In 2004 we wrote a newsletter that featured a story about the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka and its founder and leader, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne who has been compared to Gandhi. In 1996 he was awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize, and through his commitment to peacebuilding, has inspired and empowered hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians to put aside their religious differences and work together to promote the cause of peace and prosperity for all. In a country that had been torn by religious, political and economic conflict for many years and had been subject to over 400 years of colonialism, to say that this was no small feat would be the understatement of the century.
After a peace settlement was brokered by the Norwegians, Dr. Ariyaratne invited the followers of his movement to gather to hear his vision of the future of Sri Lanka. Over 650,000 people showed up at the gathering, in which he proposed a 500 year peace plan saying that “It’s taken us 500 years to create the suffering that we’re in now”, making reference to the effects of 400 years of colonialism and 500 years of religious strife between Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, “and it will take us 500 years to change these conditions.”
Dr. Ariyaratne then laid out a plan in which after the cease-fire, all parties would learn each others’ languages and cultures and economic injustices would be corrected. Included in the plan was a commitment to meet in council every hundred years and assess how the plan is going. This plan would necessitate the involvement of an informed, educated and engaged citizenry that not only understands the causes of suffering, but is committed to taking whatever actions are necessary in order to attend to the social wounds that need to be healed.
Profound social transformation would be required for the empowerment of a nation that had formerly been dominated by centuries of colonial oppression. To many this seemed an impossible task, yet Dr. Ariyaratne’s vision was clear and his intention was to make that possibility a reality, not through the use of force or intimidation, the vehicles that so many nations have traditionally utilized to resolve differences, but rather by creating an economic and social structure grounded in the Buddhist principles of Metta (loving kindness) and Karuna (compassion). While many have argued that such ideas are naïve and hopelessly unrealistic in a world which seems to be increasingly driven by the dictum that “might makes right”, the Saravodaya movement has grown and thrived since its inception in 1962.
Saravodaya, which means “the awakening of all” is based on a “bottom-up” rather than a “top-down” philosophy that is geared towards freeing Sri Lankans from dependence upon ouside organizations such as the World Bank, AID, the International Monetary Fund, and other organizations whose assistance comes with strings that often contribute to greater dependence on non-local, external systems. Dr. Ariyaratne sees community-building as the underlying foundation of peacemaking and economic well-being. Although rooted in Buddhist principles and Sri Lankan traditions, the Saravodaya movement is open to people of all faiths and includes Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. They share the close bonds of friendship that are formed when people work together towards common goals, building roads, schools, and clinics that provide care and services for all. There is a common view that mutual reliance and interdependence are not weaknesses and that the hyper-independence that many Western nations have come to value is not a strength. This attitude promotes cooperation and sharing rather than competitiveness and personal acquisition.
During this past week Linda and I had the opportunity to attend and participate in the Praxis Peace Institute’s Fifth International Conference, entitled “The Economics of Peace”. The conference was co- sponsored by RSF Social Finance and was held in Sonoma, California. Just prior to the opening session, I had a chance to realize a desire that I have had for several years when I met and briefly spoke with Dr. Ariyaratne before the opening session. Although he is slightly built and soft-spoken, Dr. Ariyaratne embodies his commitment to peace and justice through a powerful and compelling presence that radiates both compassion and fierce intentionality. Shortly after our meeting, Dr. Ariyaratne addressed the conference in his opening keynote presentation which followed the welcoming talk by Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey.
His address was both inspiring and challenging. In it he reminded all of us that the creation of an economic system that is based upon sustainable rather than exploitative (of people as well as natural resources) practices, is primarily a spiritual matter, and secondarily, a technological one. This process requires the transformation of consciousness, from which alternative economic and political systems will inevitably follow, rather than the reverse order. As an organization that is dedicated to personal and social transformation, the Saravodaya Shramadana movement supports the cultivation of mindfulness and the practice of awareness as a means of promoting clarity and deeper understanding of ourselves and our world. All organizational gatherings, from the smallest local groups to those in which there are thousands in attendance, begin with meditation. Dr. Ariyaratne spoke of how when the mind is clear and open, it becomes possible to cultivate right understanding of a situation, which leads to right thoughts, which promotes right speech, which generates right actions, which creates right livelihood for all. This is not an abstract theory, but a reality that applies to us all and one that the Saravodaya movement has put into practice and has altered the lives and destinies of millions. It offers a means of awakening to the truth of who we are and our relationship with all beings while we honor and fulfill the needs and requirements of both the material and spiritual planes of existence.
In its 47 year history, the Saravodaya movement has grown to include over 15,000 Sri Lankan villages and has built over 5,000 schools, community health centers, libraries, and banks, and dug many thousands of wells. “True community, states Dr. Ariaratne “requires nourishing the body as well as the spirit; the melding of a sense of mutual responsibility and self-help that comes from living the truth of compassion, loving kindness, joy in the happiness of others, and equanimity.” When we integrate these principles into our lives, whether we are inhabitants of a small rural village or residents of a major urban metropolis, our quality of life will transform to one in which we experience an “abundance of sufficiency”. As Gandhi reminded us, “there is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” Knowing the distinction between these two and living accordingly may be the essence of true spiritual wisdom.