Blog /

October 18, 2003

Roles 0f Religious People and Organizations in the Situations of Conflict


I wish to begin my remarks by thanking the Niwano Peace Foundation for convening this Niwano Peace Forum. The late President Nikkyo Niwano’s name has already gone into history as the pioneer and the foremost promoter of inter-religious co-operation for peace in the twentieth century. We are happy that his vision and mission are carried forward into the twenty first century by his successors headed by President Nichiko Niwano and the Secretary General of the Niwano Peace Foundation Rev. Shin’ichi Noguchi. As one who knew President Nikkyo Niwano personally and as one who remembers him with deep respect and also as a past recipient of the Niwano Peace Prize, I am delighted to have been invited to deliver a keynote address at this Forum.

The theme we are discussing at this forum is “ Roles of Religious People and Organizations in the Situations of Conflict.” I consider Rev. Nikkyo Niwano as a role model for all genuine religious leaders and the Rissho Kosei-kai, the Niwano Peace Foundation and other related organizations he founded and headed as ideal models of religious organizations serving the cause of poverty alleviation, conflict resolution and total human well being.

We cannot successfully intervene to resolve any conflict anywhere unless we have firmly established inner peace within ourselves. In his classical work A Buddhist Approach to Peace Rev. Nikkyo Niwano explains how he went through this inner journey of purification of his mind inspired and guided by the Lotus Sutra. If I may quote him:

Needless to say that in my youth and immaturity, I made my full share of mistakes and experienced the trials that we are all heir to. But the one thing that that has made me supremely happy is the fact that I was able to gain a self-confidence that won’t crack under any difficulty. With strength and self-confidence that I receive from the Lotus Sutra, I am now, with all my heart and soul wrestling with the problem of peace.
(page 14 A Buddhist Approach to Peace)

Rev.Niwano was a devoted and practicing Buddhist. He did not have to change his religion or compromise his religious principles to work for inter-religious co-operation and peace. Neither did he want non-Buddhists to give up their faith or to compromise with their religious principles. He selected the noblest and the highest worldview that Buddhist teachings taught and followed it, which won him the trust and confidence of all other religionists. If religious harmony is to be realized he expected others to develop within their minds and hearts a loving kindness towards all that transcends man made barriers that separate people.

When followers of a particular religion rigidly flock together and get into a state of mind that all others are intrinsically separate from them and the latter too develop the same kind of a sectarian psychology slowly but surely essential religious teachings recede from the minds of people and seeds of mutual suspicion, fear, ill-will and doctrinaire differences are sown in the religious communities.

Our societies are subjected to lot of economic exploitation and political injustices. Therefore it is very easy for religions, which lose touch with spiritual awakening to become an integral part of the political and economic decadence prevailing in our societies. Thus spiritual objectives of religions are lost sight of and politicized religious groups emerge in our societies. Politicized religious leaders too emerge who do not hesitate to adopt violent means to achieve their political goals. It is common knowledge that our economic and political systems today are mostly sustained by personal and structural violence. So as a counter measure in the name of religion, violence is justified and used by these people destroying the very non-violent foundations of religions. We witness in the world today violence and counter violence and the circle of violence seems never to end. The ways certain governments also conduct themselves are no different. They too use violence and terror as a part of their agenda to achieve their own ends.

True happiness for man and society has become so illusive due to widespread violence in our society. It is my firm conviction that the first and foremost duty of peoples of religions and their religious organizations is to work towards the complete eradication of all forms of violence in our societies. When I refer to all forms of violence I mean personal as well as structural violence. In case of both these forms of violence there are multifarious factors interacting with each other that contribute to their prevalence. We have to understand and analyze them clearly and take a course of remedial actions within our power to weaken and remove these causal factors.

Rev.Nikkyo Niwano puts across this same idea in a different way. I quote:

The Lotus Sutra asserts that, in order for man to become truly happy, in addition to individual enlightenment and happiness in one’s individual life, it is necessary to purify the nation (society), thus going a step further. It is in the spirit of the Lotus Sutra for a person to make efforts not to escape from actuality but rather positively wrestle with it and strive to purify it
(page 62 A Buddhist Approach to Peace)

Every human being should have a philosophical grounding out of which he or she lives his or her life. This is called a cosmology or worldview. Religions helped man to find a meaning to life. Most people fall short of this ideal because they mistake a sectarian goal, even if it is linked to a religion, as an ideal. True ideals are always for universal good.

