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Bowing to Ajahn Sulak at 90

Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa. Image courtesy of the author

On March 27, Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa of Siam celebrated the completion of 90 years in this planetary cycle of life.* I wish Ajahn Sulak good health and many more vital years. I wish for the continuation of his fierce teachings, his loyal friendship, and his great compassion.

I first heard about Ajahn Sulak when I worked at Parallax Press in 1990. I had an opportunity to read his book Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society as it was being edited. Sulak gave the clearest articulation of engaged Buddhism that I had come across. It was exciting to encounter his brilliant critique of modernity and his articulation of an inclusive engaged Buddhism that respected its Theravada and Mahayana roots, and articulated a vision integrating personal suffering and social structures of greed, hatred, and delusion that we weave into whole systems of suffering. But, beyond his writing, I recognized the courage of his actions, which bring to mind the prophets of old.

This courage led Ajahn Sulak to speak out against the Thai generals’ military coup in February 1991. His strong words provoked the generals to call for his arrest on the medieval charge of lese majeste—for purportedly insulting Thailand’s king. He fled the country—for neither the first nor the last time in his life—which brought him to our home at the Berkeley Zen Center, where he stayed in early 1992 and where I came to know him well. 

In February 1992, I left Berkeley to attend the fourth conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in Thailand. On our front steps that morning I embraced and bowed farewell to Ajahn Sulak. I felt an uncomfortable irony in heading to Ajahn Sulak’s home country, planning to stay at his home in Bangkok while he was exiled in Berkeley at mine. It was here in Berkeley that my wife Laurie and I began working with Ajahn Sulak on his memoir, Loyalty Demands Dissent: Autobiography of an Engaged Buddhist. Only after another six months could Sulak return to Thailand, and it was several more years before the charge of lese majeste was dismissed. He would face such charges again in 2006, 2008, and 2014.

I refer to him as Ajahn Sulak, a term of honor and respect for a true teacher. He is one of my true teachers. Over the last 30 years, through so many of the crises that have beset our world, I have worked closely Sulak and with INEB, the vibrant organization that could only have taken shape from the web of international friendships that Ajahn Sulak has cultivated over the years. Working on Loyalty Demands Dissent, I became familiar with the arc of Sulak Sivaraksa’s life, and the principals of Dharma, democracy, and spiritual friendship from which Sulak has never strayed.

The 20th Biennial Conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). Image courtesy of INEB

I am keenly aware that much of the richness of my engaged Buddhist life has come to me through Ajahn Sulak—friends (Pali: kalyana-mitta; Skt: kalyana-mitra), ways of thinking about our troubled world, organizational contacts across many borders. Often I have received a late-night phone call from him, just making contact as he traveled through the US. When visiting us in Berkeley, which used to be a frequent occurrence, I have seen Ajahn Sulak sit down at the kitchen table, pull out his worn address book, and systematically phone all his local friends. Many of these friends and acolytes have become my own working partners and comrades. Sulak’s writing and thinking continue to influence me. His provocations still hit their mark, for friends and opponents alike.

Admittedly, we have not always agreed on things large and small, and we have had our clashes and arguments, which, at last, are not really so important. At the same time, connection and respect between us was always alive. Our friendship has endured for many years, across continents, despite arguments and conflicts, which are not relevant here.

Now Ajahn Sulak has come to the age of 90. He is still making good trouble, and I am honored to stand beside him, to watch and learn and celebrate.

Hozan Alan Senauke
Berkeley, California
May 2023

* INEB Celebrates the 90th Birthday of Exemplar of Engaged Buddhism Sulak Sivaraksa (BDG)

References

Sivaraksa, Sulak. 1992. Seeds Of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

Sivaraksa, Sulak. 1998. Loyalty Demands Dissent: Autobiography of an Engaged Buddhist. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

Pistono, Matteo. 2019. Roar: Sulak Sivaraksa and the Path of Socially Engaged Buddhism. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

See more

Sulak Sivaraksa (Wikipedia)
Nine Decades of Friendship: Honoring Sulak Sivaraksa on his 90th Birthday (International Network of Engaged Buddhists)
Berkeley Zen Center
Clear View Project
International Network of Engaged Buddhists

Related features from BDG

Engaged Buddhism: The Role of Spirituality and Faith in a Divided World
Peace, Planet, Pandemic, and Engaged Buddhism: From a Divided Myanmar to a Divided World
Compassion and Kalyana-mittata: The Engaged Buddhism of Sulak Sivaraksa

Related news from BDG

INEB Celebrates the 90th Birthday of Exemplar of Engaged Buddhism Sulak Sivaraksa
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Sulak Sivaraksa: Thich Nhat Hanh – My Friend and My Teacher
Engaged Buddhist Sulak Sivaraksa Speaks Out During Thai Pro-Democracy Protests
Roar: New Biography Details the Life and Times of Sulak Sivaraksa, Leading Light of Engaged Buddhism

See more from The Bodhisattva’s Embrace by Hozan Alan Senauke

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