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Progress, Development and Survival of Man on this Earth as viewed by a Buddhist
Ven. Professor Dhammavihari

In 1998 , i.e. three years from now, Sri Lanka would claim having had fifty years of independence. Can we be sure of the direction in which we as a liberated people, liberated from centuries of colonial rule, have targeted our development process during this reasonably long period. From where have we picked up the norms or the yardsticks with which to measure our own progress , not only in the area of economic development , i.e. revenue for our state from anywhere ? Or on the other hand , have we been caught up in a competitive , and at the same time a meaningless escalation ?

We need to check on its sustainability and its wholesomeness, wholesome to the people for whom it is planned. Are not the people of the land and the land itself becoming a cat's paw in the so-called development process ? According to the old stories we have learnt as children , it is the monkey and certainly not the cat who enjoys the nuts so pulled out of the fire.

The last three decades or more of Sri Lankan history yield enough evidence for the verification of this. Not merely gusty winds , no matter where they have had their origin , have blown across our country. We have also been caught up in devastating whirl winds. Today it has to be admitted that we have lost sight of or we have been made insensitive to many important facts of our very existence in this small island which for many centuries has had its own distinct identity.

Multi-ethnicity and multi-religiousness have well and truly been realities in this country for centuries. As far as our memories go, even as far as the early decades of this century, the people of Sri Lanka , no matter to whichever ethnic group they belonged or in which part of the island they lived , did not require to be tutored on this subject. Minor aberrations of relationships have occurred from time to time , but they have been corrected without long lasting side effects. The process and the spirit of give and take has been effectively so good that very little of what might be called serious grievances has persisted.

Personal identities of ethnic , religious or political groups and their peaceful co-existence were never believed to be mutually hostile. Even taking a look back into ancient history , the presence of temples for the worship of Hindu divinities by the royal ladies of Indian origin, within the palace yard of Polonnaruwa , is ample testimony to this. The first half of this century knew of considerable cultural inter-filtration among the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Islamic communities of Sri Lanka. We do need to make a very serious and honest attempt for the restoration of such a climate. It is not because it serves the needs of any single group , but because it serves well the cause of all concerned.

With this brief clinical observation of the Sri Lankan infant of today, forty seven years after its delivery , and with the assigned task of rearing it to a healthy and robust growth, let us see how much of our own traditional wisdom could be of benefit to us. In the Buddhist context, development basically means the development of man, his character, his personality, his humanness in brief, alongside the improvement of his material prosperity. This latter are important in terms of the quality of life and in terms of the magnitude of achievement. Without getting an adequate awareness of this, he would not be able to visualize the perimeter of man's development. Viewing development from a highly egoistic angle, either singly or collectively, he would be completely heedless of the ill-effects of his development plans on everybody else besides himself, on the lives of others, on their cultural and religious preferences. He would turn out to be essentially unethical. The increase in the quantity and quality of material accessories which usually accompanies the concept and process of modern development has to be viewed as being only peripheral. Harnessing of all resources for the achievement of supersonic success in this area of materialistic development and economic gain has led many nations and power blocs of the world to unscrupulous and , at times, despicable ways of achievement. It may even be described as a descent to vulgar levels of exploitation of man and nature.

Take just one look at the so-called industrial development of the world. Lack of correct and adequate vision and lack of planning in the interests of the world we live in has led to the overrunning of the activities of man into questionable areas of environment. That industrial waste comes in the wake of industrial production must be obviously clear to planners and policy makers, even though their laying down of policy often remains confined to the papers on their tables. Value judgements must be evident within the framework of their thinking. Otherwise, one has a right to ask as to who accepts responsibility for the consequences of their planning. This serious and grave offense of omission is now being recognized and reckoned with at international level.

Think of the great disaster that has come upon the Great Lakes of North America. A crime committed many many decades ago. Their aquatic life is ruined to the very rock bottom. On this side of the Atlantic, the same is true of the Baltic and the Mediterranean seas. It is so even of Lake Baikal in Soviet Russia. Over the last thirty or forty years the world has been learning the bitter lessons of these. But the obstinacy and the stubbornness of those, both above and below, in this part of the world makes us insensitive to the pollution and destruction of the environment that man, in his search for development, is generating here, right at our door-step. We are making dead seas of what were once flourishing breeding grounds of fish and prawn, and for that very reason, veritable sources of pleasure and delight because of the very presence of life therein. Lunawa lagoon, said to be now stacked with industrial waste, is a good example. It is a good example of misguided industrial expansion. I stress here the word misguided because whether in the private sector or at state level these developmental ventures must be launched after careful deliberation and counselling. Bypassing instruction, and even danger signals, primarily in the interests of personal gain has been witnessed too often in Sri Lanka, and that far beyond a point of annoyance.

