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Interview with Dr Sulak Sivaraksa

Kathleen Gregory

Dr Sulak Sivaraksa is a Thai social activists, writer and teacher who played a leading role in the mobilization of Thailand's civil society. In 1963 he founded the Social Sciences Review which quickly became one of Thailand's most influential publications and helped awaken student awareness. This was seen to ultimately lead to the overthrow of the military regime in 1973.

Born in 1933, Dr Sivaraksa was educated in England and returned to Thailand where he holds teaching posts at a number of universities. Dr Sivaraksa's social activism has repeatedly brought him into conflict with Thai authorities. In 1976, he fled from arrest during the country's bloodiest coup, and in 1984 he was jailed following the publication of his book, Unmasking Thai Society. After a four-month trial and an international campaign on his behalf, the charge was withdrawn. Further accusations of crimes against sovereign authority were made against him in 1991, following a speech to university students.

In 1993 Dr Sivaraksa was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and he was finally acquitted of all charges in 1995. More recently, Dr Sivaraksa has given his support to Burmese refugees in Thailand, being largely responsible for the famous Jungle University for fleeing Burmese students. He has bee credited with starting, in Thailand, the Non-Government Organisation movement which has worked for the benefit of minority groups and poor Thai people. In his writings and speeches both at home and abroad, Dr Sivaraksa has emphasized the spiritual dimension of human life and through the connection to indigenous cultures, he advocates alternatives to western consumerism. Dr Sivaraksa was in Melbourne in March this year speaking at the University of Melbourne and the Trades Hall Council.


Ordinary Mind: If I could ask first, in terms of the breadth of what you attend to in your teaching and writing - addressing the personal, local, national and global levels and encompassing the economic, social, political and interpersonal dimensions - can you talk about what themes draw these together?

Dr Sivaraksa: I have been brought up in the Theravada tradition, so my main motive, of course, is from my tradition. When I give talks to various Mahayana colleges the audiences were surprised because they thought Theravada only dealt with the Small Vehicle - they thought that we only deal with ourselves. I said that this was a contradiction in terms, because if as a Buddhist you only deal with yourself that is selfishness. Obviously, our first step in training is shila, this is not only personal morality or ethics, it includes social justice. In fact the word 'natural' is synomous with shila - it is about being normal or natural. Therefore, you need to develop samadhi so you can have a peaceful mind in order to develop your mind in order to develop your speech and action, in order to develop understanding or wisdom.

I think that is my main tradition. Of course, in the last thirty years or so,I have also been influenced by His Holiness the Dalai lama, and quire a number of other rinpoches; plus Thic Nhat Hanh and various other Mahayana masters. So, I feel all of these are helping my tradition and myself to grow broader. Not to mention non-Buddhists also - the Quakers, the Mennonites - because they have helped me to meet with non-Buddhists meaningfully.

OM: It sounds like you are really trying to bring the traditional ideas of Buddhism into a contemporary context in your writing?

DS: Precisely, because particularly in our Theravadin traditions, which are very successful in South-East Asia, we were applying shila in the simple affairs of society - not to kill, not to steal, not to have sexual misconduct, not to lie, not to be alcoholic. I think in a simple society this is wonderful. But nowadays, one doesn't have to kill, the international corporation kills for you and the government kills for you in your name, with your money! The World Bank and various banking institutions are stealing from you and particularly they steal more from the poor. Likewise, you don't have to commit adultery - but just look at the television and advertisements, which of course, are also full of lies. But these are accepted. That is why I feel that to practice your tradition, you have to put your tradition also in the modern world.

The modern world does not understand the structure of violence because we have to understand the interconnectedness as understood by Buddha. This now is also you, yourself, your nation state, international corporations, the so-called economic order, free trade and so on. One has to be aware of these.

OM: It feels like you are not giving Buddhists a way out. For example, people might say in their everyday lives, 'I don't kill,' but ignore the institutions that we are party to.

DS: Yes, this is where I had a very interesting conversation with Samdhong Rinpoche. He said that karma is both individual and collective. If you don't kill but you let others kill - I think that you are also responsible. I think that if you are a practicing Buddhist and not aware of these facts, you are fooling yourself or you are allowing yourself to hide from the facts. The Buddha spoke of the Four Nobel Truths. The first Noble Truth is suffering: you have t be aware of suffering. So, if your neighbor suffers because of you, directly or indirectly, I feel that you have to do something. That is why I work very much for people who have suffered: the Laotian people, the Vietnamese people and particularly for the Burmese people.

OM: What were some of the local issues for you in Thailand that contributed to the development of your ideas?

DS: As I mentioned, when you confront suffering, you find our the cause of suffering - that is, you put the Four Noble Truths into practice, not only for your own personal liberation but also for social justice. In my country, particularly in the last fifty years, we have followed the Americans blindly. We believed that technology would solve our problems for us - more roads and more dams are better - without realizing that the bigger the technology, the more harmful it is on the environment and, of course, it uproots the people. These for me are the biggest problems. I have been working for the last thirty years or so with suffering people and trying to bring them the message of the Buddha so that they can confront suffering meaningfully and mindfully, without hatred for the oppressor.

