Sethu Das | November 2017
“You Cannot Teach History, If All Kings Have To Be Good”: Sulak Sivaraksa
THE 84-year old Sulak Sivaraksa, a former monk turned socially-engaged Buddhist social activist and economist from Thailand has reinterpreted almost everything — from classic Buddhist precepts to modern-day education. Affectionately called ‘Ajarn’ or ‘teacher’ by the Thai people, Sulak does not mind being an outspoken critic of the Thai monarchic system.
He pays utmost attention to the actions of some the most powerful political and spiritual leaders in the world, he is usually surrounded with. He had no remorse criticising the Dalai Lama of Tibet when he saw a photograph of him holding a can of Coca-Cola and reminding him about the human and environmental suffering indirectly caused by the US multi-national giant. He had no regret questioning Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist for restricting his Buddhist talks to the rich and elite of France. He does not mind correcting and criticising Burmese Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi when she makes political blunders. This was possible for Sulak Sivaraksa simply because of his firm conviction and practice of Kalyanamitta, the Buddhist concept of intimate friendship, and relationship with true and trustworthy friends.
One reason that makes Sulak Sivaraksa a unique figure in the Kingdom of Thailand would certainly be his continued defiance against the military regime and the centuries-old monarchy. Often called a ‘rat’ and a ‘criminal’ by the establishment, Sulak was even put behind bars four times, for ‘defaming’ the Thai monarchy. His writings and critical speeches made him go into exile twice — in 1976 and 1991. Twice nominated for the Noble Peace Prize, Sulak is the recipient of 1995 Right Livelihood Award “for his vision, activism and spiritual commitment in the quest for a development process that is rooted in democracy, justice and cultural integrity.”
Having said this, it is necessary for us to know his ‘elite’ background to understand his views and life wholly. Sulak’s activism and social and political engagement are shaped up by his own experiences and learning from the rural people of Thailand. Thanks to Sithiporn Kridakara (1883–1971), Thailand’s ‘Farmer Prince’ who expressed a critical view of Sulak’s ‘elitist’ thoughts expressed through Social Science Review, a journal he founded and edited since 1963. In a ‘historic’ meeting, he was warned by the ‘Farmer Prince’: “Sulak, Thailand needs an intellectual magazine, not an intellectual masturbation.” The ‘profound’ statement by Prince Sithiporn Kridakara changed Sulak’s approach to life forever. From being someone who was once known for his elitist views and strongly supportive statements on Thai monarchic system to one of the most outspoken leaders of modern Thai society, Sulak Sivaraksa has come a long way.
Excerpts from my recent conversation with Sulak Sivaraksa at his iconic wooden house in Thailand:
Sethu Das (SD): You believe that wisdom is in the forest and diversity of the Forest. Could you please elaborate on the four elements of growth?
Sulak Sivaraksa (SS): Yes, the wisdom is in the forest because of its harmony and diversity. By learning from the forest and nature, we grow in the right direction. It’s time we start loving and obeying nature and trees without causing any damage. Buddha believed that human beings can’t survive and grow without trees. For trees to grow, they need four elements — good seeds, ability to adapt to the soil, truthfulness and patience.
Similarly with the growth of human beings. Number one is Physical Growth. In the West, it is too strong in the body. According to Buddhism, it has to be a Harmonious Growth. Second is Intellectual Growth. Third is Social Growth, which means one must not exploit each other. Ultimately — Spiritual Growth — to get rid of egoistic tendencies to serve all the sentient beings. These are based on the basic teachings of the Buddha.
SD: We live in a hypocritical world, untouched by truthfulness. How do you look at the ceremonial Buddhist countries, moved away from the true essence of Buddhism?
SS: Once the teachings of Buddha become institutionalised, it would rather become corrupt. Even Tibetan Buddhism has got corrupted. The more powerful they get, the more corrupt they become. Buddhism in this country (Thailand) goes along very well with capitalism or chauvinism, also mixed with feudalism and corruption. Never mind, there are also seeds of good things, because of which Buddha started Sangha which constituted of four members and a maximum of 20 members. Because the Sangha survived everywhere, the teachings of the Buddha also survived. Now the institutionalisation of Buddhism brings corruption, which is very visible in this country. We have so many temples, so many Buddha images, all across the country — not representing true teachings of the Buddha.
SD: In one of my bus journeys in India, I happened to overhear a conversation between an ordinary Indian and a young British who was boasting about developments in the West. The conversation ends when the Indian asks “How can young people like you live under the monarchy in this modern century?” I believe this is relevant to the Kingdom of Thailand as well. What are your views on the Monarchy in the Kingdom?
