The Engaged Buddhism
of Sulak Sivaraksa
BY MATTEO PISTONO, photo by Hannah Sommer
Note: Sulak Sivaraksa turns 80 years of age on March 27, 2013
Sulak reinterprets the five classic Buddhist precepts for the modern day. Individuals may not be killing outright, but they must examine how their actions might support wars, racial conflict, or the breeding of animals for human consumption. Considering the second precept of abstaining from stealing, Sulak questions the moral implications of capitalism. Stopping exploitation of women is a natural extension of the third precept of abstaining from sexual misconduct. And vowing to abstain from false speech would naturally bring into question how mass media and education promote a biased view of the world. Finally, the fifth precept to avoid intoxicants deals with international peace and justice because, “the Third World farmers grow heroin, coca, coffee, and tobacco because the economic system makes it impossible for them to support themselves growing rice and vegetables.”
Prominent Buddhist writer and activist, Sulak Sivaraksa, changed his clothes to appear like other locals bartering and selling wares along the northern Thailand border. He pulled his hat low as he knew his face had been broadcast the previous three nights on national TV as a fugitive. Slipping a large bribe to a riverboat man to avoid the Thai border security check-post, Sulak made it across the Mekong River to Laos in a small canoe, undetected. In August 1991, he was a wanted man, on the run.
An arrest warrant had been issued for Sulak following a speech at Thammasat University entitled “The Regression of Democracy in Siam.” In response, he took refuge inside the German embassy in Bangkok. Police cars awaited Sulak outside the embassy gates, and plain-clothed officers were posted near his home where his worried wife stayed with their three children. After a two-week standoff at the embassy, Sulak indicated he would give himself up to the police to face strict charges of lèse majesté — which bans criticism of the King, royal family, and the Thai military — and brings with it a minimum 15-year prison sentence.
Instead of surrendering to police the next morning, Sulak made a surreptitious dash out an alleyway gate, ducked into a car and headed for the Thai-Lao border. Taking back roads and sleeping in safe houses and the jungle, Sulak listened to radio broadcasts calling him a rat and a criminal.
After he made it across the Mekong to Laos, Sulak was on his own with only a few hundred baht and a package of saltine crackers in his satchel. He was scared, but as he rode a rickety bus on his way to a friendly Laotian diplomat’s home he meditated upon his breath to calm his mind. After two days in hiding, Sulak boarded an Aeroflot flight, using the boarding pass of a student en route to Russia to study. He eventually arrived in Stockholm where he called his wife, knowing the police had tapped his home telephone, and told her he was safe, but did not know how long he would be in exile.
Throughout the Buddhist world there are practitioners whose spiritual path is one and the same with their work in politics. Indeed two of the most prominent global Buddhist leaders are the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, monks who are known for their life-long promotion of social justice and compassion in action. And recently, Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest by the military junta and her election to parliament has placed this Burmese Buddhist at the center of the world political stage.
Political strife in Tibet, Vietnam and Burma has pushed the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Aung Sang Suu Kyi into greater roles and responsibility than they otherwise might have had. And like these socially engaged Buddhists, Sulak Sivaraksa’s political activism, community organizing, and work for marginalized people manifests from his Buddhist practice.
For his activism, writings, and speeches, Sulak has been exiled from Thailand on two occasions (1976-77 and 1991-94), jailed four times, and been accused repeatedly of defaming the Thai monarchy, but he has always won acquittals. Nobody has successfully silenced Sulak.
For the last 35 years, Sulak has traveled the world lecturing, writing, mentoring, participating in inter-religious dialogues, and founding organizations such as the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, with his friends the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the late Maha Gosananda as its patrons. All the while, he has published his own and others’ books and articles; Sulak has more than 100 books in Thai and English in his name.
