A meaningful exchange

(this program was held in September)

The journey to Puttalam took us through heavy monsoon rains and into dry rural-lands. In the van were several Shanti Sena (“Peace Brigade”) staff and two Israelis, Yaara and Oriah, who were working with Sarvodaya. Narrow roads and lush greenery, green despite the dry season, extended in all directions. I was nervous and excited – I was to observe Sarvodaya’s Youth Exchange program, which brings together youth (age 18-25) from Tamil and Sinhalese areas to build relationships and dispel stereotypes.

I was impressed by this program. Around 120 Tamil and Sinhalese youth arrived to this small village in Puttalam, and each Tamil was paired with a Sinhalese to be living together in a homestay arrangement. The villagers – including the local administration of this Sarvodaya Society – planned everything. They prepared the food, hosted the participants, and joined and coordinated the Shramadana. This strategy demonstrated the philosophy of Sarvodaya: the utilization of local resources for Sarvodaya projects.

At first, the discomfort between the Tamil and Sinhalese was tangible. Communication was strained, since the Tamils spoke Tamil and the Sinhalese spoke Sinhala. English, supplemented with body language, was the most effective communication medium. So here I was, watching as these youth struggled to find the right words to communicate to their peers. During cooperative assignments notebooks and dictionaries were brought out, scribbled in and gestured towards. I walked between them in fascination.


Speaking basic English and writing on notepads, these participants were given the task to get to know their partner

During the second day, Ravi, the director of Shanti Sena, led a group meditation. The participants were once again paired up with each other and brought to sit face-to-face. Closing their eyes and gently holding each other’s hands, the participants were guided through a simple metta (loving-kindness) meditation, focusing on their breath to calm their minds and feel the presence of the other.

No translation was available to me immediately, but I spoke with Ravi later to understand the meaning of the meditation:

Breathe in, breathe out; the air we breathe is the same.

The blood in our veins is the same.

We may say we are Sinhala or Tamil, but are we not the same?

the meditation

A simple idea with monumental significance. When we are born we have no name, language, race, ethnicity, caste, religion. If we are completely separated from our environment, would it make a difference who our parents are or what country we were born in? Let us return to this basic idea and begin here when we consider any conflict.

The exchange program continued with Sarvodaya’s powerful Shramadana. Dr. A.T. Ariyaratna organized the first shramadana in a small, poor village in 1958. The inhabitants of the village were of the lowest caste; birth into this caste meant a life of degradation and abuse, subject to the worst conditions of living where begging is the only acceptable form of livelihood. Dr. Ariyaratne, then a school teacher, took his students to this village for an “educational experiment,” not knowing that it would soon snowball into a revolutionary movement. Shramadana, “the gift of labor,” meant that everyone worked together to accomplish local tasks, such as building latrines, wells, schools, playgrounds, etc. The significance of caste and social status faded away as sweat and effort were expended. Humanity could flourish in the work camp where determination, effort, good-will and altruism were far more descriptive than their “prescribed” identity. The entire village participated and gave what they could to accomplish the tasks at hand. Some donated food, some water, others labor and other essentials, like tools for road construction.

the monk organizing, and Rasika, one of the Shanti Sena staff, getting to work. Status was irrelevant in this activity

And before my eyes I saw this program in contemporary form. Most of participants of this Shramadana were not from this village, yet they were donating their time and effort to it. Tamil and Sinhalese were laughing and busily working to construct a road that would connect this village to the nearest Christian church and its village. When I first wrapped my hands around a shovel and began working, I was a spectacle. Several of the young villagers were laughing at me – at my “funny technique”. They kindly taught me how to use their shovels properly. As the blisters in my hands slowly ripened to maturity, my presence drew less and less attention and I felt closer to my peers. I could only imagine the impact this would have over a longer period.

getting to work

After three days it was time to part. The Tamil and Sinhalese said their goodbyes and many cried as they embraced. In a flurry of motion and emotion the buses were loaded. After ten minutes there was a sudden silence: in the past days the village came to life with action as all shared meals, discussions, labor, and culture. This was the first event held in such a humble village, and the first time (for many) to meet a Sinhalese or Tamil.

To say that lessons were learned is an understatement. The impact of this program was palpable and it will, no doubt, continue to shape the youth of the nation.

Saying goodbye

Hundreds of people gathered for the culture event on Saturday night, featuring traditional dances, singing, and even stilt-walkers


On Compassion and Equanimity

During my time studying Buddhism in the jungle district of Alawwa, I came across this powerful quote by the Ven. Nyanaponika Mahathera:

“Compassion guards equanimity from falling into a cold indifference, and keeps it from indolent or selfish isolation. Until equanimity has reached perfection, compassion urges it to enter again and again the battles of the world, in order to be able to stand the test, by hardening and strengthening itself. Equanimity furnishes compassion with an even, unwavering courage and fearlessness, enabling it to face the awesome abyss of misery and despair which confront boundless compassion again and again. To the active side of compassion, equanimity is the calm and firm hand led by wisdom – indispensable to those who want to practice the difficult art of helping others.”

