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The Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka, active in over 10,000 villages, is a living example of Engaged Buddhism. My 1985 book about Sarvodaya, called Dharma and Development, may be ordered through Kumarian Press. George Bond's Buddhist Social Change (2003) provides an up to date study of the movement.

  • Description of the Movement
  • Meditation That Can End a War
"Sarvodaya means everybody wakes up"

Adapted from World as Lover, World as Self and Joanna's memoir, Widening Circles

"We Build the Road and The Road Builds Us."

"Real development is not free trade zones and mammoth hydro-electric dams," the young trainer told us. "It's waking up to our own needs and our own power."

I was sitting in an open-walled classroom with two dozen Sri Lankan village workers, absorbing the principles of a movement that promised to revolutionize Third World development. "This awakening happens on different levels. It's personal and spiritual as well as economic and cultural. These aspects of our lives are all interdependent." I wished planners at the World Bank could hear him.

A Buddhist-inspired people's self-help movement, Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya was the largest nongovernmental organization in Sri Lanka, active in several thousand villages. It modeled a different kind of development than that preached and promoted by the industrialized countries. I had encountered it three years earlier on a trip to South Asia while I was still at Syracuse. Throughout my graduate studies, I had sustained a strong interest in the potential for social change to be found in Asian religions, especially Buddhism. "Go talk to Ari," a community organizer in Bodh Gaya had advised me. He was referring to Sarvodaya's founder and president, A. T. Ariyaratne, a former high school teacher. "Some call him the Gandhi of Sri Lanka."

I did as I was told, and on that same trip in 1976, I flew to Sri Lanka.

When I walked into Ariyaratne's crowded little office in the Sarvodaya complex outside Colombo, it took me no more than two minutes to know that I wanted to stay and learn from his movement. For in this voluble, diminutive dynamo I found a scholar-activist who took the social teachings of the Buddha seriously and dared to believe that they could inspire change in the modern world. He had banked his life on that conviction, drawing from ancient tradition to empower what he called "the poorest of the poor."

When I completed my dissertation two years later in 1978, Ari invited me to come live with Sarvodaya for a year and study how it worked. And so, as soon as Peggy graduated from high school, I took off. I came equipped with a typewriter. A modest grant from the Ford Foundation, and half a year's instruction in Sinhalese from kind monks at the Washington Buddhist Vihara.

From Sanskrit, Gandhi had coined the term sarvodaya, meaning the "uplift of all." Ari brought it to Buddhist Sri Lanka and recast it in terms of awakening. That's what the Buddha did under the bodhi tree. He woke up. And that is what we all can do--awaken to our innate wisdom and power to act. Ari added the word shramadana, "gift of labor," so the movement's full name means, in effect, "everyone wakes up by working together." I listened with growing excitement. Here was the "liberation Buddhism" that I had imagined might be realized some day, with luck and the blessings of all bodhisattvas.

My fascination with the shramadanas grew. From the start, these village work camps had constituted the movement?s central organizing strategy. When Ari was still teaching high school, he heard about church-sponsored work camps in postwar Europe. He immediately saw how that practice could fit with the Buddha Dharma and how it could generate self-reliance and solidarity. But he didn't say, "Here's a great idea from the West, let's adopt it and imitate it." He said, "Let's draw from our own traditions and our own strengths." Using the word Gandhi had coined for the maintenance of his ashram and the cleaning of its latrines--shramadana, gift of labor--Ari took the concept much further.

Sarvodaya's slogan was "We build the road and the road builds us." The process started early. A movement organizer would invite villagers to gather, perhaps in their temple's preaching hall, to discuss their needs and to deliberate on the choice of a project. Should they first dig some public latrines, or clear the weed-choked irrigation canal, or open a short-cut to the nearest be route? Then they considered where tools would be found and who would do what. This process was slow, involving more and more people, from elders to children. By the time the actual shramadana began, a good part of its purpose--to get the community working together--had already been achieved.

Teenagers were lugging out car batteries and hanging loud speaker's from the trees when I arrived at my first road-building shramadana. "You can't work without music!" they informed me. Huge cooking pots appeared as well, along with baskets of the food that the children had collected from every household. Older women scolded and laughed as they cleaned the rice, chopped pumpkin, and scraped coconut for curries. I joined one of the eight work teams, and we counted off to see who would be our leader for the first shift. The lot fell to a thirteen-year-old who made sure we each got a mamoty--a heavy Dutch hoe--and led us to our work site.

Much of my research entailed interviewing Sarvodaya monks, for the more progressive ones offered vivid examples of the role that clergy can play in social change. They opened their temple precincts to Sarvodaya preschools and literacy and sewing classes. They drew from old Dharma stories to teach courage and self-respect. They used their status to draw villagers together in "family gatherings," recruited school drop-outs to help organize shramadanas, and encouraged the young women and girls to take part. By their very presence they stilled any disapproving gossip about village daughters mixing with boys. My hunger for these lessons was insatiable.