Sulak’s worldwide prominence as a socially engaged Buddhist and advocate for the oppressed, and his national celebrity as a thorn-in-the-side of successive Thai governments and the monarchy, is an unlikely role because he was raised in a prosperous aristocratic family. From childhood, he was steeped in conservative royalism—believing the king to be infallible, and taught to be highly skeptical of progressive monks or promoters of democracy. His two years as a monk at a temple under royal patronage in the early 1940s reinforced the notion of the supreme benevolence of the monarchy and ruling elite. His parents sent him to study in Bangkok’s prestigious Anglican and Catholic schools, and in the 1950s Sulak earned degrees in law and philosophy in England. Sulak was on the fast track to a senior government post or the comfortable life as an affluent Sino-Thai businessman.
But Sulak chose a different path than accumulating money or political clout. Judith Simmer-Brown has written, “Each of these paths held the power and prestige that were his birthright. Sulak made an unusual choice. He stepped outside the walls of his palace, he looked carefully, intimately, at the suffering, exploitation, and aggression that pervaded the world. And Sulak made a decision not to return to the palace of conventional power and prestige.”
Sulak returned to Thailand in the early 1960s after five years of study in England. During his time abroad, the military had come to dominate nearly all aspects of government, academic and public life in Thailand. He found the intellectual landscape barren. Even though there were fledgling social reform movements, martial law reigned in Thailand throughout the 1960s. Backed by the United States, military generals used communism as a label to purge all forms of political dissent. Hundreds of artists, writers, journalists and editors were jailed without trail on the charge of being communist. “The dictatorship had created darkness,” Sulak has written.
Still, in the 1960s, Sulak was a defender of the monarchy, an elitist, and one who believed that he knew what was best for Thai society. In 1963, Sulak founded and edited the Social Science Review—a journal that quickly became the most influential intellectual outlet in the country. The Review was instrumental in awakening student awareness that eventually led to the overthrow of the military regime in 1973.
A transformative meeting with the progressive Thai Prince Sitthiporn happened while Sulak was editor of the Review. During one of their meetings, the prince said, “Sulak, yes, this country needs an intellectual magazine. But don’t let it become intellectual masturbation.”
When Sulak asserted that he was helping his countrymen with his writings, recounting the intellectual history of Siam, the prince responded, “Do you know anything about farmers? They suffer and you know nothing about it!”
This encounter inspired Sulak from simply thinking about benefitting his brethren into actually doing something. It was his call to action. Sulak saw clearly how his arrogant, top-down approach was fundamentally flawed. He began to visit rural villages, temples, and the terraced rice fields to understand the actual conditions of the people. The farmers and workers he met taught Sulak a profound lesson, and one he reiterates to this day; that to address a suffering situation—be it poverty, war, or environmental disaster—one must go and be with the suffering itself, with the people who are affected.
During this time, Sulak opened the first alternative bookstore in Thailand called Suksit Siam (suksit means intellectual). Suksit Siam became a hub for cultural, Buddhist, and educational activities in Bangkok that promoted social reform and democracy, much to the distrustful eye of the military generals. Sulak also led gatherings and workshops in the Coffee House Council adjacent to the bookshop. Several leaders of the 1973 student uprising were part of Sulak’s circle and the political philosophy of many leaders of today’s political movements (known as the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts) was honed at the workshops.
Sulak’s transformation from an intellectual elite into a grassroots campaigner for social justice in the 1970s was shaped by what he learned from rural people, farmers, and students. He came to the firm belief that all aspects of society—including Buddhism, the monarchy, and government—must be open to criticism and debate.
At the time, and still today, such criticism in Thailand is grounds for imprisonment. It was against the backdrop of social and political unrest of the 1970s in Thailand, including the country being affected greatly by the war in Vietnam and the fall of Laos and Cambodia to communist control, that Sulak began his Buddhist activism. He launched dozens of foundations, charities, non-governmental organizations, and activist groups throughout the 1970-80s, which formed the bases upon which Thailand’s robust network of non-governmental organizations currently exists. Sulak generated tangible results though his work on rural and urban community development, provided political voice to the poor and displaced, and he effectively challenged environmentally destructive pipelines and dams in northern Thailand.
The foundation for Sulak’s activism is within the teachings of the Buddha. In A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society, Sulak writes, “Buddhist practice inevitably entails a concern with social and political matters, and these receive a large share of attention in the teaching of the Buddha as it is represented in the Pali Canon. To attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is mistaken.”
