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Sarvodaya Means "Everybody Wakes Up"

Essays on The Great Turning by Joanna Macy

EarthLight Magazine #45, Spring 2002


I return from Sri Lanka where I saw how a country, devastated by civil war, can proceed to reunite and rebuild. Sarvodaya - the name means "everybody wakes up" - is a Buddhist-inspired community development movement active in well over 12,000 villages in all parts of the island republic. Its campaign for peace, moving into high gear with the fragile but promising ceasefire signed in January, aims to restore not only interethnic harmony, but also the bases for economic wellbeing. These two are inseparable in Sarvodayan eyes, along with respect for the land and for the human spirit. Having loved and learned from this movement for twenty-six years, I flew to be on hand for the event of March 15th, a mammoth peace meditation kicking off their "village-to-village, heart-to-heart" link-up program. I come back with these lessons:

1) Affirm and nourish the spiritual roots of action

By midday on March 15th figures in white filled the paths toward the great stupas and were pouring onto the grounds of the sacred ancient city of Anuradhapura. Walking along with them, I could not tell from which side of Sri Lanka's civil war these pilgrims came. No placards or shouted slogans proclaimed their identities, but place names on the busses parked back on the periphery gave a clue. They came from Hindu Tamil and Buddhist Sinhalese areas that had been pitted against each other for the last nineteen years, in a war that has cost 65,000 lives, wrecked the economy, and traumatized a generation of Sri Lankans.

This was Peace Samadhi Day, organized by Sarvodaya in support of the ceasefire recently negotiated with Norwegian help between the Sinhalese-identified government and the secessionist LTTE or Tamil Tigers. Over the last year and a half, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, Sarvodaya's founder, had convened public peace meditations to change the "psychosphere." These gatherings let ordinary people at the grassroots level demonstrate and deepen their desire to end the war. Now, despite counsel from more cautious minds, he had reached for something huge: a meditation to include a half a million people. And despite a grenade attack on the Ariyaratne home, right before the event and just outside my bedroom, the event went forward. In what might well be the largest meditation for peace in the history of the world, 650,000 people took part.

Sitting on the grass as far as the eye could see, they made the biggest silence I ever heard. After prayers from Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim clerics, and in the intervals between Dr. Ariyaratne's words, guiding us in mindfulness of breath, in lovingkindness and firm resolve for peace, the silence deepened. I thought: this is the sound of bombs and landmines not exploding, of rockets not launched and machine guns laid aside. It is possible, for us all.

2) Have practical actions people can undertake together

That day, off to the side by the ancient bodhi tree, a ceremony inaugurated Sarvodaya's Link-Up program. A thousand villages in the more devastated Tamil areas are paired with a thousand in the Sinhalese areas. The latter will bring materials and skilled and unskilled labor, so that both parties can work together to rebuild homes and schools, wells and toilets and places of worship destroyed in the fighting. I heard of a village in the South, that, just on hearing of this program, immediately loaded two lorries with roofing materials to take north.

Today, to symbolize this partnership, a village from each side had been selected, and after the temple bell was rung-at the precise moment bells were rung that day across Sri Lanka, young people from each of these two villages came forward. They bore round trays of special, festive food they had prepared, and they fed each other.

The plates were then passed among the rest of us gathered there. Even if the ceasefire is sabotaged, I want to remember that taste of sweet rice and coconut. It told me that this is what we really want, most of all. To stop the fighting and feed each other.

3) To build enduring peace, restore the land

Sarvodaya's peace plan includes grassroots development strategies for the dry zones, the most economically hard-pressed areas of Sri Lanka. It features locally generated energy from biomass as well as sustainable irrigation, soil renewal, and the community-controlled microcredit schemes the Movement has pioneered in the last decade.

The aim of the Movement, as ever, is a "no poverty, no affluence" society to reduce the disparity between rich and poor brought about by late capitalism and corporate globalization. The priority placed on care for the land reminds me of Sarvodaya's list of Basic Human Needs, the very first of which is "a safe and beautiful environment."

4) Think long-term

Peace does not happen with the signing of documents; the effects of war continue to fester far into the future, often to erupt again in violence. Sarvodaya points out that the seeds of Sri Lanka's civil war were planted 500 years ago with European colonization, and estimates that its healing will require an equal amount of time. So the peace plan it brings embraces the next 500 years.

To give you a rough idea: Five years to put Dry Zone development measures in place; ten years to resettle all the refugees; fifty years to achieve the lowest poverty rate in the world and abolish Sri Lanka's standing army. The vision continues beyond that: By 2100, Sri Lanka becomes "the first country to eliminate poverty, both economic and spiritual." By the year 2500, "Global climate warming may cause changes to Sri Lankan environment; but because of the history of working together over hundreds of years, these changes will not be disasters. In 500 years, people might be living on other planets; however, Sri Lanka will retain their image of Paradise on Earth."

I think of the tightrope walker who, to maintain her balance and move steadily forward, must raise her eyes, keep looking ahead. When we do that in our work for peace and justice, when we feel our connections to future generations, we can stay steady and determined, despite the immediate challenges we face. My friends in the Sarvodaya Movement have shown that we ordinary humans are capable of that.

Joanna Macy, Ph.D., is an ecophilosopher grounded in Buddhism and living systems theory, who works worldwide with movements for peace, justice, and ecology. Her books include Coming Back to Life, World as Lover, World as Self, Rilke's Book of Hours, Mutual Causality, and her memoir, Widening Circles. Her web site ( tells more about The Great Turning and includes her teaching schedule for 2002.

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