This approach to the question of development necessarily sets limits on all sides. But it must be admitted that limits are and have to be a sine qua non of all development, for that is the guarantee, on the one hand, for efficiency and perfection in the very process of development and on the other, against toxication of human life and pollution and contamination of the environment. It must now be emphatically stated that whether here or there, any launching of development projects, without accepting responsibility for the consequences that come in their wake, i.e. without any reference to what in cultured societies of rulers or the ruled are called value judgements, is virtually a move in the direction of genocide. At the level of world thinking today, whether the killing or destruction is of human life or animal life or whether the destruction results in death or near death, the social scientists are inclined to hold the policy planners responsible for these mass manouvres. Let us, these wise men we are, not forget this level of thinking. Therefore any development policy planning which results in the deterioration of the life of man and the environment in which he lives or eventually leads to the deterioration of his cultural considerations has to be conscientiously condemned and rejected even though such a line of action is known to rip the pockets of a few who are determined to make the money and benefit at the expense of the many. Is any country or any group of people by duty bound to oblige and support an underworld of this kind ?

Let us here take an example. Whether it is the lack of concern or the reluctance to prevent the digging up of the coral belt around the southern shores of Sri Lanka or the raping of the island's forest cover including the Sinharaja range, or the diabolically planned or unplanned increase in the production and consumption of alcohol in the country, all these carry an element of viciousness, a death-dealing sting embedded in the development conscience. Are we to forgive the pioneers and policy makers for these lapses simply because they have placed the telescope on the blind eye ? Whether one directly perceives it or not, the pernicious effects of such actions on the country and the people are neither to be lost sight of nor treated lightly.

I attempt in this essay to indicate as to what should be the bed-rock of a development consciousness in Buddhism. Its primary motivation has to be humanitarian and that too essentially in the direction of magnanimous collective welfare, thus all the time leaving no room for the overgrowth of egoistic promptings of individuals or of groups, however large or small. This has to be the true social scientist's attitude of concern for the good of the vast majority of people: bahunojanassa atthaya hitaya sukhaya as the Buddhist texts put it. This thoroughly humanistic approach in determining the correctness or otherwise of man's activities is clearly witnessed in the Buddha's advice to his own son Rahula , saying that approval for action depends entirely on the goodness or otherwise of the results of such activity undertaken. One is called upon to ask the question Does such action have good results on oneself or on others ? One has to probe into this aspect very carefully: paccavekkhitv‹ paccavekkhitv‹ kammaµü kattabbaµ ( M.I. 415 )

This being the Buddhist attitude to activity, in any form, any where and every where, the concept of development must be viewed and examined with sanity and with a down-to-earth realism. Injury to another, man, animal or nature, in any conjured up vision of development, cannot be permitted. This is not merely a religious consideration. At least Buddhism as a religion, does not subordinate man to the divine or subordinate nature to man. Nothing is created for the specific purpose of consumption by man. That is too primitive a belief of only eat and live. Each has its own rightful place and it is their healthy and correct coordination which leads to successful growth and development of the collective total group. The sane world today is becoming aware of it and accepting it in principle. The ozone belt above the earth, adequate forest cover on land, and many such others are vital considerations for our own existence on this earth. Let not development ventures in their warped and distorted patterns ride rough-shod over the peace and happiness of man on earth.

Anything contrary to this, by whatever name one calls it, development or any other, and no matter by whom they are started, have to be challenged and rejected, at least for the survival of man on earth, if not for anything else. It can be done and has been done by men of courage and sanity in many parts of the world and great catastrophies have been averted. Let those obsessed with ambitious plans of development take serious note of this warning. It is written on the wall. Yaavadeva anatthaaya -attaµ baalassa jaayate. Dhp.v.72

The knowledge of the fool is born to bring about his utter ruin and destruction.


Updated: 25-9-2000

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