He argues that Buddhists need to practice the Dharma in a manner that is relevant to today’s socio-political context. Sulak is not advocating a new understanding of Buddhism but rather how individuals apply the Buddha’s teachings to modern socio-economic and political dilemmas. Sulak has been greatly inspired in this regard by his discussions and work with Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, and the two most progressive and influential Thai monks of the 20th century, Arjan Buddhadasa and Bhikkhu P.A. Payutto. “Buddhism with a small “b” is what Sulak came to call this approach towards Buddhist practice.
Buddhism with a small “b”
In Sulak’s most widely read book, Seeds of Peace, he presents small “b” Buddhism. He begins with the individual; encouraging practitioners to develop their character based upon the Buddha’s teachings of mindfulness, tolerance, and interconnectedness. He believes this will naturally lead to the deeper understanding of how one’s spiritual progress is related directly to the degree we work to relieve suffering within society. Progress along one’s spiritual path and social reform, then, are inextricably linked, in Sulak’s vision.
Coupled with the inner practice of small “b” Buddhism, that is, cultivating mindfulness, tolerance, and a deep realization of interconnectedness, Sulak also reinterprets the classic five precepts for the modern day, extending them beyond the individual to society at large. For example, regarding the first precept to abstain from harm, Sulak challenges the individual to understand that while they might not be killing outright, they must examine how their own actions might support wars, racial conflict, or the breeding of animals for human consumption. Considering the second precept of abstaining from stealing, Sulak questions the moral implications of capitalism, and of the depletion of natural resources. Stopping global structures of male dominance and the exploitation of women is a natural extension of one’s third precept of abstaining from sexual misconduct. And vowing to abstain from false speech would naturally bring into question how mass media and mainstream education promotes a prejudiced and biased view of the world. Finally, Sulak believes the fifth precept to avoid intoxicants deals with nothing short of international peace and justice because, “the Third World farmers grow heroin, coca, coffee, and tobacco because the economic system makes it impossible for them to support themselves growing rice and vegetables.”
While Sulak is known for his fiery speeches, he strikes a more analytical tone when he writes about this re-interpretation of the five precepts. “I do not attempt to answer these questions. I just want to raise them for us to contemplate.”
For Sulak’s 21st century articulation of the Buddha’s teachings, the Dalai Lama has written, “I believe Sulak and I share a conviction that if we are to solve human problems, economic and technological development must be accompanied by an inner spiritual growth. And if we succeed in fulfilling both these goals, we will surely create a happier and more peaceful world.”
Sulak’s writings and activism for four decades in Thailand and around the world have led to his twice being nominated for the Noble Peace Prize (1993, 1994), and to receiving the Right Livelihood Award in 1995 “for his vision, activism and spiritual commitment in the quest for a development process that is rooted in democracy, justice and cultural integrity.” In 2011, Sulak was honored with the Niwano Peace Prize.
Kalyanamitta —Spiritual friendship
Woven through all of Sulak’s work is the spirit of kalyanamitta—a Pali term connoting spiritual friendship. Sulak’s spiritual friendships have long been on display at his traditional teak home in the middle of Bangkok—itself a protest against the ills of rampant urbanization—where for many decades he has hosted an endless stream of students, activists, politicians and refugees from around the world. Sitting in the palm-leaf courtyard with bamboo chairs and mats circling him, Sulak is the center of activity; planning, envisioning, dreaming and executing his vision while fostering an open forum for appraising, criticizing, and analyzing each other’s spiritual path. Sulak counts Quakers and Protestants as some of his dearest kalyanamitta.
In the Upaddha Sutta, the Buddha is said to have responded to Ananda when the disciple asked the master if spiritual friendship was half of the holy life. “Half of the holy life? Don’t say that, Ananda,” the Buddha responded. “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.”
Sulak summarizes his modern day interpretation of kalyanamitta in Buddhism and Development, as “a Good Friend would be one’s ‘other voice’ of conscience, to put one on the proper path of development so that one would not escape from society nor would one want to improve society in order to claim it as one’s own achievement.”
