Interview with Sulak Sivaraksa, Buddhist Activist, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee

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June 18th, 2004
Transcription by Volunteer Citizen Journalist Jerry Helbling

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So why don't you introduce yourself and what you're doing -- what you're speaking about here at this peace conference.
SULAK SIVARAKSA: Sulak Sivaraksa from Bangkok Siam. I came here to deliver a keynote address this morning on making peace in the 21st century "Inner Peace, Outer Action."

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay. So what perspective has Buddhism given to you towards peace.
SIVARAKSA: If you sum up one word for Buddhism, it's "Peace." The Buddha said... [Interruption] -- The Buddha said, ‘No other Peace -- No other Happiness but Peace.’ So peace is the essence of the teaching of the Buddha.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay... Suffering, dissatisfaction -- Can you talk a little bit about that?
SIVARAKSA: These are known as the common characteristics of the world. The "Dukkha" -- Suffering or the sense of lack -- or Unsatisfactoriness. And Nature --Impermanence, it's changing all the time. And lastly, "Anatta" -- Nothing you can hold to be yourself -- there's no soul. It's known also as "soullessness." These are the fundamental characteristics that the Buddha points out.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So, if you could -- Talk a little bit about having no self -- What does that mean, to have no self?
SIVARAKSA: The idea is to remind us that the so-called self is -- something could be convenient, at the same time something could be great hindrance. See, my name is Sulak. I think it may be useful for you to refer to me as Sulak. But if I am attached to this name, I become so much involved with the name. When you say something nasty about the name Sulak, I become upset because I identify myself with that name -- you see -- are the same, you know. When you look at me, this is just a physical appearance. And sometimes you think that this is you. In fact, it's an appearance -- it consists of skin, bone, hair, head and so on, so forth -- and we attach that to be you. In fact, it's just an appearance. And sometimes you feel there is something inside, the so-called soul. But if you look deeply, there is no such thing as a soul either. So in Buddhism we are reminded everything could be useful, could be convenient and could be harmful if you are attached to it.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And what role does compassion play in Buddhism?
SIVARAKSA: Well, compassion means that 'without passion.' [?] It means that you care for others. And in fact, if you really want to practice compassion, you must expose yourself to those who suffer -- and not to help them in a "goody-goody way." You've got to share their suffering, and learn from them. And then they empower you and you empower them. I think that is the best approach of compassion as I understand it.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So the only way to achieve peace is if everyone suffers?
SIVARAKSA: Well in fact, everyone suffers one way or the other. And sometimes we feel we suffer more and we don't care for others. And sometimes we avoid our own suffering. But I think if you are aware that if you suffer, perhaps other people suffer more than we do -- or than we care for others. The more we care for others I think the less we feel our suffering.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So what do you see as the best way to achieve world peace?
SIVARAKSA: Well, from the Buddhist perspective, you must learn to cultivate inner peace first. Because what we speak, what we act, normally comes out of our prejudices. We have views controlled by love, by hatred, by fear, by delusion. If we learn to overcome these prejudices -- I think that's number one. Number two -- You learn to have inner peace meaning that you really have less, as I said earlier, prejudicial view. And once you are calm, then you develop critical self-awareness. That again, not to attach to the self -- from that you learn to be critical of your own society, of your own nation-state, of the world, even of your own religious tradition. Be a critical person with self-awareness. And then, you can see things much more clearly. Then you see what is your potentiality to change society -- to be a better society -- to be a just society. And you can't do it alone. But you can do as much as your potentiality allows you to do. But then if you can have good friends -- in Buddhism to have good friends is very, very important. I think as the Quakers call their religion Society of Friends -- I think friends can be a great help in helping you, reminding you, even become your other voice of conscience. And these friends, they don't need to be Buddhist. They could be Christian, Muslim, they could be even non-believers. Together with friends we can network. We can change things non-violently. Especially from the grassroots.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: What role does meditation play in Buddhism?
SIVARAKSA: Meditation helps you not to concentrate only on your thought -- not depend entirely on logic -- not depend entirely on intellectual pursuit -- which could be helpful, which could be harmful. Meditation means that you develop awareness. Concentrate on breathing. And this awareness helps you to be mindful. Once you are mindful, then you can synchronize your head and your heart so you can see things. When you see suffering, it becomes something real. I read somewhere a young Japanese said that ‘When you look at the fish in the pond, you care so much for the fish. And yet the fish in the sea, which we don't care at all. Yet we eat them so much.’ That’s why he become vegetarian. Now without these meditation practices, this sounds wonderful in your head, but you still keep on eating fish, you see? But if you really become mindful you care about fish, you care about vegetable, you care about others -- [Interruption]
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Can you start from "if you become mindful", what happens?
SIVARAKSA: Once you become mindful, you don't decide things only on the intellectual level. And this intellectual level links so much with individualism -- the ego. Develop mindfulness, then you develop critical self-awareness. You become less selfish, you become less attachment, then you link your head and your heart, and you become compassionate. You have loving kindness and you really care for others much more than you care for yourself.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: I guess -- From the perspective of someone who sees a terrorist as "evil" -- You know, they would say, "Well, what good is it to love someone who's going to kill you?" -- [Interruption] -- Talk about terrorism and how to respond to terrorism non-violently --
SIVARAKSA: First, the only way to deal with terrorism is that you must realize that we are ourselves terrorists inside. You also have hatred inside. You also have violence inside. The more we purify ourselves, you don't see the other as a terrorist. You see them as friends... Once you have that understanding you, then have hatred you try to be compassionate.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: In the buildup to the war in Iraq, if the news would have come to you and asked a question, what would you have wanted to have told them?
SIVARAKSA: Well in fact, I happened to be in this country on the eve of the war in Iraq. People interview me on the television. Perhaps it wasn't televised widely. But I did say that even on the eve -- [Interruption]
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: What did you tell the news media when you were on the media during the buildup to the war? ...
SIVARAKSA: I was in this country on the eve of the war in Iraq, and a television man interview[ed] me. They said, 'What would you do, if you were in power?’ I said, ‘I would send somebody to talk to Mr. Saddam Hussein.’ And he said, ‘Well, he's Hitler number two. He's an evil man.’ I said, "You forget. Mao Tse Tung was evil number one in those days, and yet Kissinger went to talk to him. Nixon went to talk to him, things changed.’ You see, all these evil figures, we created them. He's a human being like us. He had something very bad, something very good. Mr. Bush also have something very bad, something very good. But if we think [of] him as a bad person, dreadful person, things will become more and more violent. If we think of him that he needs compassion, he needs loving kindness, I think things will change.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So you think if enough people gave compassion to an evil dictator that would have changed him?
SIVARAKSA: Yes indeed.
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay -- Just repeat that as a full thought.
SIVARAKSA: Yes. I think -- Whatever people think, ‘This and that person is so evil -- so dreadful.’ I think he or she also has something wonderful inside. We call, ‘Everyone have the Buddha nature.’

