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Sulak Sivaraksa writes Karuna Kusalasaya

SULAK SIVARAKSA writes “KARUNA KUSALASAYA (May 1920 August 2009) A virtuous life in the service of humanity ” in Bangkok Post September 08, 2009

The two often refrained from open criticism in order not to create any uproar. Rather, they preferred to confide their true feelings to their kalyanamitta (good friends).

Karuna Kusalasaya passed away peacefully due to old age on Aug 13,2009 at his son's house in Thon Buri. He was 89 years old. As expected, people in the mainstream did not pay much attention to his death. They had (long)forgotten about him.

Karuna however had benefited his country in numerous ways. His lifestyle was also worthy of emulation.
People in the mainstream tend to worship or respect the high-born, the rich, the famous, the powers-that-be, etc. This is not to say that Karuna craved the limelight or wanted to see monuments erected on his behalf after his death.

The opposite seems to be the case. Karuna always preferred being backstage, quietly playing an indispensable supporting role.

In actuality, he wanted his reputation to gradually fade away according to the principle of non-self. He was the least self-attached and was always ready to praise others. Karuna was honoured more in India than in his birthplace. The latter not only betrayed him but also imprisoned him for many years - without ever proving his misdemeanours. Several institutions also took part in this tragedy, including the ones he had helped cultivate, such as the Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University and the Ashram Thai-Bharat.

His autobiography, Life Without A Choice , was written in a humble and pleasant tone. He also translated it into English to reach a wider audience. But if we read between the lines, we'll notice that he actually chose his life. He endeavoured to overcome poverty and obstacles in life by heeding the path of a righteous person. He always had kalyanamitta (good friends) throughout his life. He always saw the goodness in people, while acknowledging their shortcomings. Thus he was always understanding, forgiving,tolerant and compassionate. Small wonder that he dropped the name "Kim Heng" and renamed himself "Karuna" which means compassion. His new last name means wholesome or meritorious manners.

Born on May 10,1920, Karuna entered the monkhood as a novice at the age of 13. He soon followed Bhikkhu Lokanatha (an American monk of Italian descent)on a pilgrimage to India. This was no small feat, to say the least. Most of the other monks on this pilgrimage such as Panyanandha gave up halfway through the journey. The monks quarrelled during the trip. They accused Lokanatha of being biased. They lacked solidarity and tolerance, and so on. But Karuna never boasted about reaching India on foot nor the fact that during the journey a Burmese layperson requested him to disrobe and marry his daughter.

Karuna held a positive view of Lokanatha. Throughout his life, he was full of respect for the latter. In general, Thai monks did not have high regard for Lokanatha. Farang monks were often not deemed equal to Thai monks. It was only recently that farang monks who were disciples of the Venerable Ajarn Cha came to be admired by the general public. But monks in this lineage focus almost exclusively on meditation and creating inner peace, not on social critique, engagement or emancipation. This may be the reason why many among the elite are interested in the teachings of these monks. The elite want to live under structural violence with inner peace and good conscience. They don't want (radical) social change or emancipation. There's something terribly reactionary about this position.

As a novice in India, Karuna learned Hindi, Sanskrit and English painstakingly and with great effort. No doubt he also possessed a brilliant mind. Ultimately,he won first place in the national examination for the Hindi language and was enrolled in Rabindranath Tagore's school at Shanti Niketan. Karuna was a contemporary of national artist Fua Haripitak who was also studying in India. None of the Thai students who graduated from India after Karuna could match his understanding of the subcontinent.

Prior to World War Two, Thai elites rarely visited India. However, there were two exceptions. Prince Paribhatra of Nagor Savarga and Prince Patriarch Wachirayanawong went to India and met the novice Karuna there. They both held Karuna in high esteem. Prince Paribhatra became Karuna's patron while Prince Patriarch invited the novice Karuna to return to his temple at Wat Boworniwes.

The late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu also corresponded with the novice Karuna.Subsequently, they became lifelong kalyanamitta to one another.

Karuna was forced to disrobe when Thailand declared war on England. Of course, India was a British colony and Karuna, along with other Thais such as Fua Haripitak, were rounded up and incarcerated in a camp since they were considered nationals of an enemy state.

