The twenty-eighth Niwano Peace Prize was awarded to Mr. Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai Buddhist leader,
who was honored for his contributions to promoting a new understanding of peace, democracy, and development and for his advocacy of environmental protection, firmly based on the core principles of his Buddhist faith. In this commemorative dialogue with Rev. Kinjiro Niwano, chairman of the Niwano Peace Foundation, on the theme "Social Reform Based on Buddhist Insight - Examining Western Values," held on July 22, 2011, in Kyoto, he emphasized the necessity of becoming more humble and compassionate to others and also the importance of promoting dialogue with suffering people.
Niwano: Mr. Sulak, you are well known throughout the world as an "engaged Buddhist." You have worked for Buddhism-based social reforms in many arenas, such as poverty, development, education, and the environment, not only in your country but also internationally on a broad scale.
I particularly endorse your thinking when you say, "Even when we advance our economic development, increase our consumption and income, and advance our technology, we cannot conquer suffering. The sources of suffering are desire, hatred, and the delusion that consumerism will bring about abundance. The key is to have abundance in our hearts and minds."
I expect to hear some very good opinions and many suggestions from you today for Japan, as we are looking for new values and new ways to live in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami last March.
Sulak: It is, of course, a great honor to receive the Niwano Peace Prize because I think this is the best award in Asia. I think it is known as the Nobel Peace Prize for Asia. I have known some of the awardees personally, and I admire some of them tremendously. They are much better than I am. I cannot be compared to them.
Mr. Nikkyo Niwano, after whom the prize was named, was always kind to me. He was very compassionate toward me, particularly at the World Conference of Religions for Peace. I admire his work in Rissho Kosei-kai and his work for religion and peace in the Asian community. He did wonderful work. He was a great man. He was very humble, a true Buddhist, with a wonderful sense of humor.
Niwano: The theme for today's dialogue is "Social Reform Based on Buddhist Insight - Examining Western Values." I would first like to hear your thoughts regarding the path of Westernization taken by Japan and whether it has truly led to the happiness of the Japanese people.
Sulak: Japan and my country, Siam[Thailand], are the only two countries in Asia never colonized by the West. But Siam and Japan have different philosophies. Siam wants the West to recognize that Siam is not inferior to the West. But Japan wants to show to the West that Japan can even be superior to the West. The Russo-Japanese War at the beginning of the twentieth century, of course, led to the Second World War.
I am not quite sure now whether Japan has changed deeply, whether it still wants to compete with the West, but the powers that be in Japan and in Siam do not really question fundamental Western philosophy, which can be traced back to Newton and Descartes. According to Newton, everything must be scientific, nothing spiritual, nothing transcendental. Descartes said, "Cogito ergo sum," meaning, "I think, therefore I am."
So in a way, thinking is very important. Ergo - ego becomes very important and leads to individualism and selfishness. Cogito means "I think" - about how to compete with others, how to overcome others: other races, other nations, other genders, other human beings, other sentient beings.
I think if we follow the West, there's going to be more and more destruction. The latest nuclear destruction here and the latest tsunami here are due to the damage we've caused in our efforts to overcome nature. I think this is where the teaching of the Buddha would be very helpful.
In the West, thinking is very important. It could be useful, it could be harmful thinking, but one thing Westerners don't learn is how to breathe. I've told Westerners that breathing is the most important element in life. If you stop breathing for five minutes, you are dead. But we breathe in and we breathe out daily, seven days a week, nonstop. We breathe in anger; we breathe in greed; we breathe in delusion. The Buddha taught us how to breathe mindfully. With proper breathing, we can change greed into generosity. We can change anger into love and kindness. We can change delusion into wisdom, into a clear understanding.
You don't need to be Buddhist to do that. You can be a Christian; you can be a Muslim; you can be an atheist. Everyone has to breathe. If you breathe properly, you will become a spiritual being, and then you discover buddha-nature. We all have buddha-nature. I am happy to say I think that even in the West now, people are thinking more in these terms.
My latest book, The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century, was first reviewed last month [in June] in England. My little book became very popular in England because even the West knows Western civilization is coming to an end. We can't go on with the latest technology and scientific knowledge; we must turn to being spiritual, environmental, interrelated. We are all friends, not only with human beings - we are friends of the trees, of the earth. I think that will save us.
Niwano: I grew up in the postwar era, and my education was greatly influenced by Western ideas. On the other hand, I have also inherited the particularly Japanese spirituality in which I am rooted, putting my palms together in revering the gods and the buddhas, venerating nature, and giving thanks for its blessings.
The scholar of religious studies Tetsuo Yamaori has said that the state and religion are in harmony in Japan and that this is evident in its multireligious system, which has Shinto and Buddhism coexisting, and in its unique system of government, which is represented in the current national ethos by the emperor as a symbol of the unity of the people. He says that it is exceedingly rare to find the kind of peaceful syncretistic fusion that is exemplified by indigenous Shintoism and imported Buddhism in Japan. And he asserts that Japan has entered an era in which it will move from exporting things to exporting the spirit that developed these systems.
And in the same way as you stress the importance of spirituality, I feel that we must honor the fact that Japan is a land that attaches great importance to its unique spiritual nature.
