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  The path to social and inner happiness
This year's winner of the Sri Burapha Award, Phra Paisal Visalo, shares his insight into the ultimate goal of writing in his acceptance speech

Published: 24/05/2010 at 12:00 AM
Bangkok Post Newspaper section: Outlook
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The Sri Burapha Award is deemed to be a highly prestigious accolade for Thai writers. But I must confess I never expected to give an acceptance speech for the award. Even though I have been writing books for over 30 years, I would never call myself a writer. I am, at best, only an amateur who cannot compare with all the masters bestowed with the same award over the past two decades. My writings do not belong to the literary or journalism circles that Sri Burapha pioneered, leaving us with so many legacies. Besides, a monk had never won the award before. All in all, to be receiving the Sri Burapha Award is a matter totally beyond my thinking.

The latest winner of the Sri Burapha Award, Phra Paisal Visalo: ‘Writing is a form of spiritual practice. In a way, to write is to affirm the existence of one’s self. But it could also be a way to develop oneself at the same time.’

Sri Burapha, or Kularb Saipradit, was one of the greatest writers and journalists for Thailand. He was a real "gentleman", steadfast with idealism and a model of virtue. Thus I feel very honoured to be presented with an award named after the man.

One needs not stress how the Sri Burapha Award is highly held among Thai writers. But it should be noted that although the award has brought great honour to the writer, throughout his life, he never received any award, be it in the literary or journalistic fields. And despite his devotion to the country, he was twice put in jail and became a persona non grata in the eyes of the establishment which prompted him to live in exile until the end of his days.

Sri Burapha remained at the forefront of the struggle against dictatorship and unjust power. No amount of hardship could have swayed him from carrying on his mission. This was because his heart was secure, strong and courageous. As important was his ability to remain unperturbed by worldly allures - be it wealth, fame or glory - and thus he could face the intimidation from those in power and not let himself be used by the capitalists. Thus, he could live like a truly free man.

Such mental strength and steadfastness did not stem only from his belief in idealism or any political ideology. It was also a result of continuous practice of the mind, in particular in meditative contemplation, until he realised how true it is that happiness and freedom lies in the heart. So when Sri Burapha was jailed, he did not wince, for he knew that his mind remained virtually free and no one could have taken that away from him.

The idealism of Sri Burapha was not only centred on social change toward democracy, equality and justice. He valued inner transformation - toward goodness and freedom. So while he called for a democratic and just society, he also worked on improving his own mind. The quality of such a mind that has been well groomed was the firm foundation for his social crusade.

From Left: Kularb Saipradit with Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and a friend.

As a writer and journalist, he produced numerous works that called for political and economic change that would bring equality and justice to the public. There is no question about how powerful those writings were during his times. Thailand has changed so much socio-politically since and thus such works may seem out of date nowadays, but there are still parts of his life and legacies that are as valuable now as they ever were, especially his espousal of the inner consciousness and morality that underlines a good society and, accordingly, a good life.

Much of Sri Burapha's writings, and his own existence, revolved around the notion of moral consciousness and a steadfast belief in truth, justice, equality, sacrifice and respect for fellow humans. Another virtue that was repeatedly stressed was the freeing of the mind from greed, anger and ignorance - the source of true peacefulness.

Such values are universal values that transcend the time and place. No matter how much the country progresses or changes, these values can never be abandoned. Even when a country claims a democratic governance from an elected Parliament and government, as long as people lack honesty and tolerance and try to exploit one another, there can be no peace. And the divisiveness and subsequent chaos will sooner or later lead to a crisis that undermines that democracy itself.

The happiness of any society is not only dependent on progressive economic and political systems, but also on the quality of its people. It is true that the quality of people is in part tied to their context but it is also intertwined with collective values and culture held by that very society. If the prevalent values or culture of that society is geared toward promoting selfishness, exploitation or divisiveness, then the quality of the people will accordingly dwindle, weakening the entire society and leading to a total crisis.

The real ‘Gentleman’ of Thai literature and journalism Sri Burapha, or Kularb Saipradit (31 March 1905 to 16 June 1974).

The Thai society nowadays is deeply steeped in two major cultural trends, what I will call the culture of greed and the culture of hatred. The culture of greed has encouraged the spread of materialism - and the belief that the more one indulges in material acquisition and consumption, the happier one will be. In such a culture, people have endless desires and exploit one another, which in turn leads to wide social gaps, rampant injustice, corruption, crime and environmental problems.

At the same time, the culture of hatred has encouraged the feeling of enmity among one another just on the basis of differences in beliefs, religion, ideology, ethnicity and social status. The fear and paranoia has made one look at people who think differently as enemies. Nowadays, the seed of divisiveness has spread to the point that one looks at those who wear a different colour as bad people. They have preconceptions that only the bad, the unpatriotic, and the ingrates to the institution would wear such-and-such a colour or subscribe to a particular set of political beliefs associated with that colour code. Each side is too busy labelling the other to see how the others are also humans. So both sides are ready to trample on one another without hesitation.

If the culture of greed is centred on notions of consumption, lust and glory, the culture of hatred accordingly thrives on those of anger, hatred, and fear, all of which have been eroding the spirit of Thai society and its people to an unprecedented level. It is thus necessary to work together to nurture the spirit of the people so they can withstand the power of those two cultural strands. One could promote good values that can serve as a guideline for people to conduct their lives. But we should also encourage people to realise the real happiness of the mind, which is a far more refined and virtuous form of happiness than the material one. Those who have been able to realise it will not be swayed by the temptations of greed and will be willing to help other people. For they are aware that making others happy will make one happy oneself as it helps one to become less attached to the notion of "me" and "mine-ness" and to have a light, peaceful heart.

