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Radical Dharma Activism in Thailand

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Radical Dharma Activism in Thailand
The author, along with the 2013 BEST participants and teachers

The author, along with the 2013 BEST participants and teachers

Ouyporn Khuankaew and Ginger Norwood are two Buddhist feminist activists based in Thailand who co-founded the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP) in 2002. Through IWP, Ouyporn and Ginger and a wonderful team of activists offer workshops on anti-oppression feminism, collective leadership, gender and diversity, nonviolent direct action, and peacebuilding — all based in dharma teachings and practice.

Last summer, IWP launched a new training program called BEST — the Buddhist Education for Social Transformation. BEST is an innovative yearlong course focused on transformation of individuals, communities, the environment, and the world. The program is open to anyone seeking a Buddhist perspective in his or her approach to personal development, social justice, and social change work.

I taught a course at the 2013 BEST session and have been invited again for this year. I’ll offer a workshop on the Mandala of Socially Engaged Buddhism and will help facilitate other parts of the training along with Ouyporn and Ginger.

I’m running a small Indiegogo campaign to help me with some of the costs of doing this — I’d be so grateful if you would consider making a small contribution to help me get to Thailand again this year. And my biggest thanks to those of you who have already made a contribution to this fund. Thank you also for helping to spread the word about BEST to others who may be interested in applying for future years.

palms together,


The Dalai Lama Visits DC; Sakyadhita Conference Updates

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This is evolving into our mid-week miscellaneous news post!

Two important items of note this week:

1) His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be giving a free public talk in Washington, DC, on Saturday, July 9th. His talk is part of a historic “World Peace Event” at the U.S. Capitol (West Lawn) which begins at 9:30 am that day. For more information, visit this website.

2) The 12th Sakhyadhita International Biennial Conference on Buddhist Women is happening right now in Thailand.  The theme this year is “Leading to Liberation,” and you can keep up with the happenings at the event on this official blog (there are some nice videos and photos there as well). There are also more updates and livestreaming on this Facebook Page.

The International View: “Ordinary American People are the Only Genuine Force to End Terrorism”

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I received the following essay in an email from my friend Ouyporn Khuankaew of Thailand.

This essay comes from the Santi Pracha Dhamma Institute, which was founded in 1986 by Sulak Sivaraksa. The institute’s name is derived from three principles on which it bases its work: Santi = peace, Pracha = people’s rule or democracy, Dhamma = righteousness or justice.

You may not like or agree with all of what this essay is communicating, but I decided to publish it (without editing) because I feel it’s important for those of us who live in the U.S. to be aware of how people from other countries perceive us, and to consider the counsel they offer in support of us.


The Ordinary American People are the only Genuine Force to End Terrorism

The 2 May 2011 Shame for a Nobel Peace Laureate

The date 2 May 2011 is as though an ending of a Hollywood action movie that the (believed to be) villain, played by Osama bin Laden, was killed and the “justice has been done” as said by the hero, played by Barack Obama. Perhaps this is the reason why Obama is suddenly very much admired and his popularity bounce back so high, like other action movie stars. This is the view of many American people who only see wars and fights in the movies. It is an unfortunate and short eye sighted view.

From the hero’s own words, the evidence to confirm the death of bin Laden is not a trophy to show around. Of course it is not a trophy, it is a stigma. The whole operation is a shame, as Obama admitted that the possibility of success is only 55%, and yet he decided to execute it. To cover the shameful operation, i.e. invading a sovereign country without warning for US’s own interest, attacking a house that the force is not certain if bin Laden stayed, killing an unarmed person in front of his family, not giving bin Laded a chance to speak, not taking him to a court of justice, not giving him a proper funeral, and so on, the US leadership even blames that sovereignty country of not reporting the Bin Laden’s whereabouts to the US.

Killing bin Laden, a man responsible for the 9/11, is not a real solution to the terrorism. It is a shame that Obama, a person who is in such a high position and receives the high recognition like Nobel Peace Prize is stupid enough to satisfy (or hypnotize) himself and try to satisfy (or hypnotize) American people and the world with easy solution to terrorism. To accept the reality that US has caused disaster in many countries through its rogue and violent foreign policies to soothe its delusion of self-claimed leadership of the world, seems to be too painful for the US authority. When the shameful mistake or consequence revealed, the only way that the US can think of is to commit even more violence to counter the disaster caused by the previous violence.

