‘The Majority of Buddhists Do Not Try to Harm People of Other Faiths’

By The Irrawaddy 30 March 2015

Dr. Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne is the founder and president of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, a grassroots social movement in Sri Lanka which advocates community-led development programs and conflict resolution through the Buddhist philosophy of nonviolence. Founded in 1958, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has provided aid to villages destroyed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, assisted civilians displaced by Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, and sought to bring peace between the country’s fractious and feuding communities.

The Irrawaddy recently spoke with Dr. Ariyaratne to discuss his conception of grassroots development, the integral role of Buddhism in promoting positive social change in Burma, and the use of nonviolent action in defeating injustice.

Please tell us about your experience of Burma.

I have visited Myanmar once, in July 1987. I was invited by The Venerable Dhammanyanika Maha Thero. He lived in a forest hermitage in Mandalay. I stayed there for about five days and spent seven days in total in Myanmar. I presented the Dhammanyanika with a Bo sapling from the sacred Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura, a Buddha relic and a map of the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy [a city in central Sri Lanka], where a sacred tooth relic of the Buddha is enshrined. I received his blessings for my peace efforts in Sri Lanka.

The first thing that impressed me was the great religiosity of the people of Burma and the high level of spirituality which great Sangha leaders like The Venerable Dhammanyanika possessed and radiated into the world. I strongly believe that the justice, peace and wellbeing of a society is directly proportional to the mass of spiritual consciousness generated by the people in that society. The opposite is also true. Dictatorial regimes, violence, suffering and injustices in a society will continue to prevail if people in general are nonspiritual.

Secondly, I was very interested to see the natural environment intact, without too many western development schemes entering the country. In other words, I saw a great potential for an indigenous development pattern to emerge in Myanmar. Whatever development we should embark upon should never harm our natural habitat, which provides all of our life support systems.

Thirdly, seeing the temple as the hub around which community life functioned was a great relief to me, as there I saw the possibility of economic and spiritual aspects developing in a balanced way in the future.

You are a celebrated leader in the use of grassroots development to improve the lives of ordinary people in Sri Lanka. What connection do you see between Buddhist principles and economic development?

Buddhist philosophy and principles do not teach us only to prepare for the afterlife. It is very much a philosophy that has to be put into practice here and now, in this life. Therefore the Buddha’s teachings apply to individuals, families and wider societies as well as to their ethical, social, economic and political life.

So, in Sri Lanka for the last 58 years the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement tried to apply Buddhist teachings to every aspect of human life in society. Ours was an integrated approach for transformation of our country spiritually, morally, culturally, socially, economically and politically. From the ocean of knowledge contained in Tripitaka and related Buddhist literature, we extracted teachings relevant to these domains and applied them to contemporary problems.

You started Sarvodaya with students and uneducated villagers. When villagers are poor and deprived of education, they will usually feel disempowered. What lessons can you impart for people striving to become more confident and stand up for themselves?

We started our movement by getting together students, teachers, poor and deprived people in our villages, in a well-organized manner, to donate their labor, time and skills voluntarily to satisfy the needs of the community. Lack of a formal education does not imply that people are ignorant or uneducated. Even if one does not attend school, that person’s inherited knowledge and wisdom can manifest themselves if a proper environment is created.

What we did was to go and live with village communities for a period of time, working with them and donating our labor and skills to meet their basic needs like constructing wells to provide drinking water, constructing tanks and irrigation channels to provide the need for water for their agricultural purposes, access roads to the villages, community centers, preschools and primary schools, play grounds, houses, toilets and so on. We called this mass people’s action “Shramadana.” Creating a Shramadana camp, where we live for several days at a time, provides the physical, psychological and social environment for people to engage themselves in activities to satisfy their needs, away from conflict situations.

What was important was to create a self-reliant and scientifically designed program for integrated village development with the participation of the local community. We were not interested in party or power politics, or capturing power or making wealth. We were engaged in a ‘Dana’ (beneficence) activity with ‘Sila’ (self-discipline) with lot of time during the day allocated to ‘Bhawana’ (meditation). In a country where the majority of people are Buddhists nobody could openly oppose us. Non-Buddhist groups enthusiastically joined us, as we had no barriers in a movement based on “Sarvodaya”—the awakening of all.

