Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne: Thinking About Natural Disasters and Religion

The Zenseikyo Foundation & Buddhist Council for Youth and Child Welfare
Presents a Symposium on

Thinking about Natural Disasters and Religion:
Looking for Another Way of Living

With special keynote speaker
Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne
Founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, Sri Lanka

Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne is the founder and President of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka, a highly acclaimed community development organization begun in the 1950s that has spread its work throughout Sri Lanka and has had far reaching influence in other parts of Asia and the world. Dr. Ariyaratne was a also a tireless campaigner for a non-violent solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. For his efforts and work, he received the 10th Niwano Peace Prize in 1992 and the Magsaysay Award in 1969. This essay was presented at the Symposium Thinking about Natural Disasters and Religion: Looking for Another Way of Living” sponsored by the Zenseikyo Foundation & Buddhist Council for Youth and Child Welfare at Zojo-ji Temple, Tokyo on October 10, 2011.


When the earthquake, tsunami, and the nuclear accident happened in early March, we were with you in spirit at that time. However, 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.

I myself 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 53 years ago as an experiment in building a society that works for all on the teachings of the Buddha. Whatever I write will be based on the five decades old experience in translating the Buddha’s teaching into development action and attempting to restructure the over 15,000 village communities of Sri Lanka. Our objective was to develop a self-governing community model integrating the spiritual, moral, cultural, social, economic, and political life of rural communities. We call this the gram swaraj or community self-governance model.

The Cause of Disasters

I would like to look at the theme “Natural Disasters and Religion” in the light of the Buddha Dhamma as I understand it. According to the Jataka legends, Gautama Buddha in his previous lives as the bodhisattva struggled through innumerable cycles of births and deaths and was able to find a way to end the suffering that all beings are subject to in the samsaric cycle. He did so by discovering the Four Noble Truths, namely, the Noble Truths of suffering (dukkha), the cause of suffering (samudaya), the cessation of suffering (nirodha), and the path leading to the cessation of suffering (magga). Disaster, in whatever form it comes or in whatever way it is caused, is a part of this suffering that 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 learn in the Buddhist teachings the principle known as dhammohave rakhkhathi dhammachari, which means, “Those who conduct themselves according to the Dhamma will be protected by the Dhamma.” We often hear of certain cases of people who have had miraculous escapes when others faced with the same disastrous situations perished. These are instances where the law of karma has come into effect on those who have accumulated powerful meritorious or positive karma.

In Abhidhamma texts of the Pali Canon, we come across five cosmic laws (pancha niyama dhamma), which function above all human-made laws. Kamma niyama or the law of karma is only one. There are others known as: bija niyama, the laws pertaining to our genes or genetic formations; utu niyama, the laws governing seasons and climate; citta niyama, the laws determining the effects of volitions on the psycho-sphere as a whole; and dhamma niyama, the cosmic laws that control everything else pertaining to our conduct toward one another, relationships with other living beings, and the natural world itself. When we go into deep contemplation on these five natural laws, one wonders whether most of what go under the label “natural disasters” are really caused by nature’s “misconduct” or humankind’s misbehavior caused by our own endless greed, aversion, and ignorance.

Some of the unfortunate disasters like earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, floods, droughts, lightening, etc. that we attribute to nature are perhaps not brought on by nature but by humans themselves. When human beings violate the pancca niyama dhamma, the dynamic stability that planet earth and her related fields like the oceans, atmosphere, stratosphere, and so on will also be affected adversely.

There are numerous Jataka legends 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 became evil, then nature itself rebelled against that nation by creating droughts, floods, earthquakes, civil commotions, and other disasters like communicable and non-communicable diseases. Generally, for good governance, the Buddha taught that kings and rulers should follow the Ten Principles, known as the dasa raja dhamma, which 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), non-hatred (akrodha), non-violence (avihimsa), patience and forgiveness (kanthi), and non-revengefulness (avirodhitha). If we look at present day rulers, how many of them are following the above principles of good governance? In this way, I am not surprised that natural disasters have a relationship to the conduct of humans towards their own kind, towards other creatures and nature, and finally to mother earth.

What we call natural disasters are, therefore, largely human-made. Disasters like droughts, floods, desertification, earth slides, climate change, global warming, melting of icebergs in poles, nuclear accidents, famines, and many communicable and non-communicable diseases such as AIDS, bloody conflicts, violent crimes, and wars are certainly caused by the spiritual degeneration of human society.

