A Discussion with Sulak Sivaraksa, Founder, Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Melbourne

Berkley Cneter for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Nov 5, 2010

Berkley, CA (USA) -- Background: Sulak Sivaraksa prides himself on the labels people put on him: intellectual, troublemaker, engaged Buddhist, and activist. He was one of the earliest religious leaders to engage in the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), and has been a supporter and adviser since the first encounters in 1998.

<< Sulak Sivaraksa

Based in Bangkok, his message carries widely, especially, but not exclusively, in Asia. He addresses many dimensions of development, from its core rationale to specific topics like dam construction, health, education, and gender roles. This interview covers his early experience, his motivations, some of Buddhism’s insights and gifts for development, and where he sees his agendas moving forward.

Interview Conducted on December 5, 2009

Can you speak a bit about how you got where you are, and particularly about how faith came into play in your life?

I was born in 1933, and was brought up as a Buddhist. As a Buddhist, you care for yourself and you care for others, and you try to clear your mind through meditation. In 1953, I went to London to study. I studied philosophy, literature, and history, in Wales. Then I worked for the BBC, and also taught at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). I was called to the bar in London.

While I was in England, I joined the Buddhist Society. The Buddhist Society helped me to broaden my outlook. Mr. Christmas Humphreys (founder of the Society) was a very great man. But I did not agree with his approach. His view was that a Buddhist must concentrate on meditation, even when they are part of the society. He said that Christian men are wrong because they got involved in society and politics, and lost their spirituality. To be Buddhist, he argued, you must concentrate on meditation. I felt that he was fundamentally wrong. Meditation is a good thing, but it does not mean only looking inwards. I realized that most European Buddhists are from middle-class backgrounds. They didn’t realize the suffering of the majority of our people. They didn’t even question their own lifestyles. I think that is escapism, not Buddhism.

I met the great Vietnamese Buddhist leader, Thich Nach Hanh, for the first time in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), about thirty-five years ago. The World Council of Churches organized a large meeting there between Buddhists and Christians and that is where we met. He was trying to get Buddhists engaged with society, and I thought that it was a good goal.

And what came next?

I returned from England to Siam in 1961.

To make a long story short, I feel that to practice Buddhism, you must care not only for yourself but for society. Even thirty years ago, I found a number of internationally engaged Buddhists. I feel that Buddhists must care for other people – not only other Buddhists, but also other human beings. To be Buddhist, you should not only adhere to the main teachings – not killing, stealing, having sexual misconducts, or lying – but you also have to consciously distance yourself from the structures of violence that frame our lives. You may not kill directly, but you kill through the social structure. You don’t steal directly, but you let the bank steal. So, I became more involved in addressing what you could term structural violence.

Probably because of my British education, I was very much influenced by Plato. In The Republic, he argued that we should all become philosopher kings, and that we should lead the poor. At first, when I went home to Siam, I thought the poor were so stupid and ignorant. But when I was exposed to them, I realized that I had much to learn from them and that they had much wisdom to share with me. My elite upbringing gave me an idea that was wrong. We should learn from the poor, because they have so much wisdom to teach us.

Ever since my return to Siam, I have become more and more involved with the poor. I have paid the price for it; because I come from an elite background, my fighting for the poor makes my colleagues begin to feel that I have betrayed my class. On top of that, in my country, which is a constitutional monarchy, the dictators tried to make the monarchy divine. I challenge that, because in Buddhism, the king is the first among equals. Again, I pay for that.

Right now, I have three charges against me . Today is the King’s birthday. There is a lot of campaigning around the world for the King to pardon me on his birthday. In Buddhist culture, the King should release turtles, fish, and birds to give them their freedom on his birthday. He should release me from the charges, and give me freedom. I think that would be much more meaningful than giving freedom to animals. I don’t think he’ll do it. He’s a nice man, but he is also very sick now.

The International Network of Engaged Buddhists just celebrated its twentieth anniversary last week. What were the highlights?

A real highlight was to see and to build networks of friendships. Internationally as Buddhists, we have worked over the years to build up networks of friendships. In Buddhism, the main priority, externally, are good friends. Good friends are those who tell you what you don’t want to hear. They are your external voice of conscience. I feel we have done that for 20 years. We have good friends. We have Christians and Muslims as our good friends.

We have also worked to develop an important side of Buddhism. Some of our Buddhists, for example the Japanese, are wonderful with funerals and with thinking of the next world. But they have no care for the present world. Now they care more for the present world, and I am happy for that. The Taiwanese Buddhists have begun to help the poor in Bangladesh and Cambodia. I say that’s good but not good enough. To help the poor is social welfare. But Buddhism demands social change. I think the Taiwanese are doing that, and I am very proud that the anniversary sees us with good friends who are challenging each other in good spirit, while we are changing.