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay... How did the news media perform on the buildup to the war in Iraq?
SIVARAKSA: The news media on the whole performed negatively. Partly because in this day and age, the media is controlled by transnational corporations. These transnational corporations link directly or indirectly with the others -- with the arms merchants, with the transnational corporations. They want to produce more and more violence. The more people are exposed to violence, then people need something to escape to -- that is advertisement. So the advertisement portrays something unreal, which it makes you feel you must purchase, you must own, you must do all kinds of things, which is unnatural. So unfortunately the media promotes something unnatural. I think what we need is to be more natural, to be more humble. In that sense advertising is unnecessary and more harmful.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: What is it about human beings that have this desire to see violence?
SIVARAKSA: None of us desire to see violence, because you can promote violence -- you see. The media is what you call a means. The media can promote violence. They can promote non-violence. But you don't realize that – it’s not really the media. Even textbooks in education, it promotes war -- Napoleon, Alexander. You don't mention anything about the other people -- the other people who are peace loving. But kings and emperor are on the whole very dreadful people. Yet you make them heroes.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: ... Talk about -- Building up to the war there was a lot of fear in American society. How can Buddhism deal with fear that's being fed by the media?
SIVARAKSA: I think that's the crucial point in the teaching of the Buddha. We are taught to be generous -- to act by being generous. First of all, we are taught ‘To give [is] much better than to take.’ You give away what you don't want, and then you give away what is precious to you. But that still you give [away] material, but ultimately you learn to give away fear. The word 'apaya' -- forgiveness means no fear. Once you have no fear, then everyone is your friend, no enemies. The state exists because the state tells you 'enemies around.' The more you have enemies, the more you can have more weapons, the more they can spend their budget on weapons. They make people fear, and of course the media also is instrumental in making people afraid. I think what we need is to learn how not to be afraid, not to fear. And the fear is inside here. Overcome fear here and then other action will be peaceful -- will be non-violent.

I need info

What is it like to be a Buddhist in the U.S. I need it to finish a social studies project.

Thank you for your time

Sulak's dream of winning a

Sulak's dream of winning a Nobel Peace Prize is a wishful thinking! His bullying the late Chief monk of the Thai Temple of North Hollywood (Phra Dhep Sopon) was very violent in nature. It was at a televised debate several years ago.

He has not set foot, even once, on any of the ten or twenty Buddhist temples in Southern California, even though he makes frequent stops there each year! Sulak is no Buddhist but rather he uses Buddhism as a means of livelihood!

Huh?

Bullying? Violent in nature? I think that is a bit of an exagerration. As a personal acquaintance of both Phra Dhep Sopon and Sulak, I can say without a doubt that the monk is making much more money from Buddhism than Sulak is. And I know that what Sulak does make from his books and lectures goes right back into the organizations that he has founded to foster Buddhism. Having lived in his humble home, I would guess he makes less money than you do every year in So. Cal.

As for not stepping foot in the Buddhist temples...what difference does that make? I doubt the Buddha himself would step foot in them given the controversy and corruption that they often are entangled in.