In parallel to this should be an effort to develop an awareness of one's own anger, hatred and fear. They will be able to see how attachment to any single ideology can make people narrow-minded and full of bias, which in turn makes them feel miserable and may even wreak havoc in others' lives. But with mental alertness, it is hard for the anger, hatred and fear to take over one's mind. We can then see in others their humaneness, suffering, and even goodness, and can forgive and feel love and compassion toward them. In the end, they are also fellow humans who love happiness and abhor suffering just like we are. Even when conflicts persist, be they due to differences in opinion or interests, we should try to resolve them peacefully and not resort to violence.

I am well aware that to bring about a peaceful society requires concerted efforts to make equality, justice and democracy a reality. But social change is not only about political and economic aspects but also the spiritual dimension. Actually, the two sides cannot be separated. The spirit of people cannot grow in a bad environment. Likewise, good political and economic systems cannot thrive when the people are not faring well spiritually. But often, the symbiotic ties between the two have often been overlooked. Thus the present push for social change ignores the spiritual dimension, while those who pay heed to spirituality tend to ignore society and be occupied with their personal pursuits. What I have been trying to do is bring the two dimensions together.

Naturally, as a monk, there is nothing better than trying to make people aware of and nurture the spiritual dimension in order to lead their lives and society toward a better place. In other words, it is to encourage people to see their own potential to realise the freedom of the mind as well as the goodness and humaneness in others so they will try to peacefully build a better society together. After considering my skills, I chose writing as one of the means to achieve such goals. I believe that this mission is crucial, especially in times when people craft words to hurt, slander, and/or recharge the energy of hatred, as is happening now. What Thai society needs is words that invite people to be compassionate toward one another, to understand each other's sufferings, and to believe in the energy of love rather than in the energy of anger and hatred.

My path toward writing began long before I entered the monkhood. Thirty-eight years ago, while at secondary school, I was similar to thousands of young men and women who woke up and realised the magnitude of problems that were overwhelming the country at the time. My desire to see a more just, egalitarian and democratic Thailand has led me to use writing both to wake up the social consciousness of the people and to criticise the state of affairs. The desire to see society change for the better, for the benefit of all beings, is the primary push that led me to write continuously. But writing is only one means. I have been engaged in other social activities, be they related to human rights issues and non-violence and environmental movements. I view myself more as a social activist than a writer. Although entering the monkhood has somewhat led to a change in my roles, I still have not given up my writing and public work. Only the focus has changed toward giving more importance on the spiritual dimension which has been rather lacking in most social movements.

Being a monk who has to practice insight meditation seriously, I can see how social and inner transformation must go hand in hand. The balance between outside and inside work is necessary, if the work for society is to be genuinely for the benefit of the public and not to serve one's ego. At the same time, one will have the inner peacefulness to sustain oneself - which will keep one from swaying with the way of the world, helping one withstand all the temptations and not to fall into the traps of the anger,hatred and fear loop.

Such awareness makes me see clearly that social and self-development work cannot be separated. This is similar to what Buddhadasa Bhikkhu spoke of: "To work is to practice dharma." From seeing writing as a form of social action, I became aware that writing is also a form of spiritual practice. In a way, to write is to affirm the existence of one's self. But it can also be a way to develop oneself at the same time. Through writing, a person presents his or her ideas and feelings to the public arena, to be shared with others and to receive their comments accordingly. A good writer should be open-minded and accepting of criticism as well as praise. To do so, a writer must try to lessen his or her ego, or at least to be mindful of the ripples in their mind when confronting criticisms. Such is a way to practice lessening one's ego.

Buddhadasa once referred to Sri Burapha in his writing:" To practice dharma is in fact to write." Therefore, one might rephrase the monk's statement to be: "To write is to practice dharma." I am also reminded of a quote by American poet Robert Frost from which I took to be a good moral lesson: Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence. Such view of education shares a lot with Buddhism, that is to say, a truly educated person must be able to keep oneself calm in the face of criticism. I have to admit that I have not yet completely reached that stage, but I also believe that this is the goal I should try to reach, through writing as a form of self-development.

I would like to express my gratefulness to the committee of the Sri Burapha Fund who think my writing deserves the award this year. I have decided to accept this prestige although I see it as actually much greater than me. I would like also to take this opportunity to thank Acharn Sulak Sivaraksa who has played a pivotal role in leading me along this path up until now. It was Acharn Sulak's books that first inspired a 15-year-old boy to write even though he knew there would be few people who would read it. It made the boy want to follow in his footsteps so he took to produce more in the classroom without any fear of reprimand he might have got from his teachers or the school principal. Later, when I got to know Acharn Sulak personally, he even went so far as trusting me, then only a second-year university student, to run the Pacarayasara magazine. Acharn Sulak has constantly supported me, by getting my writing published before and after I became a monk. He is someone I respect as a teacher and a model of writing. To receive the Sri Burapha Award which Acharn Sulak as well as all the other masters of Thai literature have received is thus a great honour for me.

This is an English translation of a speech delivered by Phra Paisal Visalo on May 5, 2010 (the Thai Writers' Day) at the Pridi Banomyong Institute.

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