OM: Could you speak about the principles of nonviolence?

DS: That, for me, is very important. Nonviolence does not mean non-action, it means action! Action with a peaceful and clear mind: with loving-kindness. We use loving-kindness to overcome anger. You cannot deny anger because you are not an enlightened person. So, when anger comes you embrace it an cultivate it into loving-kindness I think that, for me, is a a great strength for a nonviolent world. Then, when you fight, you fight meaningfully with compassion; and it is very helpful. Therefore, you can then link your colleagues and friends because sometimes you fight amongst yourselves. And, sometimes you can feel the enemy is too big - an international corporation. At the same time, whether you win or not, every step is a wonderful step. I think this is what makes things very meaningful.

OM: Part of what you do is to hold a vision of an alternative.

DS: Yes, that's right, but of course for the alternative in some ways, you look back to the past without romanticizing the past - you bring what is good or useful from the past to the modern world. For instance, in my country we were very proud that we were never colonised. I think that for me, pride is the first thing that one should be aware of. I think that this pride makes us feel that we should imitate the west, so we feel that western medicine is the only medicine. For me, we should look to our own traditional medicines. I want our people to look alternatively within our roots and to learn form our neighbors. Not only for the spiritual things, but likewise fro Buddhist economics, Buddhist politics and Buddhist education.

Building the community is important. This means one has to build personal peace and have good friends. This of course, is my tradition. For many Buddhist traditions, the sangha is important, particularly in the Theravada tradition. The sangha are monks and monks are our examples of a simple and harmonious lifestyle - within themselves, with their presence and with their environment. And that, of course, influences us ;lay people to try to be like them. Although we cannot be monks, we can at least try on the full moon, half moon and new moon to behave like monks - abstain from sexual conduct, abstain from luxurious bathing and so on. I think that for me, that is not old-fashioned, we can bring this back to now. Not that you apply it in the same way, you have to put it in the modern context.

That is, if you want to have a sustainable community, the community should not aim to be luxurious: it should not aim to have more and more while other people have less and less. There has to be a degree of sharing - dhana - this becomes very important and, of course, shila. This is where Buddhist economics and so on come into it, because modern economics is the economics of greed - the more the better. Whereas, Buddhist economics has at its core 'people matter, not capital.' Likewise, politics is always about power and power now is linked with greed. Buddhist politics should be about taming power, taming anger and taming greed. Likewise, education now is more and more delusion - more and more to do with self-importance: the more you are educated, the more you look down on others and exploit others. So, education should be more spiritual and ethical, it should be about learning to be humble and learning to be harmonious with other people.

OM: It sounds like you have really named the narratives that dominate modernity, tried to give alternative views and then looked at the practices that would support these alternatives.

DS: Yes, that's right. But, on the one hand, you see, we work with those who suffer and we learn from them and they learn from us. At the same time, we try to help by working with the oppressors. I now belong to a group headed by Mr. Wilkinson of the World Bank and the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is called 'Interfaith Dialogue on Development' and we meet every year and try to have a dialogue with them. For me, if you want to solve the world's problems, you need the heart as well as the head. The last three of four centuries, we have only used our heads, which can be conceited because we could be wrong. I don't regard the enemy as 'out there,' I regard the enemy as 'inside.'

OM: Could you say something about your own journey, how this path evolved for you?

DS: Well, as I said, I was practicing Buddhist within the tradition. Then I went to England in the 1950s and joined the Buddhist Society, but I was surprised by the Society at that time. Even now, it is said that to become a Buddhist, you only need to meditate - there is no need for social involvement. Christmas Humphreys said very clearly, 'let the Christians do that!' I felt that this was wrong, because in my tradition, shila was not only personal ethics but also social justice. When I came home I saw that people were practicing shila very traditionally. People were trying to be good, but I also saw that while people were not stealing, they were sealing legally - buying land cheaply and so on. So, I tried to bring this idea of shila into the modern world, but with the essential teaching of the Buddha. This is how it came about. I feel that the only way is to confront suffering and to share with people who suffer and to try to find out the cause of suffering. I just tried to find the Four Noble Truths - not only for me personally, but for society.

OM: This has got you into trouble a few times?

DS: Yes, which I feel is inevitable. If you want to stand with those who suffer and if you are really with them, then realize you might suffer like them. But even so, I come from a privileged background, an educated background, and I suffer much less. I feel that I am privileged, so I have to go out more and more to share the suffering with people, while at the same time, teach myself and the people who work with me not to hate the oppressor. This is where I find the Buddha's teaching very encouraging - it helps me to grow. If you hate the oppressor you become depressed and then you want to use violence.


Source: http://www.ordinarymind.net , October 2002.

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last updated: 25-09-2008