Monks and politics

by Ven Sujato, The Buddhist Channel, May 27, 2015

Perth, Australia -- In Thailand, the Sangha is governed by an act of Parliament. Frequently the monks have participated in street rallies, where the causes they are protesting was to ensure that the monks keep their privileges; I haven’t heard of Thai monks protesting on behalf of anyone else’s interests.

<< Should monks be involved in politics?

In Myanmar, too, there is a Sangha Act, and the monks have lived inside one of the world’s most brutal regimes for decades: do you think there are no political issues with that? In Sri Lanka the monks have had their own party and seats in Parliament. In Vietnam similar things have happened. In Tibet, of course, the Sangha was the government. So I don’t know where this idea of monks not being involved in politics comes from.

To argue that Sangha should not be involved in politics is naive: everyone is involved in politics, whether you like it or not. Staying in a forest monastery in the middle of the wilderness is an act of deep political consequences. Just ask Ajahn Pasanno or other monks who have tried to manage monasteries in such places. You have to deal with developers, loggers, tourists, visas, building, protected species, drug smugglers, weapons dealers, illegal immigrants, crimes committed by said immigrants, MIA soldiers, black market plutonium (I kid you not), and on and on it goes. This is just the world we live in, and the world has a political dimension.

The question is not whether you are political, but how. In many of the examples of traditional Buddhist societies I have mentioned above, the majority situation is that the Sangha aligns itself with the nation-state. Buddhism becomes a nationalist religion, whose purpose is to ensure allegiance to the governing powers.

This is, of course, completely against the Dhamma. If we look at the Buddha for guidance, we see that he never shied away from engagement with politics, but he did it in rather a different way.

In multiple places, the Buddha is approached by political figures, whether kings, ministers, or generals, and asked various questions. Sometimes these are innocuous, general questions, but sometimes they are specifically to do with questions of state. In each case the Buddha would give considered and useful advice. Indeed, even apparently innocuous events take on a political dimension in such cases; consider, for example, the time when the Buddha encouraged King Pasenadi, who was sad to hear that his new-born child was a girl, by saying that a girl could be just as good as a boy. This is highly significant, given the inevitable questions of inheritance and lineage that accompany kingship.

Without going on too much, the role that the Sangha should take is as an independent, critical, ethical voice. There are some things that governments do that are good, like try to encourage harmony between religions, and we should support them. There are other things that governments do that are bad, like going to war and destroying the environment, and we should oppose them. The Sangha shouldn’t go into Parliament, or get into bed with a government or political party, but they should be outspoken on important ethical issues.

In Australia, our politicians have repeatedly said that they hear too little from the Buddhist community, and they want us to be more outspoken. I have been involved with multiple visits to many politicians, from local council members to the Prime Minister. There is so much greed in this world, and so little wisdom, that we should not underestimate the impact that we can have. Even a little wisdom, a small voice backed by sincerity and spiritual depth, is memorable to someone who hears little but self-interest and lobbying.

I think what Ven Bodhi and the other Buddhist leaders are doing in the US is wonderful. It makes me proud to be a Buddhist. Too often I have seen moral cowardice and apathy disguise itself as spiritual virtues. We should be outraged by many of the things that are happening in our world, and we should try to make a difference.

If you oppose this, think what you are doing. You are taking some of the few voices of wisdom, compassion, and moderation in this world, and denying them a place in our wider social conversation. You are silencing wisdom. By doing so, you are doing the work of Mara. Mara would love nothing more than to have genuine spiritual leaders stay shut up in their monasteries and their meditation centers and tell people to let go of the world. Then he can get on with his work without interruption. This is precisely what he did when the Buddha became awakened: encouraged him to be totally detached from the world. The Buddha refused, and thank goodness we have his example for how to engage in such matters in a balanced, wise, and useful way.