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ReVision, Vol. 15, No. 3, Winter 1993, pp. 121-128
Sivaraksa of Bangkok, Thailand (or Siam, as he prefers to call his
country), is probably that country's most prominent social critic and
activist and a major contemporary exponent of socially engaged Buddhism.
Now sixty years old, he has for the last thirty years combined
provocative and innovative intellectual work with continual grass-roots
organizing. He has founded rural development projects as well as many
nongovemmental organizations dedicated to exploring alternative models
of sustainable, traditionally rooted, and ethically and spiritually
Periodically, Sulak (as he is known to his friends) has been persecuted; mostly dictatorships have ruled Thailand since 1932. In 1976, Sulak was forced into exile for two years. In 1984, he was arrested by the government for Ie-majestic (defamation of the monarchy), but after an international campaign on his behalf, he was released. In September 1991, he was again charged with lese-majeste and also with declamation of the army commander and Sulak went immediately into exile. In December 1992 he returned to face trial. It, March 1993, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In June 1993, his trial, slated to last several months, began.
Sulak's main works include Siamese Resurgence (1985), Religion and Development (1986), A Socially Engaged Buddhism (1988,), Siam in Crisis (1990), and Seeds of Peace (1992a).
This conversation took place between Sulak Sivaraksa and Donald Rothberg at Berkeley, California, in July 1992.
WORK AND MAIN INFLUENCES
Rothberg: How did your own work in Siam develop?
Sivaraksa: I started very small. In 1961, I returned to my country, having been in England eight or nine years, and then in 1962, I started working with the University Press in Bangkok. I started a journal called the Social Science Review in 1963 and got many people to write for it. Now my country was under a dictatorship since 1947, which had become much more severe since 1957; most social studies available were nothing but government propaganda dominated by American capitalism and militarism. Overnight, this journal became the central intellectual journal. Young people were attracted to it, although I had originally intended it for my peers and for those educated abroad. I started meetings for young people, using a temple in Wat Bovornives [a monastery in Bangkok, also housing a Buddhist university]. We explored alternative ways of thinking, and these young people began to become political; many of them were successful in changing the government in 1973. I also started a bookshop, which also became a meeting place. Everywhere I went, I started publications, printing presses, magazines, and books. I gave lectures, and I made many more friends, as well as more enemies. This is how I work.
I started in my own country with Buddhists, then worked with Christians, Muslims, and agnostics. Later, I expanded to my neighboring countries--Southeast Asia, South Asia, Japan, and America. My work has developed by interconnections on the basis of friendship.
I organized the Komol Keemthong Foundation in 1971 in order to promote the idealism of the youth; it was named after one of the young people working with me that I admired very much, who was killed by the Communists. Of course, this notion of promoting youthful idealism is too abstract; we actually use a number of concrete ideas taken from many places--from Thich Nhat Hanh, Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire, Dr. Ariyaratne of Sri Lanka. We still often work with this foundation. I also founded the Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation, named after two of my teachers, which works on environmental issues, on questions of conservation and natural resources, and also attempts to help artists and poets. At the Wongsanit Ashram outside Bangkok, connected .with this foundation, young people and artists can come for retreats, for periods of reflection and learning, as well as for meditation.
I have also founded ecumenical organizations, like the TICD [the Thai Inter-Religious Commission for Development], in which we work with Christians and Muslims on questions of alternative development, and the CGRS [Coordinating Group on Religion and Society]. I'm good at starting organizations; this is my strength. I like to give ideas to people; I find committed people, and soon I often have little to do with the organization!
Rothberg: What have been the main influences on your own connection of Buddhism with social action?
Sivaraksa: I have been very much personally influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh. He has suffered more than have most monks and has been involved more for social justice. In Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, he was very exposed to young people, and his society was in turmoil, in crisis. He was really in a difficult position, between the devil and the deep blue sea--the Communists on the one hand, the CIA on the other hand. In such a situation, he has been very honest--as an activist, as a contemplative monk (not unlike Thomas Merton), as a poet (again like Merton), and as a clear writer. Most important to me have been his teachings on "interbeing" (Nhat Hanh 1987a), and poems like "Please Call Me. By My True Names" (Nhat Hanh 1987b, 63-64). Of course, his work really rests on the traditional Buddhist teaching of paticca samuppada ["dependent origination," the inter-relatedness of all phenomena] brought into a very contemporary setting.
