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Socially Engaged Spiritually


by Sulak Sivaraksa, Thai intellectual and social critic

A major challenge, some would call it a dilemma, that the world faces is how to be modern. The discourse of development, especially through the concept of modernization, is decidedly biased. It can be said that the intellectual precursor of modernization was the European enlightenment. In other words, the concept of modernization is actually coded. It is based on a specific worldview that is by no means the only explanation. However, the modern, rational, positivistic worldview is often passed off as the most legitimate perspective. For the bulk of humanity— the non-Western world—this is a major problem.

The promise of emancipation through continuous economic growth and technological advancements has also been a vain hope. The economy can never grow large enough; technological advancements can never be sophisticated enough; a state can never be strong enough; and so on.

In many countries, economic growth has brought turmoil. Rising GDP per capita is accompanied by widening income inequalities in many countries. In New York itself, the socalled financial capital of the world, almost 60 percent of black youth lack economic and educational opportunities and access to basic social security. Their plight is not significantly different from the inhabitants of Bangladesh even though the latter is considered the poorest country in Asia.

I think we need to be very critical of any system that only looks to GDP as an indicator of growth and well being. I applaud courageous nations like Bhutan, whose government has adopted the concept of Gross National Happiness as its main objective. Although the idea is not without its problems, I am anxious to support this brave idea which looks to human happiness and life as a policy concern instead of looking solely at human affluence. I echo the Latter-day Saint teaching that “men are that they might have joy,” but how do we apply such instruction at the national level? How do we make such spiritual objectives our policy?

At a recent conference on Gross National Happiness, it was noted that what gets measured gets managed. If we only measure money through indicators such as GDP, then money will be all that we attempt to manage. If we look to measure other achievements, such as literacy, health, social capital, freedom, leisure time, happiness, etc., then those will be the things we pursue and manage.

We need to look at our futures differently, as if they are present now. In a few days, I will lecture at Naropa University in Boulder Colorado. Naropa was founded by Trungpa Rinpoche, a great Buddhist teacher who recognized the inseparability of the past, present and future. Rinpoche taught that not only does our past actions, our karma, determine our present condition, but also our future karma will in a way determine who we are now. The things we aspire to assuredly influence our actions today. Likewise, our spiritual aspirations determine our future.

For me, the greatest challenge facing humanity is that our future is too narrowly defined—there is only one goal of economic growth and only one path to attain that goal. I feel that development models of the future will succeed insofar as they are built on present wisdom in local cultures. Helena Norberg-Hodge1 argued in her book, Ancient Futures, that the development of the world cannot be determined only in New York or London. Rather it should also be determined by local communities like Ladakh and Kerala in India and local grassroots movements like the Assembly of the Poor in my own country.

Development strategies must not neglect the social and spiritual domain. There is a wealth of wisdom that can be gained from the various religions of the world, if only we do not relegate them to the dustbin of history as the discourse of modernity recommends. We need to work together to achieve our spiritual traditions, to check the rising forces of greed and self-interest. We must engage our spirituality.

Now, before I continue, let me first make something clear. I do not discount the existence of binarisms. I believe that there are differences between the East and West and differences between religious traditions such as Christianity and Buddhism. However, I do not treat these differences as binary oppositions; in other words, as hierarchical relationships where there is one privileged side. I do not agree with the good vs evil hypothesis that has dominated recent global political events. The world will fall into ruin if we continually seek to remove the mote in our neighbor’s eye, while ignoring the beam in our own. When dealing with people, seeing the world in terms of binary opposites is an expression of intolerance, bigotry, fundamentalism, racism, etc. I also feel that the line that divides Eastern and Western civilizations is at best a blurry one. Civilization is too amorphous a concept to serve as an island unto itself.

I do not want to be another Samuel Huntington,who emphatically propagates the clash of civilization thesis, delineating the world along the faultline of Western vs. the Rest of the World. Once you say I am then you are and we and they naturally follow; then there is conflict and fragmentation, which is not at all healthy for the cultivation of the whole unit.


What is needed most in this world is freedom of belief in all affairs. One of the most volatile points of contention today is intolerance for different approaches to political, economic, and spiritual matters. Tolerance for socioeconomic diversity and alternative models of development has been, and still is, terribly low to the point of being nonexistent. The founders of the State of Utah, the dedicated Mormon pioneers, understood this probably better than any one group in American history.