Bringing Selfless Spiritual and Religious Teachings Back into Society

At this point, I must explain my views about religion and spirituality. Some educated people are of the view that religion is a personal matter and that 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 when one has a glance at these eight noble steps, that one has to simultaneously follow these for total self-realization at all times. Buddhists cannot have a dual life or split personality. Both their personal life and public life should work in total harmony so that in their thoughts, words, and deeds, they develop non-greed, non-aversion, and non-egoism.

When we think of cultivating Right Views, Buddha’s basic teachings of anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness), and anatta (non-ego) come to one’s mind. When we look at the lives we human beings lead, we can always see that what motivates most people throughout their lives is the false views of nicca (permanence), sukha (comfort), and atta (ego). All of human society seems to be absorbed in this ignorance of reality, and hence, when disasters occur, these come to them as totally unexpected incidents. They interfere with their lives that are basically a life-long ego ride towards a permanent and affluent life style they foolishly believe in.

We have in our world a large number of organized religions that people profess. Some of these religions have degenerated themselves, like most other secular organizations, promoting division among human beings and even giving rise to religious wars. If religions are really to be of service to human kind, then they should lead their followers on a path of reduction of their greed for material wealth, power or recognition; their aversion towards other religions, races or communities; and always going on 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 where we can have the maximum gratification of our five senses. The United States, United Kingdom, and European countries for the past five centuries have set the wrong example of the imbalance of material progress compared to spiritual development. Japan and other eastern countries have also followed their wrong example. While we have continued to have our religions in name, in actual fact, besides rituals and outer paraphernalia, we have lost the spiritual content of our 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 also for maintaining justice and peace in society. Even humanitarian disciplines like health have fallen into a materialistic framework, completely destroying thousands of years of healing systems, as well as traditions in agriculture, irrigation, environmental protection, ecological stability, and the protection and use of safe and sustainable energy sources. Today, in all 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. However, we certainly can have a fresh look at our present problems going beyond economic indicators and the state of stock markets and start thinking anew and taking corrective action.

We are living in the first year of the second decade of the 21st century. We have committed enough blunders in every field of human activity to the extent that we have come to a decisive point. We have to decide whether by a self-centered approach we are going to bring about a destruction of our own societies as well as other nations, or we are going to survive as a human species by being non-selfish.

The Buddha taught us that at the root of all our personal, national, or global problems there are three factors that cause them. They are greed, aversion, and ignorance or delusion. These three evils within our own minds have become so well organized that they bring about all the human made disasters and, I believe, even the natural disasters we are facing at this time. Unless we begin by getting ourselves enlightened to the causes that have brought our human civilization to this critical stage, namely, greed, aversion, and ignorance, we can never hope to be 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; namely, the law of impermanence (anicca), the law of suffering (dukkha), and the law of non-ego (anatta).

A Post 3/11 Vision for Japan: Lessons from Sri Lanka

I think this time—when Japan is trying to resolve the problems caused by the tragedy that took place a few months ago—should be used for an entire re-evaluation of the post Second World War period up to the time of this triple tragedy. In actual fact, not only the government and the people of Japan, but also all governments in the world and global citizens should look back on the past six decades. We all must try to understand not about the successes we achieved but about the failures we encountered that have brought about the present global crisis.

If we look back into the period before 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 remained sustainable as a whole based on community organization and peaceful and mutual cooperative lifestyles. Whatever external improvements we made to make our lives more comfortable, we still paid great importance to personal spiritual awakening by following the principles of a variety of religions. In our part of the world, 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 of light to dispel the ignorance we have created. Many scholars point out that the present global crisis is the result of the spiritual and moral decline of the human community. Hence, a transformation of human consciousness should be brought about initially, followed by economic and political transformation.

At present, there is a struggle between violence and non-violence 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 the cultivation of non-violent and just attitudes within nations and between them. To achieve this, we have to work in three inter-related sectors: consciousness, economics, and power. The transformation of consciousness is a spiritual process; the transformation of economy is a development exercise; and the transformation of power is a political and constitutional matter. In all three sectors, we are working to build a critical mass of transformation in Sri Lanka.

We are helping the poor and powerless to awaken their consciousness, develop their full potential, and build institutions and self-development structures. Sarvodaya aims at encouraging individuals and communities to invest in beneficence. We believe in people’s power, supported by the strength of dhamma. The dhamma that they are trained in ensures they act with clarity of purpose, are mindful of the difficulties of others, and do not harm the environment. This is not a mono-cultural formula for all the ills in the world, yet its followers, by sheer hard work, have released an integrated series of processes.

In each village, a program based on self–reliance, community participation, and a simple plan decided upon by the people themselves has been implemented. From pre-school children, through school going children, youth, mothers, farmers, and other adults, activities are planned and implemented. A village level Sarvodaya Shramadana Society is organized in due course and legally registered with the government. These societies thus have opportunities to engage themselves in economic activities that benefit the village people. The village in its basic needs satisfaction program needs a variety of trained personnel, such as pre-school workers, healthcare workers, nutrition workers, community shop keepers, 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. Also the innovative and non-violent 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.

