Filed in Social Justice

Awakening for All

Matthew Weiner speaks with Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne about his grassroots movement based on Buddhist principles.

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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.


Dr. Ariyaratne
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.

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