‘Living Together’ is a Blessing – Bishop De Chikera.

“‘Living Together’ is a resource for all those of us who are interested in inter religious interaction. In time to come we will know whether this book will receive a place in the vast library of books produced on the topic. Hence, this is a celebration of a gift more than the launch of a book, a gift to all Sri Lankans and to all interested persons across the globe”. The Bishop of the Anglican Church, Rev. Duleep De Chickera made these observations at the occasion of the launch of the book ‘Living Together’ by Deepal Sooriyaarachchi at the Post Graduate Institute of Management in Borella. The book captures the author’s experiences over two decades of living with people from various faiths in different parts of the world meeting over 15 times. The launch event was organized by the PIM Alumni Association. Speakers from Germany and India who had been participating in that Inter Religious Living Dialogue experiment also addressed the audience in addition to the Director of the PIM Prof. Ajantha Dharmasiri and Sheik Arkam Nooramith an Islamic scholar.  The event provided the audience with the taste of inter religious living together.  Speaking further at the occasion Rev. De Chikera said that he would like to consider this book under three themes –

Firstly, this is an extremely relevant book. The theme that runs from cover to cover is a story about a group of people who have come together from time to time to understand each other’s religions in a spirit of respect, sensitivity and dignity. As you read the book you find the rhythm of encounter and separation each feeding into the other. This is why I see the relevance of this book particularly to the people of this country. Except for a few districts where a mono culture prevails several of us encounter the persons of other religions in our day to day life, whether it is at the market place, school, hospital, work place, wedding or funeral, in the bus, on the train, in our university, parliament etc. the people of this nation have the constant opportunity to encounter and part with the religious other. This book provokes the Sri Lankans of different faiths to use these encounters in the same spirit as the members of the living dialogue described in the book to deepen mutual understanding.

Some weeks ago my sister’s husband passed and theirs was a Christian and Buddhist marriage. The the Buddhist monk spoke a few words at the funeral and some of the Christians listened to these words and developed an interest about what Buddhists say about the afterlife. This lead to questions and further clarifications. What we need to do is to use our encounters with one another in small groups such as families, neighbors and colleagues, and talk about each other’s beliefs and understanding of life. When you meet at a wedding, try to gain an understanding of how different religions approach marriage. Ask questions with respect, receive explanations with respect, or for instance when the elections come ask what different religions have said about governance. We have a tendency to develop a courteous aloofness. So we do not ask questions. But the book invites us to do so.

The second, the strength of this book is that it is extremely timely. Living together among different religions is never an easy thing. We’ve been through tense times, we’re currently facing some tension and will continue to face tension between religions. Hostilities and aggressive agendas upset people and what has our response been so far? It has been worthy tolerance but even this strength of tolerance is running out. The book suggests another step, that is engagement. It shows how this coming together has made them stronger in their own faith because of the presence of the other person. So I become a better Christian because of my Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic neighbor. Hence, the presence of people of other faiths is a blessing.

In Christianity we speak of loving thy neighbor. But in Buddhism what is preached is the love of all beings. That includes the neighbor but goes beyond that. Through this conversation I went back to the Bible and found in Creation Theology that it has been there from the beginning, that Jews and Christians have been instructed to care for nature and ecological justice. If not for this encounter with Buddhism I would not have discovered this.

We have all lived our lives either on a campus or down the street where we could hear the bells of the church that ring in the Angelus at six in the morning, at noon and at six in the evening. When we hear them we are supposed to reflect in intercessory prayers for the people of the world. For one year we lived in Rajagiriya, away from hearing distance of the Church bells. I missed the bells. But there was a silver lining, for our house was located in between two mosques. Those mosques would call people to pray five times a day. So I used that instead of the church bells and prayed five times a day and became an even better Christian.

One of the greatest theologians, Paul Nitter expressed these thoughts in a book that got him in to trouble, but the book was very popular among inter faith activists. The name of the book says it all. ‘Without the Buddha I may not be a Christian’.

The third theme of the book is that it brings us an uncomfortable challenge. While your group and many in the country and around the world appreciate the dialogue, there are also those in the world who dislike and distrust inter religious dialogue. They think of those who entertain such thoughts as traitors. “How can one be a Christian and appreciate Buddhism?” These are fundamentalists or extremists. In their view one has to convert to their view or they need to be eliminated. They want a world where there is only one type, and that is their kind. What do we do with such people?

The spirit of this book says “engage” with them, however difficult it is. Be patient, be respectful and be strong as well. Try to persuade them that the best option when living in inter religious societies like ours, is to interact with each other and enrich our lives.

I recommend that this book be translated into Sinhala and Tamil, for it needs to reach the far corners of this country.