BANGKOK — As Thailand rapidly converts from agrarian state to economic dragon, a growing number of Thai people are looking for solutions to modern society’s own brand of ills. The Bangkok-based Spirit in Education Movement (SEM) points to the country’s traditional Buddhist roots for answers.

SEM was established in 1995 as an alternative education institution with funds from a Right Livelihood Award (known as “the alternative Nobel Prize”), the same year that Thai Buddhist Sivaraksa Sulak was honored for his “. . . vision, activism and spiritual commitment in the quest for a development process that is rooted in democracy, justice and cultural integrity.”

“We are bringing back the Thai traditional way of living, but making it practical and up-to-date,” says SEM’s Kuntiranont Wallapa. “We look for what is special in Thai tradition, and we find it in Buddhism, new interpretations from the scriptures that suit modern people.”

Most of SEM’s workshops — on themes like dharma (Buddhist teachings) and peacemaking, holistic health, meditation, engaged Buddhism and art and spirituality — take place at Ashram Wongsanit, the organization’s community center located outside the nation’s capital. Participants stay in simple, traditional-style accommodation and eat organic foods grown on site. Daily programs are designed for balance, with lectures and discussions supported by meditation, herbal saunas, tai chi and community work. Courses are small in size, to encourage participation and interaction, and usually last between two and 10 days.

“Participants in our Spirit in Education Movement,” wrote founder Sulak, “will try to understand the ways in which prevailing economic, social and political systems contribute to suffering, and to violence and the culture of violence that surrounds us, in order to provide a countervailing force of nonviolence, compassion and understanding.”

SEM is a forum and training ground for alternatives to the standard Western model of development, which Sulak calls “hyper-consumeristic.” Most SEM students are of two kinds: ordinary citizens, and members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or other peoples’ movements. Some of Thailand’s growing middle class join SEM programs to deal with the side effects of their increasingly stressful urban lives.

“We don’t know if neuroses are increasing as Thailand develops; there are no data available on this,” says Dr. Tantipiwatanaskul Prawate, a psychiatrist based in Chiang Mai. “But stress is definitely increasing.” He teaches a course on Buddhism and psychotherapy jointly with John McConnell, British author of “Mindful Mediation,” a book on Buddhist approaches to resolving conflict.

Participants range from individuals looking for skills to help friends cope with problems, to professional counselors wanting to incorporate the dharma into their practice, to a Theravada monk who runs a hospital for AIDS patients in northern Thailand.

“I believe it’s the duty of monks to help the seriously ill die peacefully,” he says. “I’m here to learn about alleviating suffering.” He believes acupuncture, traditional herbal treatments and dharma-oriented counseling could help some patients heal themselves.

“We also work with people who work in hospitals, or NGOs dealing with things like cancer, or wife and child abuse,” Wallapa says. “These people get exhausted, or succumb to despair.” He sees SEM as a resource for inspiration.

SEM also provides leadership training for minority leaders from various parts of Southeast Asia, in support of social movements in the global south. Training includes instruction on meditation, social analysis, ecology, administrative work and community and team-building.

Like founder Sulak, SEM is an interesting hybrid, a cutting-edge pioneer firmly rooted in the traditions of Siam, as SEM refers to its nation.

“We use Siam because the population of this country is diverse,” says Wallapa. “There are Karen people, Hmong people, Cambodians, Laotians and others. Thai people are just one of many ethnic groups who live here.”

Still, SEM also borrows from like-minded traditions in other countries, such as contemporary Western psychology and movements like deep ecology. It collaborates with the Naropa Institute in Colorado and Schumacher College, in Devon, England, two alternative education institutions that challenge contemporary paradigms.

Without doubt, though, SEM’s greatest resource is Siam’s Theravada Buddhism and the Buddhist scriptures themselves. “Buddhism here is very open-minded,” Wallapa said, “with a spirit of freedom and democracy, and religious freedom also.” Students of all belief systems are welcome. Most participants are Thai, but some are foreign, including exchange students from the Naropa Institute and Schumacher College.

“Engaged Buddhism in Siam” is a month-long course taught by Sulak specifically for Naropa students, though it is also open to others. Traveling to the rural north of the country, participants help Thai farmers with their daily work and gain first-hand experience of traditional Siamese culture, including Theravada Buddhist traditions like solitary meditation deep in the forest.

This dual approach underpins all of SEM’s work: making use of tradition and modernity to benefit and enrich one another. With plans to create an alternative university in Chiang Mai province, SEM is poised to make a distinctly Siamese contribution to the global quest for holistic living and sustainable development, while empowering its Southeast Asian neighbors to eventually do likewise.

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