I have also been very influenced by Gandhi and by the Quakers. Gandhi experienced and responded to the dreadful suffering connected with the British occupation of the subcontinent. His radical approach was to be with the poor and to use nonviolent approaches, to use spiritual strength. Later, I came across the Quakers. I was especially interested in the radical Quakers and the idea of a religious society of friends. The Quakers regard friendship as central, just as did the Buddha. I was also very attracted by the Quaker notions of the sacredness of a human being and nonviolence. I found the Quakers more articulate than Buddhists on the need to question and resist the powers of the state, to question the status quo; Buddhists have been coexisting with the state for too long.
The new Western Buddhists and groups like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship really have been good for me. Particularly helpful have been people who have had a radical (and sometimes Marxist) background before they become Buddhists, who come to Buddhism with critical social awareness. For me, the Marxist systemic analysis of society, of the seeds of oppression, is very useful, provided it is placed in a nonviolent context. Perhaps radicals (including Marxists) can learn from Buddhists to be more humble, more mindful, to have some spirituality.
Johan Galtung, a European who became a Buddhist, was the first one to lead me into serious thinking that Buddhists must take on the system rather than focus on individuals. Schumacher (1973) helped us in particular to think about the development of economic systems not based on greed and consumerism. Here, radicals and Marxists can also learn from us; we hate the dreadful system, not the people. In Christian language, we hate sin, not the sinners.
A BUDDHIST APPROACH TO SOCIAL ACTION IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD
Rothberg: In your essay on "Buddhism and Contemporary International Trends" (Sivaraksa 1992b), you wrote that traditional Buddhist approaches and categories have not yet been adequately translated into modern terms. What do you think has to be done to make Buddhism relevant for modern social problems?
Sivaraksa: In making Buddhism more relevant for the contemporary world, it is important not to compromise on the essentials, such as the ethical precepts (sila). However, these ethical precepts need to be rethought in order to make sense of life in contemporary societies. Buddhists traditionally have lived in rather simple societies, largely agrarian, as is still often the case in Southeast and South Asia. In such societies, ethical issues may also be simple. One can say, "I am a good person. I don't kill. I don't steal. I don't commit adultery. I don't lie." But, when the society becomes much more complex, these simple interpretation of ethical norms don't work so well.
For example, to follow the first Buddhist ethical precept, to refrain from killing living beings, is not so simple now; social reality in the modern world has become much more complex and interconnected. We have to ask questions like these: Do we allow our tax, money to go for armaments? Do we keep ourselves separate from the political realm and not challenge the government? Should we breed animals for consumption?
Our understanding of the second preception to refrain from taking what is not ours, must also be extended. We may not literally steal in our face-to-face interactions, but do we allow the rich countries to exploit the poor countries through the workings of the international banking system and the international economic order? Do we allow industrial societies to exploit agrarian societies? The First World to exploit the Third World? The rich to exploit the poor generally?
We can ask similar questions on the basis of the third precept, to refrain from improper sexual behavior. We need to think not just about adultery and hurting others, but also to think more broadly about other sexual and gender issues, about male domination and the exploitation of women. For instance, we use women for advertising in ways that promote sexism, lust, and greed.
In fact, to participate in the system of consumerism is already to violate the first, second, and third precepts. Following the fourth precept, to refrain from improper speech, is also very difficult. Think of all the advertising and all the political propaganda, all the lies and exaggerations in the media and in education. We have to challenge all this even when it is legal. Buddhists in Asia often have liked to coexist side by side with the state and legal system. I think we have to reexamine ourselves.
Buddhist social ethics traditionally have been entirely personal. We have not looked at the system that is violent, that is oppressive, that in fact, involves theft.
The Buddhist notion of enlightenment and understanding [or wisdom, Pali: panna] also needs to be extended so that enlightenment is not always internal enlightenment; here also Buddhism has been weak. Panna must involve a real understanding of yourself and of society. If your society is unjust, exploitative, and violent, how do you respond? With all the paramitas [or "perfections"] of a Bodhisattva, one dedicated to the liberation of all beings: humbly, seriously, without much attachment, with awareness, with vigor, with patience, with a great vow to change things. But Buddhists have too often been "goody-goodies" and not really responded to all the suffering in society.
We also need a different understanding of suffering and the causes of suffering (the first two "Noble Truths" taught by the Buddha). Suffering at the time of the Buddha was certainly often dreadful, but it was simpler to understand; the interrelatedness of all phenomena that is a main teaching of the Buddha was simpler then and is much more complex now. We Buddhists need help from the social scientists: from sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, etcetera. We should be very open and translate the findings of these disciplines into Buddhist understandings. Of course, one must have the right view of things and use these sciences to help against greed, hatred, and delusion; otherwise, all these methodologies and sciences could lead one astray. But without the work of these disciplines, we may become deluded and think that Buddhist practice can solve everything. It doesn't, Without transforming the Buddhist sense of wisdom to bring in understanding of and response to social reality, Buddhism will not be so relevant and might only appeal to the middle class. If we are not careful, it will become a kind of escapism.
