Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

Buddhism and the Cross

The Island Tuesday 11th August, 1992
by Manik Sandrasagra

When some members of the Buddhist clergy publicly display their ignorance it is a disgrace for the entire Bhikku Sangha and for the Sasana as it is practiced and preserved in Sri Lanka.

Book taught, urbanised, Olcott and Dharmapala inspired bhikkus have recently objected to a symbol, namely the cross, being displayed at a Buddhist shrine on the grounds it is incompatible with Buddhism.

Since the Kandalama controversy has been expanded from a domestic environmental issue to a media, political and religious issue, this matter is no longer private but has become a national debate. Public, pronouncements therefore became important since they give emphasis to varying viewpoints.

When a Buddhist monk makes a statement, if it is at variance with the doctrine and practice that he is part of, he brings ridicule and compromises his Teacher (the Buddha), the Teaching (the Dhamma) and the Community of Monks (the Sangha).


Is the cross incompatible with Buddhism? Is it alien to Lankan culture? Is it a Christian symbol? When did this symbol first make its appearance in Lanka? What does it signify?

Buddhism or for that matter every religion is a combination of both Wisdom and Method — Doctrine and Practice. This knowledge is embodied in the culture that preserves it. Without practice theory is just a sealed book and culture itself an extension of certain beliefs. The very word culture has links to cult, cultivate and agriculture, with tree worship being the original form.

In this context a symbol is also a language. It predates written script. It is also an ideogram.

Although rock inscriptions and paintings have been likened to doodling by some anthropologists, this urge to express in a more permanent form is the evidence historians and archaeologists use in interpreting and dating a story, a style or an idea. The living tradition however like fences, weaving, postures illustrate an oral tradition that still exists. In all these traditions we see evidence of the cross.

In the oldest fence; in weaves in both cloth and mats; in 3rd century B.C. pre-Brahmi inscriptions; in most of our temple paintings, the cross symbol is in evidence.

We must therefore assume that the cross which predates both the historical Buddha and Christ is an intricate part of our expression as a culture. As to its meaning, I quote here below from J.C. Coopers' book The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols (Thames and Hudson 1978):

Cross: A universal symbol from the most remote times; it is the cosmic symbol par excellence. It is a world centre and therefore a point of communication between heaven and earth and a cosmic axis, thus sharing the symbolism of the cosmic tree, mountain, pillar, ladder etc.

The cross represents the Tree of Life and the Tree of Nourishment; it is also a symbol of universal, archetypal man, capable of infinite and harmonious expansion on both the horizontal and vertical planes; the vertical line is the celestial, spiritual and intellectual, positive, active and male, while the horizontal is the earthly, rational, passive, and negative and female, the whole cross forming the primordial androgyne.

It is dualism in nature and the union of opposites and represents spiritual union and the integration of man's soul in .the horizontal-vertical aspects necessary to full life; it is the Supreme Identity. The cross is the figure of man at full stretch; also the descent of spirit into matter. As capable of infinite expansion in every direction it denotes eternal life.

It is also formed by four rivers of Paradise flowing from the root of the Tree of Life. It comprises the cardinal axes; the quaternary under its dynamic aspects; the quincunx, the four elements of the world united at the fifth point, the Centre. Cosmologically the upwards and downwards are the zenith and nadir, the North-South axis is the solstitial axis and the East-West is the equinoctial axis.


Considering the above it becomes obvious that only ignorance can promote the assumption that Christianity alone is symbolised by the cross.

In our own country if we are to further quote Cooper: The Buddhists used it to illustrate "The axis of the Wheel of the Law and of the Round of Existence". To Hindus, "The rajas, the expansion of being, the vertical represents the sattva or higher, celestial states of being, while the horizontal is the tamas or lower earthly states. The cross is also associate with the sacred Ganges and with the crossed fire sticks of Agni"; and, in Islam, the cross represents, "Perfect communion of all states of being, both in ‘amplitude' and ‘exaltation'; horizontal and vertical expansion; the Supreme Identity".

All of the above concerns the symbolism of the cross, but let us return for a moment to Kandalama.

People need projects and ideas to focus their attention. This is especially important when the old idea has no longer the ability to focus the collective attention or devotion of supporters, readership or congregation. Politicians, media and the clergy all share a common problem: a general lack of interest, with the problems of living making every, other issue irrelevant. As it has been said "You cannot teach the Dhamma to a man who has an empty stomach".


Therefore in their search for relevance the environment has become the buzz-word for politicians media and the clergy. This word can polarise diverse interest groups.

This is what happened at Dambulla. Protest of this sort naturally involves money, organization and time — all unaffordable to subsistence farmers. Therefore a centralised urban input is vital if the protest is to be successful.

Powerful lobbies alone can make Governments listen, peasants being like pawns on a chessboard. Thus what we are confronting as regards Kandalama is not a peasants uprising, but a mass mediated protest with urban sanction and funds hence its success.

All the main participants were outsiders who themselves pollute the environment in several ways through their voracious growth oriented consumption patterns. Politicians, Media, the modern clergy and the NGO community are no exception to this rule... and subsistence farmers can't afford the luxury or time to join such protests.

Let us therefore hope in conclusion that the Nuns who sat beneath the cross at Dambulla in meditation experience the emptiness that normally engulfs the mediator, and let us pray that this experience fills their daily life instead of the demon of ignorance re-surfacing in their minds in the form of anger, frustration and suffering.

As a puranagama villagers in the neighborhood told me: "We don't sit around and meditate having picked a time and place with some issue focused in our minds with cameras photographing us. Our entire life is one long meditation, an emptiness from which all things arise including the mind... thus we know that all things are impermanent (anicca), including the Kandalama environment.

The Dhamma alone remains like a beacon pointing the way. In the centre, in the middle, avoiding the extremes there is no suffering (dukkha)". In other words this Sinhala peasant is describing the now-here, which is ironically the real meaning of the cross— a meaning that transcends both time and religion, where AT-ONE-MENT is accomplished and the battle won.