SS: If the monarchy represents a man, it is, but not if it is considered divine. This is very important. This is where Buddhism is different from Hinduism. We do not believe in Dev-raja, we call the king Sammuti-deva. We elect him to be number one among equals in a modern setting. He has to be under the constitution. He has to be under the law always. Then to have a monarchy is okay according to me. Otherwise, it is irrelevant.
HM Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the former King of Bhutan said this very clearly — “The sovereignty, stability and well-being of the country must be placed above everything else. The country is more important than the king. If one man rules a country because of his blood, unless he is set for the majority, he is irrelevant.” He was a wise King. The very same King started the concept of Gross National Happiness which is more important than the GDP of a country. Today, the Bhutanese King can be impeached under the Constitution by the Parliament.
Sethu Das, author with Sulak Sivaraksa at his iconic wooden house in Thailand. (Photo: Pracha Hutanuwatra)
SD: You’ve been a critic of Western Civilisation. Don’t you think resisting western ways of thinking and western ways of living are major challenges the modern-day Buddhist communities, especially the Thai society is facing in our modern times?
SS: Western way of thinking depends very much on the Cartesian Concept. In Cogito, Ergo Sum, or “I think, Therefore I am” where the ways are entirely depended on thinking, plus the Newtonian concept where everything has to be proved scientifically, logically and methodologically. This has its own strengths and weaknesses because the more you think, the cleverer you become. But you cannot become good. Or so strong by overexploiting the weak. Cogito, Ergo Sum was competing against one to overcome the other. Today the Western civilisation has come to an end because now they want to conquer the whole nature. But in the Buddhist concept, the most important element is not thinking but breathing. In the west, they do not teach you how to breathe. In India obviously, you have yoga and other techniques of breathing. In Buddhism, the most important element is the Anapanasati or Mindfulness with Breathing. You must learn how to use breathing to be mindful to bring in peace inside and you can use breathing to restructure your consciousness. You can change greed into generosity. You can change ignorance into wisdom through breathing. You can even change violence into love and kindness. Breathing can antagonise ageing. You can tackle greed, hatred and delusion. Buddha became Buddha — from an ordinary man to an enlightened one through breathing till he realised that ego is not essential anymore. I give so much importance to breathing every day because we breathe 24 hours a day, seven days a week, non-stop! If we take care of breathing we can bring fundamental and powerful changes in us.
SD: According to Lèse-majesté, of the Thai Criminal Code Section 112, anyone who defames or insults the Monarchy shall be punished with imprisonment for 3-15 years. Hundreds of people were punished and you are also charged three times — in 1984, 1991 and in 2009 with the Lèse-majesté which exists since 1908. Do you think the time has come for Thailand to be truly democratic and open society by getting rid of or at least reviewing a 100-year old system?
SS: I have to go to the police station on 28th of this month. This is the latest one. I am supposed to have defamed the king who lived 500 years ago! All I said was this king was not all that great (Laughs). I made a public statement and somebody charged me for that statement.
Never mind, there is no rule of law in Thailand. The Criminal Court Article 112 protects the present king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent. But this law is now changed — to protect any king of Thailand. One person went to jail for defaming King Rama IV — also known as King Mongkut, great-grandfather of the present king, where the law protects only the present king. He is in jail for criticising the king who ruled 150 years ago where my remarks were on a king who lived 500 years ago. Their attempts are to make the monarchy sacred. In that case, you cannot even teach history. All kings have to be good and this is what I am challenging.
SD: But you are used to it!
SS: Yes, that’s right. Although this country is ruled by a dictatorial regime, the dictators are secondary people. They have no moral courage. They don't want to change anything. King Bhumibol Adulyadej died on 13th October 2016 and we have a new king today. So, all those who have been charged by the Criminal Court Article 112 should have been freed by now, because the king is dead. But the prison sentence is still going on. The new king does not seem to be having a liberal mind. Anyhow, we will have to go through. Indeed, Lèse-majesté should be reviewed or abolished. I have made many strong statements about this — even in the parliament.
SD: The Kingdom of Thailand has witnessed several attempted and successful military coups in the past. In a recently published data by the Washington Post, 30 countries with the highest risk of a military coup attempt, Thailand has the second position after Burundi in East Africa.
SS: Wonderful! (Laughs)
SD: So, what makes Thailand, one of the developed countries to fall into this list of 30 countries to retain the second position?
SS: I don’t know what you mean by a developed country! Burma was under the dictatorial regime, even now Burma is overly democratic but the military still controls. These countries — Burma, Indonesia and Pakistan have military power behind the scenes. To have a rule where might is right is easier than the right is might.
Unless people are aware of their rights in this country, where throughout their education people are told how to obey. Right now on my Facebook, I am supporting students of Faculty of Engineering, Chulalongkorn University who refused to wear a uniform. I support them. A lot of people supported me on the uniform issue though many opposed. This is understandable. Some people say students should wear a uniform and should obey the law. And I tell them a university is not a military college where students are taught how to obey. But in university students learn how to think and debate to become what you truly are. Unfortunately, most universities run like a military school. We have a coup d’état leader who invites vice-chancellors of all universities, and most of them go there to obey the dictator. What a shame!