At most, it is as brief as a wink of an eye moment of victory of the US force. But as long as the truth remains, it is the loss. It is the loss of US leadership that will never be forgotten in the history of mankind like the disaster it did in Vietnam and other countries. The looser from such thoughtless operation is the American nation, and the victims are the whole American people. It is sad that Obama chose to be remembered as the Nobel peace laureate who triggers deep hatred in the heart of many Muslim people, rather than something more honourable.

Root cause of terrorism is right there in the US
If American people are really interested in ending terrorism, the self-criticism and the thorough contemplation on the whole history of American military and foreign policies is highly recommended. American people need to see the whole “movie”, instead of the disconnected “scene by scene”. The contemporary history could have still remained in the memory of many American people, such as the disaster the US has done to the nation and people of Vietnam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, to name just a few. The recent action is another disaster.

In order to truly end terrorism (not to end a terrorist) the root causes has to be examined. Unfortunately the terrorism and people like Osama bin Laden is the products of the US military and foreign policies. If American people ignore the content and impacts of such policies, and allow their government to continue, there is no hope to end terrorism. In the pursuit of the root causes, American people may come across questions like whether such policies really serve the interest of the ordinary American people or to serve the arrogance, ignorance, and interest of some powers that be in politic and economic sphere.

By the definition of the term “terrorism” people from other regions can rightly call the US the genuine and master terrorist. Bin Laden, his people and many ordinary people in the Middle East has never been content with the presence and the influence of the western countries, especially the US in their region. And possibly the hatred feeling is shared by many people in other regions where foreign military bases locate. The US’s constant and possibly ungrounded fear of loosing the hegemonic power propelled its numerous terror actions that have been carried out around the world since the time of anti-communism and the cold war.

The US military presence and political intervention in all regions is only to protect the US delusion of a global hegemony, and has never ever been for the sake of the native people, and perhaps even for the sake of ordinary American people. Good young men from ordinary American families are turned to be cold-blood murderers, and are traumatized for the rest of their live for the legal slaughter they committed.

The US, like other government, claims that their actions are for the benefit of their people. The presence and intervention in the Middle East is also for this purpose. The US needs to ensure the supply of natural resources, in this case oil, which feeds the extremely industrialized American society and the affluent lifestyle of American people. The consumption of natural resources by the American society is always among the highest ranking. In order that natural resources to be consumed by the handful American population, the much larger majority of people in other parts of the world have to give up their share. Not only the consumption, but the whole unjust capitalist economic activities of the American are supported directly or indirectly by the rogue foreign and military policies, too.

If these kind of military and foreign policies of the US continue, they will only cause suffering and hatred among more and more people, and more bin Ladens are made out of those people.

The true root cause of terrorism that haunted American people is therefore, located right in their own country.  Fear, delusion and greed that poison the mind of US leadership manifest themselves in the actions that cause terrors and disaster to the world and then receive much more terrors and disaster in re turn. Without this awareness, hunting around the world for the terrorists is like chasing after shadow. You can’t catch it because it is you.

The genuine solution lies on the American people’s awakening mind
Alright, if the American prefer the strategy of “Hunting them down”, what is going to happen? The strategy would only fulfil bin Laden’s wish for the collapse of the US. How many resources, how much time and how many lives have been spent so far and get fear, hatred, distrust, terror and destruction in return? It is difficult to call this an effective investment. Of course it might be a lucrative market for weapons industry which brings about even more downward spiral destruction to the American.

From the May Day 2011 on, American people will not be able to live peacefully any more. The retaliation was already announced. By now they should realize the saying that “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased”.

The peaceful life is definitely affordable for American people. But the price is quite high. That is the genuine sincerity for self-criticism of the mistakes in the past and the effort to take correct actions toward future. Of course it is hopeless to call to the powers that be. They are too distant from all kind of sufferings created by their destructive policies. But the hope lies on the ordinary American people.

