“I want to be one of the nicest human beings that this earth has seen,” Sri Lankan Buddhist philanthropist Kushil Gunasekera told me in an interview early in 2020.
I’ve known Kushil for years, so I’m no longer surprised when he makes such bold pronouncements about his life goals. From the naming of his humanitarian organization as the Foundation of Goodness, to its organizational mission of promoting “unconditional compassion,” bold claims of moral excellence are fundamental to Kushil’s understanding of himself as a Buddhist humanitarian.
At first glance, Kushil’s ambition to be one of the nicest human beings may seem overzealous or even audacious. Yet, such a gloss would overlook Kushil’s passionate and earnest desire to cultivate and perfect his spiritual vocation of generosity.
Take for instance the time when, facing severe personal financial duress, Kushil used the last remaining credit on his credit card to pay the college fees for three children of a woman he hardly knew.
Facing financial bankruptcy, he had mortgaged his home for a personal loan. He was not deriving a salary from his organization, for he believed that relying on charitable contributions given to an organization primarily to serve poor beneficiaries was akin to deriving a “profit” from others’ misery. Taking financial benefit from humanitarian work, he felt, tainted the purity of his intention of unconditional compassion. At the outset of his charitable work, Kushil supported himself and his daughters from the proceeds of the sale of his lucrative sugar import business. Yet, over the years, those resources had run dry.
It was in the midst of this significant financial uncertainty that he received a phone call from a widow in Sri Lanka who needed urgent financial help. The woman’s husband had died suddenly, and she found herself struggling to pay for the final semester of her children’s education. Someone she knew who had heard of Kushil’s altruism had suggested she reach out to him for help.
“I told her, ‘Look, your problem is far worse than mine, I have one month to worry about my next payment and I can somehow sort that out, you go ahead and pay this now,’” he recalled. “At that moment, there was a fire that was burning within her and I was able to just put it out.”
Kushil reminded me of the phrase, “When you give more, you get more.” But he lives by another phrase: “The more you give, the more will be yours to give.”
“And you know, this has happened to me many times,” he said. “It’s a miracle. Every time I want to do something good, money has come from somewhere.”
Social change-making through humanitarian work is a field that for the most part is centered around a secular moral discourse; that is, the focus of the work is on ending social injustice, affirming equality, and advocating for fundamental human rights. Yet, amid the aid world’s landscape of good works, there are also individuals and groups who engage in these efforts out of motivations that are not reducible to liberal humanist reasoning and who undertake this type of work as a kind of spiritual vocation.
The life history of Kushil Gunasekera makes for a provocative point of departure to explore the idea of doing good as a spiritual vocation, demonstrating how certain individuals pursue externally directed acts of “doing good” as essential to their own spiritual self-making. In Kushil’s case, as a Buddhist, his social work is a personal spiritual vocation that involves cultivating a karmically moral subject around generosity. It is a meritorious vocation that he sees as spanning multiple samsāric lifetimes.
Many Western Buddhists have often struggled with the doctrines of karma, rebirth, and spiritual merit. In my more recent research among meditation-centered communities of converts to Buddhism, I have consistently noted a reluctance to take these aspects of the tradition seriously, with many of my interlocutors commenting on the incompatibility of such ideas with their own interpretation of Buddhism. Indeed, many Buddhist converts dismiss these more orthodox teachings as cultural accretions that have little apparent relevance to twenty-first-century lives.
Kushil’s story, I suggest, may encourage Western Buddhists turning to the tradition as a source of moral inspiration to explore how other Buddhists elsewhere have considered the complex ideas of karma, rebirth, and merit as foundational, rather than peripheral, to the ethics of compassion in Buddhism.
“Pure intentions do attract divine blessings,” Kushil told me.
We were standing on the verandah of his ancestral home in the southern coastal village of Seenigama, Sri Lanka. The salty breeze of the Indian Ocean drifted over us, and the sun shone brightly. The home was now the headquarters of the Foundation of Goodness, the humanitarian non-governmental organization that Kushil founded more than twenty years ago. The house was ravaged by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in which Kushil himself was swept up, yet luckily survived, when so many others did not.
I was meeting Kushil again after ten years. I had first met him when I studied the Foundation of Goodness for my dissertation on Buddhist humanitarian responses to disasters in Sri Lanka. Today, the foundation is a million-dollar-a-year organization with more than four hundred thousand beneficiaries in four hundred villages around the island of Sri Lanka.
With the Covid-19 pandemic just beginning to hit the island nation, and as an organization that relies significantly on personal charitable contributions and corporate philanthropy from Europe, the foundation was surely experiencing fallout from the crisis. Given the uncertainty, I asked Kushil how the organization was managing.
