From Them to Us

Tara Bennett-Goleman

An ominous message reached Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, founder of the Sarvodaya Movement, a grassroots community development organization in Sri Lanka. His movement was becoming too popular, threatening powerful parties in the small nation’s elite.

Word came to Ari (as he’s popularly known) that there was a plot to assassinate him. An underworld boss named Choppe Aiyah had been paid to kill him at a lecture Ari was to give at a Buddhist center. Tipped off, Ari went to the home of Choppe—nicknamed “the king of killers”—and presented himself to the crime boss.

“Choppe Aiyah,” Ari calmly announced as he gazed into the eyes of the surprised thug, “I am Ariyaratne whom you are planning to kill. Please do not desecrate that sacred Buddhist seat of learning with the blood of a beggar like me. Kill me here instantly.”

Shocked, Choppe replied, “I cannot kill you.” From that time on, I’ve heard, Choppe supported Sarvodaya, and became one of Ari’s admirers, calling him a respectful, “Our Sir.”

That courageous tactic of direct, nonviolent confrontation epitomizes the strategy Dr. Ari has taken from his model, Mahatma Gandhi. The very name of Dr. Ari’s movement, “Sarvodaya,” says it well: in Sanskrit, the root sarvo means “all” or “embracing everything,” and udaya “awakening.” The movement awakens its members to that open embrace in many ways.

Even during the ferocious Sri Lankan civil war that pitted Buddhist Sinhalese against Hindu Tamils, people lived at peace with one another in Sarvodaya villages—not just Hindus and Buddhists, but also Christians and Muslims, co-existing in friendship as neighbors working together for common goals.

“We have to give the power back to the people,” he says in the spirit of movements from the Arab Spring to Occupy.

In these villages, Sarvodaya brings everyone together to provide health care, to put in water pumps, and to build roads and housing for villages that otherwise would lack these necessities.  “Power should be placed at the village level,” he says.

From a mode perspective, this work means establishing a shared secure base, both individually and collectively: a safe space where people who otherwise might be enemies can join up as a “we” rather than Us and Them. “When selfishness dissolves, Us and Them evaporate,” he says.

When I met with Dr. Ari he emphasized the link between individual and collective transformation. “The root causes of suffering are greed, ill will, and ignorance,” he told me. “Organized greed widens the income gap between rich and poor, multiplies pollution, and creates a host of other troubles. Organized anger becomes hatred and violence, ending in war.”

“But we cannot address only one problem independently. Everything is interrelated. We need dialogue rather than force, and internal disarmament to create outer disarmament. Peace is more than not fighting.”

The Sarvodaya movement blends Gandhi’s social principles with Buddhist philosophy, focusing them on rural development. The central principle is self-reliance to promote economic self-sufficiency. But, as Dr. Ari points out, the crucial factor is cultivation of what he calls “self-reliant minds.”

Meditation is one dimension of the movement. I heard Dr. Ari tell a group of American social activists, “Gandhi was trying to transform himself, transform his mind. If one individual is awakened, then the family, the village, the nation, the whole world can awaken.”

“Heal society through nonviolent direct action,” says Ari. “Transform politics and economics, heal the environment. For this, we first need to heal the mind, to transform our thinking. Each moment is an opportunity to be mindful of thought, of speech, of action—with less greed, less hatred, less delusion. Meditation is an ancient practice to develop wisdom. This is how to heal our world.”

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