SD: Censorships and regulations are not only imposed by the state, but also by religious bodies. Venerable Dhammananda, Thailand’s first Bikshuni is addressing a press conference today at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, challenging the ban on female ordination as imposed by the Sangha Council of Thailand. They are even prevented from paying respect to the late King of Thailand. What is your view on the Dhamma Vinaya Code? Don’t you think this code too should undergo changes?
SS: I am with her. And I support her. The good thing is that the Sangha Council and the government are so weak! That’s why Dhammananda existed for almost ten years. Legally, as per her passport, she is “Mrs Chatsumarn Kabilsingh”. But they did not recognise her ordination. But why does she need State recognition? When Buddha was there nobody recognised him. So I advised her to be more patient. More people recognise her is better for her. There is no need for the state to recognise her.
SD: Thailand literally means “The Land of the Free”.
SS: That’s what they claim. I don’t agree with that translation. It also means we were slaves before! (Laughs)
SD: The Thai military regime has cracked down relentlessly on academicians, students, journalists, activists, and even politicians. Dissidents are even made to sign pledges that allow financial penalties if taken part in political activities in the country. How free is Thailand according to you?
SS: How can you be free in a dictatorship? A gathering of more than five people is against the law. But the good thing is that the military is not all that active. They are mediocre people and we don’t have so much of secret police around. It is also because we are used to dictatorships for a long time. The military regime selects victims. Recently, one young student at Khon Kaen University of just said what BBC said about the new king. And he was punished very badly — for sharing the BBC profile of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn on his Facebook account. They did not act on BBC, but came down on this young man, severely. I went to see him at the Khon Kaen University I even went to see him in the jail. He was not even allowed to express himself. They choose certain cases to show that they are in control and you need to obey.
Anyway, your country has no surveillance as of now, but that would come soon.
SD: It is quite strange that in Thailand, it is a ‘crime’ not only criticising the king but even the Royal Dog!
SS: That’s right!
SD: Probably you are one of the prominent people in the country to oppose the appointment of the new Supreme Patriarch by the King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Looking at the latest political and religious developments, do you think Thailand is heading towards tighter control or even a possible military coup in 2017?
SS: I did not oppose. I opposed the Acting Supreme Patriarch who would automatically become the Supreme Patriarch. I objected him for assuming that title. I think they have almost agreed with me and changed the law now. So the new Supreme Patriarch is a new candidate. Under our constitution, the king only signs the proclamations. Technically the proclamations are supposed to be submitted by the Prime Minister. Apparently, the Prime Minister said that the king selected himself. The prime minister has no right to say that. By saying so, we are acknowledging that we are under the absolute monarchy. In theory, the king should only sign, but the appointment should be made by the Prime Minister. But this Prime Minister does not want to take any responsibility. He put the responsibility on the king and the king loves to say — “Yes, I decided”. This is entirely a farce.
Yes, a military coup is possible among themselves, if they are dissatisfied with Prayut (Chan-o-cha) and if he stays in power for too long, then somebody in the army may chuck him out. This is possible.
SD: Is it possible for any nation to open its economy while keeping the society closed? China does that – by trying to open its economy while keeping the society closed and suppressed – with people in Tibet, East Turkestan and its own people within China.
SS: I cannot say that for every country. But the tendencies are same; though Burma is opening up as a country but still very careful. They are afraid of democracy and free speeches — something most dictators are afraid of — including Aung San Suu Kyi. She likes to be a free speaker but she is in line with the military. The Chinese too love the western economic model. China has a closed society. Another example is Singapore which is a rich, but very dictatorial country. Thailand is very mild compared to Singapore or China. Of course, we are under Chinese hegemony. We don’t even allow His Holiness the Dalai Lama to come here. Chinese do not allow me to go to China anymore. I am the only one!
SD: But that is recognition too!
SS: Yes, it is.
SD: It was a great opportunity lost for Burma and for Aung San Suu Kyi to speak up. Instead, she remained silent on some of the most serious issues. Even the persecution of Rohingya Muslims she remained silent. I remember His Holiness the Dalai Lama making a statement asking her to speak out openly. You had a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, right?
SS: That’s right. I feel sad for her. I had a long meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. She said “yes” to everything I proposed but never carried out anything. My first proposal to her was she must be surrounded by young people who challenge her. Like a Kalyanamitta in the Buddhist sense — you must listen to those who challenge you. But she never allowed that.
