Sam traveled to Sri Lanka in early 2014 to learn about Sarvodaya's interfaith community-organizing methods, and came away energized and full of great ideas.
Check out some of Sam's latest writings about Sarvodaya below.
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Some of you may be following my interest in a community development organization based in Sri Lanka called Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement (see sarvodaya.org for more information). They have been organizing and developing villages across the country since 1958. They are a strong organization with a core base of 3000 villages and a reach into 15000 villages in which they have done work. I visited Sri Lanka in January to see the organization for myself and came home very impressed with the leaders I met, their organizational accomplishments and their training facilities scattered around the island I visited.
So here, in brief, is why the world needs to learn from their successes:
Shramadanas – The energy source for this organization is “shared, freely offered labor.” A shramadana is a work camp to accomplish a goal mutually agreed upon goal for the good of the village. This could be building a road, an irrigation canal, a latrine or a well. It could be building a preschool or a community garden. The camp requires people to work side by side with each other doing physical labor that will benefit the whole rather than themselves alone. Community meals are prepared and eaten together. The participants often meet together and worship together during the camp. By the end, the community bonds are much stronger and the willingness to cooperate together in the future is greatly increased. Over 55 years, Sarvodaya has learned a great deal about how to organize shramadanas in ways to maximize the potential for good outcomes and greater connection and community. That “shramadana technology” could help build community around the world.
Bridging the Diversity Gap – One of the challenges in Sri Lanka, especially during and after the Sri Lankan civil war, is ethnic and religious diversity. Tension between Tamil and Sinhala peoples and Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians divide villages. Sarvodaya intentionally works to be fully inclusive of that diversity within their leadership, hiring and in their organizational practices. Shramadanas open with prayers from all the spiritual leaders of a village. They have been doing this for 55 years, far longer than this has happened in many places around the world. Many lessons can be learned here about how to do this effectively.
Development Goals – After the end of colonial rule by the British in 1948, ending 400 years of colonialism, the founder of Sarvodaya, A. T. Ariyaratne reached back before that time searching for Buddhist community organizing principles. Part of the genius of the organization is his translation of the Buddha's vision of community into his development strategy. In Buddhism, the goal for the lay person is developing a strong ethical foundation that will guide them toward enlightenment or awakening. In Buddhist society, attaining material wealth is not the goal of life nor power over your neighbor but rather mutual awakening to the truths of existence. He translated that into the goal of “no poverty and no affluence.” The Buddha felt that one could not work toward awakening unless one's basic needs were satisfied. But the pursuit of wealth, or conquest didn't lead toward peace and happiness. Thus the goal for village development is both material satisfaction of needs and spiritual development toward awakening … for all. The integration of material and spiritual development is a very important lesson the developed world needs to understand and learn from Sarvodaya.
Interfaith Spiritual Approach – Sarvodaya has managed to figure out how to integrate material and spiritual development using an interfaith approach. They use four key Buddhist concepts of “metta” or loving-kindness, “karuna” or compassion, “muditha” or sympathetic joy, and “upekkha” or equanimity as grounding spiritual principles that translate across spiritual traditions. Their work building this interfaith religious bridge could be very beneficial around the world where religious conflict divide communities.
Village Development Methods – Sarvodaya has used shramadanas to bridge diversity and build trust while developing very poor and oppressed villages, improving them in both material and spiritual ways. Not only have they done the work, they have created an enduring network of those villages that form the governing base of the organization. This is amazing all by itself during a time that spanned the civil war. The unity they were able to retain across the north-south boundaries of the war are a testimony to the power of their organizing methods. Their sophisticated village development methods move from psychological and social Infrastructure development and training, to the satisfaction of ten basic needs, to income, self-financing and employment finally to sharing with neighboring villages. There is a wealth of practical development experience they have accumulated over their 55 years of work to share with the world.
Sarvodaya has not done any of this work perfectly and they are always in the midst of their own institutional challenges as is true of any organization. From what I have seen in my short visit and what I have read about from the writings of authors who have documented the history of this movement, I know there is a gold mine of social technology they have discovered. There is a great deal the world can learn from their collective experience and their inspired leadership that could be of great benefit.
We live in a time we will be forced either by climate change or by fossil fuel depletion to change course away from a material growth based economy. Sarvodaya presents an alternative social model for building a society that is spiritually based rather than materially based. Their social goal is human happiness rather than prosperity. If we have a prayer of stopping the approaching train wreck of resource depletion and over consumption, we need a new model for what a good life can be. I think Sarvodaya has one of the best we've come up with and we'd be wise to move in their direction.
Find more from Sam at the Mostly Mindful Minister blog!