As I called on these monks and we spoke of village plans and scripture passages, what I loved most was the scent of courage. I never heard a word of complaint from Sarvodaya monks, but I began to realize the price they paid for engaging in community development work. It was more than the time it took, added on to hours of puja, temple care, and pastoral duties. It was more than the physical exertions involved: leaving the tranquil comforts of the temple for the wattle and daub shacks of the poorest families, or suffering the brain-addling sun of a shramadana, or trying to navigate the daunting bureaucratic labyrinths of government. The harshest cost was in reputation and prestige. One was not applauded by the larger, traditional Sangha, nor by the larger, conservative laity. On ' the contrary. The forest-dwelling monks in meditative retreat and the scholarly ones in their libraries received the most reverence. Their kind of renunciation did not rock the boat. When I had the nerve to raise the topic outright, the Sarvodaya monks responded with a calm yes. "Yes, that is true, by engaging in social change work we lose some measure of respect, we are considered a lesser kind of monk. It doesn't matter. It makes no difference."

Sarvodaya amidst Civil War

Ethnic conflict between Hindu Tamils, residing largely in the North and East, and the majority Buddhist Sinhalese erupted into civil war in 1983, a bloodletting that lasted 19 years. Sick at heart, I wondered for years how the violence and polarization was affecting Sarvodaya. Returning for short visits, I found the Movement heavily engaged in relief and rehabilitation work, along with occasional marches for peace. Its most distinctive contribution to easing hostilities lies, I soon realized, in the way it embodies the tolerance and nonviolence the Buddha taught, and his rejection of dogmatism. This stands in sharp contrast to the nationalism and anti-Tamil chauvinism displayed by powerful elements within Buddhist clergy.

Today in Sri Lanka Sarvodaya plays a critical role in modeling an understanding of the Dharma that is consonant with a pluralistic society. At a time when the Buddhist majority often finds itself in a narrowly defensive posture, acting as if Sri Lanka were by right a Buddhist Sinhalese state, Sarvodaya demonstrates the tolerance and respect for diversity that is integral to the Buddha's teachings. To Gautama, the notion of possessing an absolute truth or exclusive historical privileges was a dangerous delusion, leading to attachment, aversion and suffering. Hence, the inclusivity he taught, which Sarvodaya exemplified from the outset by engaging with people of all faiths and ethnicities. So the Movement can offer to the Sri Lankan Buddhist majority a way of being true to the Dharma while working actively for the needs and rights of all, and not falling prey to Buddhist nationalism.


Article appearing in Inquiring Mind, 2002

When I heard about the plan to bring a half million people together for a peace meditation, I dropped everything and traveled to Sri Lanka to participate. I didn't only go to show solidarity with my beloved Sarvodaya movement, but also for myself. Because of the ongoing violence in the world, including my country's "war on terrorism," I longed to see a saner dimension of the human spirit. I needed a hit of peace just like I need oxygen.

I was first introduced to Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne and the Sarvodaya movement during a visit to Sri Lanka, twenty-six years ago. Ariyaratne, or "Ari" as he is called by his friends overseas, had worked in India with Vinoba Bhave and other Gandhians, and in 1958 started a movement in Sri Lanka which he named "Sarvodaya." Gandhi had used the term to mean the uplift of all, but Ari added a distinctly Buddhist flavor to the name, using sarvodaya to denote the awakening of all, as well as the awakening of the whole person: "sarva-udaya". As I saw how this movement was applying the Buddha's teachings to social and economic situations, I was deeply inspired.

In 1979 and 1980, I spent a year with Sarvodaya as a participant/observer, and went through trainings for village workers. Eventually I wrote a book about the movement, entitled Dharma and Development. Over the years, my connection with Sarvodaya has been a river of blessings in my life. The many lessons it taught me about dharma and service include: trust the intelligence of people; enlist the young; and give everyone a chance to experience their innate generosity, or dana.

Shortly after my year with Sarvodaya, the Sri Lankan civil war erupted on a major scale. The Hindu Tamils in the north and the Buddhist Sinhalese in the central and southern regions had inherited divisions and animosities fostered by the British colonial administration. Extremists on both sides took hold--the right-wing Buddhists in the councils of government and the separatist Tamil Tigers in their rebel strongholds. The spiraling violence of military offenses and suicide bombers cost 65,000 lives, traumatized a whole generation, and wrecked the Sri Lankan economy.

Sarvodaya, which had worked with both sides of the civil war, ran refugee camps and restoration and rehabilitation projects. A couple of years ago, when hopes for a peace were at a nadir, Ari decided to emphasize what he called "changing the psycho-sphere:" he started organizing peace meditations. When my husband and I visited Sri Lanka in the winter of 2001, the first of these had just been held in Colombo, drawing 170,000 people to meditate for peace, and others were held around the country as well.