I request all of you here to consider your predecessors who built this beautiful civilization here in the desert wilderness. Why did they do it? Amongst other things, so they could be free from restrictive social and economic systems that hindered their ability to follow their God. In this parched land they established cooperatives and communities that drew the attention of economists the world over. Bellamy, Debs, Shaw and other socialists wondered how the Mormons did it. They had established equal and just communities without rebellion and bloodshed, something that Marxists thought impossible. What the early Mormons were doing was not Marxist, communist, nor socialist, but be careful, it wasn’t capitalist either. It was unique. It was Mormon. It was relevant—relevant to the Latter-day Saint people. It was the order that they willingly chose based on their spiritual aspirations and understanding of God. I hope my understanding is not wrong.


The settlers of Utah were anxious to create their own economic system despite the popular economic trends that seemed, according to Brigham Young, to corrupt society and lead people away from the Kingdom of God. But it wasn’t long before President Buchanan commissioned an army to put down the supposed Mormon rebellion and bring Utah back in line. For better or worse, free-market capitalism was established in Utah by coercion, not necessarily because the Latter-day Saints wanted it. Do you see what I am getting at? The same thing is happening today around the world. I respect Brigham Young and the early Mormons for their courage in the face of so much violence against their way of life, their religion, their economy, their symbols, and their aspirations. It is the same struggle we are fighting in Siam.

Buddhists have over the past two millennia developed an economic system that was congruent with their spiritual objectives. Around the same time that Utah was pressured to comply with U.S. economic policies, King Mongkut of Siam (known in the West as the king in the King and I) was forced to sign the Bowring Treaty with Britain. In both cases the first thing to go was the unique economic systems that both groups had developed. And with the collapse of these economic orders went the ideals of simplicity and self-reliance that had been trademarks of both the Thai and the Mormon people.

In Siam—I never call my country Thailand, a name imposed on us by dictators—we are still hoping to overcome the greed and violence that came with self-interested economism. But our effort to contain the ill-effects of modernization and secularization has, in the eyes of many educated people, become a sign of weakness, immaturity, and inferiority. It is evident that the global economy does not really cherish a diversity of ideas, cultures, aspirations, and views—only a diversity of products: Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola. Spirituality worldwide is being suffocated by the new global religion of consumerism, which insists that ultimate happiness can be achieved through a never-ending consumption of goods and services. Needless to say, this oppressive environment is a tightening noose that chokes our spirit.

In this sense, we are living in a world characterized by the intensification, radicalization, and universal spread of modernity. One Thai scholar has called this “the age of extreme modernism,” whereby “modernity now relies simply on its own justification and devours all other forms of actualization of human beings.”3

As an antidote, I want people worldwide, especially the ones that are propagating, or indoctrinated by, consumerism, to see the spiritual leaders of the world as enlightened individuals who can help us navigate the complexities of the market place to come out happier, healthier, and wiser in the end. The spiritual leaders of the world are united in their opposition of ignorance and materialism.

In a world where the religion of consumerism forces millions of conversions by threat of poverty, we must hold tight to our spiritual identities. In this age, other religions are not a threat. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims should be united in the effort to prevent the people of the world from falling into the abominable religion of greed. We must each start, with our own traditions, to understand just exactly how we can apply our religion to the pressing social problems of our age.

Please allow me to speak from my own experience. As a Buddhist, I feel that the teachings of the Buddha have much to say about mitigating suffering in the world. For this reason, I feel that the teachings of the Buddha are, for lack of a better description, timeless. And so, in this dialogue of civilizations, I would like to share what I feel development practitioners in both the East and the West, at both the local and global levels, could discover in the simplicity of Buddhism. By simplicity, I mean the freedom from attachments to material and sensual pleasures.