Our worldviews are shaped first by our sensory contacts, sensations, perceptions, and the thoughts we generate and enhance the already conditioned stream of consciousness. Can we train our minds to watch these sensory contacts etc as they occur and guard against the creation of any negative thoughts and emotions that result in greed or ill-will which will hurt others? It is my sincere belief if religions fail to initiate this kind of mental and emotional purification process in their followers’ minds they cannot contribute any thing towards resolving conflicts.

If our minds are greed oriented or harbor ill will against a person, group or race, this ignorance of reality, of the sanctity of all life, can create very powerful negative and destructive thoughts and emotions. In the extreme case a person has been known to take his or her own life or the lives of others for a so-called political or politicized-religious objective. Their minds block all non-violent alternatives. This is the same psychological process that works in people who crave after more and more sensual pleasures and commit murder, rape, robberies and other anti-social acts.

Generally speaking, in modern societies, the spiritual potential of religions does not manifest itself effectively and sufficiently to transform the mind-set of the global society. In the same token I like to state that most governments and their decision makers are spiritually blind. Therefore, the global society does not move from conflicts to harmony, poverty to no-poverty, environmental poisoning to environmental health, human rights violations to human rights protection, compilation of armaments to disarmament, and from war to peace.

Deep inner peace lies at the heart of any spiritual tradition; it is both the prerequisite and the aim of spiritual unfolding. Again and again, throughout history, the achievements of those who have acted out of this boundless reservoir of peace far surpass the achievements of the most powerful rulers. Compared to political or military power, the power of this peace is infinitely greater. But it is greater not because it is politically stronger than the most powerful ruler or carries more megatons than the atom bomb. If that were the case then it would only be a matter of time before another more powerful weapons were invented which could surpass the power of peace.

Deep, spiritual, inner peace is greater than the strongest weapon or the strongest political force because it is in itself the transcendence of conflict, so that any weapon or violence directed against it is immediately transformed into peace. In the case of Gandhi, all the power of the British Empire was brought to bear, and it was not enough to overcome his peace. In the case of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hundreds of years of politically endorsed racist hatred were no match for his deep inner peace. We see deep peace at work again in the case of Mother Theresa, and in the case of many, many others. They come from very different backgrounds and traditions—Gandhi was Hindu, Martin Luther King Jr. was Baptist, and Mother Theresa was Catholic, but they all arrive at the same universal peace. I don’t mean to say that all religions are the same.

I know that religions are each noble and beautiful expressions of truth in their own right. But it is encouraging to see that such outwardly disparate paths have lead to the same unmistakable peace, which shakes the world. It is exhilarating to see that we human beings are ultimately so close. I am Buddhist, and so maybe if I talk with a Catholic or a Hindu we will disagree at some point; we will reach an intellectual impasse. But if we just practice our respective religions diligently, the argument will quickly disappear and there will be only profound understanding between us. And so this deep inner peace, I think it is fair to say, is the essence of all religious practice.

Religious organizations and people of religion have to make an extra special effort to accept a worldview where they respect all life and work for the well being of all. Such a condition can only be realized by placing spiritual awakening of human personalities as our highest priority in our religious agenda. In the Sarvodaya Movement from where I come we teach meditation on Loving Kindness to expectant mothers, children and all others in general. These meditational practices are conducted at the individual, family and community level. At the institutional level also we organize meditational programmes for inmates of all prisons in our country who serve short and long term sentences. Teachers and students in schools, police service officers, and executives in business establishments also make use of the meditational programmes we offer. Once a month we organize mass meditation programmes for peace where thousands of people from all faiths participate. Sowing the seeds of non-violence in the human consciousness has to be carried out consistently and with right understanding and patience.

Having spoken so far on the importance of cultivating non-violence in our own lives, families and communities I like briefly to turn our attention to a variety of structural violence prevailing in the social, economic and political life. In this Forum we will be discussing conflict-situations in many places in the world. In my view none of these conflicts was caused by one factor. There would have been several causes interacting with each other that brought about a situation of tension, conflict, violence and finally a war.