Also, in India, the Buddhists are the poorest of the poor. For fifty years, the Tibetan Buddhists have been in India, although they have never met those Indian Buddhists. This is because the poorest Buddhists feel that the Tibetans are foreigners and mix with the Brahmins. I was the one to bring the Dalai Lama to meet the poor Buddhists. People around him told him not to go, because he had been accepted by the Brahmins and the top intellectuals. The poor also challenged Gandhi in the same way. But the Dalai Lama said: I am a monk. If I am invited and don’t go, I am not a real monk. So he came four years ago to meet our Buddhist groups, and now the Buddhists in India are learning with the Tibetans, and are being helped. This friendship, for me, is tremendous.

Before INEB, the foundation Fellowship of World Buddhists was started in 1956 by Dr. Malarasekera from Sri Lanka. Now, these Buddhists meet every two years in five star hotels, and don’t meet the poor. Yet they think they are the best in the world. I challenge them. I tell them that if you don’t expose yourself to the poor, you are not following Buddha. There are the four noble truths, and the first truth is the truth of suffering. You have to find out the course of suffering, and to overcome suffering nonviolently.

I am happy to say that the World Fellowship of Buddhists is now changing. At one time, they wouldn’t even welcome the Tibetans. Now the Tibetans are coming, and have social justice. So, if you keep on pushing positively and cheerfully for social friendship, it will work.

Please tell us about your involvement with the World Faiths Development Dialogue. You were involved in it from the beginning.

I thought it was wonderful, as I mentioned in my opening remarks at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Jim Wolfensohn had a good idea, and has a very open mind. I think he is committed to spirituality in a way that I have not seen from anyone else from the World Bank at his level. It’s a very good initiative. I hope you will carry on with it, more effectively. If this could influence the World Bank, IMF, and the WTO, that would be excellent. These ideas are even being discussed at Davos. A Buddhist monk, Matthieu Riccard, gave a talk there on Gross National Happiness and people were willing to listen. This is a good sign. I must say, this is something that is also due to the WFDD, not directly but indirectly. Everything links together.

What do you see happening with what you would call “development” in Thailand? What direction are things going?

The mainstream government links with international cooperation, and there is more investment taking place. The people at the bottom are challenging development, which is very curious. There is a place called Mabtaput that is heavily industrialized, where people suffer much from the pollution and are dying. Now, the people there are suing the government, and for the first time, they are winning. Secondly, the poorest people in the country are being listened to more.

So, as I see in my country for the first time, that development has been challenged by the people. The middle class are coming out to be with the poor, and the poor have been effective because deep down they are Buddhists. Deep down they are nonviolent, and deep down they have their roots. The middle class have lost their roots. They are addicted to television, and to the computer. Their family structure is broken up. Now, the middle class is listening to the poor. I am very proud of the poor. I have been working with them for the past 20-30 years, and I have been arrested because of that.

How do you see the challenges for education?

The Ministry of Education unfortunately teaches people to climb up the social ladder – socially, economically, and politically. I think that for people to become clever, without being good, is very dangerous. The Ministry of Education cannot teach people to be good. Only spiritual, religious people can do this. Religious people can be too dogmatic and too churchy, and so you need the spiritual people to help. When I received the Right Livelihood Award in 1995, I used that money to start an education movement. It has done so much now for education. Education must linger in both the heart and the head. It must be meditative, and include contemplation. You don’t need to be Buddhist, or you don’t need to be Christian. The idea is to be spiritual in the heart and the head. You have to expose yourself to suffering, and if you are middle class, you need to work with the poor.

So it’s a set of schools and networks?

It’s an educational alternative to the Ministry. Now, the Ministry has invited us to work with them. This year, we have created a school of well-being, in collaboration with the center of Bhutan Studies in Thimphu. They feel that to be clever is not enough, and that you have to be happy. We have contributed that in a small way to the country. The Ministry has invited us to help them. Even business people have asked us to help them. Social Venture Networks try to be different and don’t want to be goody-goody, but want to care for the labor unions and the environment. They don’t want to advertise lies. We are working with them, also in Burma, Laos, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, and Cambodia.

Are you working through alternative education?

Yes. The first day I arrived here, the monks from Burma came to talk to us. They said they have been influenced by us. They have become more and more positive. At one time, the Burmese monks felt they had bad karma that caused dreadful dictatorships. I say, that is not true Buddhism. In Buddhism, bad karma can be changed with goodwill, through restructuring consciousness and by challenging the regime through good friends. They are now doing that in Burma.

How do you manage the challenges of the politics you’re involved in? Challenging the King, challenging the generals?

I don’t challenge the kings or the generals. I challenge the system. I feel the King is a nice but weak man. He has no good friends, and I feel sorry for him. Some generals are wonderful people but they feel that there are so many enemies around. I say the worst enemy is in yourself! In the South they think the Muslim is the enemy. I say, no, the enemy is corruption in yourself!

Some of the generals are now taking me seriously and have asked me to help them and teach them about nonviolence. They even asked me to solve the issue in the South, because they know I have friends in Malaysia like Anwar Ibrahim. I’ve known Anwar since he was a student leader thirty years ago. I knew Abdurrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia, thirty years ago. They are helping me. Friendship is for me the most important thing. Friendship and networks.

What about health care?

Health is important. It is not only physical health that is important, but also mental, spiritual, and social health. Society also must not be sick, and the environment should be healthy. In the Buddhist context, the Buddha said that the best thing in life is health.

But does the Buddhist system have a tradition of hospitals, like the Catholics? Is it involved in a systematic way?

I think that that is the wrong conception. The first hospital was founded by Ashoka, the great King, more than 2,300 years ago. It was a hospital not only for humans but also for animals. The western concept is different, in that it is separate from the religion. We have hospitals, but not as a separate institution. The hospitals are in religious areas, they are in the temples. The temple cures the sick while helping the poor. It’s holistic, and it’s not compartmentalized like in the West.

Now, the Thai government has adopted more of the Western system, where patients stay on the bed and are only seen between 8 o’clock and 5 o’clock. Now, things are changing. They have a Shaman come in with holy water. In the past ten years, things have been changing. If I may say so, I played a small role in that.

How did that role happen?

Friendships. I’ve known some of the doctors from when they were very young. They regard me as a friend. Some of them I have helped. I tell them, “Whatever you do, you must understand your roots! Your own culture. There may be something that is not entirely positive. It may be a little bit negative, but it’s there.”

So, you’re seeing a difference in the whole approach to health in Thailand? Is there an official role for the temples?

Yes. Once I proposed that temples look after HIV. They were shocked, and said that HIV came from nuisance sets activities. One monk, whose name was Alongkot, was convinced that his temple could help HIV patients. He became very famous. Now, his whole temple is a hospice. The good thing about me is that I sell initiatives. I’m good at initiatives.

What are your main priorities now?

I’m an old man now. I try to do less because I feel I have built up good friendships that I think can carry on. Sometimes, they come to ask me for advice. But, the younger people can carry the friendships on much better.

When you look at the Buddhist establishments in Thailand, and the monks and the structures, how much of that would you say is engaged and how much of it is in a more traditional role?

The Thai monks, as a whole, cannot be completely traditional. We have been uprooted, if I may say so, because of the American hegemony. The Americans came in during the 1950’s, to save us from Communism. They felt that Buddhism was not good because it does not teach about God, but teaches about contentment. They thought that Buddhism was all negative. I said: no sir, no to hatred, no to greed.

They came to our country with good intentions. But they wanted us to become industrialized, and destroyed our whole agricultural system. Traditional Buddhism depends on farming, which was destroyed. Now, there is a new group of monks who go along with and rely on capitalism and consumerism.

Having said that, there are also some young monks who feel they must go back to the traditional Buddha. They try to understand suffering, and to see greed in the form of capitalism. They try to understand violence, hatred, ignorance, and illusion in the forms of mass media and industry. There are more and more young people who are very helpful and work with us in Laos, Cambodia, Burma, India, and Sri Lanka.

But they are a minority?

Yes. But, small is beautiful. And I believe that quality is more important than quantity.

What about gender relations in Buddhism?

The Buddha taught that men and women are equal, but we have oppressed women over the years. We now have women ordinations, but we are the only country to do so in mainland SE Asia. There are also women ordained by a man in Perth, Australia, but he was ostracized by his order. In Burma, they put the women in jail for being ordained. The monk who ordained the women was also shut out from his village and community. They are much more backwards than in my country. There are still very few women monks, but more and more.

The male monks are behaving very badly, while the female monks behave beautifully. The female monks have spiritual depth, intellectual power, and authority. In Taiwan, there are better nuns than monks. Some monks have sex and financial scandals, but none for the nuns who are more numerous than monks.