What do you think?


“Look at a waterfall,” said the monk who was giving a Dhamma talk to a crowd of six at his temple in Anuradhapura. Our three wheel driver tugged us in his tuk-tuk along a narrow road through jungle and the remains of ancient civilizations – by us I mean me and Bhikkhu Anaruddha, the easy going and smiling disciple of the head monk who invited me to stay with him.

“We see a waterfall, but in fact the waterfall we see one moment is a different one the next.” He wasn’t speaking Sinhala but, fortunately for me, his words were being translated to me by a Colombo businessman. It was slightly odd – speaking through an intermediary—and it often felt like he was an interpreter, not a translator. Despite the problems in such a discussion, I was happy to communicate with this monk. A friend from Colombo recommended I seek him out and so I have come here, to one of the holiest Buddhist cities in the world.

The subject was not unfamiliar. The monk was explaining the concept of impermanence and the elusive power of our mind to assume permanence. We see a waterfall and we think, “waterfall”. The concept is complete in our mind as a static entity, and it conceals the ever-changing nature of the waterfall. No water that flows down will flow down it again, just as each breath we take will never be repeated. We may believe one breath is the same as another, but that does not mean it is so.

Death is contained in life; life is contained in death. This is the realization of impermanence. In birth, death becomes eminent and in death, life becomes eminent. That is, until we free ourselves from the kammic cycle of death and rebirth.

Through realizing the true impermanent nature of things we naturally develop detachment. We find we are able to accept, without anger, when something beautiful like a flower has died. A flower may give us pleasure so we try to grasp it, to hold on to that image and retain the happiness it has elicited.  Instead we can enjoy the flower’s beauty while seeing its true nature – namely, that one day it will perish.

The sunrise on the drive out of Jaffna to Anuradhapura

A photograph is most instructive here. We see a beautiful sight and reach for our cameras. With the sharp click of the shutter the image is captured, to be recalled at will by looking at an album. There is that vast lake and the distant trees, and the sun which has awakened to hover in the horizon. We see the photo years later and our hearts still feel soft. One day we may decide to return to that site, but it will be a place hardly resembling the photo. We long to hold onto the beauty of the scene but we cannot. A photo will freeze the image and temporarily mask the reality of the scene, as if it could escape the state of decay it is constantly experiencing. Can we afford to convolute reality with illusion?

What are the consequences of this illusion?

a gateway to unity

Our eyes lock. It’s more than a passing glance.

There is no escaping the judgment behind the eyes – it’s the reason we avoid the eyes of beggars; their gaze pierces our being, sometimes uncomfortably destabilizing our moral consciousness. And here I stand looking at you, wondering what you are seeing. My leather shoes, slacks and button down shirt, what do they mean to you? They must resemble your own fashion – that which I was trying to emulate – but I must wear them differently. Or maybe you notice my grown beard and uncommon features, certainly indicators of my foreign origin if my clothes managed to fool you? When you see me, do you see a paunchy and rich tourist as the street vendors are keen to believe I am? Or do you wonder what sort of purpose has brought me here, to this remote part of your humble island…

Have I felt your joys or known the depths of your sorrows? Behind your eyes I imagine many memories are stored that would be difficult for me to understand. Yet as I walk past you and our eyes separate – it was only a split moment – I wonder how similar our lives are despite their differences. Think what you will but in a blink I am gone from your sight; at the least a young man in a tuk-tuk passing through town. The fumes of the tuk-tuk dissipate between us and I see you fading; a man sitting on a tire, momentarily distracted from a conversation.

The rice cook behind the town’s local food joint

Like so many others your face will soon be forgotten. I will have no recollection of you or your town… the only souvenir of our encounter will be the feelings you evoked from me, feelings which only the unfiltered gaze can incite. With this gift of yours I will remember you, though I must apologize for you will remain faceless. (Though isn’t the greatest gift that which is given with no expectations of returns, including praise or even a memory?)

If our eyes did not meet, it would have been hard for me to feel (or know, though it is not a knowledge of the mind)that you have a world of your own, with challenges, aspirations, disappointments and celebrations. Too often people pass me by, and it is as if they cease existing as quickly as they began to exist.   

Through sight a web is illuminated that connects everyone, extending from you, the city watch-dealer to the farmer who grew your rice 5km away, to the young Muslim woman who sewed his favorite Sarong, to her vocational training instructor working in Jaffna… These relationships come to life and envelop me in their folds; the whole process demanding only some educated guesswork and a little creativity.

The world suddenly becomes a much larger place in which I am just another being struggling to make life meaningful. The connections between us exist whether we feel them or not, and perhaps by making an effort to feel them we can share each other’s burden, utilize our strengths to make up for our weaknesses. You remind me that blood is blood, and despite our tendencies to create divisions, our efforts to unite beyond them will cultivate a peace with roots so deep it will withstand the incendiary temptations of conflict.