We have to understand that all material gains, personal honors, sensual pleasures, and worldly praises are ultimately linked to loss, ignominy, suffering, and denunciation, respectively. The Buddha called these the eight worldly conditions and stated that whoever is enslaved by any of these shackles will never be free from the cycle of suffering. Simplicity contributes to the realization of the noble life because it guides us down the Noble Eightfold Path.4

Contrary to the rationale of consumerism where more is considered better and where the quality or number of personal gains and possessions marks the good life, one learns from the Buddha to constantly reduce one’s attachments and to envision the good life as the successful overcoming of attachment to personal gains and possessions. Free from these attachments, one is endowed with sufficient time and energy to nurture the seeds of peace within. Thus, from the Buddhist perspective a prosperous person is 1) self-reliant, 2) has self-dignity and is proud of his or her lifestyle, 3) is humble, content, and values simplicity, 4) is generous, and 5) is ever mindful. Note well that income and wealth are not indicators of prosperity in Buddhism—much to the chagrin of many economists, including the president of the World Bank.

With the right understanding of simplicity, one leads a peaceful life and relates harmoniously with all sentient beings and the natural environment: one does not abuse others in thought, speech, and action. For example, if one upholds simplicity, one will understand that selfish consumption, among other things, endangers the earth’s biosphere and strengthens the hands of corporations and institutions that give primacy to the accumulation of profits over the wellbeing of the people. One must be mindful of how to create wealth and how to manage it. One must learn to give more than to take. One’s simple yet beautiful lifestyle then merges with goodness, engendering a pure form of beauty, which paves the way towards individual and social enlightenment.

Just as important as simplicity is humility. By humility I do not mean the opposite of vanity or arrogance because all opposites contain each other. Thus one cannot know humility by simply rejecting pride. Struggle, tension, conflict, and confusion are inherent in the process of becoming and being. In other words, the very process of becoming must be negated in order to really be. In Christian terms, you must lose your life in order to gain it. However, the Buddhist negation of ego runs counter to the basic Western philosophic notion of self-interested growth and progress, which emphasizes ego. Small wonder that many economists and developmental experts once condemned Buddhism as antithetical to modernity.

To relate this concept to current economic and developmental trends, the Buddhists would argue that small is beautiful. 5 This meshes well with other values such as self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Furthermore, environmental sustainability and socioeconomic justice are more conceivable when growth is tempered or limited, when humility and simplicity are promoted. Without these two qualities, the insatiable quest for greater returns propel corporations to globalize their businesses and investments at the expense of the environment and even human beings if they could get away with doing so.


Simplicity and humility imply respect for all sentient beings. Once we are humble, we co-exist with each other as equals. The belief that one is exceptional or superior, for whatever reason, is a major obstacle that hinders meaningful and compassionate human relations. Blinded by superiority, one sees the world in absolute terms. If one is always right or good, then the others are always wrong or evil. From what I understand, the Book of Mormon shows the awful fate of those societies who are prideful and feel themselves more righteous than others who are perceived as evil. We need to look at ourselves from afar and see our own failures so that we can take whatever measures to right our wrongs. All this needs to be done before we can ever hope that we can rid other nations of evil.

Additionally, valuing equality, we will not treat the suffering of individuals or groups walking on the fringes of society with callous equanimity. Rather, we will struggle to establish more just and equal societies. Equality does not always have to mean sameness. It can also refer to justice. Equality with justice requires treating people differently under different circumstances, such as providing unequal shares to unequals. However, what is important is that we are trying to create a more equal society, but you may already understand this concept. From what I have been told about Mormonism, the Latter-day Saint cannot be saved so long as inequality exists in his or her society. That, in my opinion, is a revolutionary revelation. It is a timely revelation that might serve to alleviate a lot of the pain that has come with more orthodox soteriologies.


Once we understand that every being is involved in our personal salvation, we are motivated to think more of our community and our environment. With new humility we will be able to transcend racial, national, cultural, ideological, and religious boundaries and form a circle of the virtuous, or what the Buddhists call kalyanamitra. This is tremendously important, because some of the most threatening menaces to human well being and environmental sustainability are transnational in character. And the circle of the virtuous must be extended to incorporate members of the power elites. They must be treated as friends, not as enemies or demons. And together we shall embark on changes, however incremental, which will awaken the divine man—as opposed to the natural man—in each and every one of us.

To sum up, globalization that is nonviolently and democratically organized from the bottom up can be quite beneficial and enlightened and can serve as a vital force that helps promote global peace and preserve human existence. Needless to say, our objective is to strengthen and elevate the divine elements within us all and to put to rest our greedy and criminal elements. The sun of new ideas and truth cannot rise without inter-religious cooperation, support, compassion, and dedication, or without concerted efforts constantly demanding for the primacy of the divine agenda over the mundane agendas of institutions of greed and power.

