“We build the road — and the road builds us.”
Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne, better known as A.T. Ariyaratne, stands the trickle-down approach on its head. He advocates for and practices “development from the bottom up.” Ariyaratne has an academic background, but he has put his beliefs into practice to such an extent that he has created the largest non-governmental organization in Sri Lanka, a movement that has garnered worldwide attention and acclaim.
Ariyarante is a deeply devout Buddhist who has fused the teachings of Buddha with the activist philosophy of Gandhi to develop a potent and broad approach to the complex problems experienced by the poor of his country.
He built a foundation for his work from the “five precepts”: Non-killing, non-stealing, non-sexual indulgence, nonviolence and non-intoxication. Then he sought to inculcate the expressions of character in Buddha’s four characteristics: “To practice loving kindness toward all living beings, to engage yourself in compassionate action, to gain joy out of serving other people and to work in a spirit of equality.” Out of these Buddhist principles he set forth principles for their work in the community: sharing, pleasant language of compassion and respect, constructive activity, and equality of association.
In the late 1950s, this college professor decided that students needed to move out of the classroom into the villages of Sri Lanka. He challenged students to give 10 days of labor a year to the poorest villages as an extension of their education. Th e experience was transformative for the students and the villagers as pressing needs were met by people working together. Th e project grew to 100 villages in 1967, and kept growing to 15,000 villages by 2001.
The organization formed by Ariyarante to facilitate this work is Sarvodaya Shramadana, which means “the sharing of labor, thought and energy for the awakening of all.”
The grassroots movement of Sarvodaya begins with community organizing, helping people to learn to work collaboratively to identify their needs and decide what is most important to address first. People in a village work together on the Gandhian principle of direct self-governance. Then people are mobilized from across Sri Lanka and even from around the world to labor on these projects.
Together people have built thousands of schools, community health centers, libraries, cottage industries, wells and latrines. Three hundred small village banks have been established that together have as much in assets as any large commercial bank in Sri Lanka. Irrigation projects, solar energy projects and programs that promote biodiversity have been established. People come together to work from all religions, castes, ages and economic levels, and together they are transformed. As the Sarvodaya motto puts it: “We build the road, and the road builds us.”
All this has been done through mobilizing ordinary people through their renewed spirituality. Ariyaratne speaks out of his own Buddhist tradition and has brought many local Buddhist monks into an active role in transforming village life. But he also has engaged Hindus, Christians and Muslims to work alongside Buddhists as part of living out the principle of equality of association. He calls people to “try to awaken themselves spiritually and thus transcend sectarian religious diff erence, to become one with all.”
In a country that has been torn by a long, bloody civil war along ethnic and religious lines, Ariyaratne has been a tireless peacemaker. He took the Sarvodaya movement to the Jaffna Penisula, the Tamil-dominated area at the heart of the conflict. As a part of their development work, the members of Sarvodaya teach and model the principles of nonviolence, especially through the interpretations of Gandhi. Ariyaratne’s blend of the teachings of Buddha and Gandhi is a powerful antidote to the conflict that has pitted a Tamil Hindu minority against the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
Ariyaratne also has launched massive peace walks in which he asks people to come together to meditate on peace. Buddhist monks, Hindu swamis, Catholic nuns and lay people from all faiths have gathered in various locations around Sri Lanka to meditate. The movement has grown from a few thousand to more than 900,000 people meditating on peace together, crossing all the lines of division.
Through the spiritually rooted work of Dr. Ariyaratne and Sarvodaya millions of people in thousands of villages have been transformed, uniting people with a common purpose from various religions, castes and ethnicities.
As Ariyaratne likes to say, “We ordinary human beings can make a much greater difference than governments.”
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)