Native Wisdom

One is a noted Buddhist peace activist from Thailand and a friend of the Dalai Lama; the other is a Harvard-educated Native Hawaiian advocate and associate professor at UH-Hilo. But while culture and background may separate Sulak Sivaraksa and Dr. Manulani Meyer, they are united by a common vision. 

Both believe free market capitalism and corporate globalization have run off the rails. Both feel that a new social and economic model, one that encompasses all the world’s people and honors the wisdom of indigenous cultures, is necessary and inevitable.

And both will appear this week at the MACC. The title of their joint talk—and of Sulak’s new book, published by Maui-based Koa Books (—is The Wisdom of Sustainability.

We chatted with Dr. Meyer about Sulak, Native Hawaiian values, the global economic meltdown and why she looks to the future with unflappable optimism.

. . .

What does “the wisdom of sustainability” mean to you?
[Sulak’s book] is about Buddhist economics for the 21st century. I want to take these Buddhist activist ideas from Siam or Thailand and contextualize them within Hawaii. The word “sustainability” is not a word or a concept we used in Hawaiian. It was more the concept of aloha ‘aina, where everything we did was coherent. [With this talk], I believe my job is to help clarify Sulak’s ideas in relationship to Hawaii. Hawaiian culture in its core and practice is completely synergistic to the things Sulak is saying in his book.

What can indigenous cultures, particularly Hawaiian culture, teach us about confronting modern problems?
I think one of the biggest things is the idea that we’re no longer connected to natural systems—we’re separated by them and through them. It’s the difference between looking and seeing, the concept of ike, which is our word for knowledge. To me, that’s a way to dive into these concepts. “Looking” is a synonym for collecting, accumulating cognitive ideas. But that’s the separation between knowledge and knowing—you can have some knowledge about something, i.e. sustainability or aloha ‘aina, but unless you practice it, you don’t truly know it. The activation of a practice is what shows you and your community that you actually know something. 

Talk about Sulak and the subjects you want to discuss with him.
Sulak extends the work of E.F. Schumaker’s Small if Beautiful. I read Schumaker’s work in the ’70s when I was a teenager and I fell in love with it. He was speaking about sustainable practices in the ’60s, but what rang true to me is that indigenous people have been practicing these ideas for thousands of years. Sulak also synergizes with Paul Hawken’s idea in Blessed Unrest: our native ways have not been abandoned, they’ve just been made impossible. I appreciate that clarity. Our ways aren’t abandoned, but they were made impossible by million-dollar lots, million-dollar this, million-dollar that. My job is to contextualize all these ideas in one of the most expensive places to live in the world, made more expensive by capitalistic epistemology.

You said native ways were made impossible. Do you think they’re becoming possible again?
Absolutely. The system of money is beginning to implode on itself. Systems like this cannot be maintained forever. You can’t have a GNP [Gross National Product] that needs to rise every year. You can’t have the policy of planned obsolescence we got after World War II and sustain an integral evolution of consciousness. It’s impossible. I love that Sulak [attributes] the origin of colonialism to Europeanization. Modernization as a word developed from the concept of Europeanization, and the third evolution of that was globalization. So unless we are consciously deconstructing our own colonized behaviors and value systems, we are not going to evolve on this planet. People who say it’s about race don’t know the issue at all.

So you do think this new way forward can and should involve people of all races and cultures?
Yes, definitely. But we have to step into the discussion with a self-aware intelligence that will break some hearts and open up others—and send others screaming. The deconstruction of capitalism is the foundation of our liberation. It has nothing to do with money. Sulak says that globalization is a synonym for free market fundamentalism—that’s the kind of idea I’ve been hungry for. He’s not pussyfooting around. He brings a Buddhist consciousness that is searingly truthful. The notion that every country has to have a GNP and that’s how it will evolve is incorrect and ridiculous.

It sounds like you see a lot of opportunity in the global financial crisis.
To me it’s not a crisis at all. My people don’t have money invested, so we don’t stand to lose. We’re ready; we’ve been preparing. We’ve been teaching ourselves and each other how to eat, how to feed at a grassroots level. It’s small, but it’s on every island. We’ve got 300 kids coming this summer to learn how to grow [food], how to take care of our shoreline so we can feed others. Hawaiians, and allies to Hawaiian culture, will be ready—not to hoard food, but to give it away. That’s the concept of kuliana [responsibility] to ourselves and our kupuna [ancestors], the idea that it’s not about money, it’s about wealth. And wealth, you give away.  

Talk about your teaching and what led you to that.
As a student who didn’t do well in school, I had to survive my own schooling. I really appreciate Mark Twain’s quote, “never let school interfere with your education.” My education was completely outside of school. That said, I love being a teacher of future teachers. American society does not recognize the source of its true wisdom, which is found in our educational system, in our teachers. I teach an undergraduate introduction to education course [and] graduate courses in philosophy, history and ethnicity and education in Hawaii. My favorite is a Master’s course in transformational education. The classroom is stuffed every night. We delve into radical ideas of an awakened intelligence. There’s definitely a pedagogy of aloha inside the classroom. We’ve been developing a network for years and, the Hawaii Journal of Education, is a product of that. We are part of a movement to put forward a different understanding of research methods and scientific methodology, looking at science and how it’s procured, developed and processed. It sounds ethereal and way-out, but there’s tangible evidence that it’s creative and enduring. We have people from different areas and professions and backgrounds—it’s an amazing cross-section from a culture that’s in the thick of its awakening.

What’s your take on the ceded Native Hawaiian lands issue? 
I believe that this is a sign of desperation, with the state imploding because of its economic structure. I believe that inevitably it will not happen, and if it does, private industry and private citizens will step forward and give the land back. Selling these lands is wrong, and wrong will never be right.

So you’re hopeful, then?
Pono is pono. Justice will be served. If they start selling the land, we will step forward in unison. And there will be others who will help us—I know it, I feel it.

Even with a renewed emphasis on sustainability and social justice, many people seem to feel overwhelmed, like problems and obstacles are too big to overcome. What does it take to get past that?
Consider your bones being picked clean by vultures, and that should inspire you. This has happened before, and this will happen again. Large systems are at work here. Our individual egos are not the point—it’s our collective, energetic force. Those who are sustaining a sense of inner joy and light will inevitably be the leaders, because despair and hopelessness do not inspire. Humanity is always in an evolutionary process. I want people to know that my talk [with Sulak] is a look at these larger systems. We can either look at the problems and point at them, or we can see the solutions. This is a completely necessary moment. Just before evolution occurs, there is always a resistance because it means that things are going to change. If you don’t understand what’s coming, you’ll reject it. Because Hawaiian people have been here for thousands of years, they are prepared. Hawaiians are indigenous to this place [but] we all are indigenous. There is an ancient understanding in every person. If you go to that place, you will remember that what I’m saying makes sense. MTW

Manu and Sulak will appear April 20 at 6pm at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s McCoy Studio Theater in Kahului. For tickets and more info call 242-7469 or visit