Street vendors in Jaffna

four religions, one mission: peace

A Buddhist monk, Christian priest, Hindu priest and Muslim imam walked into the room… It sounds like the beginning of a cheesy joke, but these religious leaders were serious.

Forty religious leaders arrived at the Sarvodaya Trincomalee District Center to attend an inter-religious workshop. This workshop was part of a year and half project to bring together religious leaders from the Eastern provinces – Trincomalee, Padaviya, and Batticaloa – to learn about each other, build relationships and work together to achieve a brighter future. But Sarvodaya was not coordinating this project alone… USAID (“from the American people”) is providing the funds for this project while the Karuna Center in Massachusetts is co-facilitating it alongside Sarvodaya. The entire project’s duration is a year and a half, this workshop being the third one at the close of one year. In previous workshops, the leaders, eighty in total, established community projects that would bring together members of different faiths to unite around one goal, whether learning how to sew, speak English, or use the computer.

Participants of a sewing project in Padaviya receive certificates for completion of their training. This vocational project brought Sinhalese Buddhist and Christian women to sew side by side


Olivia, executive director of Karuna Center in the US, came to Sri Lanka to lead the workshop. Having worked in several countries and in various conflict contexts, she was very familiar with the post-war symptoms experienced by the Sri Lankans – distrust of the government and their ethnic neighbors, fear of the “other” (whether it be Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Christian) and, more significantly, uncertainty on how to proceed into the future. While her expertise allowed her to engage and address a variety of conflicts, Olivia’s international workshop model meant she was distant from this conflict. Some history cannot be understood by having a conversation or reading the news; they can only be understood through forming deep relationships with the locals and cultivating an awareness that is possible only with time and patience.

I remind myself that the goal here was not to attain such an understanding, but to teach the religious leaders certain tools which they can use in their communities. At this, the workshop was quite successful.

The bulky headsets used for translations appeared misplaced on the heads of these leaders. I don’t think the majority of them ever used a headset before.

The workshop contained many lessons. The leaders were taught the differences between dialogue (“a conversation that seeks understanding”) and debate (“an argument where one side wins, one side loses”). They were introduced to the Do No Harm model for peace and development. The model is founded on the principles of critical analysis and self-critique with the aim of determining the circumstantial outcomes of peace and development projects. The model presupposes a deep division in society that can be seen through identifying “connectors” and “dividers” between people. A project is then analyzed in terms of connectors and dividers to determine how a project may exacerbate dividers or increase connectors. The idea behind this entire analysis was, of course, to ensure the project utilized and maximized the connectors while avoiding increasing dividers.

This analytical process was foreign to the participants. They did not readily see the connectors and dividers between themselves, which meant they had difficulties determining how their community projects ‘fit’ in the broader scheme of establishing peace. But many did see their language as either a divider (between Sinhalese Buddhist and Hindu Tamils) or connector (between Muslims and Hindu Tamils). Thus, language education classes (Sinhalese-Tamil) were seen as advantageous, since they minimized the significance of their language divider.

Perhaps what impressed me most about this workshop is the degree to which the Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus became comfortable with one another. I was not here last year at the start of the program, but I was told that there was a tangible tension between members of the different faiths. Now – especially a day into the program – the participants were sitting together regardless of their faith, and I could see them laughing often and exchanging words freely.

While this workshop was a reflection of Sarvodaya’s interest in establishing peace, it strayed far from the spiritual and cultural approach of Sarvodaya. There was discussion on cultivating certain qualities, like the ability to listen to others and mediate disputes while maintaining neutrality. But spirituality was absent altogether, and so too were discussions around qualities like metta (loving-kindness), mudita (empathetic joy) and uppekkah (equanimity). It was a Western model imported to address a particularly Sri Lankan problem, the consequences of which are still unclear to me. But the foreign nature of the program was palpable to the naked eye, from the large logo of USAID and KARUNA CENTER to the bulky headsets the participants had to use.

As a matter of US State policy, Olivia options for lodging were restricted to the top-end hotels with nightly price-tags that exceed the cost of 200 Sri Lankan meals. Is such a foreign aid and development policy irrelevant to the project’s goal? Or, rather, does such a policy reflect the project’s more covert – unintentional I’m sure – agenda? The walls surrounding Olivia’s hotel “protect” her from Trincomalee. Elements of Sri Lanka seep into the establishment only after being carefully filtered and organized to please the wealthy guests. Excursions outside of the fortress are escorted and manicured in an attempt to conceal the awkwardness and confusion that arises when two cultures come together. The “power of the West” is locked to the Westerner, and she cannot untangle herself from it no matter where she goes. Exposure is thus controlled and a hierarchy of power imposed. I fear that moral equality, the idealistic precondition for genuine exchange and growth, was quarantined with the Western stamp of approval.

Participants of Session I of the Inter-religious cooperation workshop