So factors pertaining to Consciousness, the Economy and Power have to be closely studied and non-violent approaches have to be developed to remove the causes that led to the conflict. Regarding Consciousness transformation I have already dealt with. What we as people can achieve in the latter two sectors also should not be underestimated. If we seriously and sincerely commit ourselves adopting non-violent means to remove social injustices and change political and economic structures at the levels we can influence, such as the grassroots level the influence it will have to build a lasting peace will not be small.

In almost all countries including the richest country America there is a segment of people who live below the poverty line. In the poorer countries millions of people live under most miserable conditions. This is a fact that people of religion cannot ignore. In fact in many of his statements Rev. Niwano made a strong plea that we should overcome our selfishness and develop benevolence towards others as a matter of gratitude because for our own existence today so many others have contributed.

Giving handouts to the poor and engaging in social services of various kinds will not remove the causes that created a conflicting situation. Indiscriminate charity can aggravate the situation. On the other hand if we can create non-violent and sustainable alternative social, economic and political structures that can successfully deal with the roots of the problem of conflict that may be a better way to invest our energies and resources. This may be practically inconceivable at the national or macro level. But certainly at the community level this is possible for all of us.

A good living example I can give is our own experience in Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka. For the last forty-five years we systematically developed a community-awakening programme in the villages of Sri Lanka. We cut across all caste, racial and religious barriers to inspire, train and educate villagers to satisfy their basic human needs and protect and promote their human rights and responsibilities placing reliance in their own participatory potential and resources. Rev.Niwano himself blessed this approach and Rissho Kosei-Kai, Niwano Peace Foundation and other fraternal organizations who shared our ideals gave us unstinted support uninterruptedly for over two and half decades. It was a long and painful process to attempt such a task in these violent times. Yet we are succeeding and today over 15000 villages in my country are treading this nonviolent path to build a society of their dreams. If Rev. Niwano is living today he would have called this effort on the part of several millions of people “ …Practicing the Way, aiming to achieve spiritual peace and enlightenment to establish the Land Of Serene Light….”

Today in several hundred of these villages they have their own Village Development Banks providing the needed capital to finance their righteous means of livelihood in agriculture, village industries, trade and services. They have rejected the western economic ways based on exploitation and call theirs Artha Dharma Vidya, which means Economic Science with an Ethical Foundation.

Similarly these villages are getting away from violent, divisive, confrontational system of party and power politics and are trying to build a system people’s participatory governance, which they call Grama Swarajya – Village Self-governance.

I gave these two examples to inspire people of religion and religious institutions that if we have the purity of heart and work for universal good we can innovate and build alternative forms of economic and political systems which others also will adopt. I wish to emphasize at this point Sarvodaya worked on these processes without a break in spite of a ravaging war going on in our country for nearly two decades. We strictly remained uncommitted for either side, as we believed that the real problem was between violence and non-violence. So we chose to commit ourselves more and more to strengthen the power of Non-violence in our society.

Once again I like to quote Rev.Nikkyo Niwano:

This warless state is not real peace. It is not possible to live safely for ever in such a temporary peace, even if one wishes to, because this state is not a firmly rooted peace but only a temporary respite. ……Real lasting peace is far beyond this. It is important that every human being and the various organizations formed by people abandon their wayward greed and move positively forward to the work of creation suitable for each according to the will of the universe. This means to do work appropriate to the individual, and thereby create ceaselessly those things that make oneself, others, and society as a whole happy. Such works of creation will surely produce a kind of large-scale harmony. Like an orchestra, such constant creation produces spontaneous harmony – this is lasting peace, the most precious jewel of mankind.
( page 60 A Buddhist Approach to Peace.)

While the people at large are vaguely aware of the increasing dominance of their lives by those with political and the accompanying economic power and moan the erosion of their traditional cultural spiritual values, and are strongly opposed to the increasing violence in public life, they see no viable alternative to the current political-economic system.

We should firmly believe that people have all the potential and creativity to change the scenario. What they lack is the knowledge and a movement/campaign to muster their collective will. Here, as we see it, the foremost challenge lies not so much in the political or economic lines but in the cultural spiritual. This is about bringing back the lost ethical foundations to the individual, the family and the community life. It demands a change in the spiritual core that is essential to build a healthy, humane, collective life, breaking away from the experience of being a herd of egoistic “ consumers in the era of a liberalized economy” and post colonial subjects.

