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.
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. Continue reading >>