Do you see tremendous differences amongst Buddhists in different countries?

Well, you make it into black and white. You care for suffering, the poor, the environment, even though you speak in different languages. Those who are not engaged with the poor sometimes become nationalistic, like in Sri Lanka. They become involved in capitalism, superstition, and so on. But you don’t claim to be better than them – you have to work with them.

There is a movement in my country called Santi Ashoka that is thirty years old. It first was very fundamentalist, but is now much more mature. Once they regarded me as the enemy, but I told them that the best friend is the one who tells you what you don’t want to hear. They are wonderful people, and listen to criticism. They are widespread in the country.

What about Cambodia? Have you been very involved there?

Cambodia is much more difficult. I used to be involved there in the resurrection of the Sangha, celebrating its first anniversary with the march from our ashram to Cambodia. We worked with the great leader, Patriarch Maha Ghosananda. We supported his peace march tremendously. But unfortunately, it was largely a one-man show. Following the leader’s death, the movement was not so strong. There’s no leadership right now. Secondly, the government is very dictatorial. It is very complicated, but there are good things when you think about it.

What about on the environmental movement? You’re not going to Copenhagen?

No, I am not going, but I am very concerned about the environment.

It seems that Buddhism has very strong roots that give it a very environmental message for the respect for life.

Yes, in fact, in the late 1960’s, the World Council of Churches requested that the Buddhists teach them. I shared everything from Buddhism. I taught them that living beings are not only animals, but also plants and trees, and that we must care for all. We are all interconnected; we are taught that without trees we could not live. The Buddha himself told us to look at trees as examples. Of course, the Buddha himself was one with the trees. He was born under a tree, enlightened under a tree. He preached the first sermon in a deer park. He died under a tree. The tree is very important to us, and we must care for the forests and for the environment. In my country, we have a movement for ordaining trees. Once trees are ordained, they cannot be cut. This movement helps to preserve trees. Max Weiner is one who has helped to spread a trend which is to ordain trees. He was from Harvard. When the tree is ordained, no one can cut it. So there is a movement to preserve the trees, working with the monks.

What about interfaith work? How do you see the Parliament turning ideals into practice?

It’s a network of friends. Friendship has no barriers, whether gender, nationality, or faiths. Friends are friends. The Christian, Muslim, or the Atheist – they’re friends. Friends must not belittle each other’s beliefs. My teacher taught that, to understand the basis of Buddhism, you have to know that there are a lot of dreadful things in Buddhism, also. He taught that Buddhism is how to learn how to change greed into generosity, hatred into compassion and friendship, delusion into wisdom and understanding. He said that other religions are the same but use different terms. They teach people to be selfless, not selfish. They teach to be brave, humble, and generous. Don’t think that other religions are inferior to your own. Respect other religions as your own. Buddhadasa, my teacher, taught me that we must unite people of different faiths – whether agnostic, or atheist – because they are also spiritual beings.

Taking this back to my questions from the beginning for a moment – you were raised in a Buddhist framework? How did your parents instill that?

My parents were not very spiritual. I was sent to a Catholic school, and I got my degree from the Anglican college. But, in the war, my Catholic school was bombed and we had to move.

I didn’t like the school. They used to treat me very badly, and they used to beat me because I didn’t want to learn by rote. I didn’t like it. My parents said, “We have tried to bring you up in a Catholic and a Protestant school. Would you like to be a monk?” I said, “Yes, why not?” So I became a monk at the age of thirteen. I didn’t leave because I loved it. As a monk, they treat you as a grown up. They pay respect to you because of your yellow robes, and I like to be paid respect to. It was the first time I was able to connect with and learn about my society and my culture, because the temple was open for everyone. I was very happy.

And how did you happen to go to London?

In our family background, which was middle class and upper class, being educated in Britain meant that you were educated properly and that could help you get ahead. England was the place to be. That’s why, when I was called to the bar, I thought I would become Prime Minister!

After the 1932, Coup which ended the absolute monarchy, a number of our princes who were shut out of power were in England. I met a marvelous princess there, who later became the first to open a Siamese restaurant abroad, 1957. Her father would have become King of Siam. But of course, he was pushed out and died in exile. She was a lovely lady, and said to me, “Sulak, my ambition is to work as a charwoman in front of the English public lavatory. The English lavatory is not that dirty, and maybe I could do some knitting.” Her own father could have been a King, and she her grandfather was a great king, but this was her ambition! But this was Buddhism. That was when I gave up my ambition to climb up the ladder and become somebody great.

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