Our group had the honor of meeting with Sulak Sivaraksa, one of Thailand’s leading thinkers, academics and activists who has been repeatedly arrested for his activism, particularly speaking out against the Thai government. Sulak helped us connect the Western concept of Human Rights with Buddhist ideas of how to treat people and the environment. He explained that Western education teaches students to think, over-emphasizing science and rationality in a way that leads to arrogance rather than humility. This intellectually centered approach also ignores other important realms such as spirituality and emotional well-being that are essential to both human rights and development. In contrast, Buddhism’s fundamental teaching is not how to think or even pray but how to breathe. Sulak emphasized that just by learning to breathe calmly and slowly, with awareness of each moment, we can change our mindset from being dominated by greed, hatred and delusion to being humble, peaceful and compassionate because we realize the interconnectedness of all beings.
When we understand and start to feel interconnectedness, we can break down the barriers between others and ourselves, and we can stop seeing people as “friends” or “enemies.” Instead we can embrace everyone’s common humanity and realize that to hurt another is ultimately to hurt oneself. This idea manifests in terms of development and environmental issues in many ways. For instance, when we consider putting poisonous chemicals on the plants that become our food, we can see the connections between the insects that will ingest that poison, the plants that will absorb the poison, the water supplies and earth that will absorb the poison, and realize that eventually the poison will work its way back to us. When contemplating an economic development plan, rather than measure its effectiveness in terms of the amount of buildings it will build or dollars by which it will increase GDP, or we can evaluate its effect on human lives. This can be measured in terms of community structures, ability to be self-sufficient and the degree to which the plan supports traditional ways of life. With a Buddhist perspective we can recognize that when development benefits a few and harms many it will lead to overpopulation, mass migration to cities, unemployment, crime and other problems, therefore ultimately harming everyone.
With this Buddhist framework of Human Rights in mind, it is possible to conceptualize development that does not harm people or the environment. Sulak reminded us, “we cannot practice earth, animal and human rights without practicing generosity and meditation.” In his view, inner reflection and awareness are crucial first steps to peace. While it is easy to think on big scales, advocating systematic change, it is important to also remember that change comes from within and the best way to create a peaceful society is for its citizens to find peace within themselves. Only then can the society can truly work towards sustainable development. In as essay entitled, “Development as if People Mattered,” Sulak says alternative development would “consider the impact upon humans and the environment, taking into consideration spiritual and emotional effects as well as strictly monetary ones.” This form of development will not be easy, because it is based on more than clearly defined statistics and numbers, however Sulak emphasized that we can learn to be “skillful, meaning everything you do makes sense.” Development has the potential to be done mindfully and skillfully, but it will take political will and social pressure to make it so. In trying to change the minds of others, it is important to maintain friendship rather than seeing anyone as an enemy, because only together can we achieve social change. Friendship does not simply mean agreeing all the time. Sulak defined friends as “people who tell you what you don’t want to hear.” By both recognizing each person’s inherent worth and also challenging others to make choices that are in harmony with the well being of people and the environment, we can achieve sustainable development.