Confronting Myths Both Local and Global:
Interview with Sulak Sivaraksa
By Farish A. Noor
As part of a series of public lectures around the theme of 'Coping with
Pluralism in the Contemporary World', the House of World Cultures in Berlin had
invited a number of prominent thinkers from different parts of the world to
speak about the challenges that face their own religious and cultural
communities in the present. The lay Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa was
recently invited to speak on the challenges facing the Buddhist world in the
global age. Farish A Noor, who moderated the discussion that followed, managed
to speak to him about the challenge of globalisation, Buddhism's relationship
with other religions and cultures, and the need for an ethical approach to
politics and economics.
Farish: 'Allow me to begin by looking at the work that you have done lately. In
the 1980s and 1990s, you were regarded as one of the major lay Buddhist
'reformists' who were calling for a serious re-thinking of Buddhist thought in
order to face the challenges of the present world. Lately you have directed a
lot of your energy towards generating a critical awareness of the globalisation
process. How would you sum up your critique of globalisation?'
Sulak: 'Globalisation as we know it today did not happen by accident. The
globalisation of trade and finance through the work of powerful multinationals,
corporations and banks is the result of vested interests that have created new
structures for expansion, dominance and control. Now because of these vested
interests, those who run these powerful corporations do not necessarily see the
structures themselves as unjust or violent. In fact the powerful nations and
international bodies of the world are busy coming up with new forms of
legislation that are effectively legalising the exploitation and plunder by such
transnational corporations. But despite their efforts to give globalisation a
human face, many of us in the developing world can see that in reality it is all
about profit and power, and not freedom of choice or anything laudatory.
The myth of the 'free market' is just that: a myth. There is no such thing as a
'free market' in the real sense of the word because the international market
cannot be free as long as the powerful nations, multinationals and international
agencies are dominating it all the time. For there to be a genuinely free market
it must be one that is based on the principles of justice and equity. Here
Justice and Equity refer to the need to create a truly democratic international
community where even the smaller and weaker countries will be protected and not
treated like passive sources of commodity and cheap labour.
The other danger that lies before us is the threat of mono-culturalism that is
being promoted all over the world thanks to the activities of these powerful
multinationals today. Globalisation is turning the world into a single unified
market that will serve the needs of a single economic bloc made up of powerful
multinationals and oligarchies. As this monocultural world is developed all
around us, we will see the demise of small companies, local industries,
localised technologies and knowledge-systems, all to be replaced by a homogenous
economic system based on the principles of liberal-capitalism. That is why we
need to intervene and interrupt the process now, before it is too late. We need
to bring together the political leaders, the managers of multinational
corporations with local communities and grass-roots movements in order to
discuss, soberly and seriously, the long-term impact of the globalisation
process that we see around us today.'
Farish: 'But there are surely the very real cleavages of power, wealth and
authority which we cannot simply wish away? It is fine for us to talk about the
need for justice and working towards a more egalitarian future for all of
humanity. It is good to have politicians, technocrats and corporate leaders who
want to listen. But the world is not a fair place, and unfortunately there are
still many who refuse to listen to the voice of the poor in the South. What do
we do in such cases?'
Sulak: 'In such cases, we have little choice- we must oppose. We must oppose
injustice because it is injustice itself. We cannot compromise with injustice,
brutality, cruelty and other such evils in the world. The protests that we saw
at the DAVO conference in Switzerland, at the UNCTAD conference in Bangkok-
these were all examples of conscious people who have decided to sacrifice
themselves, their lives and their livelihood for a higher purpose. They were
right to do so, and even the leaders of the World Bank, the UN, agreed with them
and their grievances in principle.
But we must also remember that in our opposition to injustice there is a code of
conduct, a moral requirement placed upon us all. We must never become as bad as
the people who oppress us. You cannot fight hatred with hatred, or racism with
more racism. So here we need to understand that it is the structures of the
globalised world that are at fault. It would be wrong for us in the developing
world to simply blame the West as a whole, as most of the people there are just
as helpless as we are. They are just as much in the grip of the multinationals,
international agencies, banks, and other such institutions.
