In A Buddhist Society

Full Title: *Sarvodaya in a Buddhist Society*

_Bauddha Marga, Vesak Number of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, Sri Lanka_

‘Non-violence should be utilized as a very effective weapon more than violence to bring about lasting structural changes without demeaning the dignity and worth of the human being. What Sarvodaya is attempting to do is to apply the Buddhist principles in development action including an effort to eradicate social, economic and political evils and injustices that plague our societies’.

This essay is based on the Sri Lankan experience of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. Therefore, whenever I refer to Sarvodaya what I mean is a Movement that was started in Sri Lanka in mid-1950s to bring about a non-violent, but radical change in our society beginning with the poorest and the most neglected villages of Sri Lanka. Today it has taken an organizational form as a body incorporated by Act of Parliament with a membership and an elected Executive Council. The Movement has its own fulltime professional staff and a body of voluntary workers helping in the development of over 2,000 villages in the country. It has its own Development Educational Institutes, Village Re-awakening Centres, Co-operative Economic Enterprises and other institutionalized bodies like any other organization committed to social change and development.

By a Buddhist society I do not mean society composed exclusively of Buddhists. What I mean is a community of people whatever be the religion they profess now, who have been influenced by values and traditions of centuries of Buddhist practices.

The word ‘Sarvodaya’ was first popularised by Mahathma Gandhi in India. It is said that Antyodaya is the sanskritized word that Mahatmaji used to translate Ruskin’s expression of ‘unto this last’. Later to mean the concept of the well-being of all he used the word ‘Sarvodaya’ ‘Sarva’ meaning all and ‘Udaya’ meaning awakening.
At the core of the Buddhist teachings is the idea of respect for all lives – the first precept that a Buddhist is expected to follow. In a world where man exploits man, in certain instances most brutally, how can one justify the concept of well-being of all as different from the Hegelian concept of the greater good of the greater number? Advocacy of the idea of Sarvodaya or the well-being of all necessarily follows that the Sarvodaya Movement has to accept Metta-Loving-Kindness – which is the opposite of violence. So non-violence becomes a cardinal principle of Sarvodaya. Does this mean that Sarvodaya accepts in principle unjust structural arrangements in the present day world which keep the vast majority of people in want and misery? When Lord Buddha rejected ‘Tanha’ and showed it as the root cause of all suffering it was clear that he rejected the promotion of acquisitive instinct in man but encouraged Dana – Sharing and Beneficence – a means to realize egolessness and supreme happiness.

Non-violence could be utilized as a very effective weapon more than violence to bring about lasting structural changes without demeaning the dignity and worth of the human being. What Sarvodaya is attempting to do is to apply the Buddhist principles in development action including an effort to eradicate social, economic and political evils and injustices that plague our societies.

Sarvodaya believes that mind is the supreme Dhamma. If the motivating force in the mind is Metta or respect for all lives then a human being who accepts this principle has to necessarily translate this thought into concrete compassionate action called ‘Karuna’. We are helping a landless cultivator to liberate himself from the bondage imposed on him by unscrupulous landowners not because we hate the landowner but because we love or respect the life of the poor landless cultivator. We are fighting the misdeeds of the doer, in this case the landowner, and not the doer himself. There is no trace of illwill towards him. It is a struggle against an unjust system. Only when loving kindness and compassionate action are practised in this manner that we can get a positive emotional and intellectual reaction in the form of an immediate joy of service. This altruistic joy we have named ‘Mudita’. If an individual’s action can sustain this quality of fighting the evil deeds and not the evil doers then only it can result in a more permanent development of a characteristic in one’s personality which we have named ‘Upekkha’ or equanimity. There is a thought, there is an action, there is an immediate reaction and finally there is a positive and more permanent character formation in the individual in such a process of thought and action. The Satara Brahma Viharana or the four sublime abodes of the Buddha’s teachings are practised in Sarvodaya programmes in this manner.