At the camp, Karuna met his first love, a Japanese lady (also a national of another enemy state). But the two were ultimately separated from one another.Likewise, Fua Haripitak was separated from his wife, MR Thanomsak Kridakara, and suffered a crisis of faith. He eventually came to worship the Hindu gods.(His last name means "protected by Vishnu".)

When World War Two ended, the British dropped off the Thai nationals in Singapore since the Gulf of Siam was still infested with sea mines.

Karuna travelled back to Bangkok on foot, following the railway tracks through Malaya. He said Muslim friends along the way treated him very well.

Karuna began his first work at the Indian embassy in Bangkok when the two countries forged diplomatic relations after India's independence.

He was also involved in the teaching of Sanskrit and Hindi at the Ashram Thai-Bharat. It was through the teaching of the Hindi language that he met Ruang Urai who later became his wife. They were a model couple. When she turned blind, he served her faithfully and devotedly. He sent her off and picked her up when she attended conferences at the Royal Academy. The two however refused to apply to be elected as Academicians. They simply felt that it was very pretentious. The two often refrained from open criticism in order not to create any uproar. Rather, they preferred to confide their true feelings to their kalyanamitta.

Few people realised that Karuna was a confidant of the late Phra Vimaladhamma (Ard) since the time the latter was pioneering the Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University. Ajarn Kao was a meditation master at Mahachulalongkorn.

Phra Vimaladhamma (Ard) and Karuna were not only master and disciple but also one another's kalyanamitta. Karuna courageously warned his master about various issues. I had also relied on Karuna to convey messages (including strong criticisms) to Phra Vimaladhamma (Ard). Most high-ranking monks these days do not have kalyanamitta. How then could they successfully cultivate critical self-reflection? It is therefore not surprising that many of them are showing characteristics of immoral and fake monks.

Throughout his life, Karuna was a virtuous person with virtuous companions, e.g., Bhikkhu Lokanatha, Ruang Urai, etc. He had two important colleagues who became his kalyanamitta:Sang Phathanothai and Ari Pirom. Both worked for the Government Publicity Department (which is now known as the Government Public Relations Department). Sang was also close to Field Marshal P Pibulsongkram, and his reputation was subsequently tarnished by this association. Out of honesty and loyalty, however, Sang successfully convinced the Field Marshal to pay interest to the labour movement. The Field Marshal also eventually used him as a middleman to create links with China.

To carry out this task, Sang had to ask for assistance from Karuna and Ari, who owned a Chinese language school and had connections with members of the Chinese Communist Party. Karuna and Ari soon became the first Thai "ambassadors" to China, meeting both Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong.

However, as it turned out, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat rewarded them for this feat by imprisoning them in Lad Yao Prison for a long time. And when the kingdom officially opened diplomatic relations with China, MR Kukrit Pramoj took all the credit. No one remembered the involvement of Karuna and Ari.

Apropos of Indian studies, Karuna and Ruang Urai produced many works. They were always helpful to anyone who wanted to learn more about the subcontinent. I myself benefited a lot from their expertise.

Karuna was also my wife's relative. He and his wife had always supported our family. Further, Karuna aided the activitiesoftheSathirakosesNagapradipa Foundation and the Komol Keemthong Foundation. Karuna and Ruang Urai deeply admired the late scholars Sathirakoses and Nagapradipa.It can be said that they continued and built on the legacy of Sathirakoses and Nagapradipa for another generation.

Karuna lived simply and practised yoga daily. He suffered a mild senility towards the end of his life. He stayed briefly in a nursing home before moving in to live with his son till his last breath.

The death of Karuna leaves us with an important question: What should we do to ensure that there will be individuals like Karuna in contemporary Thai society and in the future?

Here I am referring to individuals who are good, knowledgeable, and devoted to the public good while shunning the limelight. If we cannot find individuals who can serve as role models, then the future of Thai society is bleak.

People who respected Karuna and Ruang Urai decided to create a fund bearing their names. It will be used to support the freedom and emancipation of our children and future generations.For further details on the Karuna and Ruang Urai Kusalasaya Fund visit the websites: www.semsikkha.org and www.snf.or.th.

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