In September 1991, Sulak Sivaraksa was accused of lese majesty for remarks made at Thammasat University in Bangkok which were critical of Thailand’s authorities. Under threat of arrest by Thailand’s military junta, Sulak—as he is known—fled his country and has since been in exile from Siam (the country’s original name, which Sulak insists on using). One of Asia’s leading social activists, Sulak is the founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. He has taught all over the United States, and his most recent publication is Seeds of Peace (Parallax Press). In April, he was interviewed at the Tricycleoffice by editor Helen Tworkov.
Tricycle: Although you are of the Southeast Asian tradition of Theravada Buddhism, your life seems to exemplify the Mahayana bodhisattva tradition of selfless action. The term” engaged Buddhism” has become identified in this country with Buddhist-inspired social activism. Is there a difference between an engaged Buddhist and a bodhisattva?
Sulak: Yes and no. The term “engaged Buddhism” was coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master. But he has recently come more and more to appreciate the Pali Canon, which is the foundation of all Theravada teaching.
Tricycle: Is there something unique about the Bodhisattva Vow that is absent from the Theravada tradition?
Sulak: If you aspire to be the all-enlightened Buddha, then of course the next step is to be a bodhisattva. In the Theravada tradition, first you have to practice dana—the perfection of giving. Eventually you recognize that to give is more important than to receive. But the second step—sila—is more important. The idea ofsila is how to be normal.
Tricycle: Isn’t sila usually translated as how to be moral or ethical?
Sulak: Yes, but the Sanskrit and Pali roots mean “normal.” By convention sila refers to “precepts” which goes back to the Latin word meaning “to give advice.” Why is it that you should not kill? Not allowing anger to rise is how to relate to society, from your family to the community to all the animals. So to be moral and to be normal are the same.
Tricycle: Are engaged Buddhist organizations vulnerable to the same problems as Christian social services, which are often empty of any spiritual inspiration?
Sulak: In Theravada, all the lay practitioners start withdana and then sila, and the next step, which is crucial, isbhavana—meditation. These are all interrelated. If you want to be an engaged Buddhist, if you only practicedana, you become a goody-goody. You must go further. With sila, the emphasis is how not to exploit yourself and how not to exploit others. This is what “normality” means—acting in accord with the laws of nature, which are unexploitative and harmonious. Silaand dana work together. But where Buddhism differs is with bhavana—whatever you do, be mindful. Be engaged. Without mindfulness, you can become very angry, greedy, very deluded. You may feel, “Oh, I’m a Buddhist now, I can do all these good things.” That’s very egoistic. Ultimately, a Buddhist should work toward selflessness. Our prime minister, our cabinet members, all are “Buddhists,” but they don’t havebhavana. Bhavana means that you cultivate peace within.
Tricycle: One aspect of engaged Buddhism is that it seems to evoke a great deal of pride in doing good deeds. Is this pride the natural pitfall of social activism?
Sulak: Yes, I think so. The idea that “I am doing something good” is egoistic. If one becomes humble, the pride will disappear. That is why we must come back to bhavana.
Tricycle: Do you see Western Buddhism going in this direction?
Sulak: In America and Europe, everyone is very active. But if you become too active, you lose the essence of Buddhism. You only have the Buddhist labels. This is true not only in the West; it’s the same in my country. Once you cultivate this attitude, it is easier to live with others. Sometimes others make you angry. Sometimes they oppress you personally. I have experienced that many times. One must cultivate peace to be compassionate. Without this, what you do, even as an “engaged Buddhist” is just a lot of activity with no good purpose.
Tricycle: As American Buddhists, what we see in twentieth-century Asia amounts to a Buddhist holocaust: Tibet, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Mongolia. As we try to integrate Buddhism and democracy in the United States, the Buddhist leadership in Asia generally offers no alternative to the political leadership in this country. In Asia we see Buddhists killing each other, oppressing each other, engaged in civil wars. We can say, well, Ne Win [the dictator of Burma] is not a “real” Buddhist and Pol Pot [of the Khmer Rouge] is not a “real” Buddhist, just like some Christians will say, “George Bush does not exemplify the true spirit of Christ.” But frankly, that’s not a very satisfying way to look at it.
Sulak: When you see the suffering in Asia, be skillful, be mindful, be patient, and things can change in a beautiful way because when people suffer that much, things become better.