Sulak: When I first went to England, I joined the Buddhist Society there. The society was founded by Mr. Christmas Humphreys, a well-known Buddhist and a disciple of Dr. D. T. Suzuki. But Mr. Humphreys said, "To become Buddhist, you must have only meditation, no social action." I said, "If you have only meditation without social action, it's escapism, not Buddhism."
That's why I joined Thich Nhat Hanh, coining the term Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism means that we should, of course, meditate, we should breathe properly, we should be mindful, but at the same time, we must transform ourselves and transform society. But nowadays, transforming society is more difficult than it was in olden days.
In olden days, we learned not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in sexual misconduct, not to tell lies, not to take intoxicants. I think most schools of Buddhism agree. But nowadays we don't need to kill; we allow the government to kill for us. We don't steal; we allow the banks to steal for us, particularly the World Bank. Sexual misconduct is promoted by television, by the media everywhere. Again, lies are told, as in advertisements, in the words of politicians everywhere. And likewise, an intoxicant is not only alcohol or a drug. Advertisements, ideology, anything that dulls the mind, are intoxicants.
Modern Buddhists must understand the social structure, which is violent and helps the rich but does not help the poor. The social structure has also destroyed the environment. In my new book, I spent so much time on social structure. If you take the first three steps of Engaged Buddhism seriously - meditating, being mindful, and transforming ourselves and society - you should challenge the government on why it spends so much money on arms. In my country, they make people become soldiers, and once you become a soldier, you have the right to kill. I feel that to be a modern Buddhist, one must be a little bit more radical but must also remain nonviolent.
Niwano: With that in mind, this must be considered from both the aspect of putting it into practice on an individual level and the challenge of having even more people understand it. I think there is very great significance in having religions work together hand in hand and act together.
Mr. Sulak, in pushing for change, you are once again stressing the importance of education, aren't you?
Sulak: In the West, religious organizations become big institutions, and they use education to control people. That's why the church in the West failed. That's why education in the West becomes entirely secular. Once education becomes secular, it cannot teach about goodness.
Whereas in Buddhist education there is no control. We have no church. You see, the idea is how to grow. If you start by learning how to breathe properly, then you learn not to exploit yourself, not to exploit others. You learn to be humble; you learn to be self-sufficient; you learn to be generous; you learn to be mindful; and you learn to be interconnected. We learn that others are our friends; teachers are friends; students are friends. The teacher must learn from the student and vice versa.
A good friend will tell you what you don't want to hear. A good friend becomes your external voice of conscience. Education needs good friends; you learn about the external voice of conscience, then you develop your consciousness. You learn how to transform your consciousness from being selfish to becoming less selfish, and how to become selfless. I think this is how I understand Buddhism and education, and I try to do it in my small way.
Niwano: When I was involved in education at the Kosei-gakuen Junior and Senior High School, my elder brother [President Nichiko Niwano] taught me a very important word. That word is kyoiku, meaning "mutual education." It means that the person teaching and the person being taught learn from each other, and they both grow in their mutual relationship. This attitude fits the true principles of Buddhism.
Sulak: As Buddhists, we are taught to learn that we are interrelated. Everyone is related to us as friends, as relatives, as a father or mother. But these relationships are being uprooted from our culture. We follow the West, so we pollute water, we break down mountains to get the rock for sale, cut down our trees for money. I think we must change, and we must go back deep down.
Niwano: In the earthquake many people died, and there have been great losses, both material and spiritual, not only in the disaster areas but in the nation of Japan as a whole. This experience should absolutely not be wasted. We must learn as much as possible from this sacrifice; that is the impression I have. We must essentially review how we will live as people from this point on and seriously get to work on living those lives. I have a feeling that many people are thinking the same thing.
Sulak: This is a very wise outlook. You already have a crisis. People suffer. Of course, it's wonderful that your social work helps people, but deep down you must question, What is the alternative? That is the way of changing.
When the Buddha-to-be saw an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk, he called these heavenly signs. He changed. He left the palace and went to seek truth. I think this recent disaster is a heavenly sign.
The crisis here in Japan is very serious but most politicians, scientists, and technologists feel that they have overcome it. They want business as usual.
I think we need something spiritual, not business as usual. We have to change personally, socially, globally, and environmentally, and I am happy to say that some people are now trying. Even top economists are challenging the mainstream economy; ordinary people are challenging the yardstick of gross national product, replacing it with gross national happiness. Some people are promoting Buddhist economics. We also need Buddhist political science. All of our learning is too Western. To eliminate violence, we must rid ourselves of delusion, and I think we need to seek wisdom.
We need to be more humble, compassionate. That would enable you to lead Japan and could also enable you to lead the world - not as the Japanese powers that be, but as humble Buddhists in Rissho Kosei-kai.
We should teach people to understand that society is violent and how to overcome that nonviolently with wisdom and skillful means. I think that would be something wonderful that your founder would have been proud of. This would be good for Japan and good for the world.
You send people, you send money and goods to help many parts of the world, but you should also have more dialogue and learn from those people - suffering people. I think they will be your good friends, learning from each other.
Niwano: Mr. Sulak, your words have been very valuable for us today, and I think that once again I've been able to understand deeply the world that you are aiming for. I pray that you may continue your efforts in good health.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2012 issue of Dharma World.