A social activist, devout Buddhist, and former high school teacher, Dr. Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne is the founder of Sri Lanka’s Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement—a grassroots community development program that is arguably the oldest and largest engaged-Buddhist organization in the world. Now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, Sarvodaya Shramadana (sarvodaya is Sanskrit for “the awakening of all”; shramadana means “gift of labor”) has as its mission “the sharing of one’s time, thought, and energy for the welfare of all.”

Dr. Ariyaratne began his work modestly, with a single village. Initially, Sarvodaya was an educational experiment. Dr. Ariyaratne took students and teachers from his upscale high school in Colombo, the country’s capital, to work alongside residents of Kanatoluwa, an impoverished community to the south. Together, they dug latrine pits, planted gardens, and put in a road so that farmers could take their rice to market. From this first “shramadana camp” the movement grew quickly as nearby villages joined. Today, the non-governmental organization operates in close to 15,000 communities, reaching some 11 million people countrywide. Sarvodaya workers—nearly all volunteers— help villagers solve social problems and better their living conditions by building roads, digging wells, starting schools, and even creating their own banking system. Sarvodaya’s unique form of village self-empowerment has Buddhist roots, but the movement is open to everyone: Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims work together on community projects.

Sarvodaya’s success has brought it international attention, though on occasion its efforts have led to friction with the government. Dr. Ariyaratne, known as “the Gandhi of Sri Lanka,” has survived assassination attempts and vicious political attacks, yet remains steadfastly nonviolent. Currently he is in good standing with both factions fighting Sri Lanka’s civil war—a conflict between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the predominately Hindu Tamils that has continued off and on since 1983. This past April, Matthew Weiner, Program Director for the Interfaith Center of New York, interviewed Dr. Ariyaratne at the headquarters of the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation in New York City.


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According to social activist Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, “the ten perfections can be cultivated when one diligently serves the poor.” Photo Courtesy of Sarvodaya USA

You are called the Gandhi of Sri Lanka. But Gandhi was a Hindu, and you are a Buddhist. How have Gandhian principles influenced you as a Buddhist? It is embarrassing for me when they compare me to Gandhi. Gandhi was so great. Certainly Gandhi was influenced by Hinduism. I was influenced by Buddha’s teachings. The principles of truth and nonviolence that Gandhi expounded do not contradict Buddhist teachings. They are the same in both teachings, so I was naturally influenced by Gandhian teachings.

So you seek enlightenment through the Gandhian idea of empowering the poor? Attaining full enlightenment is the goal of all Buddhists. So when I struggle hard to empower the poor, that work becomes the means through which I can attain personal enlightenment. The ten perfections, or paramitas—namely, giving, discipline, renunciation, wisdom, effort, patience, truth, determination, lovingkindness, and equanimity—can be cultivated when one honestly and diligently serves the poor.

Can you say more about your application of India’s “village awakening” as it relates to Buddhism and Sri Lanka? Gandhi conceived of building postindependent India as a commonwealth of village republics. We of Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka accepted this vision and have worked to realize this same goal for the last fifty years. Community or village self-governance, grama swarajya, is our goal. Very patiently, our village communities attempt to rise through five stages of village development—the psychological, social, legal, economic, and political developmental stages. [see box at right]. Each of these stages is rooted in Buddhist teachings. Out of this, a new social, economic, and political model has emerged, which may be Sarvodaya’s unique contribution. Our approach uses a combination of scientific and spiritual principles in developing grassroots village self-governance.

You are known as a Buddhist leader, but you got your start as a high school teacher. In America, teaching religion is forbidden in public schools. Can you say something about being a Buddhist schoolteacher and a community activist? I cannot help it when people call me a Buddhist leader. All I know is that I am a simple and humble follower of Buddha’s teachings. And I never call myself an activist. Maybe a practitioner. Yes, I was a high school teacher. For seventeen years I did my job providing academic knowledge. At the same time, I was not happy with the system we had. So I rebelled against it and was punished for it.[Dr. Ariyaratne was suspended but later reinstated.] I said that children should not be confined to the classroom and textbooks. They should have an opportunity to live and work, and learn from and serve the community. Education, for me, is the awakening of human personality. Whatever is taught should bear in mind the objective: this awakening.

Your organization began by building roads with and for villagers. It led to the saying often heard among your members, “We build the road. The road builds us.” What does this mean? The very first endeavor of Sarvodaya was to motivate the villagers to satisfy their basic needs through self-reliance and community participation. For example, they made an access road to their village. Hundreds of volunteers from the village as well as others joined in this endeavor—men, women, and children. This was an occasion in which the people transcended caste, race, religious, political, age, and other barriers and donated their labor as members of one family. That way, not only a road gets built but also a community.

Most Americans think of Buddhism as meditation-based. But you are known as an engaged Buddhist. How do you put the two together? I would say Buddhism is right mindfulness-based. If we can be mindful enough to overcome craving, aversion, and ignorance, then we are true practitioners. When we are engaged in social welfare, development, and any other constructive activity for social good with this kind of mindfulness, we can call it engaged Buddhism.

How do you feel about monks engaging in politics? I felt the monks’ protests in Burma last year were a good thing. Afterward, it was the people’s obligation to follow. The monks did a very brave thing. But that was in a country where there are no rights, so the circumstances were extraordinary. Ordinarily, in a country in which the people can speak their mind and vote, I think monks should refrain from politics.

Monks taking to party and power politics is a very recent phenomenon here. Some have entered Parliament too. With monks who enter politics, we keep a safe distance. On the other hand, from our movement’s inception monks have played a leading role, and they do keep away from divisive politics.

How has Sarvodaya been involved in responding to the civil war in Sri Lanka? Sarvodaya predates the war. We were working with Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim communities alike. We saw the war was coming and did everything within our power to prevent it. Once it started, though, we responded. In 1983, we initiated our 5R program—Relief, Rehabilitation, Reconciliation, Reconstruction, and Reawakening [see box at right]—to help those affected by the war, and we continue today. Our 5R program will be expanded, depending on our resources. When the war ends, we will be well positioned to reach more people. We have adhered to our nonviolent principles, and because we have not taken sides, I am sure we will be the leading organization in building a nation in which we all can live as equals. ▼

Five Stages of Village Development
In the Sarvodaya model, development is an evolutionary process. Villages go through five stages of “awakening” to reach their maximum effectiveness and function as self-sustaining communities:

Stage 1—Psychological: Organizing a shramadana camp to analyze the village’s problems and identify its needs.
Stage 2—Social: Creating a social infrastructure by forming groups (mothers, farmers, children, youth) and building a child-development center.
Stage 3—Legal: Establishing a program to meet basic needs like housing, education, clothing, health care, and clean water, and setting up institutions to oversee development initiatives.
Stage 4—Economic: Initiating employment- and income-producing measures to ensure self-reliance and self-financing.
Stage 5—Political: Sharing with, and supporting, neighboring villages.

Sarvodaya’s 5R Program

In response to the Tamil-Sinhalese riots in 1983, Sarvodaya set up its 5R program. Using the methodology ofshramadana—shared labor—that was already in place, Sarvodaya brought Tamil and Sinhalese villages together to work on the 5Rs: Relief, Rehabilitation, Reconciliation, Reconstruction, and Reawakening. More recently, the 5R program was used to help survivors of the devasting tsunami in December 2004. Besides organizing the creation of new infrastructure and housing, Sarvodaya helped develop a psychologically and spiritually based healing program for villagers.

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