Indeed, Kushil confirmed, the situation was less than optimal; many of their donors had withdrawn from scheduled fundraising programs. Yet, despite the anticipated challenges, Kushil maintained a characteristic optimism. He shared the story of the disappointing rejection his organization recently received for a proposal to fund a new project. But a fortuitous encounter with an influential figure helped raise the entire budget for the project during a single fundraising event.
For Kushil, the episode was confirmation of his conviction that good deeds done with pure intention are “divine work” inevitably rewarded by a moral universe.
To be sure, for Kushil, the “divine” nature of this work has little to do with an appeal to heavenly intervention; rather, it resonates with a sense of aligning one’s action with a moral universe. He later explained, “I’m a Buddhist, so I’m not driven by gods, and I don’t go asking for help from gods, but I feel if you are generous, if you are virtuous, and if you have inculcated wisdom, I think unseen divine beings who are probably at a higher plane may be helping you, looking at your karmic actions, and showering blessings on you. You have to be pure. You have to be generous. You have to be virtuous.”
During my fieldwork, I had met other Buddhist employees at the NGO who held similar views—that their philanthropic work consisted of performing good karmic actions. Manoj, a twenty-year-old from the local community and one of the NGO’s youngest employees, expressed this view the most clearly. “We all have a certain cétana (intention) in our mind, and that is to help and to be of assistance. Our only expectation is to help someone, and this is our one happiness,” he once told me in Sinhalese as we chatted over lunch one day. “If according to this pure intention we continue working, and if this work is good, yet this organization still breaks down, that would also mean that the Buddha’s teaching is itself a lie. We know this won’t happen, because we have seen time and again that Kushil receives donations from somewhere.” Like Kushil, faith in a karmic worldview is central for Manoj in motivating good deeds.
Among my Sri Lankan Buddhist interlocutors working in the field of humanitarianism, this karmic worldview emerged as a notable undercurrent in the NGO’s activities. It shapes how Kushil and other Buddhists at the NGO navigate uncertainties and challenges that are fundamentally secular in nature, from organizational sustainability to philanthropic fundraising.
In international development today, programs are designed with what is considered a sustainable approach, to prevent “dependency” on foreign aid. Indeed, a central question that many international donors have raised with Kushil about his foundation is how the organization hopes to sustain itself without charging even a modest fee for its services to the community. Kushil and his staff, like Manoj, frame the problem of organizational uncertainty in a strikingly different way: Actions inspired by moral intention are karmically good acts, which inevitably produce merit. Their karmic capital is just as good, if not better and more moral, than monetary capital as the foundation for organizational sustainability.
Indeed, as Buddhist studies scholar Maria Heim argues, “In a world radically causal through the mechanisms of karma, it is difficult to consistently deny or overlook that spiritual and practical rewards follow from moral action and that they have a part in guiding human morality.”1
Kushil told me that the imperative to give was something he had felt strongly since childhood. He vividly remembers, when he was about ten years old, sitting with his family at the dining table and seeing a poor man begging at the front gate of his parent’s home in Seenigama. Kushil abruptly got up from the table and walked with his half-eaten lunch plate to give it to the man. His mother intercepted him and prepared a fresh plate of food for Kushil to give the man. “He (the man) was thrilled, and I was joyous to see him eating it with such pleasure,” Kushil recalled.
Kushil shared this story with me during my first interview with him in 2008. The story is one that he has recounted to me time and again over the years, and each time he seems to relive the state of joy he experienced at that moment in his young life.
Although a native of Seenigama, Kushil spent most of his youth away from the remote village, attending a boarding school in Colombo. This was a privilege only a few people from the village could afford; his father was a lawyer, and his mother’s family owned cinnamon groves in Seenigama. They were one of only two families in the village with middle-class wealth in an economically impoverished region of the country. The time Kushil spent in Seenigama during school holidays, away from the relative wealth of Colombo, made an indelible impression on him.
“[E]ach time I would come back to the village for holidays,” he said, “I used to get tutored from all these bright kids, who were more skillful and extremely capable of doing good things, but just because of the lack of exposure and their disadvantaged backgrounds, they are not getting ahead in life.”
Since the period of Dutch colonialism, Seenigama and the surrounding coastal regions had been one of the main producers of quicklime (calcium oxide), which is used in the construction industry. The village families also relied for their livelihoods on the environmentally destructive practice of coral mining, which provided a steady source of income for poor families, but offered young people little opportunity for growth.