This is why we need to emphasise the need for dialogue between the rich and the
poor nations, to build working coalitions and alliances that are based on
non-partisan goals that do not exclude anybody. We need to persuade and invite
these powerful bodies to come to the table, to learn that their unjust practices
are detrimental to us all both now and in the future. But we need to be firm and
resolute as well.'
Farish: 'How does your critique of globalisation fit into the overall framework
of Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy? What makes your critique a specifically
Sulak: 'Underlying everything that I have said is the Buddhist understanding
that the world as we know it is a unity that unites us all. The dangerous aspect
of globalisation is that it denies or negates the fundamental unity between all
human beings when it tries to exploit or oppress others for the sake of profit.
In the face of such unrestrained avariciousness Buddhism argues that the entire
universe is a mutual, interdependent, intergrated and co-operative enterprise.
Buddhism teaches us that all human beings are dependent on one another and the
natural environment around us. The fallacies of global capitalism as it has
developed today are clear: if it is pursued to its final conclusion it will lead
to the destruction of humanity and the world, despite the fact that it is based
on empty promises of a better life for all'.
Farish: 'I would like to ask you about your own work and where you locate
yourself in the midst of the changes we see around us today. You are a lay
Buddhist thinker and social activist, which means that you locate yourself both
inside and outside the Buddhist tradition simultaneously. You are not really
part of the 'traditional' establishment so to speak. What do you say to those
who accuse you of somehow 'weakening' or 'challenging' the Buddhist tradition
when you try to turn it into an emancipating socio-political project?'
Sulak: 'Firstly we need to remember that in Buddhism there is not really a
division between the Religious and the Secular. In a sense both elements
co-exist in Buddhist thought and practice, as in Buddhism there is no concept of
God as such. Buddhism places its emphasis on the individual and the need for the
individual to cultivate a good life based on moral conduct. Now we need to
remind ourselves that every religion is conservative in nature, in the sense
that religions seek to conserve societies and cultivate certain positive traits
in humanity in general.
But being conservative in this sense is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem
begins, however, when religions develop in an unreflective way and when the
adherents of a religious system forget the fundamentals of their creed. When
this happens, the members of a religious community often forget the essential
humanistic aspect of their religion and put more emphasis on the ritualistic
aspects instead. So instead of cultivating humility and simple lifestyle, we
build more temples and monuments instead. We glorify our religion in the vain
hope of glorifying ourselves in the process. This is something that many people
in the world are guilty of, including Buddhists. I call this Buddhism with a
'capital B', where the essential tenets and teachings of the Lord Buddha have
been overwhelmed by ritualism, dogma and conservative traditionalism instead.
Once this happens, religions will develop with feudal, authoritarian and
patriarchal tendencies and they eventually become corrupted for all the wrong
reasons. What I have tried to do is to remind Buddhists of their essential
beliefs and moral obligations. I have been telling them that these fundamental
obligations are more important than the external features of Buddhism which are
contingent and historically specific. Those who are more dogmatic will of course
be unhappy with this, but this is a universal problem that effects all religions
and not just Buddhism'.
Farish: 'There is, of course, the danger that is faced by revivalists and
reformists of all religious and cultural systems. On the one hand we try to
defend our societies against the ravages of globalisation and neo-colonialism in
all its forms. But on the other hand our own work can easily be hijacked or
misappropriated by those political elites who want to use the same kind of
arguments in their blanket condemnation of the West or the Other. How do we deal
Sulak: 'That is true. Our own governments should also be reminded of the need
for them to be consistent and objective. What is the point of condemning the
West if they become part of the global economic and political structure? Today
so many Asian governments are reacting against the West but they are also
facilitating the entry and penetration of Western capital into their own
economies. Is this not a contradiction?