America should be aware that in order to live peacefully, what needed is the awakening mind of American citizens. With such a sophisticate communication system, American people should wake up and see how their leadership’s propaganda makes them remain in the constant delusion and fear. In fact the American history is not that old, it is easy for the people to study it carefully about the oppression, domination and destruction the US leadership caused to the world and to the people.

American people with the freedom of expression should speak the truth and speak for those under the oppression and human right violation caused by the US foreign and military policies.

To educate themselves about the truth, to give the voice of consciousness to the leadership, to take actions to reverse the destruction, and to stop all forms of violence caused by them is a only long lasting solution to terrorism , provided that the freedom and rights are still enjoyed by the ordinary American citizens.

Our appeals
We call on American people the following:

  • We encourage you to learn more about negative impacts caused by the US military and foreign policies to different nations, people, and even environment. You should remember the Orange Agent that was poured down in Indochina regions by the US that killed trees, animals, water resources and of course people.
  • We encourage you to take a deep look at how your affluent lifestyle creates suffering for the people in other parts of the world, and become excuses for your powers that be to continue their domination.
  • We encourage you to investigate how your leadership are expert in rhetoric of and pay only lip service to justice, democracy and human rights protection.
  • We encourage you to withdraw your support to the leadership who are responsible for the rouge and violent policies that are the origin and the induction of terrorism.
  • We encourage you to take actions. You can participate in one of the many groups or people’s movements in your own area that are active in issues such as anti-war or anti-violence campaign, human rights protection, democratization and good governance.
  • We encourage you to reach out to ordinary people in the regions that are negatively impacted by the US policies. You can learn to feel their anxiety, hatred, fear, and sorrow. It is a true human experience, not the thrill from the action movies. If possible, you are also encouraged to share the physical suffering by making some donation. The non profit organizations or charity organizations in your area may be able to give you more advice in this action.

On Elephants, People, and Landmines

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Following up from my last post about elephants in Thailand, I wanted to share with you a short video taken by one of my travel companions, Mary Ann Bennett. At the bottom of this post, I suggest two important action steps you can take to help ban landmines.

The video shows one of the elephants at the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, near Lampang, who was a victim of landmines along the Thai-Burma border. She is being treated here by one of the technicians. If I remember correctly, she came to the hospital several months ago and we learned that it would take many more months for her foot to heal.

A warning — this video is heart-wrenching. But in the spirit of bearing witness, I invite you to watch it and keep in mind the many people and animals that are maimed by landmines across the world.

One source estimates that 721 Burmese civilians were casualties of landmines in 2008, and worldwide, 41% of all mine casualties were children. While many of the wounded die, the majority of victims survive (88% in Burma in 2008) but are left permanently maimed. (Information from Physicians for Human Rights.)

What can we do?

Dispatch from Thailand: Elephants, Humans, Suffering, and Freedom from Suffering

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Photo: Mary Ann Bennett

As you may know, I’ve been traveling in northern Thailand for the past three weeks. I’ve written about this trip here and here on my other blog, The Liberated Life Project.

For my Jizo Chronicles readers, I thought you might enjoy a more in-depth look at Buddhism in Thailand as well as the main reason I took this trip, to commune with elephants. This first post focuses on the elephants. It’s a long one that I’ve adapted from a paper I wrote for Upaya Zen Center‘s Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program. I hope you find it informative and interesting…


While I have long been drawn to elephants, I don’t feel that I am all that connected to the natural world as I go through the course of my life, dharma practice, and chaplaincy training.

This may have something to do with my formative years – I was firmly rooted in a medium-sized city (Pasadena), embedded in a major metropolis (Los Angeles). I was surrounded by sidewalks and freeways growing up and felt most at home walking through the city. My family did a lot of traveling – back and forth to the Midwest to see grandparents – but we stayed in motels all the way, with no camping or other intimate experiences with nature.

In my adult years, I’ve had a strong orientation to justice issues concerning people, but have felt less of an imperative around the environment. I’ve always felt somewhat guilty about this… like I should feel passionate around environmental issues, but honestly, if pressed, I would choose people over nature.

Even writing this I realize how silly that is, as there is no way to separate people and the environment… people are part of nature, and vice versa. This dichotomy exists only in my mind (and is held largely by our culture). But clearly this is a dimension that I need to explore more deeply. And so this pilgrimage to spend time with Asian elephants, led by musician Jami Sieber, seemed like a perfect complement to my chaplaincy training.