Religious people and organizations have to be vigilant about the changing international scenario as well in addition to their commitments in the local and national situations. There is hardly any nation in the world, which is not affected by the changing world economic and political trends. We have to bring back to our minds the memories of the anti-nuclear movement led by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell in the fifties and the First and Second World Conferences held in Hiroshima and Nagasaki against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs with Japanese initiatives. These movements are continuing to this day.

Similarly the First Conference on Religion and Peace held in Kyoto in 1970 and the Second Conference held in Louvain in 1974 led by Rev. Nikkyo Niwano and other pioneers should be remembered as landmark events in inter-religious co-operation for peace and development. These events have influenced global public opinion which in turn resulted various actions taken by the United Nations to persuade nuclear powers to agree to various resolutions regarding the testing, production and use of nuclear, chemical, biological and such other weapons of mass destruction. But the world has yet to go a long way before nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction are totally eliminated. We have to relentlessly go on creating public opinion and pressurizing our governments to work towards this ideal by strengthening United Nations so that one day we will have a Federation of Nations dedicated for total peace.

Terrorist attacks on the twin towers on September 11th 2001 and the subsequent events in retaliation such as the Iraqi war have created a very dangerous situation in international affairs where military force is being used again to resolve conflicts. Protests against the war by millions of people in America and elsewhere in the world were of no avail. I spent nearly six weeks in America last July and August and I could feel the sadness and frustrations on the part of American citizens for the present situation in their country. I traveled from the east coast to the west coast meeting hundreds of people who believe the only way they can overcome this crisis is by creating a massive country wide movement for spiritual awakening. In the meetings I addressed and the meditation programmes I conducted with the participation of people of all religious denominations I too was convinced that creating a critical mass of spiritual consciousness in the American people as a whole is the only way to influence and transform the minds of decision makers from violence to non-violence. Undoubtedly religious people and their organizations have to transcend their narrow ideological barriers and self-centeredness and work together towards this spiritual goal.

Globalization is the most recent terminology used to create a no-poverty and prosperous world. We are aware of similar slogans placed before the world from 1960s when UN Development decades were launched. However the impact of such development decades on the poor and powerless people in the world had been negligible. Poverty and powerlessness among them had been on the increase. On the other hand the rich have become richer in almost all countries and the poor have become poorer. Multinational corporations have become more powerful and richer than the governments.

With globalization new instruments of economic power like the World Trade Organization have now come into the forefront promising a better future for all. While there may be beneficial effects of these on the poverty situation yet the overriding public opinion in the world is that they will be more harmful than good to the vast majority of the world’s population. Worldwide opposition to globalization and WTO demonstrates this wherever their meetings are held.

We the people of religion have to watch carefully these developments and act intelligently and appropriately keeping in mind the well-being of those who are poor and powerless. We have to act and design ways and means of empowering the disadvantaged so that they can minimize the evil effects and maximize the advantages as we have no way of stopping this trend. Those who initiate these programmes are extremely rich and powerful and they have all the technological, communicational and capital resources at their disposal. On the other hand we do not have those resources. So this is a gigantic challenge for all of us. But I am hopeful that there is nothing that a collective mind cannot overcome and bring about the triumph of truth and justice if we are guided by the following principles:

• As individuals follow a path of total personality awakening
• Build a spiritual force transcending religious, racial and all other divisions.
• Empower small and large communities spiritually, politically and economically.
• Contribute to build high spiritual and ethical cultures at national levels.
• Build non-violent networks at all levels in all sectors including the international level

Please have a firm conviction that we can convert our nations and the world into a Planet Of Serene Light. Bring to your mind the courage and wisdom displayed by non-violent leaders like Mahathma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Both of them were violently assassinated. Countless others like them have likewise being suppressed, exiled, tortured and murdered. Many people conclude from this that the deep inner peace of these great human beings was defeated by violence. But in fact it only seems like defeat from the limited viewpoint of conflict, because in actual truth such people are invincible. People like them, struggling for peace, freedom and justice, have been repressed throughout history, but still they keep coming. No one can eliminate them. Ven.Thich Nhat Han says “A gentle smile should come to our lips when ever we hear such bad news.”

A Keynote Address delivered by
Dr. A.T.Ariyaratne, Founder and President
Sarvodaya Movement of Sri Lanka
To the Niwano Peace Forum
18th October 2003

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement for the People in Need.