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The Buddhist Influence

Sri Lanka is a country with a Buddhist tradition that goes back more than 2,500 years, to the 3rd century bc, despite the vicissitudes the nation suffered throughout its history. At the macro level the traditional king was considered a Bodhisattva or Nascent Buddha. Such a king usually possessed four important characteristics: sharing, pleasant speech, fruitful activities and equality: the king was equal to his subjects, not above them. Traditional morality, moreover, possessed a twofold basis, in outward action and inward feeling that served as a spring of such action.

A group of wise people advised the king, and it is in that spirit that one could conceive of the Buddhist monks in the villages today, as moral as well as spiritual advisers to the people. Historically, the monks' role was interwoven with the people's agricultural life, irrigational activities, education, health, economic, cultural as well as religious activities. They were therefore a considerable social and political force. They were in turn a repository of traditional morality.

The Colonial Impact

With the advent of the colonial powers, however, beginning with the Portuguese followed by the Dutch and the British, the basis of traditional morality was eroded, as exogenous values were forcibly imposed. The traditional morality was superseded. The hiatus created a breeding ground for violence and enmity, endless acquisition of wealth and exploitation of others. Local leaders who took over when the British left had no real appreciation of the political institutions they had been bequeathed, and so they had no real sense of what was essential to them and what could be dispensed with. In fact the British left behind a local elite that was neither British nor Sri Lankan, and that thereby failed to appreciate the inner spirit of the indigenous and exogenous institutions they inherited, instead paying great attention to external trappings.

Modern Sri Lankan society, for Ariyaratne moreover, has borrowed the concept of government based on parliamentary democracy that was an organic growth in the West. But the democratic spirit of free inquiry, openness to criticism and absence of hierarchy, he says, does not exist in Sri Lanka. The inner spirit is that of the traditional kingship, which has now become perverted by undigested Western notions. Instead, and for example, the "free press", bereft of Western traditions of the free exchange of ideas, has become a tool of raw political power. Moreover, for Ariyaratne, in the 1990s in Sri Lanka, the agony of civil war, class war, economic deprivation and mass frustration prevails.

The Awakening Process

Yet at the same time, the three principles of Impermanence or change, Suffering and Egolessness have, according to Ariyaratne, conditioned the minds of people in Sri Lanka for centuries. All other things in people's lives, whether individual behaviour, economic development programmes, or moral conduct, historically sprang from this central Buddhist thought. Sarvodaya's task was to counter the erosion of all of such by bringing back into public consciousness the liberating sprit of traditional values and morality. As a result the movement has striven for "a no affluence as well as a no poverty society".

What Sarvodaya has been trying to do, for half a century, is to re-build a community which will not give priority to economically sound development projects without taking into consideration their moral, social and ecological costs. Sarvodaya attempts to promote community planning and participatory learning programmes which will once again promote shared values of traditional morality and community life.

What the movement has sought to do is to revive the indigenous, age-old perception of reality that people can organize themselves on the basis of their own resources.

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