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The Engaged Buddhism of Sulak Sivaraksa
The Engaged Buddhism of Sulak SivaraksaBY MATTEO PISTONO, photo by Hannah Sommer Note: Sulak Sivaraksa turns 80 years of age on March 27, 2013
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.
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.”