Embodying the Dharma

Contribution of Joanna Macy to volume celebrating Dr. Ariyaratne’s 70th birthday, November 2001
The greatest gift to the world that a person can offer is to help people bring forth their own possibilities for good. This is a rare and remarkable legacy, especially when one has organised structures for helping people embody in their own lives the values of the Buddha Dharma.

In my study of Buddhist scriptures I had been especially fascinated by the Buddha’s social teachings, such as those relating to nonviolence, ecology, self-governance, and economic sharing. Without Dr. Ariyaratne, these teachings would have remained for me somewhat abstract, in the realm of ideas and ideals, matters for conjecture, argument and longing. But soon it was my great good fortune to meet Ari and to witness what he has brought forth in and through Sarvodaya. He has not only given flesh and blood to the Buddha’s social teachings, but also revealed in new, distinctive ways their implications for our world today. My own life in terms of my understanding courage, and sense of the possible — is deeply influenced by his ongoing achievement. My gratitude is immeasurable.

From the moment I walked into Dr. Ariyaratne’s crowded little office in Meth Medura twenty-five years ago, and listened, spellbound, as he described Sarvodaya Philosophy, I felt that I had, in a sense, "come home". For what I had loved in the Buddha Dharma was now taking on fresh, surprising, convincing reality and I wanted to move right into the Sarvodaya scene to explore this reality at length. Thanks to an invitation from Ari and a small grant from the Ford Foundation, I returned to do that in 1979 and 1980, when my doctoral work was completed. From that year’s experience came my book Dharma and Development. Subsequent visits over the next two decades sustained my appreciation for Dr. Ariyatatne’s extraordinary combination of scholarship and creativity in embodying the Buddha Dharma for a crisis ridden world.

The Buddha’s central doctrine of causality, paticca samuppada or dependent co-arising had served as focus of my recently completed doctoral dissertation. Since my head was well stocked with scriptural references and metaphysical debates on the subject, it was not surprising that I should detect its presence in Dr. Ariyaratne’s thought and work. But I hardly anticipated that this teaching of radical interdependence would be given form in such concrete and pervasive ways. When I reflect on these ways, I see how rooted Ari is in the Dharma, and how original in applying it.

Every step Ari took, from the first shramadana that engendered the movement, expressed the recognition that all beings are intricately and inexorably interconnected. This basic premise is conveyed in the very name, Sarvodaya and made explicit in both its philosophy and its organising strategies. To take a people’s religious and cultural heritage, and interweave it with economic and social programs — to meet spiritual and mental hungers while addressing material needs — runs, of course, directly counter to modern conventions since the onset of the industrial era. Yet to do this, to bring these aspects of human life together once again in mutual interplay, releases energy, like fusion.

Appreciation of the natural interdependence of all forms and dimensions of life have always imbued Ari’s portrayal of development. Personal awakening (purushodaya) is integral to the awakening of one’s village (gramodaya), and both play an integral role in deshodaya and vishvodaya, the awakening of one’s country and one’s world. Dependently co-arising, these developments do not occur sequentially in a linear fashion, but synchronously, each abetting and reinforcing the other through multiplicities of contacts and communications, each subtly altering the context in which the others occur.

The Wheels of Causation, graphically painted on Sarvodaya posters and walls, translate the Four Noble Truths directly into social terms, as collective forms of suffering and release from suffering experienced on the level of a village or town. The recognition of the First Noble Truth that there is dukkha, suffering, serves to help villagers acknowledge the actual conditions of poverty and conflict prevailing in their community, while the second suggests the psycho-social causes at work, all of which reflect an ignorance of our essential interexistence in the web of life. The cessation of suffering portrayed in the Third Noble Truth, or painted wheel, begins when a village awakens to its commonality and mutual belonging. Then it starts to realize its potential as a vigorous and caring community. The interdependence at the heart of life is implicit as well in the Fourth Noble Truth and illustrated at every step of the Eightfold Path.

When it comes to virtues and meritorious behaviours, the Buddha bestowed great importance upon dana, generosity. Perhaps that is because, of all responses to life, dana most clearly expresses the sense of mutuality that is at the heart of paticca samuppada. One of Dr. Ariyaratne’s more far-reaching and beneficial moves in renewing the social teachings of the Buddha is the breadth he returned to the meaning of dana. Undeterred by the fact that for centuries it had been narrowly identified with almsgiving to the Bhikkhu Sangha, the Order of Monks, Sarvodaya reclaimed its original scope by interpreting it to include the sharing of time, skills, labour and goods with one’s community. And what is beautiful to behold, villagers are not given sermons, so much as opportunities to experience their own generosity. The operative assumption is that the act of giving empowers the giver and is the soil out of which self-esteem and mutual trust can grow.

In similar fashion, I found the Buddha’s central teaching of dependent co-arising to be present and formative in many other elements of Dr. Ariyaratne’s work such as in his rendering of the Brahmaviharas (metta, karuna, mudita, and uppekha) and the four principles of social behaviour (Satara Sangraha Vastu), as well as the pre-eminence he accords them in the value he sets upon political non-partisanship in developing solidarity and in his formulation of the Ten Basic Human Needs.

His deep, intuitive understanding of interdependence, nurtured by a lifetime of Buddhist practice is I think an essential component of Dr. Ariyaratne’s genius as a thinker and leader. It is an understanding which our world is struggling now to make its own. Since the attack on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, just weeks ago on September 11, 2001, powerful voices call for a war on terrorism — as if acts of violence could be stopped with violence, hatred rooted out with hatred. And while military preparations proceed, other voices, more and more of them call out for restraint. They remind us of our interdependence and mutual complicity. Perhaps our beleaguered world is getting ready to comprehend this. If that is so, then the life and work of Dr. Ariyaratne and his Sarvodaya movement have more relevance than ever.