Spending his time with these youths in their own homes as a teenager and comparing his own life to theirs, Kushil felt embarrassed by the privileges he enjoyed as a middle-class Sri Lankan. He recalls how, while his poor peers earnestly studied in the dark under the glow of the kerosene lamp, he returned to a home lit by electricity. “I… felt embarrassed,” he recalled. He often gave away his clothes and would sneak snacks from his home to give his village peers. “I used to feel really sorry,” he said. “I would give what I had, I think to the extent that my mother was beginning to feel I was bringing in too many people asking for food…”
Academic success was not something Kushil pursued in his youth, and he is unabashed at having barely passed the tenth grade. For the most part, he spent his youth playing cricket, the favorite national sport of Sri Lanka, and later played for premier cricket clubs in the country. He leveraged these athletic accomplishments to get his first job in sales. With a charismatic and sociable personality, Kushil was a natural salesman, particularly adept at selling luxury cars.
Even as a young adult figuring out his professional path in Colombo, and later in the Middle East, he found himself being pulled back to the people of the village. “I always had this feeling of trying to uplift the spirit and the background of the poor people who exist around [me],” he said. “I really thought one day I would have the means to basically be able to share and give opportunities to these people. So fortunately, I had that quality of compassion ingrained in me.”
This notion of “ingrained compassion” points to a subtle Buddhist logic of karma and rebirth that is foundational to Kushil’s idea of himself: that the experience of compassion in response to another’s pain is a quality that is inherited from past rebirths and generated from past actions, what Buddhists in Sri Lanka call “pera purudu” (past habits). When I asked Kushil where he felt such qualities come from, he explained:
“I think from my past actions, over samsāric journeys, as we believe in karma we can’t cultivate it overnight. I mean, you can, by seeing others in misery, but I think I have always had that quality of gifting and giving, and sharing… seeing others’ miseries and feeling like I need to do something for them. I think that probably comes from doing good deeds and merit in the past—maybe in previous births—as a habit.”
Continuing to cultivate a past-life habit of giving is central to a Buddhist worldview. Indeed, in the Theravada tradition in particular, dāna—or giving—is the foundation of spiritual development. Among Buddhists in Sri Lanka, generosity is the essential attribute of a virtuous person, for it is intimately connected to the core activity of the Buddha’s path: the elimination of greed, hatred, and the delusion of ego—the belief that the “self” that I experience is somehow separate from the world around me.
For Kushil, therefore, being generous is the central expression of his Buddhist commitments, a vocation that he sees as spanning multiple samsāric lifetimes.
Cultivating Karmic Seeds
Along with his work building a lucrative import business, Kushil established his reputation and social capital in the cricket world. He first volunteered for the national cricket committee, then was a chief administrator for the national World Cup team. He eventually took up the prestigious role of managing Muttiah Muralitharan, the world-record setting Sri Lankan cricket legend.
Throughout his professional endeavors, Kushil kept returning to his home village and seeking ways to be involved in charity. In retrospect, he views this continued returning as a manifestation of the original inspiration he felt during his childhood. “I guess I have that vision I want to do something for my village, and I planted that seed very firmly in my system.”
Kushil’s seed-planting metaphor is common among Sri Lankan Buddhists, who often describe doing good as a karmic seed that yields merit—the fruit of one’s effort and intention—often exponentially. As some of my Sri Lankan interlocutors put it to me, quoting the Pali verse, “Cetanāham bhikkhave kammam vadāmi,” which loosely translates as, “If intentions are good, karma will ensue accordingly.” In Kushil’s case, this sense of universal karmic law animates his understanding of how his organization developed.
Reflecting on the Foundation of Goodness’s beginnings, Kushil recalled the early days, when he would go into a school and see the lack of even the most basic requirements. He saw “kids not wearing shoes to school, taking one book to write eight subjects, without proper square meals, with parents who didn’t have electricity or water in their houses.” “I will just have to address these one by one,” thought Kushil, “and as I began to do that, I found that kindness kept on multiplying. And I realized that the best way to lay a strong foundation was to create a charity.”
And multiply it did. The business sector and world of cricket that Kushil worked in offered him opportunities to expand his charitable activities. Sri Lankan cricket celebrities approached him and said, “Look, we love to do charity, but we don’t know how to do it, and we like the way you’re doing it, so can we join in?” Kushil sees the attraction of other philanthropists to his efforts as a natural consequence of his original intention.
In 1998, with a growing network of contributors, Kushil began to informally establish a charitable organization in Seenigama based out of the ancestral home of his parents. Recruiting the assistance of local youth volunteers to carry out the work in his absence, the welfare center distributed educational scholarships to rural students, offered English lessons and computer training to youth, defrayed medical costs for the elderly, and provided electricity, water, and sanitation in the homes of impoverished families.