Last December, the "psycho-sphere" had changed enough to allow Ranil Wickremesinghe to be elected prime minister with a mandate to negotiate peace. By February, a cease-fire between the government and the Tamil Tigers was brokered by the Norwegians. Immediately thereafter, in order to give the cease fire a solid chance, Sarvodaya announced a mega-peace meditation, "Maha Shanti Samadhi Day." It called for a gathering of half a million people at Anuradhapura, the sacred royal city located toward the north of the island, near the areas of the worst fighting.

I arrived at Anuradhapura on the day of the meditation. The sacred site, probably half a mile in diameter, contains several great stupas and the world's most ancient bodhi tree, grown from a cutting taken from the tree that sheltered the Buddha during his enlightenment, brought to Sri Lanka by King Ashoka's daughter, Sakyaditta. When I got there, people were streaming in from all directions. In the tradition of these events, everyone was dressed in white and moving in silence. They had arrived from all over the country on foot and on trains, bicycles, and, according to one person's count, four thousand buses.

Young Sarvodayans had put up scores of loudspeakers in the trees, and I was wondering whether they were going to play Buddhist or Hindu music. What I heard coming over the speakers was Kitaro's "Silk Road;" it created an ambiance of sacred adventuring across vast expanses for the well-being of all.

The meditation ceremony took place at 3 PM. Members of the clergy of all the religions of Sri Lanka were gathered on a platform, and each said a few words. In front of them on a slightly lower stage, surrounded by flowers, was Ari. After the spoken prayers, he began to lead us all in anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out. The silence was the most exquisite sound I've ever heard. It was the sound of a half million people--actually it turned out to be 650,000 people-- being quiet together, in the biggest meditation ever held on planet Earth. I said to myself, "This is the sound of bombs not exploding, of land mines not going off, of machine guns not firing. This is possible." That is what I went to Sri Lanka to hear.

After a period of anapanasati, Ari led a metta meditation, guiding us into lovingkindness. This was followed by a practice that I always associate with Ari, not having learned it from anyone else. It is adhisthana, or "settling into firm resolve." He does this practice every morning, making the firm resolve to establish peace.

What moved me the most of all was a ceremony held just before the massive meditation itself. In the sacred compound around the bodhi tree, a smaller group of 50 to 100 gathered to inaugurate the village-to-village "link-up" program Sarvodaya is organizing. A thousand villages selected from the Tamil area are paired, one to one, with a thousand villages in the Sinhalese area; people from the latter, less devastated villages will go to the villages in the more devastated areas and help them rebuild. I heard about one village that had received advance notice of this link-up program, and overnight had loaded two lorries with roofing materials and were ready to go.

There is an ancient bell in the bodhi tree compound, and at one o'clock the presiding monk rang it to inaugurate this link-up program; at that precise moment bells were rung all over Sri Lanka. Then young people came forward dressed in white. They had been chosen from two of the villages that were linked up, one Tamil and one Sinhalese, and each group carried a tray of specially prepared food. With the food they brought there, they fed each other; then the food was passed around and we all took some. I cry every time I remember this moment. I still imagine that I can taste that sweet coconut and rice, because I knew for certain as I ate it that what we want most is not to blow each other up, but to feed each other.

I want you to know that the peace meditations and the link-up program are both part of a larger Sarvodaya vision called "The 500-Year Peace Plan." When I heard about this 500 year plan and how serious the Sarvodayans are about it, I could actually feel a sense of release in my chest. I suddenly realized, "Oh, of course. We don't have to do it all in one year, or even one lifetime." This 500-year peace plan acknowledges the long, hard path to true peace and sets forth the concrete steps along that path.

One of the first steps is to publicize the plan, and then to conduct a variety of peace activities throughout the country, including amity camps, community dialogues, and inter-religious gatherings. These will set the intention. After five years a plan for the economic development of the poorest parts of the country should be in full operation. After putting down the guns you must find ways to alleviate poverty, irrigate the dry land and provide people with jobs--or else the causes of war will persist.

The peace plan document envisions that in five years, the former armed youth of both the government and the Tigers will be active participants in a nation-wide reconstruction and reawakening program. In ten years, all refugees will be resettled. In fifty years, Sri Lanka will abolish its standing military army and start a peace army of non-violent volunteers trained in conflict resolution. In one hundred years, Sri Lanka will become "the first country to totally eliminate poverty, both economic and spiritual"--and "the main destination for spiritual tourists looking to experience peace and serenity."

In 2500 A.D., the document says, "global warming may cause changes to the Sri Lankan environment; however, because of the people's history of working together over hundreds of years, these changes will not be disastrous." The Sarvodaya Peace Plan concludes with the words, "In 500 years, people might be living on other planets; however, Sri Lanka will remain their image of paradise on Earth."

To me, in 2002, just the thought of people pursuing that long term goal is an immeasurable blessing.