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Compassion and Kalyana-mittata: The Engaged Buddhism of Sulak Sivaraksa

Sulak Sivaraksa speaking at the 18th INEB Biennial Conference in Taiwan. Photo by Craig Lewis
Sulak Sivaraksa speaking at the 18th INEB Biennial Conference in Taiwan. Photo by Craig Lewis

In the world of engaged Buddhism, the prominent activist and vocal social critic Sulak Sivaraksa needs little introduction. Renowned as one of Asia’s leading intellectual voices, the co-founder of the Thailand-based International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) has risen to global prominence through his focused, persistent, and insightful vision of a socially engaged Buddhism that presents the means to radically transform human society into the basis for a more equitable, compassionate world.

Since the founding of INEB in 1989, Sulak has been at the forefront of the global engaged Buddhism movement, driven by a spiritual commitment to manifest a social development model rooted in democracy, justice, and cultural integrity. He has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1993 and 1994, and in 1995 became a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (dubbed the Alternative Nobel Prize).

Sulak’s concern for human rights and his frequent and forthright criticism of corruption and social inequality mean he has become a familiar fixture in media headlines in his native Thailand, where he has experienced repeated run-ins with the authorities that have at various times resulted in his harassment, imprisonment, and overseas exile.* As an engaged Buddhist, Sulak has established a string of social welfare and development groups founded in a rejection of consumption-based economics and with a profound emphasis on the spiritual and religious aspects of human existence. These organizations have been credited with being the catalyst for Thailand’s indigenous NGO movement. 

The indefatigable octogenarian has authored numerous articles, essays, and books, among them: Loyalty Demands Dissent: Autobiography of an Engaged Buddhist (1998), Global Healing: Essays and Interviews on Structural Violence, Social Development and Spiritual Transformation (1999), Conflict, Culture, Change: Engaged Buddhism in a Globalizing World (2005), The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century (2009), and Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society (1992), which includes a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a preface by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.

Buddhistdoor Global sat down with Sulak during INEB’s recent 18th General Conference in Taiwan to talk about his perspective on engaged Buddhism in the 21st century, and his hopes and aspirations for the future.

Buddhistdoor Global: It seems that almost everyone in the Buddhist world now has heard of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). Could you tell us a little about the movement’s early days?

Sulak Sivaraksa: We started as a very small network. In those days we didn’t have much money so at the beginning our meetings—every year, every two years—were always in my country, Siam [Thailand]. In those days the Burmese [members] couldn’t even travel abroad so we had to meet them on the border [between Myanmar and Thailand]. Laos and Cambodia had also become communist, so we had to get people on the fringes to come to our country.

Fortunately, we had support from the Japanese, but the Japanese who supported us tended to be quite radical and they wanted engaged Buddhism to be more radical. Some of the Japanese priests were marxists, so there was a little bit of tension. I used to tell them that radicalism is okay, but it must be nonviolent.

The man who helped me found INEB—I don’t want to mention his name—later broke with me and resigned. So I was more or less running INEB until 10 years ago, when I felt that, as I’d reached the age of 75, I should step down and allow Harsha Navaratne** to succeed me, and he’s since become very active. Our executive secretary Somboon Chungprampree has also been extremely active—before him it was very difficult to find and keep an executive secretary, so now I think we’re much more stable.

BDG: What are the most significant changes you’ve seen as INEB has grown and evolved?

SS: In the last 10 years we’ve expanded worldwide; we even have people from Africa and Latin America joining us. In 2016, We founded the INEB Institute to provide a good grounding for education, and I’m happy to say that this new institute now has people coming from England, from Brazil, and elsewhere.

One of INEB’s strong points is that we’re not hierarchical; we have no power and we have no money. I’m very proud that we’ve become a network of good friends—kalyana-mittata [Pali. spiritual friendship]. It’s a wonderful friendship and we learn from each other. As you know, Buddhism is divided into many schools—the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions—all of which have their strengths. At INEB, I think we bring them all together, and I’m very proud that we are learning from each other. In particular, we Theravada Buddhists must learn more from the bhikkhuni, the women. Female monasticism is very, very important.

Attendees of the 18th INEB Biennial Conference in Taiwan. From
Attendees of the 18th INEB Biennial Conference in Taiwan. From

BDG: Your approach to engaged Buddhism has a heavy emphasis on working at the grassroots level and on inter-tradition and interfaith dialogue. Could you share your view on these aspects?

SS: Well you see, Buddhism is not a religion as such. I also make a distinction between Buddhism with a capital “B” and buddhism with a small “b.” Buddhism with a capital “B” sometimes tends to be nationalistic—for example, Sinhalese Buddhists have come into conflict with Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka, and even now in Myanmar, we have the Rohingya Muslim situation. The Buddha never referred to anyone as a Buddhist; you either have Right View or wrong view. 

