Honoring 70 years of living and working for justice, peace, democracy and sustainable livelihoods. Sulak Sivaraksa, born 1933, is a prominent and outspoken Thai intellectual and social critic. He is a teacher, a scholar, a publisher, an activist, the founder of many organizations, and the author of more than a hundred books and monographs in both Thai and English.
Sulak’s life and times
Educated in England and Wales, Sulak returned to Siam in 1961 at the age of 28 and founded Sangkhomsaat Paritat (Social Science Review). This became Siam’s foremost intellectual magazine, dealing with numerous political and social issues during the time of the military dictatorship. Sulak’s work editing Sangkhomsaat Paritat led him to become interested in grassroots issues. He learned that truly to serve society, one must stay in touch with the poor people. Beginning in the late 1960s, he became involved in a number of service-oriented, rural development projects, in association with Buddhist monks and the student activist community.
During the 1970s and through his involvement with many religious and political organizations, Sulak began to develop indigenous, sustainable, and spiritual models for change. Since then he has expanded his work to the regional and international levels. He has co-founded the Asian Cultural Forum on Development and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (http://www.inebnetwork.org/en
In 1976, Thailand experienced its bloodiest coup. Hundreds of students were killed and thousands were jailed. The military burned the whole stock of Sulak’s bookshop and issued an order for his arrest. Although Sulak was forced to remain in exile for two years, he was able to continue his activist work in the West. He lectured at the University of California-Berkeley, Cornell University, the University of Toronto, and throughout Europe.
In 1984 he was arrested in Bangkok on charges of criticizing the King, but international protest led to his eventual release. In 1991 another warrant was issued for his arrest and Sulak was forced into political exile once more. He came back to fight the case in the court in 1992 and won in 1995. At the end of that year he was granted the Right Livelihood Award, also known as Alternative Nobel Prize (http://www.rightlivelihood.org
He sees Buddhism as 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 Thailand as well as outside it.
Much pioneer work has been accomplished, and the foundations for meaningful social change have been laid. Now the challenge is whether this spiritual, activist vision can be sustained and kept growing as a stronger and more influential movement in the medium- and long-term. As our visionary leader grows older, more and more responsibility falls on the younger leaders and NGOs he has so carefully nurtured over the last 30 years.
Sulak has given many who have contacted him, and read his words, a unique perspective on how to work for peaceful, sustainable social change using the principles and practices of Buddhism as a personal and political resource. He has demonstrated that the interior life of spiritual contemplation, and the exterior life of political action, need not be considered opposites or hostile to each other. On the contrary, he has shown that each may be used to illuminate and inform and encourage the other, and indeed that this is essential if either is to change for the better. In his own words:
We have more than enough programs, organizations, parties, and strategies in the world for the alleviation of suffering and injustice. In fact, we place too much faith in the power of action, especially political action. Social activism tends to preoccupy itself with the external. Like the secular intellectuals, activists tend to see all malevolence as being caused by “them” – the “system” – without understanding how these negative factors also operate within ourselves. They approach global problems with the mentality of social engineering, assuming that personal virtue will result from a radical restructuring of society.
The opposite view - that radical transformation of society requires personal and spiritual change first or at least simultaneously - has been accepted by Buddhists and many other religious adherents for more than 2,500 years. Those who want to change society must understand the inner dimensions of change. It is this sense of personal transformation that religion can provide. Simply performing the outer rituals of any tradition has little value if it is not accompanied by personal transformation. Religious values are those that give voice to our spiritual depth and humanity. There are many descriptions of the religious experience, but all come back to becoming less and less selfish.
As this transformation is achieved, we also acquire a greater moral responsibility. Spiritual considerations and social change cannot be separated. Forces in our social environment, such as consumerism, with its emphasis on craving and dissatisfaction, can hinder our spiritual development. People seeking to live spiritually must be concerned with their social and physical environment. To be truly religious is not to reject society but to work for social justice and change. Religion is at the heart of social change, and social change is the essence of religion.