Secondly, I told her that her country is now opening and I have brought the top Thai entrepreneurs who care for social venture networks who not just want to make profits only but who care for the land, labour movement etc. I told her if you are interested, come and stay here for a week to meet them. And invite such people to invest in Burma. Otherwise big multinational companies might come and exploit the land. She said “yes” to everything but never did anything. That’s sad!
SD: In fact, I was quite surprised, soon after Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma in 2011, I jokingly told someone that now Coca-Cola and Pepsi would return. Within one year both multi-national brands started setting up their plants in Burma after a long ban of 60 years!
SS: I feel sad for Burma and for Aung San Suu Kyi!
SD: You’ve been a long-time friend of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. How optimistic are you about a free and independent Tibet?
SS: I am as optimistic as when the communist party in China realised that they have to be more responsible towards its people. I am happy that the Chinese are now questioning the Communist Party more and more as never before. You must understand that Chinese were Taoists and Buddhists for almost 2000 years. Many Chinese people are now coming back to Buddhism, not as escapists but as socially-engaged Buddhists. Once they come back to their roots, more liberated and if they are willing to challenge the party more, then Tibet will become free. Because Tibet is linked with Mainland. The Chinese may not treat Tibet especially for the sake of Tibetan people as long as they can technically and socially exploit them. But if the Chinese in the Mainland become more democratic and care more about social justice, there is a chance for Tibet to be free — within my lifetime and lifetime of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. That may be too optimistic!
SD: Once His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that “he shares a conviction with you in creating a happier and peaceful world”. How realistic is the idea of a peaceful world in our troubled times?
SS: It is possible. Because most people now realise that mainstream economics has come to an end. Davos is a sham. Even those who received Nobel Prize for Economics realise that. They are now looking forward to alternative economics. They are attached to mainstream but now they realise that mainstream is not an answer. And you may note that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Buddhist Economist EF Schumacher’s book ‘Small is Beautiful’ and I hope we can make his teachings elementary and have an alternative to mainstream economics. And that subsequent textbook could be subscribed by all. I think we need to provide a better answer.
I am reading at the Temenos Academy of Integral Studies founded by Charles, Prince of Wales. He cares very much for spirituality, Buddhism, Islam and so on. We need something like that. What we need is something spiritual. It may come sooner than we think. Even in the West, people are now realising that learning how to breathe properly is more important. People are now seeking something spiritual beyond economic and political successes. I hope the wisdom of the people will help them to prevail. Otherwise, everything is going to come to an end.
In India you have a chant in which you talk about taking care of animals, trees and so on and if we can tell this to the new generation that would be meaningful. Gandhi is very relevant today; he was very much against hard-core technology, instead, he gave emphasis on self-sustainability. We have to bring him back appropriately, not by making him a god or something like that sort.
SD: Do you have a message to the world — especially to the younger generation?
SS: BR Ambedkar says — the Sangha started by the Buddha was the first democracy in the world. The terms — liberty, fraternity, equality came much later because the French Revolution used violence. The Sangha was founded by the Buddha for equality. You may be the son of a king but once you join the Sangha we are all equal. In the front, you have the fraternity and the idea of Sangha is liberation from greed, hate and delusion. If we apply Sangha for the modern world that would be appropriate.
Two years ago I was invited to France as a key-note speaker by Sogyal Rinpoche, the man who wrote the ‘Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying’. There was one French woman who got interested in my talk who later invited me to speak to the young leaders of France. And this year they invited me to speak to the young leaders in Austria. And my message to the young leaders is simple — you must be Kalyanamitta — open to suffering. Dukkha is not only personal but social and environmental. If you see social suffering and if you want to identify yourself with it, use Four Noble Truths — suffering and the cause of suffering. Capitalism, all forms of governments, mass media and modern education have only created illusion and hatred. That’s my simple message.
I have a young friend, who refused to salute the flag; who refused to wear a uniform; who refused to be dropped into the army; yet he is now first in the university and he was elected as the representative of the class! He even contacted a member of parliament from Hong Kong whom Chinese government hated and this young friend invited him to come to Thailand. Due to Chinese pressure, the parliamentarian was not allowed to come here. We have a lot of young people like him here in Thailand. The only good thing about me is that I listen to all these young people and I work with them. Of course, the younger generation doesn’t want to be dictated, they do not want to be told. But I still have hope in the younger generation — even in Thailand.
SD: Do you still use your famous walking stick?
SS: Yes, it is very much here! Particularly this stick which I pushed against a gas pipeline. Anyway, thank you for visiting me! It was wonderful to see you after a long time!
While completing this story, the news about Sulak Sivaraksa facing 15 years in prison for ‘doubting’ whether King Naraesuan (Reign: 1590–1605) had really won the Elephant Battle of Nong Sarai in 1593 by defeating a Burmese prince emerges.
(Photos: Pracha Hutanuwatra | Editing: Dr Aparna Rao)