Sulak recalls when he once saw a photograph of the Dalai Lama holding a bottle of Coca-Cola. On their next meeting in India, Sulak felt obliged—in the spirit of kalyanamitta —to tell the Tibetan leader about the suffering and environmental harm that is associated with a single can of the beverage.
Sulak has also felt compelled in recent years to question his friend Thich Nhat Hanh about charging money to attend teachings by the Vietnamese monk, and suggesting that the Plum Village retreat center in France might only attract the rich and not be available to poor people. Thich Nhat Hanh assured Sulak that there is never a charge for his Dharma talks, and that nobody is excluded. Sulak also suggested to Thich Nhat Hanh that he is disconnected from those outside his inner circle, and, that there might be too many layers between the monk and his disciples, “that there is only a monologue and no dialogue with your students.”
“A good friend tells you what you don’t want to hear. We don’t have to agree but I want to express my concern,” Sulak told Thich Nhat Hanh last year in Bangkok.
“You see, it is so difficult even to meet with you,” Sulak said. “You are surrounded by so many people, like guards; and you don’t even know…Perhaps those people around you won’t criticize or tell you these types of things, but I will because we are friends for so many years.”
Thich Nhat Hanh’s reply, perhaps his own soft-spoken critique of Sulak, was that Sulak should be better equipped with all the information before openly criticizing him, or anyone else. Indeed the two elder Buddhist activists’ kalyanamitta goes back decades to when they collaborated to smuggle rice into Vietnam in the early 1970s, to Sulak staying in Thich Nhat Hanh’s small apartment in Paris in 1976 when the they were both in exile, to Sulak first publishing a meditation manual for activists which would later become the monk’s best selling book, Miracle of Mindfulness. Sulak’s daily meditation practice is indebted to Thich Nhat Hanh’s personal instructions. Thich Nhat Hanh has said of his friend, “Sulak Sivaraksa is a bodhisattva who devotes all of his energies to helping others.”
Sulak reserves his most pointed criticism for his fellow Buddhists and decries extravagant rituals and those concerned with titles and shallow ceremony. He warns against institutionalized elements of Buddhism that offer little spirituality but rather perpetuate patriarchal hierarchies, myth, superstition, and insincere rituals—what Sulak calls Buddhism with a capital “B”. Whether it is government-backed clergy or simply large Buddhist organizations, Sulak sees the seeds of chauvinism, prejudice, and nationalism being sown when the Buddhist teachings are used by individuals and groups to advance a politically-motivated agenda.
Sulak’s version of kalyanamitta offers, and inspires, loyalty among those with whom he works; though Sulak’s closest colleagues are not spared his sharp appraisals. Roshi Joan Halifax has written, “Sulak is a lion. His great roar awakens the social activist to their real vocation.” However, on numerous occasions, that roar has been too much and those within Sulak’s inner circle have parted ways. “I support Sulak in his work; but will do so from afar. I would never work for him,” is a refrain of numerous prominent Buddhist activists in Thailand.
Sulak admits he has a sizeable ego, and encourages his kalyanamitta to point it out if he is not walking his talk. Sulak hears regularly from these friends about his limitations—his temper, impatience, high-handedness, and fondness for red wine. Even those who are quick to point out Sulak’s apparent failings admit that he can criticize himself just as quickly as he points out shortcomings in others.
Sulak’s vision for renewing society in the 21st century
Sulak’s activism has transformed in the last decade. In previous years he often focused on defined issues or country-specific problems. Now he struggles against globalization and what he sees as structural violence. Structural violence, Sulak writes in his most recent books, The Wisdom of Sustainability, is the “systematic ways [that] a society’s resources are distributed unequally and unfairly, preventing people from meeting their basic needs.”
