Right Livelihood itself is a Buddhist term, a key element in the Noble Eightfold Path, or Middle way, the Buddha taught, as a way for all of us to transcend greed, hatred and delusion - or at least to lessen them.
Acceptance speech – Sulak Sivaraksa
I feel very privileged to be here at the Swedish Parliament to receive the Right Livelihood Award – especially today. Everyone knows that the awards are widely considered the Alternative Nobel Prizes. What everyone may not know is that December 8, according to some traditions, is Buddha’s enlightenment day; the day an ordinary human being awoke from attachment to greed, hatred and delusion to become fully enlightened and compassionate. Selfishness was transformed into selflessness and intellectual arrogance into a real understanding of the self and the world; the kind of real understanding necessarily accompanied by loving kindness towards all sentient beings.
Right Livelihood itself is a Buddhist term, a key element in the Noble Eightfold Path, or Middle way, the Buddha taught, as a way for all of us to transcend greed, hatred and delusion – or at least to lessen them. The stages on the Path are Right View; Right Intention; Right Speech; Right Action; Right Livelihood; Right Efforts; Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Right Livelihood means a livelihood which is nonexploitative to the self or others and, as a Buddhist, I am happy to be recognized as one who tries to lead this kind of life. In my own country I am usually known as a troublemaker or rabble rouser, one who challenges the economic and technological “development” destined to make Siam the fifth “Tiger” among the Newly Industrialized Countries modeled after Japan. This “Gang of Four”already includes Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. This model of development has no ethical or spiritual dimension and its technological advances involve massive ecological devastation while its economic progress widens the abyss between rich and poor, even while subjecting whole populations to the voraciousness of the barely masked greed called consumerism. There are no human rights within it, especially economic, social and development human rights, even as it sometimes pays lip service to civil and political freedom. This model of development is called “progress” which comes from the Latin root meaning madness. Since I want to be sane and to live in a saner world I have spent my life attempting to offer alternatives, not only in my country but throughout Asia and beyond. To paraphrase Schumacher, my efforts are “small” but attempt to be “beautiful”.
The Thai authorities do not always find my criticism of the status quo beautiful however, especially when we have military coups, which we do quite often in my country. The powers that be become very angry with me. Sometimes they burn my books and sometimes I am forced into exile lest they put me in jail. I have been persona non grata with the Thai authorities since 1963, and in 1976 the Thai military junta wanted to arrest or perhaps kill me. Fortunately I was in England at that time, so they only drove my business into bankruptcy. Many of my contemporaries and students were murdered, maimed or imprisoned. The lucky ones managed to flee abroad. I remained abroad for two years. I wish to thank the Swedish government and people who were most generous to Thai refugees. The Swedish Ambassador in Bangkok took personal risks to help Thai intellectuals reach Sweden, and then Prime Minister Olof Palme was friendly and helpful to many of us.
In 1991, my open criticism of the military junta again drove me into exile. Unofficially the junta tried to kill me. Officially they charged me with three counts of lèse majesté, an extremely serious crime in Siam with a maximum penalty of 15 years on each count. I was fortunate in that the German Ambassador in Bangkok helped protect me. When I was able to escape abroad my first destination was, of course, Sweden. My Swedish friends did not disappoint me. We have now formed a Thai Studies Association among my Thai friends in Sweden and elsewhere in order to help people within Siam work for social justice and social welfare. Friends provided me with hospitality and arranged teaching work in Europe, North America and Japan. Among other positions, I was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Hawaii and received the Naropa Institute Founder’s Award as well as giving courses there. My alma mater, the University of Wales, Lampeter, also provided me with an honourary fellowship.
I remained in exile for 14 months this time before being able to return to face court hearings on the charges of lèse majesté. Compared with my friends from Indonesia, Burma, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and elsewhere, this is very light. Yet exile can be miserable. Only friendship, hope, forgiveness and the practice of mindful deep breathing helped me to keep my head above water. I must admit that when I see senseless killing and human rights abuse I sometimes become angry. But Thich Nhat Hanh, my Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, taught me to become aware of anger in order to surround it with mindfulness. He says that anger is like a closed flower, which will bloom when the sunlight penetrates it deeply. If you keep breathing mindfully, shining compassion and understanding upon it, your practice will penetrate the anger and you will look into its depths and see its root. When this happens the anger cannot resist. The flower will bloom and show its heart to the sun. The same is true of greed, lust and delusion.