Tricycle: Are the people responsible for your exile Buddhists?
Sulak: Yes, but you have to make the distinction between Buddhism with a capital “B” and buddhism with a small “b.” With Christianity, the same. Capital “C,” small “c.” The people responsible for my exile are Buddhists, and I try to work with them. I try to bring them to see the light of the small “b” Buddhism. This will help them to be more mindful, less deluded, less greedy. If you hate them, you yourself will become greedy, angry, and deluded. That’s why skillful means is very important, to put your mind right and to cultivate compassion.
Tricycle: Do you feel that Buddhist societies hold out hope for a more humanitarian politics than what we have known under Christian rule?
Sulak: Yes. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a perfect example. His people have been oppressed for over forty years and he has asked his people to develop compassion for the Chinese and not to be angry.
Tricycle: But while the Dalai Lama exemplifies the very best of his tradition, he cannot be said to typify his tradition.
Sulak: No, but his example must be cultivated. When we look at Tibet, it is not only the Tibetans who inspire us. It is the engaged Buddhists who have helped bring Tibet to the attention of the world community.
Tricycle: We have also witnessed some confusion between working for Tibetan nationhood and cultivating buddha mind. From reading your book, I would guess that you do not think that these two pursuits are identical or have the same value.
Sulak: No, I do not.
Tricycle: There is a story about one of the Buddhas before Shakyamuni Buddha: he was an oarsman responsible for ferrying 500 people across the river. And he could forsee that one man had plans to sink the boat and bring about the death of the other 499 passengers. And so with bodhisattva spirit, he murdered this one man and saved the rest.
Sulak: This story derives from a Mahayana text. I have respect for the Mahayana teachings, but this way of thinking is not in our tradition. And I certainly don’t want to influence people in my tradition to imitate that story. As Buddhists, we are taught to question everything. I would have to question this text.
Tricycle: Recently, an American Buddhist said to me, “I believe that, as an act of bodhisattva commitment, one should, if one had such an opportunity, kill Ne Win.”
Sulak: Then you’re back to the Christian concept of a just war. In Buddhism, a just war is not possible.
Tricycle: Have you ever considered the possibility of killing as an act of compassion, an act that would alleviate suffering for others?
Sulak: This is not possible within my upbringing and my tradition. I cannot justify any killing.
Tricycle: The Dalai Lama has written that when some of his own monks took up arms against the Chinese, that he did not encourage them, but neither could he condemn them. Do you have sympathy for these monks?
Sulak: I am in sympathy with the Tibetan lay people and I am in sympathy with the Singhalese, the Burmese, and the Thai lay people. But in our monastic Theravada traditions this is not possible. You would have to disrobe first. Otherwise, what does the sangha mean? The sangha means that the whole attitude [of the ordained] is radically different from the lay people. That is why, in our tradition, for the monks even to harm trees, to harm water, to harm the earth, is wrong. To take a life means expulsion from the monkhood. And if you do this and remain in robes, you are a false monk.
Tricycle: What is a good strategy for a situation like Tibet or Burma? In the United States, social activism has focused on AIDS, the environment, homelessness, and prisons. At this moment, the government is neither killing monks nor gunning down students in the streets.
Sulak: Perhaps there is not that much difference between the governments. In this country you do not kill your own people. But Mr. Bush encourages the Chinese to kill Tibetans, and indirectly he has involved the CIA with the killing of the Chinese students, and this is something that Americans should be aware of. You do not kill directly. You kill indirectly. Or you allow your tax money to be used to kill others. The way you operate internationally and economically allows people to be killed. To me, that is just as serious. In my country, we have twice as many prostitutes as we do monks. One Burmese opposition leader, a friend of mine, said to me, “Ne Win may have killed thousands of people, but his regime is less wicked than the Thai regime.” The Thai regime encourages people to sell their daughters into prostitution. They have no choice… they are so poor. The children have to become child laborers. The way the Thai government runs the country, there is a lot of indirect killing. In the West, when you see killing, then you become disturbed. But when you see a lot of people allowed to be killed, you do not feel so disturbed.
Tricycle: So what to do?
Sulak: First of all, you must change your mind. Many of us are from middle-class backgrounds, and have become cynical about the system. In America you think very badly of your presidents and very badly about the Senate and the Congress. This is not a healthy attitude.