To understand how these structures of suffering are perpetuated, Sulak returns to the fundamental Buddhist teaching which asserts every individual has within them seeds of greed, hatred, and delusion—the three poisons. These three poisons are at the root of our suffering. Through the practice of meditation and contemplation, the poisons can be rooted out completely and transformed into generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom. While this is the classic Buddhist presentation, Sulak extends these from the individual to world, socio-economic system and asserts that the three poisons are used immorally by the rich and powerful.
Sulak explains that personal greed manifests in society as the insatiable desire for accumulation, an ever expanding “possessiveness”—in other words, capitalism, consumerism and natural resources extraction that ignores the limits of the environment. Secondly, he sees individuals’ seeds of hatred manifest in the world as militarism. Thirdly, Sulak’s harshest critique is reserved for what he sees as the peddlers of delusion—advertisers and the main stream media—which he argues promotes useless products and unwholesome ideas which lead people away from a meaningful life of contentedness and towards poverty and a sense of separation.
Some have called Sulak’s provocative and scathing critiques of capitalism and the media prophetic while others think he is an aging idealist. Still, when global economics is seen as the only future, Sulak explains, the market place replaces traditional morals and ethics; refusing to accept this rationale is taken as a sign of weakness, naivety, and inferiority. Sulak disagrees that the world today is at the highest mark of human development, because this often unspoken sentiment prevents the peoples of the world from pursing other aspirations and from thinking about alternative ways to improve or maintain their livelihood and traditions.
Now eighty years old, when Sulak speaks about globalization, one senses a profound sadness for his home country, and for the world.
“The diverse ways of life worldwide increasingly dance to the same tune of consumer culture, which insists that ultimate happiness can be achieved by the never-ending consumption of goods and services,” Sulak says. “This oppressive environment is like a tightening noose that will squeeze the life out of meaningful freedom, democracy, and human rights.”
“I only play a small part because ultimately people have to empower themselves. Perhaps I can help them by reminding…I don’t have the ability or networking to destroy consumerism globalization, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, or the International Monetary Fund. But if these things don’t change to serve the people, they will destroy themselves. They have no moral legitimacy but only greed to drive them, and this will be their downfall. Meanwhile, I hope that the small people, with alternatives, can survive.
Walking cane in hand and donning traditional Siamese dress, in Sulak’s continuous worldwide travels, he encourages people, especially the young who are indoctrinated by capitalist triumphalism and consumerism, to look at the lives of the spiritual leaders and saints in their own tradition for guidance.
“I am from a Buddhist country, and the Buddha, like so many wise men of the past in other cultures, cultivated two important qualities that were the foundation for spiritual illumination—simplicity and humility.”
“When we begin to develop simplicity in our life, and humility towards others and the environment, we begin to break free of that oppressive net. Perhaps more importantly, when we cultivate mindful-awareness alongside simplicity and humility, we can liberate ourselves completely from our own anger, greed, and delusion. Through this personal transformation, we begin to see the interconnectedness between each other and the environment around us. With this insight, we will begin to find the wisdom in caring for each other, how not to abuse the earth’s resources, and find respect for other cultures, traditions, and beliefs.”
Can individuals make a difference? Are we to reject capitalism? How can we stop a war? Where do we start to dismantle structural violence and bring about a more equitable society?
Sulak begins to answer these questions by stressing individual responsibility and the cultivation of mindfulness through meditation. On this note, Sulak tends to be optimistic believing that individuals do have the possibility to alter humanity’s current course.
“Restructuring political and economic institutions cannot, in themselves, bring about liberation. Personal transformation is the starting place. Peace can prevail in a society only when individuals in that society are at peace. When greed, hatred and ignorance govern our personal affairs, they will also be present in our society’s institutions, preventing lasting social change. Real security depends on working on ourselves.”
Matteo Pistono is a writer, practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and author of In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet. Pistono’s writings and photographs about Tibetan and Himalayan cultural, political and spiritual landscapes have appeared in the Washington Post, BBC’s In-Pictures, Men’s Journal, Kyoto Journal, and HIMAL South Asia. He is the founder of Nekorpa, a foundation working to protect sacred pilgrimage sites around the world, and he sits on the executive council of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, Rigpa Fellowship, and the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture.