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Wednesday, March 24, 1999

One bullheaded Buddhist

LOYALTY DEMANDS DISSENT: Autobiography of an Engaged Buddhist, by Sulak Sivaraksa. Parallax Press, 1998, 450 baht.

Sulak Sivaraksa, upon reaching the age of 65, decided to look backward and ponder decades of constant activity in Thai society. The book opens with a foreword by the Dalai Lama, who states that he shares with Sulak the opinion that "economic and technological development must be accompanied by an inner spiritual growth."

Sulak, as all those exposed to Thailand are well aware, is "a controversial figure," as editor Alan Senauke mentions in his own introduction. The author elegantly confirms this by acknowledging that he is grateful "to my friends and foes."

When reading this interesting and inspiring book, we should not be distracted by the controversies surrounding the life of "an engaged Buddhist," but concentrate on its style, its rich informative elements and its sincerity, regardless of whether one agrees with the positions and arguments of the author.

Sulak writes -- actually, he talks, since the book is based on a series of tape recordings -- with modesty, accuracy, deep dedication to his beliefs and with a particular power that reflects his motto that dissent is a precondition of loyalty. (His use of the extremely powerful verb "demands" in the title, leaves no illusions about the author's standing as a Buddhist of the 20th century.)

The early chapters portray not only Sulak, but life in Siam in the '30s and '40s, and life at the monasteries in particular. Even when he was a novice monk, he showed signs of rebellion and spoke his own mind, which was rather unusual in those times.

As a school boy, he developed a special taste for comparative religion, something that has marked his entire career. Then followed a long period of studies in England, including Greek courses because, as he humorously states, "to the English, you are not educated unless you know Greek."

Working at the BBC, teaching Thai, he finally became a barrister, though "law was not my cup of tea."

After returning to Siam, he started a life so rich in activities and in so many fields that it leaves one full of admiration. One landmark was his work at the Social Science Review, which, by his own admission, he wanted "to be controversial."

Then, publications, lectures, work with Buddhist monks, seeking inspiration from colossal teachers like Buddhadasa Bhikku and Bhikku P.A. Payuto, trips abroad (always in the framework of engaged Buddhism), clashes with many personalities, including the famous Prime Minister-writer Kukrit Pramoj, teaching, founding a bookshop, joining various cultural foundation, and an endless series of new challenges and tasks.

But his main concern and highest talent was and is a phenomenal capacity for Buddhist-cultural-social networking in Thailand and abroad. This is the reason why Sulak is so often quoted by international media when Thai social issues come to the fore.

Sulak's life also included stints of exile, of lese-majeste incriminations and even time in jail. His descriptions of all these events provoke interest and command respect.

His narrative is permeated by sincerity but always within the confines of Buddhist modesty and tolerance. Another interesting aspect is the author's deep attachment to ecological values, which stems from the foundations of Buddhist beliefs and his opposition to the destructive wave of contemporary consumerism and materialism.

In spite of so much controversy, Sulak appears immune to anger. He is obviously conscious of the Dhammapada's verse:

"Hate is not conquered by hate; hate is conquered by love."

He transmits the same feeling through the words of that astonishing Vietnamese monk of our times, Thich Nhat Hanh:

"Anger is like a closed flower which will bloom when the sunlight penetrates it deeply."

George Sioris was ambassador of Greece to Japan. He is also president emeritus of the Asiatic Society of Japan. He lives in Thailand.

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