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Buddhism Is More than Meditation: A Conversation with Sulak Sivaraksa

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Sulak Sivaraksa, Buddhist spiritual leader and international activist, is known for advocating social change and development based on an engaged Buddhism. Over the course of his long career, he has been arrested three times for his criticism of the Thai monarchy. Katherine Marshall sat down with him recently to discuss his own spiritual journey and his vision for Buddhism.

Can you speak a bit about how you got where you are, and particularly about how faith came into play in your life?

I was born in 1933 and was brought up as a Buddhist. My parents were not very spiritual. I was sent to a Catholic school, and I got my degree from the Anglican college. I didn't like the school. They used to treat me very badly, and they used to beat me because I didn't want to learn by rote. My parents said, "We have tried to bring you up in a Catholic and a Protestant school. Would you like to be a monk?" I said, "Yes, why not?"

So I became a monk at the age of 13. As a monk, they treat you as a grown up. It was the first time I was able to connect with and learn about my society and my culture, because the temple was open for everyone. I was very happy.

In 1953, I went to London to study. In our family background, which was middle-class and upper-class, being educated in Britain meant that you were educated properly, and that could help you get ahead. England was the place to be. While I was in England, I joined the Buddhist Society. Mr. Christmas Humphreys, founder of the Society, was a very great man.

But I did not agree with his approach. His view was that a Buddhist must concentrate on meditation, even when they are part of the society. He said that Christian men are wrong because they got involved in society and politics and lost their spirituality. To be Buddhist, he argued, you must concentrate on meditation. I felt that he was fundamentally wrong. Meditation is a good thing, but it does not mean only looking inwards. I realized that many Buddhists were from middle-class backgrounds. They didn't realize the suffering of the majority of our people. They didn't even question their own lifestyles. I think that is escapism, not Buddhism.

And what came next?

I returned from England to Siam in 1961. Probably because of my British education, I was very much influenced by Plato. In The Republic, he argued that we should all become philosopher kings, and that we should lead the poor. At first, when I went home to Siam, I thought the poor were so stupid and ignorant. But when I was exposed to them, I realized that I had much to learn from them and that they had much wisdom to share with me. Ever since my return to Siam, I have become more and more involved with the poor.

To make a long story short, I feel that to practice Buddhism, you must care not only for yourself but for society. To be Buddhist, you should not only adhere to the main teachings -- not killing, stealing, having sexual misconducts or lying -- but you also have to consciously distance yourself from the structures of violence that frame our lives. You may not kill directly, but you kill through the social structure. You don't steal directly, but you let the bank steal. So, I became more involved in addressing what you could term "structural violence."

Last year, you celebrated the 20th anniversary of the founding of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. What were some of the highlights?

A real highlight was to see and to build networks of friendships. In Buddhism, the main priority, externally, are good friends. Good friends are those who tell you what you don't want to hear. They are your external voice of conscience. I feel we have done that for 20 years.

We have also worked to develop an important side of Buddhism. Some Buddhists, for example, the Japanese, are wonderful with funerals and with thinking of the next world, but they have no care for the present world. Now they care more for the present world, and I am happy for that. The Taiwanese Buddhists have begun to help the poor in Bangladesh and Cambodia. I say that's good but not good enough. To help the poor is social welfare, but Buddhism demands social change. I think the Taiwanese are doing that, and I am very proud that the anniversary sees us with good friends who are challenging each other in good spirit, while we are changing.

When you look at the Buddhist establishments in Thailand, and the monks and the structures, how much of that would you say is engaged and how much of it is in a more traditional role?

The Thai monks, as a whole, cannot be completely traditional. We have been uprooted, if I may say so, because of the American hegemony. The Americans came in during the 1950s to save us from communism. They felt that Buddhism was not good because it does not teach about God, but teaches about contentment. They thought that Buddhism was all negative. I said: no sir. No to hatred, no to greed.

They came to our country with good intentions. But they wanted us to become industrialized and destroyed our whole agricultural system. Traditional Buddhism depends on farming, which was destroyed. Now, there is a new group of monks who go along with and rely on capitalism and consumerism.

Having said that, there are also some young monks who feel they must go back to the traditional Buddha. They try to understand suffering, and to see greed in the form of capitalism. They try to understand violence, hatred, ignorance and illusion in the forms of mass media and industry. There are more and more young people who are very helpful and work with us in Laos, Cambodia, Burma, India and Sri Lanka.

But they are a minority?

Yes. But, small is beautiful. And I believe that quality is more important than quantity.

What about interfaith work?

Friendship has no barriers, whether gender, nationality or faiths. Friends are friends. The Christian, the Muslim, or the atheist -- they are friends. Friends must not belittle each other's beliefs. My teacher taught that, to understand the basis of Buddhism, you have to know that there are a lot of dreadful things in Buddhism, also. He taught that Buddhism is how to learn how to change greed into generosity, hatred into compassion and friendship, delusion into wisdom and understanding. He said that other religions are the same but use different terms. They teach people to be selfless, not selfish. They teach to be brave, humble and generous. Don't think that other religions are inferior to your own. Respect other religions as your own. Buddhadasa, my teacher, taught me that we must unite people of different faiths -- whether agnostic or atheist -- because they are also spiritual beings.

An extended interview with Sulak Sivaraksa can be found here.

This interview is third in a series of conversations with activists working for development and peace who draw their inspiration and direction from their faith. The series is based on interviews led by Katherine Marshall, as part of policy explorations for the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

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