My goals in taking this trip were to learn more about the plight of elephants in Thailand and, on a more personal level, to explore what a relationship with one elephant might reveal to me about my own nature.

About the Trip

Musician Jami Sieber was inspired to create these journeys for women to spend time with elephants after she had her own intimate experience with these animals in 2001, brought about through an invitation to play cello with the Thai Elephant Orchestra. Since then, she has led four groups of women to northern Thailand. The intention of these journeys, in her words, is “to educate and inspire.”

Our particular journey, comprised of eight women plus Jami, began on January 20, 2011, in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand. Our itinerary included stops at three sites over ten days:

1) The Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital (FAEH) near Lampang

2) Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) near Sukhothai

3) The Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), near Lampang, where we went through four days of training to serve as mahouts (elephant caretakers)

We also visited a number of wats and Thai Buddhist historical sites such as Sukhothai. Spending time at these sites grounded the whole trip in a contemplative perspective which greatly deepened the experience.

Along the way, we met with a number of people who have been instrumental in protecting Asian elephants in Thailand, including Soraida Salwala (founder of FAEH), Katherine Connor (founder of BLES), and Richard Lair (longtime elephant advocate and author of Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity).

The Plight of Elephants in Thailand

The first striking fact we learned: 100 years ago, it is estimated that there were 100,000 Asian elephants in Thailand alone. Today, there are approximately 2,500 captive elephants and 2,400 elephants in the wild.

Elephants in the wild have very little protection. While there is technically a law that protects them from capture or killing, in practice it is fairly common to capture these elephants (especially the babies which can be much more easily trained) and domesticate them. Once domesticated, they are considered draft animals and have the same legal status as cattle in the U.S. Domesticated elephants are subject to ownership and trade. Owners then make a living off of the animal through various means ranging from training them to entertain in tourist camps (legal) to street begging and logging (now illegal).

We learned a great deal about the symbiotic relationship between elephants and people throughout Thai history. Similar to the role the horse has played in North America, elephants in Thailand have been revered, feared, and turned into hardworking beasts of burden throughout the centuries.

The relationship between elephants and humans in Thailand is a complex one. Buddhist scripture and oral history is full of stories about elephants, starting with the role that the white elephant played in the conception and birth of the Buddha. Every wat that we visited had a statue of an elephant or a pair of ivory tusks placed prominently on the main altar. And yet the day-to-day reality is that elephants have served a very utilitarian function in Thai society.

Their intelligence and strength made them the perfect animal to use for logging the teak forests that cover much of northern Thailand. But when logging in Thailand was made illegal in 1989 due to deforestation, both the elephants and their mahouts were left unemployed and hungry. This resulted in large numbers of mahouts resorting to panhandling on the streets of Bangkok and other Thai cities, and searching for food in garbage dumps. City life is detrimental to elephants — standards of health are low, drugging with methamphetamine is common (to keep them working long hours), their diet is poor, and road accidents are frequent. Even though the practice of begging has been outlawed in Bangkok and other cities, in reality it still continues.

Complicating matters, a mafia-like group has gotten involved with elephant trade in Thailand. Often, the mahouts are no longer able to afford the upkeep of their elephants. This is when richer and more unscrupulous characters come on the scene, buy the elephants, and then rent them out to lower-income people seeking to make a living.

While logging is illegal in Thailand, it continues in Burma, Thailand’s neighbor to the north. The Thai-Burma border is among the most heavily land-mined places in the entire world, and people and elephants have been innocent victims of these mines. During our trip, I saw both humans and elephants who had been maimed by landmines. Every day on my walks through the city of Chiang Mai, I’d see at least two or three people with amputated legs or grossly deformed limbs.

Visits to Three Elephant Sites

On our visit to the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital (FAEH), we spent time with two elephants – Motala, an adult, and Mosha, a four-year old – who had lost portions of their legs to landmines. Each was fitted with a prosthesis. The hospital was founded by Soraida Salwala in 1993 to improve the living standards of domesticated elephants and oversee their successful release into the wild. It runs a mobile veterinary project to help injured or ailing elephants and works with vets and researchers to gather data on local elephants in captivity.

