Buddhist Social Activist Focusing on Interfaith Work to Promote Global Change
Those who want to change society must understand the inner dimensions of change. It is this sense of personal transformation that religion can provide.
Questioning. That word helps to define the life of Sulak Sivaraksa. He views his Buddhism as a questioning process. Question everything, he says, including oneself. We must look deeply into ourselves, then act from that insight. For Sulak, deep spirituality can ignite social engagement for transformative change.
Background & Early Activism
Born in 1933 in Thailand, Sulak began his social work by editing Social Science Review magazine and seeking sustainable development models for rapid social and economic change. His work with Buddhist monks and student activists led to the founding of many organizations including the Coordinating Group for Religion and Society and the Thai Inter-Religious Commission for Development (TICD). He co-founded the International Network of Engaged Buddhists with other Buddhist activists such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.
Challenging Thai Power Structures
In 1976, a bloody military coup in which hundreds of students were killed forced Sulak into exile for two years. After returning to Thailand he was arrested in 1984 for criticizing the king, but international protests prompted the government to release him. When, in 1991, he challenged the repression of democracy in Thailand he was once again forced into exile until the courts, in 1995, established his innocence of any crime.
Peace and Interfaith Work
Sulak’s Thai Inter-Religious Commission for Development has involved Buddhist monks and nuns in issues of ethics, community development, ecology and various social, political and economic issues. Based upon Buddhist principles of community building and social change, TICD has promoted religious dialogues among Buddhists, Muslims and Christians in Thailand on topics including peace and nonviolence. In the southern provinces of Thailand where Buddhist-Muslim violence has been severe, TICD has promoted dialogue as well as advocated for Muslim and Christian concerns. In 2007, Sulak spoke against proposed constitutional changes that would make Buddhism the national religion of Thailand, knowing such a move would deepen the conflicts with the Muslim community. TICD also expanded the interreligious dialogues with neighbors in Malaysia and Indonesia.
In 1995, Sulak founded the Spirit in Education Movement (SEM), an alternative university for developing grassroots leaders in marginalized communities. SEM’s philosophy is based on Buddhist wisdom and views on ecological sustainability, social justice and nonviolence. Sulak brought Quakers, Catholics and Hindus onto the faculty to foster creative interaction through their various spiritually based viewpoints on global change.
For Sulak, there is no split between the inner life of contemplation and the outer life of social activism. Both are essential as the inner and the outer aspects of religious life illuminate, inform and encourage each other. In fact, the inner spirituality is essential for true transformation to take place in society. He wrote:
…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 … There are many descriptions of the religious experience, but all come back to becoming less and less selfish.