With this mindful practice of breathing I learned not to hate the military junta, nor the corrupt politicians, nor even the executives in the multinational corporations. I became more aware of the unjust social, political and economic structures as the source of injustice and violence. The rich and powerful benefit economically and legally from the system, but they are also trapped by it, and neither they nor their families are made happy.
My court case on the lèse majesté charges lasted almost four years, during which time many friends and organizations assisted. They included Amnesty International (London); The International Commission of Jurists (Geneva) and the Human Rights Desk of Bread for the World (Stuttgart), among many others. My attorneys were wonderful, fighting the case patiently, courteously and courageously, and my colleagues gave me much encouragement. My wife has always been and continues to remain a tremendous support to me.
I was acquitted on the charges of lése majesté, which is very unusual. My acquittal made me proud of our judiciary system, making me believe that our progressive judges no longer blindly follow oppressive laws, many of them decrees of the military junta, but now care more for justice and mercy. The judges went so far as to praise me in court, which is unprecedented within living memory, stating: “It is clear that the defendant aimed at teaching the students to be conscious of the essence of democracy”. He warned the students “not to live a luxurious, consumer lifestyle, not to worship being rich, not to admire people in power and to be concerned about justice and righteousness.” I was pleased when the Right Livelihood Award Committee cited this part of the judgment and encouraged me to go forward with new projects.
My latest projects concern interfaith Alternatives to Consumerism and a Spirit in Education Movement (SEM). The foundation for Progress and Humanity (France, Switzerland) has helped initiate the first project which calls for Buddhist, Christians and Muslims to work together in developing awareness of the problems of consumerism and demonstrating viable alternative ways of living. The second project, SEM, has already begun with assistance from the Sharpham Trust (England) and the Heinrich Boll Foundation (Germany). We have already given courses and will initiate SEM formally with a public event December 12, with the Head of Schumacher College (England) as keynote speaker. I hope SEM will provide an alternative to prevailing educational trends which concentrate on the head rather than the heart and reward cleverness without regard to ethics. Naropa Institute (Boulder, Colorado, USA) already attempts to introduce engaged Buddhism as part of its curriculum; i.e., to teach its students how to confront suffering and be mindful of ways of overcoming it nonviolently, both at the personal and the social, economic and other structural levels. The Institute of Total Revolution (Vecchi, Gujarat, India) also trains in a Gandhian method of education.
At SEM we try to develop friendship, in the Buddhist sense of kalayanamitta, among students and teachers; to learn from each other and from the environment; to develop meditation practice and artistic creativity; to understand and respect indigenous cultures; to plant seeds of peace within ourselves and our world; to develop beauty, goodness and critical self-awareness in order to become transformed personally. This, in turn, will lead us to care less for ourselves and more for others; to combine understanding and compassion; to work for social justice and ecological balance; and to develop right livelihood as part of our Buddhist practice.
SEM participants will not avoid contact with suffering, or become separate from our awareness of suffering in the world, but will find ways to alleviate suffering wherever it is found. Above all, they will try to understand the ways in which prevailing economic, social and political systems contribute to suffering, and to violence and the culture of violence that surrounds us, in order to provide a countervailing force of nonviolence, compassion and understanding.
At the deepest level the causes of suffering are always greed, hatred and delusion. At the more immediate level these causes have become embodied in consumerism, militarism, compartmentalization of thought and practice (e.g., the use of such strategies as “social engineering”), and the separation of efforts to resolve social problems from the process of personal transformation.
In SEM we hope to understand that the knowledge we currently possess is not changeless, so that we can learn and practice non-attachment to views, to become open to receive the truth that resides in life and not simply in conceptual knowledge. I hope SEM participants will become able to learn throughout their entire lives and to observe the reality of the world and within ourselves at all times.
In order to do this, and not to lose ourselves in dispersion in our surroundings we need to practice mindfulness, especially the breathing which brings us back to what is happening in the present moment. With what is wondrous, refreshing and healing both within and around us. We hope to continually plant seeds of joy, peace and understanding in ourselves in order to facilitate the ongoing work of transformation in the depths of our consciousness.
I am very grateful to be in this wonderful company, to be accepting this Right Livelihood Award and to be able to share with you some of my work, my hopes and my dreams. I welcome all participation in our projects, especially in the new work on Alternatives to Consumerism and in the Spirit in Education Movement. It would be wonderful to welcome any of you as teachers/students in our SEM courses.
Thank you all, both for this wonderful award and for your interest in our work and projects.
The Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation
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