By Swati Chopra January 2002 Sulak Sivaraksa is an activist-economist-philosopher from Thailand who has been using Buddhist ethics for social and spiritual transformation in his country and beyond for the past 40 years. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, he is a legend in his own time. He gave an exclusive interview to Swati Chopra Each one of us carries within seeds—potentialities—for love, anger, happiness, violence, and peace. These lie dormant until we water them with our actions. Being angry sprouts the seeds of sadness and discontent. Living in awareness sprouts seeds of peace. This is the vision Thai Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa has employed to effectively bring about social transformation, for, he believes, each individual is a seed in himself and by practicing it can encourage goodness in others. Sulak, now widely regarded as a ‘Thai institution, in a class by himself’, is an activist-economist-philosopher from Thailand, or Siam, as he prefers to call his country. Educated in England and Wales, he spent nine years working for the BBC before returning home. In the 1960s, at age 28, he founded Sangkhomsaat Paritat (Social Science Review) that soon became the foremost intellectual publication in Siam. Editing it led Sulak to minutely examine issues related to development and its impact on the grassroots, and then dawned the realization that true change could only be brought about through social activism. Thus began his search for development models based on Buddhist ideals. For over four decades, Sulak’s outspoken denunciation of dictatorial regimes, consumerism and MNCs has made him ‘Public Enemy No. 1′ for successive Thai governments. He has been the central figure in Thailand’s NGO movement and has founded the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. Sulak was recently in Delhi to deliver a lecture, and to network with Indian friends. Age has not dulled his enthusiasm for exploring ideas and sharing thoughts. Excerpts from an interview: What is ‘socially engaged Buddhism’? ‘Buddhism’ is an English word; the Buddha never used it! When ‘Buddhism’ became popular in the West, it became the notion that Buddhists should meditate, be calm and tranquil, divorced from society. This is very different from the way I was brought up in my country where firstly, Buddhism means practicing sheela—not exploiting yourself or others. This very first step links you to society. The next step is meditation, to sow the seeds of peace within. Practicing these, you attain prajna, understanding of reality And when you understand without selfishness, prajna becomes karuna, compassion. How did you become an activist? It began with a desire to truly follow the Buddha’s teachings, and to make Buddhism relevant to modern society. It also had to do with a feeling of social responsibility. For instance, you don’t steal. But if you let a few collect wealth at the expense of the poor, that is worse than stealing. How can spirituality be made socially responsible today? By knowing that ‘spiritual’ essentially means caring for yourself, not just at the material level, but for your spirit too. In Buddhism, taking care of the spirit means that you should breathe properly. Just by being conscious of your breath, you become aware that every other living creature also breathes. If you care about your breath, you automatically care about others too. You have used the concept of the Buddhist sangha to build ideal modern economies. The sangha is a community where you learn to respect the other and live in harmony. It need not necessarily be a group of monks or nuns. Even a family could be a sangha. In modern life, we are alienated from our sangha, even from our selves. That’s why we are controlled by machines and seduced by advertisements to want more and more things. In the sangha, ‘to be’ is important, not ‘to have’. Has your activism ever detracted from your personal dharma practice? For me, my social activism is my dharma practice. Through it, I have learned to be mindful, not to give way under pressure. Harsh words have been spoken against me. I have been jailed, exiled. During all this, contemplation really helped. Without it, you become hateful and lose your balance. By contemplating on compassion and loving-kindness, you help yourself and hopefully, others too. In Siam, until two years ago, the army regarded me as their Enemy Number One. And now they invite me to teach at the Army College! I have been asked to help teach the army top brass reconciliation methods, and to develop meditation for social action. That must be an interesting project. My actual projects are at the grassroots level. Today, the social structure is such that both the poor and the rich suffer, though in different ways. The answer lies in empowering the poor to be proud of being poor and teaching the middle class to adopt a simple lifestyle. In the past five years, we have extended our projects to Burma, Laos and Cambodia. Recently, many Dalits converted to Buddhism in India. Is it right to use religion to make a political statement? Why not? When you have been oppressed for centuries you can use anything to make a statement. But merely by changing your religion, you will not become free. Conversion is only symbolic. By doing so, you are saying that you are no longer untouchable. The Buddha said clearly that whether you are the child of a king or a prostitute, you are equal. This is probably why the Dalits feel a psychological satisfaction by becoming Buddhists. To really empower themselves spiritually, however, they need to practice mindfulness, and learn not to hate the oppressor. So, mental perspective matters more than just converting. Yes, but conversion has its importance as a first step. The neo-Buddhists must now form a sangha in which they can practice mindfulness, let go of hatred and become self-reliant. After all, religion cannot be divorced from economics, society, culture, politics and all other areas of human activity. Education is a key word in Buddhism; it means to learn not to be violent, to yourself and others. Some neo-Buddhists are violent. But you cannot blame them. Sometimes I am violent too. What is your vision of education?Western education lays undue stress on proof. But how do you scientifically prove goodness? Or beauty? From the Buddhist perspective, you can gain true knowledge just by concentrating on your breath; you don’t even have to believe in the Buddha. The first thing we teach in our holistic education program is correct breathing. Education must teach people to become aware and realize their potential. There should be an ongoing exchange of ideas between teachers and students. These aspects are integrated in our courses, in which we have professionals from Germany, research scholars from Canada, illiterate nuns from Laos, even the boy from the temple. Effecting transformation through mere breathing? Breath is intrinsic to life. Buddhism doesn’t require you to believe in anything much, it is enough if you breathe mindfully. How is it to be practiced? It is very simple. When you wake up in the morning, spend five minutes becoming aware of your breath. Breathe in and out. If you believe in God, invite Him into you. If a Buddhist, you can invite the Buddha into you. The point is not who you pray to but that you feel they are a part of you. When the breath is in control, mindfulness arises, which can be developed into compassion, loving-kindness, and so on. I remember a Tibetan monk who had been tortured in a Chinese prison for 22 years. When he reached Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama asked him: ‘What were you scared of the most in prison?’ He replied: ‘I was afraid that I might lose my compassion towards the torturers.’ The seed of this sort of strength lies in mindfulness and correct breathing. I read about creative ways being used in Thailand for ecological conservation, like trees being ordained as monks to prevent them from being cut. You have been at the forefront of many such movements. A tree being ordained as a monk is a symbolic affirmation of the Buddhist ethic of the sacredness of life. Those who cut trees see them as a source of money. If I go and tell them that to harm trees is to harm ourselves, they will not listen. But they belong to the same Buddhist culture as me in which a monk’s yellow robes are symbolic of the Buddha. So when we put them on the trees after performing a ceremony, nobody dares touch them. This is an example of what in Buddhism is called upaya, or skillful means. Any other memorable upayas? Our lakes were polluted. The government wouldn’t do anything. So we decided to perform the tutanka, which is walking in mindfulness and silence, near the lakes. We invited the villagers to walk with us and be aware of the life of the lakes, their breath. They were so moved by the experience that they cleaned the lakes themselves. Similarly, a monk in eastern Siam realized that to preach to people to be good does not work. He formed a banking system with the villagers. If anyone wants to borrow money, six others have to guarantee that he doesn’t smoke, drink or steal. The monk has used money skillfully to help people be aware of their conduct, even though as a monk, he cannot touch money! Another monk is helping people develop an alternative currency to make their village sangha self-reliant. This currency is meaningful only in their village, so they buy only what is absolutely essential and multinationals lose their power over them. So you see, Buddhism is not only meditation but also effective in social action. What is the Buddhist solution to the violence in the world today? After September 11, George Bush should have said: ‘I am very sad that
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