We believe that Buddhist teaching devoid of this revolutionary meaning and application is incapable of facing the realities of the modern materialistic society. On the one hand we are strongly spiritual and on the other hand we are strongly revolutionary. We are not prepared to concede revolutionary monopoly only to those who base all their social actions on organised hatred. We have based our revolutionary approach on Loving Kindness and the organisation of compassionate action. It is impossible to build up just and righteous societies without a high level of spirituality even under most trying and exploitative situations. Bodhisatva had been fighting despots using even violence but without hatred towards the adversary. When King Dutugemunu fought King Elara the way he treated the fallen enemy shows that even in war one can fight without hatred towards the enemy. Progressive movements of modern times have mostly failed to bring in this magnanimity towards their opponents in their struggles for social justice. This is because their ideology did not embrace totality of existence and did not pay head to the fact that every human being has the potential to attain supreme enlightenment.

In the Sarvodaya Movement ‘Satara Sangraha Vastu’ or the four cardinal principles of social conduct taught in Buddhism form the basis for its village development programmes. The land, wealth, knowledge skills, resources have to be shared by all and not utilised for one’s well-being only. Enlightened public opinion has to be created so that any right of private ownership of property is permissible so far as it may be allowed by society for its own welfare. Wealth energy education should not be used for selfish satisfactions or in disregard to societal interests. The quality of Dana – Sharing or Beneficence could be practised beginning with sharing on one’s time, thought and energy for community service programmes – Shramadana. Secondly, Priya Vachana or pleasant language is practised. Third all mental, verbal and physical activities should take a constructive form consummating in individual and social good. This is Arthacharya. Equality in association or Samanatmatha should be practised not only in a quantitative way only but also in harmony with quality. All the Sarvodaya programmes are organized in such a way that these four social principles are practised by its workers.

There are nearly 100 places in Sri Lanka called Sarvodaya Development Education Institutes and Gramodaya Centres where Buddhist philosophy has once again been brought into community actions. For example, all the social teaching of the Buddha such as the virtues embodied in Sapta Aparihaniya Dharma (seven factors of non-degeneration), teachings of Maha Mangala Suttra and Parabhava Suttra, the socio-economic principles embodied in Vyaggha Pajja Suttra etc., practised to a greater or lesser extent according to our diligence in these co-operative community ventures where members live under one roof like those of one large family.

The Sarvodaya Movement is not dogmatic in its approach. The freedom of the individual within his cultural milieu is respected at all times as long as it does not come into conflict with Buddhist values. The sanctity of all life is always foremost in our thoughts and actions. Caste discrimination for example, is not upheld by the Movement. On the other hand every effort is made to fight this social evil. Division of community life on consideration of politics or religions is not approved by the Movement. In all Sarvodaya Centres in the true spirit of Buddhism all religions are given an equal place and their adherents are provided with time and facilities to practise their own religions.

In the industrialized world the basic material needs of most people who live in those countries have been satisfied. But the psychological and intellectual needs are hardly satisfied in their rush for creation of more and more material wants. In the poor countries of the world neither the material needs nor the intellectual needs have been satisfied for their vast majorities of people. Religions, customs and traditions have kept them satisfied at a psychological but at a sub-human level. Under these present realities of the world the Sarvodaya Movement besides its other activities, is attempting to give a more pragmatic development philosophy to the Sri Lankan society as well as other societies in the world.

Development should be man-centered. The changes, that are brought about in the socio-economic and political environment should be such that they contribute to the fullest development of the personality of the individuals living in that society. There should be a spirituo-cultural and socio-economic content in all development processes. Development should start from the grass-roots from the village up. People should fully participate in planning for development and in the implementation of such plans. The technological knowledge prevailing at the peoples’ level and the available local resources should be used initially. Progressively and appropriately it could be upgraded with advanced knowledge. National development plans should be based, not partially but totally on this broad-based peoples’ participation. It should first strive to satisfy the basic needs of the people and not artificially created wants that are a blind imitation from materialistic cultures.

These are some of the ideas that the Sarvodaya Movement is trying to put across.

In keeping with these ideas village development programmes, development education activities and building up of grass-root institutions are carried out by the Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka. The ideal of Sri Lanka being a ‘Dharma Dveepa’ (Land of Righteousness) and ‘Danyagara’ (Land of Plenty) is always foremost in the minds of the Sarvodaya workers. We have to go a long way to achieve this ideal but the first step has been already taken in a direction we believe to be the right one.

May All Beings Be Well And Happy.