Today in many parts of the non-Western world we see a knee-jerk reaction against
anything Western. People want to ban McDonalds, they reject Coca-Cola, and so
on. Much of this is understandable when we look at the political dimension of
domination and hegemony behind it all. But we must never forget that the
ordinary people of the West who eat McDonalds or drink Coca-Cola are not our
enemies either. For me they are my friends, and we need to make them our
Farish: 'Now let me ask you about the problematic relationship between
Universalism and Particularism in the work you do. Like all religious reformists
you emphasise the universal aspect of your own religious and cultural tradition,
Buddhism. But is it not true to say that each universal creed is also particular
and exclusive in its own way? Is there not a danger that through this sort of
reformist project you end up re-emphasising the specifically exclusive elements
of Buddhism and make it less acceptable to others?'
Sulak: 'The danger is there and you are quite right to point it out. Just like
we said earlier, there are always those who want to turn religions and their
cultures into a symbol of identity and source of pride. This is so common today
in the Buddhist world as it is elsewhere. Even in Buddhist restaurants or shops
today we can see images of the Buddha as a marker of identity. The people who
rely on these images seem to be saying 'we are Buddhist, and we are different
from you.' Sometimes that can also be reinterpreted as 'we are Buddhist so we
are better than you'. But here there are two points that need to be remembered.
Firstly, this is not unique or specific to Buddhism alone. Buddhists are not the
only ones who rely on such symbols and images. All over the world and in all the
religious traditions around us we see more and more people turning to religious
symbols as markers of identity. Christians use the cross, Muslims use the word
of Allah, or the image of the Qur'an, and so on. This has become a major feature
of living religion in the world today because people seem to need to cling on to
their identity even more. Globalisation has made this even more important
because people feel that their identities are threatened and they do not know
how to cope. So they resort to such symbols, to tell them who they are and what
they are. This is true for all religious communities in the world today and at
times this practice can become exclusive and negative.
The second point is that such a development can be overcome if we all stick to
the essentials. I have always referred to the essentials of Buddhism as the
fundamental basis of all religions. Buddhists need to remember that behind the
practice of Buddhism with a 'capital B' there is the practice of Buddhism with a
'small b' as well. This is where the essential moral values of Buddhism come to
play. These essential ideas are universal but they need not be identified with
Buddhism solely or exclusively. That is why it is so important for us to
cultivate morality and right-mindedness regardless of who we are. Buddhists need
to understand that the positive values of Buddhism are there in others of
different religions as well. The goal is not so much to make everybody Buddhist
with a 'capital B', but rather to create a world where everybody is morally
upright and knows of his moral obligations and duties towards society and the
environment. This is how we promote universal values without becoming trapped in
our own particular world-views and life-styles.'
Farish: 'Finally I would like to touch upon the subject of Pluralism and
Buddhism's relationship with Other cultures and religious systems. Globalisation
may have made the world smaller, but it has also brought these communities
together as you said. How should Buddhists respond to these developments, when
they are brought into close proximity with non-Buddhists?'
Sulak: 'In reality the encounter with the Other is at the crux of Buddhism
itself. In Buddhism, dealing with the Other is really part of the Buddhist's
moral obligation to develop skillful means. How we relate to others reflects
upon how we relate to ourselves as well, and as such these cross-cultural,
inter-confessional encounters are of crucial important for Buddhists.
Now of course coming into close contact with other cultures and religions is not
necessarily an easy thing. It can also lead to tension or even violence. In many
cases such encounters can bring out only the worst in us: racism, prejudice,
fear. But Buddhism teaches us that the Other is a vital component of our own
self. Sometimes meeting the Other close-up can be difficult, confounding and
upsetting, but this should force us to reflect on our own prejudices and fears
instead. We can always profit and learn from such encounters, difficult though
they may be. As the Lord Buddha himself said: "Your best friend is the one who
tells you what you do not want to hear". In this respect, meeting those of
radically different beliefs and values is perhaps one of the best things that
can happen to us if we learn to manage such encounters with skill and
Sulak Sivaraksa is a prominent Thai lay Buddhist intellectual and activist.
Over the years he has written and campaigned extensively over issues ranging
from human rights, environmental concerns, women's rights and patriarchy, feudal
politics and international economic relations from a Buddhist perspective. He is
also a member of the International Circle of Engaged Buddhists and founder of
numerous NGOs in Thailand.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist.
He is currently studying the phenomenon of Islamic political movements and
writing a book on the Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS.
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