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Don’t treat Gandhi, Buddha as Idols, imbibe their teachings
Sulak Sivaraksa
(The Times of India, September 1, 2000, p. 11)

Sulak Sivaraksa, a major proponent of 'socially engaged Buddhism' from Thailand, is currently at the Millennium World Peace Summit in New York. As prominent activist, he has, in the last30 years, combined provocative intellectual as well as grassroots work, established a number of NGOs and authored over 60 publications. Persecuted by various Thai dictatorships and forced into exile, he was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and 1994, and won the Right Livelihood Award (the alternative Nobel Prize) in 1994. He spoke to Meenakshi Shedde in Mumbai en route to the New York summit. Excerpts from the interview:

Q: Do you feel the major world religions need to reinvent themselves in order to be more effective in these troubled times?

A: Certainly. Every religion must go back to its original teachings and make itself more relevant today. For instance, I belong to a school of 'socially engaged Buddhism' as preached by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. A lot of Buddhism in the West encourages its followers to meditate, be at peace with the Self; withdraw from society. But according to Thich Nhat Hanh, if you are not engaged in society, you are not practising Buddhism, but escapism. Our Buddhism works not only for the self; but for all sentient beings. So you can be peaceful inside, but work for social justice and the environment, all non-violently.


Q: Why does Buddhism continue to be much more alive outside India, instead of where it originated?

A: The Hindus tried to erase Buddhist culture from this nation, even as they claim that Buddha is an incarnation of Vishnu. The strength of Buddhism is equality of all, including men and women, which is something caste Hindus cannot accept.

In India, I see two strands of Buddhism, the Ambedkarite neo- Buddhists and the Tibetan Buddhists. The neo-Buddhists seem very agitated, mainly rebelling against Hindu caste hierarchy. The majority does not understand much of Buddhism, but I have a lot of hope for them. The same is true of Thai Buddhists as well. Buddhism is about understanding yourself, your anger, greed delusion and how they can be overcome. It is a very practical religion. It is not about hating the enemy outside, but conquering the enemy within. There are many oppressed people in this country, and Buddhism focuses on non-violent ways of removing the causes of suffering.

The second strand of Buddhists is Tibetans in exile. The Dalai Lama and other Tibetan spiritual leaders have influenced many Indians.


Q: Where do you see a meeting ground for Hinduism and Buddhism?

A: Hinduism and Buddhism have in common, and Hinduism has incorporated much of Buddhism into its philosophy. There are initiatives like the Arya Samaj and the teachings of Vivekananada, which try to make Hinduism more viable. Swami Agnivesh, for instance, who has an Arya Samaj Background, not only does Vipassana meditation, but is socially engaged- he has been involved with issues relating to bounded labour, child labour and women. The Gandhi, who believed in non-violence, is a key link between the two religions. If only India could learn the essence of the teaching of Gandhi out of India, he is more alive in Thailand, the UK and the US, where the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) is active. In stead of meditating, our followers have laid down on the tracks of stop American trains from carrying arms to Nicagagua. One of them lost a leg, but he was not angry, he felt he had only lost a leg, whereas people in Nicaragua were losing their lives.


Q: What can be done to sensitise people and governments to the importance of compassion?

A: Modern education and the mass media promote greed, hate and delusion. But education must link the heart and head and empower people. Enlightenment, as understood in the West, teaches you to be clever, not good. What is more important is the enlightenment of the heart. Buddhism teaches you to be mindful of fore eating it. Realise the environmental consequences of killing fish on a mass scale. Realise how rainforests are being cut down to grow fodder for mass-produced meat. You don’t even have to be Buddhist for this.


Q: What grassroots changes have you observed over the years?

A: The middle class, which only cared about money and social climbing, is beginning to be concerned about the poor and the environmental. The poor and middle class are jointly involved in many movements in Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere.


Q: Yet, why are there great disparities in the way Buddhism is practised in Asia?

A: I make a distinction between Buddhism with a capital ‘B’ and buddhism with a small ‘b’. Sri Lanka has the former, in which the state uses Buddhism as an instrument of power, so there are even Buddhists monks who say the Tamils should be eliminated. Thai Buddhists are not perfect either. Some Thai Buddhist monks have compromised with the king and possess cars and other luxuries. In many Buddhist countries, the emphasis is on buddhism with a small ‘b’ which is non-violent, practical and aims to covered in gold. I think Buddha would be embarrassed to be up there. It’s a good thing Gandhi is not in gold yet.


Q: Why were you forced into exile?

A: I speak the truth to those in power. We have had many coups d’etat and the governments have not always been for the people. I have been accused of lese majeste, defaming the king, because the king is seen more or less a God, which he is not. In Buddhism, the king is only first among equals. I was charged three times and sentenced to jail for 15 years, but except for relatively short periods in jail, I have been out on bail or in exile.


Updated: 24-9-2000

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