Not only is this insistence or apoliticalism ignorant of Buddhist history and organization, but it’s not kind or compassionate. Buddhism focuses on our relationships with truth, beliefs, others and ourselves with the goal being a clarity and harmony. That’s politics. 


By Johnathon Lee

Aristotle said that humans are political animals, but Buddha said that debates are stupid (paraphrasing).

Despite discouraging debates on several occasions, his successors started arguing with each other right after he died. This seems typical, and I can’t fault them for being human. In fact, Buddhism wouldn’t exist without politics. 

Politics has two relevant definitions here:

1) the art or science of governing

2) the total complex of relations between people living in society. Person one says X, person two says Y. Either P1 accepts Y, P2 accepts X, or they negotiate and agree to Z. That’s politics. That’s all relationships to some degree. It’s how all groups come and cease to be. 

When Buddha set down monastic rules, he was creating a society in which he was the de facto autocrat. When he died, Buddhists formalized the rules into the Vinaya, a kind of moral Constitution. They gave certain members more authority than others and became a kind of aristocratic republic.

The Sangha sometimes came together to vote on rules and teachings, and irreconcilable differences caused splits with new Sanghas/governments forming. After the Second Council, Buddhism basically became two different monastic empires composed of city-states (Buddhist schools) sharing the same rules but with different doctrines. 

Buddhism was helped along by secular politics.

It was spread more by kings and queens than monks. Lay Buddhists often became lay Buddhists because their rulers and intelligentsia were Buddhists, similar to how Christianity spread with the first Christian Roman emperor. Fortunately, Buddhist monarchs rarely made Buddhism mandatory. They just put it in vogue, funded temples and missionaries, and adapted their policies. 

As far as debate goes, it’s arguably the foundation of Buddhist doctrine. A debate could make or break a lineage, especially if it was a public debate in front of wealthy patrons. It was even tradition to renounce your school and join the opponent’s if you lost the debate. 

Modern schools have the doctrines and methods they do because those were the popular ones, with the unpopular ones being left to history books. This says nothing about their validity or soundness; only their appeal to the majority. 

With all of this in mind, I’ve got to laugh when I see Buddhists trying to keep politics out their practice and their groups. They want Buddhism to be an apolitical safe space, and they want their teachers to just be Buddhists and nothing else. I laugh so that I won’t cry. 

Not only is this insistence or apoliticalism ignorant of Buddhist history and organization, but it’s not kind or compassionate. Buddhism focuses on our relationships with truth, beliefs, others and ourselves with the goal being a clarity and harmony.

That’s politics. 

They could argue that everyone has to go through their own karma, but I’ve never considered that view to be one of Buddhism’s finer moments. If I could, I’d vote to remove it, leaving it to history. I also think that Buddha underestimated how much of an affect debate can have on our lives because he didn’t have the frame of reference that we do. One speech, one clever line of rhetoric, can save or doom millions of people. 

Not only is Buddhism political, I consider being apolitical unethical in this age.

Each person in a democracy has the duty to argue for justice. Ideas about what’s just and unjust differ, but that’s where logic comes in. 

A Buddhist, who’s on a quest to be calm and clear, has a moral responsibility to be the voice of reason. Good reasoning isn’t one-sided, but focuses on synthesis. Good reasoning is compassionate since it accepts subjective experience as an expression of objective reality. 

Armed with science, we’re in the best possible position to adapt Buddhist propositions to contemporary problems. The only reason to plug our ears to this call is to preserve our own inner peace, but as the teachings show, there’s no such thing as “my” peace or “your” peace. Fighting for my piece of peace is what causes war and injustice. 

So, when I see Buddhist communities that shun politics and political action among its members, I can’t help but say, “That’s wrong.”

If you want Buddhism to be a little bubble insulating you from social issues, then you’d have to leave society to keep it intact. Even then, you’d have to avoid the monasteries too since they’re political entities that punish disagreement to preserve their status quo. 

Anyway, as history shows, war and famine find them too. The events unfolding affect all beings, human and non-human, social butterflies and hermits. To do nothing in the name of nirvana or enlightenment is to be culpable for injustices that occur. You must at least speak up when you see cruelty, apathy, greed, and ignorance. If not, then wtf are you practicing for? The ability to sit calmly as the ship sinks? To be unbothered as your friends and family are coerced? To keep count as smoke fills your lungs?

Cowardly. If we want nirvana, we have to create the conditions for it, and those conditions are becoming increasingly difficult to come by. How do we expect to find genuine relief when the device we’re reading this has blood all over it, when buying it was an indirect vote for more blood to be spilled? Yet it’s almost impossible to function without such devices. That’s where politics comes in. 

We’re living in the world that we voted for with our bucks and ballets. With our obedience to unjust policies and fear of the unknown. Our shame is valid. But it’s not too late to make amends or amendments. It’s not to late to start again.

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Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


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