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How Shall We Live As We Begin Again?
by Richard S. Brooks

Back in the last millennium, like millions of others in homes across America, I sat at the dinner table with family and we talked. Three generations of us laughed and told stories the night before Christmas, and my thoughts turned philosophical.

We had driven past snow-covered cornfields into the night before and had been forced to stay in a Comfort Inn before heading the final three hours to the open arms of my sisters and mother in Indianapolis. Above the snow clouds the brightest, clearest moon in more than a century waited for the next night to light our dreams.

It was the same moon, I thought, that illuminated the sky not a week before as I had lain in my straw-covered bed half a world away in the Asian country of Sri Lanka. Bed bugs and mosquitoes bit me then. My bones were tired but my heart was full and my brain was swimming in sights and sounds of a country that most Americans know, if at all, through CNN and the occasional blip on the evening news. In the marketplace of news and ideas, the Sri Lanka that Americans knew about was where suicide bombers narrowly missed assassinating the presidential candidate and instead killed and wounded dozens of others. In their own grotesque way, Tamil Tiger guerrillas sought moments on the world stage so that someone might feel sympathy for their cause of independence for Elam, a home they craved. I had been in the village of Samagipura, in the mountains of Sri Lanka, and the lessons across time and space from that visit are with me still.Newscasters would have us believe that the civil war that has killed tens of thousands and made hundreds of thousands homeless in Sri Lanka is about Hindus and Buddhists, but it is not. It’s about wanting a home where all people can feel needed, loved and welcome. It’s about living together in a country and a world where religion, politics and economics hold sway over our more saintly virtues.

I had been in the village of Samagipura, in the mountains of Sri Lanka, and the lessons across time and space from that visit are with me still. Samagipura, by the way, means unity; together.

To know why media consumers should care about such musings is to celebrate the paradoxes of being alive in all those moments, then and now. Ironically, it was a Buddhist message that lingered in my memory on Christmas eve—the same message that resonates so clearly now that much of the talk about the “new millennium” rightfully recedes.

The Buddha, we should know, spoke of an escape from the endless suffering. My own personal journey to Sri Lanka opened windows to that suffering and the blessed escape that so many of God’s creatures have sought since the beginning of time.What drew us to Sri Lanka, particularly, was the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, one of humanity’s true gifts. With the help of a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a dozen of us from the western hemisphere had traveled to India and Sri Lanka to study the interrelationship between three things that we grew increasingly unable to separate: spirituality, community and sustainability. What drew us to Sri Lanka, particularly, was the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, one of humanity’s true gifts.

After 41 years, the Sarvodaya Movement now reaches close to 11,000 villages in a self-help approach that combines the best of Gandhism, Buddhism, community organizing and the very things that bring people together around the world: a fight for survival, fulfillment and some sort of meaning.The core message: “the sharing of thought and work for the awakening of all.” For media-savvy types here in the U.S. of A., such things may be hard to talk about. But as we look for trends in the new millennium and search for short cuts to happiness we would all do well to witness Sarvodaya Shramadana’s core message: “the sharing of thought and work for the awakening of all.”

For four days in December, 1999, my colleagues and I in the village of Samagipura worked and lived in the midst of that awakening. We joined 600 villagers to carve out an access road, lay the foundation for a pre-school and bring running water to homes that had been without it for thousands of years.

The paradoxes still linger. In a village not an hour from the garden where Adam and Eve were said to have shared the apple, we sang and laughed and looked into each others’ eyes at evening celebrations. We listened to three and four year-old children sing about the beauty of life and old men recite poetry, feeling blessed that someone had come from so far away to help them. We watched the sparks from the cooking fires that women had been tending all day rise to greet the same moon.

At my Christmas eve dinner table I tried to share some of those paradoxes with my sisters, my mother and children. Being Americans full of bluster and intellectual ferment we all fell to arguing—debating, really—and the discussion grew heated. Suddenly one of my sisters said “Wait! We’ve got to listen to each other! Instead of just trying to always be the next one to talk, just listen!”

In the middle of some esoteric point about hypocrisy and religion, politics and global economics I stopped talking and followed her advice.“Wait! We’ve got to listen to each other! Instead of just trying to always be the next one to talk, just listen!” The words that came to me again and again that night and in the early morning moonlight on Christmas day were unmistakably similar. Compassion and loving kindness. In the noise…silence. In the fierce struggle for meaning and a sense of belonging…peace.

At 6:30 Christmas morning I walked in the snow past a newspaper box and saw a sign that might well have been placed there by whatever God we celebrate. It wasn’t about religion or economics or war, and it didn’t predict doom because of either Y2K or a stock market gone wild, but it did say something to me.

Make of it what you will. Across the front page of the daily paper read the headline: “Saints defeat Cowboys.” Take away the capital letters and let theironies make you straight. Thank the land of tea and rice and the land of corn and wheat for today and tomorrow. Bless the Baby Jesus and the wisdom of Buddha. And remember these words: Sarvodaya Shramadana—the sharing of thoughts, energy and work for the awakening of all—as we step forward into the next thousand years.
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To learn more about the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka, contact: http://www.sarvodaya.org

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