Volume 13 Number 1
Asia's Millennial Message to the World
01 February 2000

Jehan Perera works with civic organizations and through the media in Sri Lanka to promote peace and human rights.

Today we see a networking of humanity unprecedented in history. Our global megalopolis is linked by electronic communications and the global economic system, and shared values and lifestyles prevail. To its citizens, the dawn of the new Millennium was a landmark event. It provided an opportunity to reflect on what had come before and what is to come in the future. It was celebrated with joy and thanksgiving, and a lot of partying, in almost all parts of the world.

But it is also likely that for most of the people who inhabit this planet, and are not part of the global megalopolis, the stroke of midnight that ushered in the 21st century was simply another moment in time. This would have especially been the case in the Asian continent, teeming with half of humanity. Asia is not only the home of several ancient civilizations, but also has the most people living in conditions of absolute poverty.

Sri Lanka is a case in point. This pearl of the Indian Ocean, now better known perhaps as its tear-drop on account of years of bloody civil strife, possesses a relatively young civilization--by Asian standards. The civilizations of China and Sri Lanka's neighbour, India, stretch back several millennia more into antiquity. But Sri Lanka's present civilization dates back to nearly 1000 BC with its people having a direct link with that past. The country's historical records chronicle events that took place at the time that the Buddha was alive in India 2,544 years ago.

To most people in Sri Lanka history began then and is a living reality today. To many Sri Lankans, the celebration came 544 years too late, or 456 years too early.

Most Sri Lankans confined their millennial celebrations, if any, to lighting fireworks at their homes. Only a tiny fraction could afford the luxury of lavish millennial celebrations in five star hotels. Not many more could go to clubs or parks, or even to places of religious worship in the middle of the night, as they lacked private transport. Besides, Sri Lankans prefer to spend their family time at home.

To large numbers of Sri Lankans living in rural villages without electricity or in refugee camps due to the ongoing civil war, the dawn of the new Millennium meant little or nothing. The first of January was just another day in which they had to find some way of feeding themselves and looking after their families, or keep out of the way of armed combatants on the prowl.

Yet even in these most difficult circumstances, there remain relationships of love, sharing and gratitude, that make life bearable and worth living another day.

One of the important messages that the continent of Asia has to give to the world in the new Millennium is the value of human relationships and family bondings. In most of Asia, and in Sri Lanka, the family remains a closely knit institution, frequently extended to include uncles, aunts and cousins. These bonds have endured through the growth in economic prosperity in many parts of Asia which have made it possible for individuals to break free of the family and survive. Child care crèches for toddlers and retirement homes for the elderly are on the rise, but do not constitute the norm.

Right relationships between human beings, and the love, sharing and gratitude that derive from them, are as important to human wellbeing as economic prosperity. There is a strong temptation in individuals and societies to seek happiness by producing and consuming more of what is visible and tangible. The cost of this consumerism to others, and to the wider global society, is often disregarded.

Human beings are not only individual physical beings. They are also moral and spiritual beings who are in relationship with the universe. Therefore what cannot be perceived by the physical senses is at least as important as that which can be.

The Buddha, whose teachings are venerated in most of Asia, summarized one of his most important tenets in two lines. 'This arising, that arises; this ceasing to be, that ceases to be.' Through these words, the Buddha pointed out the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life and all events. The poverty and war in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world have their linkages to global processes. Enormous profits and prosperity in some parts of the world, in part generated by the lucrative arms trade, lead to losses and poverty in other parts of the world.

It is to be hoped that the third millennium will be one of spiritual progress. Can human beings who generated unprecedented material wealth in the second millennium finally recognize that happiness and fulfilment require sharing one's riches with others, and not discharging one's costs onto others? Then the whole of humanity will be recognized for what it truly is--one family.
By Jehan Perera

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