An interview with Joanna Macy and an excerpt from her new book Joanna Macy’s memoir Widening Circles covers her early years as a student of theology, a stint with the CIA, and travel with the Peace Corps to Africa and India with her husband and three children. Here she speaks with Tricycle about a crucial stage in the formation of her personal and political understanding.


Joanna Macy, eco-activist and scholar. Courtesy New Society Publishers.
Joanna Macy, eco-activist and scholar. Courtesy New Society Publishers.

You devote a chapter to the time you spent studying the Sarvodaya movement—the Buddhist-inspired community development program—in Sri Lanka. When I first dove into the dharma in India with the Tibetans I had this hunch that the teachings of the Buddha could free people to respond creatively and fearlessly to the needs and challenges of their society. Then, when I later visited Sri Lanka in the course of my doctoral work, I was astonished to find that here was a whole movement, the Sarvodaya movement, active in thousands of villages, that was already doing what I had imagined might someday be possible.

What I witnessed with the founder, Dr. Ariyaratne and the villagers, and the monks who were involved in the movement, has in fact inspired me in all the social action work I’ve done in the twenty-four years since I first met them.

As you know, Sri Lanka is suffering a bloody and tragic civil war, now in its seventeenth year. As I look back on my time with Sarvodaya, in the late 1970s and early 80s, I see a precious historical moment, an island in time, that showed us how the Buddha-dharma can be a force for social revitalization. What I saw then still inspires me now. Indeed, Sarvodaya’s work in those earlier years built structures and relationships that have mitigated the effects of the ethnic warfare, enabling people on both sides to connect with and help each other where they can.

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