On our second stop of the journey, at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), we were given a chance to simply be with elephants in their natural environment all day long. BLES was started by Katherine Connor, a young English woman. Katherine first came to Thailand in 2002 to volunteer at FAEH. While there, she developed a very close relationship with a baby elephant named Boon Lott.

Katherine travels throughout Thailand in response to reports of abused elephants. She does whatever is necessary to provide relief to these animals, and when possible arranges for their retirement to the Sanctuary. This requires raising a great deal of money – it is quite expensive to purchase the elephants from their owner, feed them, secure the land needed for their habitat, support the mahouts who take care of them 24 hours a day, and pay for medicines and other health treatment when necessary. In one case that Katherine related to us, the owner was not willing to sell the elephant – viewed as a huge asset for Thai people – but was willing to rent the elephant on a long-term basis to Katherine and Anon, her husband. Now the elephant as well as her owner’s family live on their land.

Katherine’s philosophy is that elephants should be allowed to live according to their natural rhythms as much as possible, and free from forced human contact. There are no performances or shows at BLES and visitors are kept to a bare minimum. Katherine’s friendship with Jami, who has sent financial support to BLES from sales of her album Hidden Sky, facilitated our being able to visit there.

Our third and final stop was the four-day period at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. TECC is an educational center operated by the Thai government, which sets it apart from similar tourist-oriented parks that operate at a profit.

We did a “home stay” here, sleeping overnight in the village with the mahout families and following the mahout schedule completely each day (not unlike a Zen sesshin!). We were up by 6 am, headed to the forest at 6:30 to bring bananas and sugar cane for our elephants, rode the elephants back to the main area, gave them baths, and then had our own breakfast. The mid-morning routine, starting at 9 am, was a second bath, riding in an elephant ‘parade,’ and then doing the morning show for park visitors. The afternoon was similar to the morning – bath, parade, and matinee show – and then around 4 pm we walked our elephants back into the forest where they spent the night. Evenings were spent eating, drinking home-made rice wine, and dancing with our mahout friends and family.

We were paired with one elephant and a mahout throughout the four days. My elephant’s name was Prachuap – a 30-year-old female who the mahouts happily explained to me was “single, never married!” This meant that she had never allowed any of the male elephants at the park to mate with her. (I could relate.)

I don’t know the story of how Prachuap came to TECC, but I did learn that her best friend there was Prathida, another female elephant. Every morning when my mahout partner Nut and I went to pick up Prachuap in the forest, she literally ran several hundred meters to re-join Prathida (who had been chained at another location) to greet her, making some incredibly excited sounds along the way – squeaks, roars, trumpeting. It was beautiful to see the two of them re-united – they would spend long moments with their trunks entwined, communicating with each other through more sounds.

In all these locations, the animals are chained at night – a necessary precaution to keep them safe from wandering away to places where they could be poached. It was painful to watch this chaining process at the end of each day, but given the context, it started to make more sense over time.


These 10 days were filled with countless experiences and insights. Yet there were three aspects of the journey that stood out for me:

1) Embodiment

The whole journey was a deeply physical and sensual experience, particularly our four days at the TECC in mahout training. Riding bareback on an elephant is no easy task if you’ve never done it before. I put muscles into use that I hadn’t felt for years. But once I became more attuned with Prachuap and got over my initial anxiety about being 10 or so feet off the ground, I really settled down and enjoyed getting in synch with her slow, steady rhythm and feeling her great mass move so gently yet firmly underneath me. Riding an elephant felt similar to being on a ship at sea, rolling with the waves. I don’t know of a better way to describe it.

The early morning and late afternoon walks out of and back into the forest felt like an act of communion, myself with Prachuap, and Prachuap with the forest floor as she headed to her bed for the night.

It’s true – elephants really do walk on their tip toes, and the sensation of riding with them is the most wonderful combination of power and grace. They make almost no noise when the walk, and leave almost no imprint on the ground.

And then there is the trunk… with an estimated 100,000 muscles and tendons, it’s extremely flexible and strong. Elephants use their trunks for everything – eating, picking up food and other objects, sucking up water to wash themselves or pour into their mouths, smell, self-defense, and contact with others (people and elephants). To be kissed and hugged by an elephant and her trunk was one of the most magical experiences of my life.

