ROAR: Sulak Sivaraksa and the Path of Socially Engaged Buddhism -- reviewed

Books Engaged Buddhism Social Action Thailand

Roar: Sulak Sivaraksa and the Path of Socially Engaged Buddhism

By Matteo Pistono

Foreword by John Ralston Saul

roar sumeru review

Paperback | $15.95 

Published by North Atlantic Books

Mar 05, 2019 | 288 Pages | 6 x 8-1/2| ISBN 9781623173326

In this time overshadowed by the impending doom threatening our planetary biosphere, some spiritual leaders are turning their attention to a path forward with a new paradigm of sustainable development.

In the past, social justice initiatives by the spiritually-motivated have focused on the plight of the poor and oppressed, but the scope now is suddenly much broader. In researching my latest book, Bodhisattva 4.0: A Primer for Engaged Buddhists, I came across North Atlantic Books and immediately fell in love with this publisher! They are tackling both these fields head-on.

It is perhaps a bit odd for one publisher to fall in love with another, but this is hardly a competitive situation. I’m on the record as lamenting the sorry state of small press publishing, and concentration of the business under the imprints of a few giants. So if you are not familiar with North Atlantic Books, I strongly urge you to check them out.

NAB has a beautiful selection of books under their Sacred Activism imprint, and another wonderful selection of books by Buddhist authors. So I wrote them a love letter, as one Buddhist publisher to another, calling them a kindred spirit, and asked if I could review some of their books on my blog. Thankfully, they were more than happy to oblige, and sent me several titles!

One of the ironies of the conversation was that NAB had just published a book about transgender Buddhism (Transcending) by a Canadian author, while I had just published a book about Buddhism from an LGBTQ perspective (My Buddha Is Pink) by an American author. 

In any event, the first NAB book I read was ROAR: Sulak Sivaraksa and the Path of Socially Engaged Buddhism, published earlier this year. It was insightful, encouraging, and highly informative.

I am familiar with the history of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in India, and his legacy of socially engaged Buddhism. However, I had never heard of Sulak Sivaraksa before, in spite of his extensive publications, and even when I was in Thailand in 1980, my experience there was basically as a tourist. I was largely ignorant of Thai history and current affairs. Consequently, Roar, by Matteo Pistono, was a revelation.

Sivaraksa, born to an affluent Sino-Thai family in 1932, was one of the founders (in 1989) of INEB, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, as well as an enormous range of other social action initiatives, publishing companies, educational institutions, and more. Twice exiled for his criticisms of the Thai government (in 1976 and 1991), arrested or threatened multiple times for his outspoken views, a thorn in the side of the monarchy, the military, and the Buddhist establishment in Thailand, he has been the recipient of multiple humanitarian awards, and yet he has been strangely unknown to most western Buddhist activists, myself included. He deserves much wider recognition and inclusion in our current debates about the way forward.

Matteo Pistono’s book is a lively biography, punctuated with photos from Sivaraksa’s long and distinguished career. The protagonist turns out to be a rather difficult character, full of boundless energy but emotionally distant, a legal scholar but constantly pushing the limits of the law, a revered mentor whose acolytes frequently pull away from his harsh impatience with them.

Sivaraksa undergoes repeated metamorphoses as he matures. In the beginning, he is a diffident Thai son sent to study in England. Finding his footing there, he studies law and becomes a BBC correspondent covering the Thai beat. He’s an ardent royalist who abhors democracy, and a devout Theravada Buddhist who spurns the impurity of the Mahayana or Vajrayana.

Gradually, over the years, he becomes a socialist who finds a strong democracy to be the best system, supporting a constitutional monarchy, and finds common ground with the Mahayana, in the person of Thich Nhat Hanh, and Vajrayana, in the person of His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama.

Along the way, Sivaraksa re-examines his Theravada roots and begins to chafe at the conservatism and inertia of Buddhist institutions in Thailand, finding they are part of the problem rather than the solution: clearly not the intent of Buddha’s original message to humanity.

Pistono’s book is full of fascinating anecdotes about what happened along the way, such as the story of Arnold Kotler, founder of Parallax Press, and the falling-out between Kotler and Thich Nhat Hanh in subsequent years. However, I found Pistono’s explanation of how Sivaraksa transformed from a right-wing monarchist to a left-wing socialist to be insufficient. Pistono refers several times throughout the book to Sivaraksa’s psychological aloofness, so perhaps it’s not easy to explain his maturing internal dialogue. Nevertheless, a bit more exploration of this theme would have clarified some of Sivaraksa’s more puzzling later decisions and actions.

It’s hard to crystallize Sivaraksa’s many accomplishments into one “most important” one, but if I had to choose, it would not be his defiance of Thailand’s military dictators, nor his nurturing of activists intent on bettering Thai society, as commendable as those are. Rather, it would be his rethinking the larger mission of Buddhism and reaching “across the aisle” to Buddhists from all lineages to embrace engagement with social problems instead of retreating into sterile ritual and rote learning.

The details of that are not plumbed in Pistono’s biography, but he does give many references to Sivaraksa’s books, lectures, and organizations for further study. I am definitely looking forward to reading those books, and learning more about his approach to engaged Buddhism.

On a separate, but related, note, I am also looking forward to reading another of the important books North Atlantic Books sent me, Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths for Turbulent Times, by Carolyn Baker. Its cheerful elevator pitch: “A collection of probing essays and weekly meditations, this book addresses how to prepare emotionally and spiritually for the impending collapse of industrial civilization.” Review to follow.

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