In the midst of these developments, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck the eastern and southern coastline of Sri Lanka, killing more than thirty thousand people. Seenigama was in one of the most devastated regions. Nearly every household lost someone. In fact, Kushil was present when the tsunami arrived on the morning of December 26. He was inaugurating a new education program that morning, and he and his community volunteers were among the hundreds who fled the wave of wreckage driven inland by the tsunami. They ran for safety to higher ground, sheltering at the same local village temple where Kushil’s mother had taken him as a child.
The international aid response to tsunami victims in Sri Lanka was unprecedented. Kushil, drawing on his personal and professional networks, was well positioned to mobilize donors and volunteers to support reconstruction of his village. He provided essential supplies such as clothing to survivors, then rebuilt or repaired more than a thousand homes, as well as the village school. His organization was formalized as an official development NGO. The family home where Kushil first felt the intention to help his village became the center of operations for a multitude of development initiatives.
Until that time, Kushil had spent much of his energy growing his business, with charitable work taking a secondary role. The tsunami in 2004 was a turning point. Faced with the unprecedented challenge of rebuilding most of a village from scratch, as well as the additional challenge of meeting donor expectations, Kushil poured all of his energy into his philanthropic work. Three years into the endeavor, with the first phase of redevelopment complete, he sold his business to fully commit his time to the foundation.
Today, the organization boasts more than thirty community development programs in Seenigama and twelve other community development facilities, called Village Heartbeat Centers, across the island, including the north and east—regions devastated by decades of inter-ethnic war. These centers offer free medical and psychological health resources, computer courses, English training, and pre-school for vulnerable communities suffering from economic hardship as a consequence of war and natural disaster.
In Seenigama and other locations around the country, Kushil’s organization also partners with public schools to use their athletic facilities—a swimming pool, cricket stadium, volleyball courts, or gym, for example—to offer fitness opportunities to rural youth. The sports programs concentrate on the mental, physical, and social health of youth participants as a way to develop their life skills. Every year, the foundation’s Sports Club produces young athletes who represent Sri Lanka in national sports championships. Most recently, the foundation has been engaged in relief efforts responding to the needs of communities and hospitals in rural areas affected by Covid-19.
Cultivating a Community of Practice
Kushil’s philanthropic commitments have prompted others to emulate his generosity in surprising ways. When Kushil was in a financial crisis—having spent nearly all of his money, credit balances, and assets to support the foundation—an affluent friend who had heard of his struggles came to his rescue. Kushil recalled what his friend told him:
“He said to me, ‘I couldn’t have done what you did. You let go of your family house to the Foundation of Goodness. You had a lucrative business, which you also gave away for the good of other people. And here we are, earning so much money, and we still can’t do what you did. So you are my role model, and therefore I am going to give you this sum of money to settle any debts you have. And anything else you need, you only have to ask me and everything is yours.’”
Since then, his friend has been Kushil’s quiet patron, first rescuing him from his debts, then supporting him with monthly expenses. “So, from that time, I have never looked back, and he has continued to support me,” Kushil said.
When I asked Kushil—the philanthropist now the beneficiary of another’s philanthropy—whether he was surprised at the fortuitous turn of events, his response was as I expected: “I think the making of that merit of doing good comes back to you,” he said. “It is once again the philosophy that what you put into this universe is what you get back. So I can’t say I am surprised. Kohin hari enawā.”
“Kohin hari enawā”—“It will come from somewhere”—is a Sinhalese turn of phrase I have heard Kushil use many times to refer to the fortuitous interventions that have rescued him or his organization in reciprocation for good deeds committed. It is not an uncommon idea among Sri Lankan Buddhists. Indeed, others who have worked with Kushil in the NGO shared this confidence.
The foundation’s social welfare programs are managed by salaried staff who come from the communities they serve. Speaking with the staff, I was often struck by how they assume their work has beneficial karmic effects on their own lives. One staff member described this phenomenon in the following way (translated by the author from Sinhalese): “The more we give through compassion, our problems are also somehow solved, without hindrance. That’s how we understand it. We cannot rationally explain it that this happened as a result of that. Nonetheless, because we help them, something, somehow, solves our problems.”
The idea of karmic return effected by “something, somehow” suggests the ineffable spiritual power of doing good. Indeed, in Sinhalese, karmic merit is sometimes figuratively described as a force (“balaya”) metaphysically following an individual, bringing wellbeing and fortune. Like Kushil, some employees suggested that they felt that it was the “karma balaya” of their own past actions that guided them to the foundation so that they could “work in the way of merit,” as one person put it.