Working from the top down is difficult, you know, because in my country they’re mostly capital “B” Buddhists, which goes along too well with consumerism and capitalism. In Sri Lanka, Buddhism has become more nationalistic, while for the Japanese, Buddhism is more about the next world and making money from funeral services. But through INEB, even some of the Buddhists in Japan have changed—they care more now for the present world, they reach outh through hospices and so on.

Our Christian and Muslim friends may also have the Right View, even when their views differ from ours, so we must have dialogue and respect each other. I’m very proud that INEB is achieving that, and that we have so many friends among the Christian community and among the Muslim community, and we are able to work together on common issues confronting dukkha [Pali. the fundamental unsatisfactoriness of samsaric existence]. As I’ve said before, suffering not only manifests at the personal level, it’s also social and environmental. So we work with Christians on climate change, we work with Muslims on bringing justice and peace, and so on.

BDG: Fully expressed, the principles of engaged Buddhism call for a radical transformation of traditional paradigms for building societies, for doing business, for managing economies. How receptive do you expect secular society to be to the kinds of changes that are needed?

SS: Well, we have to use skillful means. In fact I was recently speaking with a Thai businessman who belongs to a group called the Social Venture Network. This is a network of top business people in my country that I became involved with about 15 years ago. These top capitalists feel that success in business is not just about making money, you must have time to look after yourself, find time to breathe properly, to meditate. 

At the same time, you must also look after your staff. Some of their staff members have since become shareholders and labor leaders sitting on the company board. They are very strict about being honest in advertising and marketing, and they would not do anything harmful to the environment. This social network is growing in my country. I don’t want to convert them to Buddhism, but I think they have a Buddhist perspective to their outlook.

Sometimes, of course, in business we contribute only a little bit in order to make more money, but the idea is to learn to have time to breathe properly, to have time for family. Business should not be too serious, it should be approached with a sense of humor, and it should support the arts and NGO movements.

Of course, even large corporations will have to change, little by little. But I think that if they can become more enlightened, perhaps they will not exploit their employees, perhaps they will not exploit consumers. Instead of just trying to sell everything, I think that eventually if some of the top people on their boards can learn some wisdom, things may change—I hope. After all, all human beings have a certain amount of wisdom, and cannot be controlled by greed, hate, and delusion all the time.

Sulak at the 18th INEB Biennial Conference in Taiwan. Photo by Craig Lewis
Sulak at the 18th INEB Biennial Conference in Taiwan. Photo by Craig Lewis

BDG: What can we, as individuals, do to address or to begin to dismantle structural violence, wherein social institutions prevent people from meeting their basic needs—for example, institutionalized adultism, ageism, classism, elitism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, speciesism, racism, sexism, and so on?

SS: People normally don’t understand the structural violence in society, under which we accept that the “top” is better than the “bottom;” the powerful are better than the powerless. I think this is where Buddhism can really help. Even in terms of our personal structural view—you know, we believe that we are “a person,” an ego—the Buddha teaches us that this is not real, it’s all changing. Buddhism is not a dogma, and I hope people will realize that if they don’t take themselves too seriously, then perhaps they will learn not to take society too seriously. Perhaps then they’ll have time to see the suffering around us: other people’s suffering, social suffering, environmental suffering. I’m sure this change is possible. 

I don’t wish to boast, but in 2016 the International Committee of the Red Cross invited me to speak at the United Nations for seven minutes on how to understand structural violence. Of course, in just seven minutes, some may listen, some may not. But I think if we all keep on working, keep on speaking, I think more and more people will listen and hopefully will come to understand.

BDG: How optimistic for the future are you now, considering the critical global situation of manmade climate change, widespread conflict, and the human impact on ecosystems and animal populations?

SS: The Quakers say that everyone has God within them, and we Buddhists are taught that everyone has Buddha-nature. But now, because modern society is dominated by greed, capitalism, and consumerism, we are very much led by violence; we are deluded. As I said, we all have Buddha-nature, and I think people will become more enlightened—sooner, rather than later—otherwise our world might not be sustained for much longer. 

I feel the future has to be different from current mainstream practices; alternative economics, alternative politics, alternative education. Now, mainstream education only teaches people to be clever, but I think that people should also learn to be good, should learn to be humble. But I still think that one of these days people will change. Even in China, I see some of the young Chinese are becoming active—they are challenging the Communist Party and many are becoming spiritual, so I have much hope!

Thai Military Court Defers Lèse-Majesté Charges Against Prominent Buddhist Activist Sulak Sivaraksa (Buddhistdoor Global)

** A prominent civil society activist from Sri Lanka, Harsha Navaratne is the founder and chair of the Sewalanka Foundation and currently chairs INEB’s executive committee.

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International Network of Engaged Buddhists
INEB Institute

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