An “Alternative Nobel”-winning Buddhist activist delivered a message with a cutting edge at the University of Wisconsin on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
“The 9/11 attacks were so much of a shock to Americans,” said Sulak Sivaraksa, dressed in traditional Thai robes, with a jacket to shield him from the nip of an early Madison fall. Most Americans have not grappled with the damage the United States has done abroad, he said.
Sivaraksa has been similarly unsparing of the policies of his own country. For taking on the Thai establishment, he has been arrested a number of times (once for criticizing the Thai king) and has been forced into exile. In 1995, he received the Right Livelihood Award, often referred to as the Alternative Nobel, “for his vision, activism and spiritual commitment in the quest for a development process that is rooted in democracy, justice, and cultural integrity," in the words of the award citation.
Twenty-five years ago, Sivarksa founded the International Network of Engaged Buddhists to “integrate the practice of Buddhism with social action for a healthy, just, and peaceful world.” Sivaraksa counts as his friends and allies the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. (A recent book of his contains appreciations of his work from both.)
Sivaraksa, who is eighty-one, leaned on his walking stick as he mounted the stage at the UW School of Business’ Grainger Hall. But he didn’t let age temper his fiery lecture, a major part of which consisted of an anti-consumerist and anti-globalization message.
“For peace, we need an authentic economic system,” Sivaraksa said. “The current system is built on structural violence. The project to build a new economic system begins at this moment.”
“The post-colonial world needs to become modern, not Western,” he added. “The capitalist global economic system has been built on imperialism. The West has been separated from its roots since Columbus discovered America by asserting superiority over the people living here, and the notion became to look forward without looking back.”
Sivaraksa, who studied in Wales and has taught in the United States, said he was a typical member of the Thai upper class until he had a transformative life experience.
“I was from an elitist background with an English education who believed the poor should follow us,” he said. “It is only when I stayed with the poor that I realized that we oppress them unknowingly and that we have much to learn from them.”
Sivaraksa combined his sociopolitical critique with a more traditional Buddhist message.
“We need to stop blaming the other party and instead need to start identifying our own rigid and self-righteous views,” he said. “We need to pay attention to the other’s viewpoint with deep listening, even if the other person’s view is based on wrong notions. Only if we listen without interruption can we move toward clarity and peace.”
“The choice is not between violence and inactivity when attacked,” he added. “There are several other options: dialogue, law, negotiations, and diplomacy.”
An attentive crowd of more than 100 people listened to Sivaraksa’s lecture on the thirteenth anniversary of September 11, as the United States prepares to launch a new military campaign in the Middle East.
Sivaraksa contrasted the individualism of Western economic systems with the societal notions of Buddhist thought.
“The capitalist myth of individual emancipation is not equal to the we,” he said. “The community is made of the individual and the people around the person. Only through realizing the suffering of others can peace arrive.”
In his recent book, The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century, Sivaraksa expounds on these themes, building on Buddhist principles to offer an alternative economic system.
Sivaraksa recounted how under American tutelage in the post-World War II era Thailand has followed the conventional economic system, much to its detriment. He contrasted this with the alternative routes taken by Bhutan and the Himalayan region of Ladakh in India.
At the end, Sivaraksa found hope among young Americans, who, he said, are much more willing than past generations to question the lifestyle of their elders and to go abroad and learn.
“Young people will save the world from the American empire and make it into an American republic with a small r,” he concluded.