Rothberg: Sometimes when I read Buddhist texts or talk to Buddhists, even many socially and politically concerned Buddhists, they often seem to suggest that the basic problem is internal greed, hatred, and delusion, as if working on the individual is most fundamental. According to this way of thinking, whatever problems there are with societies or systems are just an expression of what is "inner." There is little sense of a more "dialectical" relationship of individual and system, of how greed, hatred, and delusion are formed by systems, while the systems are then supported further by greed, hatred, and delusion. Of course, there is much traditional Buddhist emphasis on sangha [community] and ethics, but the assumption commonly is that changing the inner leads to outer change. How might we develop a vision of socially engaged Buddhism as integrating inner and outer work more fully so that the one informs the other?
Sivaraksa: Ambedkar, the leader of the untouchables in India. who became a Buddhist at the end of his life, challenged the Buddha in a wonderful way. He said that it was not enough to speak of the cause of suffering as being greed, hatred, and delusion; that is only to speak of more "internal" causes. The social structure is also a cause of suffering; as an untouchable, he could see that yew clearly.
The Buddha's intention was certainly to change individuals; the ultimate aim was liberation. However, he intended to help liberate not only individuals but the whole society, His method was to create the sangha, the community, as a kind of alternative society within the larger society that would influence the larger society indirectly.
But we should also remember thin the larger society at that time was not all that wicked. The system wasn't too rigid. One changed individual could make a big impact. A rich man, a kind of banker at the Buddha's time, Supata, who became Anathapindika, became the supporter of all the poor in the region. In our time, you can get one good banker and nothing particularly changes. Now you have to change the whole system of banking! We must be very demanding in transforming ourselves, but I think we would be deluded unless we also have a clear understanding of how to change the oppressive society.
The Bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings is a special challenge to all Buddhists. Without that vow, we may become very selfish. We may not be able to change the world right now, but we can begin by encountering, understanding, and sharing the suffering of others, and wishing to help. Of course, we must do this with equanimity and detachment. This is compassion, karuna, our basic attitude guiding both our more internal and our more external work. There must be a balance of the internal and external; to stress one at the expense of the other is for me a betrayal of Buddhism.
Rothberg: When I visited earlier this year the monastery of Pah Ban That (in northeast Thailand) founded by Ajahn Maha Boowa, I had several conversations with Bhikkhu Pannvaddho, an English monk who is probably the senior Western monk in Thailand. He questioned whether it was real]y, possible for persons socially engaged to live fully the spiritual life, no matter hob' helpful they might be. For him, to live this life is to work for liberation by uprooting the "defilements" that block one's basic love and understanding. Flowever, this requires living in a highly supportive environment, like that of a war [monastery]. The life of social engagement will very likely not have the spiritual depth that is possible for a monk in such an environment as a monastery.
This is a major concern for many people in the West. Our intention is to work socially in a way that brings much spiritual depth, as well as social depth, rather than somehow act superficially in both dimensions.
Sivaraksa: Of course, it is a great danger that those who are socially engaged lack spiritual depth, inner calm, and peace; some activist Buddhist monks (for instance, in Sri Lanka and Burma) have sometimes even become violent* But what Pannavaddho said is applicable only to a small minority of monks, those who are convinced that their prime duty is to get rid of defilements. It is unrealistic to expect that all monks should have these intentions. Even at the time of the Buddha, many monks did not. Monks should act somewhere between the minimum (following the basic ethical precepts) and the maximum (practicing for liberation); most are in between. Beyond following the minimal ethical precepts, the monk should make some contribution. In the Theravadin Buddhist tradition, there is the custom of having town monks, who help and lead the people in various ways, for instance, in education and medicine; this is the traditional expression of socially engaged spirituality.
Without the spiritual dimension, however, those working socially will burn out. We must have joy, peace, and rest for ourselves, in our families, among our neighbors. If we are to connect ethical norms and social justice, we must have time for spiritual development, time to meditate, time to integrate head and heart, and then time for renewal and retreat several weeks a year, sometimes with teachers who help us and question us. This is why centers of renewal like Buddhadasa's Suan Mokkh, the "Garden of Liberation" [in south Thailanda], Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village [near Bordeaux, France], or the center I myself started, the ecumenical Wongsanit Ashram, are so important.
Without this kind of inquiry and practice, those trying to transform society will be more likely to be greedy, wanting to be big shots, or full of hate, wanting power, or deluded, wanting an impossibly ideal society or being a naive do-gooder. Meditation and critical self-awareness help one to see these questionable motivations or at least to ask oneself: "Am I doing that out of greed or hatred?" even if there is no clear answer.