You have sometimes been critical of the approaches taken in development by international institutions. There are now many international development organizations setting up programs in Burma or Myanmar. What is your advice for them, and for the host country?

We live in a world where we cannot continue to have strict national barriers. We have to be a member of a community of nations, so we have to help one another. Unfortunately, various development bodies come from industrialized countries with ulterior motives. Maybe their hidden agenda is political or religious conversions. They are a hindrance for the kind of nonviolent humanitarian activities we do.

Last week when I was in Nepal I heard that large-scale conversions of poor Hindu and Buddhist villagers into Christianity is being aided by handouts. No country should allow this kinds of assistance to be given in other countries. Islamic and Christian religious leaders should not allow these kinds of immoral actions. If not we will find it very difficult to contain the extremist Buddhist groups emerging in our countries.

We have to remember that our national freedom, culture and spiritual values should be preserved while economic development is pursued.

Lately there have been some intriguing connections between Sri Lanka and Burma. Last year, U Wirathu visited Sri Lanka and attended a rally organized by the nationalist Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Power Force. Wirathu leads the nationalist 969 movement in Burma and has been accused of instigating deadly violence against minority Muslims in Burma and organizing boycotts of Muslim businesses.

Sarvodaya was the largest and the most effective civilian peace force in our country. Sarvodaya was based on Buddhist principles of truth, nonviolence and denial of the self, and it respects and welcomes all religions and any of their adherents who accept nonviolence as a principle. Similarly, we have people of all races who work as equals within the movement.

Therefore we were able to carryout our program during the civil war to assist all those who suffered, without any discrimination. Our five-fold program, which was popularly known as The 5R program, included Relief, Rehabilitation, Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Reawakening. When the war ended all parties supported us to do everything we could to heal the wounds.

We are not interested in various extremist groups either in Sri Lanka or Burma. We don’t take them seriously. The majority of Buddhists are nonviolent and pious and do not try to harm people of other faiths. If non-Buddhists also conduct themselves in that manner there will be religious amity.

I do not have any answers to the problems in Burma, but I have no doubt that if a group of courageous Buddhists uphold the Buddha’s teachings of “may all beings be well and happy”, and they come together to help people satisfy their basic human needs without any discrimination against any religions or racial groups, then they will succeed in contributing to peace more than by any other means.

How do you think the virtues of nonviolence, mindfulness, meditation, love and kindness could be reintroduced into Burmese society?

In society there are always people who are power hungry. They gather power and riches, and perform public worship and engage in charities to bolster their image. But they will have to reap the consequences of their bad karma one day. So, the ordinary people should practice Sila, Samadhi and Panna and not get distracted by what a powerful few are doing.

Your life and the lives of your colleagues have been threatened many times. What have you learned that can support those dedicated to peace and justice in Burma who face threats in the course of their work?

Those who nonviolently take action against injustice will always face threats to their life and property. One must be spiritually strong to bear all this and even face torture and death. Otherwise they should not engage themselves in social activism. Those of us who employ nonviolent direct action against any evil should be highly spiritually motivated people who should continuously engage ourselves against our inner defilements. Only a person armed with spirituality should commit to nonviolent action.

The process of development and national reconciliation can be slow and frustrating, and sometimes seem to go backwards. How can people avoid losing hope?

The process of development and social reconciliation is indeed slow. Those who engage in such work should exercise extreme patience. If you say that you have reached the limits of your patience, then you are not fit to be a nonviolent activist. If one follows the Bodhisathwa ideals, such a person will never get frustrated.

Are there any other messages you would like to impart to Burmese people today?

I would like to tell the Burmese people that you are very lucky, because the worst of materialistic civilization has not yet come to you. Build on your Buddhist values and Buddhist civilization and I am sure your rulers will turn around to build a nonviolent social order where Buddha Dharma is accepted as a universal philosophy and the sovereignty of the people will prevail.

More information on Sri Lanka’s Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement can be found at the movement’s website.