Being fully in my body for those four days especially and being in close relationship with this majestic animal that embodies so much ancient wisdom was a true blessing.

2) Communication, connection, matriarchy, and relationships in the elephant world

Elephants are a deeply relational and cooperative animal. As Katherine said during our day-long accompaniment of the elephants at BLES, humans could learn a lot simply by watching how they interact with each other and deal with life situations. As we watched three elephants play in the mud pond – probably their favorite time of the day – we saw the two older female elephants put their trunks out to help the younger elephant up a steep embankment. This is usual behavior in the elephant world, and the elders will look out for and often adopt younger elephants. Female elephants especially are known for developing long-term friendships with each other, like the relationship that Prachuap and Prathida have.

In doing a little research on the topic, I found this on Wikipedia:

The elephant’s brain is similar to that of humans in terms of structure and complexity – such as the elephant’s cortex having as many neurons as a human brain, suggesting convergent evolution

The article goes on to note that elephants share

a wide variety of behaviors [with humans], including those associated with grief, learning, allomothering, mimicry, art, play, a sense of humor, altruism, use of tools, compassion, self-awareness, memory and possibly language.

3) The interdependent relationship between elephants and humans

As I’ve noted above, the relationship between elephants and humans in Thailand is long and complex. That probably makes a lot of sense, given the strong bio/neurological similarities between humans and elephants denoted above.

It seems like our most conflictual relationships are with species with whom we share the most traits. I am reminded of a trip I took in 1995 to an orangutan sanctuary in Borneo where a similar story has played out. Humans and animals form a tightly woven relationship where one depends on the other, but also where the natural order goes out of alignment, usually with the animal suffering the greatest consequences.

Many of the mahouts we got to know have lifelong relationships with their elephants. They are with them from birth and continue to be their caretakers all the way through to death – either the elephants or their own.

While the relationship between humans and elephants has become a partnership, of sorts, and the elephant is assured that its food and other needs will be taken care of (at least in the best of circumstances), it has also pulled the elephant out of its natural habitat and forced it to adhere to the needs and schedules of the human. As the relationship lengthens over time, the elephant loses her ability to survive on her own in the wild, thus increasing its dependence.

On the surface, humans seem to profit from this relationship, quite literally, through the money to be made via entertainment and labor. However, one has to ask what the cost is of living in a world where a great being such as the elephant is on the brink of extinction, and what part of our souls we have lost in that process as well.

In addition, what became very clear on this trip was that elephants suffer the consequences of human greed, ignorance, and hatred. At the FAEH, we saw two elephants who had recently been brought in after stepping on land mines. I clearly saw the look of pain, stress, and suffering in their eyes as their mangled feet were gently bathed by the technicians. There have been numerous reports of elephants experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, and after seeing the FAEH elephants, I believe that to be true.

What Can Be Done to Help the Elephants?

Reflecting on this journey through the lens of systems theory, I see a complex situation in which both elephants and humans have become intertwined and there is no easy way out of the detrimental effects of this relationship.

As Richard Lair (who we met on this trip) has written,

One simple alternative to work often suggested would be to release all elephants back into the wild but the sad fact remains that while many domesticated elephants would probably survive quite well in nature, in Thailand (and throughout Asia) there is nowhere near enough safe, suitable habitat into which to release them…. With the loss of virtually all traditional forms of work, tourism and cultural activities have emerged as the only viable legal jobs.

The utilitarian role of the elephant is just as deeply rooted in Thai culture as is the sacred esteem in which they are held, creating a big paradox. How can an animal that is so revered also be so abused? While Thais love elephants — every Thai child learns the song, “Chang Chang Chang” – it’s also true that over hundreds of years, they have become conditioned to seeing them as work animals. Elephants begging on city streets has been a normal occurrence, causing little outrage except among a small part of population.