But meditation alone is not sufficient--because people suffer so much. One must also act; one must do what one can.
The basic understandings of the three founding patrons of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists [INEB, founded by Sulak], the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam, and Buddhadasa Bhikkhu of Siam, are all very relevant. Each of them, representing one of the three main Buddhist traditions (Vajrayana, Mahayana, and Theravada), meditates regularly and is very concerned about developing "dhammic" societies, societies based on wisdom and compassion. Each of them has faced suffering very directly and responded very fully, in ways from which we can learn.
The Dalai Lama has been exiled for over thirty years from his native Tibet. He uses meditation and compassion, teaching us to love the Chinese government and Chinese individuals who have often committed atrocities against the Tibetans, killing, destroying temples, and so on. His teaching is very relevant for my young bhikkhus [monks] in Sri Lanka, in the middle of a civil war; how car, they learn to love the Tamils? I have not been successful yet. But many of these monks are now starting to meditate and joining in traditional monastic practices, like collecting alms.
Thich Nhat Hanh has also been a great help. In Thailand, for example, he helped the Vietnamese refugees, who have often been very badly treated by Thais in their refugee camps; some of the refugees have been raped by That pirates. Thich Nhat Hanh worked with them, teaching them not to hate Thais. He has also helped the refugees when they've settled in America and in Australia, helped them especially with their wounds from the war. For Trier Nhat Hanh, to help others is to help oneself. Those of us who have been to Plum Village, the spiritual community in France that Trier Nhat Hanh started, can see how meditation and social awareness both flourish there.
Buddhadasa may not have been persecuted as much as the other two leaders, but he has been often attacked. He has been called a Communist by some; some Sri Lankan monks called him a goat and a propagandist for the Christians. A well-known Buddhist scholar criticized him as a non-Buddhist and called him, a senior monk (now eighty-seven) all kinds of names, largely because he was open to approaches from outside the Buddhist tradition. Buddhadasa is very much based in Buddhist tradition, of course; he is very strict in following the Theravadin ethical precepts. At the same time, he has embraced Vajrayana and Mahayana Buddhism as valid paths. His Holiness the Dalai Lama went to visit him. He has also admired the work of Thich Nhat Hanh.
THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY
Rothberg: A life integrating social engagement and spiritual work in the West is quite hard for many reasons, especially because there are not so many support structures. At the Buddhist Peace Fellowship summer institute in July 1992, you spoke about community as an important form of nonviolent resistance, as a support for questioning consumerism and the structures of domination and oppression.
Sivaraksa: It is important that daily life be lived in community. The present daily life in industrialized societies, so much based on separation, individualism, and consumption, is not conducive to socially engaged spirituality. The Buddhist tradition, on the other hand, emphasizes the centrality of community life based on simplicity. There is the old tradition that monks should not have more than three robes, only one bowl, one thread, one needle, and one pair of sandals. We are also taught not to be attached or give great significance to money even if we lay people need money for survival). The more we ate self-reliant, growing our own food, and so on, the less money becomes important. Whatever we grow we are willing to share with others. That is why I think that you need to live close to nature and be with people. In our traditional society, it has always been like this. Whatever you cook, you share with others. It would be good for this approach to come back. I think that this is possible, if people think seriously and question consumerism, promoting nonagreed, nonhatred, and nondelusion, educating people about alternatives to materialism and about how to make capitalism more sane.
In our society, especially in the countryside, we still have extended families in most of the country, except in Bangkok, which is just like any Western city. We still respect our parents and grandparents and have feelings for the poor, the blind, and the mentally retarded; we don't feel ashamed if we have mentally retarded people in the family. We have to reinforce what is positive in the traditional approach (in areas like agriculture, medicine, food, and dress); otherwise, modern trends will wipe everything away.
Rothberg: In the United States, Buddhism is often interpreted very individualistically. Gary Snyder (Ingram, Gates, and Nisker 1988, 5) once said that Sangha is the least developed of the "Three Jewels" of Buddhism [the "Three Jewels" are the Buddha, or the example of the liberated person; the dhamma, or basic teachings about liberation; and the sangha).
Sivaraksa: When my teacher, Ajahn Buddhadasa, reached the age of eighty-four, the end of the seventh cycle of his life according to our custom, I produced the book Radical Conservatism (Sivaraksa, Hutanuvatra, Chaemduang, Sobhanasiri, and Kholer 1990). I think that the title is important. As a Buddhist, if one is not radical and does not work to eliminate suffering, one may end up only taking a little bit of Buddhism for one's individual ego. But Buddhism is not often radical; it coexists too easily with capitalism and consumerism. If Buddhism is not radical here in the United States, it will one day simply become a kind of Americanism and not make much of a contribution, just as Buddhism is often a mere decoration in Japan.