As Elise Boulding, a leading American Quaker, has observed:

We need images of the peoples of the planet living gently but adventurously on the earth, walking the ways of peace in a future still filled with challenges. It is as essential to spend time dreaming the possible shapes of that future as it is to learn the skills of peace-building to maintain it.”6

Yes, we must have faith in the ability and need of ordinary people to dream or envision alternative futures replete with physical, social, and spiritual freedom.


Ralf Dahrendorf, a German political scientist who was the director of the London School of Economics, once said:

The road to freedom is not a road from one system to another, but one that leads into the open spaces of infinite possible futures, some of which compete with each other. Their competition makes history. The battle of systems is an illiberal aberration. To drive the point home with utmost force: if capitalism is a system, then it needs to be fought as hard as communism had to be fought. All systems mean serfdom, including the “natural” system of the total “market order” in which no one tries to do anything other than guard certain rules of the game discovered by a mysterious sect of economic advisers.7

I agree. I think that until we are all fully enlightened beings, we need a plurality of systems that work according to local conditions. Line upon line we will in good time arrive at the same understanding of truth. Thus, my Buddhist friends must begin with everyone truly practicing to understand himself or herself. In the Buddhist tradition, we call it citta sikkha or the contemplation on mind. Meditation is important for us to attain the insight, the qualities of which include alertness and criticality. Critical self-awareness is thus important for us, and this will help the practitioners to feel more empowered to criticize themselves. From the critical understanding of one’s self, we begin to understand our community, society, economy, and eventually our world. Bearing in mind the solutions, we also feel hopeful to articulately use all nonviolent means to achieve a peaceful end.

Buddhist tenets help me feel closer to and eventually to be at-one with my environment and with others. In some Buddhist traditions, it is believed that every being embodies a Buddha nature or the potential to attain the highest understanding. Thinking this way, I can feel some connection or relationship to everybody regardless of rank, gender, or status. Buddhist teaching is the core that permeates all my activities. It is indeed a very simple magic starting with proper breathing. I believe Brigham Young thought quite highly of mindful breathing as well and stated that he wanted to see every man and woman breathe in the Spirit of God in every breath.8 That was, he felt, the way to perfection. I feel this is right. Once every breath is attuned to the spiritual, then our actions will be proper.

Spirituality must be at the heart of our engagement and our struggles. I think the Latter-day Saints’ Doctrine and Covenants sums it up nicely with the commandment to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause.”9 This is the essence of what I call Socially Engaged Spirituality. Once the people of the world, whether Buddhist, Latter- day Saint, Hindu, Humanist, or whatever, endeavor to be anxiously engaged in a good spiritual cause, we will be well on our way to finding lasting joy.

This lecture was given Wednesday, 15 April 2004 at the Kennedy Center and may be watched at

1. For her work as director of the Ladakh Project, she shared the 1986 Right Livelihood Award, otherwise known as the Alternative Nobel Prize (see She is currently the director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture in London.
2. Samuel P. Huntington is the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor and Chairman of the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies, founder and co-editor for seven years of the journal, Foreign Policy, and author of the Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of World Order (1996).
3. Vira Somboon.
4. 1) Right Understanding, 2) Right Thoughts, 3) Right Speech, 4) Right Action, 5) Right Livelihood, 6) Right Effort, 7) Right Mindfulness, and 8) Right Concentration.
5. I have wrestled with this issue for decades. For the English-speaking audience, see the relevant essays in among my works, A Socially Engaged Buddhism (Bangkok: The Inter-religious Commission for Development, 1988), A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society (Bangkok: The Inter-religious Commission for Development, 1994), and Global Healing: Essays and Interviews on Structural Violence, Social Development and Spiritual Transformation (Bangkok: The Inter-religious Commission for Development and Sathirakoses Nagapradipa Foundation, 1999).
6. As quoted in Educating Beyond Violent Futures, Francis P. Hutchinson, Routledge, 1996, p. 253.
7. Dahrendorf, Ralf. As quoted in US Foreign Policy in World History, David Ryan, Routledge, 2000.
8. Young, Brigham. “True Character of God—Erroneous Ideas Entertained towards Him,” remarks made in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, 23 February 23 1862, Reported by G. D. Watt, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, pp. 288–89.
9. Section 58:27.