Within the Buddhist framework of karma, karmic returns are not guaranteed in this lifetime; indeed, their manifestations are uncertain and unknowable. Yet, for many contemporary Buddhists who inhabit this worldview, the unknowable-ness of karma does not foreclose the possibility that karmic returns can manifest in this life. For Kushil and those who work with him, there is deep faith that efforts to do good can produce a sense of divinity or transcendence in the lives they are living now.
Sow Seeds that Bear Fruit
A few miles north of Seenigama, heading toward the southern town of Galle, the highway cuts through numerous small villages, making a sudden sharp bend to skirt the edge of the island’s coastal belt. To the right are the warm waters of the Indian Ocean that invite surfers and tourists from the world over. But on the inland side of the highway, for miles on end, is a landscape of enormous destruction left behind by the thirty-foot tsunami waves that struck these sleepy fishing communities. The tsunami occurred seventeen years ago, yet hollowed-out structures still stand among new developments, reminding one of that fateful day when more than thirty thousand Sri Lankans died.
Approaching Seenigama, there is a discernible shift in the mood and landscape. Suddenly, in contrast to the miles of ruin and vacant coastal countryside, Seenigama presents itself as a small yet bustling village. Apart from a bright blue billboard, erected by the Foundation of Goodness at the major intersection of the village, proclaiming “Seenigama: A village in the wake of a wave,” there is little evidence that Seenigama was one of the most devastated villages on the coast, where every household lost at least one member of the family, and many lost far more. A series of “tsunami homes”—two-story buildings housing family-owned fruit stands, food shops, and mechanic stalls—line the short stretch of Galle Road. The Devol Devale—a temple (devale) for the indigenous Sinhalese God Devol, which miraculously survived the tsunami unscathed—is the proud spiritual and cultural center of the area.
During my research on post-tsunami recovery in Seenigama and the surrounding area, I heard many of the village locals express their thanks to the foundation and the efforts of Kushil and foreign donors in aiding the recovery and reconstruction of the village. One mother shared with me her perspective on the tragedy and the ensuing development aid. Her comment underscores how, as a Buddhist, she—like Kushil—sees her life as an element in an interconnected karmic moral universe.
“The tsunami destroyed everything, and that was perhaps our karmic fruit (karma pala),” she said. “We had been mining for coral and that destroyed our environment. The tsunami was a return for that bad karma. But now we have recovered, and maybe it was our good karmic fruit for Kushil to be born in this small village, to come to our aid and help our village recover and rebuild.”
Many Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka similarly see themselves situated within a larger cosmic moral universe shaped by their own karmic actions, moving through various levels of rebirth in samsāra, depending on their previous merit. For Kushil, this view translates into a moral imperative to engage in humanitarian work as a vocation spanning multiple lifetimes, efforts he regards as eliciting both spiritual and practical rewards and moving him toward what Buddhists call liberation by cultivating the ethos of “letting go.”
A year has gone by since I last met Kushil. The pandemic has been unrelenting in its impact on poor and marginalized communities in Sri Lanka, yet Kushil and the Foundation of Goodness have been equally unwavering in their commitments to the communities they serve, despite uncertain funding for their projects. For Kushil, all it takes to face such challenges is a present-moment awareness of the moral exercise in generosity, grounded in an ethos of impermanence. Indeed, the goal is not to create a foundation that lasts forever (so common in Western philanthropic foundations), but rather to channel all the money and resources to those who need them. And to keep doing that right up until it all runs out.
“I have lived in the present, put my best foot forward, and trusted that to shape and build the future,” he told me. “What’s past is gone, and I just want to make sure that my vision materializes by doing the best I can right now.”
This article was produced with the support of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, the John Templeton Foundation and Templeton Religion Trust.
Nalika Gajaweera is an anthropologist at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. Gajaweera earned her doctorate in anthropology from the UC, Irvine. Her specializations are in the anthropology of religion, with a specific interest in the intersections of Buddhism, race, ethno-nationalism and gender. She has studied these issues most in-depth in the context of Sri Lanka and the United States. Her doctoral research examined how Buddhist ethics and practices of giving shaped Sri Lankan NGOs doing humanitarianism work in the context of disaster. Her current research focuses on documenting the struggles, experiences and practices of ethnic and racial minority leadership and practitioners within North-American meditation-based insight institutions, and their efforts to confront issues of race, racism and whiteness within these institutions.
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- Maria Heim, Theories of the Gift in South Asia: Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain Reflections on Dana (New York: Routledge, 2004), 37. ↩