Tricycle: And in Asia, there are societies where the majority of people have been practicing Buddhism for centuries, yet the nature of the collective social mind has not diminished intense suffering.
Sulak: This is where you have to analyze each society meaningfully. The Buddhists in China and Burma have suffered so much. The mistake they made was to compromise with the Confucians. This compromise was fatal for Buddhism in China. The Confucians say, “Why don’t you live for the next world and leave this world to us?” And most of East Asian Buddhism took part in that. The Japanese Buddhist clergy make a lot of money on funerals. But until the people die, they leave their lives in the hands of the Confucians who run the country. And what “Confucian” means here is that the big boss is the emperor. Everyone follows the big boss. And when you work, you serve the big boss. You do not upset the status quo.
Tricycle: And that compromise affected all of Asia?
Sulak: East Asia. In my country, we don’t have much Confucianism. But South East Asia compromised with feudalism. Now my country is the only one in the world with a Buddhist king. And we have never been colonized.
Tricycle: Is the king looked upon as an incarnate deity as we have seen in some Buddhist theocracies?
Sulak: No, the king is a secular man, but his institution supports the sangha and the sangha is the wheel of righteousness. The king represents the wheel of power and the two wheels support each other. We believed in that—until now. We don’t believe in that anymore. But of course, we are not allowed to speak openly. I spoke openly. That’s why I am in exile. But suffering must teach you to be mindful. And to find the cause of suffering. Why did our people suffer? Because they thought the sangha was wonderful and the king was wonderful and all that. They didn’t realize that the king is only a symbol used by the military to suppress the people. And the military doesn’t only repress the people but they work very closely with the superpowers. It used to be the British, later the Americans, and now the Chinese. And the Chinese are the worst of them all—oppressing the people, destroying the environment. This wheel of power has become dreadful and does not listen to the wheel of righteousness, which has degenerated into ceremonial use only. That’s why members of the sangha are now awake. They want to challenge the wheel of power. To me, that’s wonderful. And now the students are backing the sangha. Since we were not colonized, we adapted the Western administration in the colonies that surrounded us: the British system in India, the Dutch system in Indonesia, etc. This model is based on thinking, “The people are so stupid; only power and money are good.” This was alien to the whole Buddhist culture. Now, there is a resurgence of Buddhist culture.
Tricycle: Is there a model of a Buddhist culture whose priority is to serve the people?
Sulak: The Buddhist cultures, at least in Southeast Asia, have been a tremendous success at the village level. In my country, up until thirty years ago, you could not see the difference between the rich and the poor. Of course, there were rich people, but their lifestyle was similar to that of the poor. And their main motive was to improve the most beautiful place in the whole village—the temple. The temple was the center of learning, the center of intellectual pursuit, the center of spiritual pursuit, the center of all cultural activities. The environment was balanced, and people knew how to behave.
Tricycle: The resurgence that you speak of is at the village level and not in the institutionalized systems of Buddhism?
Sulak: That’s right. We imported cities from the West. Now Bangkok is the worst city. We didn’t use a Buddhist approach to developing our cities. We only used the technological expertise of the West.
Tricycle: And now?
Sulak: These days, we must learn from various sources. But if you understand your own tradition, you can bring what is the most essential from it to the modern world.
Tricycle: As American Buddhists—especially if we are of European descent—what traditions “of our own” can we turn to?
Sulak: I think that American Buddhists should learn from the original people of this country, the Indian people, who have really been destroyed.
Tricycle: Is this plausible for the Euro-Buddhist community?
Sulak: It’s not your tradition, but it’s the tradition of the land here. If you live on the land here you must learn the traditions of the land. And also, there are wonderful European traditions that have been killed in the last few hundred years such as Christian mysticism and the humility of the monks, and the love and charity of Christ. The idea in this tradition is very good: how to be humble, how to be mindful, and to face the suffering world in a meaningful way. But you from Europe must also depend on the Indian people here, some of whom are now working very closely with the Buddhists. Both believe in the trees, the land, the rivers.
Tricycle: When you left Siam, there was a warrant for your arrest and, according to the newspapers, a sense that your life was in jeopardy. Do you have plans to return?
Sulak: I’d like to go back, if I can. Yes.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.