The Dalai Lama sent a letter to Sulak Sivaraksa last week to wish him a happy 80th birthday.
I remember our initial meeting during my first visit to Thailand more than 40 years ago when we were both younger men. Our paths have crossed many times since then. I continue to admire your work you have done to draw attention to the problems facing humanity and the courage with which you have offered suggestions for solving them…. I also appreciate the determination with which you have shown Buddhist teachings and practice to be relevant in the world today.
Relevance in the world today—this, above all else, has defined Sulak’s work for over half a century. While many Buddhist leaders understand this relevance in terms of integrating the Buddha’s teachings into day-to-day life, Sulak’s concern is how we might use the Buddha’s teachings to alleviate poverty, stem environmental devastation, and stop human rights abuses. For nearly half a century, this Siamese social philosopher, writer, and Buddhist activist has worked to solve these and other pressing dilemmas. He has traveled the world lecturing and publishing, mentored at home and abroad, participated in groundbreaking interreligious dialogues, and founded many organizations; one is the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, which has as its patrons the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, and the late Maha Gosananda. Sulak’s work is based largely upon a reinterpretation of the five Buddhist precepts and the Eightfold Path as not merely philosophical speculation, but as a blueprint for individuals and societies in the 21st century to cultivate more compassion, tolerance, and wisdom.
Sulak is not advocating a new understanding of Buddhism but rather an application of the Buddha’s teachings to modern socioeconomic and political dilemmas. To understand the teaching of the Buddha apart from its social dimension, Sulak will often say, is mistaken. He stresses the need for every individual to establish a strong foundation through the cultivation of mindfulness and awareness, but he does not let his students abide there for long. With an appreciation for interconnectedness born through meditative insight, Sulak wants spiritual practitioners to not only uproot their own suffering, but to realize how they may be participating in structures that perpetuate greed, anger, and ignorance within society. As much as it is the responsibility of the spiritual seeker to gain insight into his or her own path, it is also that person’s duty to dismantle structures of violence and suffering around them. Progress along one’s spiritual path and social reform, in Sulak’s vision, are inextricably linked.
Sulak’s finger-wagging denunciations are not reserved for those people and governments advancing political and economic systems that perpetuate poverty, inequality, oppression, and violence. Sulak has also exposed the hypocrisy of Buddhist sanghas, groups, and organizations that waste time and precious resources on empty ritual, pompous ceremony, and indulging in materialism. And rarely does Sulak speak to Western dharma practitioners without giving the gentle reminder not to abuse retreat as escapism when there is social reform needed outside the meditation hut.
The razor-sharp critiques that Sulak makes use of in his over one hundred books in Thai and English and his firebrand speeches around the globe are a fundamental part of his Buddhist practice. Far from seeing such censure as ego-driven, Sulak feels he is being a true spiritual friend, kalyanamitta, to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. According to Sulak, critique and debate is one of the most expedient means to progress along the spiritual path, and using such methods to expose flaws and deviations from the path allows for their correction.
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