Thai Activist Brings New Perspective to Harvard

Sulak Sivaraksa opens the door to his two-bedroom flat, wearing hand-woven garbs entirely incongruent with the jeans-and-t-shirt population shuffling down Porter Square’s sidewalks outside.

“Don’t take off your shoes, just come in—and would you like some tea?” asks Sulak as he walks towards his sparsely furnished living room in his brown Thai sandals.

Wrapped in a traditional, woven vest cinched at the waist by a colorful silk sash, Sulak looks like a combination of a character in a Thai painting and any kind grandfather—but he is also a prominent Thai social critic, author and activist who has made headlines worldwide by his involvement in everything from peace marches to court hearings and counts the Dalai Lama among his friends.

Compared to his usual activist schedule, his itinerary for the past week has been quiet. When not talking about his views and ideals at a public lecture in Cambridge or a speech at the Harvard Divinity School, the 69-year-old claims to enjoy his free time in a “pre-modern world”—one without TV, the Internet or PINE.

“I meditate,” Sulak says with a merry twinkle in his eye as he draws his hands together, palms facing up and resting lightly on top of each other, striking a contemplative pose. “I also read and take many walks. The campus here is so beautiful.”

This way of living—a blend of classic Buddhist introspection and contemporary social activism—is actually the essence of what Sulak, who goes by his first name in private as well as public, has tried to share with his compatriots and others around the globe in more than four decades of writing and public speaking.

Meditating on Harvard

Sulak has been a Visiting Research Scholar at the Harvard-Yenching Institute since January and will depart Cambridge tomorrow. He was invited because of his status as a public intellectual from Asia, according to a press release from the Yenching Institute.

This detour into academia is certainly not Sulak’s first. Well-known as a proponent of socially engaged Buddhism, he has taught previously at numerous U.S. institutions, including Swarthmore College, University of California at Berkeley and Cornell University. In fact, two of his former students at Swarthmore came to Cambridge last week to hear him speak.

“I was very touched to see them. Professors and students form wonderful relationships at Swarthmore,” Sulak says.

But he speaks more equivocally about Harvard, saying that his times here have left him with both “positive and negative” impressions. In particular, Sulak is struck by students’ hectischedules, observing that “everyone at Harvard is too busy.”

“One needs time to breathe properly, read properly, enjoy the Charles, enjoy the trees, the blue sky. It’s fundamentally wrong to rush through things,” he says.

But for Sulak, a slower pace does not lead to less productivity—just more deliberation. A prolific writer, he has authored dozens of books and contributes to numerous magazines and newspapers. He sees Harvard’s brand of work ethic as something that strays from its goal and conforms to what he calls the “mainstream McWorld syndrome.”

“I think ‘Veritas’ is just a motto. Many don’t pursue the truth: they just pursue their own advancement,” Sulak says, adding that “the hidden syllabus here is that you must be successful, you must be great.”

But Sulak is also quick to point out Harvard’s positive aspects. Among the most memorable people that he says he has met at Harvard is Christopher Green, a lecturer on religion and dean of students at the Division of Continuing Education. Green teaches socially engaged Buddhism to a “growing minority” of “idealistic students,” Sulak says.

He says that he has also been especially impressed by the students at the Kennedy School of Government responsible for organizing “Bridge-Builders: 21st Century International Leadership Development,” a series of four events that will be held around the world to foster connections linking the business community to existing efforts to fight the AIDS epidemic. The first of these conferences was held at Harvard last month.