My assumption is that systems change is most effective when it takes places on several levels at once, and combines both high-level and grassroots efforts. From what I could tell, there are at least five approaches being taken to change this situation in Thailand for the better –

  • Education: Organizations such as the TECC exist to educate people about these animals and their plight. One of the most moving moments on our trip came the evening that we spent having dinner with Katherine, Anon, and the mahouts at BLES, Wit, the young Thai man who was driving our van and who had been with Jami on previous years, shared how he had come to know much more about elephants and love and respect them through meeting people like Katherine and Anon. Now he wanted to help protect them as well. This demonstrated to me the power of educational efforts like this tour as well as places like TECC to change peoples’ attitudes and actions.
  • Legislative: The National Elephant Institute has been founded by the Forest Industry Organization to serve as a center for ideas and actions, including drafting a new national law that will afford more protections for elephants.
  • A holistic approach that includes people and animals: Realizing the importance of finding ways to support the livelihood of the mahouts as they also go through this transition with their elephants.
  • NGO development and infrastructure: A growing number of Thai NGO’s dedicated to the welfare of elephants has helped to greatly improve veterinary care for them.
  • Public-private partnerships: A leading NGO, the Royal Forest Department, and a commercial sponsor have joined forces to launch an innovative effort to employ privately-owned elephants in national parks, both in assisting patrolling and offering rides to visitors.

This multi-pronged approach seems to be making some impact, and there are reasons for optimism. Lair writes,

Perhaps the most hopeful sign is that the Thai public, once blissfully unaware of the elephant’s plight, is now highly motivated in helping to protect their beloved elephants. Most Thai elephant owners have always extended humane treatment, but now more than ever they are made aware that they are caretakers for a national treasure, not just their own private property. While constant vigilance is called for, the future of the Asian elephant in Thailand is looking brighter.

Finally, I notice that I’ve been having a very hard time putting this experience into words… the only one that comes anywhere near capturing it is “primal.” I resonate with these definitions: “having existed from the beginning,” “in an earliest or original stage or state.”

I love what Jami has written about her own musical partnership with elephant—it comes closest to describing what I felt on this journey:

The experience with the elephants was a mystical type of collaboration that I have never experienced before. They gave me the gift of love beyond barriers, beyond spoken language and beyond imagination. Interacting with the elephants was a remembering back to a time when we related deeply to the planet and to all beings on this earth.

If you want to help the elephants, check out these sites:

Buddhist Monks Pray for Peace in Thailand

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There is some more news coming out of Thailand. The Buddhist Channel picked up an AFP story about monks in Bangkok praying for peace. You can read the full story here. An excerpt:

At a monument to a conflict that took place decades ago, hundreds of Buddhist monks prayed for an end to the modern urban warfare being waged around them in the Thai capital.

The Buddhist association that invited the monks to Bangkok’s Victory Monument had a message for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva – stop the army killing “innocent people”.

An emergency vehicle raced past, siren wailing, as about 400 monks clad in orange and brown robes gathered at the city landmark on the edge of the Ratchaprarop district on Sunday evening.

Int’l Network of Engaged Buddhists Statement on Thailand

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The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) has just issued a statement on the situation in Thailand. Here it is:


All Lives are Sacred: A plea to put an end to massive killing in Bangkok

International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)

Since the beginning of the demonstration by the United front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), aka “Red Shirts”, on 12 March 2010, there have been many hundreds of casualties. In the past five days, attempts to disperse the demonstration in Ratchaprasong have become been violent, with a further effect of provoking violence. The government’s actions have so far failed to deter the demonstrators.

The present clash of political views is one of the great crises in Siam’s modern history. The country was previously acclaimed for settling conflict peacefully and democratically. Now it appears that both sides, the government and the UDD, are clinging to an illusion of victory over another.  The entire nation is hostage to their conflict. Buddhist wisdom is relevant for those absorbed in hatred, greed and delusion. The Dhammapada, Verse 201 says:

Victory breeds hatred, for the conquered is unhappy.
Persons who have given up both victory and defeat, the contented, they are happy.

The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), representing a diversity of socially engaged buddhists from around the world, is gravely concerned about this standoff. We wish for all parties address the conflict with reason and tools of peace, to recognize the ancient Buddhist wisdom that neither the so-called winner nor loser will be contented and happy. We encourage those who do not fall into one of the two camps can help this process wherever possible.  Only through peaceful negotiation and dialogue can all parties concerned return the country to its true nature as a flourishing democracy and a peace-loving nation.

