08/08/2011 01:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Niwano Peace Prize Goes to Sulak Sivaraksa

Loving kindness, compassion, and above all self-awareness: Thai Buddhist leader Sulak Sivaraksa always returns to those themes when he speaks. But there's a steely determination behind his gentle facade and admonitions to pay attention to one's breathing as a first step to self mastery. Sulak accepted the Niwano Peace Prize in Kyoto, Japan, on July 23 in a ceremony that highlighted his life's work, marked over many decades by the courage, determination, imagination, and the inspiration that are the anchors of his Buddhist faith. It was a splendid occasion to celebrate a special leader.

The Niwano Peace Prize has been awarded annually for 28 years, to a leader or organization whose work for peace draws on a religious or spiritual inspiration and a commitment to interfaith action. Established by the Niwano family which leads the lay Buddhist organization, Rissho Kosei-Kai, the winner is selected by an international committee (I am currently the chair). Rather little known in the United States, the Niwano laureates are an impressive group and the aspiration is that this prize be a spiritual equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sulak Sivaraksa was selected as the 2011 winner because his life of dedication to peace and justice exemplifies the principles of the Niwano Peace Prize. He uses a wide range of tools -- insights, personal example, and raw persistence -- to change the views of political leaders, scholars, and young people, in Thailand, Asia, and the world. He encourages a new understanding of peace, democracy, and development, challenging accepted approaches that fail to give priority to poor citizens, men and women alike. He gives new life to ancient Buddhist teachings about nonviolence.

2011-08-08-Sulak.jpgSulak Sivaraksa was born in 1933 in Siam (as he prefers to call his country), to a family of Chinese ancestry. Educated in Thailand, England, and Wales, in law and other disciplines. He returned to Bangkok in 1961. He uses his intellectual gifts to propel the concept and movement of Engaged Buddhism. He is a true teacher and has nurtured and supported younger leaders over the years. Many today are leaders of a wide range of organizations. He is also a scholar, publisher, and founder of many organizations, with more than a hundred books and monographs, in Thai and English. He promotes a spiritual education movement grounded in traditional culture and values.

What marks Sulak in the many encounters I have had with him is the way he speaks truth to those in power, even though those truths are couched in often gentle ways. To serve society truly, Sulak contends, one must stay in touch with poor people and the grass roots and engage in politics. Working to bring about change has embroiled him in many controversial issues and many stints in jail. He approaches advocacy with a combination of knowledge, courage, and absolute commitment to nonviolence. He is widely credited with having mobilized Thai civil society, creating many social welfare and development organizations. All embody two central themes of his work: rejection of development fueled by consumerism, and pursuit of development rooted in indigenous culture and socially-engaged religious traditions and beliefs. His organizations reflect an indigenous, sustainable, and spiritual model for change. Today, these organizations are active far beyond Thailand.

Sulak is among the most intelligent advocates for the environment. He speaks forcefully against environmental destruction, promoting environmental preservation and environmental justice. Sekhiyadhamma (Students of the Dhamma), a network of Buddhist monks, works in their communities to preserve local environments, principally forests that are so essential to village economies. Characteristic of Sulak's approach, the work combines education, teaching villagers better ways to conserve natural resources, and political action to protect local social, cultural, and natural environments from the encroachment of commercial, industrial, and urban development. Sulak's environmental ethic is grounded in a holistic understanding of the Buddhist principle of interdependence and a deep respect for nature. Knowledge of inter-becoming (a term he borrows from Thich Nhat Hanh), is achieved by developing mindful awareness. In contrast to more reflective and contemplative styles, he aggressively fights in the trenches for the cause of human and environmental justice.

Buddhist principles are thus a personal and political resource and Sulak's life shows that the interior life of spiritual contemplation, and the exterior life of political action, need not be opposites or hostile to each other. On the contrary each can illuminate and inform and encourage the other.

Sulak extends the Buddhist Five Precepts into ethical guidelines that can forge a more sustainable, compassionate, and just global society. To refrain from killing today means an end to all modern forms of violence. To refrain from stealing is a call for global economic justice. Not engaging in sexual misconduct calls us to examine all systems of male dominance which exploit women. Prohibiting false speech is a call for honesty at the international level. Avoiding intoxication is a call for global responsibility for drug and alcohol use and an examination of its causes. In Sulak's Buddhist vision of society, the individual is understood as a starting point for change: through individual spiritual growth, social justice is eventually achieved.

Sulak is a leading voice in global inter-religious dialogue and engagement, an acknowledged global leader for peace. Interdependence is an essential, living concept. His voice of reason and ethics highlights the tangible issues that touch on human dignity. He was one of the early leaders who brought the ethical challenges of caring for the environment into global discourse.

For Sulak, Buddhism is a questioning process: question everything, including oneself, look deeply, and then act from that insight. He is among a handful of leaders world-wide working to revive the socially engaged aspects of spirituality. Whatever he does, however he does it, at the core of his work is a mission to build a new leadership for change at all levels, within his country and beyond.

Sulak's speech at Kyoto was characteristically laced with wisdom and advice, emotional and balanced, nuanced yet urgent. He highlighted the extraordinary example of Japan's courageous people, as they rally in the face of the March earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. The experience offers a compelling vision of the risks we face today, and it calls us above all to listen to each other. Sulak's constant message is that consumer driven models are profoundly flawed and the inequality that goes with it is something we must abhor and fight. He urged us all to act -- to protect the planet, to fight inequities, and to learn to enjoy the beauties of the world with moderation -- before it is too late.