On March 27, Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa of Siam celebrated the completion of 90 years in this planetary cycle of life.* I wish Ajahn Sulak good health and many more vital years. I wish the continuation of his fierce teachings, his faithful friendship and his great compassion.
I first heard of Ajahn Sulak when I worked at Parallax Press in 1990. I had the opportunity to read his book Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewal Company as it was being edited. Sulak gave the clearest articulation of engaged Buddhism that I have come across. It was thrilling to encounter his brilliant critique of modernity and his articulation of an inclusive and engaged Buddhism that respected its Theravada and Mahayana roots, and articulated a vision that integrated personal suffering and social structures of greed, hatred and illusion that we weave into entire systems of suffering. But, beyond his writings, I recognized the courage of his actions, which recall the prophets of old.
This courage led Ajahn Sulak to speak out against the Thai generals' military coup in February 1991. His strong words prompted the generals to call for his arrest on the medieval charge of lese majesty– for allegedly insulting the King of Thailand. He fled the country – not for the first or the last time in his life – which brought him to our home at the Berkeley Zen Center, where he stayed in early 1992 and where I got to know him well. .
In February 1992, I left Berkeley to attend the fourth conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in Thailand. On the porch that morning, I hugged and greeted Ajahn Sulak. I felt an uncomfortable irony as I made my way to Ajahn Sulak's home country, planning to stay at his home in Bangkok while he was exiled to Berkeley at my home. It was here in Berkeley that my wife Laurie and I began working with Ajahn Sulak on his memoir, Loyalty demands dissent: autobiography of a committed Buddhist. It was only after another six months that Sulak was able to return to Thailand, and it took several years before the charge of lese majesty was fired. He would face such charges again in 2006, 2008 and 2014.
I call him Ajahn Sulak, a term of honor and respect for a true teacher. He is one of my true teachers. Over the past 30 years, through so many crises that have afflicted our world, I have worked closely with Sulak and with INEB, the dynamic organization that could only take shape from the network of international friendships that Ajahn Sulak has cultivated over the years. . Work on Loyalty requires dissentI became acquainted with Sulak Sivaraksa's life arc and the principles of Dharma, democracy and spiritual friendship from which Sulak never deviated.
I am acutely aware that much of the richness of my committed Buddhist life has come to me through Ajahn Sulak, friends (Pali: kalyana mitta; SKT: kalyana-mitra), ways of thinking about our troubled world, organizational contacts across many borders. Often I received a phone call from him late at night, just to get in touch while he was traveling across the United States. During our once frequent visits to Berkeley, I saw Ajahn Sulak sit down at the kitchen table, pull out his worn-out address book, and routinely phone all his local friends. Many of these friends and acolytes have become my own working partners and comrades. Sulak's writing and thinking continue to influence me. His provocations always hit home, for friends and adversaries alike.
Granted, we haven't always agreed on big and small things, and we've had our clashes and arguments, which ultimately don't really matter. At the same time, the connection and respect between us was still alive. Our friendship has endured for many years, across continents, despite disputes and conflicts, which are irrelevant here.
Today, Ajahn Sulak has reached the age of 90. He continues to cause good trouble, and I'm honored to stand by his side, watch him, learn, and celebrate.