Our heartfelt plea is for both parties to stop any act that may cost lives and injuries;  to reclaim the time-tested wisdom of reconciliation and nonviolence.

Whenever INEB can help bridge the gap between the opposed parties we are willing to do all that we can.

We trust that in the light of upcoming international Vesakh celebrations in Thailand, supported by the United Nations 22-26 May 2010 and the subsequent local Vesakh celebrations, commemorating the birth, enlightenment and the passing away of the Lord Buddha, all parties will unite in taking responsibility for their conduct and for bringing about lasting peace, transformation towards social justice and shared wellbeing for future generations.

To close, in Verse 5 of the Dhammapada the Buddha proclaims:

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By love alone is hatred appeased. This is an eternal law.

International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)

Patron, Advisory Committee and Executive Committee Name Lists


His Holiness the Dalai Lama                       Tibet

Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh                       France/Vietnam

Venerable Phra Rajpanyamedhi                   Siam (Thailand)

Venerable Bhikshuni Chao Hwei                 Taiwan


Name Organisation Country
Sulak Sivaraksa

(Founder Chair)

Santi Pracha Dhamma Institute

Raja Dharmapala Dharmavedi Institute Sri Lanka
Jill Jameson Buddhist Peace Fellowship Australia Australia
Dharmachari Lokamitra Jambudvipa Trust

Ven. Tsering Palmo Ladakh Nuns Association Ladakh/India
Phra Maha Boonchuay Mahachulalongkorn University

Phra Phaisan Visalo Buddhika Network for Buddhism and Society

Bhikkhuni Dhammananda Songdhammakalyani Monastery Siam
Venetia Walkey Dhamma Park Foundation

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Jungto Society

South Korea
Rev. Alan Senauke Clear View Project

Ven. Sumanalankar Parbatya Bouddha Mission

Hisashi Nakamura Ryukoku University

Rev. Masazumi Okano International Buddhist Exchange Center Japan
Swee-hin Toh University for Peace

Costa Rica
Frans Goetghebeur European Buddhist Union



Name Organisation Country
Harsha Navaratne (Chairperson) Sewalanka Foundation

Sri Lanka
Hans van Willenswaard

(Vice Chairperson)

GNH Program



Somboon Chungprempree (Interim Executive Secretary) Spirit in Education Movement (SEM) Siam
Douangdeuane Bounyavong Buddhists for Development

Hsiang-chou Yo Fo Guang University

Jonathan Watts Think Sangha USA/Japan
Anchalee Kurutach Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Poolchawee Ruangwichatorn Spirit in Education Movement (SEM) Siam
Pipob Udomittipong Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation (SNF) Siam
Ros Sotha Buddhists and Khmer Society Network

Mangesh Dahiwale Jambudvipa Trust

Prashant Varma Deer Park Institute

Erica Kang Jungto Society

South Korea
Minyong Lee South Korea

Matteo Pistono Nekorpa and RIGPA Fellowship USA
Tashi Zangmo Bhutan
Vidyananda (KV Soon) Malaysia
Harn Burma/Myanmar

More News from Thailand: The Nonviolent Network

Posted on

An urgent appeal from Thailand’s Nonviolent Network (original website is in Thai; see this page for Google’s translation into English):

The Nonviolence Network urges all sides to stop killing one another and to stop the civil war. Stop sacrificing people’s lives for political gains. Where is Thailand heading?

Right now, the situation of conflict, the violence and the use of arms from both the soldiers and the protesters have resulted in the loss of lives, as many as 17 people have died and more than 150 are injured. The violent confrontations are happening continuously and are likely to escalate.

The Nonviolence Network and the people hereby appeal to all sides to stop the killing and the civil war. Please stop sacrificing people’s lives for political gains and leading the country into disaster, a situation which cannot be healed. As citizens with rights to live in a safe and sound environment, we ask all sides for the following:

1. For the government to withdraw military forces from all areas of conflict and for the UDD leaders to declare the end of the protest immediately, without conditions.

2. For all those disguised behind the scenes to stop hurting people and stop destroying our society for personal gains.

3. For all officials in the justice system to start collecting evidence that will lead to truth finding in all of the incidents. We believe that only truth sharing will lead to the reduction of conflict.

Nonviolence Network
15 May 2010

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