We help the villagers to go through a psychological, social, legal, and economic infrastructure, building phases including a political self-governance phase, all of which begin at the village level. These are based on an alternative life style where simplicity and need based local economies are promoted. Greed based economic pursuits are discouraged. The use of less energy, 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 every moment will never find true happiness and the joy of living in this life. For all above stages of human development, we have scientifically developed practical programs from which thousands of people are daily gaining benefit. No human made divisions among people 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 that we should live for the well-being of all.

Introduction to the Symposium

On March 11, 20011, an unprecedented disaster that happens once in a thousand years struck Japan. The ensuing nuclear incident is a crisis that continues to cause suffering to many people today. One can only imagine the deep despair of the people who suddenly lost their families while so many still face the daily uncertainty of trying to find a home.

We feel that the various events that have occurred since 3/11 raise major questions to not only the people in the disaster areas but all Japanese. These questions involve dealing with the way we live our lives. Globalization has maintained the central focus of economic development. This narrow-minded emphasis has brought about the breakdown of communities, their local economic systems, and their traditions on a global scale. It has given rise to poverty, armed conflict, and environmental destruction in the so-called developing world as well as social gaps and other problems in even so called developed nations like Japan. We feel the values that emphasize the pursuit of short-term happiness based on “materials and money” have now gone well beyond their natural limitations. We feel that 3/11 is urging us to re-examine the values that we live by.

This symposium will examine the new values upon which a sustainable society of inter-being can be constructed and explore the potential of religion in this process. We want to examine how Japanese can take this opportunity to take the first step towards “another way of living.” We believe that such a process will connect us to the lives of those many people who perished in the disaster and thus fulfill the true meaning of offering a memorial service.

Date: October 10, 2011 (Monday, public holiday)

Time: 1:30 – 5:00 (doors open at 1:00)

Place: The Sanen Hall of Zojoj-ji Temple (1st floor basement of main hall)

4-7 Shiba-koen, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Stations: JR Yamanote line, Hamamatsu-cho station 10 mins.

Asakusa line, Daimon station 5 mins.

Mita line, Onarimon station 3 mins.

Oedo line, Akabanebashi station 5 mins.

Admission: 1,000 yen

Contact: tel: 03-3541-6725, fax: 03-3541-6747


Sponsor: The Committee for “Thinking About Natural Disasters and Religion, 2011 Symposium”

Supporting organizations: Sarvodaya Japan, Shanti Volunteer Association, Jodo Shu Ho-on Meishokai Foundation, Japan Religion Coordinating Project for Disaster Relief (JRPD), Zenseikyo Foundation & Buddhist Council for Youth and Child Welfare, Rinbutsuken Institute for Socially Engaged Buddhism

Keynote Speaker:

Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne is the founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka. Dr. Ariyaratne is a pioneer of rural community development based on Buddhist spirituality that is being promoted worldwide. At the time of the Sumatran earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2004, Sarvodaya began constructing “eco-villages” for new communities to offer both material and mental care to the victims of the disaster. Dr. Airayatatne is a recipient of “Asia’s Nobel Prize”, the Magsaysay Award in 1969.


Sokyu Genyu is an associate professor at Hanazono University and author of numerous articles life and death. He is a recipient of the Akutagawa prize and the Bungei Shunju Readers Award. Since 3/11, he as been working as a member of the National Commission for Rehabilitation Design

Seiken Sugiura is a lawyer and the chairman of the board of the Sugiura Bramacharya Foundation. He served as the Minister of Justice in the Koizumi government and has continuously served in the signature campaign to abolish the death penalty in Japan

Yoshiko Takaki is the head of the Sophia University Grief Care Research Institute and a special professor at Sophia University. She is the President of the National Association for Thinking about Life and Death. Since 3/11 she has been active in giving grief care to people who lost family members in the disaster.

Susumu Shimazono is a professor at Tokyo University and President of the Association of Japanese Religious Studies. He is also the head of the coordinating group for this symposium. Since 3/11, he helped to establish the Japan Religion Coordinating Project for Disaster Relief (JRPD).


Hitoshi Jin is the Director of Zenseikyo and a senior fellow of the Rinbutsuken Institute for Socially Engaged Buddhism. Since 3/11, he has been supporting the mental care of children and the elderly in the disaster areas as well as establishing the “Project for Supporting Fukushima Children and Pregnant Mothers” which is supporting their evacuation to Buddhist temples around the country.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: