There are three factors at the root of all of our personal, national, and global problems.
The first is greed; the second is hatred; and the third is ignorance, or delusion.
These three evils within our own minds have become so well organized that they bring about all the man-made and, I believe, even natural disasters we are facing at this time.
I have come to Japan at the invitation of Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Society for the Promotion of Buddhism) of Japan, which graciously selected me to receive the forty-fifth Cultural Award for the Promotion of Buddhism. The award ceremony, which was to be held on March 17, 2011, was postponed to October 12 because of the unfortunate triple tragedy that the Japanese people had to face, namely, the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. We were with you in spirit at that time, but besides doing religious activities to give you strength to face this situation and doing meritorious activities in the name of the victims and the deceased, we were helpless to be of any concrete physical assistance because of the great distance that separates us.
The theme of this symposium, "Natural Disasters and Religion," is very timely and appropriate. So is the subtheme, "In Search of an Alternative Way of Life," which, according to my thinking, is closely linked to what we call natural disasters.
I was born to a Buddhist family. My parents and other elders in the family were very devoted practicing Buddhists. My home was next to our temple, and from my infancy I had the good fortune of associating with and learning from very learned and disciplined Buddhist monks. I received my primary, secondary, and higher education mostly in Buddhist schools, colleges, and universities. When I started teaching, I spent most of my teaching days in a premier Buddhist college known as Nalanda. It is from there that the now internationally famous Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement started fifty-three years ago as an experiment in building a society that works for all according to the teachings of the Buddha.
So everything I say at this symposium is based on five decades of experience in translating the Buddha's teachings into development action and attempting to restructure more than fifteen thousand village communities of Sri Lanka. Our objective was to develop a self-governing community model integrating the spiritual, moral, cultural, social, economic, and political lives of rural communities. We call it a gram swaraj, a community self-governance model.
I begin my comments on the theme "Natural Disasters and Religion" in the light of the Buddha Dharma as I understand it. The reason that a bodhisattva struggles through innumerable cycles of birth and death is to find a way to end the suffering that all beings are subject to, who are caught in the samsaric cycle. Finally he discovers the Four Noble Truths, namely, the Noble Truth of Suffering, the Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering, the Noble Truth of Cessation of Suffering and the Noble Truth of the Path leading to the cessation of suffering (dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, and magga). So disaster, in whatever form it comes or in whatever way it is caused, is a part of this suffering, which cannot be prevented as long as we wander in the samsaric ocean. The only way to end all suffering is by attaining the supreme bliss of nirvana.
However, if we follow the Buddha's teachings in our day-to-day life, with the ultimate goal of attaining nirvana while living a life founded on sila (morality), samadhi (concentration), and panna (wisdom), it is my strong conviction that as individuals we can escape from becoming victims of any kind of disaster. We have learned from Buddhist teachings the principle known as "dhammohave rakhkhathi dhammachari," which means "those who conduct themselves according to the Dharma will be protected by the Dharma." We often hear of certain cases of people who have had miraculous escapes when others faced with the same disastrous situation perished. These are instances where the law of karma has come into effect for those who have accumulated powerful, meritorious, or positive karma.
In Buddhist literature we come across five cosmic laws, or pancha niyama dhammas, which function above all man-made laws. Kamma niyama, or the law of karma, is only one. There are others known as bija niyama, the cosmic laws pertaining to our genes or genetic formation; utu niyama, the cosmic laws governing seasons and climates; citta niyama, cosmic laws determining the effects of volitions on the psychosphere as a whole; and dhamma niyama, the cosmic laws that control everything else pertaining to our conduct toward one another, our relationships with other living beings, and the natural world itself. When one deeply contemplates these five natural laws, one wonders whether most of what goes under the label "natural disasters" is really caused by nature's "misconduct" or man's misbehavior, caused by his own endless greed, aversions, and ignorance.
Some educated people are of the view that religion is a personal matter and it should not be mixed up with social, economic, or political organizations. As a Buddhist I cannot accept this view. On the contrary, I am totally opposed to this narrow perception of religion.
In the Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddha advised us of the importance of cultivating right views (samma ditti), right thoughts (samma sankappa), right words (samma vaca), right actions (samma kammanta), right livelihood (samma ajiva), right effort (samma vayama), right mindfulness (samma sati), and right concentration (samma samadhi). It is quite clear even from a glance at these eight noble steps that one has to follow all of them simultaneously for total self-realization at all times. A Buddhist cannot have a dual life or a split personality. His personal life and his public life should work in total harmony so that in his thoughts, words, and deeds he rids himself of greed, aversions, and egoism.
When we think of cultivating right views, the Buddha's basic teachings of anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering, dissatisfaction), and anatta (nonself) come to mind. When we look at the lives we live as human beings, we can always see that what motivates most people throughout their lives are the false views of nicca (permanence), sukha (comfort), and atta (ego). So, the entire human society seems to be absorbed in this ignorance of reality, and hence, when disasters occur, they come as totally unexpected incidents that interfere with people's lives, which are basically a lifelong ego ride toward a permanent and affluent lifestyle they foolishly believe in.
Earlier I suggested that some of the unfortunate disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, floods, droughts, lightning strikes, and so on, which we attribute to nature, are perhaps not created by nature but by man himself. When human beings violate the pancha niyama dhammas, the dynamic stability of planet Earth and its related fields, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, the stratosphere, and so on, will also be affected adversely.
There are numerous Jataka stories relating to how under a righteous ruler societies prospered in a very friendly and healthy natural environment where people lived in peace and harmony. When kings or rulers become evil, nature itself rebels against that nation by creating droughts, floods, earthquakes, civil commotions, and other disasters, such as communicable and noncommunicable diseases. Generally, for good governance, kings and other rulers should follow the Ten Principles, which are known as the Dasa Raja Dharma. They are sharing or beneficence (dana), ethical conduct (sila), recognition and promotion of talent and being charitable to the needy (pariccada), straightforwardness (ajjava), impartiality and composure (tapan), nonhatred (akrodha), nonviolence (avihimsa), patience and forgiveness (kanthi), and nonrevengefulness (avirodhitha). If we look at present-day rulers, how many of them are following these principles of good governance? I am not surprised that natural disasters have a relationship with the conduct of humans toward their own kind, toward other creatures and nature, and finally toward Mother Earth.
What we call natural disasters are, therefore, largely man-made. Disasters such as droughts, floods, desertification, landslides, climate change, global warming, the melting of icebergs at the poles, nuclear accidents, famines, many communicable and noncommunicable diseases, such as AIDS, and bloody conflicts, violent crimes, and wars are certainly caused by the spiritual degeneration of human society.
At this point I must explain my views about religions and spirituality. We have in our world a large number of organized religions that people profess. Some of these religions have degenerated like most secular organizations, promoting divisions among human beings and even giving rise to religious wars. If religions are really to be of service to humankind, then they should lead their followers along a path reducing their greed for material wealth and power or recognition and their aversions toward other religions, races, or communities and should encourage them to always follow a path of overcoming their egocentricity. In other words, religions should work as a means to the spiritual awakening of humanity.
Let us face the true reality of our present way of life. As individuals, most of us want to achieve a lifestyle with which we can have maximum gratification of our five senses. For the past five centuries, Europe and Britain and, more recently, the United States, have set a wrong example of imbalance in their pursuit of material progress over spiritual development. Japan and other Eastern countries have followed their wrong example. While we have continued to have our religions in name, in actual fact, besides rituals and other paraphernalia, we have lost the spiritual content of religious teachings.
The two most important organs that have the greatest influence on society, namely, political and economic structures, have completely distanced themselves from religious principles. Gradually social institutions, particularly those related to education, have also dropped spiritual teachings hitherto treated as the most essential component for developing human personalities and for maintaining justice and peace in society. Even humanitarian disciplines have acquired materialistic frameworks. In the case of medicine, this has completely destroyed healing systems thousands of years old. There have also been failures in agriculture, irrigation, environmental protection, ecological stability, and the protection and use of safe and sustainable energy sources. Today in all of these fields, we are going through crisis after crisis. I am not saying that we should go back to where we were five centuries ago. Certainly we can take a fresh look at our present problems, going beyond economic indicators and the state of the stock markets, and start thinking anew and taking corrective action.
We are living in the first year of the second decade of the twenty-first century. We have committed sufficient blunders in every field of human activity and we have come to a decisive point where we have to decide whether we are going to bring about the destruction of our own societies and other nations' by a self-centered approach, or whether we are going to survive as a human species by being unselfish.
The Buddha taught us that there are three factors at the root of all of our personal, national, and global problems. The first is greed; the second is hatred; and the third is ignorance, or delusion. These three evils within our own minds have become so well organized that they bring about all the man-made and, I believe, even natural disasters we are facing at this time. Unless we begin by enlightening ourselves to the causes that have brought our human civilization to this critical stage - namely, greed, ill will, and ignorance - we can never hope to become a sustainable and peaceful global society. Why are we subjected to these three evils? It is because we have forgotten to realize the existence of the three fundamental laws of nature: the law of impermanence (anicca), the law of suffering (dukkha), and the law of nonself (anatta).
I think this period, when Japan is trying to resolve the problems caused by the tragedy that took place in March 2011, should be used for an entire reevaluation of the post-Second World War period up to the time this triple tragedy took place. In actual fact, not only the government and the people of Japan but also all governments in the world and global citizens alike should look back on the past six decades and try to understand, not the successes we achieved, but the failures we encountered that have brought about the present global crisis.
If we look back to the period before the Western expansion and the dawn of the industrial age, we find that in spite of all kinds of armed conflicts within and between nations, our societies still continued to be sustained as a whole on the bases of community organizations and peaceful, cooperative lifestyles.
Whatever external improvements we made to make our lives more comfortable, we still attached great importance to personal spiritual awakening by following the principles of a variety of religions. In Asia the teachings of the Buddha influenced our civilizations one after another. Even today, in spite of all the scientific and technological revolutions that have taken place, the Buddha's teachings remain like a beacon to dispel the ignorance we have created.
Many scholars point out that the present global crisis is the result of a spiritual and moral decline of the human community. Hence, a transformation of the human consciousness should be brought about initially, followed by economic and political transformation.
Sarvodaya is helping the poor and powerless to awaken their consciousness, develop their full potential, and build institutions and self-development structures. We aim at encouraging individuals and communities to invest in beneficence. We believe in people's power, supported by the strength of the Dharma - the Dharma that they are trained in and that ensures that they act with clarity of purpose, mindful of the difficulties of others, and without harming the environment. Though, on the one hand, the Dharma does not offer a monocultural formula for all the ills in the world, on the other hand, its followers have released an integrated series of processes in the manner described above by sheer hard work. In each of the fifteen thousand villages where Sarvodaya has been active, a program based on self-reliance, community participation, and a simple plan decided upon by the people themselves has been implemented. Activities have been planned and implemented for preschool to elementary school children, for young mothers, farmers, and other adults. A village-level Sarvodaya Shramadana Society is organized in due course and legally registered with the government. These societies have opportunities to engage themselves in economic activities that benefit the village people. Also, the innovative and nonviolent power of the people as a whole improves the quality of life in the way they want, strengthened by the process of working together in a variety of fields that affect their lives.
The village, for its basic-needs-satisfaction program, needs a variety of trained personnel, such as preschool workers, health care workers, nutrition workers, community shopkeepers, savings and credit organizers, rural technical service workers, agricultural promoters, and so on. The workers are trained at divisional level, district level, and national level development-educational centers.
At present there is a struggle between violence and nonviolence going on in all corners of the globe. Sarvodaya does not believe in violence or terror. It believes in the building of a critical mass of peace consciousness and cultivates nonviolent and just attitudes within nations and between them. To achieve this we have to work in three interrelated sectors: consciousness, economics, and power. Transformation of consciousness is a spiritual process; transformation of the economy is a development exercise; and transformation of the power structure is a political and constitutional matter. In all three sectors we are working to build a critical mass of transformation.
We help the villagers to go through psychological, social, legal, and economic infrastructure-building phases and also a political self-governance phase, all of which begin at the village level. These are based on an alternative lifestyle where simplicity and need-based local economies are promoted. Greed-based economic pursuits are discouraged. Use of less energy, practicing organic agriculture, protecting the natural fertility of the soil, conservation and protection of natural water sources, and caring for the environment are some of the features of the new way of life that Sarvodaya is promoting.
When a community of people is thus organized, they can become a part of the solution to national and global problems. We first begin with ourselves, to understand our own personality awakening - from infancy, childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age up to the dying moment when we learn to breathe our last with right awareness. A human being who fails to understand the physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual processes that his or her own personality is going through at every moment will never find true happiness and the joy of living in this life. For all the stages of human development, we have scientifically developed practical programs that are daily benefiting thousands of people. No man-made divisions among human beings will interfere with these learning processes, and hence the human consciousness will progressively revert back to its original pure form to realize the highest goal of human evolution - the realization of the truth that all living beings are interconnected and interdependent and we should live for the well-being of all.
Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne is president of Sarvodaya Shramadana, a rural development movement he founded in Sri Lanka in 1958, which is also involved in resettlement, reconstruction, and reconciliation activities in the war-affected north and east of Sri Lanka. The movement's National Reawakening program aims to promote good governance and democracy. Dr. Ariyaratne has been awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Niwano Peace Prize, and many other international honors for his work in peacemaking and village development.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2012 issue of Dharma World.