Many intentions to create community in this country have failed, largely because individualism has become so strong and because communities have not been firmly based on ethical guidelines. I think of Locke, and your Declaration of Independence, that would make possible "life, liberty and the pursuit of (what they call) happiness." Too often, of course, the pursuit of happiness is really the pursuit of property, The traditional member of the Buddhist sangha has no property whatsoever. All members are equal economically and socially. Lay people can look at the sangha as a model and try to have less property, not be so attached to what they do have, and work for greater economic and political equality.
The community must also be based on ethical precepts. Of course, ethics is not just about not killing or stealing or abusing another sexually; it is also about respecting others, sharing our resources, seeing how we can contribute, living harmoniously, and so on. If we can develop Buddhist communities that rest on simple living, are close to nature, and that encourage serious thinking that challenges consumerism and the status quo, that would be an important contribution.
FIRST WORLD AND THIRD WORLD: WORKING AND LEARNING TOGETHER
Rothberg: At the present time, there is much more interaction of "First World" and "Third World" socially engaged Buddhists. How can we best work with each other? What car, we learn from each other?
Sivaraksa: Again, the essential point is that each person must develop critical self-awareness, humility, seeds of peace, and then dialogue is possible, listening is possible, good friends are possible. Once we work together, particularly in relation to suffering, then the gaps between rich and poor, First World and Third World, North and South, are gone; we become partners and friends. Alone you can't do very much, but with your friends, you can do a great deal. If you want to gain exposure to the South, then you need people from the South to help you. If I want to go to Sri Lanka or Burma, then I need friends from those countries to help me, so that I can learn from them, and they can learn from me. I need to respect them, be genuine and sincere, and be at their level, not wear a big cap.
The conditions in the United States for socially engaged spirituality are difficult. Consumerism, greed, loneliness, manipulation of political power, and hatred have become so strong. Worst of all, the people are so deluded, most of the time unknowingly. Working with us in Asia may be helpful, working for half a year, or a year, helping the Tibetans, or the Ladakhi, or the Thai, or the Burmese. But this shouldn't be escapism. You might work in Asia and see that the source of suffering there is perhaps in the First World. When you come back here, after you have lived with them in community and close to nature, you may have more motivation to live like this in your own country.
It can also be helpful to be exposed to a society where it is clearer that there is delusion, where power is clearer. In my society, for example, you can see that the generals kill people openly. In this country, the generals never kill your people. They're much more clever, and the people stay deluded; the wars are all supposed to be just, great for the American flag, for the open society, the liberal West, and so on.
OPPRESSION, RECONCILIATION, AND THE MIDDLE PATH
Rothberg: Although engaged Buddhists may identify systems of domination and oppression, they often question the tendency among many leftists to polarize oppressors and oppressed; Buddhists more often emphasize reconciliation. How do we identify systems of oppression, as well as those concrete persons who are in many ways responsible for oppression, without forming a rigid distinction between "good" people and "bad" people?
Sivaraksa: This is the most difficult question. This is where you need serious spiritual practice. It is easy to condemn the oppressors, but actually when you condemn others, you also condemn yourself. Right now in my country, this difficult problem is very central [following the demonstrations and killings of hundreds in the streets in Bangkok in May 1992]. Of course, it is very easy to pass judgment and believe in right on one side and wrong on the other. But here you have to have a deeper understanding that is often difficult to explain, of karma and interdependence over vast periods of time and space. We must cultivate this deeper understanding, thinking also about the nature of social systems, rather than just focusing on the persons.
If you get attached to right and wrong. you become so tiresome and full of haired. and ultimately you may have to kill; in Christian terms, you become God. We must develop more mercy and compassion. Here, the West can learn from the Buddhists. Our ability to forgive is our strength. But, of course, you have to practice; you have to go deeper and radicalize yourself, going beyond thinking about "an eye for an eye."
I wish to thank Joyce Rybandt and Veronica Froelich for their aid in transcribing this conversation and Wim Aspeslagh for his helpful comments on the manuscript.
Donald Rothberg is on the faculty of the Saybrook Institute in San Francisco and has written on socially engaged Buddhism. critical social theory, transpersonal Psychology, and epistemology and mysticism. He has served on the board of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, where he has helped to develop an Ongoing summer institute on engaged Buddhism.
Source: Center for
Buddhist Studies, National Taiwan University,
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