Asian Christian thinkers today, celebrates fifty years as a Priest in the Society of Jesus on July 4, 2015. He is the founder and Director of the Tulana Research Center, Kelaniya; a classical Indologist and a theologian, ‘an expert in Buddhist Philosophy and Professor of Pali Abhidhammika literature’.
Aloysius Pieris was born into a large Catholic family in Kandy in 1934. Throughout his life, Pieris had a strong sense of prayer and spirituality. In 1949, he joined the Jesuit school at Galle, which had both Latin and Pali. In 1952, he passed the government examinations in these two ancient languages with distinctions. Pieris did his novitiate in India where he formerly joined the Society of Jesus in 1953 at the age of 19. His philosophical studies too were done in India, in the Sacred Heart College, Shembagannur, Tamil Nadu. After his return to Sri Lanka, his superiors asked him to take the London degree in Pali and Sanskrit. The examinations were held in Sri Lanka. In 1961, he obtained first class honors in both these subjects.
The next five years from 1961-1966 Pieris spent in Naples studying theology in the Pontificia Facoltà di Teologia. His theological studies coincided with the period of the Second Vatican Council in Rome, when he and his classmates often entertained some of the Council’s leading theologians, like the German Jesuit Karl Rahner. Pieris remembers his last encounter with Karl Rahner and Rahner’s exact words: “Vatican II is not an end, but a beginning. You have to take its liberating message out to your people, translate it for them, and help spell out its implications in the context of their lives.” For the past 41 years, Pieris has been trying to do exactly that.
After finishing his Jesuit training, he returned to Sri Lanka for doctoral studies in Buddhist philosophy, at the University of Sri Lanka’s Vidyodaya campus in Colombo, the first priest (in fact, the first Christian) ever to win a doctorate there in Buddhist philosophy, despite the fact that he had had no aspirations to live the life of a scholar. “I was a poet and a musician,” he narrates. “I wanted to write plays. I wanted to dance. And I wanted to work with the rural youth.” At the time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, revolution was in the air, and Pieris studied with the rambunctious youth in Sri Lanka’s cradle of revolution, the university campus, to watch them grow from the unthinking tools of others into adult actors in their own futures. Then the Jesuit general, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, snatched him up to teach Buddhism at the Jesuits’ Gregorian University in Rome and, during the Roman summers, at another Jesuit training ground in Manila, the East Asian Pastoral Institute.
When Pieris returned to Sri Lanka two years later, he felt called to cross-fertilize the socialist concerns of his student friends with their own authentic Buddhist roots. In 1974, after two years of discernment and prayer and consultation with his superiors, he founded his Tulana Centre, “as a kind of laboratory where they could feel at home and deepen themselves in their own orientation.” Since those humble beginnings, Pieris has pursued his pioneering work as a Jesuit with one major agenda: to understand Buddhists and to work with them in what he calls “our common struggle for liberation.”
In this regard, the work of Pieris is among the most challenging and creative dialectical methodologies in the area of inter-religious theology and praxis. Pieris has worked out inter-religious paradigms that critically challenge liberationist methodologies that do not accord epistemological primacy to the plight of the suffering ‘non-Christian.’ The paradigms developed by the first (Vatican/Bishops) and second (academia) Magisteriums, in Pieris’ estimation, do not adequately address the specific history of Asian theology and the context of Asia’s overwhelming economic poverty and religious diversity. For Pieris, inter-religious collaboration from the methodological location of liberation theology must begin with soteriology – not ecclesiology or Christology as the other two Magisteriums have always proposed – in order to mutually transform both the prophetic and mystical streams of the encountering traditions.
Besides running his Research Center, Pieris has been active in many other fields. He has taught at the Gregorian University, Rome and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Pieris has held the Franciscan Chair of Mission Studies in the Washington Theological Union, the Henry Luce Chari of World Christianity at Union theological seminary, New York, and the Ann Potter Wilson Distinguished Chair of Theology at Vanderbilt University, Nashville. He was Teape Wescott Lecturer and Von Hugel Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, and Martin D’arcy Lecturer at the Oxford University and Drawbridge Lecturer at the London University. For more than 20 years he has taught yearly courses as ‘Professor of Asian Philosophies and Religions’ at the East Asian Pastoral Institute Manila. He was also a member of the Editorial Board of the International Theological Review Concilium.
As a founder member and one of the leading figures in EATWOT, the increasingly influential Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, he has been responsible for bringing a distinctive style to the theology of Asia. He has written extensively on missiology, on theology of religions, on Asian theology of Liberation and on Buddhology. His recent publications include Our Unhidden Agenda: How We Jesuits Work, Pray and Form Our Men; Providential Timeliness of Vatican II; a long-overdue halt to a scandalous millennium? The Genesis of an Asian Theology of Liberation: An Autobiographical Excursus on the Art of Theologizing in Asia.
In recent years, Pieris has highlighted ‘Providential Timeliness of Vatican II’ and he regrets that ‘an old clericalism is yet allowed to appear in the way true worship of the whole church … is made subordinate to the ministerial priesthood so as not to give full liturgical value to the priesthood of the faithful – that is, to their liturgy of life’. Therefore, he notes ‘Vatican II pointed the way to the narrow gate that leads the Roman Communion out of this mess into a holier leadership and a healthier church-life. Whether the Church’s rank and file was ready to tread this via crucis of ceaseless purification and incessant renewal is also a question that contemporary history raises.
All the ills of today’s Church are the result of the inability and/or unwillingness of many to follow the purgative path of self-correction, self-censorship and self-renewal that Vatican II chalked out for us’. For Pieris ‘self-abnegation’ is the authentic criterion for a genuine contemporary spirituality; a commitment to human liberation ‘without any self-seeking is to experience God’. This phrase made famous by Ignatius of Loyola, which he might just as easily be speaking of the ‘Selflessness’ of Buddhism, or the ‘desire-less action’ of the Gita is expected of a Church leader.
Writing as an adept in Western as well as Buddhist philosophy, Pieris’s insights bring into sharp focus the issues facing Christian theology, particularly in Christology, in Asia today. For Pieris, it is clear that there is no room for Christ in Asia, if the Christ being spoken of is a “Western Christ”, whose features and message are alien to the peoples of Asia in their context of marginality and plurality. An “Asian Christ”, Pieris insists, links the paradoxes of a saving God revealed in the depths of ignominy, draws the believer to the depths of Asian spiritual wisdom, and fashions a way of life that will liberate the masses who live in poverty and powerlessness.
Pieris centers his attention on the Asian, and when the discussion is most concrete, South Asian dimensions of issues of religion, mission, Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and contemporary concerns, including human rights, women’s issues and feminist theological critiques and the relation between spirituality and human liberation.
May he be blessed with many more years!
Roy Fernando SJ